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Volume 543: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2012

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper Connor Ray, of 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), who died on Wednesday 18 April from wounds that he sustained in Afghanistan. He was described by all who served with him as a superb soldier. His dedication and his courage will never be forgotten, and we send our condolences to his family and his loved ones.

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.

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to Sapper Connor Ray and, in doing so, ask my right hon. Friend whether he will confirm that, although British servicemen and women are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the actual pace of withdrawal will be determined first and foremost by the need to minimise the risk to those members of our armed forces serving in Afghanistan at that time.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can confirm that by the end of 2014 we will not have anything like the troop numbers that we have now, and we will not be in a combat role. Of course, post 2014 we do believe in having a training role with the Afghan army, particularly the officer training role that President Karzai has personally asked for us to undertake. The speed of the reductions between now and the end of 2014 will be in accordance with the conditions on the ground and with what is right in terms of transitioning from allied control to Afghan control—and at all times, of course, paramount in our minds is the safety and security of our brave armed forces, to whom I pay tribute again today.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper Connor Ray of 33 Engineer Regiment. He carried out his duties with the utmost courage, saving many Afghan and British lives by what he did, and our deepest condolences go to his family and friends.

Today we had the catastrophic news that Britain is back in recession. I am sure that the Prime Minister has spent the past 24 hours thinking of an excuse as to why it is nothing to do with him, so what is his excuse this time?

These are very, very disappointing figures. I do not seek to excuse them, I do not seek to try to explain them away, and let me be absolutely clear that there is no complacency at all in this Government in dealing with what is a very tough situation that, frankly, has just got tougher. I believe the truth is this: it is very difficult recovering from the deepest recession in living memory, accompanied as it was by a debt crisis. Our banks had too much debt, our households had too much debt, our Government had too much debt. We have to rebalance our economy, we need a bigger private sector, we need more exports and more investment. This is painstaking, difficult work, but we will stick with our plans, stick with the low interest rates and do everything that we can to boost growth, competitiveness and jobs in our country.

Typical of this arrogant Prime Minister—he tries to blame everyone else. The reality is that this is a recession made by him and the Chancellor in Downing street. Over the last 18 months since the catastrophic spending review, our economy has shrunk. This is a slower recovery from recession even than that in the 1930s. The reality is that it is families and businesses who are paying the price for his arrogance and complacency. Why does he not admit that it is his catastrophic economic policy, his plan for austerity, which is cutting too far and too fast, that has landed us back in recession?

Not a single business organisation, serious commentator or international body thinks that these problems emerged in the last 24 months. The debt crisis has been long in the making; the failure to regulate our banks has been long in the making; the Government overspending has been long in the making. This is a tough and difficult situation that the economy is in, but the one thing that we must not do is abandon the public spending and deficit reduction plans, because the solution to a debt crisis cannot be more debt. We must not put at risk the low interest rates that are absolutely essential to our recovery—that would be absolute folly. That is why no business organisation and no international economic organisation suggests we follow that course.

It is all bluster; the Prime Minister’s plan has failed. That is the reality. They were the people who said that Britain was a safe haven—the Chancellor even said it on Monday—and we are back in recession. It was the Prime Minister who said that we were

“out of the danger zone”—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 901.]

and this is what has happened. As even his own Back Benchers are saying, the complacent, “arrogant posh boys” just don’t get it.

Let us turn from the economic disaster of this Government to the political disaster that is the Culture Secretary. We now know, from the evidence published yesterday, that throughout the time when the Culture Secretary was supposed to be acting in an impartial manner, he and his office were providing in advance a constant flow of confidential information to News Corporation about statements to be made in this House, his private discussions with the regulators and his discussions with opposing parties. Having seen the 163 pages published yesterday, is the Prime Minister seriously telling us that the Secretary of State was acting as he should have done, in a transparent, impartial and fair manner?

Let me first of all finish off on the economy, which the right hon. Gentleman has moved off—[Interruption.]

We will not let anyone forget who got us into this mess in the first place. More spending, more borrowing, more debt—that is what caused these problems; it cannot be the solution to these problems.

Let me turn to the Leveson inquiry. I set up the Leveson inquiry and its terms of reference were agreed by the leader of the Liberal Democrat party and the leader of the Labour party. I believe that to step in and prejudge that inquiry would be wrong. Lord Justice Leveson has made that precise point this morning. Let me read to the House what he has said. [Interruption.] Perhaps the House would like to listen. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us hear what the Prime Minister has to say, and then the questioning will continue.

Lord Justice Leveson said this morning that

“it is very important to hear every side of the story before drawing conclusions.”

He then said that

“although I have seen requests for other inquiries and investigations and, of course, I do not seek to constrain Parliament, it seems to me that the better course is to allow this Inquiry to proceed.”

Having set up this inquiry and agreed with the inquiry, the right hon. Gentleman should listen to the inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson is responsible for a lot of things, but he is not responsible for the integrity of the Prime Minister’s Government. In case he has forgotten, that is his responsibility as the Prime Minister.

It beggars belief that the Prime Minister can defend the Culture Secretary, because he was not judging this bid—he was helping the bid by News Corporation. Two days before the statement to the House on 25 January, the Culture Secretary’s office was not only colluding with News Corp to provide it with information in advance, it was hatching a plan to ensure that it would be

“game over for the opposition”

to the bid. Does the Prime Minister really believe that is how a judge and his advisers are supposed to act?

The Leader of the Opposition clearly does not think that what Lord Leveson said this morning matters. Let me remind him of what he said yesterday about the Leveson inquiry. He said:

“I think”—

this is the Leader of the Opposition speaking—

“that it’s right that the Leveson Inquiry takes its course”.

He went on to say that

“the most important thing is that the Leveson Inquiry gets to the bottom of what happened, of what Labour did, of what the Conservatives did and we reach a judgment about that.”

Is it not typical of the right hon. Gentleman that in the morning he sets out his very clear position, but in the afternoon he cannot resist the passing political bandwagon?

Order. I said the Prime Minister must be heard, and the Leader of the Opposition must be heard. Both will be heard, however long it takes. It is very clear.

Totally pathetic answers. He is the Prime Minister. If he cannot defend the conduct of his own Ministers, his Ministers should be out of the door. He should fire them. He does not even try to defend the Secretary of State and what he did. The Secretary of State told the House on 3 March, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), that

“today we are publishing…all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]

But he did not, because 163 pages have now emerged. The Prime Minister does not defend him over giving confidential information to one party in the case; he does not defend him over collusion; is he really going to defend him about not being straight with this House of Commons?

Let me make it absolutely clear that the Culture Secretary, who has my full support for the excellent job that he does, will be giving a full account of himself in this House of Commons this afternoon and in front of the Leveson inquiry, and he will give a very good account of himself for this very simple reason: that in judging this important bid, he sought independent advice from independent regulators at every stage, although he did not need to, and he took that independent advice at every stage, although he did not need to. The way he has dealt with this issue is in stark contrast to the Governments of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

I say this to the Prime Minister: while his Culture Secretary remains in place, and while he refuses to come clean on his and the Chancellor’s meetings with Rupert Murdoch, the shadow of sleaze will hang over this Government. It is a pattern with this Prime Minister—Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and now the Culture Secretary. When is he going to realise that it is time to stop putting his cronies before the interests of the country?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he called for an independent judicial inquiry. That is the inquiry I have set up. He agreed the terms of reference. Now he is flip-flopping all over the place. The fact is that the problem of closeness between politicians and media proprietors had been going on for years and it is this Government who are going to sort it out. Whether it is the proper regulation of the press, whether it is cleaning up our financial system, whether it is dealing with our debts: I don’t duck my responsibilities. What a pity he cannot live up to his.

Q2. Is my right hon. Friend aware of recent very good news in the manufacturing and engineering sectors in Lincoln? Hoval has seen an increase in turnover of over 20% to around £17.5 million; Italian firm Brifrangi has confirmed an investment of circa £50 million in a new tooling press, one of the largest in the world; and Siemens is involved in the first new engineering school in our country for 20 years. Will my right hon. Friend accept my personal invitation to visit Lincoln to see for himself the excellent progress our city is enjoying under his Conservative-led Government? (105080)

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s invitation and will try to take it up. As I said earlier, although there is very disappointing news today about what is happening in our economy, underneath that there is a rebalancing that needs to take place, and is taking place, in terms of manufacturing investment and exports, and in terms of the Government getting behind that, with more investment in apprenticeships and more investments in technical hubs at our universities, like the one at the university of Lincoln, and by cutting business taxes so that we get Britain working and making things again.

On Monday, the Prime Minister said that he was going on an economic rescue mission. Is it not fair to say that that mission has failed spectacularly in the light of the figures released today?

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that the recession we suffered—a 7% contraction of our gross domestic product—was much bigger even than what happened in America. It is worth remembering that the biggest bank bail-out anywhere in the world was not in America; it was here in Britain. Getting out of the recession, the financial crisis and the debt crisis is difficult, painstaking work, but this Government are committed to doing just that.

Q3. Last week, I met the chief executive of the fourth largest manufacturing group in the UK, Unison Engineering, which has a substantial factory in Burnley. He has been instructed by his US board to increase the turnover of his UK operations so as to take advantage of the Government’s industrial strategy. He is concerned about the lack of skills. [Interruption.] Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government investment in apprenticeships and university technical colleges will increase over the coming years? (105081)

What is interesting is that if any Member of Parliament wants to talk about manufacturing success or business success in their constituency, they are shouted down by the Opposition, because all they want to hear is bad news and to talk our economy down. We are investing in skills and putting more money into the apprenticeship schemes and the university technical colleges. I was at Airbus in Filton this week seeing the expansion and growth plans there, and it is good to hear what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor, who said in 2008 that

“once…you’ve got a downturn you cannot possibly slash public expenditure”?

Will the Prime Minister stick to his complacent plan of cutting too far and too fast, which has delivered a double-dip recession?

Well read. [Interruption.] The point is that we inherited from the Labour party a budget deficit of 11%. The budget deficit we inherited was bigger than Greece’s, bigger than Spain’s, bigger than Portugal’s. If you do not deal with your debts and your deficit, you will never keep interest rates low, and it is low interest rates that offer us the best prospects of getting out of this difficult economic situation we are in.

At least half a million children died from malaria last year. On world malaria day, may I thank the Prime Minister for his personal commitment to combating this disease? Will he join me in recognising the international leadership that British scientists, aid workers and volunteers, including Rotarians in Penkridge and Stafford in my constituency, show in combating malaria?

I am grateful for the opportunity to join my hon. Friend in wishing the people of Penkridge well. He did rather better in convincing the people of Penkridge to vote for him than I did in 1997. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of malaria on world malaria day. Some 15,000 children die every week from what is a preventable illness. That is why I am proud that Britain is leading on this issue, putting money into the aid budget and malarial bed nets, and making all the scientific advances that he referred to. This is a vital agenda, and even in difficult economic times, we are right to pursue it.

Q5. Does this out-of-touch Prime Minister still believe that the British economy is “out of the danger zone”?—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 901.] (105083)

One of the biggest problems we faced on taking office was the danger that financial markets would take the same view of Britain as they took of Greece, Spain and Portugal, where interest rates were rising. That Britain has such low interest rates demonstrates that we have credibility. Difficult decisions are needed to get on top of the debt and deficit, and to deal with public spending, but they are the right decisions, not least because, as the shadow Chancellor once said, low interest rates are the mark of economic credibility.

Q14. The head teachers of Calder and Todmorden high schools in Calder Valley welcome the Government’s educational reforms. [Hon. Members: “Reading!”] They are two schools that never qualified for the Building Schools for the Future programme under the previous Government because they attained far too highly. [Hon. Members: “Reading!”] Will the Prime Minister tell the pupils of those schools when they can expect an announcement on the priority school buildings project to which they both applied? (105092)

We are investing more in school building than Labour did in its first two Parliaments after 1997. The figure is along the lines of £17 billion during the spending review period. So there are opportunities for new classrooms and buildings, and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Education, who is listening carefully to my hon. Friend, will be in touch with him about their prospects.

Q6. Did the Prime Minister agree with the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) when she said that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—[Interruption.] (105084)

Did the Prime Minister agree with the hon. Lady when she called him and the Chancellor “posh boys” showing no compassion or understanding for the lives of others? Is that not further evidence that they are out of touch and an explanation for this double-dip recession?

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) about many, many things.

Over the past two years, UK exports have grown by 23%, and even faster to the BRIC. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 151 winners of the Queen’s award for enterprise this week on their success in international trade, particularly GSPK Circuits in Knaresborough and Boroughbridge in my constituency?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that business on its export performance. When we look at some of the fastest-growing markets in the world—whether India, China or some of the south-east Asian markets I visited a few days ago—we see that our export performance in some of those markets, compared with 2009, is up by as much as 60%. As well as those markets, however, we also have to remember our old friends, as it were, and the fact that we still export more to the Republic of Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. So we need to expand our existing markets, but it is far harder work to get into the fast-growing markets of the world.

Q7. Recently, the Prime Minister conceded that the Government had made an “important mistake” in the handling of the fuel crisis. Would it not be a positive step in correcting that mistake were the Government to scrap the 3p increase in August, in order to help motorists, haulage companies and hard-pressed families in the UK? (105085)

The Government have actually used about £4 billion of Budget money to keep petrol prices down. They are about 6p lower than they would be under Labour’s plans. Let me update the hon. Gentleman and the House on the issue of the fuel strike. It now looks as if there will be longer before a strike could take place. I am determined that we use that time to ensure that every piece of resilience is in place. The plans we inherited would have allowed the military to provide perhaps 10% of our fuel needs. We have now managed to lift that to about 60% or 70%. We are in a much better place now because of the proper emergency planning that this Government have done, as opposed to the Labour party, which just crosses its fingers and hopes for the best from the trade unions.

Next Wednesday my mother Maud will celebrate her 100th birthday. Living, as she does, five minutes from the Olympic stadium, she has agreed to be Usain Bolt’s pacemaker, in order to give the other athletes a chance. Will my right hon. Friend now call on the indomitable spirit of former Land Army girls such as my mother and encourage our Olympic athletes to go for gold?

I will certainly do that. I have written to Maud to congratulate her on this fantastic milestone, and I am sure that as she speeds past Usain Bolt, she will turn round and reflect that the only way is Essex.

Q8. The Prime Minister has spent plenty of time cosying up to News Corporation in return for political support, so—[Interruption.] I can wait. He is therefore well qualified to answer this: when Alex Salmond agreed to act as a lobbyist for News Corp, was he acting in self-interest or in the interests of Scotland? (105086)

First, I think Alex Salmond can answer for himself. Secondly, this is another issue for the Leveson inquiry—properly set up, properly established—which is going to interview all the politicians, including all sorts of people who cosied up to News International over the years. I think on all sides of the House there is a bit of a need to say, hand on heart, that we all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch—I think we would agree. On that basis, I am sure that Lord Leveson will make some important recommendations.

Q9. Has the Prime Minister seen the research published today by the TaxPayers Alliance, which shows that there are 3,097 town hall employees earning more than £100,000 and 52 earning more than £250,000? My constituents in Burton cannot understand such exorbitant salaries. What can we do about it? (105087)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise this issue. The important thing that we have done is to make completely transparent the pay in our town halls and local government. Sadly, I believe there is still one local council—a Labour-controlled council in Nottinghamshire—that is not making that information available. Every council should be transparent about how it spends council tax payers’ money.

Last year the Prime Minister said that those warning him that cutting too far and too fast would risk a double-dip recession should apologise. Now that he has delivered a double-dip recession, should he not apologise?

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is this: we faced a very difficult situation, with an 11% budget deficit. If we had listened to the plans of the Opposition, and spent more, borrowed more and increased our debt, that would have only made the debt crisis worse. How can the answer to a debt crisis be more borrowing? That is the question the Opposition can never answer.

Q10. After weeks of ducking and diving, Ken Livingstone has given a partial publication of his tax affairs. Sadly, he refuses to publish the tax affairs of Silveta, the company he set up to avoid paying his fair share of tax. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Ken Livingstone has ceased to be the old pretender and has now become the Artful Dodger? (105088)

I think my hon. Friend speaks for all of London when he makes that point. Ken Livingstone owes the people of London some proper transparency about this company and about his tax bill. There are still several days to go before this key election. He should make that information available. I have to say that I had something of a shock this week, because I have hardly ever agreed with anything Alan Sugar has ever said, but in saying that Londoners should not back Ken, he was spot on.

Q11. Now that the Prime Minister has admitted that he created the economic mess that the country is in, may I be helpful to him and suggest that he drop his ridiculous proposals for regional pay cuts and accelerate the capital programme for schools in Coventry and the west midlands? (105089)

As I said earlier, we are spending more on capital on schools in this Parliament than either of the first two Labour Parliaments. I am very happy for Education Ministers to look specifically at the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to see what can be done. I also hope that he will join me and invite people in Coventry on 3 May to vote yes for a mayor for Coventry.

Q13. Every year, millions of British people donate money to charities. They do so for the simple reason that they want to help the cause or help others who are worse off then they are. I would describe those actions by members of the public as honourable, kind and selfless. We have all heard recently that some, but not all, of our wealthy citizens want to donate money to charity only if they can continue to reduce their tax bill. Does the Prime Minister think that their motives are honourable, kind and selfless? (105091)

We should support people who give money to charity, which is why the Government have expanded gift aid very generously and made available a change to help people with inheritance tax if they leave bequests to charity. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Budget set out a number of limits to reliefs, and we specifically identified the potential problem for charities. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will consult very widely on how we can make sure that we encourage philanthropic giving and charities, and what charities do in our country.

Q12. The Prime Minister’s dismissive response to the fact that the UK is now back in recession suggests that his mind is on other things. Should he not just sack his Culture Secretary and concentrate properly on the job of sorting out the British economy? (105090)

I think the hon. Lady would recognise that there is absolutely nothing dismissive about either my reply on the economy or, indeed, what I think we need to do. We are in a difficult economic situation in Britain, just as we see recessions in Denmark, in Holland, in Italy and in Spain. That is what is happening across the continent with which we trade. It is absolutely essential that we take every step that we can to help our economy out of recession: investing in apprenticeships; setting up enterprise zones; cutting business taxes; and prioritising investment in our infrastructure. We are doing all those things, and we will do more to help get our economy out of the mess in which the last Government left it.

Far from being dismissive, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the figures were disappointing. Does he agree that if we are getting out of a debt crisis we should not spend more money? There is no international organisation suggesting that this country change course and spend more money to do so.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just that there is no international body making that case—there is no business organisation making that case. Indeed, the Institute of Directors and the CBI have both said today that, while these figures are disappointing, we must not give up the low interest rates and the credible fiscal policy that we have, as that would land our economy in the problems that the Opposition left it in.

It is a sorry state of affairs when in just two years the economy is in deep recession and now the Government are deep in sleaze. Same old Tories.

It may relate to the Prime Minister but, as far as I am concerned, unless I am advised otherwise, points of order come after statements, and the statement—

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said from a sedentary position. We will now hear the statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I call Mr Secretary Hunt.