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Volume 552: debated on Wednesday 7 November 2012

I have been asked to reply. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is on an official overseas visit to the middle east.

The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two British soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan last week: Lieutenant Edward Drummond-Baxter and Lance Corporal Siddhanta Kunwar of 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Our heartfelt condolences are of course with the families and friends of these brave servicemen. In a particularly poignant week for us all, with Remembrance day on Sunday, we are once again reminded of the remarkable job that our armed forces do to ensure our safety and security.

Furthermore, the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to David Black, the Northern Ireland Prison Service officer who was shot and killed last Thursday. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in the House on Friday, we utterly condemn this cowardly crime. Our thoughts are with David’s wife and children at this distressing time.

I am sure that the House will also want to join me in congratulating President Obama on his election victory last night. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I suspect that that is the only point at which I will be cheered today by Labour Members. We look forward to continuing the Government’s work with him in building a more prosperous, more free and more stable world.

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 fully associate myself with the sincere tribute paid to the two fallen servicemen and to David Black? It is right that this House pays tribute to those who have fallen in the service of our country, never more so than in the week of Remembrance Sunday.

May I also say that President Obama will be relieved to get the support of the Deputy Prime Minister?

The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, has said that police morale is at national crisis levels. Is he right, and why is that the case?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the latest figures show that overall crime is down by 6%, that victim satisfaction with the police has gone up, that response time to emergency calls has been maintained or improved, and that crime has fallen precipitously in his own constituency. So when will he congratulate the police, rather than denigrate them, on doing a difficult job in dealing with savings, as everybody has to, while keeping the public safe?

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Chancellor and the German Finance Minister’s call for the OECD to accelerate plans to tackle the challenge of corporate tax avoidance by multinational companies?

Absolutely. I am sure that everybody will warmly welcome the work that the Chancellor is now doing with the Finance Ministry in Berlin to crack down on the industrial-scale tax avoidance by large corporate entities in this country and elsewhere that was allowed go on unchecked under 13 years of the Labour Government.

May I join the Deputy Prime Minister in expressing our deepest condolences on the death of Lieutenant Edward Drummond-Baxter and Lance Corporal Siddhanta Kunwar, of 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles? Our thoughts are with their families and friends. At Remembrance day services this Sunday we will remember not just those who died in the two world wars, but all our servicemen and women who have lost their lives. We also send our deepest sympathy to the family of David Black of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, who was killed last Thursday.

I also join the Deputy Prime Minister in offering our warmest congratulations to the President of the United States, Barack Obama. This morning, he spoke of his determination to create more jobs, health care for all, and to tackle the scourge of inequality. We wish him well.

Lord Justice Leveson will be publishing his report and recommendations soon. The Deputy Prime Minister said that provided those proposals are “proportionate and workable”, the Government should implement them, and the Opposition agree. When Leveson’s report is published, will the Government convene cross-party talks to take it forward? We need a strong, free press, and a proper system to protect people from being, as the Prime Minister said, “thrown to the wolves”.

I agree with much of what the right hon. and learned Lady says about Leveson. We have not yet seen his proposals and we must wait to see what he comes up with, but if those proposals are workable and proportionate, we should, of course, seek to support them. That is the whole point of the exercise. I also agree that we should work on a cross-party basis where we can. This is a major issue that escapes normal tribal point scoring in party politics, and there are two principles, both of which the right hon. and learned Lady alludes to. First, we must do everything we can to ensure that we maintain a free, raucous and independent press. That is what makes our democracy and the country what it is. Secondly, we must ensure that the vulnerable are protected from abuse by the powerful, which happened on an unacceptable scale on too many occasions. We need to be able to look the parents of Milly Dowler in the eye, and say that, in future, there will be permanently independent forms of recourse, sanction and accountability when things go wrong.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. We must have a press that report the truth without fear or favour. However, after all the evidence that came out during the inquiry, particularly, as he says, from the Dowlers and the McCanns, we simply cannot continue with the status quo, or a press complaints system in which a publication can simply walk away, or a system that is run by the press. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a version of “business as usual” will simply not do? It would be a dereliction of our duty to allow the Leveson report to be kicked into the long grass.

I think everybody accepts, whatever their individual views about this matter, that “business as usual” is simply not acceptable. The status quo has failed, and it has failed over and over again. The model of self-regulation that we have seen over the past few years has not worked when things have gone awry. I certainly agree with that premise, and we in Government created the Leveson inquiry to seek out recommendations for change. That is the whole point of the Leveson inquiry.

I look forward to all hon. Members having the opportunity to work together in the public interest to get this right.

This week, the Deputy Prime Minister sent an e-mail to his party members. In it, he described the task of finding child care as a “real nightmare”. Is it not clear that cutting the child care element of tax credits has made that nightmare worse for parents?

What has helped many people who have struggled to make ends meet and pay for child care is the fact that this Government are providing 15 hours of free, pre-school support and child care to every three and four-year-old in the country. No Government have done that before, and as of next April, it is this Government who will be providing 15 hours of pre-school support and child care to some of the poorest two-year-olds in the country. No other Government have done that before. It is this Government who are taking 2 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax altogether, and that is a record I am proud of.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s answer has shown that he is completely out of touch. The reality is that many part-time working parents are having to give up their jobs because of the cuts in tax credit, and having instead to be on benefits. I asked him about the child care element of the tax credit, and he has not answered. Why will he not admit that the cut he voted for has cost families £500, and 44,000 families are losing out? If that was not bad enough, the Government are cutting £1 billion from Sure Start. In his e-mail, he said he would reveal—[Interruption.]

Order. The junior Minister in the back row—the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—thinks her views are relevant, but we are not interested. [Interruption.] Order. I do not want heckling. I want the question to be heard, and it will be heard with courtesy. If the session has to be extended for that to happen, so be it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am beginning to have quite a lot of sympathy with the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) and her experience of all those rats and snakes—even before she went to the jungle.

In the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-mail, he said he would reveal—[Interruption.]

Order. I have made the point once, and I am going to make it only once more. Mr Jason McCartney: your heckling is not wanted, it does not help. Stop it, and stop it for the remainder of this session and in future. I have made the position clear.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

In the Deputy Prime Minister’s e-mail, he said he would reveal what really goes on behind those Whitehall doors. Perhaps in next week’s instalment, he will therefore tell the truth: under his Government, families are worse off, aren’t they?

As of next April, because of one of the most radical tax changes introduced by any Government in living memory, 24 million basic rate taxpayers will be £550 better off. That is a radical change I am very proud of. I am proud of the fact that two, three and four-year-olds will benefit from our changes. As the right hon. and learned Lady may have noticed, the much-quoted Resolution Trust report recently showed that tax credits are not the best answers for many families. Yes, I accept that we need to do more to make child care affordable, so that more women can get back into work at an earlier stage. That is what this Government are setting about doing while we are cleaning up the mess she left behind.

The Deputy Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box and says one thing, but he does something completely different—he is at it again on the police. Two years ago, he made a solemn election pledge that the Lib Dems would provide 3,000 more police officers, but there are not more—there are 6,800 fewer. It is tuition fees all over again. Why should anyone trust the Lib Dems on policing?

At least people can trust the Conservatives and Lib Dems on the economy. Let me explain. The shadow Chancellor is not here—[Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is in danger of being heckled rather noisily and stupidly by both sides. His answer will be heard, however long it takes, so the juvenile delinquency should stop now.

I am used to getting it from both sides.

The shadow Chancellor is not in the Chamber, but just to underline my point, last year, in a television interview, he denied that there was a structural deficit while Labour was in power. Last month, in another television interview, he denied the denial. Now that he is briefing against himself in television interviews, how an earth will anyone ever have any faith that his lot can sort out the economy?

People are finding that they cannot trust this Government on the economy. Because of the Government the Deputy Prime Minister supports, we have lost two years of economic growth, and borrowing is going up. I do not know why Government Members are all so cheerful about the cuts in police numbers. They might not be bothered, but their constituents certainly are. It is always the same with the Lib Dems. People cannot trust them on tuition fees or child care, and when it comes to voting next week, people will remember that they certainly cannot trust them on the police.

What about her promise of no boom and bust? What happened to that one? This coalition has now been in power for two and a half years. In those two and a half years, we have given 24 million basic rate taxpayers an income tax cut; we have taken 2 million on low pay out of paying any income tax; we have cut the deficit by a quarter; and we have reformed welfare. What have she and her colleagues done? What have they done? They have gone on a few marches; they have denied any responsibility for the mess we are in; and they have not even filled in their blank sheet of paper where there should be some policies. She might be hoping for some bad news to make her point: we are sorting out the mess she left behind.

Q2. Moving on, as we must, I echo the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on the US presidential election and congratulate Mr Obama on his victory. It is always good to see a leader re-elected in difficult times.Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, alongside new, emerging markets—including, of course, those in the middle east—Britain should seek to strengthen our economic and trade ties with the US through a new trade deal, as we seek to boost our recovery and perhaps start one across the channel? (126818)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The lesson of the presidential election is that voters’ memories are longer than Opposition Members seem to think, because when it comes to actually casting a vote, voters remember who created the mess in the first place and who has to do the painstaking, difficult and, yes, longer than we had hoped job of sorting out that mess.

On the wider issue, of course there is so much we now need to do to work with the new Obama Administration. The hon. Gentleman mentions trade: I would like to see a new EU-US free trade agreement, which could create a real spur to economic growth in both economies. I was also delighted to hear overnight that President Obama singled out his commitment to dealing with climate change—another area in which we can work very well with him.

Q3. The Deputy Prime Minister tells us that he supports the living wage and the increase announced on Monday. Can he tell us how many Lib Dem councils pay the living wage? (126819)

Order. The hon. Lady has asked the Deputy Prime Minister a question. I hope that hon. Members will have the courtesy to listen to the answer. I certainly want to hear it.

As the hon. Lady knows, her own leader has said that this is a voluntary process by which we need to encourage councils and employers in the public and private sectors to pay the living wage. No one will disagree with the idea of a living wage, with people being paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but there is a lot of extra work to be done to make that a reality. But guess what? It is this Government’s tax changes that will mean that as of next April someone on the minimum wage will have their income tax cut by half.

The tragic death of Private David Lee Collins while off duty in Cyprus is a devastating blow to his mother, who is my constituent, and to family and friends across Manchester. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are working with the Cypriot authorities to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice?

Everybody’s hearts will go out to the mother and other family and friends of David Lee Collins, who came to such an untimely death in the way my hon. Friend describes. It is obviously right for him to raise the issue on behalf of David Lee Collins’s mother, and I can certainly assure him that the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office will do everything they can to find out exactly what happened and bring the perpetrators to justice. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence, who is in his place, will seek to keep him updated as things evolve.

Q4. Homes were wrecked and much-needed crops destroyed in the devastating floods that affected my constituency last month, and there are warnings that we face another winter of floods. The Government promised to bring forward plans for a new deal on flood insurance in July, but my worried constituents are still waiting. When will this incompetent and out of touch Government actually act on ensuring that ordinary families and businesses are protected from flooding—or will this be another broken promise? (126820)

The hon. Lady packed every soundbite into that one. We are involved in very detailed discussions with the insurance industry precisely to provide her constituents with the reassurances they rightly seek. I point out only that that is an agreement between the Government and the insurance industry that was never reached in the 13 years when Labour was in power. We are doing that work now. It is complicated work. It is very important work. We are devoting a lot of attention to it, and I hope we will be able to make an announcement in the not-too-distant future.

Q13. Thousands of people in Syria are being killed each month, and the suffering of its people is immense. Sources within the country say that British assistance has been slow, and that the priority ought to be to support the civil administration councils so that basic water and sewerage services can be connected. What more can the Prime Minister do, in discussion with President Obama, to bring about a solution to this crisis? (126830)

I know that the Prime Minister, who of course is in the region right now, discusses this on an ongoing basis with the President of the United States, and will continue to do so. We are the second largest bilateral donor in Syria. Of course, the circumstances on the ground are incredibly difficult for the delivery of aid and assistance, but we need to make every effort to accelerate it, and to get it to the right people in a timely manner and to the right places. Any suggestions that the hon. Gentleman wishes to make to the Department for International Development, and to other Departments, about how we should do that would of course be warmly received.

Q5. Official documents show that the Healthier Together review’s “best option” is downgrading Kettering general hospital’s A and E, maternity, children and acute services, and cutting 515 of its 658 beds. How can anyone believe the Prime Minister when he claims that those NHS services are safe in his hands? (126821)

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Lady persists in this wilful scaremongering. She plucks out the worst-case scenario when, as she knows, no decision has been taken. Instead of frightening people about what is happening in our NHS, why does she not celebrate the great work of our nurses, our doctors and other clinicians in the NHS who are delivering an absolutely world-class service for the people of Kettering, Corby and elsewhere?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to marine renewable energy, especially in the south-west?

Marine renewable energy is clearly an area where the south-west has a natural advantage, and is one of the many areas of renewable energy that is reflected in our diverse approach to renewable energy generation. We have to wean ourselves off an over-reliance on one kind of energy generation, and spread our bets more fairly and sustainably in the future.

Q6. Not only is it Obama day, but national adoption week. My ten-minute rule Bill in the previous Session called for equalising statutory rights for leave, pay and allowances between adoptive parents and parents whose children are born to them. That can be done by regulations, so will the Deputy Prime Minister ask a Minister or two to meet me to eliminate that unfairness? (126822)

I will certainly make sure that the relevant Minister meets the hon. Lady, and I pay tribute to her for her long-standing campaign to equalise the rights of parents of adopted children—for instance, on parental leave—with other parents. I certainly believe that that should be the case. The Government have been looking at the issue closely and I hope that we will be able to make an announcement in the not-too-distant future.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Chancellor’s initiative to get the OECD to crackdown on international tax avoidance is all the more important when one considers that non-oil corporation tax went up by just 6% in the past 15 years, while income tax receipts almost doubled?

Yes, and that is why it is right that the Treasury and the Chancellor have been so assiduous in providing additional resources to ensure that the teams in Whitehall—Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others—who crack down on tax avoidance are able to do so. The figures that we hope to be able to recoup in tax paid, which would otherwise have been avoided, are truly eye-watering. Billions and billions of pounds of tax will come into the vaults of the Exchequer which otherwise would have gone walkabout.

Q7. The newly published world prosperity index shows our Nordic neighbours, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, holding the top three spots. In the last quarter, the oil fund of our neighbour Norway grew by $29.3 billion to an eye-watering $660 billion—equivalent to £5,000 for each Norwegian family. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the Norwegians on their society and their enviable prosperity? (126824)

The Scottish National party’s arc of prosperity keeps changing. Last time I looked, it included Iceland, but now it does not. What will the hon. Gentleman do next? Pick out Malaysia or Indonesia? Try and be a bit more consistent, please!

Q8. The Deputy Prime Minister’s predecessor and mine is Labour’s excellent candidate in the police and crime commissioner elections in Humberside, but the Tory candidate describes the role as the “job from hell”. Does he agree with his Tory colleague, or does he think that he has it harder? (126825)

I will not try to compare notes with my predecessor on the police and crime commissioner elections. I hope that everyone will turn out to vote, but the fact that so many has-been Labour politicians and recycled ex-Labour Ministers are standing might put quite a lot of people off. None the less, I hope that people will participate in these important elections.

Last week, Stephen Farrow was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal murder of my constituent Betty Yates and of Thornbury resident Rev. John Suddards. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in sending our congratulations to the police and thanking them for the speedy and successful conclusion of this case and in sending our deepest condolences to the families of both victims?

I am sure that the whole House wishes to join my hon. Friend in sending our sincerest heartfelt condolences to the victims’ families and friends and, as he said, in paying tribute to the police for moving very fast. It is incredibly important in heart-rending cases such as these that the public see that, where possible, justice is done and done as rapidly as possible.

Q9. Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain to the House why the Liberal Democrats are fielding only 21 candidates out of 44 in the police and crime commissioner elections? (126826)

Because we are standing in those areas where Liberal Democrats wish to stand as candidates. [Laughter.] I know that the Labour party does not understand the meaning of the words “internal party democracy”, but it is something I am proud we have. The hon. Gentleman should try it some day.

Q10. After inheriting from Labour a legacy of obscene bonuses and the biggest divide between rich and poor, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the Government’s overriding ambition is to deliver a fairer Britain, and that one way of doing that is through affordable and social rented housing that delivers both fairness and growth? (126827)

Yes, and that is why it is so important that we have committed to £20 billion of investment in affordable housing, generating tens and tens of thousands of more affordable homes so that families have an affordable home they can call their own. I also draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the significance of the announcement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government yesterday that we will be looking at doubling the amount of money in local authority pension funds that can be used to invest up to £22 billion of extra money into local infrastructure. That is the way to make this country fair and to get the economy moving.

Q11. On behalf of my party, may I join in the tribute to the two soldiers, as well as prison officer David Black, who gave their lives last week? Tomorrow morning will mark the 25th anniversary of the Poppy Day massacre in Enniskillen. Twelve lives were cruelly taken and 63 people were injured when the IRA bombed the service of remembrance at the town’s cenotaph. This week, the police received a new line of inquiry. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in echoing the survivors’ call for justice and for new information to be brought forward? (126828)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman speaks on behalf of us all when he says we should pause and reflect on the terrible suffering of those who now have to re-live, 25 years later, all the memories of that terrible atrocity and those who were killed, injured or maimed. I know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be attending the anniversary event. This is an extremely difficult week for all who suffered at that time and have had to live with those memories ever since; and, yes, of course I can confirm that where there are new leads or new evidence, they will be pursued rigorously, and we will provide all support to ensure that that is the case.

Under the previous Government, officials used discretion to refuse to provide to people who were brought up in care information about their cases. Will the Deputy Prime Minister look to open the files so that people who were brought up in care can find out what happened to them?

I certainly think my hon. Friend is right in saying that, given the daily drip, drip effect of these horrific revelations—which seem to get worse every day—about things that seem to have taken place on a scale that was before now unimaginable, we should send out a clear message from all parts of this House to any victim who is sitting at home alone, still harbouring terrible memories of the terrible suffering they endured, that this is the time for them to speak out. This is the time for them to come forward. We will help them; we will reach out to them. We will make sure that their suffering is atoned for and that where we can find those who perpetrated these terrible abuses, they are brought to justice, even several years since those events might first have occurred.

Q12. Scotland’s First Minister has misled the public on legal advice that does not exist and rewritten the ministerial code for his own gain, and there are strong suggestions that he will ignore the Electoral Commission in the upcoming referendum. People in Scotland are losing faith in the First Minister, and this Government are in danger of being complicit in yet another muddle. Does the Deputy Prime Minister trust the First Minister to deliver a fair, legal and decisive referendum on separation? (126829)

I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that we have been working on a cross-party basis, particularly with those parties that believe in maintaining the family of nations in the United Kingdom, to ensure a fair, legal and decisive vote in the referendum. I certainly agree with her characterisation: the spectacle of the SNP Administration using taxpayers’ money to stop disclosure to the public of legal advice that they never sought in the first place—honestly, you couldn’t make it up. It is almost a bit like dropping Iceland from the arc of prosperity.

Q14. Rising prices to heat their homes and drive their cars are putting enormous pressures on people, particularly in large rural areas such as Argyll and Bute. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to make the tax system fairer and put more money in the pockets of people on low and middle incomes to help them to pay these rising bills? (126831)

That is precisely why the centrepiece tax reform of this Government is a radical one to lift the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000, up from £6,400, which is where we found it when we took over from Labour. When we deliver that, it will deliver a £700 tax cut to more than 24 million basic-rate taxpayers in this country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We should celebrate that.

Bearing in mind that we were selling arms to the Gaddafi regime right up to the uprising, is the Deputy Prime Minister pleased that the Prime Minister is busy now selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country where human rights are non-existent and where amputations and floggings take place frequently—and we know how women are treated there? Is that Liberal Democrat policy as well?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have the strictest controls of almost any developed economy in the world governing the conditions under which we can sell arms to other countries. Nothing that we do in promoting our arms industry, which employs thousands of people in this country, impedes our ability to tell allies and other Governments where we have real concerns about their human rights record, democratic record or civil liberties record, and that is exactly what the Prime Minister has been doing this week.

I sometimes think the Deputy Prime Minister would like to send me to a jungle in Australia for a month, but does he agree that when two different parties get together in the national interest to clear up the mess that Labour left us, we are doing the right thing, in particular by driving unemployment down? Let me just pick one constituency: in Corby, it went down 4.6% last month.

For the first time in my parliamentary career I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Let us savour and treasure this moment, because I suspect it will be very, very rare indeed. Like him, when I heard that the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) had been sent to a jungle to eat insects, I thought that, despite the appearance of civility from our new Chief Whip, it indicated a new disciplinarian approach in our Whips Office. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman: we are doing the great job together of fixing the economy and creating jobs for people in the future, and that is a great shared endeavour.