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Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012

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.

People in Staffordshire Moorlands recognise that the Government need to take difficult decisions to deal with the deficit, but does the Prime Minister shiver when he thinks about what would have happened had he not put a credible fiscal plan in place?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth while listening to what the managing director of the International Monetary Fund said yesterday. She said:

“when I think back myself to May 2010, when the UK deficit was at 11% and I try to imagine what the situation would be like today if no such fiscal consolidation programme had been decided...I shiver.”

That is what she said and we should remember who is responsible for leaving that situation, doubling the national debt and leaving a record debt and a catastrophic inheritance—one for which we still have not had an apology.

Adrian Beecroft, the Prime Minister’s adviser, says that the law should be changed to allow employers to fire people at will. The Business Secretary says that that is the last thing the Government should do. Who does the Prime Minister agree with?

We need to make it easier for businesses to grow, for businesses to take people on and for businesses to expand. The Beecroft report, which I commissioned, had a number of excellent ideas that we are taking forward. We are doubling the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, exempting businesses with fewer than 10 people from new EU regulations and exempting 1 million self-employed people from health and safety. We are consulting on no-fault dismissal, but only for micro-businesses. It was a good report and it is right that we should take forward its best measures.

The Prime Minister did not answer the question about the proposal—[Interruption.] No, he did not answer the question. Mr Beecroft made a proposal that employers should be able to fire their employees at will. The people sitting behind the Prime Minister think that the Beecroft proposal is a great report—that it is the bee’s knees—and they support the proposal. The people over there on the Liberal Democrat Benches think it is a bonkers proposal and the Business Secretary has been going around saying that. We just want to know where the Prime Minister stands. Who does he agree with?

It is rather sad; the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. We have a call for evidence on no-fault dismissal for micro-businesses and we are not proceeding with it for other businesses. That is the position. I am not surprised at the question, as I know he worries about being fired at will for being incompetent.

I wonder how long it took him to think that one up. The Prime Minister says that he is consulting on the proposal. The author of the proposal, Mr Beecroft, said that

“some people would be dismissed simply because their employer did not like them. While this is sad I believe it is a price worth paying”.

That is what they used to say about unemployment. Is he really telling us that with record numbers out of work, sacking people for no good reason is a price worth paying?

The right hon. Gentleman might, while he is on his feet, welcome the fact that unemployment is falling, inflation is falling, and that this Government have cut the deficit by 25%. Let me explain to him what the Government and the Business Secretary are doing. We are cutting regulation by £3 billion, we are scrapping 1,500 regulations, we are looking at introducing fees for employment tribunals. We are taking all these steps, which led last year to the greatest number of small business start-ups in the country’s history. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman cannot support any changes to employment regulation because he is in the pocket of the trade unions.

In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, his Business Secretary does not support his proposal. What double standards. When it comes to ordinary—[Interruption.] Oh yes. When it comes to ordinary workers, the Prime Minister wants to make it easier for employers to sack them. When it comes to Andy Coulson and the Culture Secretary, it is all about second chances. Can the Prime Minister tell us what impression he thinks it gives about his Government that he commissions advice from a multi-millionaire who recommends making it easier to sack people on low pay, at the same time as giving people like him tens of thousands of pounds in a millionaires’ tax cut?

I will tell you what we do on the Government Benches. We commission a report, we accept the bits that we agree with and we reject the bits that we do not agree with. What the right hon. Gentleman does is take instructions from his trade union paymasters and he cannot accept any changes. He asks what we are doing for the poorest people in our country. It is this Government who are taking 2 million people out of income tax, who have increased tax credits for the poorest, who have got more people in work with 600,000 new private sector jobs, and who have frozen the council tax. His record was completely the opposite.

This is not about the trade unions. It is about millions of people up and down the country in fear for their jobs, and the only answer that this Prime Minister has is, “Make it easier to sack them.” This proposal is a symbol of the Government’s failure on growth. We are in a double-dip recession, unemployment is high, businesses are going bust, there are bad retail sales figures today. Does not the Prime Minister understand how out of touch he sounds to families when he says, as he did last week, that things are moving in the right direction?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that this is about the trade unions. Let me tell him why. He is getting £900,000 from Unite, and that union is threatening a bus strike during the Olympics. What have we heard from him? Silence. He is getting £400,000 from the GMB. That union is holding a baggage handlers strike over the diamond jubilee weekend. Absolute silence from him. People need to know that there are two parties on the Government Benches acting in the national interest, and an Opposition party acting in the trade union interest.

Let us talk about donations. On 21 March the Chancellor cut the top rate of income tax. Then the money comes flooding in from the Tory millionaire donors. It tells us all we need to know about this Government. They stand up for the wrong people. The Prime Minister may have changed the image of the Tory party, but the reality has not changed: tax cuts for millionaires; making it easier to sack people—the nasty party is back.

It is this Government who cut corporation tax, who set up the enterprise zones, who are reforming the planning law, who boosted the apprenticeships, who scrapped Labour’s jobs tax and who cut taxes for 24 million working people, and it is only Labour that thinks the answer is more borrowing, more spending, more debt—exactly the problems that got us into this mess in the first place.

In 1993 the IRA bombed Warrington, killing two small boys and injuring more than 50 other people. Last week a memorial plaque with a scrap value of about £40 was stolen. The Government have already legislated to prevent the sale of scrap metal for cash. Will the Prime Minister consider further legislation making the theft of such memorials an aggravating factor?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I know that the whole country was shocked by the theft of that memorial; everyone remembers the Warrington bomb and the people who died in it. He is right to say that we have already legislated and made this an offence. We are also doing everything we can to sort out the problems of the scrap metal trade. I will look at his suggestion of an aggravated offence, but clearly any court can hand out exemplary sentences in these sorts of circumstances because public justice is important, and the public are absolutely appalled by what has happened.