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Volume 550: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2012

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.