Skip to main content

Prime Minister

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.