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Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2012

Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our best wishes for Christmas to our brave armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. To their families, who will be missing them, and to the servicemen and women around the world, you are always in our thoughts, we owe you a deep debt of gratitude, and we send our heartfelt thanks at Christmas time.

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.

I thank my right hon. Friend for wishing a merry Christmas to our servicemen and women on deployment and to their families. Will he tell us what progress Sir John Holmes has made in his review of medals, especially for those who served on the Arctic convoys with bravery and endeavour?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about our troops. On the issue of medals, which has gone on for a very long time, I am delighted to be able to tell the House that we have reached a resolution. I asked Sir John to conduct a review not just of medals in general but specifically of one of the most important cases. He has completed his work and I thank him for what he has done. More details will come from the Ministry of Defence in the new year, including how veterans can apply, but I am very pleased to tell the House the following. On the Arctic convoys, Sir John has recommended, and I fully agree, that there should be an Arctic Convoy Star medal. I am very pleased that some of the brave men of the Arctic convoys will get the recognition they so richly deserve for the very dangerous work they did.

On Bomber Command, Sir John concluded that they had been treated inconsistently with those who served in Fighter Command and has therefore recommended, and I agree, that the heroic aircrews of Bomber Command should be awarded a Bomber Command clasp. I know that these announcements will be widely welcomed across the House. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and Members on both sides of the House who have campaigned hard on these issues. I am glad that we have reached a resolution, and one that is popular and right.

I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our troops in Afghanistan, who continue to show such huge courage and bravery. It is particularly important at this time of year to remember them and their families, many of whom will be separated from them. Their families, too, are in all our thoughts.

I also welcome the Government’s expected announcement today on reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan during 2013; we await the Defence Secretary’s statement. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many British troops and civilian staff will be left in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline, and can he confirm whether they will be there under Afghan-led command?

I join the Leader of the Opposition in welcoming what our troops do. Specifically on Afghanistan, we have two decisions to make. The first is about the draw-down of troops between now and the end of 2014. The Defence Secretary will announce that because of the success of our forces and Afghan national security forces and the fact that we are moving from mentoring at battalion level to mentoring at brigade level by the end of 2013, we will be able to see troops come home in two relatively even steps—2013 and 2014—probably leaving around 5,200 troops after the end of 2013, compared with the 9,000 we have there now. It is a good moment to pay tribute again to the incredible work they have done, many of them going back for tour after tour, and those I have spoken to recently have been particularly impressed by the capacity of the Afghan national forces.

In terms of post-2014, we have not made final decisions yet. We have said very clearly that no one will be in a combat role and that there will be nothing like the number of troops there are now. We have promised the Afghans that we will provide the officer training academy that they have specifically asked for. We are prepared to look at other issues above and beyond that, but that is the starting baseline.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Given that thousands of British troops are still going to be in harm’s way in Afghanistan, can the Prime Minister update the House and say what specific effort the Government are making, with the international community, to match the continuing military efforts with the greater diplomatic efforts that both he and I think are important? After all, that will leave behind, or give us our best chance of leaving behind, an inclusive and durable political settlement in Afghanistan, which is so important.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. As well as a military track, there has always been a political and diplomatic track.

Let me be clear. After December 2014, some troops will still be involved in returning equipment and dealing with logistics. Exact announcements will be made about that at a later stage. In terms of the work that we will go on doing, because we will not be leaving Afghanistan in terms of our support and help for the Afghans, we will be contributing £70 million a year to help to pay for the Afghan national security forces and we will have an aid programme in excess of £170 million a year for Afghanistan.

In terms of the diplomatic track, the thing that we are most focused on is bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together. I have personally hosted two meetings between the two Presidents and I hope to host further meetings, including early in the new year. I spoke to President Karzai this morning to encourage him to keep working on that vital relationship, so that Pakistan and Afghanistan can both see that they have a shared interest in a stable future.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer.

I want to turn to another issue. I want to recognise the work of thousands of volunteers who are helping out in our nation’s food banks and the millions of people who are donating food to them. Is the Prime Minister as concerned as I am that there has been a sixfold increase in the last three years in the number of people relying on food banks?

First of all, let me echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about volunteers and people who work hard in our communities, part of what I call the big society, to help those in need. It is a good time of year to thank our volunteers for what they do, but I do share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about people who are struggling to pay the bills and to deal with their budgets.

Of course, the most important thing is to get on top of inflation, and inflation is coming down. The most important thing is to get more people into work and out of poverty, and we see 600,000 more private sector jobs this year. We are helping those families by freezing the council tax and making sure that we help families with the cost of living.

We both pay tribute to the work of the volunteers, but I never thought that the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain.

The problem is that it is working people who are turning to food banks. One head teacher of a school rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, Vic Goddard, says that even children with a parent or parents in work are often struggling with the choice of heating their homes, buying their children clothes or buying them food. A report last week from the Children’s Society said that two thirds of teachers knew of staff providing pupils with food or money to prevent them from going hungry. Why does the Prime Minister think that is happening, and why does it appear to be getting worse on his watch?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to do more to help the poorest in our country. That is why we have lifted the personal tax allowance and taken 2 million of the lowest paid people out of tax altogether. Let us take someone who is on the minimum wage and works full time—because of the tax changes that we have made, their income tax bill has been cut in half. I would also make this point: because of the decisions that we made in this Government to increase the child tax credit by £390 ahead of inflation, we have helped those families with their bills and we will continue to do more in the future.

I am afraid that that answer will have seemed very out of touch with families up and down the country. The problem is that what the Chancellor did not tell us in the autumn statement was that his tax on strivers will be hitting working families who rely on tax credits up and down the country.

The reality is that in the third year of the Prime Minister’s Government, more children are going hungry and more families are relying on food banks. Is it not the clearest indictment of his Government’s values that while lower and middle-income families are being hit, at the same time he is giving an average of a £107,000 tax cut to people earning over £1 million a year?

What is out of touch is denying the fact that we had a deficit left by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government that we had to deal with. That is what we have had to do, but we have been able to do it at the same time as cutting taxes for the poorest in our country, increasing child tax credits, and freezing the council tax to help those families. When it comes to the top rate of tax, let me tell him this: the richest in our country will pay more in tax under every year of this Government than any year of his Government. Those are the facts; he may not like them but he cannot deny them.

The problem is that nobody believes him any more. We know who this Prime Minister stands up for, because where was he last weekend? Back to his old ways partying with Rebekah Brooks, no doubt both looking forward to the Boxing day hunt. Before he was elected, the Prime Minister said: “Unless you can represent everyone in our country you cannot be a one nation party.” That was then; this is now. Everyone now knows he cannot be a one nation Prime Minister.

It would not be Christmas without the repeats, and that is all we ever get from the right hon. Gentleman. I will tell him what we have done this year. We said we would take action on jobs; we have 600,000 more private sector jobs. We said we would help with the cost of living; we have frozen the council tax for the third year in a row. We said we would deal with the deficit; we have cut the deficit by a quarter. And what have we heard from him this year? What has he told us about the deficit? Nothing. What has he told us about welfare? Nothing. What has he told us about his education plans? Nothing. The fact is that he has got absolutely nothing to offer except for the same old something-for-nothing culture that got us in this mess in the first place.

Trust in the police is an essential part of a just and democratic society. Will the Prime Minister therefore seek—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but Members must now calm down. Both the questions and the answers must be heard.

Will the Prime Minister therefore seek personal assurances from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police that no stone will be left unturned in getting to the full truth about allegations that a serving police officer fabricated evidence against a member of the Cabinet?

First of all, let me say again that at Christmas time it is right to pay tribute to our brave police officers—men and women who look after us round the clock and do an extremely good job. But the point that my hon. Friend has made is important. A police officer posing as a member of the public and sending an e-mail potentially to blacken the name of a Cabinet Minister is a very serious issue, and it does need to be seriously investigated. The Metropolitan Police Service is conducting a thorough and well resourced investigation to get to the truth of this matter as quickly as possible. The Independent Police Complaints Commission will be supervising the investigation, and I think we should allow it to get to the truth.

Q2. Despite what the Prime Minister has just said in response to our leader, the facts on the ground are these: the classic poverty-related diseases of rickets and tuberculosis are on the increase in this country, the number of food banks is increasing, kids are going to school hungry, and we have a stagnant economy. Is the Prime Minister proud that his policies are taking this country back to the 1930s? (134211)

I would hope that the hon. Gentleman, with the constituency that he represents, would today be celebrating the fact that Nissan has announced another £125 million investment in our country. This is now one of the biggest and most successful car plants anywhere in Britain. Yes, we face tough economic times, but the fact is that we have over 1 million new private sector jobs, and last year and this year saw some of the fastest rates of new business creation. That is what is happening in our country. Yes, there are tough times and tough choices, but our economy is rebalancing and we should recognise that.

Q3. In March we introduced a new local green space designation to protect green spaces not just for great crested newts and landscape painters but for urban and suburban communities such as Leckhampton, Warden Hill and Whaddon in my constituency. Can the Prime Minister reassure local councils that they can and should use this new designation and that it has not been undermined by any recent pronouncements?


I reassure my hon. Friend that the national planning policy framework that we have put in place—it was 1,000 pages long, but is now just 50 pages long—is our planning policy and framework. We are giving local authorities greater power and greater ability—and also neighbourhood plans—so that these decisions can be made where they should be: more locally.

Q4. I have in my hand a genuine suicide note from a constituent of mine who, sadly, took his own life after he was informed that he was no longer entitled to employment and support allowance and disability benefits. Across the UK, more than 1,000 people have died only months after being told to find work. This is 2012—we are supposed to be a civilised society. We should be looking after disabled citizens in the UK. Will the Prime Minister listen to the 62,000 people who have signed Pat’s petition and please finally order an assessment of all changes hitting disabled people in this country? (134213)

I will look very carefully at the very tragic case that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the House. Everyone’s thoughts will go out to that person’s family because of what has happened to them.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the actual money that we are putting into disability benefits over the coming years is going up, not down. I think that everybody knows and accepts that we need to have a review of disability benefits. Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year. That is the view of the disability charities and it is the view of the Government as well.

As we approach Christmas, will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the fact that there are more people in employment this Christmas than ever before in this nation’s great history?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. After all, the Leader of the Opposition said back in January that unemployment would go up. That was his prediction—he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that. The fact is that unemployment has come down, employment has gone up and we have seen a record fall in youth unemployment in the last quarter. All of those things are welcome, particularly as we are seeing growth in the private sector, because everyone knows that we have to have a rebalancing of our economy whereby we shed some jobs in the public sector but grow the private sector, and that is what is happening.

Q5. Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.]People realise, now, that the Prime Minister has a Dickensian vision for the UK: grandeur for the few, workhouse for the many. Why is he limiting welfare benefits for parents caring for adults with disabilities? Could we have an explanation from Ebenezer? (134214)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is probably a case of merry Christmas and happy speaking opportunities in the new year.

We have not restricted disability benefits; what we have done is put more money into disability benefits. That is what this Government are doing. We have taken difficult decisions to increase tax credits by 1%, to increase public sector pay by 1% and to increase out-of-work benefits by 1%. Those were tough decisions that needed to be taken.

Q6. Last week, the published census figures revealed that the previous Government presided over the largest wave of immigration our country has ever seen, yet next Christmas our borders will be flung open even wider to potentially limitless immigration from among the 29 million people who live in Romania and Bulgaria. Will my right hon. Friend look seriously at triggering the national interest clauses buried deep in the EU free movement directive in order to stem this new flow, especially for those with criminal records and those who seek access to our welfare benefits system? (134215)

First, let me echo the first half of my hon. Friend’s question. The last Government allowed a completely uncontrolled system of migration, under which we saw net immigration of 200,000 people a year and 2 million people across a decade—that is two cities the size of Birmingham staying in our country every year. There has been not one word of apology for the mess that the last Government left.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the transitional controls coming off the accession countries. I will look carefully at what he says. We have rules to try to restrict access to benefit. We will go on working to make those as robust as possible. I mentioned the national interest clauses in the statement on Europe on Monday. I think that those can be triggered only if there are emergency conditions, but I will look carefully at what he says.

Q7. A month ago, the Prime Minister told the House that universal credit will put in place work incentives for people at all levels of income. Why then does the Department for Work and Pensions now say that universal credit will mean that working women will consider giving up work? (134216)

That is not the case at all. By bringing different benefits together, universal credit means that people will always be better off in work and will always be better off by working extra hours. That is what we are doing. Labour had 13 years to sort out these poverty traps and it completely failed.

My constituent, Yogi Papi Depass, is currently stuck in Cuba, despite having a British passport. I wonder whether the Prime Minister could encourage the Cuban authorities to look at this matter with compassion and speed to get Yogi back home for Christmas with his family.

I quite understand why my hon. Friend raises that case. Yoandry Depass was born in Cuba. He entered the UK and obtained a British passport in 1997. We are in regular contact with the Cuban authorities, and they have advised Mr Depass that he should expect to receive his Cuban passport this week, which will enable him to travel. Ultimately, the decision rests with the Cuban authorities, but British embassy consular officials will continue to assist him and we will keep in touch with my hon. Friend.

Q8. In April, the Prime Minister stated that energy efficiency would be placed at the heart of Government policy. On Monday this week, the Government’s fuel poverty advisory group warned that there could be more than 9 million households in fuel poverty. That would include 25% of all households in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Prime Minister tell us why, from next year, expenditure on heating insulation programmes for low-income households will be half that of 2010-11? (134219)

I know that the hon. Lady takes a deep interest in these matters. The green deal that is being brought in is a bigger and better programme. Labour promised to abolish fuel poverty altogether in its 2005 manifesto, and yet fuel poverty went up. We are investing in the Warm Front scheme, we have maintained the winter fuel payment, we have increased the cold weather payment, we are making money available under the Warm Homes Healthy People fund, and the green deal and the energy company obligation are some of the biggest schemes ever introduced in this country.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree with the shadow Health Secretary that any increase in the expenditure of the NHS would be “irresponsible”? (134220)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some people in the House might have missed this. In a recent health debate, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary asked the shadow Health Secretary:

“does he stand by his comment that it is irresponsible to increase NHS spending?”—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 332.]

What did the shadow Health Secretary reply? He said, “Yes, I do.” It may be Christmas time, but the shadow Health Secretary is the gift that keeps on giving.

Last week, 100 young homeless people came to this House for the first ever young homeless people’s parliament. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for being present, to the House authorities for their support, and to the Ministers who came to engage with those young people. They were excellent young people who gave powerful, personal testimony about why they had become homeless. They set out in no uncertain terms what they expect from us in this House. Above all, they want their voice to be heard. They agreed that they would seek a meeting with the Prime Minister. Will he receive a delegation of those young, homeless people?

I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fact that those young people came to Parliament to make those points, and I will listen carefully to what they have to say. The truth is that in our country we have seen housing benefit increase by something like 50% over recent years, and even under our plans it will continue to increase. What we in Britain need to do is build more homes in the private sector and the social rented sector. That is the vital task ahead of us, and I give credit to planning Ministers and others who will help to make that happen.

Q10. The closure two months ago of the originally state-sponsored lifeline helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly has presented significant challenges to islanders, medical services and the economy, although local people and other stakeholders are working together to find solutions. Is the Prime Minister prepared to meet me and a small delegation of islanders to explore what encouragement and assistance the Government can provide to the islands in this their hour of desperate need? (134221)

My hon. Friend makes an important point; clearly proper transport links to the Isles of Scilly are absolutely vital. I understand that other providers are looking to fill the gaps left by the helicopter service. That would provide the most long-term and sustainable option, rather than Government subsidy, but obviously we have to look at all options, because that part of our country needs to be connected to the mainland. If it is necessary to have a meeting, then of course I will.

When the great train robbers stole £2.5 million from Royal Mail, they were sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison. When our bankers get caught fraudulently taking billions of pounds from poor people throughout the world, they just pay large corporate fines and walk away with fat pensions. How can we ever be in anything together as long as we tolerate powerful villains who are too privileged to be put behind bars?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is why the Wheatley review into the LIBOR scandal recommends a series of changes, including criminal sanctions. I think that when people have broken the law they should face the full force of the criminal law. What punishment we should design for the people who sold our gold at half price, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

Dementia is a terrible condition that destroys lives. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in commending Warwickshire county council and local health care partners for developing the excellent Coventry and Warwickshire dementia portal that provides an excellent service to dementia sufferers and their carers?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his county council. We need to do far more as a country to tackle dementia. There are three important parts to that. First, we must recognise that dementia is a disease and not just a natural part of ageing, and we need to increase the research that goes into dementia. We need to improve the care that people get in hospitals and in care homes, and make sure that there is far more dignity. Frankly, all communities have to come together and make more dementia-friendly communities. That is where local government can help lead the way by bringing organisations together, as it has obviously done in Warwickshire.

Q12. It is interesting that the Prime Minister says that those who break the law should feel the full force of the law, as his local Heythrop hunt has pleaded guilty to four charges of illegally hunting foxes with dogs. Will he remind the House how many times he has ridden with the hunt and say whether he used his own horse or borrowed one from a friend? (134223)

May I reassure my right hon. Friend that those of my constituents who are most strongly in favour of reforming benefits—focusing them more on those who need them and taking them away from those who do not—are people who live on council estates and are fed up with working long hours to subsidise the lifestyles of those who do not want to work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have made three difficult decisions. We set a 1% pay freeze on the public sector, a 1% increase on working benefits and a 1% freeze on tax credits. Labour Members support the 1% freeze on public sector pay, which is progress, but they do not support the 1% increase on welfare benefits. They think the income of people who are out of work should go up faster than the income of people who are in work. That is why they are so profoundly out of touch with the nation, and why they do not deserve to be in government.

With the Prime Minister’s neighbours in trouble over phone hacking and, as we have heard, his local hunt in disgrace, he might find himself stuck at home a bit over Christmas watching films on TV. I have had a quick scan of the Radio Times. Which of these films would he fancy: “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, starring the Chancellor of the Exchequer; “The Muppet Christmas Carol”, starring the Lib Dem members of the Cabinet; or “It’s Not a Wonderful Life for the Poor”, starring himself?

The Labour party will have to swap “Wallace and Gromit” and have “The Muppet Christmas Carol” instead. I have one suggestion—full of Christmas cheer. Everybody knows that the shadow Chancellor does a brilliant job playing Santa at the Christmas party every year—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] He does an excellent job. Why not give everyone an early Christmas present, make the arrangement permanent and give him the sack?

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the increasing number of informed commentators who believe that the ring-fencing of the investment banking subsidiaries of commercial banks will not work properly, and that complete separation is required?

The Government have looked at this carefully. We commissioned the Vickers report, which came up with the idea of ring-fencing, which was right. The key is that we want to ensure that, if a bank fails, it can fail safely, without taxpayers having to stump up the money to sort it out. That would be a major advance, and something the whole country would support.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the welcome news this morning that the Attorney-General’s application to quash the Hillsborough verdicts was upheld by the High Court. He will understand that that will involve the Hillsborough families in a great deal of legal costs to ensure that they are properly represented. Will he agree to waive the VAT on the CD “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, the proceeds from which will go directly to the Hillsborough families to support their legal case?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the decision made today. The Hillsborough families have long wanted this new inquest, and it is very good that the system has moved relatively rapidly since the Hillsborough statement and the Hillsborough debate in the House to help bring the decision about. I have received representations on the Hillsborough families’ single. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is currently on the other side of the Atlantic, but as the First Lord of the Treasury, I think I can confidently predict that there will be a decision that will go down well on Merseyside.

As this is the season of good will and humbug, will the Prime Minister confirm that, for the greater part of the period of the Labour Government, the top rate of tax was 40p; the gap between rich and poor widened; and they left nearly 4 million children living below the poverty line?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He could have added that the Labour Government left a record deficit, saw youth unemployment double, made a complete mess of the economy, and had an open-door immigration system. They have never apologised for any of it.

Many people watching our proceedings will be interested in the issue of fuel poverty, but they might be a little confused by the Prime Minister’s reply a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). Will he confirm—let us be transparent—that, as one body has advised, approaching 9 million households suffer from fuel poverty, which is the highest since records began? Will he explain to the House and our constituents, as we approach Christmas, what the Government are prepared to do about the horrible scandal of fuel poverty?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right that fuel poverty is a scandal and that it needs to be dealt with, but I do not believe the figures he gives are correct. The figures I have show that, in 2012, it is expected that 3.9 million households will be in fuel poverty. However, as I have said, we are committed to tackling fuel poverty. That is why we have maintained the winter fuel payments; why we have increased the cold weather payments and kept the increase permanent; and why we are investing in the Warm Front scheme and the warm home discount. The green deal will make a real difference—[Interruption.] I hear chuntering from Opposition Front Benchers. They promised to abolish fuel poverty, but they put it up.