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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nuclear Power

1. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the nuclear power industry to the Scottish economy. (142160)

There is currently just over 2 GW of installed and operational nuclear capacity in Scotland, split between Torness and Hunterston B. In 2011, 33% of electricity generated in Scotland came from these two nuclear power stations.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Wylfa and Anglesey are about to benefit from a massive investment in a new nuclear power station? Does he share my disappointment in the attitude shown by the Scottish Government, who reject any new nuclear investment?

Clearly, there is a significant contribution to our current energy mix from nuclear. My hon. Friend will be aware that planning on these matters is devolved to Scotland. It is a matter, rightly, for the Scottish Parliament to determine. For my part, I am delighted that we are seeing an increase in the proportion of renewables in our energy mix as part of a sustainable, affordable energy supply in the UK.

EDF Group’s nuclear power stations, including Torness in my constituency, produced their highest output for seven years in 2012. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a continuing long-term role for nuclear in keeping the lights on in Scotland?

I do not think that anybody can ignore the significant contribution that nuclear makes. Like the hon. Lady, I have many constituents who are employed at Torness. Nuclear power stations play an important role in our local economies, but I want to see a sustainable mix across the energy supplies and generation sector, and with renewables and others in the mix, that is a good thing too.

Why are this Government determined to throw money at an industry that has never been economically viable, while refusing to set a decarbonisation target to boost the renewables industry, which is already creating thousands of new jobs in Scotland?

Through energy market reform, we are underpinning the renewables sector for a very long time to come. What I do not understand is how the Scottish National party can propose independence, when Scottish Renewables would end up losing the biggest source of consumers who underpin the economics of that very important sector.

Under-occupancy Penalty

2. What estimate he has made of the number of households in Scotland affected by the under-occupancy penalty. (142161)

In its impact assessment, published on 28 June 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 80,000 claimants of housing benefit in the social rented sector in Scotland will be affected by the under-occupation measure.

The Minister knows as well as I do that thousands of people in low-income households in Scotland who are going to lose out because of the bedroom tax have no realistic prospect of moving to a smaller house. According to that impact assessment, claimants in Scotland will be disproportionately hit because of the mismatch between the available housing stock and the needs of tenants, so will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to distance himself from the shameful attempt of this Government to stigmatise and penalise people who live in council houses and need help with their rent?

What is shameful is the way that the Scottish National party plays party politics with vulnerable people, pretending that there can be no welfare changes, yet putting forward nothing in their place and not indicating how welfare would be paid for in an independent Scotland.

12. The bedroom tax and other changes to housing benefit mean that millions of pounds will be removed from the Scottish economy and hundreds of jobs will be lost across the country, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute. Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Chancellor about how to mitigate these losses to the Scottish economy? (142171)

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues fail ever to mention the discretionary housing payments fund, which will support people in difficult situations. He and his colleagues should be urging councils in Scotland to make use of that money. Scotland will get a very good share of the £155 million being provided.

Does the Minister not recognise the fact that there are people crying as a result of being given notices right now that tell them that they will have to get out of their house, or lose housing benefit as a result, come 1 April? That is the reality of the situation. Can the Minister not waken up to that fact?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman and others are not working with their local councils and housing associations to draw attention to the availability of the discretionary payments funds and the fact that there will be an opportunity to support the most vulnerable.

As well as the bedroom tax, the Government are preparing to tighten further the worst squeeze on ordinary people’s living standards in decades by cutting most benefits and tax credits by 4% in real terms over the next three years in plans that hurt the poorest 40% in Scotland three and a half times harder than the wealthiest. Does the Minister not accept that, with 800,000 working-age couples and single people in Scotland losing up to £5 a week, those cuts are not just socially brutal, but disastrous for the Scottish economy?

What I accept is that the Labour party put this country into the financial circumstances we found after the 2010 election. It says it wanted to reform welfare. It is quite happy to criticise individual measures, but it comes up with no proposals at all on how to fund them and puts forward no alternative proposals.

Transport Links

I welcome the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the planned extension of HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. Journey times between Scotland and London will be significantly reduced as a result.

Does the Minister agree that there is a strange irony in the fact that HS2 will bring our two nations closer together yet the Scottish Government are intent on driving a wedge between them and pushing them further apart?

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the irony. Most policies pursued by the Scottish National party are about breaking up Britain, but on this issue it appears to want to bring Britain closer together.

The Minister’s answers simply will not do. If he was serious about improving transport links between Scotland and England, HS2, which is a massive investment, would not start in London and grind to a halt halfway through England in Manchester or Leeds; it would carry on to Glasgow and Edinburgh along the west and east coasts of Scotland. I ask him to go one better than the Department for Transport and tell us whether the Government have even a time scale for developing a plan for completing HS2 to Scotland.

What this Government are doing is engaging with the Scottish Government in a discussion, and at the moment we are waiting to hear from them.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance to transport links of dualling the A1, and will he continue to press the case with Scottish Ministers and colleagues in the UK Government?

I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that the A1 will become a motorway to Newcastle. He made it clear, I think in response to my right hon. Friend, that the Department for Transport would look at the case for dualling the A1 to the Scottish border.

As chair of the all-party west coast main line group, I wrote to a Scottish Government Minister to ask what they were prepared to do with regard to investment for the HS2 route starting from the north. Is it not irresponsible that the Scottish Government will not answer that question on HS2, even though two city councils—Edinburgh and Glasgow—will discuss it?

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, particularly in his capacity as chair of the all-party west coast main line group, has not had a response from the Scottish Government. As I indicated in my earlier answer, the UK Government are waiting for a response from the Scottish Government. We have made it absolutely clear that we want to work with them to ensure that the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom benefit from HS2.

I agree with earlier questioners and the Minister that HS2, if it is to go ahead, will be exceedingly important to both the north of England and transport links between Scotland and England. Can I therefore have his assurance that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will argue formidably for that in Cabinet and encourage the Government to start HS2, if it goes ahead, in the north?

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s question. As always, she has taken a keen interest in Scotland, but she knows as well as I do that the Government’s position is that HS2 will start in the south.

Connectivity between Scotland and London is crucial to Scotland’s economic future. Can the Minister explain why, despite ongoing conversations between the UK and Scottish Governments, Scots are still in the dark about whether we will actually see a new line in Scotland?

I do not accept that Scots are in the dark with regard to a new line to Scotland. The UK Government have made it perfectly clear that their aspiration is to achieve high-speed rail to Scotland. We want to work very closely with the Scottish Government and we look forward to their making specific proposals.

Budget 2013

I am in close contact with the Scottish business community and Treasury colleagues in the run-up to Budget 2013, and I have discussed with them a range of measures to support economic growth and fairness.

The Secretary of State is well respected across this House, but surely he, as a Liberal Democrat, can see the unfairness in giving millionaires a massive tax cut in April while introducing the bedroom tax. Could he make urgent representations to the Chancellor to reverse both of those policies before the draconian bedroom tax does untold damage not only to the vulnerable and disabled, but to our councils and housing associations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind opening comments. I point out to him that, as a result of measures that we have already taken and which, as a Liberal Democrat, I am very happy to champion, 183,000 Scots will be taken out of tax altogether from this April; 2 million people in low and middle-income families will pay less tax; and people on the minimum wage are paying half the tax that they were under the previous Government. Our 45p tax rate in April will be higher than that which prevailed under Labour for 12 years and 11 months. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is proud of that record.

Twenty-seven one-bedroom houses were available for let in the social sector in Edinburgh last week. Bids for them ranged from 30-odd to 300. New-build affordable starts in Scotland have fallen in the past two years from 7,900 to 3,400 because of cuts by the Scottish Government. Will the Secretary of State go to his Government in advance of the Budget and argue for a U-turn? His Government saved the trees; why not save the people?

I say politely to the hon. Lady that, like many of her colleagues, she routinely forgets the terrible financial backdrop against which we have had to make some very difficult decisions. We want a sustainable welfare system and will continue to emphasise and develop the fairness agenda, which is what we have achieved through cuts in tax and by introducing change, through universal credit, to get a much stronger and better welfare system.

Does the Minister agree that having the lowest corporation tax of all the G7 countries makes Scotland an incredibly attractive place to invest, and that that would be endangered in the unlikely event, I hope, of Scotland becoming independent?

I absolutely agree that it is essential that we have a competitive business environment, and our corporation tax proposals go right to the heart of that. We want to continue to rebalance and strengthen the economy and take it away from the terrible cliff that we came to under the previous Government.

10. I thank the Under-Secretary for organising the fuel summit in Glasgow, at which it was revealed that the island fuel duty discount could go up to 7p or 8p a litre while remaining in the Treasury budget of £5 million. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to increase the discount to 7p or 8p in the Budget, so that the full budget is spent to the benefit of island motorists? (142169)

It was important to have that summit to discuss all the key issues and to emphasise how that fuel discount has provided for people in island and remote communities. My hon. Friend has made a strong case for the Budget and I am sure that the Chancellor will have heard it.

Has the Secretary of State raised the unfairness of the bedroom tax with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will he not tell him that it is one of the most rancid pieces of legislation to have been rammed through since the poll tax? Will he remind us how many Scottish Members of this House voted for it?

For as long as the hon. Gentleman’s party makes lots of promises but with no way of paying for them, folk will not listen terribly carefully to what he has to say.

Anybody watching this debate will have noticed that the Secretary of State was not prepared to confirm that 82% of Scottish Members of this House voted against the bedroom tax. Just as with the poll tax, an unpopular, regressive measure is being imposed on the people in Scotland when the overwhelming majority of their public representatives are totally opposed to it. Could the Secretary of State explain how, in a modern, 21st-centruy democracy, it is possible to impose something just like the poll tax—the bedroom tax—on Scotland?

I want a sustainable welfare system that protects the most vulnerable and supports people into work and makes it pay. The reforms under universal credit will help to ensure that happens—backed up by our fair tax delivery, which has meant that more than 180,000 Scots have been taken out of tax altogether and that 2 million Scottish families on low and middle incomes are paying less tax.

Will the Secretary of State make a representation on behalf of my constituent, Mrs Frances Connor? Treatment for her cancer has left her with no feeling in her feet or hands. Her only help comes from her son, who stays with her three nights a week. The bedroom tax means that she cannot afford the room where her son stays. Why is the Secretary of State making it impossible for a son to care for his mother?

Like the hon. Lady, I express my deepest sympathy to her constituent and her family and recognise the challenging personal circumstances in which they live. We are looking to support some of the most vulnerable in these circumstances with transitional arrangements, and I would be happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Perhaps in that discussion we could talk about the thousands of others who are hit by this bedroom tax, because the transitional protections do not help those people. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman ever imagined that he would be signing off such policies with the Tories. Last year he said:

“judge us by our record.”

Is making a son’s care for his mother unaffordable what he had in mind?

May I, as I did in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), remind the hon. Lady of the scale of the financial challenge that faced this Government when they came into office and the need to tackle those serious problems? She should also remember that we have introduced huge extra measures to help families across Scotland. I have to say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that we are not hearing credible solutions coming forward from her and her colleagues. Until such time as we do, we will not take any lessons on fairness from her.

Referendum

6. What consideration his Department has given to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s report on the Scottish referendum. (142165)

The United Kingdom Government welcome the reports from the Electoral Commission. We agree with the commission’s advice on the question, on the funding levels for the referendum, and on the clarity of the process.

When in opposition the Secretary of State wanted to extinguish his office; now he is in government he is publishing papers that talk about extinguishing Scotland—yes, extinguishing Scotland. As an act of repentance, will he ensure that his Tory-Liberal Government play fair with the Electoral Commission, as the Scottish National party Government are doing, and, as the Electoral Commission referee has asked, enter into dialogue together on Scotland’s future?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the publication earlier this week of this major contribution to the debate by the UK Government. We agree with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. The document fleshes out the issues on the legal status of Scotland within the UK. Of course, over time, as these issues are discussed further, we will, as appropriate, meet the Scottish Government, as I have already said on many occasions. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am delighted that that is good news for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

We all want the referendum campaign to be fair. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that all parties taking part in the referendum campaign must adhere to what the Electoral Commission has said about spending limits?

Now that we have cross-party agreement on accepting the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, will the Secretary of State say what information he is going to put into the public domain on the implications of separation from the UK for things such as pensions, the welfare system and the economy of Scotland, which people need to know before they cast their vote?

The hon. Lady is entirely right to focus on the need for us to move on from the process arguments to the issues of substance for families across Scotland. I am delighted that yesterday in the Privy Council the section 30 order was approved so that now we will have a legal, fair and decisive referendum. In that referendum, we have to discuss the big issues. As we have seen this week with the legal paper, which will be followed by others on the issues she mentions, there are some big questions that need to be debated—and so far no answers from the Scottish National party.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the outcome of the referendum is to engage the confidence of the Scottish people, the campaign must be conducted with candour and transparency? This week the Government published their view of the legal consequences of independence. Is it not time for those who argue for independence to do the same?

It has been a curious week, but my right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight that at times the Scottish National party has not been clear whether to embrace the opinions of our legal experts or to lambast them. The great merit of this document is that we have now laid out all the key arguments, backed up by the most impressive legal opinions, and nothing has come forward from the Scottish Government.

Higher Education

7. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of universities in Scotland on the effects of UK Government policy on higher education in Scotland. (142166)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of universities in Scotland on a range of issues.

I thank the Minister for his response—so far, so good. He will know how important foreign students are to our economy. He will also know how unhappy our universities are with his Government, and they have every right to be. His Tory Government’s obsession with immigration is starting to really hurt us: a 26% reduction in students from India, a 25% reduction from Pakistan and a 14% reduction from Nigeria. Surely he can agree that we could obviously do this much better in Scotland if we had control over these issues.

Not for the first time I am confused by the SNP position. On some occasions, it states that it wants to have the same immigration rules as the rest of the UK so it can be in a common travel area; on other occasions, such as this, it says it wants uncontrolled mass immigration. Which is it?

13. Scotland’s proud history of research, innovation and discovery is inextricably bound up with the success of the United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that the only sure and certain and the best way to ensure that Scotland remains a leader in world-class research is for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom? (142172)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that Scottish universities and research institutes receive £436 million from UK research councils—roughly 13% of the overall scientific research funding. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of very noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order so that we can hear Mr Michael Connarty.

Gambling Machines

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Ministers in the Scottish Government on the level of gambling machine usage in Scotland. (142167)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and with Scottish Ministers on a range of issues.

I am not sure whether to thank the Minister for that very unhelpful answer. Fixed-odds gambling terminals—[Interruption.]

Order. We will just have to extend the session. There is a point to having some courtesy towards the Member who is asking the question. I am sure that is something that Members learned at school.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I will take cheers from anywhere.

Fixed-odds gambling terminals have sucked up £122 million in profits in the betting shops in Scotland. They are called the crack cocaine of the gambling industry. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to join me in lobbying to have the gambling prevalence survey reinstated, considering how much addictive gambling there is in Scotland and other parts of the UK?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the reintroduction of the prevalence survey, but I commend the Daily Record and the hon. Gentleman for highlighting issues relating to problem gambling. He may be aware that the Government are currently conducting a consultation on the links between problem gambling and B2 machines. I urge him, Daily Record readers and everyone with an interest in this matter to contribute to that consultation.

Local Government

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of local government in Scotland on a range of issues.

The truth is that the Secretary of State has not met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities since 12 September last year. The consequences of the bedroom tax, which he voted for and which risks making 10,000 people in Scotland homeless, will be dealt with by local authorities. What will he do about that and when will he meet COSLA?

The hon. Lady should know that the Secretary of State has met COSLA within the past two weeks and is in regular contact with its leader. He will be making COSLA aware of the discretionary payments fund, which has been greatly increased in Scotland, and of how local authorities can utilise that.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the bedroom tax on the credit rating of local authorities and other social landlords, which is bound to go down, having an impact on house building and maintenance?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s assumption is wrong. At meetings with COSLA, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and my noble Friend Lord Freud, we have discussed that very issue and satisfied the concerns of housing associations and local authorities.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

My constituent Constable Philippa Reynolds is being buried this afternoon, having been killed on duty with the PSNI in Londonderry. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing sympathy to her family and acknowledging her dedicated service.

The horsemeat scandal has not only seriously undermined confidence in the safety of the food we eat, but threatens a very successful meat industry. Will the Prime Minister assure me that the Government will relentlessly follow every lead until each person or business responsible for any criminal or fraudulent act has been caught, exposed, prosecuted and then expelled from ever again having any part in the UK food industry?

I fully support what the hon. Gentleman has said, but first let me join him in praising Constable Reynolds, who died going about her job, keeping people safe in the community she loved. As well as wishing the two injured officers a full and quick recovery, I join him in sending my deepest condolences and those of everyone in the House to Constable Reynolds’ colleagues and loved ones.

On the appalling situation of people buying beef products in supermarkets and finding out that they could contain horsemeat, let me remind the House of what has happened and then bring it up to date. On 15 January, the Irish authorities identified problems in a number of beef products. On 16 January, I told the House that I had asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an urgent investigation. As part of that investigation, there has been more testing and tracing, and this enhanced testing regime actually led to the discovery from Findus and others of not just contamination but, in some instances, of horsemeat being passed off as beef.

That is completely unacceptable, which is why it is right that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has led these meetings with retailers and producers. We have agreed a tougher inspection regime, and have asked hospitals, schools and prisons to check with their suppliers that they are testing their products. As the hon. Gentleman and the House know, yesterday the police and the FSA raided two premises, one in west Yorkshire, the other in west Wales, and as he said, if there has been criminal activity, there should be the full intervention of the law. We have also asked for meaningful tests from retailers and producers, and those will be published in full. He is right to say what he does.

In a week when both sides of the House have celebrated the wonders of the United Kingdom, I am delighted to discover that I now represent a midlands constituency. Will the Prime Minister please join me in celebrating a culture that touches both sides of the English-Scottish border by celebrating Cumbria day with us today?

I am very much looking forward to joining my hon. Friend at the celebration of Cumbria day here in the House of Commons. He is incredibly fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful and brilliant constituencies in the House of Commons. I particularly remember the time we spent at the Butchers Arms in his constituency—an outstanding pub in a beautiful part of our world.

Can the Prime Minister tell us whether, at the end of this Parliament, living standards will be higher or lower than they were at the beginning?

We are helping working people by giving 24 million people a tax cut this year, and living standards will certainly be higher for those people on the minimum wage who are working full time, whose income tax bill has already been halved under this Government.

It was ever such a simple question, and I just want a simple answer. In 2015, people will be asking, “Am I better off now than I was five years ago?” What is the right hon. Gentleman’s answer?

The answer is that people will be a lot better off than they were under Labour with a record deficit, with unreformed welfare and with a busted banking system. They will have seen a Government who have got the deficit down, cut their income taxes and dealt with the banks. As the Governor of the Bank of England said today, we are on the road to recovery.

All the right hon. Gentleman shows is how out of touch he is. He is even out of touch with his own Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures, which show that, by 2015, people will be worse off than they were in 2010 because prices have been rising faster than earnings under his Government. Why is this happening? He told us that the economy would be growing, but the truth is that it has been flatlining. Will he acknowledge that it is his failure to get growth that means that we have falling, not rising, living standards in this country?

The right hon. Gentleman says that prices are rising, but I would remind him that inflation is lower under this Government than what we inherited from Labour. It has been cut in half from its peak. Of course, if his question is, “Have you had to take difficult decisions to deal with the deficit, to get on top of the problems that we face, to reform welfare and to clean up our banks”—you bet we have had to take difficult decisions! No one in this country is in any doubt about why we have had to take difficult decisions; it is because of the mess that he left.

First, the deficit is going up, not down, because of the right hon. Gentleman’s economic failure. Secondly, we have a flatlining economy and—this will be the question over the next two years—declining living standards as a result. But of course, amidst those falling living standards, there is one group for whom the good times will come this April. Can he just remind us what the thinking was when he decided to provide an average tax cut of £100,000 for everyone earning over £1 million in this country?

The right hon. Gentleman should be familiar with the figures. When he put the top rate of tax up to 50p, millionaires paid £7 billion less in tax. That is what happened under his plans. I will tell him what is going to happen in April: every single taxpayer in this country, all 24 million of them, will see a tax cut as we raise the personal allowance, and as we get close to our goal of being able to earn £10,000 without paying any income tax at all. Of course, the biggest tax cut has been for those hard-working people on the minimum wage, going out to work day after day, who have seen their income tax bills cut in half. That is who we stand for, and that is who we are helping.

No matter how much the right hon. Gentleman blusters, he knows the truth. He has cut tax credits and raised VAT, and people are worse off, not better off. Does it not speak to how out of touch he is that last week he attended the Tory party winter ball, auctioned off a portrait of himself for £100,000 and then declared, without a hint of irony, that the Tories were

“no longer the party of privilege”?

You couldn’t make it up! Let me put the question another way. We are talking about people who are earning £20,000 a week—[Interruption.] Let me ask him the question again. What is it about those people that made him think that, this April, they needed extra help to keep the wolf from the door?

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is this Government who have helped working people by freezing council tax, cutting petrol duty, cutting tax for 24 million people, and legislating so that people get the lowest tariff on their energy bills. That is what we have done while having a top rate of tax that is higher than any year when he was in the Treasury.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about important political events and speeches, and perhaps he will confirm something. I have here an invitation; he is going to make a major speech tomorrow, and I have the invitation. This is the invitation that has been sent out:

“Ed Miliband is going to make a ‘major’ speech on the economy on Thursday. It won’t have any new policies in it,”.

Let me tell the Prime Minister that he would be most welcome to attend the speech and he might learn something.

Every week that goes by, evidence mounts against the Government on the economy. There is a living standards crisis for the many and all he does is stand up for a few at the top. We have a failing Prime Minister; he is out of touch, and he stands up for the wrong people.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about the deficit, nothing to say about welfare, and nothing to say about growth. Now he is going to make a speech tomorrow, which he kindly invites me to, but if there are not any policies, what would be the point of coming? Let me refer him to his policy guru, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who is responsible for Labour’s manifesto. He says:

“Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good,”.

That is right; the whole Opposition Front Bench is no good.

Q2. The welfare state and the NHS are there to support our constituents when they fall on difficult times. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the Government will not allow them to be abused by illegal immigrants and foreign nationals who come here as benefit tourists? (142824)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Britain has always been an open and welcoming economy, but it is not right if our systems are being abused. That is why yesterday I chaired a committee meeting in Whitehall, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is leading, where we are going to look at every single one of our systems—housing, health, benefits—and make sure that we are not a soft touch for those who want to come here. It is vital that we get this right. Many parts of our current arrangements simply do not pass a simple common-sense test in terms of access to housing, access to the health service and access to justice, and other things that should be the right of all British citizens but are not the right of anyone who just chooses to come here.

If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling the serious problem of misleading labelling and the contamination of product, what possible future is there for his coalition with the Lib Dems?

The coalition must be clearly labelled at all points. However, the right hon. Gentleman references an important point which is that retailers bear a real responsibility. At the end of the day, they are putting products on their shelves and they must be really clear about where that meat came from and who it was supplied by. It is up to them to test that, and I think that is vital.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that with the Government’s plans to cap social care bills at £75,000 we are finally starting to defuse the ticking time bomb that is adult social care? The action will allow the insurance market to grow to protect against the liability, and we are helping people to protect their family homes in their old age. (142825)

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I would have thought that every Member of Parliament had heard from their constituents, and in meetings with groups such as Age Concern, and others, that right now it is completely unfair that the fickle finger of fate can pick someone out for dementia or Alzheimer’s and they lose the house they have invested their lifetime savings in. That is not fair, and for the first time this Government have come up with the money to make sure that we put a cap on what any family has to spend. It is the biggest pro-inheritance move that any Government have made in 20 years. Let us be clear: the intention is not that people should have to spend £75,000, but because we have put a cap in place there should be a proper insurance market. I do not want anyone to have to pay anything, and that is what these reforms can help to achieve.

Q4. The Prime Minister is rightly shocked by the revelations that many food products contain 100% horse. Does he share my concern that, if tested, many of his answers may contain 100% bull? (142826)

That was a very good line, but I do think this is a serious issue. People are genuinely worried about what they are buying at the supermarket, and I really think we have got to get a grip of this rather than make jokes about it—but I will think of another one by the end of the session.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister take a dim view of people who say one thing and do another, such as campaigning against—[Interruption.] (142827)

—such as campaigning against greenfield development and then voting for it, as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Eastleigh has, or purporting to support fan ownership of football clubs while undermining the community buy-out of Pompey, as the Professional Footballers Association has done this week?

First, may I wish my hon. Friend well in her campaign to help Portsmouth football club? What she does is very important. On the Eastleigh by-election—I hope all my hon. Friends will join me on the campaign trail in Eastleigh—what I would say to people in Eastleigh is that if they want a straight-talking candidate who does exactly what it says on the tin, Maria Hutchings is a local mum and a fantastic campaigner, and she would make a great Member of Parliament.

May I ask the Prime Minister for his help? I have to say to the House that I am defeated in my attempts to get a response from NHS South West London, on behalf of my constituent, Mr Aziz, who has pulmonary hypertension, chronic lung disease and left heart disease. Those at NHS South West London will not respond to my correspondence asking whether they will agree to look at allowing Professor Madden, the world famous cardiologist, to prescribe sildenafil for Mr Aziz’s treatment. I can get no response and my constituent might die, should he not get a decision.

I am very happy to take up the case that the hon. Lady quite rightly raises in the House. If she gives me the details, I will see what I can do to try to get a better answer from the health authority.

Q6. Each year many dozens of my constituents have to sell their houses to pay for social care, which is random and unfair. Does the Prime Minister agree that the proposals announced last week will at last start to mitigate this issue? (142828)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As he says, it is completely random who can end up suffering from dementia and then suddenly find that, because they could be spending five, 10 or even more years in a care home, all the savings that they carefully put away through their hard-working life are completely wiped out. To cap the cost for the first time is a major breakthrough. It is a progressive move, but it will also help hard-working families who want to save and pass on their houses to their children. It will be this Government who will have made that possible.

Q7. Since the coalition came to power, some 350 libraries have closed. The Communities Secretary has dismissed those campaigning to save local libraries—parents hoping to teach their children to read or those who want to study our history and literature—as “just…a bunch of luvvies.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 561.]Whatever happened to the big society? (142829)

I strongly support our libraries and in my constituency we have worked very hard to ensure that libraries will be staying open—and they will be. The hon. Gentleman asks about the big society. Part of the answer to helping to keep libraries open is to tap the enthusiasm of communities to volunteer in libraries and to work in libraries to keep them open. I am sure that he, like me, will welcome the report this week showing that volunteering is up and charitable giving is up. I think the big society has a big role to play in keeping libraries open, sometimes in the teeth of opposition from Labour councils.

On Saturday I spoke at an event in my constituency, organised by Christian Aid and hosted by the Woodlands church in Clifton, on tax avoidance in developing countries. Does the Prime Minister agree that we could do much to combat this problem by assisting developing countries to develop their own tax collection and assessment capabilities, and by requiring British companies to be completely transparent about profits made and taxes paid in each country of operation?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and there is a huge amount of things we can do here. The work we have done with some less developed countries has actually seen their tax base sometimes as much as treble, and we need to do far more in all these countries because it is an absolutely vital part of development. I also agree with the issue he raises with respect to tax transparency, and that is why the Government are putting it at the head of our G8 agenda for the meeting that will take place in June at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. One of the great things about this agenda is that it brings together developed and developing countries with a shared agenda that is good for both.

Q8. The Prime Minister gave the House an update on the EU negotiations on the budget, and he will know that regional aid, which comes from the EU, plays an important role for some of the regional assemblies when it comes to attracting inward investment. Will he update the House on the continuation of regional aid? (142830)

The outcome of the budget leaves the amount of overall regional aid that Britain will receive broadly similar to the last period at around €11 billion. There are changes in the definitions of regions, partly because of the new concept of transition regions. What we now need to do is to sit down, as the United Kingdom, and work out how best to make sure that the money is fairly divided between Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. There are transition regions in England that are looking to benefit, but I am sure that we can have fruitful discussions and come to a good conclusion.

Is my right hon. Friend amused that the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister are both trying to claim credit for his brilliant achievement of a real-terms cut in the EU budget? Does he hope that they will now follow his lead and both call for a referendum to be put to the British people?

I hope that, first, they will convince their MEPs to vote for the budget reduction: that would be helpful—[Interruption.] I also hope we can make some progress on the referendum issue, because the shadow Chancellor, who—as ever—is shouting from a sedentary position, was asked whether Labour would support an EU referendum, and he said:

“That slightly depends on how stupid we are, doesn’t it?”

That was his opening gambit. He went on to say that

“we’ve absolutely not ruled out a referendum”.

That is slightly in contrast to the leader of the Labour party, who said, “We don’t want an in-out referendum.” Perhaps when they have come up with an answer to this question, they will come to the House of Commons and tell us what it is.

Q9. According to a freedom of information answer, there were 4,000 fewer uniformed police officers on London’s streets after the Prime Minister’s first two years in office. With the percentage of crimes being solved in London down as well, why has the Prime Minister broken his promise to protect front-line policing? (142831)

Crime is down by 10%, not just generally, but specifically in the Harrow community safety partnership area—the hon. Gentleman’s area. That is a much greater reduction than for the whole Metropolitan police area. The number of neighbourhood police officers is actually up since the election, from 895 to 3,418, and there are many fewer officers in back-office jobs. In 2010, there were 1,346 of them and there are now fewer than 1,000. On all this, what we have seen is, yes, a reform agenda for the police and there have been spending reductions, but crime is down and visible policing is up.

With Japan, the eurozone and Switzerland all talking down their currencies, despite the statement by the G7 yesterday, does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important aim of the G20 meeting in Moscow this coming weekend should be to establish means to prevent competitive devaluation, which in the 1930s—[Interruption.] I was alive in the 1930s—as I can remember from my father’s experience, caused widespread unemployment and the protectionism that goes with it?

First, I would like to confirm that my right hon. Friend was not only alive in the 1930s but was, as now, absolutely thriving. What he says is important: no one wants to see a string of competitive devaluations. What happened to sterling as a result of the very deep recession here obviously was a depreciation. I do not believe that we can depreciate our way to growth, whatever country we are, but what we should do is use the benefit when there is a structural change to make sure we increase our competitiveness. That is what Britain needs to do.

Q10. The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways on care for elderly—with delivery and quality going on at the same time as council cuts. In Coventry, for example, an extra £28 million has to be cut from the budget—for Birmingham, the figure is £600 million—with nearly 1,000 jobs being lost over a period of two or three years. May we have a fair deal for the elderly, a fair deal for Coventry and a fair deal for the west midlands? (142832)

At the start of this Government in 2010 when we made the decision not to cut the NHS, we put NHS money into adult social care in local government because we recognised the importance of that budget. I would argue, too, that this week’s move to cap social care costs, while of course not solving the whole problem, was important. By creating a cap on what people will be charged, we can create an insurance market so that everyone can try to protect themselves against the long-term costs of social care. That should see more money coming into this absolutely vital area.

Q11. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders showing that the number of first-time buyers has hit a five-year high? (142833)

I certainly join my hon. Friend on that. This problem has dogged our economy over the last few years. No one wants us to go back to the 110% mortgages that we had during the boom times, but we need to make available to young people the chance of earning a decent salary to be able to buy a decent flat or house with a mortgage that does not require a massive deposit. That has not been possible for people in recent years, and I think that the Bank of England move on the funding for lending scheme—£80 billion—is now feeding through to the mortgage market and making available lower mortgages at a decent long-term rate. That is very important for our market.

Q12. Further to the Prime Minister’s rather acerbic exchange with the Leader of the Opposition earlier, will he tell the House whether he will personally benefit from the millionaires’ tax cut to be introduced this April? (142834)

I will pay all the taxes that are due in the proper way. The point I would make is that all the years in which the hon. Gentleman sat on this side of the House, there was a top rate of tax that was lower than the one we are putting in place. I did not hear any groaning from the hon. Gentleman then.

Q13. A typical council tax payer in my Aberconwy constituency will now pay £124 more than they did in 2010 because the money made available to the Labour Welsh Government has been used to fund their pet project to secure their majority in the Assembly. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that hard-working families in Wales are being used in order to fund the Labour party’s pork-barrel policy in Cardiff Bay? (142835)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This Government have made available money for a council tax freeze. That has the consequence that money for that freeze is available in Wales, so people in Wales will know who to blame if their council tax is not frozen. It is the Labour Assembly Government in Wales: they are to blame; they are the ones who are charging hard-working people more for their council tax.

Q14. We all remember the Prime Minister’s promise last October that he would legislate to force energy companies to put customers on the lowest tariff. Will he explain why his Energy Bill contains no such commitment and why he has broken that promise? (142836)

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that he is completely wrong. The Energy Bill does exactly what I said in the House; it is about legislating to force companies to give people the lowest tariff.

Order. It is very discourteous of the House to issue a collective groan—notably on the Opposition Benches. It is quite inexplicable. I have called the good doctor; let us hear from the good doctor.

Schools in Cambridgeshire were underfunded for decades by both the last Labour Government and the one before that, and the latest figure shows that they receive £600 per pupil per year less than the English average—the worst funding in the entire country. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is simply unfair? Will he support the Cambridge News “Fair deal for our schools” campaign, and pledge to end the discrepancy during the current Parliament?

I will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said, but I will say to him now that we have protected the schools budget so that per-pupil funding is the same throughout this Parliament, and head teachers can plan on that basis. By encouraging academy schools and free schools, we are ensuring that more of the education money goes directly to them.

Q15. The Institute for Fiscal Affairs described the Chancellor’s tax changes and benefit cuts as giving with one hand and taking away with many others. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair on hard-working families, when at the same time he is giving to millionaires with both hands? (142837)

I do not agree that that is what the IFS said. As I said when I quoted the IFS last week, it has pointed out that the highest increase in tax payments has come from the better off, and the changes that the Government have made are particularly helping hard-working people on the minimum wage who will see their income tax bills cut in half. That is what this Government are doing, and we will not forget the abolition of the 10p tax rate that clobbered every hard-working person in the country.

I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the Watford community exchange, which will take place on Friday. It will involve a meeting between 50 businesses and 50 charities and community organisations. I hope that the Prime Minister will congratulate Chris Luff of Freedom Communications, which has already offered 150 hours of its time to help local charities, including Westfield community centre. I also hope that the Prime Minister will encourage all his colleagues, including Ministers, to initiate similar proceedings in their constituencies, because this is the big society in action.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A very large part of the big society is businesses coming together to help voluntary groups and charities in local communities. I think it is excellent that my hon. Friend is doing that good work in his constituency, and I pay tribute to all who are joining him. As I said earlier, it is good news that volunteering is up, charitable giving is up, and the big society is getting bigger.

I am following very carefully what the Food Standards Agency says, and what the Food Standards Agency says is that there is nothing unsafe on our shelves.

Procedures at the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are being reviewed because of the high mortality rate, which is obviously of considerable concern to my constituents. Will the Prime Minister assure them that whatever recommendations result from the review will be implemented in full?

I can certainly give that assurance. It is important that we get to the bottom of any hospital having an unnaturally high mortality rate. It is also important that such inspections and investigations are carried out properly, and that we all learn the lessons of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry report.