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Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2013

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.

Is it right that a mother in my constituency may not, because of the Prime Minister’s bedroom tax—and as confirmed by his Minister—be able offer her son, serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces, either a home or a bedroom on his return from duty?

I will happily look at the case that the hon. Lady mentions, but our reforms to housing benefit have a clear principle at their heart. There are many people in private rented accommodation who do not have housing benefit and cannot afford extra bedrooms. We have to get control of housing benefit. We are now spending, as a country, £23 billion on housing benefit, and we have to get that budget under control.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome today’s news that university applications for UK universities are up 3.5% this year and at their highest level ever for disadvantaged students?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the figures released this morning. After all the concerns expressed about how the new way of paying for university finance would reduce the number of students applying to university, the number of 18-year-olds has actually risen and is now level with where it was in 2011, which is higher than in any year under the last Labour Government.

In October, the Prime Minister told me that when it came to the economy

“the good news will keep coming.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 917.]

After last week’s growth figures, it obviously has not. What is his excuse this time?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, GDP in the third quarter of last year went up by 0.9%, and, as forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, it fell in the fourth quarter by 0.3%. [Interruption.] Only Labour Members could cheer that news. Is that not absolutely typical? He should listen to the Governor of the Bank of England, who said:

“Our economy is recovering, more slowly than we might wish, but we are moving in the right direction.”

The fall in unemployment numbers clearly backs that up.

What an extraordinarily complacent answer from the Prime Minister. Let us understand the scale of his failure on growth. In autumn 2010, the Government told us that by now the economy would have grown by over 5%. Will he tell us by how much it has actually grown since then?

There is absolutely nothing complacent about this Government. That is why we are cutting corporation tax, we are investing in enterprise zones and a million apprenticeships have started under this Government. Let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman what is actually happening in our economy: 1 million new private sector jobs; and in the last year alone, half a million private sector jobs—the fastest rate of job creation since 1989. That is what is happening, but do we need to do more, to get the banks lending and businesses investing? Yes we do, and under this Government we will.

Just for once, why does the Prime Minister not give a straight answer to a straight question? Growth was not 5%, as he forecast, but—[Interruption.] The part-time Chancellor is about to give him some advice. I have to say to the part-time Chancellor that he should spend more time worrying about our economy and less time worrying about how to divert high-speed rail routes away from his constituency.

Order. Mr Ellis, you are a distinguished practising barrister. You would not have behaved like that in the courts; do not behave like that in this Chamber. Calm yourself and be quiet—learn it man!

The part-time Chancellor is looking very embarrassed because he knows the truth.

Now, growth was not 5% but 0.4%, and a flatlining economy means people’s living standards are falling. The Prime Minister’s excuse is that other countries have done worse than us, so can he confirm that since the Chancellor’s spending review more than two years ago, out of the major G20 economies, Britain has been 18th out of 20 for growth?

First of all, let me say on high-speed rail—which goes right through the middle of the Chancellor’s constituency—that we are proud of the fact that it is this Government who have taken the decision to invest, just as it is this Government who are building Crossrail, which is the biggest construction plan anywhere in Europe.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about other European economies. The fact is that if we listen to the European Union, the OECD or the International Monetary Fund, they all point out that Britain will have the fastest growth of any major economy in Europe this year. But I have to ask him: what is his plan? We all know it; it is a three-point plan: more spending, more borrowing, more debt—exactly the things that got us into the mess in the first place.

I have to say, we have got used to that kind of answer from the Prime Minister. He promises a better tomorrow and tomorrow never comes. That is the reality, and he could not deny the fact that we are 18th out of 20 countries. We have done worse than the USA, worse than Canada, worse than Germany and worse than France because of his decisions. Last week the chief economist of the IMF said:

“If things look bad at the beginning of 2013—which they do”—

he was talking about the UK—

“then there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy.”

So after two years of no growth, can the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks he should do anything differently in the next two years?

First of all, I would say that the right hon. Gentleman should listen to the managing director of the IMF. She said this:

“when I think back myself to May 2010 when the UK deficit was at 11%”—

when you were in office, right?—

“and I try to imagine what the situation would be like today if no such fiscal consolidation programme had been decided, I shiver.”

That is what the IMF said about the plans of the last Labour Government. Now, the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of growth—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not acceptable to shout down either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. The public have a very low opinion of that kind of behaviour. Let us hear the questions and hear the answers.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of America and American growth. The fact is that our recession was longer and deeper than the recession in America. The biggest banking bust was not an American bank; it was a British bank. He may want to talk about tomorrow because he does not want to talk about yesterday, when the two people responsible for the regulation of the banks and the performance of our economy are sitting right there on the Opposition Benches.

It was once again a completely incomprehensible answer. I think basically the answer that the Prime Minister did not want to give was: it is more of the same—more of the same that is not working. He mentions borrowing. He is borrowing £212 billion more than he promised. Last week he told the country in a party political broadcast that he was “paying down Britain’s debts”, but the debt is rising and he has borrowed £7.2 billion more so far this year compared with last year. Will he not just admit: it’s hurting, but it just isn’t working?

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more? The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that Labour’s plans would basically add £200 billion to Britain’s borrowing. He has made absolutely no apology for the mess his Government made of the economy. His whole message to the British people is: give the car keys back to the people who crashed the car in the first place. They did not regulate the banks, they built up the debts; we are clearing up the mess that he made.

The right hon. Gentleman is borrowing for failure. And he is borrowing more for failure. That is the reality of his record. Here is the truth: they said they would balance the books; they have not. They said there would be growth; there is not. They said Britain was out of the danger zone; it is not. Is it not the truth that the Prime Minister has run out of excuses for the fact that, on his watch and because of his decisions, this is the slowest recovery for 100 years?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about failure; we are dealing with year after year of failure from the Labour party. They did not regulate the banks, they built up the debt and they had a totally unbalanced economy. What is happening under this Government is 1million private sector jobs, unemployment down since the election, the fastest rate of business creation in our recent history and a balance of payments surplus in cars. We are clearing up the mess they made. They are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because they have not learned the lessons. That is why the British public will never trust them with the economy again.

Like the Prime Minister, I want to see a fresh settlement in Europe. British beer drinkers pay 13 times more duty than German drinkers, nine times more duty than Spanish drinkers and 10 times more duty than Italian drinkers. Will he take the Chancellor for a pint and tell him to scrap the beer duty escalator and do something for British pubs and British publicans?

My hon. Friend quite rightly speaks up for Burton. I remember visiting that great brewery with him during the last election. I am sure that the Chancellor will have listened very carefully to what he said. I think it is very important that we also try to support the pub trade in our country, and the Government have plans for that as well.

Q2. Thousands of my Blackpool constituents in poorly insulated homes fear sky-high cold weather bills. The Government’s green deal has 7% interest charges and only five households have signed up for it. How has the Prime Minister achieved that fiasco? (140118)

First of all, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the green deal, because it gives households the opportunity to cut their bills with absolutely no up-front costs. He should be encouraging his constituents to do that. It has only just begun. The energy company obligation—the ECO—also provides the opportunity to help to insulate some 230,000 homes a year, compared with 80,000 under Warm Front. Instead of talking down these schemes, he should be encouraging his constituents to take them up.

Two men have drowned in stormy seas off Torquay in separate incidents this week, despite the best efforts of brave lifeboat crews and the co-ordination of the Brixham coastguard. How will the Prime Minister reassure local fishermen, who pay significant amounts of duty and taxes on their catch, that if the coastguard station is closed, the risks they take will not increase?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and this is a good moment to pay tribute to our coastguards and the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that they do. As he knows, the Government’s examination of the coastguard has not been about reducing the number of boats or active stations; it has been about the co-ordination centres and where they are best located. I think that that is an important point to make.

Q3. Why is the Prime Minister frightened to go and visit a food bank? Could it be that, if he visited one, he would see the heartless Britain that he is creating?


Only yesterday, I was discussing the matter with the person who runs the food bank in my constituency, which I will be visiting very shortly. He pointed out to me that the food bank was established five years ago, and it is worth remembering that food bank use went up 10 times under the last Labour Government. Instead of criticising people who run food banks, we should thank them for the work they do.

Q4. I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in praising all those who work in the search and rescue service. May I ask him to intervene personally in our battle to save the Portland search and rescue helicopter and ask his Ministers to come down to Dorset to listen to those who work in this life-saving service before it is cut? Repeated requests have so far been ignored, and I would have thought that a visit would be at the least courteous and wise. (140120)

I know that the former Transport Secretary and other Ministers from the Department have met my hon. Friend, and I am sure they will have listened very carefully to what he said. As well as paying tribute to the coastguard, it is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the search and rescue services across the country. Our reforms are aimed at improving average response times by 20%. That is why we are going ahead with these reforms, but I am sure Ministers will listen very carefully to what he said.

Q5. Since the Prime Minister came to office, unemployment in Dumfries and Galloway has risen by over 15% and youth unemployment has risen by 9%. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made reference to the Prime Minister’s words “good news will keep coming”, so will the Prime Minister be good enough to explain to the House and my constituents exactly what his definition of “good news”,is, especially in view of the shrinking economy at the end of last year, which will lead to further economic failure? (140121)

In Scotland, unemployment has fallen by 14,000 this quarter. It has fallen by 10,000 since the general election. The number of people employed in Scotland has actually gone up. One point that I think is important is that, because we have raised the tax thresholds, 180,000 people across Scotland have been taken out of income tax altogether. There is much more that we need to do, but I think that represents progress.

It is now clear that the Syrian people would be much better off if China and Russia had not blocked effective action authorised by the United Nations. Will my right hon. Friend say what we are doing to try to help the poor people of Syria?

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary has, like me, visited the Syrian border and seen the refugee camps for herself. Britain is, I believe, the second largest donor for aid and help into those refugee camps. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that one of the biggest things that could happen would be for the Chinese and the Russians to consider again their positions and recognise that transition at the top of Syria would be good for the whole of that part of the world—and, I believe, good for Russia as well. We should continue to work with the opposition groups in Syria to put pressure on the regime, not least through sanctions, and also provide aid and help for those who are fleeing.

Q6. Seaham school of technology serves a growing population and some of the most deprived wards in the country. It is dilapidated and in need of replacement. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the real reason for the latest and further 15-month delay in the proposed PFI-funded scheme in my constituency and others is that the banks, which continue to pay themselves huge bonuses, simply refuse to lend the money on the 25-year term demanded by his Education Secretary. Will the Prime Minister speak, in plain language—maybe in Latin—to the Education Secretary? Perhaps he might say, “Optamus schola nova”—we need our new school. (140122)

I will leave the Latin to the Mayor of London, if that is all right, but I will certainly have a word with the Education Secretary. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that school capital budgets as a whole are equivalent to what the previous Labour Government did in their early terms. The money is there. In terms of the banks, evidence now shows that the funding for lending scheme from the Bank of England is having an effect on lowering interest rates. We are reforming PFI, but we are also offering infrastructure guarantees—something that the Treasury has never done before—to help projects go ahead.

Q7. Nothing is more important in early-years education than the caring people who deliver it. Does the Prime Minister agree that raising the bar and elevating their status will help to add prestige to the profession, support parents and give children the best possible start in life? (140123)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the Department for Education, which yesterday published a series of proposals to expand the availability and affordability of child care while also ensuring that there is an offer of real quality.

When we look across Europe, we see countries that provide very good and very affordable child care, and there are lessons that we can learn from those countries. I suggest that the people who say that changing the ratios is wrong should look at the ratios in countries such as Denmark and France. We are coming into line with those countries: we too can provide more available, more affordable child care, so that people who want to go out to work are able to because they can find the child care that they need.

Today the Scottish Government accepted the Electoral Commission’s welcome proposals on the independence referendum, in full. Among them is the recommendation that the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments should jointly

“clarify what process will follow the referendum, for either outcome”.

Given that the United Kingdom Government and, indeed, the Labour party have called for full acceptance of the Electoral Commission’s recommendations, will the Prime Minister now give a commitment that he will work with the Scottish Government before the referendum to come up with that joint position?

I welcome the fact that the Scottish National party has accepted the findings of the Electoral Commission, because the commission was worried that the question was biased. It is good that the SNP has accepted that.

Of course we will work with the Scottish Government in providing information, but let me be clear about what we will not do. We will not pre-negotiate Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom. It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that wants to break up the United Kingdom, and it is for his party to make the case.

Q8. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the 2 million-plus surge in net immigration under the last Labour Government has resulted in severe housing shortages, critical overstretch in our infrastructure, and a situation in which one household in 20 does not speak English? Does he agree that it is in the interests of all British citizens that we are starting to get a grip on our borders? (140124)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. During the last decade, net migration to the UK was running at more than 200,000 a year: 2 million over the decade as a whole. That is the equivalent of the population of two cities the size of Birmingham. It was too far, it was too high, and the last Government bear a huge responsibility for not making responsible decisions.

We have made responsible decisions. We are dealing with, for instance, bogus colleges and bogus students, and the level of net migration has fallen by a quarter. While we welcome people who want to come here from European Union countries and work, we obviously need to do more to ensure that we take a tough approach to prevent people from abusing our benefits system. My hon. Friend the Immigration Minister is working very hard on the issue, and I think it very important for him to do so.

Q9. Last week, the Prime Minister described blacklisting as “a completely unacceptable practice”.Why is he still blacklisting food banks this week, by refusing to have the decency to visit them, listen and speak—[Interruption.] Government Members may find it funny, but thousands of families do not. Will the Prime Minister visit a food bank, and actually speak to the people who use them? (140125)

Maybe we need to modernise the system, so that a Member can receive a question from a Whip on a tablet or an iPad and change it as Question Time proceeds.

Of course I look forward to having discussions with the people who operate food banks and those who use them, but as I have said, use of food banks increased 10 times under the last Labour Government. I think that, rather than attacking them, we should praise the people who give of their time to work in those organisations.

After a huge community campaign, Westmorland general hospital in Kendal has been identified as the potential site of a new radiotherapy unit. If we are to deliver that vital service to local people, we shall need flexibility when it comes to the tariff for radiotherapy fractions. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how we can achieve that?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about changes in the tariff. I will arrange for him to meet the Health Secretary to discuss the issue. I know from visits to Cumbria how important that hospital is to local people, and I hope that the issue can be satisfactorily resolved.

Q10. This week’s announcement about the second phase of HS2 was welcomed in Manchester and the whole of the north of England, but if the project is to have a real impact on the north-south divide, would it not make sense to produce one hybrid Bill, and to build north to south as well as south to north? (140126)

I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says. I am glad there is an all-party welcome for high-speed rail, and it is important that we get this done. The best way of delivering the legislation is for the Leader of the House to come forward with our plans at the appropriate time. I worry that if we change the plans for building the route, we will delay the overall project, and my concern is not that it is going too fast, but that, if anything, it is going too slowly.

Q11. Last week Graham Godwin was convicted in Gloucester of dangerous driving and of causing the death of my much respected constituent, Paul Stock, while disqualified, uninsured and speeding. Mr Godwin has multiple previous convictions for driving without insurance and while disqualified, and said that he was not subject to the laws of our land. The current maximum prison sentence for this crime is two years and my constituent’s widow, Mandy Stock, understandably believes that it is time for Parliament to recognise the danger caused by serial disqualified drivers and to increase the maximum sentence for dangerous driving. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Justice Secretary to look urgently at both these issues? (140127)

My hon. Friend can tell from the response his question has received that the concern he expresses is shared widely around the House, and, I would argue, widely around the country. The previous Government and this Government have both worked to try to increase some of the penalties associated with drivers who end up killing people through their recklessness and carelessness. I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend has said and arrange for him to have a meeting with the Justice Secretary. It is important that we give our courts a sense that when there are appalling, extraordinary crimes, they can take exemplary action. That is important in a justice system.

Q12. On the subject of food safety, can the Prime Minister confirm that traces of stalking horse have been found in the Conservative party food chain? (140128)

Somewhere in my briefing, I had some very complicated information about the danger of particular drugs for horses entering the food chain, and I have to say the hon. Gentleman threw me completely with that ingenious pivot. The Conservative party has always stood for people who want to work hard and get on, and I am glad that all of my—all those behind me take that very seriously indeed.

As my right hon. Friend sets forth on his pacific mission to Algeria, will he, with his great historical knowledge, bear in mind that when Louis Philippe sent his eldest son to Algeria in the 1840s on a similar venture, it took a century, massive casualties, the overthrow of the Third Republic and the genius of General de Gaulle to get the French army back out of the north African desert?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that I am planning only to visit Algiers. I am sure he put down an urgent question at the time of the events to which he referred, and got a response.

Q13. Last week the Prime Minister said he was paying down Britain’s debt, but on his watch it will go up by £600 billion. Would he like to take this opportunity to correct the record? (140129)

I have been very clear: we have got the deficit down by a quarter, and in order to get on top of our debts, we have to get on top of the deficit. That is stage 1 of getting on top of our debts. It is also worth reminding ourselves of of why we are having to do this in the first place. Who was it who racked up the debts? Who was it who racked up the deficit? Who was it who gave us the biggest deficit of any country virtually anywhere in the world? It was the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

If the Prime Minister agrees that the shortage of engineering skills is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our prosperity and security, and that the participation of women in engineering is scandalously low, will he encourage his colleagues to look favourably on the provisions of my Science, Technology and Engineering (Careers Information in Schools) Bill to inspire young people to take up the challenging and well paid careers in engineering, whether as graduates or apprentices?

I will certainly look very carefully at the Bill that my hon. Friend puts forward. In the recent UCAS data, released today, one of the encouraging signs is that the number of people studying engineering and computer science has actually gone up quite radically. That is an early sign that the steps that have been taken over recent years—frankly, by Governments of all parties —to try to raise the status of and encourage engineering are beginning to have an effect.

Q14. The Prime Minister’s Government have just introduced two new taxes that will cost people wanting to build their own home between £25,000 and £35,000 per family. Why is he choosing to put a block on the aspirations of young people who want to build their own home? (140130)

We are encouraging people to build their own home and buy their own home, not least by the reform of the planning system, which has seen the planning guidance go from 1,000 pages to 50 pages. That is why we are also encouraging the right to buy. If Opposition Members want to help, they might want to talk to the Labour authorities that are continually blocking people from buying their council housing association homes.

Would my right hon. Friend like to congratulate an engineering company in my constituency, Lupton and Place, which has taken advantage of the capital allowances announced in the autumn statement and purchased a £1.3 million die-casting machine which will create six new jobs and deliver a component for Jaguar cars that was destined for the far east?

I certainly will join my hon. Friend in welcoming that investment. His experience in Burnley and the campaign he has been launching did have an effect in bringing forward these proposals on capital allowances. It is absolutely clear that a lot of businesses have money locked up on their balance sheets that we want to see invested, and I believe that these capital allowances are a good way of encouraging businesses to bring forward that sort of investment.

Q15. David Burslem is severely disabled and has a medical need for an extra room in his home. Why are the Government led by the Prime Minister taking £676 a year away from him in order to pay for a tax cut for the richest? (140131)

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we have put in place a £30 million discretionary fund to help in particular cases such as the one that he raises, but we do have an overall situation where the housing benefit budget is now £23 billion. That is only £10 billion less than the entire defence budget, and it is not good enough for Opposition Members to oppose welfare cut after welfare cut, to propose welfare spend after welfare spend, while they realise that we are dealing with the mess they left.

Does the Prime Minister agree that when the Leader of the Opposition talks about the economy, he sounds just like a Victorian undertaker looking forward to a hard winter? Does the Leader of the Opposition not accept that we cannot get out of a debt crisis by borrowing more money?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The fact is that the economy that we inherited was completely unbalanced. It was based on housing, it was based-on finance, it was based on Government spending and it was based on immigration. Those were four incredibly unstable pillars for sustained economic growth, and what we have had to do is a major recovery operation. That operation is still under way, but given the new jobs created, the private sector businesses that are expanding, the new people setting up their businesses, we are making progress.

Following yesterday’s announcement, will the Prime Minister adumbrate for the House the key differences between the hand-chopping, throat-cutting jihadists fighting the dictatorship in Mali whom we are now to help to kill, and the equally bloodthirsty jihadists to whom we are giving money, matériel and political and diplomatic support in Syria? Has the Prime Minister read “Frankenstein”, and did he read it to the end?

Some things come and go but there is one thing that is certain: wherever there is a brutal Arab dictator in the world, he will have the support of the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.]

We are, unfortunately, forced to live with them, but we can definitely do without them, so will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he will be taking seriously the Liberal Democrat Ministers who are queuing up today to resign their posts after voting against the Government in last night’s vote?

Clearly there is a very profound disagreement about this issue. I would say to everyone in the House of Commons who voted for an oversized House of Commons, and for unequal constituency boundaries that are both costly and unfair, that they will have to justify that to their constituents.