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Engagements

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2012

I have been asked to reply, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen who died in Afghanistan last Tuesday: Sergeant Nigel Coupe from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anton Frampton, Private Chris Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford, all from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. These were men of outstanding courage and selflessness. This tragic incident will long be remembered by our nation, because it reminds us all of the immense danger that our armed forces regularly endure to guarantee the safety and security of our country.

We are also deeply shocked by the appalling news that a number of Afghan civilians were wounded and killed in Afghanistan on Sunday morning and send our sincere sympathies to the victims and families who have been affected by this terrible incident.

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

I would like to associate myself with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on the tragic events in Afghanistan. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House express our deepest sympathies for the families who have lost loved ones at this deeply distressing time.

Today the Prime Minister is in America, where unemployment is coming down and the economy is growing. In Britain, unemployment is now at its highest level for 17 years and the economy is flatlining. Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain what has gone wrong?

What went wrong was the Labour Government for 13 years. They created the most unholy mess in 2008, which we are now having to clear up. The only way to get the economy moving is to fix the deficit, get banks lending money again and make sure we have a tax and benefits system that pays people to work.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister introduce a freedom Bill to get rid of a lot of bossy and unloved regulations?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we have already introduced a large set of measures that have removed a lot of unnecessary clutter from the statute book, and we will grab any further opportunities to do so with open arms.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sergeant Nigel Coupe, of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton, Private Christopher Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford. They died in tragic circumstances, serving our country with bravery and with determination. Their deaths remind us of the great sacrifice that our armed services make on our behalf, and our thoughts are with their families.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister also in expressing our horror at the appalling murder in Afghanistan on Sunday of 16 civilians, including nine children. We all deplore that crime and offer our deepest condolences.

Today’s figures show unemployment up, and the hardest hit are young people looking for work and women being thrown out of work. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Liberal Democrats are making a difference in this Government. With more than 1 million women looking for work, what difference does he believe he has made to those women?

Of course any increase in unemployment is disappointing. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who loses their job—for them and their families. The right hon. and learned Lady should be careful, however, not to pretend that somehow this is a problem which was invented by this Government. Let us remember that unemployment among women went up by 24% under Labour. Youth unemployment went up by 40% under Labour—remorselessly from 2004. I suggest that we all need to work together to bring unemployment down.

When we left government unemployment was coming down, and this Government’s economic policy is not only driving up unemployment but means that they will have to borrow more. It is hurting but it certainly is not working. For all the right hon. Gentleman’s bluster, the truth is that having five Liberal Democrats seated around the Cabinet table has made no difference whatsoever. This is what the Business Secretary said on economic policy: he said that this Government have no “compelling vision”. These days no one agrees with Nick, but does Nick agree with Vince?

It is worth dwelling on some of the details that have been published this morning on the unemployment statistics, because behind the headline figures long-term unemployment actually came down in the quarterly figures, and very importantly the number of new jobs created in the private sector outstripped the number of jobs lost in the public sector. Under the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government, the Labour party sucked up to the City of London and over-relied on jobs in the public sector. We are now having to remedy those mistakes, and we are creating new jobs in the private sector.

The right hon. Gentleman is complacent about unemployment under his Government, and the Lib Dems are making no difference on unemployment, just as they are making no difference on the NHS.

When it comes to the NHS, the Deputy Prime Minister obviously thinks that he is doing a stunning job, so will he explain why he has failed to persuade the doctors, the nurses, the midwives, the paediatricians, the physicians, the physiotherapists and the patients?

The Labour party used to believe in reform. Now it believes in starving the NHS of cash and is failing to provide any reform. The right hon. and learned Lady’s own party manifesto in 2010 said—

Indeed. The right hon. and learned Lady’s own party manifesto said that

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

The Labour party was right then and is wrong now. What happened?

We are proud of what Labour did when we were in government: more doctors, more nurses, shorter waiting times, greater patient satisfaction. No one believes the right hon. Gentleman. It is no wonder that he cannot convince those who work in the health service; he cannot even convince his own conference. Does he not realise that people are still against the Bill because it has not changed one bit? It is still a top-down reorganisation—

Order. I said a moment ago that the Deputy Prime Minister’s response must be heard. The question from the deputy leader of the Labour party will be heard. That is the be-all and end-all of it.

The Bill is still a top-down reorganisation, it is still going to cost the NHS a fortune, and it is still going to lead to fragmentation and privatisation. It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister will not stand up for the NHS—the only thing he stands up for is when the Prime Minister walks into the room.

Some of the right hon. and learned Lady’s colleagues must think that the Liberal Democrats make a difference, because they were handing out leaflets at our conference in Gateshead while her leader was throwing a sickie and going to watch Hull City play football instead. She says that she is proud of Labour’s record. Is she proud of the fact that her Government spent £250 million of taxpayers’ money on sweetheart deals with the private sector that did not help a single NHS patient? Is she proud of the fact that the Health Act 2006, which the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) worked on, was a privatiser’s charter in which her Government offered an 11% premium to the private sector to undercut the NHS?

Order. Some Members who are perhaps not initiated in the proceedings of Prime Minister’s Questions are yelling “Answer!” I remind the House that in these matters the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister does the answering; that is the situation.

We will compare what our Government did on the NHS with what the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government are doing any day. He says that the problem with the Bill is that doctors and nurses just do not understand it, but the problem is that they do. However, even at this late stage it is within his power to stop the Bill. Next Monday, the Bill reaches its final stage in the House of Lords. There are 90 Lib Dem peers, and their votes will decide whether the Bill becomes law. Will he instruct Shirley Williams and his peers to vote to stop the Bill?

The right hon. and learned Lady has invited me to make a comparison. Let me make three comparisons. [Interruption.]

Order. I say it again: the Deputy Prime Minister’s response must be heard, and that is all there is to it.

The right hon. and learned Lady has invited me to make comparisons; let me make three comparisons. The shadow Health Secretary has said:

“It is irresponsible to increase NHS spending”.

So Labour Members do not believe in more money for the NHS; we do. That is comparison No. 1. Secondly, Labour Members indulged the private sector with sweetheart deals, which we are making illegal in the Bill. They want sweetheart deals with the private sector; we do not. Thirdly, they presided over inequality in the NHS; we are including a statutory obligation in the Bill to deliver more equal outcomes in the NHS, which they failed to deliver in 13 years.

That is absolute rubbish. In undermining the NHS and making Shirley Williams vote for it, the Deputy Prime Minister has trashed not one but two national treasures. He did not need to sign the Bill, but he did. He could stop the Bill, but he will not. He says that the Lib Dems make a difference, but they do not. What has happened to that fine Liberal tradition? They must be turning in their graves: the party of William Gladstone; the party of David Lloyd George: now the party of Nick Clegg.

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady has her prepared script which she sticks to religiously, but it is worth having a question and answer session; that is what this whole thing is actually about. What we are doing—the two parties that have come together in the coalition—is to sort out the banking system, which she left in a mess; to sort out the public finances, which she left in a mess; to sort out the economy, which she left in a mess; and to stop the arbitrary privatisation of the NHS, which she left in a mess. Do you know what? In government, the Labour party ran out of money; in opposition, it is running out of ideas.

My right hon. Friend may be aware of the figures that were released this week, which show that there has at least been some progress towards the target of 25% of places on boards being filled by women by 2015. What will the coalition Government do to ensure that they meet that target and enrich our boards with a diversity of talent that will help to achieve the growth that our country needs?

It is excellent news that there has been real progress in the few short months in which we have been in government—far more progress than was delivered in 13 years under Labour—to get more women on to our boards. I think that everybody now agrees with the consensus that having more women on boards is good for all companies. There has been a woefully unrepresentative mix on our boards. I very much hope that we will continue to apply the right kind of voluntary pressure to see the representation of women increase further.

Q2. I sincerely hope that the Deputy Prime Minister enjoyed our famous north-east hospitality and the support of Northumbria police at his spring conference in Gateshead. Will he tell the House when the 3,000 extra police he promised at the general election will be in post? (99614)

As the hon. Lady’s party acknowledges, the police need to make savings. The key thing is not what the total number is, but where the police—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not know what hon. Members have had for breakfast, but I want no part of it. The Deputy Prime Minister’s answers must be heard.

The key thing is whether police officers are properly deployed. Over the past decade, far too many police officers have been tied up in knots, filling out paperwork in the back office, rather than being out in our communities and on the streets where they belong.

Does my right hon. Friend share the priorities of my constituents, who believe that this Parliament should focus its attention on cutting the deficit, promoting growth and getting people off welfare and into work? They would be bemused if they learned that we were to spend much of our time discussing the reform of the House of Lords. How shall I explain that priority to them?

I suspect that my right hon. Friend will do so in the same way as he will no doubt explain to his constituents that there are other priorities, such as changing the boundaries of constituencies, which I know is close to his heart and that of his party. I think that Governments and Parliaments can do more than one thing at once. I also believe that it is a simple democratic principle that the people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land.

Q3. Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] My apologies, Mr Speaker. It is elsewhere that the deputies are present today. Study after study shows that it is crucial for older people that NHS services work closely with social care. My primary care trust in Blackpool has been doing that by working alongside the council’s social services in the same set of offices. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister still cheerleading for a Bill that scraps trusts and such co-operation, and that puts the health of older people, including those in my constituency, at risk? (99615)

I am backing a Bill that includes, for the first time, statutory obligations to integrate social and health care. The hon. Gentleman is right that one of the abiding failings of our health service is that social and health care are not properly integrated. There has not been much integration over the past 10 years. We are trying to change that. Secondly, the creation of health and wellbeing boards will bring together representatives of the NHS and social care.

As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group, I commend the Government for their efforts to tackle the irresponsible pricing of alcohol by supermarkets. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the safest place to drink is in the community pub, that beer is a lower-strength drink, and that scrapping the beer duty escalator would create 5,000 jobs? Will he take his Treasury colleagues out for a beer and tell them not to put up the duty on the great British pint?

As my hon. Friend knows, all such matters are for the Chancellor to announce at the time of the Budget, but I am sure everyone across the House agrees with his sentiment that we should support community pubs, which are such an important part of the fabric of our communities up and down the country.

Q4. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that now that the gang of four Tories are gallivanting around America, he has got a chance to shine? What does he really, really think about this Murdoch sleaze and the latest development—the Prime Minister riding borrowed police horses, having employed Andy Coulson in the heart of government? Man to man, what does he really think? I will give him a chance to separate himself from the serried ranks of Tories behind him. Come on, be a man! (99616)

We had to wait a while for the hon. Gentleman to get going, but it was great when he did. I think we are soon going to celebrate, if that is the right verb, 42 years of his presence in this House, and I am delighted to see that in all that time he has not mellowed one bit.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) in congratulating the citizens of Chelmsford on their newly acquired status following Her Majesty’s announcement that Chelmsford is to be a city? Does he agree that it is entirely appropriate in Olympic year that Essex’s first city should be chosen when Essex is also looking forward to hosting the mountain biking competition during the Olympics?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) would entirely share that sentiment—we are all aware of the Colchester-Chelmsford rivalry. However, I can confirm the announcement today of the results of the civic honours competition in honour of Her Majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee, namely that Chelmsford, Perth and St Asaph have been awarded the right to call themselves cities, while Armagh will from now on have a lord mayor. Although I know there will be disappointment in other communities that entered the contest, this is another announcement that will really lift the spirits of the nation in this, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

Q5. Before the general election, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was profoundly hostile to the closure of Remploy factories. Now, 1,700 disabled people are losing their jobs because of the closure of 36 factories. What difference has he made? (99617)

As the hon. Lady will know, this is a consequence of a review conducted by Liz Sayce, the head of the UK disability forum. Her conclusions are supported by such organisations as Mind, Mencap and others, and I do not want to disagree with them lightly. They say—this is their conclusion and what they think we should be doing—that segregated employment, which was started in the aftermath of the second world war, is not the best way to promote the interests of disabled people in this country in the 21st century.

Q14. Last weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the need for a tycoon tax. Does he intend that to include individuals who claim that they want tax raised on the rich, yet set up companies so that they pay only 20%, not 50%, of their income, such as Ken Livingstone? (99626)

It is worth dwelling for a minute on the explanation provided by Ken Livingstone for his exotic tax arrangements. I quote from an interview that he gave just this weekend:

“I get loads of money, all from different sources, and I give it to an accountant and they manage it”.

That is modern socialism for you.

Q6. In September 2010, I raised with the Prime Minister the case of a part-built college in my constituency that lost £4 million following the closure of the regional development agency. I asked the Prime Minister for a hand-up, not a handout, for the young people in my constituency. Last week, that college was officially opened, yet 18 months on there is no sign of progress in addressing the shortfall. As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, there should be“no…barriers to people’s talent and aspiration”.Will he help give the young people of West Lancashire a hand-up? (99618)

Of course, Ministers will be more than willing to look into the case of the hon. Lady’s college. Colleges are unbelievably important in providing skills and support to young people seeking to get the right qualifications to get into work. They have been working successfully with the Government, not least, for instance, to provide a hugely expanded apprenticeship programme—the largest expansion in apprenticeships ever in our country. I am more than happy to ensure that Ministers look at the case she raises.

Q7. After the 2004 Morecambe bay cockle pickers disaster, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was created. Although the GLA has protected vulnerable workers, it has also been a burden to business. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that any cuts in red tape will not leave workers unprotected, particularly those in the shell fisheries industry? (99619)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. This is an important issue and it is important to get the balance right. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working to ensure that the GLA works effectively and bears down on abuse, such as that in Morecambe bay to which he alludes, but that it does so in as business-friendly a manner as possible to minimise the amount of unnecessary red tape.

I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister would like heartily to congratulate the city of Perth on the restoration of its city status in today’s diamond jubilee announcement on official city status. He will know of the fantastic cross-community, cross-party support that has led to the restoration of that fantastic civic honour. May I thank the palace, the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department for organising this competition and for that tremendous award today?

Those are the kind of questions I like. It is a good thing, and of course, on behalf of everybody in the House, I would like to convey my congratulations to all the people of Perth who have worked in such a fabulous way, and on a cross-party basis, to get this accolade and award today.

Q8. One treasured piece of green space near Cheltenham is attracting a lot of sporting attention this week, but other local green spaces treasured by local people will be at risk if the national planning policy framework does not help us to follow Germany’s example of combining economic success with tough controls to protect the countryside. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that a truly green planning framework is still a safe bet? (99620)

The Government will publish the national planning policy framework shortly. It is important that we do everything, including through the planning system, to promote growth, because we need growth, jobs and new homes, particularly for young families who are unable to have a home to call their own. Of course, that should be tempered by social and environmental considerations. That balance will be properly reflected in the planning framework when it is published—I hope—shortly.

On Monday, the Housing and Local Government Minister told me and the House that the Government have no plans or wish to introduce rent controls in the private sector. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the increase in private sector rents in central London and the capping of housing benefits means, in effect, that many families on benefit are being forced out, and that a process of social cleansing is going on? Will he give a commitment that the Government will examine the case for private sector rent controls?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we accompanied the restraint on the housing benefit budget—there was a commitment in the Labour party manifesto to bring that part of the benefits system under control—with a major fund to deal with hard cases. We have also unveiled a number of measures that should lead to a significant increase in the building of affordable homes. The lack of supply of affordable homes is the underlying problem in London and elsewhere in the country.

Q9. Changes to child benefit will mean that a single-income family earning £43,000 a year, with one parent staying at home to care for the children, will subsidise a couple earning more than £80,000. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that that is fair? (99621)

I think it is fair that someone who is earning far, far beyond the average should not be subsidised by, and receiving child benefit from, people on much lower incomes. The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly valid point, which is that the cut-off point can create those anomalies and cliff edges—as he said, one earner on £43,000 will have their child benefit removed while two earners earning £80,000 will not. We have all said that we will look at a pragmatic way of implementing this in a sensitive manner.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the very serious incidents in my constituency involving three separate explosive devices planted since Friday, the most recent being adjacent to two local schools. Will he join me in condemning such reckless attacks, which bring misery to the community and place lives at risk, and will he assure the House that, in the absence of the International Monitoring Commission, the UK Government will continue to monitor closely any linkages between such activity and proscribed organisations?

I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole House in utterly condemning the cowardly pipe bomb attacks in east Belfast, which endangered the lives of all those in the surrounding areas, including those of young children attending school. It was totally reprehensible. I understand that all these attacks are now being investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There is no indication, at present, that these were terrorist attacks, and they therefore fall to the purview of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister.

Q10. The EU is currently consulting on changes to the rules governing state aid in assisted areas. The Government have shown commitment to northern Lincolnshire by establishing an enterprise zone to attract large businesses. The changes will restrict aid only to small and medium-sized enterprises. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the Government will fight these proposals and look for alternatives? (99622)

I am delighted that the enterprise zone in north Lincolnshire and the Humber area is now taking shape. It will be a huge boost, not least through investment from such major investors as Siemens in the renewable energy sector in that part of the world. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the European Commission reviewing how those rules will be applied for regional aid—from 2014 onwards, I think. We are extremely mindful that we do not want those rules to undermine the excellent work taking place in north Lincolnshire.

Q11. The Ministry of Justice announced today that it had given two new contracts, worth £30 million of public money, to A4e. This company has been under investigation by the police, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Public Accounts Committee, and since I have been raising concerns about it, I have received 40 or 50 e-mails from members of the public alleging fraud and bad practice. Are the Government going to continue handing out public money to A4e? (99623)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. The police investigation into allegations of fraud at A4e concern contracts entered into by the previous Government. We have now launched our own audit of the existing contracts that A4e has received from government, and if there is any evidence of systematic abuse, of course we will end all contracts with A4e.

The six British servicemen killed in Afghanistan last week will be repatriated next Tuesday and include three of my constituents: Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Danny Wilford and Private Anthony Frampton. At this difficult time for the families, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me, and my constituents, that everything is being done by the Government to support the families?

I know how strongly the hon. Gentleman must feel about this terrible accident, given that three of his constituents have, sadly, lost their lives. I know that the MOD and, I am sure, the Secretary of State would wish to confirm to him personally that they are doing absolutely everything possible in quite difficult circumstances to ensure that the bodies are returned to the families as soon as possible.

Q12. Has the Deputy Prime Minister considered the implications of the Treasury’s planned changes to the controlled foreign companies rules, which will incentivise multinationals having recourse to tax havens? Opening this new tax loophole is estimated to cost developing countries some £4 billion in fair and much-needed revenue and the Exchequer here £1 billion in fair and much-needed revenue. Will this perverse and invidious change be corrected in forthcoming Budget measures? (99624)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I have spoken to campaigners about this matter, and I know that ActionAid, for instance, has spoken to Treasury Ministers as well. Like all international tax matters, it is incredibly complicated once we get into the detail, but it is something that was not dealt with in the past 13 years and which we are now prepared to look into.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming today’s launch of the Government’s adoption action plan, which sets out how we can achieve more adoptions more quickly? Does he agree that making adoption work well everywhere should be the priority of all of us who have the interests of vulnerable people at heart?

I am sure that we speak on behalf of everyone in the House when we say that it is very frustrating for couples and parents who want to adopt children, and not good for the children concerned, when there are inordinate delays. That is why I think it is a very good thing that there seems to be a general consensus on the announcements made recently by the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister to accelerate the adoption process to ensure that this will now indeed happen.

Q13. Is it right that when my constituent took her young daughter to A and E, she later received a letter from her GP saying that the visit was inappropriate and also reminding her of the cost? Is this going to be the future of the NHS under this Government, with vulnerable and elderly people scared to ask for treatment? (99625)

Of course not, and clearly that letter was issued under the current system. However, the hon. Gentleman touches on a serious issue that not only we in this country face, but every developed society faces, which is that we have health care systems that were not designed for a massively ageing population or for an increasingly large number of older people with long-term chronic conditions spending much, much longer in hospital than before. That is why we need to ensure that they are kept well and strong, so far as possible in their homes and in their communities. That is what this NHS Bill is all about.

Students at comprehensive school are just as likely to study A-level history as their private school counterparts, but are only half as likely to study maths or physics. What are the Government going to do about the social mobility issue that we face in the sciences, and does he support the proposed Sir Isaac Newton maths school in Norfolk to help to address this issue?

The hon. Lady highlights an incredibly important point. It is one of the reasons why the new English baccalaureate places great emphasis on those scientific disciplines; it is why we have protected the science budget, in order to send out a clear signal that we value sciences; and it is why we have placed such an emphasis on STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—because we need more youngsters, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, taking up maths and science courses for our collective future and the country as a whole.

Q15. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Health and Social Care Bill would be going through unamended without the Liberal Democrats, but will he listen to people up and down the country who know the real truth: that the Tories would not be getting their shambolic Bill at all without him and his MPs propping them up? (99627)

As I said before, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome legislation that outlaws the practice, indulged in on an industrial scale by his party, of giving sweetheart deals to the private sector.