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Volume 553: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2012

Before I list my engagements, the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sympathies and our condolences to the family of Captain Walter Barrie, of 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. He was described as a fantastic, engaging and professional soldier. He will be truly missed by all who knew him. Our nation must never forget his service and his sacrifice. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Barrie and all our soldiers working so heroically in Afghanistan?

In Stoke-on-Trent, libraries are closing, teachers are being laid off and youth clubs are shutting their doors. Given that public funds are so precious, does the Prime Minister really think it was a good use of taxpayers’ money to waste £100 million on the farcical police and crime commissioner elections in November?

I think it is good that, right across the country, we are now going to have local law and order champions, who will stand up for the public and ensure that we get a good deal from the police. I have noticed that Labour has two criticisms of the police and crime commissioners: on the one hand it said we spent too much money; on the other hand, it said that we did not spend enough money promoting the elections. I am prepared to accept one criticism or the other, but not both.

Yesterday the British Government borrowed money from international investors at record low levels, saving taxpayers millions of pounds. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is more evidence that our economic plans are working?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that because of the fact that we have a credible plan to get on top of debt, to get on top of deficit, to show how we will pay our way in the world, we have record low interest rates, which were described by the shadow Chancellor as the key test of economic credibility.

May I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Walter Barrie, of 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland? He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and all our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends.

May I also express my deep sorrow about the loss of life and suffering in Israel and Gaza in recent days, including the latest appalling terrorist attack on a bus in Tel Aviv? There is widespread support on both sides of the House for the agreement of an immediate and durable ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, so will the Prime Minister set out, in his view, the remaining barriers to that ceasefire agreement now being reached?

May I say how much I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the appalling news this morning about the terrorist attack on a bus in Tel Aviv? May I also express our deep concern about the intolerable situation for people in southern Israel and the grave loss of life in Gaza?

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically what more we can do to help bring this ceasefire about. I think that all of us, right across the European Union, and in America and beyond, need to be putting pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister and all those who have contacts with Hamas, to de-escalate, to stop the fighting, to stop the bombing; and that is exactly what I have done. Over the weekend, I spoke twice to the Israeli Prime Minister and once to the President of Israel—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is working very hard on this as well—to persuade both sides that we need a ceasefire. Beyond that, obviously what we need is proper discussions about the future of Israel and Palestine.

I agree with the Prime Minister: he is right to say that any such ceasefire deal can be turned into permanent peace only if there is a resumption of meaningful negotiations towards a two-state solution. This week has shown us once again that there is neither peace nor a peace process, and the reality is that the international community bears some responsibility for the abject failure to have those meaningful negotiations, nine years on from the promise of the road map for peace. Can the right hon. Gentleman set out for the House what steps beyond the hoped-for ceasefire need to be taken to pressure both sides into meaningful negotiations?

I agree that we need a process to be put in place and we have to do everything we can to persuade President Obama that this should be a leading priority for his second presidential term, but I make this point: of course we all want this process and we all want this peace, but in the end peace can come about only by Israelis and Palestinians sitting down and talking through the final status issues—they have to discuss borders, Jerusalem and refugees. In the end, as President Obama is fond of saying, and I agree, we cannot want this more than they want it. We have to encourage them, provide the framework and push for a process, but in the end we need courageous leadership from Israelis and Palestinians to talk through those final status issues.

That is completely right, but we have to use every means at our disposal to pressure both sides into those negotiations, because the reality is that confidence that there can be a two-state solution is dwindling month by month. There will be an opportunity to support the cause of the two-state solution at the UN General Assembly later this month by recognising enhanced observer status for the Palestinian Authority. The Opposition support that because we believe it will strengthen the moderate voices among the Palestinians who want to pursue the path of politics, not the path of violence. I urge the Prime Minister to consider adopting that position in the days ahead.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the first part of what he said: confidence is dwindling that there is time left for a two-state solution. That is why there is such a sense of urgency in the international community—this could be the last chance for peace, because the facts on the ground are changing. Frankly, I think it is so much in Israel’s interest now to push for the two-state solution, so we should keep up the pressure.

On the potential vote at the United Nations, our view, which I know the Foreign Secretary set out for the House in some detail yesterday, is that the Palestinians should not take it to the UN in the short term, and we have urged them not to do that. Clearly, if they do so, we will have to consider the right way to vote. The point is this: we will not solve this problem at the United Nations; it will be solved only by Israelis and Palestinians sitting down and negotiating. Indeed, there may be dangers in pushing the issue too early at the UN in terms of funds for the Palestinian Authority being cut off and all the other consequences, so let us get negotiations going, rather than discussions at the UN.

If the Prime Minister wants to send a clear message that Scotland and England belong together and have a better future together, should he not be doing his best to make sure that the principal road from London to Edinburgh is a modern dual carriageway and does not become a country lane?

My right hon. Friend makes a very attractive spending bid for the autumn statement. Although my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is not here, I am sure that Treasury colleagues were listening closely.

Q2. The Prime Minister claimed that universal credit will “bring about the most fundamental and radical changes to the welfare system since it began”. Given the Government’s propensity for omnishambles, can he guarantee that the second phase of universal credit will be implemented in April 2014 and not delayed? (128799)

Universal credit is a good reform and I thought it was welcomed across the House because it puts in place proper work incentives for people at all levels of income, and is also highly progressive in channelling money to those who need it the most. I can tell the hon. Lady that universal credit is on time and on budget and, indeed, a pilot scheme is to start shortly.

The person responsible for the murder of Becky Godden-Edwards, whose mother is my constituent, has not been brought to justice because important incriminating evidence was excluded from the court process. Will my right hon. Friend join our cause in calling for a thorough review of code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, so that such terrible situations will not occur in future?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend raises and the specific case he mentions. I will also look at the issue of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. It is always important that all information that possibly can be put in front of a court is put in front of a court, so that it can reach the correct decision.

Q3. Cuts in front-line policing, together with cuts to police pensions and conditions in service, have led 96% of the police force to believe that this Government do not support them. Does the Prime Minister think that that is a problem and, if so, what will he do about it? (128800)

This Government strongly support our police service and what it does. These are people who go out every day and put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe. Frankly, whoever was in government right now would have to be making cuts to police budgets, but if we actually look at what is happening in policing, we see that the number of neighbourhood police has gone up, the percentage of police on the front line has gone up, the number of police in back-office roles has gone down and, crucially, that crime is down and satisfaction with the police is up.

Q4. So that people do not have to wade through hundreds of bamboozling tariff plans, will the Prime Minister confirm that this Government will legislate to ensure that people can access the best deals, which the Leader of the Opposition failed to do as Energy Secretary? (128801)

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that, having stood at this Dispatch Box and said that we wanted to ensure that people got access to the lowest tariffs, that is exactly what we have achieved. If Opposition Members have doubts about this, let me quote a Labour shadow Energy Minister, who said this about our change:

“It also means some of the most expensive deals would have to go...Being able to reduce the number of tariffs for people is going to help people get a clearer picture of what is happening and that can only be a good thing.”

That is the sort of endorsement that I welcome.

The Government promised that there should be no rationing in the NHS on grounds of cost alone. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he has kept that promise?

The promise that we have kept is that we said that we would increase NHS spending every year under this Government, and in England that is what is happening. In Wales, of course, there is a massive cut in the NHS, because it is run by Labour.

First of all, there are 7,000 fewer nurses in the NHS than when the Prime Minister came to power, according to the figures published this morning. I asked him a specific question about the promise made a year ago by the then Health Secretary—the Prime Minister sacked him and he is now the Leader of the House—that there would be no rationing on the grounds of cost alone, but the president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists said recently—[Interruption.] Government Members should listen, because he said that

“PCTs are not following government guidelines.”

Half of health commissioners are restricting access to cataract surgery. [Interruption.] I do not think that the Prime Minister should ask the former Health Secretary for help, because he got rid of him from the post. Can the Prime Minister tell me why, for the first time in six years, the number of cataract operations actually fell last year?

What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that, under this Government, the number of doctors is up, the number of operations is up, waiting lists are down and waiting times are down. That is what is happening because we took the responsible decision. He quotes primary care trusts, which, of course, we are abolishing and putting the money into front-line services. That is what is happening under this Government. The Opposition and he believe that increasing spending on the NHS is irresponsible; we think it is the right thing to do.

Once again, the Prime Minister has no clue about the detail—he has no idea what is actually happening out there on the ground. To give him credit, he did make history this week, because he now has his very own word in the “Oxford English Dictionary”: “omnishambles.” The reality is that the reason people are suffering on the ground is that he has wasted billions of pounds on a top-down reorganisation of the NHS that nobody wanted and nobody voted for, just like he wasted millions of pounds on police commissioner elections. He does not listen, he is out of touch and last Thursday the people of Corby spoke for the country.

Last Thursday the people of Humberside spoke for the whole nation. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Happily, there is more, because the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said that this

“is not just about the police. This is a referendum on everything this…government has done…On the health, on the education, on the local authorities”,

and people took the first opportunity to kick him out.

I think that it is the leader of the Labour party who made history this week, because he told his conference that he wanted to be Disraeli; he told Radio 4 that he wanted to be Margaret Thatcher; he came to this House and said that he was more Eurosceptic than Bill Cash; and then he went to the CBI and said that he loved Europe even more than Tony Blair. He has impersonated more politicians than Rory Bremner, but this time the joke is on him.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a free press is one of the cornerstones of a true democracy, and that any attempt to muzzle newspapers, such as those of the excellent Kent Messenger Group in my constituency, should be strenuously resisted? (128803)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I join him in expressing my admiration for the Kent Messenger Group and all that it does. The problems there have been in our newspaper industry have not concerned regional and local titles, which perform an incredibly important function in our democratic system. However, we all have to wait for the Leveson report, study it carefully and respond to what it says.

Q6. Allow me to present a tale of two companies. The first is Red Hot Comics in my constituency, which employs seven people and pays every penny of the tax that is due, on time. Its main competitor, Amazon UK, brings in revenue of up to £4.5 billion, and yet last year it paid less than £1 million in tax. Will the Prime Minister follow the example of the French Government, who have issued a back claim for unpaid tax against Amazon, or will he allow us to draw our own conclusions about whose side he is on? (128804)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about ensuring that companies make fair contributions and fair tax payments in our country. We have put an extra £900 million into the Inland Revenue to ensure that we get companies and individuals to pay their taxes properly. Yesterday I announced that one of the key priorities of the G8, which I will be chairing from January and which, I am pleased to announce, will meet in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland next June, will be to get proper international agreement so that companies pay their taxes properly.

May I highlight for my right hon. Friend a free school that will be opening in one of the most deprived wards in Wolverhampton next year? It will provide a real ladder for social mobility for young people. It is a great, tangible advert for what this Government are doing in education, and he is more than welcome to visit.

That is a very kind invitation. I recently held a meeting at No. 10 Downing street for all the 78 free schools that have been established over the past two and a half years. We are making good progress. I want many hundreds of free schools to be established between now and the next election. It is of note that, whereas the last Government managed 200 hundred academies in 13 years, we have managed 2,000 in two and a half years. We want to give the academies and free schools agenda the biggest boost that we can.