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Volume 548: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2012

Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Police Constable Ian Dibell of Essex police, who was shot and killed in Clacton-on-Sea on Monday. Even though Ian was off duty at the time, he acted selflessly when he saw members of the public at risk. This is typical of the behaviour of our brave police force. His death is a reminder of the great debt we owe everyone in our police force. We send our deepest sympathies to his family, his friends and his colleagues at this tragic time.

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

May I associate myself and the whole House with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the brave police officer who lost his life? We all send our condolences to his family.

Will the Prime Minister explain why he is making it easier to amend copyright law by secondary legislation, affecting our creative industries? Does it have anything to do with the 23 meetings he and his Ministers have had with Google?

We are following the recommendations of the Hargreaves report, which we commissioned. It is important that we update and upgrade copyright law in our country, and that is exactly what we propose to do.

A report on the Yorkhill child heart unit in Glasgow conducted by Sir Ian Kennedy says that

“the provision of paediatric intensive care may be unsafe if critical staffing problems are not addressed.”

The safe and sustainable review conducted by Sir Ian Kennedy now suggests that Leeds heart unit, which is safe, be closed while Glasgow’s, which is not, is not affected. It is absurd. This review needs to be thrown out.

My hon. Friend rightly speaks up for his local hospital, which is an excellent one. My local hospital has not been selected either under the safe and sustainable review, but I would say—as Prime Minister, but also as a parent—that we have to recognise that the heart operations now carried out on children are incredibly complex. In the end, this review was led by clinicians, and it is about trying to save lives to make sure that we specialise the most difficult work in a number of hospitals around the country. It does lead to difficult decisions, but I am sure that what really matters is that more parents do not suffer the agony of losing their children because we do not have the very highest standards of care in the hospitals that are chosen.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to PC Ian Dibell. He demonstrated extraordinary bravery while off duty. His selfless act and his tragic death remind us what the police do for us right across this country. I am sure that the condolences of the whole House go to his family and friends.

At this last Question Time before the recess, may I remind the Prime Minister of what he said before the election when he was asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister? He paused, and with characteristic humility said:

“Because I think I’d be good at it.”

Where did it all go wrong?

It is this Government who have capped benefits, capped immigration, taken 2 million people out of tax, cut taxes for 25 million people, cut the fuel duty, increased spending on the NHS and cut the deficit by 25% in two years. I can’t read out the list of all the things he got wrong. We haven’t got time.

Government Members are obviously well whipped today. It is a shame it didn’t happen last night.

Last night the Prime Minister lost control of his party, and not for the first time he lost his temper as well, because we understand that it was fisticuffs in the Lobby with the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). I notice, by the way, that the posh boys have ordered him off the estate today, because he does not seem to be here. Who does the Prime Minister blame most for the disarray in his Government? The Liberal Democrats or his own Back Benchers?

Oh dear. If the best the right hon. Gentleman can do today is a bunch of tittle-tattle and rumour, how utterly pathetic. On the day we are introducing social care reform that is going to help people up and down the country, we get that sort of half-baked gossip.

Let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. If we want to see House of Lords reform, all those who support House of Lords reform need not only to vote for House of Lords reform but to support the means to bring that reform about. He came to the House of Commons yesterday determined to vote yes and then to vote no. How utterly pathetic!

It is the same old story with the Prime Minister: he blames everybody but himself. The Government are a shambles and he blames the Leader of the Opposition. That is what it has come to, but his problems did not start last night; they started months ago with the part-time Chancellor’s Budget, because they make the wrong choices and they stand up for the wrong people. Will the Prime Minister remind us, after all the Budget U-turns, why he still thinks it is right to give a banker earning £1 million a £40,000 income tax cut next April?

It was the Chancellor’s Budget that cut taxes for 25 million working people, that took 2 million people altogether out of tax and that has left us with a top rate of tax which is higher than any of the times the right hon. Gentleman or his neighbour were in the Treasury, literally wrecking the British economy.

The Prime Minister has no answer on his millionaires’ tax cut, but we are going to keep asking the question between now and next April because he has no answer. He is raising taxes on ordinary families, he is raising taxes on pensioners and he is cutting taxes on millionaires—[Interruption.] They say that they are not raising taxes. Will he therefore explain what has not been explained—[Interruption.] An hon. Member says “Weak”, by the way. What could be weaker than having 91 people vote against you in the House of Commons?

Will the Prime Minister explain what has not been explained since the Budget? Why is it fair, when he is cutting taxes for millionaires, to ask pensioners to pay more?

What we did in the Budget was to increase pensioners’ weekly income by £5.30—the biggest increase in the pension in the pension’s history. But let me repeat: what the Budget did was to cut taxes for every working person in the country and to take 2 million people out of tax, and the change in the top rate of tax was paid more than four times over by the richest people in our country. That compares with what we were left by the Labour party: the biggest bust, the most indebted households, and the biggest budget deficit in Europe, and never once an apology for the mess that it left this country in.

No answer on the disarray in the Government, no answer on the tax cut for millionaires, no answer on the tax rise for pensioners. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has an answer on the biggest issue of all. In his new year message he said:

“We’ve got to do more to bring our economy back to health.”

What has he delivered since then? A double-dip recession made in Downing street. Is not the reality that the biggest failure facing this Government is not the programme motion on Lords reform, but their whole economic plan?

It was under this Government that we got 800,000 more private sector jobs. Inflation is down, unemployment is down, and interest rates are at a record low. We are now a net exporter of cars for the first time since 1976. We have completed the biggest construction project in Europe, which is for the Olympics, and we have started the next biggest project, which is Crossrail. It is this Government who set up the enterprise zones, backed the apprenticeships, and are seeing business rebalance in this country.

We will never forget what we were left by the Labour Government. They were bailing out eurozone countries with taxpayers’ money, they were paying £100,000 for just one family’s housing benefit, and they presided over uncontrolled welfare, uncontrolled immigration and uncontrolled Government spending. Never has so much been borrowed, never has so much been wasted, and never have so many people been let down. This country will never forgive the Labour Government for what they did.

It is the same lecture on the economy that we have had for the last two years, and things are getting worse, not better. Every time the Prime Minister gets up with that list of statistics, he just shows how out of touch he is. We have tax cuts for millionaires, a double-dip recession, and U-turn after U-turn after U-turn. Is not the truth that the Prime Minister did not just lose the confidence of his party last night, but he is losing the confidence of the country?

There is only one person who is red around here, and that is Red Ed, running the Labour party. Who backed Red Ken Livingstone? They did. Who backed Red Len McCluskey? He did. Who opposed every measure to deal with the deficit? Who proposed £30 billion more spending? Who has given the unions even more say—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister. As I said a moment ago, the Prime Minister’s answers must and, however long it takes, will be heard.

Let us take what the Leader of the Opposition has done in the last year. He has opposed an immigration cap, opposed a welfare cap, opposed a housing benefit cap, opposed every single measure to cut the deficit. We know what he is against, but when on earth are we going to find out what he is for?

Q2. This Government have a great record on education reform. [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”] Given the huge success of the university technical college initiative—more than 25 such colleges have been created—will the Prime Minister please confirm that he will support a further round of applications this autumn, and that funding will be available so that businesses, universities, carers and young people in Devon—[Interruption.] (116138)

It is good to see my hon. Friend on such feisty form. She is absolutely right to speak up for university technical colleges, which I think are a great addition to the schools that we have in our country. They are a really high-profile way of providing proper vocational education so that we can give young people the skills that they need in order to have a great career in the future.

On Monday 25 June, the Health Secretary announced the possible administration of the NHS trust that covers Bexley, Bromley and Greenwich. That night he met the hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). However, although the Greenwich Members asked for such a meeting, at present there is no date in the diary and no date forthcoming. Can the Prime Minister explain why the residents of Greenwich are not given the same respect by his Minister as the residents of Bexley and Bromley?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The situation at this NHS trust is very difficult, and it is quite right that the Health Secretary is using the powers put in place by the previous Government to deal with the issues. They are partly because of the completely unsustainable private finance initiative contracts. I take what she says very seriously and will see whether I can arrange a meeting between her and a Health Minister to discuss this important issue.

Q3. In my constituency, the average pre-tax income is just under £25,000 a year. Does my right hon. Friend share my incredulity that the Labour party still opposes a benefits cap of £26,000 a year after tax? Does this not demonstrate who really is on the side of hard-working families trying to do the right thing? (116139)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Opposition came to the House of Commons and said they would back a welfare cap but, when it came to the crunch, they opposed it. He is absolutely right. That shows who is on the side of those who work hard and want to do the best for their families, their country and their communities, and who thinks that people should be better off on benefits. We back the workers; they back the shirkers.

Q4. The 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is to be disbanded, which means that 600 soldiers face redundancy. These are a battalion and regiment with a proud history of service to this country. Will the Prime Minister reconsider the cut to this battalion? (116140)

We looked at this issue incredibly carefully and took our time—we were criticised for that many times—to ensure we got it right. The decision to have a smaller Regular Army of 80,000 but a much larger reserve force—Territorial Army—of more than 30,000 strikes the right balance. The Government are putting £1.5 billion into building up those reserves, and I hope that Members across the House will help with the process of encouraging employers to allow Territorial Army reservists to serve their country. It is the right decision. We have ensured that no existing regimental names or cap badges will be lost, so it is the right package for the future force of our country.

Q5. On Sunday, independent observers hailed the first free elections in Libya for 47 years as broadly free, transparent and offering real hope for the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should congratulate the Libyan people on the progress made since their successful struggle to overthrow a brutal 40-year-old dictatorship? Does it not also send a message to others, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who yearn for democracy in their countries? (116141)

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House and country in wanting to send our congratulations to the Libyan people on what looks like a successful set of elections. It is worth remembering that one year ago it did not look as if everything would turn out well in Libya, but I am proud that the NATO alliance and this country stayed true to the course and helped to secure the right outcome in Libya. The people there now have the chance of the successful democracy and prosperity that are denied to far too many in our world.

Q6. NHS North West London is currently consulting on the closure of four out of nine accident and emergency units. The medical director has said that North West London would literally run out of money if these closures did not go ahead. What kind of consultation poses a choice between the closure of half the A and E units in north-west London and the potential bankrupting of the local NHS? (116142)

First, on the issue of money, we have put £12.5 billion extra into the NHS. That decision is opposed by her party, which says that extra money for the NHS is “irresponsible”. We will ensure that all consultations are properly carried out and that local people, clinicians and general practitioners are listened to. We want to ensure that we have good access to accident and emergency units for all our people.

Has my right hon. Friend’s attention been drawn to BAA’s advertisement claiming that the regular train service to Stansted takes 47 minutes, which is not universally correct across the timetable and in any case is too long? Will he commit to a major upgrade of the West Anglia line so that airport passengers can get the truly fast service they need and my constituents who regularly commute can get the one they deserve?

I quite understand why my right hon. Friend wants to speak up for people in his constituency who want a better train service. What I can say to him is that as part of the new rail franchise in East Anglia, which will be let in the summer of 2014, we will be asking bidders to propose affordable investment aimed at improving services. I am sure that they will listen carefully to what he has said today.

Q7. The Government rightly donate millions in overseas aid to developing countries, including India, to eradicate poverty and disease. Despite that, the Canadian Government, including the Government of Quebec, are to invest 58 million dollars in an asbestos-producing mine; this is not for use in Canada, of course, but to export to developing countries, including India, which will put thousands of poor people at risk from deadly asbestosis and mesothelioma. Will the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary encourage international communities, including the World Health Organisation, to oppose this quite outrageous decision? (116143)

I will be seeing the head of the WHO later today, so I can raise this issue with them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, asbestos is banned in the UK, in the EU and in a number of other countries. We are totally opposed to its use anywhere and would deplore its supply to developing countries. The Department for International Development does not provide funding to projects that encourage developing countries to import asbestos from any country or for any purpose. We are not aware that DFID funds have been used in that way at all and I would take urgent action were they to have been, but he makes a strong point about the Indian situation.

On 4 September, the European Court of Human Rights is hearing the case of Miss Nadia Eweida, the lady who lost her job at British Airways for wearing a crucifix as a mark of her Christianity. The behaviour of BA in this was a disgraceful piece of political correctness, so I was surprised to see that the Government are resisting Miss Eweida’s appeal. I cannot believe that the Government are supporting the suppression of religious freedom in the workplace, so what are we going to do about this sad case?

For once, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. I fully support the right of people to wear religious symbols at work; I think it is a vital religious freedom. If it turns out that the law has the intention as has come out in this case, we will change the law and make it clear that people can wear religious emblems at work.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister accept the findings of the independent Action for Children report, which show that by 2015 the most vulnerable families with children in this country, including those in employment, will lose up to £3,000 a year because of this Government’s policies? At a time when millionaires are getting tax cuts of more than £40,000 a year, can he stand at the Dispatch Box and say that we really are all in this together? (116144)

I know that the report the hon. Gentleman quotes does not actually include some of the steps that we have taken, such as providing more nursery education for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Above all what I would say is that if he looks at universal credit and the design of it, he will find that we are actually going to be helping parents with the most disabled children to make sure that they get the help they need.

Will the Prime Minister comment on the worrying stand-off between the Egyptian military, who are clearly trying to cling on to power in defiance of the Arab spring, and Mr Mohamed Morsi, who may not be a Liberal or a Conservative but is undoubtedly the democratically elected President of Egypt?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have been very struck by what the President-elect has said about how he wants to govern on behalf of everyone in Egypt and how he wants to respect religious and other freedoms. I very much hope that the current tension can be resolved, but I think that people have to respect the democratic will of the Egyptian people as they expressed it.

Q9. At the last election, the Prime Minister promised that pensioners’ bus passes were safe. Will he today reject calls from the Liberal Democrats and now from his close ally the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), and categorically rule out the means-testing of bus passes, including in his manifesto for the next general election? (116145)

As the hon. Lady will know, at the last election I made very clear promises about bus passes, about television licences and about winter fuel payments. We are keeping all those promises.

As Melinda Gates has recently said, women in developing countries want to raise healthy and educated children who can contribute to building prosperous communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways in which we can support that aspiration is to help those who wish to plan their family to do so?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and later today I will be speaking at a seminar event with Melinda Gates and a whole range of leaders from across Africa and other parts of the developing world about exactly this issue. We should be doing more to allow mothers access to birth control so that they can plan their family size. All the evidence shows that as countries develop, family size does reduce and populations become more sustainable, but we should help people to plan that process. It is not about telling people what to do; it is about allowing people the choice that in this country we take for granted.

Q10. Members will know that St Patrick, a Roman Briton respected by all traditions in Ireland, is a unifying figure. He established his mission in my constituency of South Down, where today many people of all faiths, drawing on his legacy, work unstintingly to build peace across the divide. When the Prime Minister is next in Northern Ireland, perhaps during the Olympics, will he come to St Patrick’s country and the Mournes, where he can meet these people and witness St Patrick’s unique heritage for himself—and where he will not find any rebel Tories? (116146)

I do not know whether the hon. Lady can guarantee that—we have an active branch in Northern Ireland—but that is an intriguing and very kind invitation. I hope the Olympics will bring the whole of our United Kingdom together. I think the torch relay has already helped to achieve that; I was very privileged to see it in my own constituency, and I know it had a very successful tour around Northern Ireland. If I can take up the hon. Lady’s intriguing invitation, I will.

Q15. One of the success stories of this Government has been their commitment to rural communities, and farming in particular. Today almost 2,000 dairy farmers are meeting in Westminster to fight drastic reductions in their milk prices at the hands of processors and supermarkets. Will the Prime Minister join them in their fight to get a fair deal for their product? (116151)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for British farmers, and he does an extremely good job in doing that. This Government are investing in our countryside, not least through the rural broadband programme, but we do want to see a fairer deal between farmers and supermarkets, and that is why we are going to be legislating for the adjudicator, which I know my hon. Friend supports. I can also tell him that today we are announcing £5 million extra in additional funds under the rural economy grant scheme, which can help to make our dairy industry—which we should be very proud of in this country—more competitive.

Q11. What will the Prime Minister say to the 150,000 adults that the Government themselves estimate will be denied a second chance of education as a result of their plans to charge full cost fees to over-24-year-olds studying A-level and equivalent programmes and access courses? (116147)

There will be a full statement on this issue this week, but it is important that we expand further education opportunities in our country, and if we are going to expand them, we need to make it clear how we are going to pay for them. The hon. Gentleman’s question highlights what we repeatedly get from the Opposition: a complaint about this policy or that policy, but absolutely no idea of how they would pay for any of their policies.

The Government have certainly achieved a great deal in the last two years. Given that new issues are emerging as we enter the third year of the coalition, does the Prime Minister agree that now would be a good time for the political parties to review the coalition agreement for the future?

I absolutely agree that in a coalition we need to keep working out the next set of things we want to achieve. This coalition has achieved cuts to corporation tax, taking people out of income tax, a massive expansion in trust schools, and a huge contribution to our health service—which is now performing better than at any time in the past decade—and I am committed to making sure we now look at all the next steps we want to take to make our country a better place to live.

Q12. A grandfather from Blaenau Gwent fears the dole for his grandson returning from Afghanistan; some 20,000 soldiers face losing their jobs. Labour has persuaded big firms, including John Lewis, to guarantee veterans a job interview. Will the Prime Minister get the public sector to do the same? (116148)

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. We should do everything we can to work with employers, whether in the public or the private sector, to help find ex-service personnel jobs. They are people who have been trained brilliantly and who have contributed incredible things to our country, and I am sure we can do much more to help them find jobs. For instance, in the public sector my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has a programme of “troops to teachers” to try to get people who have served our country to inspire future generations. I think that is an excellent scheme.

On the Prime Minister’s watch, the Army will reduce to its smallest size since 1750 and will be half the size it was at the time of the Falklands war. Does he accept that history is not kind to Prime Ministers who are perceived to have left our country without a strong defence capability?

I know that, with Colchester garrison in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman speaks with great power about military issues. If he looks at the overall balance of what we are doing, with 80,000 regular soldiers and 30,000 Territorial Army fully funded, that will mean that the Army is a similar size after the reforms to what it was before. Much the most important thing is that we inherited a £38 billion deficit in our defence budget. We have closed that deficit and it is now fully funded. We have some huge investments going ahead for our Army, our Navy and our Air Force. This country under this coalition Government will always be well defended.

Q13. Will the Prime Minister assist the House and tell us when the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take the advice of the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), admit that he made false allegations last week and finally apologise? (116149)

Let us look at what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said. He said that the shadow Chancellor had some questions to answer. I am not sure that there is anyone in this House who does not think that the shadow Chancellor has some questions to answer. Perhaps before we break for the summer we should remember what a few of those questions are. Who designed the regulatory system that failed? Who was City Minister when Northern Rock was selling 110% mortgages? Who advised the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that there was no more boom and bust? Who helped create the biggest boom and the biggest bust and who has never apologised for his dreadful record in office?

Shrewsbury remains the only county town in England without a direct rail service to our capital city. When the new rail franchises are apportioned in August, will the Prime Minister use his good office to ensure that the Government do everything possible to ensure that Shrewsbury is connected to our capital city?

My hon. Friend always speaks up for Shrewsbury. He is absolutely right that when these franchises are considered, there are opportunities to make the case for more investment and more services. I am sure that the rail operators and others will listen very closely to what he has said today.

Q14. My constituent is recovering from cancer but she has had her employment and support allowance stopped after 365 days. The Government’s consultation on changing the rule ended in March. When will we see justice for the 7,000 cancer patients in that situation? (116150)

I have looked carefully at that case and I know that the hon. Lady has now had a response from a Minister. As she knows, there are two types of ESA: one that provides permanent support that is not means-tested and another that is means-tested after a year. We are ensuring that more people with cancer are getting more help and more treatment, which is very important. It is right that there should be two forms of ESA so that those people who genuinely cannot work or prepare for work get supported throughout their lives.

Points of order come after statements and there is a statement now, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.