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Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012

Q3. Did my right hon. Friend see the figures released last week showing that since May 2010 the number of people waiting for an operation on the national health service has fallen by over 50,000? Does that not demonstrate that our commitment to increased health funding and our health reforms are beginning to bear fruit? (108759)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We made an important and difficult decision that, while other budgets were being cut, we would protect the NHS budget. That was not supported by the Labour party, but the fact is that we now have the best ever performance for patients waiting over 18 weeks, the numbers for those waiting more than 26 weeks and 52 weeks have also reached record lows, and average waiting times for both in-patients and out-patients are lower than they were in May 2010. The Labour party often asked whether the test should be the number of people waiting over 18 weeks. Well, if that was the test, we have passed it with flying colours.

Q4. Just over a year ago the Prime Minister launched his flagship export enterprise finance guarantee scheme. We now learn that only five companies have benefited from the scheme. Hard-working businesses in Birmingham that would like to export but cite lack of export finance guarantee as a problem are keen to know who those five lucky companies are and why the scheme has been such a dismal failure. (108760)

I will certainly write to the hon. Lady, because the truth is that that export scheme has been rolled into the export guarantee scheme more generally and the amount of export support is massively up on the last election, with billions of pounds in extra money being spent. The other point I would make is that exports, compared with 2010, were up by over 12% last year.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Northamptonshire Parent-Infant Partnership on its sell-out conference on early years intervention last week, where 27 local authorities were represented? Does he agree that, if we are serious about strengthening our society, providing psychotherapeutic support for families struggling to bond with their new babies is absolutely key? (108761)

I know that my hon. Friend speaks with a lot of personal experience, having set up a project in Oxfordshire, the county I represent, that has had a major impact. I think that her work does her huge credit. The truth is that all the studies show that real disadvantage for children kicks in right from the moment they are born if they do not get the love, support and help they need. That is why the projects she is talking about, along with the expansion of the health visitors scheme—4,200 extra health visitors—which can make a real difference, are so important. I will also point out the measure we took last week to make sure that new parents get proper contact with and information from their midwife both before and after their child is born so that we do everything to remove that disadvantage in the early months and years.

Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that he will not succumb to the diktat from the European Court of Human Rights in relation to prisoners voting, that he will stand up for the resolution that was agreed in this House by an overwhelming majority and that he will stand up for the sovereignty of this House and the British people?

The short answer to that is yes. I have always believed that when someone is sent to prison they lose certain rights, and one of those rights is the right to vote. Crucially, I believe that it should be a matter for Parliament to decide, not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision, and I completely agree with it.

Q6. Today, Alstom is opening in my constituency a new facility for the engineering, manufacturing and export of power electronics, in which Stafford is a world leader. Following the news of the first trade surplus in motor vehicles for more than 30 years, what measures does my right hon. Friend consider to be essential to continue and to increase investment in manufacturing? (108762)

I very much remember visiting GEC Alstom when I contested my hon. Friend’s constituency rather unsuccessfully in 1997, but what is absolutely essential for such manufacturing, engineering and technology-based businesses are the support that we are giving to apprenticeships, whereby we achieved more than 450,000 apprenticeship starts last year; the lower rate of corporation tax; and the links between our universities and the new catapult centres in order to ensure that technology goes into our businesses and makes them world-beating. If we look not just at our exports overall, which were up 12% last year, but at exports to India, China and fast-growing markets, we find that they are up 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%.

The Prime Minister pledged to give England’s great cities a seat at the heart of government. Yesterday, Labour took control of Birmingham city council, and the first thing that the new council did was agree to ask the Prime Minister to receive a delegation from the council and Birmingham’s MPs on a fair deal for Birmingham. Will the Prime Minister make good on his pledge and agree to meet that delegation?

Of course, I am happy to meet leaders of Birmingham city council, as I meet leaders of councils up and down the country. What is important is focusing on what needs to be done in Birmingham to drive economic growth and to make sure that we provide good services, but I very much hope that the new council will match the record of the old council in providing value for money.

Q7. Child neglect is a sad fact in all our constituencies, and in Blackpool we await the sentencing of two parents who pleaded guilty this week to keeping their 10-year-old son in demeaning circumstances in a coal bunker. At the same time, the charity Action for Children has highlighted the fact that the law on child neglect dates from 1933 and no longer corresponds to the demands of modern parenting. Does the Prime Minister not agree that it is time to ask the Law Commission to look at this law once again? (108763)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that completely shocking case, and for anyone trying to understand how a parent could treat that child that way, it is just completely unfathomable. I will obviously look at what he says about the Law Commission and modernising the law, but in dealing with such appalling cases of child neglect and with families that have completely broken down, we have so many agencies currently working on this, including, crucially, social workers, and the most important thing is to have a real system of passing on information and passing on concerns rapidly—and then acting on them. Just passing another law will not make up for the common sense and action that we require our agencies to deliver.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for joining so many of their colleagues yesterday in abstaining from the vote against my “Save Bianca” amendment. Given that 65% of the public want to see caps on the cost of credit, when does the Prime Minister think his Ministers will finally give in and do something about ending legal loan sharking in the UK?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have a new power for the Financial Conduct Authority, which has been established, and the Office of Fair Trading has powers as well, so it is very important to talk to those agencies and to make sure that they can act.

Q8. The local council tax frozen for two years, the lowest inflation rate in three years and the biggest monthly fall in local unemployment in five years is great news for jobseekers, pensioners and savers in Tamworth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although times are tough and much still needs to be done, this Government and this country are on the right track? (108764)

Clearly, we face difficult economic times. We will go on in a minute to talk about the growth plans that are required in Europe, but what we have to do in this country is rebalance our economy, which had become over-reliant on the public sector, over-reliant on financial services and not fairly spread around the country. We need a growth of the private sector and of manufacturing and technology, and we need it to be more fairly spread across the country, including in the area that my hon. Friend represents. What we see from the employment figures is, yes, a decline in public sector employment, which would frankly be inevitable whoever was in power right now, but the 600,000 net new jobs in the private sector show that some firms are expanding and growing, and we must be on their side.

Q9. Unemployment in Hartlepool and the north-east is higher now than in May 2010. How much of that increase is down to the Prime Minister’s Government’s policies? (108765)

The point that I made to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is that the last Government excluded from the unemployment numbers people who were on temporary employment schemes. We include those people. People on the Work programme are included in the unemployment numbers. We measure these things accurately, and comparing like for like, youth unemployment has fallen since the election.

Britain has an excellent track record in scientific research and development, despite historically low levels of funding. For this to continue, and to continue to drive so much economic growth, sustained funding is required. Can the Prime Minister assure me that this will be delivered in this Parliament and the next comprehensive spending review?

Obviously, I cannot bind the hands of the next comprehensive spending review, but in this spending review we made an important decision to protect the science budget. It would have been an easy target for reductions, and perhaps we could have spent the money on politically more attractive things, but we decided to take the long-term view and to save the science budget because it is a key part of Britain’s future.

Q10. The Home Office recently announced that 800 front-line police officers would be cut in Wales, while Jeff Mapps, the chair of the Welsh Police Federation, says that the figure will be closer to 1,600, which would be the equivalent of the entire Gwent police force. Who is right? (108766)

The truth is that whoever was in government right now would be having to make cuts to police budgets. The Labour party is committed to a £1 billion cut in the police budget; we have made reductions in police budgets. The key to having police officers on the streets is to cut the paperwork, reform the pensions, and deal with the pay issues. We have the courage to do that, and the hon. Gentleman’s party should support it as well.

Last weekend, the Squatters Network of Brighton and Hove invited its anarchist friends from around Europe to campaign against what they call Weatherley’s law. Will the Prime Minister condemn, with me, the Green party’s support for squatters and welcome, as I do, the criminalisation of squatting?

I certainly support what my hon. Friend says. This law was long overdue. It is very important that home owners have proper protection from people, in effect, stealing their property, which is what squatting is. It is a criminal act and it is now a criminal offence.

Q11. Last week, it was revealed that officials at the UK Border Agency received bonuses of £3.5 million. Given the horrendous queues at our airports, the fact that 100,000 files have now been archived by the UKBA, and the fact that in the past six months 185 people have absconded having been given limited leave to remain, does the Prime Minister agree that in future we should reward success, not failure? (108767)

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no place in the modern civil service for a presumption of good performance. I believe in paying people bonuses if they perform well and meet their targets, but if they do not perform well and do not meet their targets, they should not get a bonus.

In terms of Heathrow and our airports, it is vitally important that we continue to make progress. This is an urgent issue for Britain. It is vital for our trade and vital for inward investment that people have a decent experience when they arrive at our airports. A new control room is opening at Heathrow this month, there are an extra 80 staff for peak times at Heathrow, and an extra 480 people will come on stream during the Olympic period, but I am still not satisfied as to whether we need to do more, including this week and next week, to really get on top of this problem.

Q12. My constituents in Bromsgrove are relieved to learn that the Government have already cleared one quarter of the record, irresponsible deficit left by the Labour party. They understand that you cannot keep spending what you do not earn, but what they would also like to know is: has the Prime Minister received just one quarter of an apology from the Labour party? (108768)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I notice that the Labour party did not want to go anywhere near the International Monetary Fund today. Perhaps that is because of something else that its director said yesterday: “You have to compare” the British deficit situation

“against other countries which experienced severe deficit numbers, did not take action right away and are now facing very, very stressful financing terms that is putting their situation in jeopardy”.

We would have been in jeopardy if we had not taken the brave steps that we took and very necessary they were too.

Q13. Electoral Commission figures show that the Conservatives have received more than half a million pounds already this year from people who have attended secret soirees at Downing street or Chequers. Is the reason why the Prime Minister is out of touch that he listens to those cliques, rather than to decent, hard-working people such as those in Scunthorpe? (108769)

There is a very big difference between the money that the Conservative party raises from business and individuals, and the money that Labour gets from unions, which determines its policies, sponsors its Members of Parliament and elects its leaders. They own you lock, stock and block vote.

The coalition Government have restored order and stability to the public finances, and have therefore won us international confidence. Is not now the right time to put renewed effort and vigour into returning growth to the economy, by the Government facilitating and guaranteeing investment in housing and infrastructure?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I am sure that he welcomes the enterprise zone in Bristol and the support for the animation and television industries. What we need to do, both in Britain and in Europe, is to combine the fiscal deficit reduction that has given us the low interest rates with an active monetary policy, structural reforms to make us competitive, and innovative ways of using our hard-won credibility—[Interruption.] Which we would not have if we listened to the muttering idiot sitting opposite me—[Interruption.]

Order. [Interruption.] Order. I am very worried about the health of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), who is so overexcited that he might suffer a relapse. I am a compassionate chap, so I do not want that to happen.

The Prime Minister will please withdraw the word “idiot”. It is unparliamentary. A simple withdrawal will suffice. We are grateful.

Of course; I will replace it with, “The man who left us this enormous deficit and this financial crisis.”

Q14. After six months in government, the Prime Minister announced that his Government had created 500,000 private sector jobs. After two years, he is giving us the figure of 600,000 jobs since the election. Why has the rate of growth slowed down so much? (108770)

There were 100,000 extra people in employment over the last quarter, and in the last two months we have seen repeated falls in unemployment and increases in employment. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that.

Q15. With unemployment down in Lancaster last week, I visited A & G Precision and Sons in Preesall in my constituency. It is a family-run company of only 40 employees that supplies components for the Hawk. It does high-precision work that is required nationally and internationally. I was told that it had turned two work experience places into full-time company-paid apprenticeships. Does that not show that things are moving in the right direction in Lancashire? (108771)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I am sure he will be pleased, as well, with the order that BAE Systems had today from Saudi Arabia for Hawk aircraft, which is more good news for British jobs, British investment and British aerospace.

Some of our constituents would be hungry today if it were not for the work of Foodbank and similar organisations in our constituencies. If current trends continue, Foodbank reckons that by the next election it will be feeding half a million of our constituents. Might I therefore ask the Prime Minister, before he completes his engagements today, to plan what the Government might do to counter that terrible trend and report back to the House?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the work that Foodbank does. I have visited one of its sites myself to see what it does. What is absolutely vital in these difficult economic times is that we do what we can to protect the poorest people in our country. That is why we have frozen the council tax, increased the basic state pension and uprated benefits in line with inflation, which has protected the people who need protection the most. Yes, we have had to cut tax credits for those people on £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000, but we have actually increased the tax credits that the poorest people receive.

The Prime Minister and I might not agree about everything, but we do agree about certain things. For example, we agree that I should never be promoted. [Laughter.] Another thing that we agree about is the need to put public sector pensions on a sustainable and affordable footing. In that context, judges are being asked to pay just 2% of their salary towards their pension, whereas the taxpayer pays 33%. That is neither affordable nor sustainable. Given the increases in pension contributions that we are expecting from other, lower-paid public sector workers, will the Prime Minister ensure that we apply the same tests and requirements to judges, too?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Judicial pensions have always been treated separately, because of what judges do for our country, but on public sector pensions more generally we have managed to—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister is making a reply to a serious question. Let us hear it with a degree of respect and restraint.

There was going to be a separate judicial pensions Bill under the last Government.

On public sector pensions more generally, we have reduced the future cost by half while maintaining a public sector pension system that is more generous than what people are able to access in the private sector.

As for my hon. Friend’s earlier remarks, I have got plans for him.

Order. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go into any of that, but I do want to hear Mr McCann.

Prison officer Neville Husband abused young men in the Medomsley detention centre for decades before he was prosecuted and sentenced for some of his crimes. A constituent who was abused by Husband has given me information that suggests that senior figures in the establishment knew what was going on. The Crown Prosecution Service refuses to pursue these matters, and instead the Home Office has sought to issue compensation payments. Young men were detained by the state and then abused by the state. Does the Prime Minister agree that a full inquiry is necessary, to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done?

The first thing that the hon. Gentleman should do—I am sure he already has—is make sure that any evidence that he has of abuse, cover-ups of abuse or compliance with abuse is given to the Crown Prosecution Service and the authorities so that it can be properly investigated. The Home Affairs Committee, on which I sat, looked into the issue in years past and made a number of recommendations. I will look carefully at what he says and see whether there is more advice that I can provide.