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Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2013

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Kingsman David Robert Shaw of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. He died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham last Wednesday as a result of wounds that he sustained in Afghanistan. He gave his life for the safety of the British people, and his incredibly brave contribution must never be forgotten. Our profound condolences are with his loved ones.

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

I am sure that the whole House and the whole country would want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments about David Robert Shaw and his family and friends at this difficult time.

On Monday, the Prime Minister stated that the task for our generation was to struggle against terrorism. On Tuesday, his Government sacked 5,600 troops. Why is there such a gap between what the Prime Minister says and what he does?

I think that the hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I do not deny for one second that we have had to take difficult decisions about defence spending in our country. However, let me make this point. At £33 billion a year, we have the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world, and it is important that we make sure that we have the right scale and shape of armed forces, and that they have the right capabilities. That is why, in the defence review, we are investing in drones, and investing more in special forces and in key intelligence capabilities, making sure that we have the aircraft we need to ensure that we have highly mobile armed forces. I am incredibly proud of what our armed forces do, and because we are now balancing their budget, they will be better equipped for the future.

Sixty-eight years ago this Sunday, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. As we mark Holocaust memorial day, will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that young people in this country always have the opportunity to learn about what took place in the darkest period in our shared history, and will he commend the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust?

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House, and indeed the whole country, in raising this vital issue on this day, and in praising the Holocaust Educational Trust—an absolutely brilliant charity and organisation that makes sure that young people from schools across the country have the opportunity to go and see the places where the terrible events of the holocaust took place. I had the immense privilege this week of meeting a holocaust survivor whose story was truly heroic and truly heartbreaking, but who in her 90s is still making these arguments and making this case so that future generations will learn. We should also learn, not just about the European holocaust, but from what has happened more recently in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere that, tragically, there is far too much prejudice and persecution in our world.

Can I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kingsman David Robert Shaw of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment? He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and the condolences of the whole House go to his family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister guarantee that if he gets his in/out referendum he will campaign to stay in?

Yes, I want Britain to be part of a reformed and successful European Union. This entire argument is about what is in Britain’s national interests. We want a European Union that is more open, more flexible, more competitive, not just good for Britain, but good for Europe too.

I do not think that was quite a complete answer to my question. Let us see if we can press the Prime Minister a bit further about how he is going to vote. Is he saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend—[Interruption.] The part-time Chancellor can hang on a minute. Is the Prime Minister saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend that Britain leaves the European Union?

First, it is very welcome that the right hon. Gentleman is accepting the premise that the Conservatives will win the next election, and interestingly, not raising the fact that the unemployment figures are down once again today. Employment is up by 90,000 this quarter, and the rate of job growth last year was the fastest since 1989. But I answered his question very clearly. I want to see a strong Britain in a reformed Europe. We have a very clear plan. We want to reset the relationship. We will hold that referendum. We will recommend that resettlement to the British people, but the question now is for him: has he got a clue what he would do?

The clue is in the title—Prime Minister’s questions. He is supposed to be answering the questions. He has had six months to think about this. It is not too much to ask. The Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is not here, would say unequivocally that he would vote yes in a referendum. The Secretary of State for Education, who is hiding away down the Benches there, has briefed that he wants us to leave the European Union. I am just asking the Prime Minister a straight question: can he guarantee that he will vote yes in an in/out referendum?

Yes, I support Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union. Only the Leader of the Opposition would go into negotiations expecting to fail. We go into negotiations knowing what is best for Britain. Let me put it to him again. We now have a very clear approach: a renegotiation and then a referendum. What is his answer? Let me tell him—he is meant to lead the Opposition, and you cannot fight something with nothing.

The reason that those on the Conservative Back Benches are cheering is not that they want to vote yes in an in/out referendum; it is because they want to vote no. That is the reality for the Prime Minister. He still has not answered the question. Let me put it another way and give him another chance. We know from his speech this morning that he wants to go off and negotiate for fairness, flexibility and motherhood and apple pie in Europe. Can he name one thing—just one thing—which, if he does not get it, he will recommend leaving the European Union?

I do not want Britain to leave the European Union. I want Britain to reform the European Union. We have set out the areas where we want—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are shouting their heads off at the Prime Minister. They must desist. Let us hear the answers.

We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas—social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation—where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom. These are the things that we are fighting for. Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. We want a renegotiation and then a referendum. What does he want? Or does he not know?

So four hours since the big speech, the Prime Minister cannot answer the most basic question of all—whether he is for yes or for no. Why can he not answer it? Why can he not say unequivocally that he will vote yes in a referendum? Because he is frightened, because of those on the Conservative Back Benches. The only thing that has changed since a few months ago, when he said he was against an in/out referendum, is not the situation in Europe, but the situation in the Tory party. Why does he not admit it? He has not been driven to it by the national interest, but dragged to it by his party.

My position is no, we do not want an in/out referendum—[Interruption.] My position is precisely the same as the Prime Minister’s position when we voted together in October 2011 against an in/out referendum. My position has not changed; it is his position that has changed. And here is the truth: after six months of planning a speech on a referendum, he cannot even tell us whether it is a yes or a no —[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I said a moment ago that Members should not shout their heads off at the Prime Minister; neither should they shout their heads off at the Leader of the Opposition. They must stop—[Interruption.] Order. They must stop, and his questions must, and will, be heard.

The Prime Minister is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy. He is running scared of UKIP, he has given in to his party and he cannot deliver for Britain.

I have politely to say to the right hon. Gentleman that his whole argument about there being uncertainty is fatally undermined by the fact that he cannot answer whether he wants a referendum or not. Can I give him a little bit of advice? He needs to go away, get a policy, come back and tell us what it is. In the meantime, our approach is what the British people want. It is right for business, it is right for our economy, and we will fight for it in the years ahead.

Q15. Around the world, 170 million children under the age of five are stunted. That means that they are so malnourished that it has affected their physical and possibly their cognitive development. The world has enough food for everyone. As leading non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children launch a major campaign against malnutrition, will the Prime Minister tell us what action the United Kingdom will be taking during its presidency of the G8? (138647)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, particularly as we chair the G8 this year, and because some of the leading non-governmental organisations, including Save the Children, have quite rightly launched that campaign today. Above all, what Britain will be doing is meeting the commitment we made to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid—a commitment that we have made and that we have kept, whereas many other countries have broken their promises. We will be using that money to make sure that we focus on the issues of malnutrition, under-nutrition and stunting, because it is not acceptable, in 2013, that so many millions of families in the world go hungry every day and every night.

Q2. The British automotive industry is a world-class success story, with 82% of the cars we produce being exported. The key is inward investment, and the key to inward investment is our continuing membership of the European Union. Has the Prime Minister heard the growing voices expressing concern from within the industry over the prolonged uncertainty that his speech this morning will create? Is he beginning to recognise the damage that he might do to our economy and to a sector that employs hundreds of thousands of British workers? (138634)

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very welcome that, for the first time since the 1970s, Britain is once again, under this Government, a net exporter of cars. That is something to celebrate, but I simply do not agree with what he says about business. This morning, the Institute of Directors, the director-general of the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses are all coming out and saying that this is the right approach. Let us get a good deal for Britain, let us reform Europe and make it more open and competitive, and let us put the choice to the British people in a referendum.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s support for ending hunger, and his use of the G8 leadership for that campaign. Does he recognise the importance of the root causes of hunger, such as the land grabs and the use of land for producing biofuels? Does he also recognise the need to ensure that investment in those countries is suitably transparent? Will he use the G8 to seek bold action on those root causes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. Because Britain is meeting its promises on money for aid, we are best placed to make the arguments about what I call the golden thread, which is all the things that help move countries from poverty to wealth: making sure that there is the proper rule of law, democratic systems, accountability, a free press and property rights. We will be making the argument in the G8. We need greater transparency about land ownership, greater transparency about companies and greater transparency about tax. These are all arguments that Britain will be pushing in the year ahead.

Q3. Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government are the first for 30 years not to offer hard-pressed consumers a Government-funded energy efficiency scheme, following the closure of Warm Front last week? (138635)

No. The energy company obligation scheme is many times the size of the Warm Front scheme. Warm Front helped 80,000 families a year, but ECO could help up to 230,000 families a year, so it is a bigger and potentially better scheme.

What assessment has the Prime Minister made of unemployment in my constituency, particularly the fact that more women are in work than ever before?

The point my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. There are now more people employed in the private sector than ever before, and there are also more women employed in our country than ever before. When we look at the unemployment figures that came out today, we see that what is remarkable is that in employment is up in almost every region and unemployment is down in almost every region. There is a huge amount more to do, but clearly over 500,000 new jobs were created in the private sector last year, the fastest job creation rate since 1989. That shows that we are on the right track.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister believe that it is fair that Preston city council, which represents one of the areas of highest deprivation and poverty in the country, is receiving a 12% cut in its local government funding, while his own West Oxfordshire district council receives a cut of only 1%? Will he look at that again and give Preston a fairer deal? (138636)

Of course, local government right across the board is facing a difficult funding settlement—I do not hide from that—but the figures are as follows: the area formula grant per head in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is £501, whereas in my constituency it is £320. I completely accept that needs are greater in different parts of the country, which is why the figures are different, but I think that the figures speak for themselves.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a landmark speech this morning, which demonstrated serious leadership of our country and leadership on the important issue of Europe, but I invite him to agree with me on this issue: it is not simply the United Kingdom that is seeking to renegotiate the treaties, because there is also a serious imperative on those members of the eurozone that have introduced the disastrous single currency policy into Europe, which has caused economic chaos. They are the ones in need of treaty renegotiation, not just us.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. The point he makes is correct: there is a big change taking place in Europe because of the reforms that are necessary to deal with the single currency. That is why treaty change and change in Europe is coming. There is also already a big debate in Britain about our role in Europe. I think that politicians have a choice: we can either walk towards that, try to shape that choice to get a good deal for Britain and make changes that will benefit all of Europe, or we can stick our heads in the sand, as the Labour party is doing, and hope that the whole thing will go away.

Q5. Why does the Prime Minister think that Scotland’s two-year referendum process is too long but that his five-year Euro-marathon is just fine? (138637)

There is a very easy answer: the Scottish nationalists, in my view, misguidedly want to leave the United Kingdom as it is. I will be arguing, as will Members right across the House, that Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom. What I want to see in Europe is a changed Europe. Then we ask the people.

Q6. Despite his busy morning, I am sure that the Prime Minister will have seen today’s report from the Department for Communities and Local Government highlighting the huge savings that can be made by turning around the country’s most troubled families, such as the £224 million saved by councils in Greater Manchester, which equates to £32,000 per family. [Interruption.] What is he doing to ensure that these lessons are put to good use by local authorities across the country? (138638)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I do not understand why people are trying to shout down what should be a cross-party initiative to try to deal with the most troubled families in our country.

One council spent up to 20% of its budget on just 3% of its families. This is a problem affecting all local authorities right across the country, and I very much commend the approach that the Communities Secretary is taking—to bring together local councils and work out how we can help these families solve their problems and thus reduce a major impact on taxpayers as well.

Q7. The Government’s welfare Bill will plunge 200,000 extra children into poverty, and children in places such as Liverpool are already suffering. Yet the Government want to make the poor go away by redefining poverty. Does the Prime Minister really think he is going to get away with that? (138639)

What I would say to the hon. Lady is that the introduction of universal credit is going to reduce the number of children living in relative-income poverty by around 250,000. Those are the figures.

On the issue of welfare, we face a clear choice. Given that in-work benefits have gone up by 20% over the last five years compared with just a 10% increase in wages, we believe that it is right that welfare benefits should not continue to go up ahead of wages. I note what Labour have done this week: great sound and fury, voting against the Bill and saying it is completely wrong, but completely refusing to reverse it. That is the complete policy vacuum that we face from the Labour party.

Given the Prime Minister’s keen interest in single markets, will he look at mortgage lenders restricting legal work to a small number of larger firms and depriving local practices of the work that keeps them at the heart of local high streets in a thriving small business economy?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will look closely at this. We do want to see a competitive market in financial services and conveyancing. It is a major issue in our economy at the moment to get that mortgage market moving.

There are good signs, as the Governor of the Bank of England said last night, that credit conditions are easing, but we need to make sure that they are easing for people who are trying to buy their first flat and first home, who do not have a big deposit or a lot of help from the bank of mum and dad. We need to make sure that we are on their side.

Q8. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), the Prime Minister justified very large cuts in defence spending, with 5,000 troops being sacked right now, on the basis that he had had to face some difficult decisions on expenditure. But those decisions were made in 2010. The security risk facing this country is now much worse, as he himself has acknowledged and as many of his own hon. Friends fear. Given those threats, including in the Sahel, is there not an overwhelming case for looking again at the strategic defence review and ensuring that our troops have the numbers needed to justify our defence? (138640)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The point about our defence reviews is that they are every five years, so there will be the opportunity to look at this all over again. What I would say to him about the level of risk—I made this point in my statement to the House on Monday—is that the risks are changing. We still face the biggest risk from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, but the proportion of the risks that we face from that area has declined, so we are able to use resources as we draw down in Afghanistan to cope with the other risks that we face.

The overall point is absolutely that, yes, we are going to have a smaller regular Army, although the extra reserves will mean that the overall level of our Army hardly changes size. But they will be better equipped, more capable, more mobile and more capable of dealing with the modern threats that we face.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his speech on Europe this morning. This Prime Minister has a history of going in to bat for Britain; the Labour party has a history of going in and surrendering things such as the rebate. Is not the big difference between that side and this that this side trusts the people and that side wants to deny them a say?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Frankly, the British public have seen treaty after treaty introduced to this House, passing powers from Westminster to Brussels. They have seen a huge change in the European Union over the last 30 years. They see a big change taking place because of the eurozone, and that is why I think it is right to resettle our relationship with Europe and then to trust the people.

Q9. As with phone-hacking, blacklisting has destroyed the lives of many innocent people. Recent revelations show that the secretive, serious abuse of powers involved in blacklisting continues with the involvement of the police and the security services. Will the Prime Minister order an immediate investigation into this scandal, which has ruined, and continues to ruin, the lives of many hard-working men and women and their families? (138641)

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the issue that the Opposition will be raising today in their debate. Let me say that the blacklisting that occurred was a completely unacceptable practice, and the previous Government were right to bring in legislation to make it unlawful. We have seen no evidence that the blacklisting regulations that were introduced are not doing their job, and the company responsible was shut down in 2009. However, I welcome the openness and frankness with which Labour is using an Opposition day debate to look at something that went wrong while it was in office.

My right hon. Friend insists on five excellent principles, including democracy based on national Parliaments, and he rejects ever-closer union. Other member states want to go ahead with more integration and are demanding it. Last year, on the fiscal compact, they ignored his veto and went ahead, irrespective of the rules of the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what will happen if, by next spring, they insist on going ahead with their own intended proposals, and what will he do in response?

First of all, I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. I believe that what is going to happen is that the eurozone countries do need to make changes to the European Union, as I put it in my speech this morning. They are changing the Union to fix the currency. That is what President Barroso’s report is about and what the four Presidents’ report is about, and it poses quite wide-ranging treaty change. I think this gives us the opportunity and the right to argue that for those countries that are not in the eurozone—and frankly, I believe, are never going to join the eurozone—there are changes we would like, not just for ourselves but for a more open, competitive and flexible Europe. So there is going to be change in Europe. The eurozone countries do need to make changes, but we should not back off from pushing forward our agenda as well.

Q10. Is the Prime Minister aware that there can be nothing more gruesome than to see him headed out of austerity-riddled Britain to wine and dine at Davos with 50 top bankers who helped to create the economic crash and several hundred tax-avoiding millionaires? Does it not prove the theory that if you want to identify a posh boy, look at the company he keeps? (138642)

I seem to remember that last year I ran into the Leader of the Opposition, but we will leave that to one side. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I think that when he sees the speech I am going to be making in Davos, which will be arguing that we need greater transparency over tax, greater responsibility over the tax avoidance and tax evasion issues, and greater transparency about companies and about the land issue we were speaking about earlier, he might even find that he agrees with some of the things I am going to say.

Will the Prime Minister cut through the irrelevant arguments coming from the Opposition and give the very simple message to the British people that if we have a Conservative Government after the next election, they will have their say in a referendum on Europe, but if we do not have a Conservative Government, we will not have a referendum?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I believe it is right to resettle our relationship with Europe to make it more open, more competitive and more flexible, to make us feel more comfortable inside the Union, and then to give the British people the in/out referendum they deserve.

Q11. Can the Prime Minister confirm that 3.4 million families with someone who is disabled will be worse off as a result of his benefit uprating cap? Why is he making life more difficult for these families? (138643)

First of all, I would say to the hon. Lady that disability living allowance is not included in the cap, and disability living allowance is not related to people’s income; it is actually related to people’s needs. If we look as a whole at what we are doing with disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, we see that the overall the amount of money we are spending on disability is going to go up and not down.

My right hon. Friend’s admiration for the economic and political wisdom of our noble friend Lord Heseltine is well known. In the light of my right hon. Friend’s speech this morning, will he consider inviting Lord Heseltine to conduct an inquiry into the consequences for the United Kingdom if we leave the European Union?

I always listen closely to what Michael Heseltine says and I am a huge fan of his plans for an industrial strategy. On the issue of Europe, we have not always agreed. He was a leading proponent of Britain joining the single currency and I have always been opposed to that. On the issue of the referendum, I gently remind my right hon. and learned Friend that an in/out referendum was very much part of his manifesto at the last election, but in the interests of coalition harmony, I think we will leave that to one side.

Q12. A Swansea constituent of mine with a chronic medical condition tells me that he has just £20 a week to spend on food and clothing after paying his utility bills, and that after the welfare cuts in April he will have just £2 a day. If the Prime Minister believes that we are all in it together, will he agree to review the impact of the welfare cuts on the very poorest, so that my constituent’s sacrifices are in line with his own? (138644)

I will look very closely at what the hon. Gentleman says and the circumstances, but it is worth making the point that, if we compare 2013 with 2010 in terms of the level of key benefits, we will see that an unemployed person on jobseeker’s allowance is getting £325 more this year than in 2010, that a couple on jobseeker’s allowance are getting £500 more and that a single, out-of-work mother is getting £420 more, so what the Opposition try to do week after week—paint a picture that we have unfairly cut welfare—is simply untrue.

Health inequalities in the country are persistent and damaging. Recently the Department of Health announced a 5.5% increase in its allocation to local authorities for their public health responsibilities and a 10% increase for Bedford and Kempston. Does the Prime Minister agree that those funds, locally directed, will go a long way to help tackling long-term health inequalities?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. For many years public health budgets were raided in order to deal with issues and problems in the NHS. Because we put in place an increase in the NHS budget—we have also ring-fenced some of the public health budgets—we are able to make sure that we tackle some of the real problems, such as smoking, diabetes and other issues, that will put enormous pressures on our health service in the long run.

Q13. The House has heard that the Prime Minister is looking forward to meeting people from national and international banks in the next few days. When will he visit a food bank? (138645)

First of all, let me once again praise what food banks do in our country and let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the use of food banks increased 10 times under the last Labour Government.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to all the athletes who took part in the British transplant games held in my constituency? Linked to that, will he encourage people to register for organ donation, which will help to save lives?

I certainly pay tribute to all those who took part in the British transplant games and to the many volunteers who made the games such a success. Gillingham did a fantastic job in hosting the games and my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. They are a testament to the benefits of transplantation and I would encourage people to do as he says.

Q14. Seventy-seven of Warrington’s young people with the most complex special needs face being without places next year because of Government cuts to post-16 high-needs funding. Why should the most vulnerable young people in my constituency pay the price for the Prime Minister’s economic failure? (138646)

First of all, let me make the point to the hon. Lady that the reason we are having to make cuts is because of the mess left by her Government. No one wants to have to make the difficult decisions that we have had to make in government, but I would argue that, when it comes to helping the disabled and the most vulnerable, this Government have always looked after them.

Pitt the Younger said that

“Europe is not to be saved by any single man”,

and then correctly went on to predict that England would

“save Europe by her example.”

I believe that my right hon. Friend is in danger of contradicting Pitt, because his example today and his exertions over the next four years stand the best possible chance of rescuing the European Union for both Europe and Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. He makes an important point, which is that Britain’s agenda is not one of simply saying, “This is what Britain wants and if we don’t get it we will leave”, it is an agenda that is good for the whole of the European Union. We face a massive competitiveness challenge from the rising countries of the south and the east, and we must accept that Europe at the moment is not working properly—it is adding to business costs, adding to regulation, and we need to change that not just for our sake but for that of those right across the European Union.