House of Commons
Wednesday 30 January 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Humber Bridge Bill
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 February.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
As discussed with you, Mr Speaker, and as Labour Front Benchers have been advised, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in Kuwait for an international conference on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. I hope that the House will accept her apologies for not being here to answer questions today.
Our education programmes in Nigeria have already reached 1.25 million children by improving the quality of education in 3,700 schools, and 6,800 more schools will be reached by 2014. We are supporting school-based management committees to make schools and teachers more accountable to parents, and we are providing training to more than 60,000 teachers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for the reaffirmation of the Government’s commitment to Nigeria, where there are 10.5 million out-of-school children. Inevitably, we focus on the number of children at school, but given the pressures on teacher training, the infrastructure of schools, and the number of children in classes, can we also focus on the quality of the education that those children are receiving?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his work on the all-party group on global education for all. He goes to the heart of the matter, which is not just the number of children coming into school but the quality of the teaching. The statistics show that in Kwara, for example, only 75 of 19,000 teachers passed a test for nine-year-olds—that gives some idea of the scale of the challenge that we are facing. My hon. Friend will therefore be pleased to know that we have a new teacher development programme supporting over 60,000 teachers.
In addition to the excellent work that DFID does in education in Nigeria, what more can the Minister do to suggest to the large number of British companies in Nigeria that they should also be getting involved in taking on responsibility in this respect?
The Government are committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on development aid from 2013 and thereafter. The Department’s budget after the 2012 autumn statement adjustment, along with planned overseas development spending from other Government Departments, is set to meet this commitment.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The Enough Food For Everyone If campaign has highlighted the value of investing in smallholder farmers: the men, or more often women, who already feed a third of humanity but are vastly under-resourced. Will the Minister confirm that as his Department’s budget increases he will increase funding for smallholder agriculture and support countries’ agriculture investment plans?
We give our full support to the recently launched If campaign; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went to the launch herself. I do agree with the hon. Lady that this should be a focus of our activity, as 90% of food comes from smallholders in their own countries. Supporting them and the markets in which they work is a crucial part of the activity we wish to undertake over the next few years.
The Minister may be aware that the International Development Committee is publishing its report on the Department’s annual report tomorrow. Is he prepared to consider different ways of ridding the world of absolute poverty, such as setting up a development bank or offering loans so that we can reach more people, particularly poor people in middle-income countries where we do not currently have programmes?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that ingenious plug for his report and on the idea of a development bank. We remain open-minded and non- dogmatic about what we should do with our budget. What matters is what works. As always, we will study his report in detail and reply formally to any ideas in it.
The Minister has indicated that we will meet the 0.7% commitment. Will he also assure us that when that money is deployed, we will ensure value for money and, most vitally, that corruption is addressed, particularly in parts of Africa?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on all counts. Value for money and its proper evaluation are the principles by which we work every day. We focus a great deal on corruption, by which we mean the risk of fraud in the use of our funds and endemic corruption in the countries in which we work. To that end, we are publishing anti-corruption strategies for each of our bilateral countries, as recommended by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
Now that we have reached the target of 0.7% of GDP, should non-governmental organisations and others not be focusing part of their attention on encouraging other G8 countries to meet that target? There is no point in our doing it if other G8 countries are not pulling their weight.
I visited the west bank and Israel with colleagues last December, where I saw evidence of the daily indignity and injustice that Palestinians face. A number of EU and UK-funded schools in the west bank are under the threat of demolition orders. What are the Government doing to ensure that our investment is not wasted?
Of course, some of the 0.7% of GNI, which we spend so well, goes to the Palestinian Authority, whose finances are in some peril. We wish to support them and we urge other countries to do so. A two-state solution, which we all want to see, is not served by a weak and fractured Palestinian Authority.
The If campaign emphases that if other countries followed our example on the 0.7% target, enormous investment in small-scale agriculture and child and maternal nutrition could be delivered. Will the Government use this year’s hunger summit to state not only that other countries should meet the 0.7% target, but that they should spend the money on those priorities to address hunger and poverty?
There are many claims on the development budget, but as my hon. Friend says, such matters are a good and sensible call on it. They would be best served by other countries meeting the same sort of percentage commitment as us. The demand for assistance is almost insatiable, but so much good could be done if other comparatively wealthy countries followed our lead.
West Africa (Food Security)
The UK is improving food security in west Africa through investment in agricultural research, innovative agribusiness, improving access to markets and supporting national food security plans. We work through country programmes in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and international organisations such as the World Bank.
The Minister will be aware that the impact of climate change in that region has led to a dramatic fall in crop yields. What efforts is her Department making to secure global agreement on finding new sources of finance, so that countries in the region can plan properly for their future food supplies?
The hon. Lady points to the fragility of this area and its food security. Crises arise from chronic vulnerabilities that need long-term solutions. We are supporting multilateral efforts to promote resilience in the Sahel to ensure that its communities can deal with the shocks and do not face dire consequences in future. We are currently preparing a Sahel resilience strategy.
Food security in west Africa is indeed threatened by climate change. Does the Minister also agree that the Prime Minister’s insistence on addressing the property rights of the world’s poorest farmers tackles one of the underlying causes of food insecurity?
I join Members from all sides of the House in expressing my support for the If campaign, which seeks to end food insecurity and global hunger. One of the main causes of food insecurity is the illegal acquisition of large areas of land by investors. What steps has the Department taken to support good land governance in west Africa?
As I said just now, some of our programmes involve land titles for smallholders, and the UK welcomes the successful negotiation of voluntary guidelines on the responsible government of land tenure, fisheries and forests that was concluded at the Committee on World Food Security last year. The UK is working to promote transparency of land administration and security of tenure in a number of countries. For example, in Mozambique we are helping local communities to register their land, and we want to continue that progress.
International Aid Targets
In 2011, the UK spent 0.56% of GNI on official development assistance, or ODA. France spent 0.46% and Germany 0.39%. As I said a moment ago, we will reach our 0.7% ODA target this year. At the June 2012 European Council, France and Germany recommitted to spend 0.7% of their GNI on ODA by 2015.
The priorities we set are shared by EU countries, and some states—Sweden and Denmark, for example—have reached 0.7%. Germany’s aid increased by 2.6% in 2011, and it has publicly committed to reach 0.7% after 2015. The Government strongly urge other EU countries to follow our lead, and commit to and reach 0.7%.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to pressure other European countries to meet their targets and reach 0.7%. When the UK meets that target, how much will be made up of non-departmental spend?
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a huge fan of his, but I wonder whether he agrees that there is something arbitrary about 0.7%. The United Kingdom has taken a lead in the world and shown the way, and we can also add in what our armed forces have contributed. Given the desperate and catastrophic state of the public finances that we inherited from the previous Government, surely the time has come to freeze overseas aid spending and devote some of that money to our hard-pressed armed forces.
The 0.7% target is a long-standing campaign, and my hon. Friend is right to say that to some extent it is arbitrary. Even if countries reach that target, it could be argued that it would still not suffice for the needs of the world. As a doughty defender of the armed forces, I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to spending 30% of our budget on countries that are fragile or at risk of conflict, which often means working with his friends in the armed forces. Even though 0.7% may be arbitrary, the results we get for the money we spend are not, and they are evaluated rigorously.
There is a serious humanitarian situation in Mali, with over 360,000 displaced people since March 2012. We do not give bilateral development aid directly to the Government of Mali, but we provide significant assistance to the region through the World Bank, EU and other multilaterals.
I thank the Minister for that response. My constituents usually recognise the great contribution that our aid budget and programme makes, but they also have concerns about the effectiveness of that spending. Will the Minister confirm that in crisis situations, such as that in Mali, money is being spent effectively and will deliver massively good outcomes that I can be proud of?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. British people who support our aid and development programme need to know that money is being spent effectively and I can give him the assurance he seeks. Even in the crisis situation in Mali, agencies in receipt of our humanitarian support are tried and trusted, neutral and impartial humanitarian organisations with a history of effective operations in the most challenging of environments.
Is not Mali a tragic of example of instability and conflict rushing in where democracy breaks down, as so often happens? In this case, that has threatened Mali’s security. Does the situation not further underpin the importance of focused and intelligent aid to support democracy in the developing world?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Where instability and conflict reign, into such ungoverned space come threats, not only to those in Mali but to the wider world, including the UK. That is why the territorial integrity of Mali must be protected, democratic government restored, terrorism dealt with, and the humanitarian situation addressed. My hon. Friend seeks assurance. We are providing considerable aid support through the UN, the EU and other agencies to promote increased economic resilience across the Sahel, including Mali.
Is the Minister satisfied with the distribution of aid in northern Mali, and particularly in those parts that have been retaken? Have the Government had any discussions with their French counterparts? [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. If I heard correctly, the right hon. Gentleman’s question was about whether we can access those areas. Health non-governmental organisations are still operating in some hospitals and health centres in northern Mali, although NGOs and aid agencies have in some cases been forced to suspend their outreach work temporarily for security reasons. They want to carry out an assessment in the inaccessible areas. Humanitarian agencies are waiting to return to conduct those assessments so that we can respond to those needs. At the moment, they are pretty much confined to the accessible areas.
Although every country has its particular circumstances, everyone knows that the underlying problems that have led to the situation in Mali could exist in many other countries in west Africa. Will the Government agree to make an international effort on a long-term basis to provide support and development for countries in west Africa a major focus of their G8 presidency, and particularly of the summit in Northern Ireland later this year?
The UN estimates the number of people displaced inside Syria to be about 2 million. There are an additional 700,000 Syrian refugees in need of assistance in neighbouring countries, including 163,000 in Turkey, 228,000 in Lebanon, 222,000 in Jordan, 79,000 in Iraq and more than 14,000 in Egypt.
The tragedy in Syria continues. Last night, we heard on the news of 50 young men found in a river near Aleppo, each with a bullet through his head. The UN says that 60,000 people have died so far in the civil war in Syria. What further steps, if any, can we take to resolve this terrible situation?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently at the UN high-level pledging conference for Syria in Kuwait where, I can tell the House, she has just announced a further £50 million for the UN Syria appeals. Together with the £21 million she announced during her visit to Jordan at the weekend, it means that the UK has doubled its funding for this crisis. We are now providing nearly £140 million to deliver emergency assistance to hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and the region.
More than 650,000 people have fled Syria and 60,000 have been killed since the conflict began. Serious food and medicine shortages, and freezing weather conditions, are making access to basic services increasingly difficult. The Opposition welcome today’s announcement to increase humanitarian assistance to Syria, but what steps are the Government taking to assist UN agencies and NGOs to provide access to Syria?
As the House appreciates, because of the security situation inside Syria the humanitarian effort is primarily UN-led and it is working through respectable non-governmental organisations. If we were there ourselves it could put that effort at risk, so this requires careful diplomatic consideration. We have to ensure that the flow of aid, and the protection of those who deliver it, is paramount and retained.
In addition to her Syria meetings in Kuwait today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be attending the next meeting of the high-level panel in Liberia.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I had the privilege last night of attending a “Syria Speaks” event at the Southbank centre, where it was apparent how important the cosmopolitan secular nature of Syria is to the future stability of the country. What is the Minister doing not only to address the horrible humanitarian situation there, but to support the rich cultural heritage that is so important to its future?
My hon. Friend is right. Before the civil war erupted thanks to President Assad’s stewardship of his country, Syria was in many respects an example of religious harmony—I saw that for myself on a number of visits. It is a tragedy to see the country disintegrate, and there will need to be many diplomatic efforts to resolve the problems once the conflict has ceased.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his role today as joint acting Secretary of State—he has waited far too long and he is clearly enjoying it. This week the Prime Minister is co-chairing a meeting of the UN high-level panel on the future of global development post-2015. Last week, the Select Committee on International Development said that the Prime Minister needs to be clear about what he means by the “golden thread” of development. Will the Minister explain what is meant by the golden thread and, specifically, does it recognise that tackling inequality and supporting sustainable growth should be at the heart of future development policy?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is absolutely right in his definition. Development is far more than just about handing out money; it is about draining the swamp of grievance and ensuring that in any country there is the rule of law, such as the property rights we were discussing earlier. It is only if we look at the whole picture of a country that we can properly achieve the development we want. The Prime Minister will be arguing that at the high-level panel, which he is co-chairing with two others.
T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the huge difficulties in returning and reintegrating victims of human trafficking to their home countries. This is something with which his Department can assist, and I hope that he can tell the House that he is now looking to ensure adequate in-country funding for source country NGOs accordingly. (140148)
My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point, and that is why we are assessing the practicality of giving support to NGOs that work in countries where we have no other Department for International Development presence, even though they may be based elsewhere. Our main focus is on tackling the practice of trafficking in the workers’ countries of origin, and we are currently designing a cross-Asian anti-trafficking programme, the purpose of which will be to equip vulnerable people with knowledge of their rights and the means to enforce them.
T5. Yesterday’s failure to sign a Congo peace accord in Addis Ababa is very serious. [Interruption.] Will the Government carry out an immediate assessment of development projects in eastern Congo in view of the failure to resolve the situation on the ground? (140151)
T3. What is DFID doing to encourage funding applications from the small organisations and charities we all have in our constituencies which support schools, hospitals and other aid projects in the developing world, and which often provide excellent value for money? (140149)
DFID established the global poverty action fund to support UK-based, not-for-profit organisations across the country to improve people’s lives in the world’s poorest countries. So far, 102 grants have been awarded, and these are helping more than 3 million poor people across 30 countries.
T7. Given the Government’s welcome support for the If campaign against hunger, is the Minister optimistic that the UK presidency of the G8 can tackle the corporate tax avoidance that deprives developing countries of so much badly needed revenue? (140153)
It is the policy both of our presidency of the G8 and of DFID more generally in our work in poor countries to get far greater transparency from global corporations and to ensure that they pay their fair share of tax and that they do so to the most appropriate tax regimes in which they work.
The Friends of Yemen meeting is looming; we are supporting the social fund for development to meet urgent food and welfare needs; we are encouraging the Government of Yemen to set up an executive bureau for national dialogue; and we are ensuring that pledged funds can be properly disbursed so that they go to the projects that are so desperately needed.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you have had time to consider and reflect on the answer that you gave to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) yesterday in relation to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), whose nobility of character is, of course, beyond compare and legendary, as attested his bravura performance yesterday. But he cannot surely be called a noble Member of the House of Commons; it must be many centuries since any such appellation was permissible. Will you rule that, however noble the hon. Gentleman’s character, he cannot be referred to in here as the noble Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his exquisite point of order, of which I had no advance notice whatsoever. I, of course, recall the exchange yesterday and what I say to him is that it is possible to be both noble and to sit in the House of Commons. With particular reference to honorific titles, which I think is the matter he has in mind, my recollection is that the Modernisation Committee issued a report recommending the substantial reduction in the use of such titles. As a consequence, I understand the present situation to be that their use in debate is a matter not of order but of taste. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Care Quality Commission published a damning report on accident and emergency services at Queen’s hospital in Romford. The Government, as the Secretary of State for Health confirmed in an answer to me earlier this month, still intend to go ahead with the closure of the accident and emergency department at King George hospital in Ilford, in my constituency. May we have an urgent statement from the Health Secretary on the implications of the CQC’s report for that decision?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I hope that he will not take offence—because this is an extremely serious matter—when I say that he is 24 hours or thereabouts ahead of himself. I acknowledge that this is a matter of extreme importance to his constituents, and what he should do is ensure that he is in his place tomorrow for business questions, which will afford him, if he catches my eye, as I think he might, the chance to raise the matter with the Leader of the House. The Leader of the House is in his place now and has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he should come back tomorrow and have a go in the proper forum. We will leave it there for now.
Housing Market Reform
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 157 of the Housing Act 1985 to extend the use of local occupancy clauses to certain urban areas with the permission of the Secretary of State; to increase the qualifying period of local occupancy clauses from three years to either five or ten years; to place a duty on the Homes and Communities Agency and local authorities with housing and planning responsibilities to promote co-operative and mutual housing options and report annually in this regard; to require the Homes and Communities Agency, local authorities and the Land Registry to identify land available for housing development which has not been developed and to publish a report on the available options for development of housing on such land; and for connected purposes.
For far too many people, the housing market is not working. Not enough homes are being built at a price that is within reach in many areas of the UK, particularly in London. The drastic cut in the budget for new affordable homes has unsurprisingly led to a considerable fall in the amount of new social housing. My right hon. and hon. Friends have set out a series of initiatives to build 100,000 more affordable homes, which I strongly support, but even if the Chancellor were to start listening and house building and construction were to begin to return to good health, it is questionable whether sufficient homes would become available to challenge the shortage of supply in key parts of the country at a price that more people can afford.
London is in danger of having a housing market that has priced out those who live and work in our city. It is already virtually impossible to envisage that someone on average earnings could afford to buy a property within the Circle line area and to live in it. In Westminster, average earnings were almost £43,000 last year, while average house prices pushed close to £800,000—a ratio of price to earnings of 18:1. The suburbs of London are heading in the same direction as house prices continue to creep up. In Harrow, where my constituency is, average earnings last year were £30,000, while the average house price was £309,000—10 times average earnings.
Although no set income is required to secure a 90% mortgage on an average property, the scale of difficulty facing people in the suburbs and inner London when trying to buy a property is revealed by the rough-and-ready guide offered by online mortgage calculations, which suggest that an individual income of around £80,000 or joint income of around £90,000 would be required to secure a mortgage of £280,000. That is a challenge for many families, to put it mildly, particularly in London.
This Bill would give urban local authorities the opportunity to create a more affordable market in the sale of former social housing by extending the use of local occupancy clauses, which were allowed under the original right-to-buy legislation. Under the original rules, local authorities in areas of outstanding natural beauty were allowed to include a covenant limiting the freedom of the tenant to sell on property that they purchased to people living or working in the area, so creating a second tier to the housing market in those areas that allows more affordable house sales and helps to ensure local people have the opportunity to get on to the property ladder at an affordable price in the area in which they have strong local connections. My Bill seeks to extend that exemption to other areas of the country where the huge rise in house prices has made a house purchase extremely costly.
Surely, helping local people who are not rich, who have lived and/or worked in an area for a considerable period and who are an integral part of their community to afford to buys, by allowing local authorities to designate sales of former social housing to be just for local people, was a sensible measure in the 1980s for those living in national parks and would be again now for many other areas of the country, particularly London. It does not alter the fundamental principle of the right to buy, which I have always supported, but it recognises the reality of the difficulties that too many people face in wanting to buy a home. Estate agents in national parks, where the exemption operates, are clear that it makes a significant difference to the price of some ex-local authority housing of between 5% and, in some cases, 30%—and typically between 10% and 20%. To qualify to buy such properties one has to have lived or worked or done both in the area for three years prior to purchase.
The exemption makes the price more affordable and essentially restricts the sale of some homes to people on lower incomes and those who have strong ties to an area. My Bill would increase the restriction to help more explicitly those who have a long-standing connection to the community that they live in. Clearly, such a change would need to be phased in, as new tenants move into new social housing and consider whether they want to buy the property.
The second part of the Bill deals with co-op housing, for too long the forgotten part of the housing sector. It makes up only 0.6% of the UK’s housing supply, compared with 18% in Sweden, 15% in Norway and 6% in Germany. Tenant-run co-op housing has especially good satisfaction rates, but co-op housing also offers additional options for those who are working, who want to get on to the property ladder and who cannot completely afford to buy their new dream home. My Bill would require local authorities to promote co-op housing options.
The Bill requires Government to consider afresh the problem of land banking by housing developers, where land is deliberately not developed, often because the developer is waiting for prices to rise. That slows the supply of affordable housing, and the undeveloped sites are often a considerable blight on local communities. If a developer does not want to develop the land, there are few incentives to change its mind, which in turn exacerbates the shortage of affordable homes and affects the amenity for local people.
The Barker review, initiated by the then Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), made an important contribution to that debate at the time, but recent work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a review of the tax system by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and led by Sir James Mirrlees of Cambridge university have again focused attention on the issue. Their reports suggest options including a land value tax, amending council tax criteria and imposing levies on land identified for housing but not yet brought to market. Those ideas—there are others—are worthy of serious Government scrutiny, and I urge the Government to support the Bill to tackle the lack of incentives for housing developers to get on with development.
We need to make housing, particularly but not exclusively in urban areas, much more affordable than it is now. I believe that the measures in my Bill would help us to achieve that objective, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Gareth Thomas, John Cryer, Stephen Pound, Mike Gapes, Mr Andrew Love, Ms Diane Abbott, Ms Karen Buck, Jonathan Reynolds, Lyn Brown, Margaret Hodge, Jim Fitzpatrick and Nick Smith present the Bill.
Mr Gareth Thomas accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March, and to be printed (Bill 129).
Before I call the Foreign Secretary to move the motion, I remind the House that, as will be clear from the Annunciator, in the light of the extensive interest in participating in this debate, I have imposed a seven-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Europe.
The background to the debate, as the House knows, is that Europe faces greater change than at any time since the fall of the Berlin wall. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out in his speech last week—a speech that was well received in this country, by British business and in many quarters overseas—[Interruption.] I thought that would excite the House at the beginning. As my right hon. Friend said, there are three great challenges facing the European Union: the profound changes being wrought by the eurozone crisis, the lack of competitiveness in the face of a transformed global economy and the gap between Europe and its peoples.
This remains a difficult time for economies across Europe. Unemployment here is coming down, but elsewhere in Europe it is rising sharply. Europe faces challenges from surging economies of the east and south. On some predictions, by 2050 only Germany and the UK from Europe are likely to remain in the top 10 largest world economies. Growth elsewhere benefits us all, but we should be in no doubt that a new global race is under way and that financial market turbulence and the burden of debt make the path to recovery in Europe harder to climb. Europe has many fundamental economic assets but action is needed. As Chancellor Merkel has said, if Europe today accounts for over 7% of the world’s population, produces 25% of global GDP and has to finance 50% of global social spending, it is obvious that it will have to work very hard to maintain its prosperity and way of life.
Then there is the democratic disconnection between the EU and its peoples—a disconnection felt particularly acutely in Britain, for reasons I will come on to in a few minutes. The Eurobarometer survey conducted earlier this year showed that only 27% of Britons were very or fairly attached to the EU. The EU average is 46%, which is hardly encouraging.
Often, the best judges on the economic side are the business organisations in the country. The British Chambers of Commerce has said that it supports the Prime Minister’s determination to negotiate a new settlement on the basis of a refocused relationship with Europe. The Institute of Directors has said:
“The Prime Minister’s approach is realistic and pragmatic… It is far better to deal with these issues than to shy away from them.”
The Federation of Small Businesses has said:
“Governments around the world need to do all they can to keep markets open and take barriers away.”
The CBI has said:
“The Prime Minister rightly recognises the benefits of retaining membership of…a reformed EU and the CBI will work closely with government to get the best deal for Britain.”
They clearly think such a strategy is in the interests of the British economy.
I am coming to uncertainty in a moment. Uncertainty has been a particular theme of some hon. Members and we need to address it, but the quote that I was giving the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) was from the director general of the CBI. If my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) wants to invite me to read a long list of business quotations—[Interruption.] Clearly, the Opposition do not want to hear from the other business people of the country.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept, though, that what business wants is to renew and refresh the relationship, not for Britain to withdraw? In particular, companies such as Tata Steel near my constituency, which are already paying 50% more tax in Britain than our European counterparts, are very concerned about the prospect of Britain withdrawing from the EU.
Business does want to renew and refresh that relationship, and the only political leader who has put forward a plan to do so is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
For those reasons Britain should be at the front of the debate about Europe’s future to shape it and reform it, given that in the Government’s view, British membership of a reformed, competitive EU is strongly in our national interest. It is worth noting what the coalition Government have achieved to date. We have already democratised how we make the most important decisions of all on the EU by giving people and Parliament more control: the referendum lock in the European Union Act 2011 for the first time gives British voters the final say over any further expansion of EU powers. I am delighted that the Opposition have now stirred themselves from apathy and abstention to give support, belatedly, to the Act that we passed two years ago.
We have supported free trade agreements, with British efforts that helped secure a free trade agreement with Singapore and one with Korea worth up to £500 million a year to Britain alone. British negotiators helped to secure a single EU patent regime. All these support renewed economic growth and competitiveness across Europe.
I will give way in a moment. I must make some progress. I am conscious of the time limit on Back-Bench speeches.
Such achievements are of direct benefit to the UK and have been secured by a country able to influence and shape decisions among its partners. It is our responsibility, as one of the leading members of the EU, to press for the reforms that must happen if the EU is to succeed in this century: more competitiveness, flexibility, democratic accountability and fairness for countries both in the eurozone and outside it. All those will benefit the UK and the European Union as a whole.
The Foreign Secretary is a great champion of enlargement and knows the importance of the freedom of movement of individuals. Is it the Government’s intention to put advertisements in the Romanian and the Bulgarian media saying that they do not want people from Romania and Bulgaria to come to this country? That is in the public domain; it has been mentioned. How does that square with the website of the British embassy in Bucharest, which encourages Romanians to come to work and study in the United Kingdom?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s latter point relates to the GREAT campaign, through which we encourage people to visit the United Kingdom. We encourage people to come as tourists to the United Kingdom and so on. On the question of advertising, I have to tell him that we are very stingy about advertising because we are reducing one of the biggest budget deficits in the world, and the Government do not pay for much advertising anywhere around the world, so we do not at present plan to place the advertisements that he describes.
The Prime Minister has pledged an in/out referendum. Therefore, in any future coalition discussions that might arise after the next election, would that be a red-line issue for the Prime Minister? Would there have to be an in/out referendum in the next Parliament?
Despite having played a considerable role in the last coalition discussions, I can say that we are not actually planning coalition discussions for two years’ time. We plan, as most parties do, though not the right hon. Gentleman’s party, to win a majority in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has made the position on the matter clear. That is something that we would absolutely want to proceed with in any Parliament where we held office. Talking of which, let me give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes).
I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for his role in the coalition Government and the work that he has done. Is not the strength of this country, past and present as well as future, that we are part of the continent of Europe, where we want to lead, that we increasingly have an English-speaking world, where we can lead, and that we have an empire, now an expanding Commonwealth, where there are huge opportunities? We are best placed if we exploit all three opportunities and do not suggest uncertainty about our commitment to any one of them.
Right at the heart of the five principles, as my right hon. Friend knows, was the insistence that the national Parliaments lie at the heart of our democratic accountability. In that context, does he accept that the movement towards ever-closer union had to be rejected and, furthermore, that it is vital that we recognise that there cannot be two Governments and two Parliaments dealing with the questions that arise in the context of the future of Europe?
I will come in a few moments, I hope, to the importance of national Parliaments playing an increased role in the decision making of the European Union. My hon. Friend knows from his close reading of the Prime Minister’s speech that he set out a vision of the EU as an explicit contrast to the vision of ever-closer union, so that is absolutely right.
The Foreign Secretary has been extremely generous in giving way. Given that free trade agreements are currently an exclusive competency of the EU and that nothing can be more important than delivering new markets for growth and jobs, does he agree that if it takes the British Government to take a stand on renegotiation, and that brings speedier and more successful agreements to a conclusion, that is the right way?
I am going to make a bit of progress, because I have not yet exhausted the list of the coalition’s achievements.
First, on banking union, we understood from the start the case for a single supervisory mechanism for the eurozone. We were clear that that we would not participate in it—and we are not participating. We suggested that the European Central Bank would be the best institution to take on this role—and it is taking it on. Crucially, we said we wanted safeguards for the single market—and we got them. The outcome of those negotiations was of fundamental importance, and it is proof that fair arrangements between eurozone and non-eurozone members can be achieved. That is a good precedent for the future, and it is something of a contrast with previous negotiations when the previous Government gave up £7 billion of our rebate for nothing in return.
On the multi-annual financial framework, we approached the November European Council open to reaching agreement. The deal on the table was not good enough, and that is why we could not accept it. We were not alone: the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes, the Finns and the Germans were all in the same position. We have established a group of 12 like-minded member states to push for urgent action on EU growth, and we have expanded that alliance, which advocates completion of the single market and less regulation. We have secured the first ever exemption of the smallest businesses from new EU proposals from 1 January this year, and we have persuaded the European Commission to review the body of EU legislation to identify existing obligations from which those businesses could be exempted.
As the Prime Minister said last week in Davos, we want Europe to succeed not just as an economic force but as an association of countries with the political will, the values and the voice to make a difference in the world. When that political will is there—
In a few minutes, given that I have taken a lot of interventions already.
When that political will is there, we can make a decisive difference. That is clear in foreign policy. We have led the way with France on EU policy on Syria, and with France and Germany on sanctions on Iran. The flagship EU anti-piracy operation is hosted not at an EU operational headquarters—something that I have always opposed—but at the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood.
Those are some of things we have achieved so far. Looking briefly at the months ahead, a number of important issues are on the agenda. The multi-annual financial framework will be discussed again at next month’s Council. We are working closely with all our European partners—
I will give away again in a few minutes.
We are working closely with all our European partners—those who are like-minded and those who are less so—to achieve a deal that is right for the UK and right for the EU. Our objective for EU spending within that framework remains clear: we want to see spending reduced and we will insist on at worst a real-terms freeze and at best a cut. The UK abatement is not up for negotiation, unlike under the previous Government.
I will give way again in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman is a bit far down the queue.
On competitiveness, Britain has great advantages: one of the most competitive corporate tax rates in the world, Europe’s largest venture capital community, tax breaks for early-stage investment, and entrepreneur visas so that the brightest can come to the UK. We want the EU to help its members to succeed in the global race.
In his long list of achievements, the Foreign Secretary referred to like-minded partners. Will he take this opportunity to welcome the election of the new Czech President, Milos Zeman, who is a strong, fervent pro-European, which means that the Czech Republic now has a pro-European President and that the Government have lost one of their few allies in the former President of the Czech Republic, Mr Klaus?
Of course I congratulate, and the Prime Minister will be congratulating, the new President of the Czech Republic. However, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic said last week:
“The scepticism of the British public is understandable...British voters’ feeling of remoteness from EU elites in Brussels is right. EU competitiveness is a Czech priority as well.”
So it is interesting to hear from the Czech Republic.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s speech last week was right to set out a new vision for Britain in Europe, because it is Europe itself that is changing? That change is inevitable, and the Prime Minister is simply reflecting the inevitability of reforming the EU if it wants to become globally competitive once again.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to all the work that she, with many of our colleagues, has done on this subject. It is vital to shape and reform this debate. Europe has to change, and the UK should be at the forefront of arguing for that change.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary. What renegotiation do the Government really want to enter into, given that the coalition agreement refers to seeking only one treaty change, which is to stop the European Parliament going to Strasbourg? I gently suggest to him that even though I agree that that is as bonkers an arrangement as there can be, it is probably not at the top of his list of priorities for renegotiation. Is staying in or out of the European arrest warrant a priority for him?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he is well informed about these matters, the debate about the European arrest warrant is part of the justice and home affairs opt-out considerations. The Home Secretary has announced our proposals regarding a block opt-out and the negotiation of an opt-in to some of these requirements and arrangements. The Prime Minister has set out the principles for a future negotiation, and that is a wise thing to do. If the previous Government had set out the principle that the rebate was not up for negotiation, they would not have surrendered so much of it. If they had set out the principle that they were not going to agree to budget increases, they would not have agreed to such increases in so many negotiations. That is the right place to start.
I will give way again in a few minutes, but out of respect to the rest of the House I cannot give way more than 10 or 20 times.
We will continue to lead the EU growth agenda with the aim of removing unnecessary regulations, particularly for small companies; deepening and widening the single market; liberalising trade; and, most importantly, seeking the opening of negotiations for a free trade deal with the United States, which would be a very considerable prize.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) asked me about enlargement, so I will say a few sentences about that. On 1 July 2013, Croatia will join the EU as the 28th member state. As hon. Members know, the European Union (Croatian Accession and Irish Protocol) Bill has passed through this Parliament and is awaiting Royal Assent. We are long-standing supporters of EU enlargement, and we will play an active role in advancing it. However, the real burden of effort lies with the political leaders of pre-accession states. We want to see reinvigorated reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina, progress on Macedonia’s reform efforts and towards good neighbourly relations, new impetus in negotiations with Turkey, Serbia delivering on her commitments on Kosovo, and Kosovo delivering on her short-term conditions to move forwards towards a stabilisation and association agreement.
I will give way to a couple of colleagues in a few minutes.
This is the immediate agenda, but we are living in a time of profound change, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) reminded us, and a new settlement will emerge from it. The settlement for the European Union should be a reformed one that is better for Britain and the whole EU. The Prime Minister set out the five principles of global competitiveness, flexibility, powers being able to flow back to EU countries, democratic accountability, and fairness. It is on the basis of that new settlement that we should give the British people the choice of whether we remain in a changed Union.
But these great questions are not just for Britain but for all members of the EU, so we all need to find ways of addressing them, building on what we have in common but respecting our diversity. We do not have a one-size-fits- all approach for all 27 member states now, because it would be unworkable. Far from unravelling the EU, flexibility could bind us more closely together, because flexible, willing co-operation is a much stronger glue than compulsion from the centre.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary; he is being very generous. Having represented the Government for two years in Europe, it is clear to me that we can best stand up for Britain’s interests, and sometimes achieve our objectives against all the odds, by building alliances and friendships and being right in there negotiating. How is he getting along with that enterprise?
I have just pointed out many of the things that we have achieved. The reason we have had such strong support from Germany, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands on the EU budget is that we have built alliances. The reason that the EU patent regime has been brought in is that we have built alliances. I hope that that is well understood by Members from all parts of the House.
My right hon. Friend talks convincingly about the need for the reform of Europe being respected by many other member states. I met Japanese officials yesterday and they made the point that many Japanese investors who invest in this country support what the Prime Minister said last week and are keen for some of the EU regulations on their businesses to be lifted.
Absolutely. Such people come to the UK because there are many cultural and linguistic advantages, and because of the corporate tax rate, which we are bringing down progressively. They want to see Europe reformed. There is no doubt about that.
Britain is not alone in calling for powers to flow back to member states.
I will give way again a little later.
We have already achieved a considerable amount. We have ended Britain’s obligation to bail out eurozone members—an obligation entered into by the Labour party. We are keeping Britain out of the fiscal compact and working to reform the common fisheries policy, and we will achieve more. Like every other member state, we are working with partners to pursue our national and shared interests.
The national debate that we will have over the next few years must rely on an understanding of what the EU does well and what it does not do well; where it helps and where it hinders. The balance of competences review, which I announced in July, will give us a better informed and more objective analysis of these matters.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) pointed out, the changes in the eurozone are raising questions across the EU about national sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. In our view, balancing the need for flexibility, competitiveness and a stronger role for national Parliaments will be central to the future success of the EU.
The European Parliament has an important role that is set out in the treaties and many MEPs do excellent work. However, over the past 20 years, member states have granted the European Parliament a dramatic increase in its powers through successive treaties, in the hope that it would address the growing sense of distance and disengagement among European voters. That manifestly has not worked. The question of democratic disconnection and accountability has not gone away. That suggests that we need a different answer. That answer will include a bigger and more significant role for national Parliaments, which are and will remain the true source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union. By according a greater role to national Parliaments, we will give practical effect and real force to the principle of subsidiarity.
These are all very general and nice principles that we cannot disagree with—we all want more fairness and diversity. What we want to debate today is the meat. We want to know what is the Conservative party’s vision for Europe, on which there will be an in/out referendum? That is what we want to debate.
I am delighted to hear that Opposition Members support all these policies and principles, because many of them were not brought about while they were in office. I commend the hon. Lady for being dramatically clearer than her Front Benchers in her support for what the Prime Minister has set out. I will return to them in a moment.
My right hon. Friend talked about building relationships and support for our position within the European Union. I hope that he will remind our friends in Poland of the extraordinary championing of its right that Britain instigated, which helped it to enter the European Union and NATO. As mutual friends, we now look to Poland for a little reciprocation and for it to respect our position.