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Engagements

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

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.