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Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is totally unacceptable for Members or prospective Members of this House to say anything that supports terrorism?

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.

Three years ago, the Prime Minister said that

“the first priority of any government has got to be keeping UK plc’s credit rating. That’s got to come first. It’s the only responsible thing to do.”

How is that going?

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”,

and his

“credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches”.

That is not Conservative central office saying it, but the New Statesman.

With the greatest respect to the New Statesman, the Prime Minister is scraping the barrel by quoting that. All we have heard today—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Zahawi, you are an excitable fellow; this is not very statesmanlike. Calm yourself; you will get better over time.

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.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that since—in common with the United States and Japan—we lost our triple A status, the cost of our international borrowing has actually fallen?

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)

We are legislating to make sure that energy companies put people on the lowest tariffs. When that Bill comes before the House of Commons, I hope that the right hon. Lady will vote for it.

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)

We do not believe it makes sense to set a target range for 2030 in advance of setting the fifth carbon budget, which covers the period 2028 to 2032. We will be taking a power in the Energy Bill, but setting it in advance would not make sense.

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.

Q9. The Prime Minister supports an exemption to the bedroom tax for the families of prisoners but not for people with cancer, for people with disabilities, for foster parents or for armed forces families—why? (144294)

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)

I thank my hon. Friend for his hard work and for the ingenious way he managed to get that question in order—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should not keep yelling from a sedentary position “Sarah Palin”. She at least is not a candidate in the Eastleigh by-election.

If you have any luck in getting the hon. Member for Rhondda to shut up, Mr Speaker, do let us know how it is done.

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.

Q15. The Prime Minister has run away from the question whether he will personally benefit from the millionaires’ tax cut. It is a simple question: when the top rate of tax is cut from 50p to 45p, will he personally benefit? (144300)

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.