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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police and Crime Commissioners

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on preparations for elected police and crime commissioners in Wales. (122185)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of Dyfed-Powys police and all the other agencies involved in the search for April Jones, who went missing on 1 October. I am sure that the whole House will join me in praising them for their continued work to find April and in praising the support shown by so many of the people of Machynlleth for her family.

The Wales Office and the Home Office have been working closely with the Welsh Government and partners to make the police and crime commissioner reforms a success in Wales. Considerable progress has been achieved through the Wales Transition Board.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. Will he let us know how much printing the second set of ballot papers for the police commissioner elections in Wales will cost the Home Office?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her welcome. As the House will know, the order for the bilingual version of the forms was laid on 15 October, and it is hoped that the process will be completed by 30 October. On the question of cost, I shall write to her.

A serious potential problem has been averted over the preparation of voting papers in the Welsh language. Will the Secretary of State engage with the Welsh Language Commissioner to ensure that the commitment to bilingualism in Wales is fully respected in all non-devolved areas, where the problem arose?

Yes, the Wales Office is committed fully to the Welsh language and its support, not only in the devolved areas but in the un-devolved ones. I am pleased to report that my office is working closely with the Welsh Language Commissioner, and indeed it is proposed that an official of the commissioner will be embedded in the Wales Office.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a great proponent of the Welsh language, but I urge him to ensure that in all aspects and in all avenues of work within the Palace of Westminster the Welsh language is given the respect it so rightly deserves. I hope that this type of thing is not going to happen again.

The hon. Lady has identified a problem that needs to be resolved, in that the Welsh Language Commissioner is, of course, a position that was created by the Welsh Assembly. It is important that in the non-devolved areas sufficient support should be given to the Welsh language, and I am pleased to report that my office is prepared and anxious to undertake that duty.

Steel Industry

I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on issues that affect Wales, including the future of the steel industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply. May I warmly congratulate him and his colleague on their new positions, which I believe were as a consequence of their apprenticeships on the Welsh Affairs Committee?

Tata Steel is a major investor and employer in my constituency. Nearly £250 million has been invested recently in the steel plant at Port Talbot, which is strongly supported by the Welsh Government, the local council, the local trade unions and the local management. This is a strong regional partnership, so what will the Wales Office do to assist the steel industry in these challenging times? Will the Secretary of State speak to the Business Secretary, his Cabinet colleague, to address the issue of a level playing field in energy costs? Will he visit the steelworks in my constituency at the earliest opportunity?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind remarks. One of the most enjoyable parts of my first term in Parliament was serving under his chairmanship on the Welsh Affairs Committee.

The Government absolutely recognise the strategic importance of Tata Steel as an inward investor into Wales, and the Wales Office has close links with the company. I will certainly speak to the Business Secretary about what more we can do to support Tata’s inward investment. We do recognise that particular issue associated with energy costs. That is why we have made £250 million available for intensive energy users, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and industries in Wales will be making representations about how they can benefit from that money.

As my mother comes from Aberavon, I understand only too well the importance of the steel industry and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) on asking his question. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree, however, that the great news we have received today that employment in Wales is up by 40,000 and unemployment down by 7,000 is a good start?

The labour market statistics for Wales were particularly good today. Unemployment and worklessness are down and overall employment levels are up. There are great reasons for optimism, but there is no reason to be complacent.

Respect Agenda

3. What steps he plans to take to promote the Prime Minister’s respect agenda in dealings between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. (122187)

I am committed to working with the Welsh Government to deliver economic growth in Wales. I do not intend that political differences should stand in the way of such co-operative working in the interests of Wales.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Minister—llongyfarchiadau, as we say in Wales. When the Prime Minister promised a respect agenda, did he mean trying to block Welsh Assembly legislation, unilaterally abolishing wage protection for agricultural workers in Wales and tearing up a cross-border GCSE exam system without consultation? If that is the case, can he even spell the word respect? It is R. E. S. P. E. C. T., by the way.

As we say in Wales, diolch am y llongyfarchiadau. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this Government are fully committed to the respect agenda. We are working closely with the Welsh Government and I am very pleased with the relationship I am cultivating with Carwyn Jones, the First Minister.

Would both Ministers, whom I warmly congratulate, agree with me that parch, as we say in Monmouthshire, is something that works in both directions, and that the refusal of Welsh Assembly Ministers to appear before Select Committees shows a disgraceful lack of respect not only to this House but to those of us who were put in it by the people of Wales?

The word “parch” means respect and I agree that parch is a process that works in two directions. I am very hopeful that a new relationship will be cultivated not only between the two Governments but between Parliament and the Assembly.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the job and although I wish his predecessor all the best, may I say how good it is to have a Welsh MP as Secretary of State for Wales again, but why on earth is he referring the first two laws passed by the Welsh Assembly under the Government of Wales Act 2006 to the Attorney-General? The provision I included in that Act was not to allow the Secretary of State to block Welsh legislation but primarily to deal with any cross-border issues, which I cannot see apply in these cases. Why is he interfering in this anti-devolution manner?

I echo the tribute the right hon. Gentleman pays to my predecessor, who was an excellent Secretary of State. As for the references to the Supreme Court, as he knows these matters are set out in the Government of Wales Act, for which he was responsible. The reference of the first Welsh Bill—that is, the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill—to the Supreme Court should not be regarded as disrespectful or hostile in any sense. It is simply an administrative procedure to clear up the issue of competence and that is it.

I add my words of support to those of the Secretary of State for Dyfed-Powys police and the community of Machynlleth as they live through the awful events of recent weeks. I also warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and his deputy and welcome them to their new role. The Opposition are thrilled that the Prime Minister finally found a Welsh MP to take on the post.

In fairness, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, with whom I did not always agree, has found a new spirit of candour in recent weeks since she left the job and has admitted, for example, that his Government have lost all reputation for competence. On this question of respect, will he continue in this spirit of openness and clear up the question of his attitude to devolution? Will he tell us straightforwardly—does he think that devolution has been good for Wales?

I do not think I can carry on accepting all these welcomes; it is far too much for me—[Interruption.] I am sure they will soon come to an end. I feel strongly that devolution is developing, and that as the Assembly and the Assembly Government mature as institutions they could be very good for Wales indeed. That is why I and my office are determined to work closely with them to assist in doing our best for Wales with them.

Mr Speaker, you will forgive me if I think that the Secretary of State’s view that the Assembly “could” be good for Wales is hardly a ringing endorsement of the devolution settlement that was so decisively supported by the Welsh people. Are not his view that the devolution settlement has “damaged our constitution” and his deputy’s view that it is “constitutional vandalism” what they really think and where they really have disrespect for devolution? Is not the truth that the right hon. Gentleman cannot speak for modern Wales—devolved Wales—but we on this side of the House can and will?

When I used the word “could”, my intention was to point out that under the Labour Assembly Government, coupled with 10 years-plus of Labour Government here in London, Wales has been the poorest part of the United Kingdom. I believe that a lot more could be done to make Wales a happier place to live, and for that purpose it is necessary for us in the Wales Office to work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government. I am willing to do that; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me.

Enterprise Zones

I am strongly committed to working with the Welsh Government to encourage private sector investment and growth in Wales, including promoting enterprise zones in Wales.

Is it not important to have a much closer working relationship between the Governments in London and in Cardiff in respect of enterprise zones, so that we can make faster progress in creating jobs and wealth in Wales?

My hon. Friend is exactly right: it is vital that the two Governments—the UK Government and the Welsh Government in Cardiff—work together on a range of issues, not least the success of enterprise zones. I am committed to doing that, and I look forward very much to my first meeting with the Welsh business Minister, Edwina Hart, which is to take place shortly.

The Minister will be aware that having the Bristol enterprise zone alongside the tolls on the gateway to the south Wales economy is a major impediment to inward investment and growth. Will he therefore ask Treasury colleagues to commission a study to see whether a reduction in the tolls would be more than compensated for by an increase in income tax resulting from new jobs created by inward investment?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to discuss tolls on the Severn bridge with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport this afternoon. No decisions have been made beyond 2018, when the current concession ends. Clearly there is a lot to discuss in relation to how we maximise the benefits of inward investment in Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the objectives of the Cardiff Central enterprise zone are much more likely to be realised now that the coalition Government have granted £11 million to the city of Cardiff to make it one of the most digitally connected cities in the world?

My hon. Friend is exactly right: the £11.7 million that we have made available to Cardiff to support its development as a superconnected city will make it one of the most digitally advanced cities in the United Kingdom, and we look forward to that helping to leverage new business investment into the city.

I very much welcome the Minister’s positive words about the Welsh Assembly Government’s work with enterprise zones and, indeed, full co-operation on measures to help the economy, but will he join me in congratulating Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on creating 1,700 youth jobs in the past six months, in an effort to tackle the scourge of underlying youth unemployment in Wales? Will he tell his Cabinet and Front-Bench colleagues how Wales is leading the way in this and that they should never have got rid of the future jobs fund?

I thank the shadow Minister for that question. I welcome any new jobs being created that will tackle long-term youth unemployment in Wales. I am just disappointed that she has not welcomed today’s news that unemployment has fallen in Wales, employment is up and worklessness is down.

12. Enterprise zones are a fantastic success in England, but their success in Wales has been somewhat limited. Enhanced capital allowances can play a significant part in attracting inward investment to enterprise zones, so is my hon. Friend somewhat disappointed and dismayed that the Welsh Government have not sought to communicate with the Treasury about where they would like to bring this tax advantage in Wales? (122197)

The discussions about the use of enhanced capital allowances in conjunction with other forms of regional aid are continuing with colleagues in the Treasury, but we look forward very much to seeing specific proposals from Welsh Ministers on how they envisage enterprise zones developing in Wales.

The most enterprising company in my constituency, Biotec Services International, is being prevented from developing because it cannot get export licences for growth hormones from the Home Office. I have written to the Home Office. Will the Minister take an interest in this matter so that this unique Welsh company does not lose its opportunity to grow and develop for Wales?

I am concerned to hear that from the hon. Lady. I note that she has written to the relevant Minister, but if she would like to write to me as well, I will certainly look into the matter and see that she gets all her questions answered.

Inward Investment

I am working with UK Trade and Investment, ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government to improve levels of inward investment into Wales. In fact, I am meeting the chief executive of UKTI later today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scrapping of the Welsh Development Agency has had a negative effect on inward investment into Wales, as highlighted recently by the Welsh Affairs Committee?

It is true that under the Welsh Development Agency, Wales was regularly the most important destination for inward investment, but I support both Governments working closely together to continue to attract inward investment into Wales.

I warmly associate myself and my colleagues with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks regarding Dyfed-Powys police and all the emergency services which are looking for little April Jones. I also congratulate the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary on their appointments.

What assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the loss to Wales of inward investment since the disappearance of the Welsh Development Agency brand? Who has the last word on inward investment—this Government or the Government in Wales?

It is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that Wales needs a strong brand in order to promote itself around the world. It is clear also that although economic development is devolved to the Assembly Government, it needs to have the leverage that it will get from UKTI. That is why I am encouraging the Welsh Government to work closely with UKTI.

What discussions have the UK Government had with the Welsh Government about the establishment of a dedicated trade promotion agency, either sitting within the Welsh Government or as a private sector vehicle, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Committee back in February?

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government about inward investment, and I hope the Welsh Minister for Business is giving consideration to that.

Academic research and development and its commercialisation are key ingredients in inward investment. I am heartened that the Secretary of State is meeting UKTI later today. Will he impress on it at that meeting the excellent work that is being undertaken in Bangor, Glyndwr university, Aberystwyth and Swansea? We have a good message to sell and we need UKTI to help us to sell it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Welsh universities do have a good tale to tell. I would like to single out Swansea university and its science campus, which it is developing closely with British and international industry.

Disability Employment Ltd of Stoke wants to inwardly invest in Wrexham to put disabled workers sacked by this Government back to work. Will the Secretary of State come to Wrexham a week on Friday to meet disabled workers from Remploy to explain to them why the Government will not support that company?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government’s policy on Remploy is to provide supported jobs in mainstream employment. I have had discussions with him previously about the issue. I am entirely happy to have further discussions with him if he requires. As to Friday, I cannot make any commitments as I do not have my diary. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let’s have a bit of order for Karl MᶜCartney.

Ofqual

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education and others on the role of Ofqual in Wales. (122190)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Education. For clarity, Ofqual is the independent regulator of qualifications in England. It is the Welsh Government who regulate qualifications in Wales.

Does the Minister share my concern that a dangerous precedent is set when Ministers take it upon themselves to mark exam papers?

My hon. Friend makes his point. Much has been said about that and I do not want to add to it today, other than to say that it was unfortunate that the Welsh Government acted unilaterally on the matter. The key point is the ongoing review of qualifications in Wales and the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for new qualifications at 16 in England. It is important that parents and pupils in Wales have confidence that their qualifications will be respected and robust, and that they will be able to take them to institutions and employers in England, where they will be respected.

Investment

7. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and others about foreign direct investment in Wales. (122191)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about attracting foreign direct investment to Wales. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, during his visit to Turkey earlier this month, announced that a Turkish steel company is to open a new factory in Cardiff.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. Does he agree that UK Trade and Investment’s global presence through our embassies and high commissions provides a huge opportunity to ensure direct foreign investment in Wales?

UKTI has global reach, with its officials embedded in every British mission around the world, and I am delighted that it is seconding two officials to the Welsh Government.

The Secretary of State will know that one reason foreign companies do not invest in west Wales is the over-burdensome planning restrictions. Will he use his influence in the Welsh Assembly to sweep away those obstacles?

I am sure that my hon. Friend was pleased to hear that the Welsh Government have designated an enterprise zone in Milford Haven. Planning is indeed extremely important for the development of enterprise zones. It is being streamlined in England and I very much hope that the Welsh Government will follow suit.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post—perhaps he is overwhelmed by the welcome he has had thus far. Will he encourage Ministers to look at improving infrastructure in Wales, particularly port infrastructure, on which enterprise zones such as the one in Anglesey rely? He has passed the buck to the Welsh Assembly in the past. Will he now fight within Government so that we have a level playing field with English ports?

Ports are an undevolved area. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I regard Holyhead port as an important anchor of Anglesey’s economy and hope shortly to visit Captain Wyn Parry there.

The proposed motor sport investment in Ebbw Vale could be an employment game-changer for Blaenau Gwent. Variable investment allowances are being sought by the international development. I urge the Secretary of State to get the Treasury on board now for a fair tax treatment to help deliver the project.

Enhanced capital allowances are an extremely important element of enterprise zones. They have already been granted in the case of the Deeside enterprise zone and we are urging the Welsh Government to make appropriate representations to HM Treasury so that they can be extended to other enterprise zones, such as the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Housing Benefit

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of reductions in housing benefit in Wales. (122192)

Information on the expected impact in Wales and across Great Britain of our housing benefit reforms is set out in the impact assessments. We are taking urgent steps to manage housing benefit expenditure, providing a fairer and more sustainable scheme by ensuring people who receive it have to make the same choices about housing as people who do not.

Will the Minister please explain why 17-year-old Shanika Roberts, who faces being made homeless because of this Government’s cuts to housing benefit, should move in with her friend?

Some £21 billion is currently spent on housing benefit, and the figure will go up without the reforms we are putting in place. I ask the hon. Gentleman this: what is fair about 100,000 people in Wales languishing on waiting lists, often in cramped accommodation, while others live in houses with empty rooms that are larger than they need?

In view of the fact that £8.7 billion is spent on benefits in Wales every year, and nearly £1 in every £8 of that—£1 billion—is spent on housing benefit alone, is the taxpayer not entitled to expect value for money?

The taxpayer is absolutely entitled to expect value for money, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate the fruits of our welfare reforms coming through in Wales, as borne out by today’s labour market statistics.

Rail Infrastructure

10. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on capital investment in rail infrastructure in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (122194)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about a range of transport issues that affect Wales, including the importance of investing in rail infrastructure in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and warmly congratulate him on his new position. I also congratulate him and his predecessor on the electrification of the south Wales railway network, which the Labour party failed to achieve in 13 years. Will he join me in calling on the Department for Transport to look at the possibilities for new signalling on the north Wales main line?

I met representatives of Network Rail earlier this month to discuss their plans for the rail network in Wales, including the re-signalling programme. The north Wales main line is due to be re-signalled commencing in 2015 as part of the Wales route modernisation programme.

14. How much of the £9.4 billion that is going to be spent on rail infrastructure to 2019 will be spent in north Wales? (122199)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I am already holding discussions with the Welsh Government and local authorities in north Wales with a view to exploring the possibility of electrifying the north Wales railway line—105 miles, and an enormous economic benefit for north Wales.

I welcome the announcement of extra capital expenditure, but will the Secretary of State work with the Welsh Assembly to make sure that Welsh civil engineering companies help in competing for contracts for this work?

Yes; this is an issue that has been identified recently. I am sure that the Welsh Government are aware of the problem and that they will address it.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have tragically fallen since we last met for Prime Minister’s questions: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Captain James Townley of the Royal Engineers; and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines. Once again we are reminded of the immense danger our armed forces operate in to uphold our safety and our security. Their families and the whole country should rightly be proud of their heroic service, and we will always remember them.

I am sure that the House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to PC Fiona Bone and PC Nicola Hughes, who were killed—brutally murdered—in the line of duty on 18 September. The whole country has been deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of these two young, dedicated, exceptional officers. Our thoughts are with their families and with their colleagues at what must be a very, very difficult time.

I also know that the House would wish to join me in sending our heartfelt condolences to the family of Malcolm Wicks, who sadly passed away on 29 September. Those in all parts of this House will remember Malcolm as a real gentleman—a man of great integrity and compassion who put his constituents first, who worked across party lines, and who was a thoroughly decent man. He served the House with great distinction for 20 years, and I know he will be missed by all who knew him.

We must also pay tribute to another of Parliament’s great characters—it is hard to believe that he is not sitting right there in front of me—Sir Stuart Bell. Sir Stuart was hugely popular across the House and was honoured for his services to Parliament. We will always remember him as a passionate, dedicated Member of the House whose kindness, again, transcended the political divide. We send our sincere sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time.

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

May I associate all right hon. and hon. Members with the Prime Minister’s tribute to the members of the armed forces and the police who died in the service of our country, and to their families; and also say how much we in this House, and the people of Middlesbrough and Croydon North, will miss Sir Stuart Bell and Malcolm Wicks?

Last week the Prime Minister promised that work would always pay, but this morning Baroness Grey-Thompson and the Children’s Society have revealed that his current plans for universal credit next year will mean that up to 116,000 disabled people in work could lose as much as £40 a week. Does not that say everything about how this divisive Prime Minister always stands up for the wrong people? At the same time as handing huge tax cuts to 8,000 people earning over £1 million a year he is going to penalise some of the bravest strivers in our country.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely serious issue; let me try to deal with it as fully as I can. The money that is going into disability benefit will not go down under universal credit; it will go up. The overall amount of money will go from £1.35 billion last year to £1.45 billion in 2015. Under the plans, no recipients will lose out, unless their circumstances change. All current recipients are fully cash-protected by a transitional scheme. On future recipients, we have made an important decision and choice to increase the amount that we give to the most severely disabled children, and there will be a new lower amount for less disabled people. That is a choice that we are making. As I have said, we are increasing the overall amount of money and focusing on the most disabled. That shows the right values and the right approach.

Q2. I congratulate the Government on the early introduction of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. Farmers and third-world, developing-country producers desperately need protection from what the Competition Commission has described as the “bully-boy tactics” of some of the supermarket buyers. The Bill is welcome, but how quickly will the Government introduce this vital measure? (122161)

We are making progress with introducing the measure, which, as my hon. Friend says, is important. It is very important that we stand up for farmers and that they get a fair deal from supermarkets. On occasion, there have been unfair practices, such as the in-year retrospective discounts that have sometimes been proposed. I think that the Bill will be a major step forward.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the six servicemen who have died since the House last met: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Captain James Tanley of the Corps of Royal Engineers; and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines. They all died heroically serving our country and showed the upmost bravery and sacrifice, and our condolences go to their families and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. They remind us of the dangerous work that our police officers do day in, day out in the line of duty. Their death is a great loss to the Greater Manchester police, the communities they served and, most of all, of course, their families.

I also thank the Prime Minister for his very generous comments about the two Labour colleagues whom we have lost since we last met. Stuart Bell was the son of a miner and a long-standing Member of this House. He was passionate about European issues and served with distinction as a Church Commissioner. His death was incredibly sudden: his illness was diagnosed just a matter of days before he died. The condolences of Labour Members and, I know, the whole House go to his family.

Malcolm Wicks was one of the deepest thinkers in this House. He was a brilliant Minister. I know from my time as the Energy Secretary what a brilliant Energy Minister he was. He faced his illness with the utmost bravery. He knew what was going to happen to him, but he carried on writing, thinking, talking and, indeed, engaging with the work of this House. My last conversation with him was just before our party conference and he talked passionately about politics, as he always did. Our condolences go to his whole family.

Today’s unemployment figures are welcome, particularly the fall in youth unemployment. I am sure that we will all agree that too many people are still looking for work. The number of people out of work for a long period—over a year—remains stubbornly high. Will the Prime Minister tell us why he believes that the fall this quarter in unemployment is not yet being matched by the figures for long-term unemployment?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about those who have fallen, the brave police officers and the colleagues that we in the House have lost.

The unemployment figures are a good piece of news that should be properly welcomed and looked at, because a number of different things are happening: employment is up by 212,000 this quarter; unemployment is down by 50,000 this quarter; the claimant count has actually fallen by 4,000; and what that means is that since the election some 170,000 fewer people are on out-of-work benefits. What is remarkable about the figures is that they show that there are more women in work than at any time in our history and that the overall level of employment is now above where it was before the crash in 2008. We still have huge economic challenges to meet, we are in a global race, and we need to make a whole set of reforms in our country to education and welfare and to help grow the private sector, but this is positive news today.

Long-term unemployment is still too high. That is partly because of the big increase in unemployment at the time of the crash. We need to do more to deal with long-term unemployment. That is why the Work programme has helped 693,000 people already. We are prepared to spend up to £14,000 on an individual long-term unemployed person to get them back into work. We do have the measures in place to tackle this scourge.

Notwithstanding that, unemployment, youth unemployment, long-term unemployment and long-term youth unemployment are all higher than when the Prime Minister came to office. I do not think that he can attribute the issue with long-term youth unemployment to the crash that happened four years ago, because it has been rising steadily over the past year or 18 months, and it remains a big concern. The number of people out of work for more than a year is continuing to rise. Does he agree that the longer young people remain out of work, the greater the damage not just now, but to their long-term prospects and to our economy?

Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right. The longer that people are out of work, the worse it is for them and for our economy. That is why we have the youth contract and the Work programme, which is the biggest back-to-work programme since the war. He mentions the problem of long-term unemployment. I just remind him that in the last two years of the Labour Government, long-term unemployment almost doubled. We should hear about that before we get a lecture. On helping young people, it is noticeable that under this Government, 900,000 people have started apprenticeships. We are backing apprenticeship schemes and reforming our schools and welfare system, so that it pays for people to get jobs.

We face enormous economic challenges in this country. Nobody doubts that. We have to rebalance our economy because the state sector was too big and the private sector was too small. Since the election, there have been 1 million new private sector jobs, which more than make up for the inevitable loss of jobs in the state sector. We have a huge amount more to do, but reform welfare, reform our schools, boost our private sector, and Britain can be a winner in the global race.

On long-term unemployment, I just say to the Prime Minister that there are more people out of work for longer than at any time for two decades. That is happening on his watch.

I want to turn to one group in particular who are losing their jobs directly as a result of the Government’s policy. A year ago, the Prime Minister told me at the Dispatch Box:

“There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line officers.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 335.]

Will he tell the House how many front-line police officers have lost their jobs since the election?

The percentage of police officers on front-line duties has gone up. That is the key. Frankly, whoever won the last election would have had to reduce police budgets. Labour was committed to reducing police budgets and we had to reduce police budgets. We have been able to increase the percentage because we have cut the paperwork and taken difficult decisions about pay and allowances. What is remarkable is that while the percentage of officers on the front line is up, crime is down.

I had really hoped that, just for once, we would get a straight answer to a straight question. All the Prime Minister needs to do—Government Members will like this—is to take a leaf out of the police Minister’s book, because on Monday he told the House the truth. He said that there are 6,778 fewer front-line police officers than when they came to power. Why not just admit—[Interruption.] I do not think that the part-time Chancellor is going to help, but perhaps he is taking over the Home Office. This is another promise broken.

The Government are not just breaking their promises; it is their conduct as well. This is what the Mayor of London said—[Interruption.]

Order. It will just take longer to get in the Back Benchers who wish to participate, as opposed to shouting and screaming in a juvenile fashion, because I will have to extend the session. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard and the Prime Minister will be heard. That is the end of it.

This is what the Mayor of London, the Prime Minister’s new best mate, said last year at the Conservative party conference:

“I reckon we need to…make it clear that if people swear at the police then they must expect to be arrested.”—[Interruption.]

The Chief Whip from a sedentary position says that he did not. Maybe he will tell us what he actually did say, which he has failed to do.

Yet according to the official police report,

“a man claiming to be the Chief Whip”

called the police “plebs”, told them they should know their place and used other abusive language. Can the Prime Minister now tell us: did the Chief Whip use those words?

What the Chief Whip did and what the Chief Whip said were wrong. I am absolutely clear about that, and I have been clear throughout. That is why it is important that the Chief Whip apologised. That apology has been accepted by the officer—[Interruption.]

Order. I said a moment ago that the Leader of the Opposition must and would be heard. The same goes for the Prime Minister. He must and will be heard.

What the Chief Whip did and said was wrong, and that is why it is important that he apologised, and apologised properly. That apology has been accepted by the officer concerned, and it has been accepted by the head of the Metropolitan police. That is why this Government will get on with the big issues of helping Britain compete and succeed in the world.

No straight answers on police numbers, and no straight answers on the Chief Whip. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Wales says that we need real issues, but I think abusing police officers is a real issue. Just because a police officer has better manners than the Chief Whip, it does not mean that the Chief Whip should keep his job.

If a yob in a city centre on a Saturday night abused a police officer, ranting and raving, the chances are that they would be arrested and placed in the back of a police van, and rightly so. The Prime Minister would be the first in the queue to say that it was right. But while it is a night in the cell for the yobs, it is a night at the Carlton club for the Chief Whip. Is that not the clearest case there could be of total double standards?

This apology has been accepted by the police officer, and it has been accepted by the head of the Metropolitan police. It is clearly not going to be accepted by the Leader of the Opposition, who does not want to talk about what we need to do in this country to get our deficit down because he has got no plans. He does not want to talk about how we build on our record in employment, because he has got no plans. He does not want to talk about how we reform welfare, because he is opposed to welfare caps. That is the truth—he wants to discuss these issues because he has nothing serious to say about the country.

Here is the most extraordinary thing: the Government say that I practise class war, and they go around calling people plebs. Can you believe it? I have to say, it is good to see the Cabinet in their place supporting the Chief Whip in public, but from the newspapers, what are they saying in private? That he is “completely undermined” and that his position is untenable. In other words, he’s toast. That is the reality. Here is the truth about this Government: while everybody else loses their jobs, the Chief Whip keeps his. If you are a millionaire you get a tax cut, if you are everybody else you get a tax rise. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Kawczynski, I am very worried about your health. You are shouting in a bizarre manner. Calm yourself, man, and get a grip.

Maybe he will tell us whether he is getting the tax cut.

The Government are totally out of touch. With this Government, it is one rule for those at the top, another rule for everybody else.

Now we know that the right hon. Gentleman wrote those questions yesterday, before unemployment fell. Because he obviously was not listening earlier, let me remind him that employment is up by 212,000—that is a success. Unemployment is down 50,000 this quarter—that is a success. The claimant count is down 4,000—that is a success. Typical! He comes to this House and he has written out his clever political questions, but he does not care what is really happening in our economy.

Over two weeks ago, April Jones, a five-year-old little girl, was abducted when playing with her friends in Machynlleth in my constituency, a very quiet, always well-behaved town. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the truly amazing way in which the people of Machynlleth, the Dyfed-Powys police and the mountain rescue teams have come together and committed to the ongoing search for April?

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. I think the whole country has not only been shocked by these appalling events, but that frankly it has been lifted and incredibly impressed by the response of the community in Machynlleth, and everything that everybody has done to help the police and the emergency services. We have seen a whole community come together, not just in grief but in action to help this family, and it is a huge credit to everyone involved.

Q3. At the Prime Minister’s energy summit last year, he promised faithfully that he would take action to help people reduce their energy bills. Will he tell the House and the country: how is it going? (122162)

We have encouraged people to switch, which is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. I can announce, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome, that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers—something that Labour did not do in 13 years, even though the Leader of the Labour party could have done it because he had the job.

Nuclear Deterrent

Q4. Whether he remains committed to the continuation of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent after the Vanguard submarines are withdrawn from service. (122163)

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that the answer is yes, we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system. That is why we have continued with the programme to replace the Vanguard class submarines, including placing initial design contracts with BAE Systems.

That is indeed an excellent answer. Given that a part-time nuclear deterrent would be dangerously destabilising, will the Prime Minister confirm that the British Trident successor submarines must and will operate on the basis of continuous at-sea deterrence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. One of the key elements of the credibility of our deterrent has been that it is continuously at sea, and the Royal Navy takes immense pride in having been able to deliver that without a break over so many years. I have met some of the crews and visited some of the submarines. What they do is incredibly impressive and I pay tribute to them for the service that they provide. Yes, being continuously at sea is a key part of our deterrent.

Engagements

Q5. In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) yesterday, the Government said: “we remain very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels”—[Official Report, 15 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 74W.]who are killing, maiming and raping in eastern Congo. Why then did the Government Chief Whip authorise the payment of £16 million of British taxpayers’ money to Rwanda, as his parting shot on his last day as International Development Secretary? (122164)

First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman happy birthday for yesterday? He was seen celebrating it, and I would like to join in that— [Interruption.] I am sorry I was not invited.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I am clear: Rwanda has been, and continues to be, a success story of a country that has gone from genocide and disaster to being a role model for development and lifting people out of poverty in Africa. I am proud of the fact that the last Government, and this Government, have continued to invest in that success. But I am equally clear that we should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.

Q6. Today, unemployment figures show a reduction of 62,000 in the number of 16 to 24-year-olds who were out of work in the three months to August, and that employment is now at its highest level since records began in 1971. I am sure the Prime Minister will want to commend this Government’s economic policies to the whole House, rather than having more borrowing and spending from the Opposition. (122165)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. What we need is a rebalancing of the economy. We need growth in our private sector, and it is notable that we have a million new private sector jobs since the last election. That has more than made up for the job losses in the public sector. There is more we need to do to tackle youth and long-term unemployment, but today’s figures should be welcomed.

Q7. My constituent Aaron Moon lost his leg in Afghanistan. He then lost his disability living allowance. The Prime Minister promised to look after ex-servicemen and women. What has happened? (122166)

I have insisted on a specific carve-out from the new personal independence payment for limbless ex-servicemen, and they will be separately looked after through the Ministry of Defence.

Q8. The House agrees that negative campaigning deliberately designed to scare vulnerable people demeans politics. A campaign to “Save Our Hospital” when the hospital is not closing is possibly the worst example that I have ever seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour’s campaign in Corby and east Northamptonshire is an absolute disgrace? (122167)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Labour MP after Labour MP is trooping up to Corby and claiming that the hospital is not safe when they know that that it is simply not true. The local newspaper is now backing up the fact that the hospital is being invested in by this Government, because unlike the party opposite—[Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) is over there on the Opposition Benches. You know what? He is going to stay there for a very, very long time. The reason he will stay there is the reason why this country is in a mess—it is because of the borrowing, the spending and the debt that he delivered. His answer is more borrowing, more spending and more debt, so he should get himself comfortable.

Q9. Why will the Prime Minister not—[Interruption.] I am over here. Why will the Prime Minister not publish all the texts, e-mails and other forms of correspondence between himself and his office and Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and News International, so that we can judge whether they are relevant? Is it because they are too salacious and embarrassing for the Prime Minister? [Interruption.] I would not smile if I was him; when the truth comes out, he will not be smiling. Or will he not publish the correspondence because there is one rule for him and another for the rest of us? (122168)

Mr Speaker, before answering this question, I would like hon. Members to recall that the hon. Gentleman stood up in the House and read out a whole lot of Leveson information that was under embargo and that he was not meant to read out, much of which about me turned out to be untrue, and he has never apologised. Do you know what? Until he apologises, I am not going to answer his questions—[Interruption.]

Q10. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Employment levels in Wales have increased by 40,000 in the last quarter, not least because of the contribution of self-employment. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in welcoming the extension of the new enterprise allowance, which has already resulted in the creation of more than 8,000 new businesses? (122169)

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in that. This is an important announcement, because the new enterprise allowance gives people who become unemployed the chance to set up their own business and enterprise. Under the current rules, people must wait three months before being able to access that programme, but under our plans, they will be able to access it from day one of becoming unemployed. I want to see many more new businesses started up in our country to build on the record of last year, when more businesses were established in Britain than in any year in our recent history.

Q11. When in opposition, the Prime Minister said:“all too often, when you put the questions to the Minister, the answer is pretty much a ‘not me guv’ shrug of the shoulders…There is a serious accountability problem with our political system.”Which of his Cabinet Ministers will take responsibility for the fiasco of the west coast main line? (122170)

The Transport Secretary came to the House and made a full statement and gave a full apology for what had happened. I must ask the House this: can we remember a Labour Minister ever apologising for anything? Anyone? None! [Interruption.]

Returning to the Trident issue, has the Prime Minister looked at the severe cost pressures facing defence at the very moment the Trident replacement has to be paid for? Joint strike fighter airplanes, Type 26 frigates, unmanned aircraft and Army vehicles all need paying for at much the same time. This has to come out of the defence budget, and austerity will be with us for some time yet, so will he keep an open mind about how exactly to replace our nuclear deterrent?

All the things that my hon. Friend lists are programmes that are fully funded and will be properly invested in, because, as he well knows—because he played a major role in it—the Government have sorted out the defence budget. Having carefully considered the issue of the nuclear deterrent, I do not believe that we would save money by adopting an alternative nuclear deterrent posture. Also, if we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it makes sense to ensure we have something that is credible and believable; otherwise there is no point in having one at all.

Q12. There are record levels of support for the British Union. The Prime Minister will know that according to a recent poll only 7% of the populace of Northern Ireland want a united Ireland, and that only rises to 32% in 20 years, if the question is asked then. Does he agree that, following the agreement he signed up to this week to ensure that a single, decisive question is asked on the Scottish and British Union, it is now up to him and the House to unite in a campaign to maintain, sustain and support the Union, and keep MacNeil and Wishart with us forever? (122171)

I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in the most positive way I can. I am pleased that we have reached an agreement with the Scottish Government to have a single, simple question in a referendum that must be held before the end of 2014, so that we can put beyond doubt the future of the United Kingdom. I hope that everyone will vote to keep the UK together. I know that it will have cross-party support, and I hope that politicians of all parties will agree to share platforms. I have always wanted to share a platform with Ian Paisley. Maybe I will get my chance.

Recently, a lap-dancing club in Ampthill, a rural market town in my constituency, has been granted a licence. The one thing that residents of Mid Bedfordshire have learned is that it does not matter whether it is a Wembley-sized incinerator or a lap-dancing club in a beautiful market town, the wishes of local people have absolutely no weight in planning law. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time we amended planning law, so that, when catastrophic applications come forward that blight the environment people live in and which greatly distress them, their views and voice are heard?

My hon. Friend speaks for many people about the frustration that the planning system can sometimes deliver. I would make two points about where we are making progress. First, we have changed the licensing laws to give the planners greater power to alter licences, and I believe that that can apply to the sorts of premises to which she refers. Secondly, of course, under our plans, people can write neighbourhood plans, which give far greater control to residents over the shape of their future community. I encourage her, however, to take up the specific issue with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to see whether there is more that we can do.

Q13. I thank both Front Benches for their tributes to Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, who were murdered in Greater Manchester recently. On the theme of policing, as the House has heard, the Home Office admits that nearly 7,000 front-line police personnel have now disappeared from our system. The Prime Minister promised that that would not be the case, and the public do not want it, so will he give a straightforward answer to what I think will be my last question to him in the House and give a commitment that there will be no more cuts to policing in England and Wales, whatever happens in the budgetary process? (122172)

Of course, no one wants to prejudge the wisdom of the Greater Manchester electorate, but I wish the hon. Gentleman well, if he is successful. I make to him the point that I hope the chief constable of his own force will make to him. It was made very effectively when Chief Constable Fahy of Greater Manchester police said that

“the effectiveness of policing cannot be measured by the number of officers…but by reductions in crime”.

Crime in Greater Manchester is down 12%. We need to recognise that there are difficult decisions. Frankly, the Labour party was committed to even greater cuts in police budgets than we have delivered. The key is this: can we crack down on paperwork, can we help get the police out on the beat, can we help them do the job they do and can we cut crime? The answer, in this case, is, “Yes, we can.”

Q14. May I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to Malcolm Wicks, whose memorial service is at Croydon minster this Friday? He was an outstanding local MP, a thoughtful, decent man and a good friend. Is not one way in which we can honour his memory to continue to improve our national health service, so that more and more people beat cancer and do not have their lives so tragically cut short? (122173)

My hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in what he says about Malcolm Wicks. I understand that he often used to drive Malcolm home to Croydon after the vote—I think Malcolm referred to his car as “the cab”. The fare apparently was a bottle of wine at Christmas time—we will make sure the Inland Revenue lays off that, but it was a very good arrangement between Members.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: one of the greatest things we can do to remember Malcolm is to ensure the continued success of the cancer drugs fund, which has helped over 20,000 people, and make sure that people can get urgent treatments, as well as urgent drugs.

The Secretary of State for Education said this weekend that if there were a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, he would vote to leave. A third of the Cabinet agree with him. How would the Prime Minister vote?

As I said, I do not want an in/out referendum, because I am not happy with our leaving the European Union, but I am not happy with the status quo either. I think what the vast majority of this country wants is a new settlement with Europe and then that settlement being put to fresh consent. That is what will be going in our manifesto, and I think it will get a ringing endorsement from the British people.

Q15. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there was no structural deficit at the top of the boom, as claimed by the shadow Chancellor? (122174)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is this. The IMF report out this week shows that the structural deficit in 2007, at the height of the boom, was 5% of our GDP, or £73 billion. The shadow Chancellor said there was no structural deficit. I think this really demonstrates just how little Labour has learnt. We have talked about our plans for the British economy—how we are going to help it compete and succeed. We know Labour’s plans for this weekend: to go on a giant march with its trade union paymasters. That is how the Leader of the Opposition is going to be spending his weekend—on the most lucrative sponsored walk in history.