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Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2012

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.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the fall in youth unemployment figures is the largest since records began and will he meet me to discuss how employment opportunities in Tamworth, including in youth employment, can be promoted still further?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the economic and business situations in Tamworth. He is absolutely right that this morning’s figures show the largest quarterly fall in youth employment on record, with 72,000 fewer people unemployed this quarter. Obviously, there is no room for complacency—far too many people are still long-term unemployed—but we can see from the figures that 40,000 more people are in work, vacancies are up, unemployment is down by 82,000, the claimant count is down and there are more than 1 million extra private sector jobs under this Government.

Today’s fall in unemployment and rise in employment are welcome. Part of the challenge remains the stubbornly high level of long-term unemployment. Does the Prime Minister agree that that remains of fundamental importance not just to the people who are out of work but to the country as a whole?

I absolutely agree—I mentioned it in my first answer—that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high. The good news about today’s figures is that long-term youth unemployment is down by 10,000 this quarter, which is encouraging. Obviously, long-term unemployment among others is still a problem. That is why the Work programme and getting it right are so important. It has got 200,000 people into work, but clearly there is more to do. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s tone, not least because he said on 18 January that

“over the next year, unemployment will get worse, not better, under his policies.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 739.]

Perhaps he would like to withdraw that.

I am glad that the Prime Minister recognises that long-term unemployment is still a challenge. I want to ask him about the people who are doing the right thing and finding work. Last week in his autumn statement, the Chancellor decided to cut tax credits and benefits. He said it was the shirkers—the people with the curtains drawn—who would be affected. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many of those hit are in work?

The fact is this—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] I will answer it. Welfare needs to be controlled and everyone who is on tax credits will be affected by these changes. We have to get on top of the welfare bill. That is why we are restricting the increase in out-of-work benefits and it is also why we are restricting in-work benefits. What we have also done is increase the personal allowance, because on this side of the House we believe in cutting people’s taxes when they are in work.

The Prime Minister is raising the taxes of people in work. Of course, he did not answer the question. Despite the impression given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the answer is that more than 60% of those affected are in work. That means the factory worker on the night shift, the carer who looks after elderly people around the clock and the cleaner who cleans the Chancellor’s office while his curtains are still drawn and he is still in bed. The Chancellor calls them scroungers. What does the Prime Minister call them?

The right hon. Gentleman just said that we are not cutting taxes for people in work. Someone on the minimum wage who works full time will see their income tax bill cut by one half under this Government. The fact is, under this Government, we are saying to working people, “You can earn another £3,000 before you even start paying income tax.” That is why we have taken 2 million people out of tax altogether. He should welcome that, because this is the party for people who work; his is the party for unlimited welfare.

Of course, as we might expect, the Prime Minister is just wrong on the detail. The Institute for Fiscal Studies table says quite clearly that, on average, working families are £534 a year worse off as a result of his measures. I notice that he wants to get away from what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last week. We know what the Chancellor was trying to do: he was trying to play divide and rule. He said that his changes were all about people

“living a life on benefits”—[Official Report, 5 December 2012; Vol. 544, c. 877.]

“still asleep” while their neighbours go out to work. It turned out that it was just not true. It is a tax on strivers. Will the Prime Minister now admit that the Chancellor got it wrong and that the majority of people hit are working people?

The right hon. Gentleman says that we have not got the detail right. We know his approach to detail. It is to take a 2,000-page report and accept it without reading it. That is his approach to detail. Specifically on the Institute for Fiscal—[Interruption.] I am surprised that the shadow Chancellor is shouting again this week, because we learned last week that like bullies all over the world, he can dish it out but he cannot take it. He never learns. The figures—[Interruption.]

To specifically answer the question from the Leader of the Opposition, he mentioned the figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but they do not include the personal allowance increase put through in the Budget, and they do not include the universal credit changes that come in next year and which will help the working poor more than anything. The fact he cannot get away from is that under this Government, we are lifting the personal allowance, we are taking millions out of tax, and we are standing up for those who work. He only stands up for those who claim.

I must say, I have heard everything when the boy from the Bullingdon club lectures people on bullying. Absolutely extraordinary. Have you wrecked a restaurant recently?

The Prime Minister does not want to talk about the facts, but let us give him another one. He is hitting working families, and the richest people in our society will get a massive tax cut next April—an average of £107,000 each for people earning over £1 million. Is he the only person left in the country who cannot see the fundamental injustice of giving huge tax cuts to the richest while punishing those in work on the lowest pay?

The tax take for the richest under this Government will be higher in every year than it was for any year when the right hon. Gentleman was in government. He has obviously got a short memory, because I explained to him last week that under his plans for the 50p tax rate, millionaires paid £7 billion less in tax than they did previously. The point of raising taxes is to pay for public services. We are raising more money for the rich, but where he is really so profoundly wrong is in the choice that he has decided to make. The facts are these: over the last five years, people in work have seen their incomes go up by 10%, and people out of work have seen their incomes go up by 20%. At a time when people accept a pay freeze we should not be massively increasing benefits, yet that is what he wants to do. A party that is not serious about controlling welfare is not serious about controlling the deficit either.

From the first part of his answer, it seems the Prime Minister is claiming to be Robin Hood; I really do not think that is going to work. He is not taking from the richest and giving to everybody else. Didn’t the Business Secretary give it away in what he said about the autumn statement? He said:

“what happened was some of their donors,”—

we know who he is talking about—

“very wealthy people, stamped their feet”,

so the Conservatives scrapped the mansion tax and went ahead with the 50p tax cut. They look after their friends—the people on their Christmas card list. Meanwhile, they hit people they never meet, and whose lives they will never understand.

The right hon. Gentleman’s donors put him where he is, pay him every year, and determine his policies. It is perfectly clear what the Labour party’s choice is: its choice is more benefits, paid for by more borrowing. It should listen to the former Labour Trade Minister, who said:

“you know what you call a system of government where what you do is say ‘Oh, we’re in trouble, we’ll go and borrow loads and give it to people’? It’s called Greece”.

That is what the Labour Trade Minister said. Labour is not serious about welfare; it is not serious about the deficit; it is not a serious party, and everyone can see it.

Will the Prime Minister join me and, I am sure, the whole House in sending our deepest sympathies and condolences to the family of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who died this week; in urging anyone who wants to support the family to donate to the King Edward VII’s hospital’s memorial fund; and in urging the press to continue their largely good record of preserving the privacy of the family at a time of most terrible grief?

I am sure that the whole House, and indeed the whole country, will join my hon. Friend and me in paying tribute to this nurse, and in giving all our sympathies and condolences to her family. She clearly loved her job and her work, and cared deeply about the health of her patients, and what has happened is a complete tragedy. There will be many lessons that need to be learned, and I absolutely echo what my hon. Friend says about the press keeping their distance and allowing this family the time and space to grieve.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister still intend to introduce the snooper’s charter, euphemistically known as the communications data Bill? Does he realise that he and his Government will be spying on more people in Britain than all the press barons put together? Where did he get his advice and this idea from? Was it down at Wapping? Was it his friends down there—Rupert, Tony, and Rebekah? (133007)

I really believe that on this issue, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. This is a very important issue—I feel this very strongly, as Prime Minister—in which you have to take responsibility, first and foremost, for security, including national security, and people’s safety. The fact is that communications data—not the content of a telephone call, but the fact that a phone call took place—are used in every single terrorist case, and in almost every single serious crime case. The question in front of the House of Commons, and indeed the House of Lords, is simply this: because we currently have those data for fixed and mobile telephony, what are we going to do as telephony increasingly moves over the internet? We can stand here and do nothing, and not update the law; the consequence of doing that would be fewer crimes solved, and fewer terrorists brought to justice. I do not want to be the Prime Minister who puts the country into that position.

The Government’s proposals on judicial review conflict with article XXIX of Magna Carta 1297. Do the Government propose the repeal of Magna Carta?

No, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we do not intend that. I am sure that he would understand—[Interruption.]

Order. I would like to learn about 1297 from the Prime Minister. I am sure that I am about to.

The point that we are making is that the extent of judicial review has massively increased in recent years, and we think that there is a need for some new rules to look at the extent, and indeed the costs, of judicial review, so that the costs are properly covered. In that way, we can maintain access to justice, but perhaps speed up the wheels of government a little.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister answer the question he was asked three times by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and dodged a few moments ago? Will he confirm that the majority of households that will be hit by the real-terms cut to benefits and tax credits are working households? (133008)

The point that I made is even bigger than that. Everyone on working tax credits will be affected by the fact that we are increasing them by only 1%, but we have to control welfare to deal with the massive deficit that we were left by the Opposition. There is a choice in politics. One can either control welfare bills or say no to a welfare cap, no to a housing benefit cap, no to the control of welfare—borrow, spend and build up our deficit, putting us straight back where we came from.

At the Liaison Committee yesterday the Prime Minister began by saying that the Government would accept crucial Lords amendments to make the Justice and Security Bill acceptable on secret courts, but he ended the session by appearing to say that he would not accept those amendments. Could he clarify which one it is?

What I said very clearly to the Committee yesterday is that we want the Bill to pass through Parliament, having listened to the Joint Committee and to all the excellent points made in the House of Lords. I am sure we will be listening even more carefully in the House of Commons. [Interruption.] I think the Leader of the Opposition is catching off the shadow Chancellor the disease of not being able to keep his mouth shut for longer than five seconds. We will listen carefully to the amendments. The fundamental choice is to make sure that those proceedings are available to judges, and it is judges who should make the decision.

Q4. The Environment Secretary this week described wind turbines as “inappropriate technology which matured in the Middle Ages.”Does the Prime Minister agree? If not, why not? (133009)

We are making serious investments in renewable energy. We have set out a regime of subsidy that stretches right out to 2017 and beyond. That is why the renewable energy capacity of this country has doubled over the past two years under this Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government have had to deal with not only the catastrophic budget deficit that we inherited from the former Prime Minister but, as the figures reveal today, a tidal wave of immigration deliberately fostered by the Labour Government, and that concentrating on putting those two issues right is the most important task facing this Government for the delivery of security to the people of this country?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that immigration was out of control under the previous Government. Net migration ran at more than 200,000 a year—that is 2 million across a decade. Under the sensible controls that we have put in place, net immigration has fallen by a quarter in recent years. What is interesting about this is that we can have proper control of immigration while also saying to the world, “Our universities are open to foreign students to come and study here, and as long as they have an English language qualification and a degree place at university, there is no limit on the numbers that can come.” That is our policy—controlling immigration, but making sure that the best and the brightest come to Britain.

Q5. Iceland, which had huge economic difficulties, rejected austerity and has, according to Bloomberg seen, a recovery driven by domestic demand. Unemployment is 2.4% lower than the UK, growth is 2.5% and properties have risen at 110% of value. Those with children and the unemployed have received the most support in Iceland. Will the Prime Minister be gracious enough, notwithstanding other issues, to congratulate Iceland on working hard to turn things around? Does he think there is anything he can learn from Iceland? (133010)

If the case for an independent Scotland is “Make us more like Iceland”, I am not sure that will totally commend itself to the voters. Britain and Iceland have very good relations, and I will make sure that remains the case.

I, too, welcome the fall in youth unemployment, particularly in Hastings and Rye, where youth unemployment has fallen steadily for the past nine months and is at its lowest since May 2010. May I urge the Prime Minister to continue this Government’s investment in apprenticeships and the Youth Contract so that that can continue?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. We will continue not only with the apprenticeships, which have reached over 1 million under this Government, but with the Youth Contract, and particularly work experience, because what we are seeing is that a large number of people who do work experience find a job and come off benefits and find that it is a very good start to a working career. That is what we want to see.

Q6. On the day that unemployment in Scotland showed the largest fall in four years, is the Prime Minister as shocked as I am by reports in the Sunday Mail and the Daily Record this week that some jobcentre managers are actively encouraging employers to convert paid vacancies into unpaid work experience placements in order to satisfy Department for Work and Pensions targets? Will he condemn that practice and ensure that it ceases immediately? (133012)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that we want work experience places to be additional places, encouraging more young people to get at least a feel for work so that they have a chance of getting a job. It is good that he welcomes the fact that employment in Scotland is up 27,000 since the election and that unemployment has fallen by 19,000 this quarter, so we are making progress.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the progress that has been made across the country in supporting adults with autism since the Autism Act 2009? Following the recent National Audit Office report, will he join me in encouraging his ministerial colleagues and local authorities across the country to accelerate that progress next year, when the adult autism strategy is due to be reviewed? (133013)

First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who was instrumental in getting the landmark Autism Act 2009 on to the statute book. The impact of the Act, I believe, continues right up to this day and beyond. We want all adults living with autism to be able to live fulfilling and rewarding lives within a society that properly accepts them. She is absolutely right that the review of the strategy is coming up next year, between March and October. It is vital that it is a proper cross-Government effort, and after her remarks I will make sure that it is dealt with in a proper and co-ordinated way.

Q8. The green investment bank is due to be given new borrowing powers in three years’ time. In view of the Chancellor’s abject failure to meet his borrowing target, because it was predicated on meeting the borrowing targets set by the Government, is the Prime Minister still committed to giving the bank borrowing powers and, if so, when? (133014)

First, let me make the point that this Government have set up a green investment bank within two years, whereas the Labour party did nothing about that for 13 years. Secondly, even at a time of fiscal difficulty because of the mess we were left, we put £3 billion into the green investment bank, so right now it does not need to borrow because it has the money to invest. I think that what is needed in green investment is that equity risk finance, and that is exactly what the green investment bank can provide.

My right hon. Friend goes to the summit tomorrow. Has he noticed in President Barroso’s blueprint for federalisation of Europe the following sentence: “The European Parliament, and only it, is the parliament for the EU, ensuring democratic legitimacy for the EU”? Does he agree with that or repudiate it, and what will he say to the other leaders at the summit tomorrow?

I agree with my hon. Friend on that one, not President Barroso, for this reason: it is the national parliaments that provide the real democratic legitimacy within the European Union. When we are discussing banking union, it is to this House that we should account. When we are discussing the European budget, it is to this House, which represents our taxpayers, that we should account. I always bear that in mind when I am negotiating, as I will be tomorrow at the European Council.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the autumn statement revealed that the Government are now borrowing £212 billion more than they previously planned to? (133015)

I would take that from the hon. Lady if her plans were not to borrow even more. The point is—[Interruption.] I know that the Labour party was desperately disappointed that the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that borrowing would come down this year as well as last year, but that is the fact.

Q10. The Prime Minister has rightly said that we are locked in a global economic race. Does he share my concern that having the highest aviation taxes in the world makes it harder for business to compete and increases the cost of living? Will he ask the Treasury to conduct a full review of whether aviation taxes cost Britain more than they bring in? (133016)

I very much understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, I get lobbied regularly by countries around the world, particularly Commonwealth countries, about air passenger duty. We do not have any plans to commission further research at this point because we have just completed a very thorough consultation. Despite the challenge of the budget deficit, we have limited the rise in APD to inflation over the period 2010-11 to 2012-13. As a result, APD rates have increased by only around £1 for the majority of passengers, but I bear in mind very carefully what he says.

Q11. The autumn statement did not include a forecast of child poverty as a result of the policies announced. Can the Prime Minister confirm that it will be published soon—I am sure that it was just an oversight—and could he tell the House whether he really believes that his policies will increase or reduce child poverty in Islington? (133017)

We want to see a genuine and lasting reduction in child poverty, and we need to have policies that not only address whether people are just above or just below the poverty line but actually address the causes of poverty—what it is that traps people in poverty. Of course, as the hon. Lady says, not enough money is part of it; not enough jobs is another, and that is why today’s news on unemployment is so welcome. We need to look at all the things that trap people in unemployment, which include drug and alcohol misuse and family breakdown, as well as, obviously, unemployment.

Q12. As my right hon. Friend knows, Plymouth is a global leader in marine science engineering research. I very much welcome the initiative by the Government to spend more money on our science base. However, would he be willing to meet me, my fellow Plymouth Members of Parliament, and Plymouth businesses to discuss how Plymouth might become involved in the small cities super-broadband initiative, which will help us to rebalance our economy and attract private investment? (133018)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know that he stands up very strongly for Plymouth and for Plymouth’s economy. He rightly says that we made the decision right at the start of this Government to freeze the science budget rather than cut it, as so many other budgets were cut, and I am sure that that was the right answer. Since then, we have added money back into the science budget. On broadband, I will look carefully at what he says about city broadband. I am sure that he will be glad to know that Devon and Somerset have been allocated over £33 million to deliver superfast broadband. We are working very hard to make sure that all the plans are on track to deliver the superfast broadband that is important for cities but very important for rural areas as well.

The Prime Minister and Members of this House will be fully aware of the very serious threat posed to democracy by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. However, the police have stated that there is evidence of loyalist paramilitary involvement in some of the protests and violence in Northern Ireland this week, which included the sickening attempted murder of police officers who were protecting my constituency office. Will he take this opportunity to condemn this reprehensible assault on democracy from those who style themselves as loyal? Will he agree to meet me and my colleague David Ford, the Justice Minister for Northern Ireland, to discuss the very grave security situation that is developing?

First, I absolutely join the hon. Lady in condemning the violence that we have seen on the streets of Belfast. As she says, in no way are these people being loyal or standing up for Britishness. Violence is absolutely unjustified in those and in other circumstances. I completely agree with what she said about the sickening attack on the police officer. We should again pay tribute to the work that the Police Service of Northern Ireland do on behalf of us all. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our complete solidarity with the hon. Lady and her colleagues, who have themselves been threatened and intimidated over recent days. I am always happy to meet and talk with Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland.

Q13. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating two very young entrepreneurs in my constituency who have taken the initiative to start Cornish Gouda Co. and Team K fashion? Does he agree that this is just the sort of business initiative that we need to see? (133019)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the entrepreneurs in her constituency. I am looking forward to tasting some Cornish Gouda cheese, although I probably should not for the sake of my weight. She is making an important point, which is that the start-up rate of new businesses in this country is at a record high. Because we need a rebalancing between the public sector and the private sector, we need this entrepreneurship to continue.

In opposition, the right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted his Government to be the most family-friendly Government this country had ever seen, so why is he cutting maternity pay for working mothers?

First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to the House of Commons and congratulate her on her recent by-election success? We have had to take difficult decisions about welfare—both in-work welfare and out-of-work welfare—so we have put a cap of 1% on all the working benefits, including the one that she has mentioned. Above all, I think that the right thing to do is to cut the taxes of people who are in work, rather than taking more in taxes and then redistributing it through tax credits. We on this side want to cut taxes on those who work. That is what we are doing and there will be more of it to come.

Q14. Over the past five years, benefits have risen twice as fast as salaries. Does the Prime Minister agree that, while we have a duty to the least well-off, it cannot be fair that people who are out of work enjoy bigger increases in their living standards than those who graft hard, day and night, to support themselves and their families? (133020)

My hon. Friend puts it extremely clearly. Many people in our country have seen a pay freeze year after year, yet welfare benefits have gone up year after year. So, in politics, we face a choice: do we go on putting those welfare benefits up, which does not help those who are in work and on a pay freeze, or do we take the tough and necessary decision? We have taken the tough and necessary decision. The only Labour welfare Minister that anyone took seriously was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). He has said that Labour’s approach simply is not serious, and once again he is right.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and the UK Government on following the lead of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament by introducing equal marriage, minimum alcohol pricing and, previously, the smoking ban. Given that unemployment is now lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, will he follow the lead of the Scottish Government by introducing more shovel-ready measures to stimulate economic growth?

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that, because of the measures taken in the autumn statement, there is an extra £300 million for the Scottish Government to spend, and if they want to spend it on shovel-ready measures, they can. I am also happy that, when good policies are introduced in any part of the United Kingdom, we all have the opportunity to follow them.