Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 550: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Independence (Defence Industry)

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the effect on Scottish-based defence jobs if Scotland becomes an independent country. (119848)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on defence matters relating to Scotland. There is no doubt that there would be far-reaching implications for all sectors of the economy, including the defence industry, should Scotland become independent.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I am very proud of the immense defence work that has been undertaken in Fife—for example, at Raytheon in my constituency. The contribution to national security has been immense. According to the Ministry of Defence, the new Type 26 frigate that is about to be commissioned will be the backbone of the Royal Navy for decades to come. Can the Minister advise how likely it is, in the light of possible separation, that the frigates will be built in Scotland?

I pay tribute to the hundreds of skilled workers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency who contribute so much to United Kingdom and, indeed, international defence through the work that they do at Raytheon and elsewhere, and I agree that this is not the time to be putting that at risk. On the specifics of the Type 26, it is clear that if Scotland were an independent country, the rest of the UK would be applying European Union procurement rules, which basically keep such contracts for the domestic market. We would therefore be locking ourselves out of the potential for millions of pounds-worth of work involving hundreds of jobs in Scotland, and that is not acceptable.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Scotland makes a magnificent contribution not only in terms of manufacturing, as we heard from the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), but in terms of basing and recruitment? Will he welcome, with me, the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has gone to great lengths to keep Scotland in the Union as regards defence, and does he agree that that would very probably be lost if there were to be independence?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to focus on what would be at stake were Scotland to become independent and separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish contribution to UK defence is absolutely immense, but Scotland gets a huge amount from being part of the UK. We are safer, and we have more clout, as part of the United Kingdom, and I do not want to put any of that at risk.

Since this Government took office, service personnel numbers are at a record low and commitments have been broken on returning troops from Germany, on facilities, and on the retention of historic Scottish regiments. Is this totally embarrassing record the reason why the Secretary of State for Defence has never even visited Scotland since taking office?

If we are talking about embarrassment on defence policy, the hon. Gentleman should look to his own party’s policies on these matters. In Scotland we have access to a UK defence budget of £34 billion—the fourth largest in the world. We have 15,500 service personnel and 40,000 people working in the defence industry in 800 different companies. That is an immense contribution from UK defence to Scotland and from Scotland to UK defence.

To correct the Secretary of State, service personnel numbers are just over 10,000; I am sure that he would want to amend the record on that.

So the Secretary of State is not denying that the Secretary of State for Defence has not even been to Scotland since taking office. The Defence Secretary was asked for a meeting in November last year. He was asked for a meeting in March this year and nothing came of it. An offer was made of discussion through the former Armed Forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), when I met him and the joint chiefs of staff in June last year, but there has been no formal response from the Government since then. Why is the Ministry of Defence so bad at dealing with Scotland?

I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman has said. Defence Ministers, as well as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and I, have made regular visits to different defence installations around Scotland; indeed, we have done so only in the past couple of weeks. I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to dodge the serious issue here. He does not want to focus on the Scottish National party’s defence policy, particularly the little trick it wants to pull on NATO. The SNP knows that people want NATO security and defence, but it wants to have a pick-and-mix approach—to take on the baubles of NATO and not the obligations. That just will not do.

Common Agricultural Policy

3. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on reform of the common agricultural policy as it affects Scotland. (119850)

14. When he last met the Scottish Government’s Agriculture Minister to discuss the common agricultural policy; and if he will make a statement. (119861)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues on common agricultural policy reform. I last met UK and Scottish agriculture Ministers during the royal highland show.

With the difficulties in the harvest this year, rising commodity prices and an interest in increasing productivity and production in the world of agriculture, will those talks focus on the need to recalibrate the common agricultural policy towards our production and food costs and prices?

We are in agreement with the Scottish Government that the common agricultural policy and, indeed, policies pursued by both Governments, should seek to maximise food production in Scotland.

Will the Minister assure us that he will be heavily involved in reforms to the common agricultural policy and that, once agreed, they will apply equally to Scotland, England and all parts of the UK, particularly with regard to cross-compliance measures?

The Government have shown by their actions that they are committed to involving not just the Scottish Government, but all the devolved Administrations in developing the UK position on the CAP reform negotiations, and that will continue to be our position.

I am sure that everyone in the House will agree that the current negotiations in Europe may have a significant impact on food prices, especially at a time when Scottish families are under such pressure from rising food prices. Precisely what correspondence or meetings have the Minister and Secretary of State had with other ministerial colleagues to discuss this issue facing Scottish families?

The Secretary of State and I have had a range of meetings with colleagues across Government and in the Scottish Government to address not just the CAP reforms, but issues such as the cost of living and the economic policies being pursued in Scotland. As the hon. Lady well knows, our view is that the Scottish and UK Governments should be working together on economic matters in Scotland. We would much rather that that was also the view of the Scottish Government, rather than their incessant focus on constitutional matters.

I thank the Minister for that interesting answer. Yesterday, in response to a question of mine, the Secretary of State seemed to have no grasp of the impact of rising food prices in Scotland. Last week, Save the Children launched its first appeal to fund its work in Scotland, revealing that a quarter of parents have less than £30 a week to spend on food, and Citizens Advice Scotland tells us that applications for support for food and other basics has doubled. We all know, just as the Minister has indicated, that that is a result of the choices that he and his Cabinet colleagues have made. Are he and the Secretary of State proud that food banks are fast becoming the hallmark of his Government in Scotland?

The hon. Lady was not present at this week’s reception at Dover house, where many of the leading stakeholders on child poverty, including Save the Children, were in attendance and there was a significant discussion about the issue. She can be assured that both the Secretary of State and I take these issues very seriously.

The so-called greening measures proposed for the new CAP have caused consternation throughout the farming community. In a recent National Farmers Union survey, almost three quarters of those surveyed thought that they would have an adverse environmental impact; half thought that they would harm biodiversity; and all of them thought that it would cause financial problems for their business. What is the Minister doing to make sure that those measures do not form part of the new CAP?

The Government are aware of those concerns, not just in Scotland, but throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), has reported to that effect. The Government will seek to do all they can to minimise the impact of such greening measures, if they are adopted.

Olympic and Paralympic Games

A total of £33 million worth of Olympic and Paralympic contracts were awarded to businesses in Scotland. Businesses will also have benefited from the hugely popular events that took place in Scotland. The games have been very successful and provide a great springboard for the Glasgow Commonwealth games in 2014.

The Olympic and Paralympic games show how great sporting events can be used to regenerate large parts of our cities and their surrounding areas. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the lessons from London 2012 about regeneration and legacy are shared with the organisers of Glasgow’s Commonwealth games?

The hon. Gentleman has focused on exactly the right issue—legacy. When congratulating all the Scots and others who participated in the Olympics and Paralympics, we are reminded of this summer’s great festival of sport and its fantastic outcomes. Apart from inspiring a generation—obviously, that is already under way—what matters is that we get regeneration in the regions around London and across the UK. I believe that the economic legacy will be strong, and I hope that the lessons from London will be learnt in Glasgow as well.

During the Olympic games, I was privileged to be a games-maker at Hampden, along with people from many different backgrounds volunteering for the first time. The Secretary of State has discussions with the Scottish Government on many different issues, but will he urge the organisers of the 2014 Commonwealth games to take the best from that volunteer programme to ensure that many people can get involved in Glasgow 2014 in the same way?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, whom I saw in the games-maker uniform and who was very helpful when I visited Hampden for the United States versus France women’s football game—clearly he has talents for things other than politics. He makes an important point. The volunteering legacy is one of the most important parts of the games—perhaps one of the more unexpected parts—and I hope that that legacy will be evident in Glasgow in two years and that people across the whole of Scotland will take part.

Would my right hon. Friend like to take the opportunity to congratulate that Scottish gold medallist, Mr Andy Murray, on his remarkable marathon triumph in the US? Has he noticed that the term “Scolympian”, coined by the Scottish First Minister, appears rapidly to have fallen into disuse? Also, has he heard of any Scottish competitors selected either for the Olympics or Paralympics, or any medallist in either games, complaining that they were representing the United Kingdom, not Scotland?

I join my right hon. and learned Friend in congratulating Andy Murray on his Olympic gold medal and on securing his first grand slam title—an immense achievement that is being celebrated the length and breadth of the country. The Olympic games demonstrated the great benefits of working together, whether in terms of financing, training or, indeed, competing—our first Olympic gold was won by a Scot and somebody from the south-west of England. That was great and perhaps makes the point that we are better together.

Would the Secretary of State like to clarify further that there is no conflict between being Scottish and being British, and that millions of reasonable people in the UK and all over the world live happily as both?

There are occasions when the hon. Lady and I have differences of opinion, but we are at one on this issue. She is absolutely right. I am sure that people across the House will accept that being Scottish and being British—all these things—can be done at the same time.

The Scottish National party would like to take this opportunity, too, to congratulate Andy Murray on a fantastic win. The whole of Scotland and the UK is celebrating that magnificent success. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that we must look beyond the mixed economic impact and appreciate the huge lift that the games gave to Scotland. All of Scotland was cheering on Team GB. We supported our Scottish athletes as well as those from right across the UK. Team GB was Scotland’s team, and it was great that they did so well. Will he assure me, however, that he will work as closely as possible with the Scottish Government to ensure that we secure the maximum economic benefits from the Glasgow Commonwealth games?

On a personal level, I agree that the hon. Gentleman has consistently supported Scots and other GB Olympians and Paralympians—although that has not always been the tenor of contributions from all in his party. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said, the term “Scolympian” did not exactly get carried high after the First Minister coined it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about legacy is important, but with the Chief Secretary and others we have already been working closely with the organisers of the Commonwealth games to ensure that they are a fantastic success. The London Olympics have created a great platform from which to do that.

Post Offices

5. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the Government contracting services to post offices in Scotland. (119852)

Ministerial colleagues and I regularly discuss issues regarding post office services in Scotland and we recognise the importance of maintaining the network. That is why the Government have committed funding of £1.34 billion to secure its long-term future.

The Post Office has delivered Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services—including car tax renewal—well for many years, and it is trusted and supported by the public. Does the Secretary of State agree that the DVLA contract should not simply be handed over to the cheapest bidder, and that when deciding to whom to give the contract, the high quality of service delivered by the Post Office for many years should be given a high weighting?

May I put my hon. Friend’s question in context? We ended the compulsory closure programme that we inherited from the Labour party, which saw 5,000 post offices close over a seven-year period, including more than 400 in Scotland. We are investing in the post office network to ensure that it is sustainable. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the DVLA contract must be conducted under EU procurement rules, and it is about not only the cost but other important criteria such as customer service and security of supply. We will ensure that all those objective tests are met.

One in five post offices in Scotland is under threat of closure because of this Government’s policies. The nationalists criticise that, but they have scrapped the post office diversification fund, which shows them to be no better than the Secretary of State and his friends. If a post office does not accept parcels, cash deposits or withdrawals, and does not provide DVLA services, is it a post office? Is the Secretary of State happy to sit idly by while the Tories and the nationalists destroy our post office network?

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his debut at the Dispatch Box? He has a strong track record in Scottish politics, and I look forward to the debates that we will have over the months and years ahead. It was, however, quite a cheek to lead with that question, not least because—as I said in an earlier reply—it was the Labour Government who closed 5,000 post offices across the UK, including more than 400 in Scotland. We want to see a sustainable network. We are investing in that and are determined to ensure that services across the country go through the Post Office.

Is the Secretary of State aware that since 2005, the level of Government services that go through post offices has fallen from half to a fifth? Losing the DVLA contract would have a dramatic effect and possibly lead to the closure of many more post offices. If the Government cannot do anything about that, what is the point of saying that the Post Office should be the front office of Government?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to see a sustainable post office network. Over the past two years we have reversed the previous Government’s damaging policies, and we are committed to significant further investment in the network. I do not, however, see the same level of support coming from his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament.

Minimum Alcohol Price

7. What assessment his Department has made of the introduction of a 50p per unit fixed minimum alcohol price in Scotland. (119854)

Alcohol abuse harms individuals, families and communities throughout the United Kingdom. Clearly, a range of responses is required to address the problem, and the Government continue to engage with the Scottish Government on the issue of minimum unit pricing.

Given that this policy has the potential to affect my constituency of Carlisle, what measures are the Government taking to introduce proposals for minimum alcohol pricing in England and Wales?

The Government continue to consider the position in the rest of the United Kingdom, and before any proposals are introduced in England and Wales, there will be an extensive consultation.

12. Sadly, one of the problems that can arise from alcohol misuse concerns people getting into trouble in Scotland’s coastal waters. Is the Minister aware that there will be a delay of 15 months between the closure of the Clyde coastguard and the maritime operations centre being up and running? Is he as concerned as I am about the safety implications of that? (119859)

As the hon. Lady will know, although there are changes to the management arrangements of coastguard operation centres, the same local volunteers, lifeboats and helicopters will remain in the coastal waters of Scotland. There will be no change, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.

Trade Unions (Blacklisting)

8. How many publicly funded projects in Scotland have been undertaken by firms which engage in blacklisting against trade union members. (119855)

Information on this is not held centrally. Regulations were introduced in 2010 to outlaw trade union blacklisting in the UK. We welcome the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into blacklisting in employment, and encourage all hon. Members and interested parties to feed their views into the inquiry.

I thank the Minister for his response. I, too, commend the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry. If there is tangible evidence that Government contracts are being awarded to companies that are engaging in blacklisting trade unionists, will those contracts be reviewed?

The hon. Gentleman is a strong campaigner on this issue. As I said in my original answer, I suggest he put that view to the Scottish Affairs Committee so it can form part of its report. We will certainly take its report very seriously.

Talk is cheap, but what would the Minister actually do? He must know that blacklistings are happening today. What will his Government do if we identify people who are doing it? What will he do?

In the first instance, the 2010 regulations provide a route for individuals who believe they have been blacklisted. As I said in my previous answer, the evidence sessions being held by the Scottish Affairs Committee are a good way of reviewing how those regulations and other laws are working in that regard. We will take its report very seriously.

Public Expenditure

Since this question was last asked in February, no new official figures have been published. The most recent estimate of the level of public expenditure in Scotland, published in October 2011, shows that the level of public expenditure in Scotland was £10,165 per head for the year 2010-11.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Ten thousand pounds per year on average is paid by taxpayers to people in Scotland, but in my constituency and the rest of the east midlands it is £8,000 per person. Is that fair?

The last time my hon. Friend raised this point, it followed a discussion with Mrs Bone and other members of the family. I appreciate that she is otherwise distracted getting herself ready for this weekend’s charity run, for which the whole House will wish her all the best. I regret that when she focuses back on politics, the answer she will hear is very little different from the one I gave a few months ago, namely that our priority is to sort out the public finances and the mess we inherited from the Labour party. We are focused on that relentlessly, and any future review must wait until it is completed.

It is a fact that Barnett spending was higher in both Northern Ireland and London than Scotland. Does the Minister know that Scotland has 8.4% of the UK population, but pays 9.6% of UK taxation and is more than paying its own way?

I agree with one part of the hon. Gentleman’s observation, namely that spending around the UK varies considerably. We need to take all spending into account as we assess the situation. As for believing the Scottish National party’s figures, we must continue to agree to differ.

West Lothian Question

I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on a range of issues. When the commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons has concluded, we will have an opportunity to discuss its findings and its official report.

Is the Secretary of State confident that the commission will report on time in spring 2013? Is he also confident that it will bring forward meaningful proposals when it reports, and not just another recommendation for another commission or inquiry to kick the question further into the long grass?

These are very serious issues. That is why we have the expert commission looking very seriously at them. The commission has a cross-section of experts, representing all parts of the UK. All in government look forward to its findings and to debating them.

I am glad you called the new Member for West Lothian, Mr Speaker—I inherited Tam Dalyell’s question. The new question, clearly, is how many questions should there be in the referendum in Scotland? In my constituency, they say it should be one: do people want to separate from the rest of the UK or stay in the UK? Does the Secretary of State agree?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be only one question on the ballot paper.

Olympic and Paralympic Games

11. What involvement his Department had with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games; and if he will make a statement. (119858)

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that after a summer of sporting success, the last thing that the people of this country want is to see Team GB torn apart?

I could not agree more. The success of Team GB at both the Olympics and the Paralympics has been celebrated as much in Scotland as in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister agree that one of the great successes of the Olympic games was the role played by London’s Mayor? I wonder what will happen to him in the future. Does the Minister also agree that when we come to the games in Glasgow, it is essential that they are run by the city of Glasgow and that we do not have nationalist politicians trying to muscle in?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Mayor of London is a great supporter of Scotland and the Commonwealth games, and of ensuring that the legacy from the Olympics is carried into the Commonwealth games in Glasgow.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Guardsman Karl Whittle of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, who died on Friday from wounds that he sustained in Afghanistan in August, and to Sergeant Lee Davidson of the Light Dragoons. These were courageous and much respected men. They gave their lives in the service of our country. We remember their friends and their loved ones, and we are for ever indebted to them.

I am sure the House will also join me in welcoming the renaming of the Clock Tower today as the Elizabeth Tower, following the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I believe it is a fitting tribute to Her Majesty the Queen and the incredible service she has given to our country for 60 years.

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

I, too, pay tribute to our troops who have died. We often vote for war in this House, but it is far braver people than we who have to do the fighting.

The number of women who have lost their jobs under the Government’s cuts has been twice that of men, and the statistics out today show that the number of female redundancies has been rising over the last few months. In addition, we now have nine Departments with not a single woman Minister. Now, I know the Prime Minister likes to think of himself as butch—[Interruption]—he told us so last week in this very House—but what has he got against women?

The unemployment statistics today actually have a number of very encouraging figures in them, including the fact that women’s employment—the number of women in employment—is actually up 128,000 this quarter, with 250,000 more women in work than at the time of the last election. I think that is encouraging. Obviously the way that we have treated public sector pay—the public sector pay freeze and, in particular, protecting low-paid people in the public sector—has actually helped women, but do we need to do more to help women into work? Yes. Do we need to do more to help with child care? Yes. Do we need to help encourage more women into politics and see more women at a higher level? Yes to that as well.

Q2. Local businesses and industrious people in my constituency of South Ribble are working hard and playing their part to aid the recovery of the economy. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in condemning the irresponsible threats of co- ordinated strike action by the trade unions, which will do nothing but undermine the efforts of my constituents? (120386)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for her constituents who work hard and do the right thing. Today’s unemployment figures show an extra 1 million net private sector jobs since the election, which is something that shows our economy is rebalancing. However, she is right to say that the trade unions provide a threat to our economy. Since the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) became leader of the Labour party, it has received £12 million from the three unions that are now threatening a general strike. They threatened a strike to stop our fuel supplies; they threatened a strike to disrupt the Olympics; now they threaten a strike to wreck the economy. When the right hon. Gentleman stands up, I think it is time for him to say that he will take no more money from the unions while they make this threat.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Karl Whittle of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards and Sergeant Lee Davidson of the Light Dragoons. Both showed the utmost courage and bravery and our thoughts are with all their family and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in celebrating the renaming today of the Clock Tower as the Elizabeth Tower, which was done with all-party support and is a fitting tribute to the service Her Majesty the Queen has shown to our country.

The fall in unemployment today is welcome, but all of us will be concerned that the number of people out of work for more than a year stands at 904,000, the highest level for 17 years. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that that is a particularly troubling statistic, because the longer someone is out of work, the harder it is for them to get back into it and the more damage is done to them, their families and, indeed, our economy?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the dangers and the threat of long-term unemployment. I think it is worth putting in front of the House the full figures today, because not everyone will have seen them: unemployment is down by 7,000 and employment is up by 236,000 over the quarter. I think this is significant because it is a real-time, live figure: the claimant count, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit, in August was down by 15,000. As I have just said, when we look at the number of private sector jobs, which is vital when we need to rebalance the economy, we see that there were over 1 million net new private sector jobs over the past two years. He is absolutely right that the long-term unemployment figure is disturbing. That is what the Work programme is designed to deal with. We have got the Work programme up and running within a year, it has already helped 690,000 people, and the key part of it is that for those who are hardest to help—people who are on the incapacity-style benefits and have also been long-term unemployed—we pay their training providers more to help them into work, and that is the key for dealing with this problem in the time ahead.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the Work programme, but not only is long-term unemployment at its highest level for nearly two decades, but over the past 12 months we have seen a 247% rise in the number of young people who have been on the dole for over a year, and that is happening throughout the country. Is that not the clearest evidence so far that his Work programme is just not working?

I do not accept that. First of all, on the youth unemployment picture, it is disappointing that youth unemployment is up 7,000 over the quarter, but of course the youth unemployment figures include young people in full-time education. If we look at the picture for the number of young people in work—youth employment—we see that it is actually up 48,000 over the quarter, so that is a more encouraging picture. In terms of the youth contract itself, that is now up and running. Around 65,000 young people have taken part in work experience programmes, which were criticised by some people sitting opposite and some trade unions, but actually within 21 weeks half of them have been taken off the unemployment register and have proper work. That is very encouraging, because it actually means that it is about 20 times more cost-effective than the future jobs fund it replaced.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that to all the young people across the country looking for work that sounds like a rather complacent answer. The reality is that, because of his failure on long-term unemployment, borrowing—the key test he set himself—was up 25% in the first four months of this year. He borrowed £9.3 billion more in the first four months of this year than last year. That is £1.6 million in the hour of Prime Minister’s questions. We gather today that the Government might miss the overriding economic test he set himself, which is that debt will be falling at the time of the next election. Is it not a fact that he is failing the very test he set himself, and is that not the surest sign yet that his plan is just not working?

First of all, there is absolutely no complacency in this Government over either the issue of youth employment or the issue of long-term unemployment. That is why we are putting so much energy and effort into the apprenticeship programme. We have seen 457,000 apprenticeship starts in the last year, which is a record figure and something we want to build on in the years ahead, with £1.5 billion invested. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of borrowing. This Government in the last two years have cut the deficit by a quarter. I have to say that, if he is concerned about borrowing, why does he have plans to put it up? There are many ways to reduce borrowing, but the one way it cannot be done is by increasing spending and increasing borrowing, which is what he tells us to do.

The reality that this Prime Minister cannot get away from after two and a half years is that borrowing is rising on his watch. That is the reality: borrowing is up 25%—£9.3 billion—in the first four months of this year. When the Prime Minister gets up to reply, perhaps he can tell us whether this morning’s reports—that the Government will not meet their target to have debt falling by the end of this Parliament—are correct, or whether he will stick to the promise. The reality is that he is failing the tests he set himself, and it shows that plan A is not working.

It is this Government who have cut the deficit we inherited by a quarter. That is what we have done in two years. Normally, at this stage in the proceedings, I say that the Labour party has no plans, but on this occasion I can reassure the House that it has, and the new plan is called predistribution. What I think that means is that we spend the money before we actually get it, which I think the right hon. Gentleman will find is why we are in the mess we are in right now.

I will tell the Prime Minister what this is about. It is about having an economy that works not just for a few at the top, but for everyone else. It is not about a Prime Minister who cuts taxes for millionaires while raising taxes for everyone else. When he gets up to reply, perhaps he can answer the question that he has not answered so far—is he going to be a beneficiary of the 50p tax cut?

This is an economy that has generated 1 million new private sector jobs. I know the right hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about predistribution, but I have done a little work and I can tell him about his new guru. His new guru, the man who invented predistribution, is called—and I am not making this up—[Interruption.] They do not want to hear —[Interruption.]

Order. Members on both sides of the House need to calm down. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

I am surprised that Labour Members do not want to hear about their new guru. He is called Mr J Hacker, and Mr J Hacker’s recommendation is that we spend an extra £200 billion and borrow an extra £200 billion in this Parliament. From the work I have done, I have discovered his new book: it is published by Princeton University Press and it is called “The Road to Nowhere”. The right hon. Gentleman does not need to read it; he is there already.

Let me compliment the Prime Minister on such a butch answer. What a week it has been for Mr Butch: he has briefed against the new International Development Secretary, the former Transport Secretary; he was knocking back the claret while sacking the Welsh Secretary; and the Environment Secretary was sacked because she was too old—and replaced by a man who was older! That was very butch. The reality is this: between now and April the Prime Minister is going to have to answer the question—he has not answered it yet—whether he is going to get the top-rate tax cut, which is a tax cut for millionaires by millionaires. The reality is that the Government’s plan is failing, they stand up for the wrong people, and plan A is not working—he should change course.

On a day when we hear that this economy has created 1 million net new private sector jobs, all we have learnt from the Labour party is that it has learnt nothing. Labour is still committed to the spending, the borrowing and the debt that got us into this mess in the first place. That is the truth, and it cannot hide it from the British public.

This year is the 10th anniversary of Breast Cancer Campaign’s “Wear it Pink” day. We have seen many improvements for breast cancer sufferers over that time, but there is still much more to be done, including improving early identification of this disease for all ages. Will the Prime Minister meet the chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on breast cancer and the leading charities for further discussion?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I shall be very happy to have that meeting. I think that we have made big leaps forward under Governments of all parties in advancing the agenda on breast cancer. My hon. Friend is right to say that early identification—early diagnosis—is vital, but there is still more to be done. I pay tribute to the thousands up and down our country who not only wear those ribbons but take part in so many different campaigns, so much fundraising and so much awareness-raising, and I shall be delighted to welcome my hon. Friend to that meeting.

Q3. Rochdale is proud of its strong links with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. We now know that the decision to axe its second battalion was made by Ministers, not by the professional leadership of the Army. Given that morale is at an all-time low in the armed forces, why will the Prime Minister not reconsider? (120387)

These are obviously very difficult decisions, as we move towards a regular Army of 82,000 and an expanded Territorial Army of 30,000. Clearly we had proper discussions—and it is for Ministers as well as the armed forces to make the decisions—about how best to structure that Army to maintain as many cap badges and historic regiments as possible throughout the United Kingdom. That is how we reached those decisions, and we defend those decisions, but if people want to come forward with alternatives, we will of course always listen to them.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister agree that the improvement in the balance-of-trade figures is very welcome, and demonstrates that we can rebalance our economy by expanding our trade with the rest of the world as well as with Europe? (120388)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. The trade figures that were published yesterday showed the biggest cash decline in the trade deficit for 20 years. As I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, we face great economic difficulties in this country and across Europe, but we are seeing a rebalancing of the economy, and the growth in private sector employment that I have talked about. Manufacturing now accounts for a growing rather than a shrinking share of the economy. There has been a big increase in exports, particularly exports to the fastest-growing parts of the world. We need more of that to happen, alongside small businesses creation and activity by entrepreneurs, if we are to rebalance our economy and make it stronger for the future.

Q5. Before the election, the Prime Minister promised a moratorium on hospital closures. Last year he told me that Ealing hospital would not close without the support of doctors and patients, so why are the doctors and patients having to march next Saturday to keep our hospitals open? (120389)

Let me say again to the hon. Gentleman—who is quite right to raise the issue—that there are no plans to close Ealing hospital. I understand that Ealing Hospital NHS Trust is planning a £4 million capital programme for 2012-13, which includes refurbishing some wards. The trust’s proposed merger with North West London Hospitals NHS Trust is a matter for the trusts themselves.

It is clear that the reconfiguration of front-line health services is a matter for the NHS, but, as the hon. Gentleman and other Members know, any proposed changes in clinical services must be subject to the four tests of support from GP commissioners, strengthened public and patient engagement, clarity on the clinical evidence base, and support for patient choice. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, but that is how it should be approached.

Barbara Haddon from Felpham in Bognor Regis has crumbling vertebrae, is in constant pain, and can walk only short distances. She is 87 years old. She recently applied for the renewal of her blue badge, but, like many other constituents who have written to me, she was turned down because of the way in which the new national blue badge improvement service is being implemented locally. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that the scheme is implemented fairly and appropriately throughout the country?

I will look very carefully at the case that my hon. Friend has raised, because I think it important for this reform to be carried out properly. I think that all of us, as constituency MPs, receive two sorts of complaints. Some are from those who have seen people who have the blue badge and do not merit it, while others are from those who want the blue badge and deserve it, but cannot obtain it.

While I am at the Dispatch Box, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long-standing work on educational standards and his belief in true rigour in schools. He has seen many of his ideas put into practice, and that is what we come into politics to achieve.

Q6. The Adam Werritty affair should have taught Ministers important lessons about becoming too close to their outside advisers. Now it appears that the Prime Minister’s climate change Minister, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), may be making similar mistakes. Given media reports today, does the Prime Minister have the same complete confidence in his climate change Minister as he had in his former Defence Secretary? (120390)

The climate change Minister is doing an excellent job; I want to put that on the record. I have consulted the Cabinet Secretary, and both he and the permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change have examined the issue, and I do not see the need for a further inquiry on that basis. The key point I would make is that the individual in question was hired by civil servants after a properly run competition.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin. They came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but they picked themselves up and soon integrated themselves into the fabric of Britain. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in commending this community and the Conservative Government of the time, who took the courageous decision to let them in, notwithstanding the enormous opposition in the House and the country at large?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this topic. The Asians who have come from Kenya and Uganda have made an extraordinary contribution to this country, and it was absolutely the right decision to welcome them here, as happened in the 1970s. Those who opposed it were, I believe, profoundly wrong. I would also say to my hon. Friend, who is from that background, what an incredible achievement it is within one generation for someone from that background to come to Parliament and make such a distinguished contribution.

Q7. Last week’s reshuffle was clearly a painful experience for many, but can the Prime Minister advise us why he recommended knighthoods for five of his redundant male Ministers, when there was “nothing like a dame” on offer for his sacked female Ministers? (120391)

I take the view that when people come into public life, work hard in opposition and in government and make a contribution, we should recognise that. It should not only be permanent secretaries who receive these honours; we should also be prepared to honour Ministers who have worked hard and have served their country.

Our armed forces are always willing to do what we ask of them without complaint, but there will be a detrimental impact on individuals’ training, deployment opportunities and rest and recuperation if we ask them to keep this country going in the face of strikes. Is that not another reason why the unions should think again?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I hope the trade unions who are meeting and discussing this appalling idea of a general strike do think again, and think of the good of our economy rather than their own selfish interests.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about our armed services, and it is right to put on record again what a fantastic job they did in the Olympics and Paralympics, stepping up to the plate and putting such a friendly and smiling face on our games. From everything I saw at the Olympic games, our armed services were pleased to play that role, and I know that there are times when we can call upon them and they will be pleased to serve.

Q8. Many of us are shocked and saddened that child poverty in the UK has become so severe and widespread that Save the Children has found it necessary to launch its first ever appeal for British children. Unfortunately, Members on the Government Benches saw fit to attack Save the Children and even accused it of publicity-seeking. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to distance himself from those comments, and support the report that led to this appeal? (120392)

I am a strong supporter of Save the Children; I think it does an excellent job. As long as we recognise that the sort of poverty we tragically still have in Britain is very different from the poverty of people surviving on $1 a day in sub-Saharan Africa—as long as we respect the differences between those sorts of poverty—I think it is absolutely right that non-governmental organisations, charities and voluntary groups campaign on poverty issues here in the UK as well as overseas.

Q9. In a Commons debate last year on rural broadband, I highlighted how poor the service is in Pendle, including in the village of Newchurch, which might be unique in the country in having a particularly poor service when it rains. So does the Prime Minister share my joy at plans this week to cut the red tape that is holding back the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is so desperately needed for businesses in Pendle and across the UK? (120393)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in his campaign to make sure that all our rural communities have access to superfast broadband. It is not just an issue of money, and this Government are putting the money in; there are also planning issues to address, because some councils have held up giving permission for the necessary cabinets and other things that have to be put in place at street and village level. That is why our planning reforms, announced by my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary, are going to sweep away that bureaucracy so that we can get broadband everywhere.

Despite the Prime Minister’s recent valiant efforts, does he not realise that denying thousands of our disabled constituents adequate levels of benefit is merely underlining the fact that the Tories really are the nasty party?

I simply do not accept even the premise of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The fact is that we are not cutting the money that is going into disability benefits. The question is how best to reform those disability benefits so that disabled people actually get access to the benefits that they require. I think that anyone who has looked at disability living allowance or who has had to fill in the forms knows that it needs reform. The reform has been led by many of the disability groups, which want to see something that is much more related to people’s disability and faster to access, too.

Q10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating a major inward investment by the Chinese firm Huawei, which is investing £1.3 billion over five years to create 700 jobs in the UK? Will he encourage it to come to Wycombe? (120394)

I am delighted to say that I welcome the investment by Huawei and I met its founder and chairman yesterday at No. 10 Downing street. It is a significant investment of £1.5 billion. I am afraid to tell my hon. Friend that some of the jobs are going to be created—I very much hope—in Banbury, next to my constituency, but with an investment of this scale I am sure that there will be opportunities around the rest of the country. The firm is coming here not for the weather, but because we have highly trained engineers, we have excellent universities, we have a leading role in the telecoms and mobile industries, and it thinks that this is a Government who are open to business.

Will the Prime Minister explain why in the previous Parliament Members of either House who were shown to have deliberately abused the expenses system were, quite rightly, forced to face the full rigour of the law, whereas in this Parliament the same proven dishonesty results in the restoration of ministerial office and a seat at the Cabinet table?

The hon. Gentleman may be referring to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who is attending Cabinet and is a Minister of State in the Department for Education. He made very clear the mistakes that he made in terms of the expenses system, he resigned from the Government and I think you should—

As I have said in relation to this in the past, I do think that it is right to give someone a second chance.

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Kevin O’Toole, the managing director of Eurocraft Enclosures Ltd in Dudley, who contacted me about the Government’s plans to sweep away unnecessary health and safety red tape to say: “At last years and years of regulation are being replaced by a simple concept called common sense”? Is it not common sense to remove the headache of inspections for low-risk businesses? Is not scrapping unnecessary and unpredictable inspections a valuable piece of deregulation that will help more small businesses to grow? (120395)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this. We have 3,000 regulations in our sights that we believe can be radically scaled down or reduced, and we have made good progress already. We also believe that there is more we can do to exempt particularly small firms from regulation, and the new Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be pressing ahead, with the full support of the Secretary of State, on this very important agenda.

Q12. Four years ago, the Prime Minister gave his support to High Speed 2 as providing an alternative to short-haul flights and therefore to a third runway at Heathrow. As he is now dithering over Heathrow, is he also dithering over HS2? (120396)

No, I fully support HS2 and think that it is an investment that needs to go ahead for the good of our country.

Following the recent reshuffle, there has been speculation in the press that some new appointments indicate a shift away from our green agenda—[Interruption.] Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to scotch those scurrilous allegations and reaffirm our commitment to being the greenest Government ever?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her new role in the Treasury. She has every ability to ensure that the Government deliver on our green commitments. What I would say to her and all our right hon. Friends is that it is this Government who set up a green investment bank with £3 billion to spend and this Government who have committed £1 billion to carbon capture and storage. We have the first incentive scheme anywhere in the world for renewable heat, we are putting money into low emission vehicles, we have the mass roll-out of smart meters and we are also the first Government to introduce a carbon floor price. Those are all steps of a Government committed to the green agenda.

Q13. In 1993, the chairman of the Conservative party, Norman Fowler, said that if the £365,000 given to the Tories by Asil Nadir was stolen, that money would clearly be returned. Now that Asil Nadir has been convicted of theft, does the Prime Minister agree with his party’s former treasurer, Lord McAlpine, that it is tainted money that shames the Conservatives and that they have a moral duty to give it back? When will the Prime Minister go in his pocket and get the cheque book out? (120397)

I have not seen the evidence for that. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman, however, is this: what about the £12 million that his party has taken from the trade unions that are threatening to bring this country to its knees?

The Government do aspire to be the greenest Government ever, so, with that in mind, will the Prime Minister assure me that before any decision is taken to extract shale gas from Fylde there will be both a public consultation and the establishment of an independent body to co-ordinate a gold standard of regulation so that the environment is never compromised?

As my hon. Friend will know, all fracking operations for shale gas have been suspended while we study the minor tremors that occurred in Blackpool last year. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society have produced a full independent review into the risks of fracking and I can assure my hon. Friend that any future shale gas production would have to meet stringent safety and environmental standards, follow deep consultation with local communities and fit within our overall energy commitments.