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Volume 554: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012

Before I answer, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our sympathies to the victims of the appalling flooding that we have seen across our country in recent days, and in giving support and praise to our emergency services—the police, fire and ambulance services—and to the Environment Agency, local councils, voluntary bodies and good neighbours, who have all done extraordinary things to help those in distress.

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.

The whole House will of course endorse the words of the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our fantastic emergency services in responding to the terrible floods, and those who have been victims of them.

Tomorrow sees the publication of the Leveson report. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who should be uppermost in our minds are the victims, unfairly, of previous media intrusion? Does he also agree that the status quo needs updating?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating; the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change. This Government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system. I am looking forward to reading the report carefully, and I am sure that all Members will want to consider it carefully. I think we should try to work across party lines on this issue. It is right to meet other party leaders about this issue, and I will do so. What matters most, I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public will have confidence.

Let me associate myself entirely with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the victims of flooding. All my sympathies and the sympathies of Labour Members go to those victims, and our thanks go to the emergency services and the Environment Agency for the fantastic job that they do.

Let me also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the Leveson report, which will be published tomorrow. I hope that we can work on this on an all-party basis. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change, and I hope that this House can make it happen.

When the Work programme was launched in June 2011, the Prime Minister described it as

“the biggest and boldest programme since the great depression.”

Eighteen months on, can he update the House on how it is going?

Yes, I can update the House. Over 800,000 people have taken part in the Work programme, over half of whom came off benefits. Over 200,000 people have got into work because of the Work programme. It is worth remembering that the Work programme is dealing with the hardest to employ cases in our country; these are adults who have been out of work for over a year and young people who have been out of work for over nine months. On that basis, yes, we need to make further progress, but it is the right programme.

But the scheme is supposed to create sustained jobs for people, and in a whole year of the programme just two out of every 100 people got a job—that is a success rate of 2%. The Government estimate—[Interruption.] I do not know why the part-time Chancellor is chuntering—yesterday in Cabinet he was telling off the Work and Pensions Secretary for the failure of the Work programme.

The Government estimate that without the Work programme—this is the basis on which they did the tender—five out of every 100 people would get a job. Is it an historic first to have designed a welfare-to-work programme in which someone is more likely to get a job if they are not on that programme?

I have to say to the Leader of the Opposition that I listened very carefully to what he said, and what he said was wrong. He said that only 2% of people on this programme got a job. That is not correct. More than 800,000 people have taken part, and more than 200,000 have got into work. The specific figure that he referred to concerned people continuously in work for six months—but of course, he is only looking at a programme that has been going for a year, and the figure is 19,000 people. He should listen to the CBI, which said that

“the Work Programme has already helped to turn around the lives of thousands of people”.

Those are people who Labour left on the scrap heap. The right hon. Gentleman should be apologising, not attacking the Work programme.

I think that is as close as we get to an admission that I was right and he was wrong.

The Prime Minister boasted that his flagship policy, the Work programme, was about tackling the scourge of long-term unemployment. Will he confirm that since the Work programme was introduced in June 2011, long-term unemployment has risen by 96%?

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the employment numbers: a million more private sector jobs over the past two years; since the last election, 190,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits; in the last quarter, employment up by 100,000 people and unemployment down by 49,000. While we are at it, let us remember Labour’s poisonous legacy: youth unemployment up by 40%; unemployment among women up by 24%; and 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. That is the legacy we are dealing with, and we are getting the country back to work.

I wish for once that the Prime Minister would just answer the question. I asked him a very simple question about whether long-term unemployment has gone up by 96% since the Work programme was introduced, and the answer is yes. While he is talking about Labour’s programmes, let us talk about the future jobs fund. Last Friday, the Government issued a very interesting document. The Prime Minister spent two years rubbishing the future jobs fund but what did this document say? It said that the scheme provided

“net benefit to participants, their employers and society as a whole.”

In other words, it was a success. The Prime Minister rubbished the programme yet it helped 120,000 young people into work. His Work programme has helped only 3,000—[Hon. Members: “What does it cost?”] They shout, “What does it cost?”, but we cannot afford not to have young people in work. Is the truth that the Prime Minister got rid of a Labour programme that was working, and replaced it with a Tory one that is not?

Once again the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong so let me give him the figures. The Government’s work experience programme sees half of the young people who take part get into work. That is the same result as for the future jobs fund, and it costs 20 times less. That is the truth: our programme is good value for taxpayers’ money and it is getting people into work. The right hon. Gentleman wasted money and left people on the dole.

The more the Prime Minister blusters, the redder he gets and the less convincing he is. That is the reality. We know in real time what happened at yesterday’s Cabinet—they were at each other like rats in a sack. The Chancellor blames the Work and Pensions Secretary; the Work and Pensions Secretary blames the Chancellor for the lack of growth. The Prime Minister is doing what he does best and blaming everyone else for the failure. Is the reality that the Government’s failure on the Work programme is a product of their failure to get growth, and the failure of their whole economic strategy?

The right hon. Gentleman worked in a Government where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor could not be in the same room as each other—rats in a sack does not even cover it.

Why not have a look at what the right hon. Gentleman has achieved on welfare this week? Once again this week, Labour voted against the welfare cap. Today, the Opposition are asking us to vote on a motion in the House on welfare. Last night, the motion specifically said they wanted further reform of welfare, but today the motion mentions nothing about it. The truth is that they are against the benefit cap, against the housing benefit cap and against the Work programme. They are officially the party of something for nothing.

I will tell the Prime Minister the reality. His welfare reform programme is failing because there is not the work, and his economic strategy is failing. That is the reality. He has a Work programme that is not working, a growth strategy that is not delivering, and a deficit that is rising. The Government are failing, the Prime Minister is failing and the British people—

Calm down, calm down. The Prime Minister just cannot keep his cool when he knows he is losing the argument, and it is the British people who are paying the price for his failure.

I think what we can see is a leadership that is drowning. This Government have cut corporation tax, scrapped the jobs tax, introduced enterprise zones, backed the regional growth fund, and funded 1 million apprenticeships, and we are rebuilding our economy so that we see 1 million more people in private sector work. We are putting the country back to work; Labour wrecked it.

Q2. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Milton Keynes-based Red Bull Formula 1 team on winning the world championship for three years in a row? They are another fine example of British technological innovation. (130300)

I am delighted to praise and pay tribute to the Formula 1 team based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which sadly beat the Formula 1 team—Lotus Renault—based in mine. It is a remarkable fact that almost all of the Formula 1 cars, wherever they are racing in the world, are built, designed and engineered here in Britain. It is an industry in which we lead the world, and we should be very proud of it.

Q3. The Prime Minister must have studied his Government’s own report that shows that the future jobs fund had a net benefit to participants, employers and society. Given that report, and that youth unemployment is now higher in Leicester than it was at the general election, why did he tell me in questions a year ago that the future jobs fund provided only “phoney jobs”? (130301)

The hon. Gentleman needs first to explain why youth unemployment went up 40% under the Labour Government. The facts of the future jobs fund are these: the figures show that 2% of the placements in Birmingham under the future jobs fund were in the private sector, but the rest were in the public sector. The cost of the scheme was 20 times higher than the work experience placement, which is doing just as well.

My right hon. Friend is aware that the Government are consulting on the compensation people will receive if High Speed 2 goes ahead. This is critical for people in my constituency. Will he give me a personal undertaking that he will study the proposals for the final packages for compensation and ensure that those people whose homes, businesses and lives will be totally disrupted by the scheme if it goes ahead are both fairly and generously compensated?

I absolutely give that undertaking that I will look carefully at the scheme. As my right hon. Friend knows, we are consulting at the moment. The proposals we have put forward are as good as the scheme for HS1 and better than the compensation scheme for previous motorway developments. As she also knows, there is an advance purchase scheme for property purchase to simplify the process for property owners in the safeguarded area. There is also a voluntary purchase scheme to allow home owners outside the area to have their homes purchased. I am very happy to discuss with her and others how we can ensure that the scheme works properly for people.

Q4. On Monday, the police and crime commissioner, Bob Jones, and Chief Constable Chris Sims, called for a fair deal for policing for Birmingham and the west midlands, which arguably has the highest policing needs outside London. How can the Prime Minister hope to build one nation if areas such as Birmingham and the west midlands lose 800 front-line police officers while low-crime areas such as Surrey get an extra 250 bobbies on the beat? Do not we all deserve to live in safe communities? (130302)

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that yes, we have asked the police to make funding reductions. They have been able to do that, keeping a higher proportion of bobbies on the front line, which has been effective, and taking people out of back-office jobs. At the same time, crime has fallen and public confidence in the police has risen. Yes, we are asking the police to take difficult decisions, but they are doing it and they are delivering.

Q5. I congratulate the coalition Government on introducing regulations to protect the welfare of wild animals performing in travelling circuses. This House voted overwhelmingly for a complete ban in 2011. While we wait for a draft Bill to be published, will the Prime Minister commit to introducing legislation so that this ban can be introduced in this Parliament? (130303)

It is our intention to do just that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the fact that we have changed the regulations in advance of legislation, so that the clearly expressed will of this House can be met.

Petrol prices in this country are among the very highest in the EU, and diesel prices are the very highest. Given that the Prime Minister is introducing minimum limits on alcohol pricing, can he turn his mind to maximum limits on fuel duty and start reducing the price of petrol and diesel for hard-pressed families and businesses across the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Because of the changes we have made, petrol and diesel are 10p less a litre than they otherwise would have been if we had kept the tax increases that were put in place by the Opposition. That is the effect of this Government and we want to go on making that progress.

Q6. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Buckfastleigh with me yesterday, a town in my constituency severely affected by flooding. What the people of Buckfastleigh wish to know is how they are now going to get flooding insurance at affordable rates, particularly given that many homes have been blighted. Will he join me in pressing the Association of British Insurers to stop grandstanding in its negotiations with the Government, to get down to the table and thrash out a deal so that my constituents can get the insurance they need? (130304)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I very much enjoyed visiting his constituency with him yesterday, seeing at first hand the appalling damage done by the floods and speaking with local people, the emergency services and the Environment Agency about all the work that is being done to protect more houses in future. We need to address the insurance issue and negotiations are under way. The Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) is leading for the Government. I want us to get a resolution so that insurance companies provide what they are meant to provide, which is insurance for people living in their homes who want proper protection.

I thank the Prime Minister for his expressions of sympathy for the family of my elderly constituent who died in the floods. I join him in expressing sympathy to the families of all those—I think four people—who have died in the floods. Will the Prime Minister immediately reverse the 30% cuts he has made to flood defences in the past two years? What part will he play in the issue of flood insurance for those who live in flood risk areas?

Let me join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to his constituents, who have had to bear some truly terrible floods. The pictures of floods in St Asaph were of biblical scenes. The emergency services have performed extraordinary feats to rescue people and to help people at what is a very difficult time. On flood defence spending, the Government are planning to spend more than £2 billion in the next four years. That is 6% less than in the previous four years, but we believe that by spending the money better, and by leveraging money from private and other sectors, we can increase the level of flood defence spending. The spending that is already under way will protect an additional 145,000 homes between now and 2015, but if we can go further then of course we should.

Q7. More than 3 million people a year fall victim to postal scams, telephone calls and e-mails making false promises of lottery wins, windfalls and inheritances. Is my right hon. aware that £3.5 billion a year is lost by UK consumers? Will he commit to working with the Home Office to amend existing legislation to protect the predominantly elderly and vulnerable victims? (130305)

I think my hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a growing area of crime and criminality that takes advantage of people using the internet and often those who are vulnerable. That is why, as part of the National Crime Agency, we are setting up a new unit dedicated to tackling this problem that will work across agencies to catch criminals and take the steps she rightly speaks about.

Q8. A moment ago, the Leader of the Opposition asked whether long-term unemployment had risen by 96% since the introduction of the Work programme, but he did not receive an answer. I ask the Prime Minister again: has long-term unemployment risen by 96% since the Work programme was introduced? (130306)

I have given the figures for the Work programme: 800,000 people taking part and 200,000 people getting work. That is against a background where, over the last quarter, unemployment and the rate of youth unemployment have been falling and there have been more people in work. That is a record we can build on.

A free press is a necessary counterbalance to a strong state and the British people also have an inherent sense of fairness, so we do not need to restrict the press; we need to focus on redress when the press cross an unacceptable line. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend look at access to justice in this country to ensure that the libel and defamation laws we already have are available to everyone, not just the rich and famous?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about access to justice, but one of the key things that the Leveson inquiry is trying to get to the bottom of is: how can we have a strong and independent regulatory system, so that we do not have to wait for the wheels of the criminal justice system or the libel system to work? People should be able to rely on a good regulatory system as well in order to get the redress they want, whether prominent apologies, fines for newspapers or the other things that are clearly so necessary.

Q9. The Department for Education is proposing to close its Runcorn site, with the loss of at least 220 jobs. It is in the 27th most-deprived borough in the country. How will that help with unemployment and social deprivation in my constituency? It is a pity that the Education Secretary has refused to meet me to discuss this matter. (130307)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the permanent secretary at the Department for Education to discuss the matter, and I will certainly discuss it with the Secretary of State as well. Of course, there will be consultation with affected staff and other local MPs, but let me make this important point: we all know that we have to try and find savings in departmental overhead budgets in order to maximise the money going into the schools. The Government have managed to maintain the per-pupil funding, and I am sure that hon. Members who think about it will consider that the most important thing for our schools, our children and our education system.

Last year, more than 10,000 men in Britain died from prostate cancer, the silent killer. Survival rates have increased from 20% to 70%, because of earlier diagnosis and better drugs. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister’s commitment to the NHS cancer drugs fund. Will he join me in welcoming the Movember campaign’s work to raise male health awareness and champion British leadership in cancer research?

I not only join my hon. Friend in praising the Movember campaign but praise his efforts lurking tentatively under his nose. This is an important campaign, because it raises awareness of cancers, including cancers such as the one he mentioned, which people are sometimes worried about mentioning and talking about. Raising awareness is important, as too are things, such as the cancer drugs fund, that ensure we get the drugs to the people who need them.

Q10. I once represented a seriously injured car-crash victim who was hounded and hurt further by an irresponsible press. When he set up the Leveson inquiry, the Prime Minister said: “I accept we can’t say it is the last chance saloon all over again. We’ve done that.”For the victims—for the McCanns, the Dowlers—will he keep his word? (130308)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), in saying that uppermost in our minds, as we consider the report, should be the victims of press intrusion and invasion of privacy, and the appalling things, in some cases, written about them and their families. We owe them a regulatory system that will work for them and which the public will have confidence in, and that is what we hope Leveson will produce.

Leaving home before it is light and returning from work when it is dark, hard-working families in my constituency have a gross household income of just £25,000. Does my right hon. Friend think it right that their neighbours living on benefits currently earn more?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Only this week we have yet again had a vote on our welfare benefits cap—which most people would see as generous at £26,000—and once again Labour has voted for unlimited welfare. We have long memories: we can remember that under Labour, some families were getting £70,000, £80,000, £90,000 or £100,000 of housing benefit. Labour did nothing about it because it believes in something for nothing.

Q11. Since the Prime Minister denounced aggressive tax avoidance as “morally repugnant”, why are his Government now actively promoting aggressive tax avoidance by cutting the tax on multinationals that open a finance company in a tax haven from the current 23% to just 5%? How can we be one nation when the Government are on the side of the tax dodgers? (130309)

I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what we are doing. We are introducing a general anti-avoidance rule—something that he, in 13 years of Labour Government, never managed to do. We will do it in three.

We were all inspired by the amazing London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, in an incredible summer of sport, but it is so important to get people involved in grass-roots community sport. Will the Prime Minister meet me, the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the county sports partnership network and Sport England to discuss the “Be Inspired, Get Involved” initiative, the first fair of which is this evening in my constituency?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend about this issue. It is important that we take the legacy of the Olympics and turn it into increased rates of participation. That means, yes, working with the organisations that he spoke about, but also recognising the many heroes and heroines right around our country who run the Saturday morning football clubs, rugby clubs and cricket clubs. It is those clubs that provide so much of the answer for getting more sport into our communities and more sport into our schools as well.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister, like me, welcome the ceasefire in Gaza last week and regret all those who died as a result of the conflict, but also recognise that, fundamentally, the future of the middle east lies with peace and justice for the Palestinian people, be they in Gaza, the west bank or refugee camps? We have to recognise the Palestinian people, so tomorrow, will the British Government accordingly cast our vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian recognition without any preconditions—such as suggesting they should not have access to the International Criminal Court—as an independent, recognised nation? (130310)

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fact that there is a ceasefire and that that conflict has ceased. I do not go all the way with him on the rest of his question, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be making a statement about this from the Dispatch Box in a few moments. I do not want to steal his thunder, but I think it is important that we use our vote to try to say to both sides in this conflict: “We need talks without preconditions.” In the end, as I said on Monday, the only way we are going to see a peace process that works is when Israelis and Palestinians come to the table and talk through the final status issues, including Jerusalem, including refugees and including borders—when they do it themselves. We can wish for all we want at the United Nations; in the end, you have got to have direct talks between the direct parties to get the two-state solution we want.

The Prime Minister will be aware that tomorrow’s business on the Order Paper includes a debate in my name to mark the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians by Idi Amin from Uganda and their arrival in the UK. However, because of the need for a statement on the Leveson inquiry, it is likely that my debate may not now take place. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I and the community at large fully appreciate the circumstances. However, does the Prime Minister acknowledge the need for and the importance of such a debate, and will he also do whatever he can to ensure that I am given another debate as soon as possible?

The reaction of colleagues from right across the House shows that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House—and I believe the whole country—in wanting to speak up for the Ugandan Asians who came to our country in the 1970s, who have made the most fantastic contribution to our national life. It is very good to see. I remember meeting my hon. Friend’s parents and how proud they are of him—second generation, coming to this country, sitting in the House of Commons and speaking up so well on these and other issues. Although I do not have control of the House of Commons agenda—sadly—I very much hope that the people who do will listen carefully to the point he made and reschedule his debate as fast as possible.

Q13. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, as a result of his cutting the 50p tax rate, 8,000 people earning over £1million will next year gain an average of £107,500? Whose side is he on? (130311)

What I can confirm is that, at 45p, the top rate of tax will be higher under this Government than it was in any of the 13 years of the last Government. That is a fact. The richest in our country will actually be paying more in income tax in every year of this Government than in any year of that Government.

In Harlow, Comet has made 80 home delivery and shop staff redundant, and the jobs of at least 65 transport and logistics staff are now at risk. Many of the redundant workers are suggesting that there has been malpractice. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Business Secretary to investigate this, to ensure that anyone who has lost their job gets the proper support and help that they are entitled to?

I am very happy to look carefully at what my hon. Friend has said. Clearly, what has happened at Comet is a tragedy for those who work for that business. I will talk to the Business Secretary about this, and see what can be done in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Q14. Last week, the Prime Minister told me and the House that the Government were investing an extra £900 million to combat tax avoidance. In fact, as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will confirm, no such investment is taking place, and HMRC is facing a 15% cut in its budget. So is the Prime Minister guilty of fact avoidance or fact evasion? (130312)

The truth is that this Government have put £900 million into the specific measures of getting hold of tax avoidance. All these schemes grew up under years and years of the Labour Government, but they never did a general anti-tax avoidance. They presided over a system where people in the City were paying less tax than their cleaners, and it took this Government to sort it out.

May I warn my right hon. Friend not to be remembered as the Prime Minister who introduced state regulation of the press? A free press is an essential part of a free democracy. Does he agree that state regulation of the press is like pregnancy? Just as someone is either pregnant or they are not, so we can either have state regulation or not. There is no alternative third way.

Where I would agree with my hon. Friend is that a free press is absolutely vital for a healthy democracy. We should recognise all that the press has done, and should continue to do, to uncover wrongdoing and to stand up to the powerful. That is vitally important and, whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press in our country.

Q15. Research by the charity Save the Children reveals, shockingly, that one in seven children in our country do not have a warm coat this winter. The Government are now cutting child benefit support to 100,000 families who look after disabled children—[Interruption.] Whatever our views on how our economic problems were brought about, surely it cannot be right that children, the poorest and the most vulnerable pay the most for this economic crisis. (130313)

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and the point that I would make is that we are removing child benefit from people earning over £60,000 a year. We think that that is the right step to take, because those with the broadest backs should be bearing the greatest burden. We have frozen child benefit for other families, but we have increased the child tax credit that goes to the poorest families.