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Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

Given that the purpose of the Leveson inquiry is to get at the unvarnished truth about the unhealthy relationship between some politicians and the media, why do Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, need to be briefed and coached by lawyers before attending to give evidence?

What Ministers, I am sure, are doing, as I have done, is refamiliarise themselves with a huge amount of evidence going back over seven years. For instance, I have provided to the Leveson inquiry all the evidence I can find of meetings with press editors, proprietors and the rest going back to December 2005. There is a huge amount of information preparation, which I think is entirely appropriate.

Q7. My constituency has a high recycling rate—the best in the north-west—so does the Prime Minister believe it right for a huge waste-burning incinerator to be built there? The incinerator was rejected by the local planning board, is overwhelmingly opposed by my constituents in Middlewich and would involve transporting lorry-loads of waste hundreds of miles across the country. Will he do what he can to prevent an inappropriate development that surely cannot be called environmentally sustainable or an example of true localism? (110305)

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern; she is right to raise this issue and I can understand her disappointment that the local planning board’s decision was appealed against. As she knows, however, appeals against a decision on such a planning application can be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She can make her views clear. It would be inappropriate to prejudge any decision that he might take, but obviously there is a need to take into account the size and scale of any proposed development and to consider the potential effect on any local community. I am sure that she will want to make those points.

Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware of the latest British social attitudes survey showing a record fall in public satisfaction with the NHS. I would like to know—I would appreciate an answer because his Health Secretary would not give me one yesterday—whether the Prime Minister will intervene to stop the scandal of the NHS having to reply on charitable donations to fund the purchase of the latest advanced radiotherapy equipment in regions such as mine, the north-east, and throughout the country? (110313)

The Government are putting record sums into the health service—we are increasing the money going into the health service—but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to stand here and criticise the volunteers, the charities and the big society, which provide so many scanners and great machines for our health service, I certainly will not. It adds to our health service. He raised, in particular, the survey. There is a 2011 survey of people who have actually used the health service, rather than one that asks people about their perceptions, and it found that 92% of in-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. That is what is happening in our health service, and we should be proud of it.

Q8. Will the Government go ahead with High Speed 2? The project is extremely important to the economy and jobs in the north. If the answer is yes, I suggest we start laying the track in west Yorkshire first. (110306)

I am grateful for that enthusiastic endorsement. I believe that we should go ahead with HS2. It is important for the country’s economy, and it is important that we get on board this high-speed rail revolution. It links to the question asked by my hon. Friend’s neighbour, as it were, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), about Heathrow. Many flights could be avoided if we had a network of high-speed rail in our country, and I am keen to press ahead.

Q9. Before the last general election, the Prime Minister made an important speech condemning crony capitalism, “with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”Is that not a pitch-perfect description of the undignified courting of News Corporation by the Culture Secretary? When will the Prime Minister show some judgment on this? (110307)

If they are looking for volunteers for the Olympic team for hypocrisy, I think we might have the decathlete. We had 13 years of pyjama parties, christenings, changing the law and sucking up to the Murdochs. Honestly, what a lot of brass neck!

Q10. In 44 days, the Olympics and Paralympics come to London, and millions of people will be coming to London to enjoy the games. Most of them will be totally dependent on public transport to reach the venues. Will my right hon. Friend condemn the Unite union for calling bus strikes, and does not the silence from the Labour party on this subject speak volumes about their attitude to Londoners? (110308)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want an example of crony politics, frankly, it is the fact that the party opposite gets £5 million from the Unite union, and when it comes to this strike, which could disrupt the Olympics, we have had absolute silence—not a word of condemnation. It is not surprising, because the Unite union does not just give the Labour party the money; it picks its leader as well.

The patient satisfaction survey results have shown the greatest reduction in patient satisfaction in the history of the national health service. What will the Prime Minister do to turn around perceptions of the failure of the NHS under his Government?

The King’s Fund, which carried out this survey, says:

“There is no evidence of a real decline in service quality or performance”.

That is what the King’s Fund says about its own survey. Frankly, I would put more weight on a survey of people who have actually been using the NHS. As I said, of the users of the NHS, 92% of in-patients and 95% of out-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. I do not think that is surprising, because since the election there are 4,000 more doctors, mixed-sex accommodation is down 96%, hospital infections are at their lowest levels since surveillance began, the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks is also at its lowest since records began, and average waiting times are down as well. The health service is performing extremely well and we should praise all those who have delivered that performance.

Q11. As a constituency MP, the Prime Minister will be aware of the current shortage in primary school places across our country. It is particularly acute in Winchester right now, where temporary classrooms are the order of the day, to accommodate reception year pupils for this September. May I ask the Prime Minister what the Government are doing to help councils in this bulge year, and whether he is confident that enough is being done to prevent a repeat performance when those pupils reach secondary school in six years’ time? (110309)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that in certain constituencies this is becoming an issue. What the Department for Education has done is put aside £1.4 billion of schools capital for 2011-12 and a further £1.4 billion for the subsequent year. There is also the opportunity, through free schools, to have excellent new schools established in hon. Members’ constituencies, so that we get not only new capacity, but the competition and choice that I believe will help to drive up standards.

The use of food banks in Plymouth has gone up, from 790 food banks to nearly 4,000 in a year. Is the Prime Minister proud of the fact that it is his changes to benefit arrangements which are causing this to happen—there is no doubt about that—and is he therefore going to stand up and say, “Yes, that’s fine; food banks are lovely”? Yes, they are lovely, and the people of Plymouth are magnificent in the way they feed in to those, but will he pass the buck on this, and go for a gold medal in passing the buck, as he has over the Culture Secretary—

First, let me join the hon. Lady in praising people in Plymouth, who obviously do a huge amount for their neighbours and members of their community. That is all to the good. What I would say is yes, we have had to make difficult decisions, but we have actually protected tax credits for the least well-off and we have protected benefits for the least well-off. However, I have to say that the biggest welfare reform that we have made is to put a cap on welfare, where we have said that people should not be able to get on welfare more than the average family gets in work, which is £26,500 a year. However, when we put that forward, the Labour party voted against it.

Q12. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how much it would have cost this country to take part in the bail-out of Spain’s banks this week if he had not stood up for Britain and got us out of the previous Government’s commitments? (110310)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Before this Government came to power, bail-outs were carried out with Britain playing a full part—often by as much as 14% of the total—so in a €100 billion bail-out of Spain, Britain could have been paying as much as €14 billion, or £10 billion. That money has been saved because this Government, unlike the last one, stand up for Britain in Europe.

Prime Minister, an omnishambles of Budget that you claimed you had read line by line; a double-dip recession that you made in Downing street; and a Tory-led Committee reporting that the coalition “lacks strategic direction”—evidence, if ever it was needed, that men can multi-task. It is just, obviously, that some are not very good at it. Prime Minister, have you now run out of steam, or is the job just too big for you?

I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is introducing compulsory poetry reading lessons in class. Perhaps we could start with the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.]

Order. What is rude is for people to continue shouting when they have been asked not to do so. I know that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) is exceptionally well behaved, and I know that he will sit in his usual quiet, respectful fashion.

Q13. The Prime Minister has called for compassion for my constituent, Gary McKinnon, who doctors report is likely to take his life if he is extradited. The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that it would be cruel to extradite him. Will the Government be true to their word and stop the extradition and, finally, after 10 years, give Gary McKinnon his life back? (110311)

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. As he knows, the Home Secretary is carefully considering a wide range of material before making her decision. She has instructed two independent medical experts to view the various reports that have been submitted in this case. She will make her decision as quickly as possible, but this is not an easy case. A number of difficult issues have to be considered before she makes that announcement.

The popular NHS walk-in centre in my constituency has recently closed, and similar walk-in centres are closing all over the country. Why?

It is certainly not because the money in the NHS is being cut, because it is not being cut. The money in the NHS is being increased. If we had followed the hon. Lady’s advice, however, the money would be going down. What matters is that the money in the NHS is spent to deliver better health outcomes, and I think that that is a decision that needs to be taken locally.

Q14. Given the fascinating evidence that was presented by his predecessor to the Leveson inquiry, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be overwhelmingly in the public interest to publish the Downing street phone records, so that we can finally establish what conversations took place between his predecessor and Rupert Murdoch? (110312)

As my hon. Friend knows, Governments cannot release information provided by previous Governments, but I am sure that this is an issue that the previous Prime Minister will want to consider, given the very clear statement that he made.

The Prime Minister will probably not be aware that a firm in my constituency, Niche Drinks, produces cream liqueurs and other intermediate alcohol products. I do not know whether he ever chillaxes with such commodities. The company has recently planned a £10 million investment, and more than 40% of its exports are outside the EU. However, it and other similar firms on this island are worried that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is reinterpreting how to treat their products for duty purposes, under pressure from the European Commission following its erroneous interpretation of a European Court of Justice ruling in 2009. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a competent Treasury Minister meets me and other interested MPs to ensure that common sense and consistency prevail?

I have not tried one of those delicious-sounding beverages. If it is all right with the hon. Gentleman, I will wait until after tomorrow before doing so. I understand that there is an issue with HMRC, and I would be very happy to arrange a meeting between him and a Treasury Minister so that they can look carefully at this issue.

Unprecedented levels of flooding hit the north Ceredigion communities at the weekend, causing untold damage to households, businesses and infrastructure. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support to my constituents, and I know that he is aware of the speed with which Ceredigion county council, the emergency services and many in the local community rallied to ensure that there was no loss of life. Will he urge all the insurance companies to act on this matter now, with renewed speed, so that we can get the communities back on their feet as quickly as possible?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising the emergency services, which did a superb job at the weekend. I asked the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh First Minister to pass on my best wishes for the work that the emergency services had done. It was remarkable work. In all these flood situations, there is a rescue and emergency part, followed by a recovery phase. In many ways, the most difficult phase to get right is when people are going back into soaked homes with peeling plaster and all the other problems. That is when we need to ensure that they get swift action in the form of help from their district council and, above all, from the insurance companies. I will certainly work with my hon. Friend to ensure that that happens in this case.