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Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

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

Small business is concerned that Britain suffers from a sicknote culture. Does the Prime Minister agree that an example should be set from the very top, and that those who throw sickies and then swan off to a football match in a Rolls-Royce are setting a very bad example indeed?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We do have a problem of a sicknote culture, and I have to report that the problem can sometimes go to the very top. The Leader of the Opposition was meant to be addressing a health rally, called a sickie, and three hours later was at a Hull football match. As well as his knowing the miracle cure, I think there is an important question—what was it that first attracted him to the multi-millionaire owner of the Hull football club?

Following the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Washington, we now know that the timetable for the withdrawal of British and other international combat forces in Afghanistan will be reviewed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. He has previously set out a timetable that would see combat operations for British troops cease by the end of 2014. Given the recent statements by the US Defence Secretary and the French President about an accelerated timetable for their troops, can the Prime Minister confirm the British Government’s position going into that summit?

First, let me take this opportunity on behalf of the whole House once again to pay tribute to the magnificent work that our armed forces do in Afghanistan. We had another reminder yesterday of the very high price that we have paid.

On the programme of withdrawal, what I have said absolutely stands, which is that we will not be in a combat role in Afghanistan after 2014, nor will we have anything like the number of troops that we have now. We will be performing a training task, particularly helping with the officer training academy. Between now and 2014, it is important that we have a sensible profile for the reduction in troop numbers, which should be largely based on the conditions in the three parts of Helmand province that we are still responsible for and the transition that takes place.

What I discussed with President Obama in America was that in 2013, if there are opportunities to change the nature of the mission and be more in a support rather than in a direct combat role, that is something that I think everyone will want to see. We can make further progress on that issue at the Chicago summit and make announcements later in the year about that.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I know he will keep the House informed of any change in the British position, and indeed of the precise timetable and any evolution of it.

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that in the wake of the tragic killing of Afghan civilians last week, which we all abhor, we must carry on with our mission. President Karzai has recommended that international troops should be confined to their main bases. Notwithstanding the tragedy of the incident that occurred, does the Prime Minister agree that while international troops are there, they must be able to perform their role of protecting the Afghan population? Can he tell us what discussions he has had with President Karzai and his representatives about the impact that any change in that role will have on security in Helmand, were that to happen?

Obviously our teams are in permanent contact about Afghanistan, and I speak to President Karzai regularly. Obviously what happened in Afghanistan, with the dreadful shootings that the rogue American soldier carried out, was a dreadful event, which must be properly prosecuted and dealt with for what it was: a mass murder. I know that President Obama takes that view very strongly.

In terms of making sure that we work with the Afghans, as I have said, the key is ensuring that we transition in the three parts of Helmand for which we are responsible, that we hand over to Afghan troops, and that they are in the lead as soon as they are capable of fulfilling that task. I do not have any concerns at the moment about the role of British troops—they are able to carry out the tasks that they are allotted. We are making good progress in the three parts of Helmand. We will be in permanent touch with the Afghans about that transition, but transition is a process and, as the Chancellor will explain in a moment or two, we should try to make the most of the transition that will take place.

I know that the Prime Minister agrees with me that dialogue with President Karzai and his representatives on the issue is very important, particularly in the light of the comments that were made. A few days ago, the Taliban decided to suspend preliminary talks with the United States. Will the Prime Minister give the House his assessment of the significance of that? Does he agree that we owe it to our troops serving in Afghanistan to be much more urgently focused on the task of securing a lasting political settlement? How do the British Government plan to play their role in getting the political process restarted?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. It is vital that we get this right. Since we took office—to be fair to the previous Government, they took this view as well—the British position has always been that we need a political settlement to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of Afghanistan. Britain has been pushing for political reconciliation and reintegration, and I had very productive talks with President Obama last week because the American view is now the same; they want to support that political process. Of course, the Taliban said what they said last week. I would make this point: we are committed to handing over to the Afghan Government, the Afghan military and the Afghan police—and the numbers of Afghan military and police are on track—at the end of 2014. We believe that that can happen even without a political settlement, with a satisfactory outcome for the United Kingdom, but clearly it would be better for everyone concerned if it was accompanied by a political settlement. The work for that, including setting up a Taliban political office in Qatar, is progressing well, and I believe that it is in everyone’s interest that we keep pushing that agenda. However, the Taliban should be in no doubt: there are opportunities for a political settlement if they give up violence, renounce al-Qaeda and want to play a part in the future politics of Afghanistan, but if they do not take those steps, we will continue to defeat them on the battlefield every time they raise their head.

Q2. I know that the Prime Minister will agree that the Association of Air Ambulances is a fantastic charity, which enjoys support across the House. However, a typical air ambulance branch needs to raise about £5 million a year, yet can claim gift aid often on only about 5% of that. Will he support my efforts to make it easier for charities to get the gift aid that they are due? (100963)

First, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the air ambulance service, which does an amazing job in responding to emergencies, and saves many, many lives. We are providing £3 billion a year in tax reliefs for charities, of which gift aid makes up around £1 billion. We are increasing the amount on which charities are allowed to claim gift aid without the need for a declaration. That takes it up to £5,000, and I think that that will be a significant help to great charities such as the one my hon. Friend mentioned.

When the disability Minister came to Wales last week, she said that it was for others to consider whether Remploy’s budgets should be devolved to Wales. I think, when she said “others”, she meant you, Prime Minister. The Welsh Government have already said that they are committed to supporting the Remploy workers in Wales. Will the Prime Minister therefore devolve the Remploy budgets for the Welsh factories for the next three years to ensure that all the factories that can have a future do have a future?

I will look carefully at the right hon. Lady’s proposal, because I know it is put forward in a constructive spirit. However, whether the decision is reserved or devolved, it does not mean that we do not have to take difficult decisions. The fact is that we asked the chief executive of Disability Rights UK to look at the issue, and the outcome she proposed is supported by Mencap, Mind, Disability Wales, Sense for Deafblind People and the Centre for Mental Health. The point is this: Government funding allows for half a billion pounds over five years for Remploy, but even that is not enough to keep those factories open, because although access to work awards are around £2,900 per disabled person, the cost of each job in Remploy is around £25,000 per person. Therefore, if the aim of policy is to use the money that we have to support disabled people into work, the right hon. Lady will understand why the review came to the decision that it did.

3. The last few weeks have seen the start of the £350 million construction of Jaguar Land Rover’s new engine plant in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a sign of growing confidence and belief in British manufacturing, which is in stark contrast to the destruction wrought on it by the last Labour Government? (100964)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Jaguar Land Rover news is excellent news for the west midlands and for British manufacturing and British car making. The good news is that what is happening in the car industry is not confined to Jaguar Land Rover: Nissan, Honda and Toyota are all expanding across our country. That is very good news for British manufacturing.

On the bus to the Commons today I foolishly revealed to a fellow passenger that I was a Member of Parliament. After some light-hearted and customary abuse, our conversation turned to life, the universe and commuting. Can the Prime Minister tell me and the man on the Peckham omnibus this: if that journey cost me 90p under Ken, how much did the same journey cost me today under Boris?

The point I would make is that Ken twice promised to freeze fares and twice did not deliver, but the difference between Boris and Ken is that Boris pays his taxes and Ken does not.

On that very subject, I look forward in the Budget later to measures on tax avoidance, but does the Prime Minister agree that people seeking high office in public life should set a better example?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I note that Ken Livingstone has said that if he is elected Mayor of London, he will fully pay his taxes. It is not for me to hand out political advice, but my advice would be to pay them before the campaign gets going.

5. Does the Prime Minister recognise that the introduction of regional pay would set hospital against hospital, and school against school, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has helpfully pointed out, and yet it would almost certainly push up the overall cost of public sector pay? Can the Prime Minister give us a guarantee or a promise today that introducing regional pay will bring down the overall bill? (100966)

The last Government introduced local pay into the Court Service. The idea of local pay for some public services is not an alien concept, but a perfectly sensible thing to look at. Labour Front Benchers suggested in the debate on benefits that we look at local levels of benefits, so surely the hon. Gentleman should be in favour rather than against.

14. I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in praising the work of the search and rescue helicopter service around our country, but does he share my concern that the loss of the Portland search and rescue helicopter in 2017 will threaten the lives of my constituents and damage the integrity of the search and rescue service on the south coast? (100975)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend that a reliable search and rescue service is vital. We have looked at keeping the Sea King helicopters, which is one of the things he suggested, but they would not be able to provide a service as good or as capable as a modern fleet of helicopters. That is why we are planning the changes. We believe that it should provide faster flying times and a more reliable service.

Following last year’s riots, the Prime Minister came to the House and said that

“we will help you repair the damage, get your businesses back up and running and support your communities.”—[Official Report, 11 August 2011; Vol. 531, c. 1053.]

Last week, a report by the Metropolitan police revealed that of the claims made by the uninsured under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, only about half had been settled since last August. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is simply not good enough?

I agree. There have been problems under the Riot (Damages) Act, which is specifically why we also introduced a number of extra funds run by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Those funds have paid out faster. It is right, in a way, to have the Riot (Damages) Act, although it is quite out of date. However, it takes time to make the payments, and I will certainly do what I can to chase them up.

We are eight months on from the riots. The Deputy Prime Minister hosted a reception—[Interruption.] Government Members should listen to this very important issue about the riots. At a reception last week organised by the Deputy Prime Minister, he and I met Amrit Khurmy, the owner of Ealing Green supermarket, which was razed to the ground during the violence on 8 August. She is still waiting to receive any compensation. Does the Prime Minister agree that, eight months on, that is just not right? Does he further agree that ultimately it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that she gets the compensation that she deserves?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will look into that specific case. As I said, one reason I introduced funds alongside the Riot (Damages) Act was to get that money out to local authorities faster. If he likes, I will put in the Library of the House of Commons a set of information about what those funds did and where we have got to with that Act. I will also look into the individual case that he mentioned.

We are talking about people who have not been helped by the money provided to local authorities and cannot get help. Three things need to happen to make good on this. First, as matter of urgency, there needs to be proper information on the payments made under the Riot (Damages) Act—[Interruption.] Government Members say, “There is information”. There is information from the Metropolitan police, but the reality is that the information available about what is happening around the country is very patchy. So first we need proper information. Secondly, I ask the Prime Minister to nominate a Home Office Minister with the job of ensuring that these claims are paid. Thirdly, will he promise to return to the House with a clear indication of when 100% of legitimate claims will be properly settled?

I am certainly happy to return to the House, as I said, putting an answer in the House of Commons Library about all this information. On the individual case that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, I understand that it was a multiple claim because it was a shop with a number of flats above it, but I accept that eight months is too long. So we will make progress on that case. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is taking the lead on this matter, but I have also held follow-up meetings myself with DCLG and the Home Office to ensure that the money is paid out.

Q15. The Prime Minister might be aware that the St Dunstan’s charity, which provides support for injured servicemen, has recently changed its name to Blind Veterans UK. To raise awareness of this name change, will he join me in visiting its new residential centre in Llandudno to see at first hand the wonderful work it does in supporting our veterans? (100976)

I always enjoy my visits to Llandudno, and perhaps I will be able to schedule one before long. I would like to put on the record my thanks for the tireless and highly professional way in which the charity assists service personnel who have tragically lost their sight. My hon. Friend pays it a great compliment and does his duty by explaining the change in its name, so that people know what it is and can give it money. As a country and a Government, we have a huge debt to pay to former service personnel. They have done extraordinary things on behalf of their country, and we need to look after them through their lives. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some announcements about that in his Budget.

Q6. The Prime Minister said last year that under his Government unemployment would fall year on year, but here we are with unemployment at a 17-year high. In my constituency, 55.4 people are chasing every job vacancy. The regional growth fund has supported only four businesses. Why should the 515 workers in Rio Tinto Alcan, the disabled workers at Remploy and many others set to lose their jobs believe a single word that he or the Chancellor say? (100967)

First, on the specific case of the Rio Tinto plant, I know how important that is. We are working with Northumbria county council and the company to do what we can to help get those people work, although I understand that Rio Tinto is still in negotiations with a potential purchaser of that plant. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman about employment and unemployment is this. Clearly we need more jobs in our economy, but since the election we have had more than 600,000 new jobs in the private sector. The level of employment in the country is up by around 250,000 and there are fewer people on out-of-work benefits now than there were at the time of the election. In terms of what is happening in the north-east, we should also celebrate the good news—the fact that Nissan is creating 2,000 jobs; the fact that Hitachi is building a new plant in County Durham; the fact that Newcastle airport is expanding; the fact that Greggs is putting more money into the north-east. We should be talking up the north-east instead of talking it down.

The running aground of a cargo vessel on a small island in the Minch showed the need for the emergency coastguard tug that was recently withdrawn from service. Will the Prime Minister please look into this as a matter of urgency, with a view to getting a replacement tug in place before a worse incident happens?

I know this issue is being looked into at the moment, so I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and give him the details. He represents island communities that can be extremely cut off, particularly during the winter months. He needs to know that those services are there, and I will write to him about that.