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Volume 556: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2013

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper Richard Reginald Walker of 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to 21 Engineer Regiment. It is clear to see from the tributes paid that he was an outstanding soldier and hugely respected. Our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends at this difficult time.

I would also like to mention the helicopter crash in central London this morning. The whole House will wish to join me in sending our thanks to the emergency services for their rapid and professional response to this situation.

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.

For too long many women, and especially hard-working stay-at-home mums, have been penalised by the country’s pension system for interruptions to their national insurance contributions. After 13 years in which the previous Government did nothing to address this situation, does the Prime Minister think that this week’s announcement of a single-tier pension will finally deal with this grave injustice?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The single-tier pension is an excellent reform. I very much hope it will have all-party support, because it holds out the prospect in 2017 of a basic state pension of over £140 rather than £107, taking millions of people out of the means test, giving them dignity in retirement and particularly, as my hon. Friend says, helping low-paid and self-employed people and, above all, women who have not been able to have a full state pension in the past. It is an excellent reform, and I hope it will have the support of everyone across the House.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper Richard Reginald Walker of 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to 21 Engineer Regiment. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and all our thoughts are with his family and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in passing on condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the helicopter crash in London this morning and in paying tribute to the emergency services.

When the Prime Minister first became leader of the Conservative party, he said that its biggest problem was that it spent far too much of its time “banging on” about Europe. Is he glad those days are over?

Even the leader of the Labour party should accept that a massive change is taking place in Europe: a change that is being driven by the changes in the eurozone. Frankly, the country, and political parties in this country, face a choice. Do we look at the changes, see what we can do to maximise Britain’s national interest, and consult the public about that, or do we sit back, do nothing, and tell the public to go hang? I know where I stand; I know where this party stands—and that is in the national interest.

Let us hope we can find out today where the Prime Minister does stand. I suppose I should congratulate him on one thing—deciding on the date of his speech. Well done. Another example of the Rolls-Royce operation of No. 10 Downing street.

In advance of his speech, what is the Prime Minister’s answer, which investors need to know, to this question: will Britain be in the European Union in five years’ time?

On important decisions, may I first of all congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on an important decision that he has made this week—to keep the shadow Chancellor in place until 2015. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Rarely do we see so much cross-party support.

My view is that Britain is better off in the European Union, but it is right for us to see the changes taking place in Europe, and to ensure that we argue for the changes that Britain needs, so that we have a better relationship between Britain and Europe, a better organised European Union, and the full-hearted consent of the British people. Those are the choices that we are making. What are his choices?

Maybe we are making a bit of progress. In October 2011, as I am sure the Prime Minister will remember, he and I walked shoulder to shoulder through the Lobby against the 81 Conservative Members who voted for an in/out referendum. You might call it two parties working together in the national interest. At the time, the Foreign Secretary—I think he is on his way to Australia to get as far away from the Prime Minister’s speech as possible—said that the reason for our vote was that an in/out referendum

“would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time”.

Was the Foreign Secretary right?

Yes, he was entirely right. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition only wants to talk about process, because he dare not debate the substance. I do not think it would be right for Britain to have an in/out referendum today, because we would be giving the British people a false choice. Millions of people in this country, myself included, want Britain to stay in the European Union, but they believe that there are chances to negotiate a better relationship. Throughout Europe, countries are looking at forthcoming treaty change and thinking, “What can I do to maximise my national interest?” That is what the Germans will do. That is what the Spanish will do. That is what the British should do. Let us get on to the substance and give up the feeble jokes.

First of all, I thought the jokes were pretty good. But I am talking about the substance. The Prime Minister’s position appears to be this: an in/out referendum now would be destabilising, but promising one in five years’ time is just fine for the country. Let us see if that is his position, because what does it mean? It means five years of businesses seeing a “Closed for Business” sign hanging around Britain. What did Lord Heseltine say—[Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members want to jeer Lord Heseltine, one of the few mainstream voices in the Conservative party. He said:

“To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn’t begun on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that’s unknown…seems to me like an unnecessary gamble.”

Is he not right?

It is absolutely no secret that, when it comes to Europe, there are disagreements between me and Michael Heseltine. Michael, for whom I have a huge amount of time, was one of the leading voices for Britain joining the single currency. I am delighted that we have not joined, and we should not join—under my prime ministership, we will never join the single currency—and that is also the view of millions of businesses up and down this country. What business wants in Europe is what I want in Europe: to be part of Europe, but a more flexible Europe, a more competitive Europe, a Europe that can take on the challenge of the global race and the rise of nations in the south and the east.

Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. When change is taking place in Europe and when the single currency is driving change, is it not in Britain’s national interest to argue for changes which will make the European Union more competitive and flexible, and which will strengthen and sort out the relationship between Britain and the European Union, and then to ask the British people for their consent?

That is our approach. Apart from coming up with what he considers to be very amusing jokes, what is the right hon. Gentleman’s approach?

The biggest change that we need in Europe is a move from austerity to growth and jobs, but the Prime Minister has absolutely nothing to say about that. This is the reality: the reason the Prime Minister is changing his mind has nothing to do with the national interest. It is because he has lost control of his party. He thinks that his problems on Europe will end on Friday, but they are only just beginning. Can he confirm that he is now giving the green light to Conservative Cabinet Ministers to campaign on different positions—on whether they are for or against being in the European Union?

The right hon. Gentleman tries to make the point that Europe should somehow be moving away from the policy of deficit reduction. He is completely isolated in Europe. Not one single Government—not even socialists in Europe—believe in pushing up borrowing and borrowing more. That is the simple truth. What is in Britain’s interests is to seek a fresh settlement in Europe that is more flexible and more competitive. That is in our interests, and that is what we will seek.

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman this: does he not understand that what has happened over the last decade—during which a Labour Government signed treaty after treaty, gave away power after power, saw more centralisation after more centralisation, and never consulted the British people—is what has made this problem such a big problem in the first place?

The whole House, and the country, will have heard that the Prime Minister did not answer the question about whether he had given the green light to his Cabinet—to his Conservative Cabinet colleagues—for some of them to campaign for being in the European Union and others to campaign for getting out of it. That is the reality of the position, and of the weakness of this Prime Minister. At a time when 1 million young people are out of work and businesses are going to the wall, what is the Prime Minister doing? He has spent six months preparing a speech to create five years of uncertainty for Britain. When it comes to Europe, it is the same old Tories: a divided party, and a weak Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman has absolutely nothing to say about the important issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe. What is his view? [Interruption.]

There will be a very simple choice at the next election. If you want to stay out of the single currency, you vote Conservative; if you want to join the single currency, you vote Labour. If you want to take power back to Britain, you vote Conservative; if you want to give power to Brussels, you vote Labour. That is the truth. What we see from the right hon. Gentleman’s position is that he wants absolutely no change in the relationship between Britain and Europe, and that he does not believe that the British people should be given a choice.

Q15. The Prime Minister has rightly focused the Government on growth. The development of new housing plays a key part in the provision of that growth, as well as the provision of much-needed new homes. In my constituency, two developments will provide 8,000 new homes between them. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Rugby borough council’s attitude to new development, and perhaps visit Rugby to see how we are going about it? (137160)

I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend in Rugby. He is absolutely right to say that we need to build more houses in our country. That is because, unless they have help from their parents, first-time buyers are now, on average, in their thirties. We need to build more homes in order to allow people to achieve the dream, which so many have already achieved, of getting on to the housing ladder.

Q2. In 2010 the Prime Minister and his party said it was lying and scaremongering to suggest they would reduce family tax credits for families earning less than £31,000, but we found out last week that the threshold will, in fact, be £26,000. Will the Prime Minister apologise to families he has failed to protect and has made poorer while he has been in government? (137147)

This Government have had to make difficult decisions on public spending and welfare, but we have protected those on the lowest incomes and we have made sure there have been increases in some areas. That is what we have done with child tax credits, and it is a record we should support.

Q3. The residents of Thanet enjoy burgers but also love horses. They will have been shocked to hear this morning that they may have been eating horsemeat. Will the Prime Minister assure us that he and his Government are doing a lot to reassure the diners of Thanet? (137148)

My hon. Friend raises a very important and extremely serious issue. People in our country will have been very concerned to read this morning that while they thought they were buying beefburgers, they were buying something that had horsemeat in it. That is extremely disturbing news. I have asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an urgent investigation. It has made it clear that there is no risk to public safety, because there is no food safety risk, but this is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. The FSA will meet retailers and processors this afternoon and work with them to investigate the supply chain, but it is worth making the point that, ultimately, retailers have to be responsible for what they sell and where it has come from.

May I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their condolences to the families of those who died in this morning’s helicopter crash in my constituency, and add my condolences and sympathy? Does the Prime Minister agree that amazing work was done this morning, particularly by the fire service? Firefighters from Clapham station arrived very swiftly. Given London’s changing skyline, does he also agree that—not today, but at some stage—we will need to look much more closely at where, how and why helicopters fly through our central city?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to praise the emergency services once again. I think everyone could see from the terrifying pictures on our television screens this morning just how swiftly they responded, and how brave and professional they were. On her point about the rules for helicopter flights—and, indeed, other flights over our capital city—I am sure that will be looked at in the investigations that will take place. She is right that that is not an issue for today, but it is inevitably something that has to be carefully looked at.

Q4. Last week I organised an entrepreneurship seminar in Chiswick for women wanting to set up their own businesses, and one of the questions they asked was about the cost of child care. This Government have extended 15 hours of care to the most disadvantaged quarter of a million two-year-olds and extended that to three and four-year-olds. Does that not show that this Government are supporting families and women who want to work? (137149)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Over the past couple of years we have seen one of the fastest rates of new business creation in our history, but we do need to encourage female entrepreneurship in particular, because if we had the same rate as other countries we could help to wipe out unemployment all together. As my hon. Friend said, we do help families with two, three and four-year-olds with child care. We also help through the tax credit system and, as the House knows, we are looking at what more we can do for hard-working people who want to go out to work and need help with child care in order to ensure they can do the right thing for their children and families.

Let me say again that we should recognise and welcome the work that food banks do. The last Government rightly recognised that through giving food banks an award. [Interruption.] As this question has been asked, and as some hon. Members shout out a lot about food banks, let me remind them of one simple fact: the use of food banks went up tenfold under the last Labour Government, so before Opposition Members try to use this as a political weapon they should recognise it started under their own Government.

Q5. The National Star college in my constituency provides world-renowned care for some of our disabled youngsters with the most profound and complex learning difficulties to enable them to lead independent lives. Sadly, its future, like that of a few similar colleges, is being placed in jeopardy by a decision not to ring-fence its funding. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to solve this problem, so may I invite him to the college to see this wonderful care for himself? (137150)

I am very happy to discuss this issue with my constituency neighbour, who rightly praises the fantastic work carried out by the National Star college. It does an excellent job in improving the life chances of young people. I know that the college has concerns about the new funding system and that my hon. Friend has contacted the Minister responsible. We are changing the way in which funding is allocated, but that does not necessarily mean that the funding will be cut. I am very happy to discuss this with my hon. Friend, but the new funding system does allow local authorities to have more say in how the funding is distributed, and I am sure they will want to recognise excellent work, including from this national college.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware of the trauma facing thousands of families, particularly in London, who live in private rented accommodation, where the housing benefit payments do not meet the rapidly increasing rents? These people are then forced out of their homes and out of their boroughs, and the community suffers as a result, as does the children’s education. Does he not think it is time to regulate private sector rents and bring in a fair rents policy in this country, so that families are not forced out of the communities where they and their families have lived for a very long time? (137151)

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that we inherited a housing benefit system in London that was completely out of control; some families were getting as much as £104,000 a year—that is for one family for one year. Even today we are still spending about £6 billion on housing benefit in London. We have to recognise that higher levels of housing benefit and higher rents were chasing each other upwards in a spiral. I do not support the idea of mass rent controls, because I think we would see a massive decline in the private rented sector, which is what happened the last time we had such rent controls. We need proper regulation of housing benefit, and we need to make sure that we have a competitive system for private sector renting and that we build more flats and houses.

The deficit has to be brought down, but if tax credits and benefits are capped for the next three years at 1%, people on low incomes will be left vulnerable to increases in food and energy prices. If prices go up by more than expected, what contingency plans do the Government have for benefits and tax credits?

The most important thing is to make sure that people are getting a good deal on energy prices, which is why we are going to be legislating to make companies put people on the lowest available tariffs. That is something the Government are doing that will help all families.

Q7. As a diabetic, may I welcome the fact that last year the Prime Minister lit up No. 10 for the first time on world diabetes day? One third of all primary school leavers are either obese or overweight, yet they still consume cans of Coke and Pepsi that contain up to eight teaspoons of sugar. What steps is he proposing to take to engage manufacturers in a war against sugar? If we do not act now, the next generation will be overwhelmed by a diabetes epidemic? (137152)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, which is one of the biggest public health challenges that we face in our country, and to highlight the problem of excessive consumption of sugar. That is why we challenged business, through our responsibility deal, to try to reduce levels of sugar, and that has had some effect. We have in place a diabetes action plan, which is about how we improve early diagnosis, how we better integrate care and how we provide better support. But, frankly, this is one of those health challenges that is not just a challenge for the health service; it is a challenge for local authorities, for schools and for parents, too. As someone who is trying to bring up three children without excessive amounts of Coca-Cola, I know exactly how big this challenge is.

Twenty years ago this week, Claire Tiltman, a 16-year-old pupil at Dartford grammar school for girls, was stabbed to death in my constituency. Nobody has ever been convicted of the crime. Both her parents subsequently died never knowing who had taken their only child from them. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that this Government will continue to provide full assistance to Kent police to help bring justice in the case of one of Britain’s most brutal unsolved murders?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this case, which is particularly tragic because, as he says, the girl’s parents have both died. Of course we will do everything we can, but above all it is for anyone who knows anything about this case to talk to Kent police, because in the end it is their responsibility to try to solve the case. As for taking action to deal with appalling knife crimes such as this, as my hon. Friend knows, the Government have taken a set of important actions.

Q8. Thirty-nine people suspected of serious child sex offences who fled the country have been brought back to Britain quickly under the European arrest warrant to face justice. Sadly, many of the Prime Minister’s Back Benchers want to scrap the European arrest warrant, making it easier for paedophiles to escape justice. Will he today categorically rule that out? (137153)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have the opportunity to work out which of the home affairs parts of the European Union we want to opt out of and which ones we want to opt back into. That is rightly being discussed in the Government and in the House, and I am sure they will listen very carefully to his arguments.

Great progress is being made in improving the rights of park home owners, many of whom are vulnerable and on low incomes. Currently they are not eligible for the green deal. Will the Prime Minister ask his civil servants to investigate this matter to make sure that assistance with energy efficiency is available to everybody who needs it?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. This Government have taken some steps forward on the rights of park home owners, of whom I have some in my own constituency and therefore know how important it is that we get the balance of law right. I will look at her point about the green deal, a very important measure to try to help people with their energy efficiency and to keep their bills down. We want it to be available to as many people as possible.

Q9. Yesterday Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS, told the Public Accounts Committee that GPs were imposing unjustified restrictions on cataract operations. It seems that the Prime Minister and his reorganisation are taking the NHS back to the 1980s, when the NHS was the sick man of Europe. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to elderly people who are waiting unnecessarily for their cataract operations? (137154)

Compared with 2010-11, last year there were 400,000 extra operations in our NHS. Across our NHS, there are 5,000 more doctors and 5,000 fewer administrators. We have got the level of mixed-sex wards right down. The level of hospital-acquired infections—[Interruption.] The point that I am making, which I know the Opposition do not want to hear, is that the NHS is improving under this Government because we are putting the money in and they would take the money out.

Q10. Many of us were inspired by the Prime Minister’s speech on political reform delivered in Milton Keynes when we were in opposition. He promised to make politicians more outwardly and properly accountable to the people. To make that happen, we were promised a system of open primary selection, which has already had such a refreshing effect in the constituencies of Totnes and Gosport. When does the Prime Minister expect a system of full-blown open primaries to be in place more widely, as promised in the coalition agreement? (137155)

I do support the use of open primaries. As my hon. Friend says, in the Conservative party we had a number of open primaries. I hope all parties can look at the issue and debate how we can encourage maximum participation, including in the selection of candidates.

Q11. Let us talk about Europe and the national interest. Millions of British women would be hit by the proposal in today’s Conservative Fresh Start report to opt out of the EU law on equal pay. Will the Prime Minister rule out such an opt-out today? (137156)

As I explained at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions, the Government have massively helped women through the single-tier pension. I will look very carefully at the proposal that the hon. Gentleman mentions and I will write to him.

Q12. I know my right hon. Friend is aware of the extreme flooding suffered in the west country in November and December last year, impacting many homes and businesses and sweeping away the rail link between the west country and London, leaving us cut off for several days. Will he please ensure that our Government take every step necessary to improve the resilience of this vital rail link so that we never get cut off again? (137157)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this question. I am well aware of how bad the flooding was and I went to Buckfastleigh to see how badly the town had been flooded for myself. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has discussed the recent flooding with Network Rail’s chair and chief executive, and he will visit the area soon to look at this. We are working with Network Rail to improve the resilience of the overall network and we will do everything we can to ensure that these important services are maintained, even when they are challenged by floods such as those we saw last year.

Does the Prime Minister accept that a statement on Europe designed to be populist runs the risk of polarising this House, undermining key UK relations with America, confusing and alienating our friends and partners in Europe and, disastrously, starting a process that sleepwalks the UK out of Europe?

I think the most dangerous thing for this country would be to bury our head in the sand and pretend there is not a debate about Britain’s future in Europe. The most dangerous thing for this country would be to see the changes taking place in Europe because of the single currency and to stand back and say that we are going to do nothing about them. What Britain should be doing is getting in there and fighting for the changes we want so that we can ask for the consent of the British people to settle this issue once and for all.

Q13. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to keep pensioners warm in this cold weather and will he join me in congratulating the Suffolk Foundation on the great success of its “surviving winter” campaign? (137158)

This Government have given the biggest increase in the basic state pension—an increase of £5.30 a week last year. We have kept the winter fuel payments, we have kept the cold weather payments at the higher level and we are replacing the Warm Front scheme with the energy company obligation, or ECO. Although the Warm Front scheme helped some 80,000 houses a year, the ECO could help up to 230,000 houses a year. That is what we are doing, that is how we are helping old people, and it is a record we should be proud of.

Q14. The Prime Minister should know that the Office for National Statistics recently released figures that showed 24,000—24,000—extra cold weather deaths over the winter of 2011-12. The majority of those who perished were over the age of 75. Does the Prime Minister think that his Government should do more to help the elderly and the vulnerable and less to help millionaires through tax cuts? (137159)

As I just said, we are doing more to help the elderly and the vulnerable, with a record increase in the basic state pension that was bigger than what the Opposition would have done under their rules. We are keeping the cold weather payments at the higher level, which the previous Government only introduced before the election. We are keeping our promise on winter fuel payments. We are taking all those steps and ensuring—again, this is something that was never done by the Labour party—that energy companies will have to put people on the lowest tariffs. That is a record we can be proud of.

Tarn-Pure, a business in my constituency, is enduring a hideous regulatory farce thanks to the Health and Safety Executive and the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend remind the CBI that the British economy is very reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, which are far less able to cope with bad regulation, particularly when it is badly administered in the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Businesses large and small are complaining about the burden of regulation, not just from Europe but more generally, and that is why we should be fighting in Europe for a more flexible, competitive Europe in which we see regulations coming off rather than always going on. The view of the Opposition is that we should sit back, do nothing, accept the status quo and never listen to the British people or British business, either.