The Secretary of State was asked—
Before answering the question, I wish the House dydd gwyl Dewi da or a very happy St David’s day for Friday.
The Government are committed to delivering the plan that has cut the deficit by a quarter and given us record low interest rates and a record number of jobs, benefiting families and businesses in Wales. Moody’s decision to downgrade the UK Government bond rating is a reminder of how important it is to fix the country’s finances and a warning to those who think that we should simply borrow more.
What is good for the economy of north Wales is good for Merseyside and what is bad for that economy hurts us too. The fact that 1,240 more people are in long-term unemployment in north Wales than a year ago does not give me hope for the economy of my constituency. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that?
The hon. Lady is entirely right that the economies of north Wales and Merseyside are inextricably linked. The Government have created more jobs since we came to power. The rate of employment has increased by 1.6%. She should bear it in mind that the Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for economic development in Wales. They should therefore align their policies closely with those that this Government are pursuing.
Will the Secretary of State admit that his economic policies are failing Wales disastrously? His new jobs are a mirage. One new worker in 10 is underemployed. They are part-timers seeking full-time work or temporary workers who want a proper job. There are underemployed breadwinners who are struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes. That is contributing to the 200,000 children who are living in poverty in Wales. Why does he not apologise for that shameful record?
I will take no lessons from the right hon. Gentleman, whose party oversaw the trashing of the British economy and was responsible for the mess that we are having to clear up. The Government have created more than 1 million private sector jobs since we came to power, against the international trend, and we are proud of that.
The loss of the triple A status is a stark reminder of how important it is to develop sensible policies to fix the economy. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Moody’s recognises that the UK’s creditworthiness remains extremely high and points to the strong track record of fiscal consolidation. Were it not for that, we would be on a negative outlook, rather than a stable one.
I am glad to see that the Secretary of State is reading from a script today. No doubt, he is not trusted to make off-the-cuff comments again. I wish him a dydd gwyl Dewi hapus. What will life be like from April, after dydd gwyl Dewi, for the 170,000 working families who will lose their tax credits thanks to his Government, who prefer to give the money to millionaires?
After April, many more families in Wales will benefit from historically high levels of employment and lower taxes. I remind the hon. Lady that since we came to power, 1.1 million people in Wales are paying less tax and 109,000 people are paying no tax at all.
The house building industry is extremely important in Wales and a major driver of economic recovery. I was therefore disappointed to read today the comments of Steve Morgan, the chairman of Redrow plc, Wales’s largest building company, who says that the Welsh Government’s housing policies are potentially “catastrophic” for the industry, with the new regulations made in Cardiff likely to add £11,000 to the cost of a three-bedroom house. At a time when Welsh builders need work and Wales needs more homes, that cannot be right. I consequently urge the Welsh Government to align their policies with those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Although unemployment in the Vale of Glamorgan is well below the national average, Barry still needs to attract private sector investment. Ten years ago, Barry was left out of the assisted areas map, which sadly has led to its increased decline. Will the Secretary of State work with the Welsh Government to ensure that Barry receives assisted area status this time around?
The Wales Office is in discussion with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Welsh Government about the assisted areas map for 2014 to 2020, but the decision on which sea areas are awarded assisted area status will be determined by the Welsh Government, subject to criteria set by the European Commission. I am sure they will listen to what my hon. Friend has to say.
No coalition Government policy has a greater economic impact on Wales than increasing the spending power of the poorest through raising the tax-free allowance. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many people the coalition Government have lifted out of paying tax in Wales over the past two years?
The Welsh economy benefits from students from developing countries attending our excellent universities. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to India, will the Secretary of State join our universities in telling students from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia that Welsh universities are open and that they would be welcome to study there?
Higher education is a major export earner for Wales and, of course, for the United Kingdom as a whole. During his recent visit to India my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there is no arbitrary limit on the number of students who can study in the UK, provided they have the necessary qualifications and can speak the language. They are more than welcome to come to the UK.
Last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that Wales faces a decade of destitution as a result of policies pursued by this Government, and the Welsh Government said that £600 million is being taken out of the pockets of ordinary Welsh people. Is the Secretary of State telling the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues what people are saying about his Government in Wales, or is he just there to cheerlead for policies that are hammering his country?[Official Report, 28 February 2013, Vol. 559, c. 7-8MC.]
If this Government were to pursue the policies advocated by the Labour party and try to fix a debt crisis simply by borrowing more, the plight of the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman mentions would be infinitely worse. So far we are providing 109,000 additional jobs for the people of Wales, and we are reducing their tax bills and doing our best to ensure that they get sustainable private sector jobs. The hon. Gentleman has no answer to that.
2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. (144372)
The Wales Office has regular discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales to ensure its successful implementation.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), recently told me that there would be “no big-bang effect” on the finances of housing associations and landlords across Wales as a result of the Government’s policy. Yet Moody’s has placed housing associations on downgrade review, not just this Government, and the NHS is warning of a massive increase in rent arrears. When will he and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions get a grip before there are devastating impacts across Wales?
I simply do not accept much of the scaremongering from the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. We are in close discussion and consultation with housing associations and local authorities across Wales that are key stakeholders. We expect 200,000 households in Wales to see an increase in their average entitlement of around £160 per month as a result of universal credit.
Seventy per cent. of council tenants in Crumlin in my constituency will lose out because of the bedroom tax and the roll-out of universal credit. With council services stretched to the maximum, is the Secretary of State concerned that vital services will be cut locally across Wales, as well as homelessness increasing?
I will make the same point to the hon. Gentleman: the Government simply do not accept the catastrophic scenarios that Labour Members are trying to communicate. Universal credit will be a major tool in creating new incentives to work and raise employment levels in Wales. Let us not forget that Labour’s legacy in Wales was 200,000 people who have never worked at all. He should feel angry about that.
Disarray on universal credit means that children in Wales still do not know whether they will lose their free school meal entitlement, and some families in Wales will be better off not seeking more work because they would have to earn an additional £1,500 per child to make up for the loss of school meals. What is the Minister doing to safeguard free school meal entitlements for children in Wales?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Government take seriously concerns about high child care costs. On her specific point on passported benefits, of which the free school meal is one, we are in close discussions with Welsh Government Ministers. We are making good progress on resolving the outstanding questions. I will write to her with further information.
The Government have demonstrated our commitment to superfast broadband by providing £150 million across the UK to fund super-connected cities including Cardiff and Newport, and almost £57 million to the Welsh Government to ensure that broadband access is available to homes and businesses in the hardest-to-reach parts of Wales.
Even though there is a lot of rain in Swansea, the council wants to create a new cloud over Swansea—a wi-fi cloud. Will the Minister meet me and the council to discuss the prospect of super-connectivity for Swansea in the forthcoming Budget, so that the sun continues to shine through the clouds, and we can bathe in the glory of being League cup winners?
This Government are committed to broadband, but does the Secretary of State share my bewilderment—and that of many of my businesses and farmers in the Ceredigion constituency—at the Welsh Assembly Government’s curious prioritisation, which means that some rural and hard-to-reach areas of Wales will not benefit from broadband initiatives for two years?
It is good to see my hon. Friend speaking up for Ceredigion on Ceredigion day. A number of colleagues have commented on the choice of areas for the first roll-out. Suffice it to say that Broadband Delivery UK is keeping a close watch on how that develops, and I will speak to it on that very issue.
Because of the lack of coverage on main-line televisions, many of us had the great joy at the weekend of watching Swansea’s triumph on broadband. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the future triumphs of Newport County, Cardiff City and Wrexham will be available on broadband?
I will wish the Secretary of State a happy St David’s day on St David’s day and not today.
There is an all-Wales legal circuit, four excellent police forces and an all-Wales probation trust. It is high time that we devolved justice and policing to Wales. The Secretary of State will know that there is a huge clamour of enthusiasm for this move. I hope he will join it.
I understand that Plaid Cymru has made its submission to the Silk commission, which will no doubt consider those proposals. It will report in spring next year. The Government have shown our commitment to devolution of policing by creating the office of police and crime commissioner, which brings policing as close as possible to the policed public.
I heartily disagree with the Secretary of State on that—police and crime commissioners are nothing of the sort—but the obvious point is that laws in Wales are diverging naturally from those in England, including in administrative law, family law and criminal law. It is high time that the legislature in Wales had its own system. Otherwise, it will probably be the only legislature in the world without such a system.
The Welsh Assembly may be able to prevent parents from having their children educated in England and prevent patients from being treated by the excellent English national health service, but they will not be able to stop criminals crossing the border and breaking the law in England, or vice versa. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a disaster to devolve policing and justice to the Welsh Assembly?
In his discussions with Welsh Ministers, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the costs and implications of a separate legal jurisdiction in Wales? Can he tell the House whether he favours such a separation?
Army Recruitment Offices
I have discussed this issue with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I was also pleased to support him when we debated this topic in Westminster Hall earlier this month.
Wales punches above its weight in recruitment to the armed forces, but Government outsourcing means that half its careers offices will be closed. What assurances can the Minister give that the Army will still be able to recruit from all parts of Wales, including the valleys, after these closures?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; Wales has traditionally been a healthy recruiting ground for excellent soldiers for our armed forces, and that will continue to be the case under the new partnership between Capita and the Army on recruitment. There is a long-term trend of young people using the internet to access careers advice, and that is exactly the same with defence careers. However, this is not just about an online service, but about mobile teams getting out into the communities to enable face-to-face contact between men and women in uniform and young people who show an interest in a career in the armed forces.
Prisons (North Wales)
The Ministry of Justice is carrying out a review to examine the feasibility of constructing a new prison. I am pleased that north Wales is being considered as a possible location and reiterate my strong support for locating a new prison in the area.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, and I warmly welcome the possibility of a so-called “super prison” in north Wales. Does he agree, however, that while further public sector investment in north Wales is welcome, it should not detract from the need to rebalance the Welsh economy and ensure that we move away from the dependence on public sector pay in Wales?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The new prison would provide approximately 900 new jobs of high quality, but its economic impact on the area would be approximately £17.5 million, which would itself be a stimulus to the private sector. The new prison is widely welcomed in north Wales.
The Secretary of State said that the Ministry of Justice was reviewing the possibility of a prison in north Wales. Has the Wales Office itself identified sites? I believe, and he believes, that this would boost economic activity in north Wales. It would be good for the economy as well as the justice system.
Information on the expected impact of the social sector under-occupancy measure is provided in the impact assessment prepared by the Department for Work and Pensions.
Local authorities in Wales need roughly 550 new couples every year to volunteer to be foster parents. Is it not a ludicrous own goal to include potential foster families in the bedroom tax? Before Government Members start complaining about the term “bedroom tax”, let me say that I heard the Prime Minister use it. It looks like a tax, it feels like a tax and it is unfair on those who are going to have to pay it.
The hon. Gentleman describes a reduction in Government expenditure as a tax. Opposition Members confuse their debt with their deficits and they spent 13 years describing out-of-control public spending as investment. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on 5 February when he said that people who suffer from low levels of financial literacy struggle to make correct budgeting decisions. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his party are proof of that.
Let me start by wishing the right hon. Lady well with the important job that the Prime Minister has asked her to do on complaints in the NHS. I know that she has the respect and support of the whole House.
I understand the concerns among the disabled community about the implementation of this measure, but we are making substantial resource available for local authorities to assist with the difficult specific cases, among which I expect the disabled to be included.
Can there be any justification for treating tenants on housing benefit in social housing differently from tenants on housing benefit in the private rented sector, and how can it possibly lie in the mouth of those who changed the law on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector to complain when we extend exactly the same provisions to those on housing benefit in social housing? Have I missed something?
My hon. Friend highlights very well the total incoherence of Labour’s position. It is even harder to justify maintaining a subsidy for spare rooms given the country’s financial condition and the need to reduce the deficit and restore financial budgetary discipline.
I draw the House’s attention to the motion this afternoon and encourage right hon. and hon. Members to participate in the debate and to join us in the Lobby.
DWP Ministers tell me that no assessment has been made of the flexibility of the housing market in rural Wales in order to respond to the bedroom tax. Has the Under-Secretary made any such assessment?
There are different types of housing stock throughout Wales, but one problem facing the whole of Wales is that of overcrowding and long housing waiting lists. It cannot be justifiable that, at the same time as people are receiving housing benefit for spare rooms, in the same streets and on the same housing estates there are houses with three or four children in the same bedroom.
How on earth can the Minister defend a policy that is unfair and unworkable and will penalise the disabled, forces’ families and foster parents in Wales? Does he deny that his Government’s own impact assessment shows that Wales will be harder hit than anywhere else in the UK? Is there not a single issue on which he and the Secretary of State will stand up for Wales?
There is nothing caring, compassionate or progressive about walking away from our responsibility to fix the deficit and the debt. If we do not do that, the very people we will hurt in the future will be the poor and the vulnerable—the very people whom we all came into politics to defend.
Wales Tourism Week
13. What plans his Department has to support Wales tourism week. (144384)
Wales Office Ministers will undertake a range of visits to attractions across Wales to celebrate Wales tourism week and to raise awareness of the tourism industry’s vital importance to the Welsh economy.
The Minister will know that catering and hospitality are vital parts of the Welsh tourism industry. With that in mind, will he welcome the creation of the Tenby hotel school and all the good it will bring to the whole of Wales? When he is next in the county, will he pay us a visit?
I welcome that question from my hon. Friend. I will next be in the area this weekend—he and I have the pleasure and privilege of representing the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the new development he has announced; it will be a major boost to tourism not just in Pembrokeshire but across Wales.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Frankly, it is absolutely staggering that someone is standing for public office who has said this:
“In October 1984, when the Brighton bomb went off, I felt a surge of excitement at the nearness of Margaret Thatcher’s demise. And yet disappointment that such a chance had been missed.”
Those are the words of the Labour candidate in the Eastleigh by-election. They are a complete disgrace and I hope that the Leader of the Labour party will get up and condemn them right now.
Is it not amazing that the Leader of the Opposition will not condemn someone who apparently speaks up for terrorists? Is that not absolutely disgraceful? He will have a second chance when he gets up again. The decision by the ratings agency is a reminder of the debt and the deficit problem that this country faces and, frankly, it is a warning to anyone who thinks we can walk away from it. It is absolutely vital that we continue with the work of this Government, who have cut the deficit by a quarter, with a million extra private sector jobs and interest rates at record low levels. I note that it is still his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more.
I was asking about the country’s credit rating. The right hon. Gentleman used to say that our credit rating was
“the mark of trust in our economy”,
and that it was
“right up front and centre”
“our new economic model”.
His manifesto that he published at the general election said that safeguarding Britain’s credit rating was the very first of his “Benchmarks for Britain”, against which
“the British people…can judge the economic success or failure of the next government.”
So does the Prime Minister accept that, by the first test he set himself, he has failed?
If there is a problem of excessive borrowing, why is it the right hon. Gentleman’s policy to borrow more? That is the question that he simply has to answer. If he wants to listen to the credit rating agency, I will tell him that Moody’s said:
“Moody’s could also downgrade the UK’s government debt rating further in the event of…reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation.”
On this side of the House, we know that that is the vital work we have to do. Will he finally now admit that he is in favour of more borrowing? Admit it!
You, Mr Speaker, always know when the right hon. Gentleman starts asking me questions that he cannot answer questions about his own record. The part-time Chancellor said that it would be a “humiliation” for Britain to lose its triple A credit rating. I know that the Prime Minister is not big on humility, but his manifesto did promise that he would be “accountable and open”, so let us give him another go. A simple question—yes or no: has not he failed the first economic test that he set out in his manifesto?
I am not arguing for one moment that the rating agency does not matter—that is the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. His argument is that the rating agency does not matter and that the answer to debt is to borrow more and not to take any responsibility for the mess they left. It is this Government who have cut the deficit by a quarter, who have a million extra private sector jobs and who have low interest rates that are vital for the future of the economy. Economies that maintain their triple A rating are those of countries such as Canada and Germany that fixed the roof when the sun was shining. Let me ask him again: why does he not admit that his answer to extra borrowing is to borrow more? Have another go: admit it!
Any time the right hon. Gentleman wants to swap places, I will happily answer the questions. He talks about borrowing. I do not know when he last checked, but the deficit is rising, not falling, this year—and, because of his failure to grow the economy, he is borrowing £212 billion more than he planned. Now, let us turn to the reasons for the downgrade. May we take it from his answers so far that he really believes that this loss of the country’s triple A status, which he set as the test, has nothing to do with him?
I am the one saying that this credit rating does matter. It demonstrates that we have to go further and faster on reducing the deficit. The very fact that the right hon. Gentleman will not answer the question about wanting to borrow more, which the country needs to know, means that he will never sit on this side of the House. If he wants to look at what is happening in our economy, is it not interesting that he does not mention the other economic news from last week, which was 154,000 extra people in work and more people in employment than at any time in our history? Youth unemployment is down since the election; unemployment is down since the election—that is what is happening in our economy, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot recognise it. When is he going to admit that we should never listen to someone who sold the gold, bust the banks, racked up the deficit and cannot say sorry for any of it?
I think we can take it from that answer that the Prime Minister cannot accept the simple fact that he has failed on the first test he set himself, and it is his fault—it happened on his watch. Borrowing is rising, even after all the pain of the tax rises and all the spending cuts because the part-time Chancellor’s plan is failing. The truth is that they are the last people left who think that their plan is working and that the failure has nothing to do with them. We have 1 million—[Interruption.] The Education Secretary calls out, “That’s not true”, so perhaps he believes it, too, but behind the scenes he is briefing against the Chancellor. Perhaps they should swap places. We have 1 million young people out of work, the deficit is rising not falling and the economy is flatlining. What further evidence does he need that his plan is just not working?
Let us examine the points the right hon. Gentleman has just made. He says the deficit is up, but it is down by a quarter since the election. He says that we do not have support for our plan, but the CBI—the biggest business organisation in the country—says we have the right plan for growth. He complains about the level of unemployment, but it is down since the election and we have a record number of people in work. Those are the facts. Now let us look at the right hon. Gentleman’s policy. Let us examine the fact that the New Statesman, the in-house magazine of the Labour party, says that his
“critique of the government’s…strategy may never win back public trust”,
“proposals for the economy will never convince”,
“credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches”.
That is not Conservative central office saying it, but the New Statesman.
All we have heard today is a Prime Minister who refuses to accept that he has failed on the central test he set himself. He has failed to meet that first test. It is not just our credit rating that has been downgraded. We have a downgraded Government, a downgraded Chancellor and a downgraded Prime Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman says that the New Statesman is scraping the barrel, but it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership. In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and the right hon. Gentleman is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.
In the 10 years for which they have run Harrogate borough council, the Conservatives have cleared the £19.6 million of debt left by the Liberal Democrats and, in doing so, have delivered a four-year council tax freeze. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows the wisdom of tackling debt, and that any urges to borrow more and more like the Labour party constitute the road to ruin?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is worth recognising that when it comes to finding efficiencies and finding value for money, local government has an excellent record. We really should say that in this place. Local government has a good record of paying down debt, dealing with deficits, and being efficient. One of the benefits of that is that it reduces debt interest charges, which is something on which we must focus in this Government and in this country.
Q2. Next month, a big event—alongside the Budget—will be the rugby champion, Wales, playing England at the Millennium stadium. Does the Prime Minister have the same confidence in England’s winning the triple crown as his Chancellor had in our retaining the triple A credit rating, and, as team manager, does he intend to change his economic team to avoid further humiliation and a triple-dip recession? (144287)
There is a difficult record of Prime Ministers’ endorsing various rugby or football teams, so I do not plan to do that. All I will say is that I am very proud of the fact that, on St David’s day, the Welsh flag will be flying above Downing street, as it should be—and, when it comes to the rugby, may the best team win.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. While I do not deny for one second the importance of the rating agencies, the most important test of credibility—a test that is faced day in, day out in the markets—is the rate of interest at which people borrow, and the rate of interest at which we borrow is still at record lows. It has gone down since the election, whereas it has gone up in many other countries, but if we listened to the Labour party, it would go up again.
Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware of the increased need for food banks in constituencies such as mine, which has been brought about by his Government’s failed policies. Will he sign my petition calling for action so that no family in the United Kingdom will go hungry as a result of his policies? (144288)
I will certainly look at the hon. Gentleman’s petition, but let me point out first that the use of food banks increased tenfold under the last Labour Government and, secondly, that a very important change that we made—requested by the Trussell Trust, which does so much to promote the work of food banks—was allowing them to be advertised in jobcentres. The last Government did not do that, because they were worried about the PR. Well, we put people ahead of public relations.
This week, the generation who fought in the Arctic convoys and Bomber Command and who died in the second world war have finally been recognised. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right and proper for us to remember the 3,000 sailors and 55,000 members of Bomber Command who gave their lives for this country’s freedom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I am sure that there will be support throughout the House of Commons for all who took part in the Arctic convoys and all who served in Bomber Command.
It is not enough for us to have the excellent memorial to those who served in Bomber Command, in Green Park. It is right for us to have the medal for those who served in the Arctic convoys, and the clasp for those who served in Bomber Command. I have been stressing to Government colleagues how important it is for us to get on with handing out those medals and clasps as quickly as possible, because, tragically, we are losing more and more of the people who served all those years ago. They deserve their medals and their clasps, and I am proud that, under this Government, they will get them.
Q4. Mr and Mrs Goodwin live in the Caerphilly borough. They are both registered blind, and rely heavily on their guide dogs, family and neighbours. Life is not easy for them, but from 1 April it will become even more difficult, because they will have to pay the Government’s bedroom tax on the home in which they have lived for 26 years. What justification can there be for that?
I will look at any individual case, and the Department for Work and Pensions will look at any individual case, but may I first make the point that this is not a tax? A tax is when someone earns money, it is their money, and the Government take some of it away. Frankly, the Opposition have got to engage with the fact that housing benefit now accounts for £23 billion of Government spending. That is a 50% increase over the last decade. We also have to address the fact that we have 250,000 families in overcrowded accommodation and we have 1.8 million people waiting for a council house.
The right hon. Gentleman is shouting “Shameful”, but let him listen to what Labour’s Housing Minister in the last Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), said:
“We have reiterated time and again in this Committee the need to ensure that houses that are too large for people’s current needs are allocated accordingly.”––[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2008; c. 697.]
That is what Labour said in Government. Now that it is in opposition, all we get is rank opportunism and irresponsibility.
Unemployment in Yorkshire is at its lowest level in two years, businesses in Yorkshire have full order books, and the head of the CBI has said that the Yorkshire economy is “turning a corner”. Will the Prime Minister therefore ignore the poor advice from the Labour party?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. The British economy has been through difficult times, not least because we are recovering from a massive boom and bust, a massive banking bust and the deepest recession since the 1930s, but if we look at what is happening in terms of employment and new business creation, we see an economy that is rebalancing, and we need to encourage that rebalancing and that business growth.
Q5. The Prime Minister has stood idly by while hard-pressed families in Salford and Eccles and across the country have faced soaring energy bills, which are now over £1,400 a year. Last October the Prime Minister promised to take action, and I think the whole country wants to know what he is going to do now to keep his promise to those families who are struggling to heat their homes. (144290)
Will the Prime Minister withdraw the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) Regulations 2013, which seem to contradict assurances given in the other place that this coalition Government will not privatise our NHS?
I urge my hon. Friend to look very closely at those regulations, because he will find that they are absolutely in line with the principles that the last Government put in place, and withdrawing them would actually lead to more competition in the NHS, rather than managed competition, managed by Monitor. I therefore think what my hon. Friend wants us to do would achieve the exact opposite of what he seeks.
Q6. The Energy Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Committee on Climate Change, the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change and a group of over 35 businesses, non-governmental organisations and faith groups are among those in this country who back the inclusion in the Energy Bill of a target to decarbonise the power sector by 2030. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government have failed to include such a target in the Bill? (144291)
In 2008 Labour commissioned three reports on the state of the NHS, to celebrate the health service’s 60th birthday party. We now know those reports were damning and raised issues such as there being a dangerous target culture, which was also raised by Francis five years later. We also know those reports were suppressed by the Labour Government. Had they not been suppressed, thousands of lives could possibly have been saved. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for an investigation into who was responsible for suppressing those reports?
I note what my hon. Friend has said, and I will look carefully at the issue she raises. The whole point about the Francis report is that we should use this as an opportunity to say, “Yes, of course we support the NHS and its founding principles, but not everything in the NHS is right.” Where there is bad practice and where things are going wrong, we need to shine a very bright light on it and make sure not only that we deal with it but that we hold people to account.
Q7. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) on the new regulations laid on 13 February, the Government gave categorical assurances that GP commissioners would not be forced to put health services out to competitive tendering, but the regulations go completely against that. What is the Prime Minister’s excuse for this? (144292)
GP commissioners are not forced to put services out to competitive tender. We have GP commissioners, and the point is that it is going to be doctors making the decisions about whether they want to expand choice and diversity in the NHS. What is the hon. Lady worried about? What is the Labour party worried about? Is it not the case that lots of voluntary bodies, charities, the hospice movement, organisations like Mind and Whizz-Kidz in Tower Hamlets, which provides an amazing service for children with wheelchairs, are already involved? What are we frightened of in allowing doctors to say, “Let us have some diversity, let us have some choice and let us make sure we are on the side of patients”?
Two and a half years ago, nine-year-old Cerys Potter from the Vale of Glamorgan became the ninth person to die in an incident while on a rafting exercise on the Dalaman river. There appears to have been a blatant disregard of common sense and health and safety standards. Cerys’s parents have campaigned tirelessly for a criminal investigation and improved standards, and have even funded witnesses to travel to the Turkish courts, but their efforts have been frustrated, for what appear to be bureaucratic reasons. Will the Prime Minister work with the Turkish authorities to gain justice and to help to warn people of the risks of white-water rafting in Turkey?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this tragic case of a nine-year-old constituent of his, Cerys Potter, who died in 2010 in Turkey. I want to send my sincere condolences to the family in these terrible circumstances. I know that he has been speaking to the Minister for Europe about this case, and that our embassy in Turkey is monitoring the case and can again approach the Turkish authorities and ask them to keep the Potter family fully informed of any progress. I am sure that the Foreign Office will have listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend has said today, standing up for this family’s interests.
Q8. A vulnerable constituent of mine is near pension age and has lived in the same house his whole life. His parents have now died and he is willing to be re-housed but cannot find an alternative. He now faces homelessness because he simply cannot afford the Government’s bedroom tax. Can the Prime Minister explain why he has prioritised a tax cut for millionaires while devastating the lives of vulnerable people? (144293)
The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that 250,000 families live in overcrowded accommodation and 386,000 people live in under-occupied homes. There are 1.8 million people who would love to have a council house but cannot get one. Of course we need to build more social homes, and we are doing exactly that, but in the meantime we should do everything we can to make sure those homes are used in the most efficient and fair way. That is what our changes will help to achieve and that is why they deserve our support.
We were all hugely inspired by the wonderful Paralympic games in London last year, which were a triumph not only for sport but for perceptions of disability. Will the Prime Minister welcome the “Generation Inspired?” report, which is going to be presented today to No. 10 Downing street by Hannah Cockroft MBE, as a great opportunity to use the games legacy to improve the lives of young disabled people?
I will certainly welcome the report that my hon. Friend mentions. I thought that the Paralympic games were an absolute triumph for Britain in the way they were put on and in the way the auditoriums and stadiums were full for almost every event. I thought that was a great testament to the generosity of the people of this country and their enthusiasm for Paralympic sport. The most important thing is the change in perception about what disabled people are capable of—that is a real gift and it is something we should encourage.
As the hon. Lady knows, as part of this measure there is a £50 million fund to support people directly. We have addressed specifically the point about armed forces families, and when people leave the home they will be more than compensated for any costs under the under-occupancy rules. I come back to the bigger picture: housing benefit is up 50% in real terms and now accounts for £23 billion of public spending. If the Opposition come to the Chamber week after week and say no to the benefit cap, no to a cap on housing benefit, no to restricting the growth of benefits and no to our under-occupancy measures, people will simply not believe that they have any plans whatsoever to deal with our deficit. You know what? They would be right.
The education reforms pursued by the Government have been embraced by schools in Bedfordshire, not least, excitingly, by Tony Withell and his great staff at Wootton upper school in pursuit of a science, technology, engineering and maths academy. This week, however, there has been a blip. Fernwood school in Woburn Sands was offered free school status 14 months ago as part of the Barnfield Federation, but last week that offer was removed without the school knowing why. Will the Prime Minister use his offices to implore the Department for Education to let me know the reason as soon as possible, as there are 110 very agitated parents and I need to help them frame an appeal?
I would join in that strong support for the free schools movement. It is a remarkable advance, and within just two and a half years we now have 101 free schools open and many more in the pipeline. I know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary was listening very carefully to what was said about that specific proposal. It is obviously important that we vet proposals to ensure that they are strong educationally, that they have parental support and that they will raise standards in the local area, but I strongly support the free schools movement and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be in touch.
Q10. My local authority has done some pioneering work over the years on improving public health and has recently asked adults to refrain from smoking in children’s play areas. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, with his own Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who has a private Member’s Bill on the issue, that we should go a significant step further and introduce a ban on smoking when children are present in vehicles? (144295)
We should look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman and others have said. We are looking across the piece at all the issues, including whether we should follow the Australians with the ban on packaging and what more we can to do to restrict smoking in public places. There has been a real health advance from some of the measures that have been taken. We must consider each one and work out whether there is a real public health benefit, but he makes a good point.
It is 22 years since the landmark Medical Research Council report made a direct link between folic acid use by childbearing women and the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Scores of countries have fortified their basic food stuffs, but the policy in this country is mired in bureaucracy between the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and others. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that he will do everything he can to unblock the logjam to prevent the entirely preventable conditions of hydrocephalus and spina bifida?
I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend has said. It is certainly true that the levels of conditions such as spina bifida have come down and that folic acid has an important role to play. I shall look at the specific points he makes and the bureaucratic problem he identifies and perhaps get the Department of Health to write to him about it.
Q11. With respect, I make no apology for returning to an issue that my colleagues have raised. A letter from my constituent reads:“I am disabled, wheelchair dependent; suffer from brittle bones, require day and night assistance from Social Services and therefore I need a spare room on health grounds. I feel suicidal about this bedroom tax.” Will the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, agree to put the needs of disabled people first and revisit what is turning out to be a disastrous policy for hundreds of thousands of disabled people and their families? (144296)
This Government always put disabled people first; that is why we have protected disabled people’s benefits. On the specific issue the right hon. Gentleman raises, there is a £50 million fund to support people who are affected by the under-occupancy measure. Disabled adults will have access—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not want hear it, but this directly answers the point. Disabled adults will have access to the discretionary housing payment scheme and it will remain for local authorities, including the right hon. Gentleman’s, to assess the individual circumstances. It is worth making the point again that there is a £23 billion budget, which has increased by 50% over the past decade. We have to do something about the growth in the housing benefit bill, but all we hear is irresponsibility from the Opposition.
Q12. Who would have thought, when some of us voted for just a common market all those years ago, that the EU would now be interfering potentially in what benefits we should pay to Romanians and Bulgarians before they have made any contribution to our society? Is it any wonder that people feel disillusioned and powerless? Is not the good news this: who is more likely to vote to give people a genuine choice in a referendum—a Liberal or a Conservative MP for Eastleigh? (144297)
I am delighted that my hon. Friend managed to slip that point in at the end. I urge any hon. Friends who are not there already to make their way to Eastleigh this afternoon and support Maria Hutchings in the by-election campaign.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to look through every aspect of how we welcome people to our country, because while we must be fair, we must not be a soft touch. I am making sure that we look at our health service, housing, benefits, legal aid and everything else, so that we have proper and tough controls on people who want to come and live here.
Q13. The Treasury was required to approve the settlement made with the dismissed former chief executive of my local hospitals trust in February last year. If the Prime Minister believes in openness in the NHS, why have his Government allowed the size of the pay-off to be kept secret? (144298)
I will look very closely at the case the hon. Gentleman raises. I know there have been particular issues around foundation trusts in the area he represents, and I will make sure that the Health Secretary looks into the matter and writes to him about it.
Q14. Recently, large numbers of my constituents have taken a great interest in political campaigning in the neighbouring county. My belief is that it is always best when local people have a strong independent voice, particularly if they are in favour of controlling immigration, making welfare fairer and an in/out referendum. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the people of Eastleigh would be well advised to vote for Maria Hutchings tomorrow? (144299)
Thank you very much for that, Mr Speaker.
Perhaps we should end Prime Minister’s Questions on a similar note to that we began it with, by recognising the appalling views of the Labour candidate in Eastleigh. About the Falklands war—one of the proudest moments in this country’s recent history—he said:
“I settled on the…convoluted position of wanting Great Britain to lose a war for the good of Great Britain”.
This candidate, endorsed by the leader of the Labour party, shows a shocking lack of patriotism and national pride.
The top rate of tax under this Government will be higher than in any year under his party’s Government. That is the change that we are bringing about. When they introduced the 50p rate, they lost £7 billion in tax revenue. They are not only socialists but incompetent socialists to boot.