Skip to main content

Prime Minister

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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

We all know that the Prime Minister believes there is no alternative to his double-dip, his double-debt or his loss of the triple A credit rating, but is he aware that his Back Benchers and some of his Cabinet believe there is an alternative to him?

What this Government are delivering are 1 million private sector jobs and the fastest rate of new business creation in this country’s history. We have paid down the deficit by 25% and have cut immigration by a third. We have a long, hard road to travel, but we are going in the right direction.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will wish to add his condolences to the family and friends of Christina Edkins, who was murdered on a bus to school in my constituency last Thursday morning.

The Government have rightly introduced minimum custodial sentences for people convicted of threatening someone with a knife, but does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to introduce a legal assumption that people carrying a knife intend to use it and should attract a prison sentence, so that we can redouble our efforts to rid our communities of the scourge of knives?

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House and, indeed, the whole country on the absolute revulsion at this horrific crime. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to Christina Edkins’s family.

We take knife crime extremely seriously, which is why, as my hon. Friend has said, we changed the law so that any adult who commits a crime with a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and for a serious offence they should expect a very log sentence. I will happily look at what my hon. Friend suggests. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is currently reviewing the powers available to the courts to deal with knife possession and will bring forward proposals in due course.

In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, is there anything the Prime Minister could organise in a brewery?

I would like to organise a party in the brewery in my constituency, to which the right hon. Gentleman would be very welcome, to celebrate that the shadow Chancellor should stay for a very long time on the Front Bench.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously could not tell us about his policy on minimum unit pricing for alcohol. The reality is that he has been overruled by the Home Secretary on that one.

Let us turn to another thing that the Prime Minister has said that we cannot trust. In his speech last Thursday, he said that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility is

“absolutely clear that the deficit reduction plan is not responsible”

for low growth. That is not what the OBR says. Will he acknowledge that today?

Just returning to the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier question, the interesting thing—[Interruption.] I will answer his question. The interesting thing about British politics right now is that I have the top team that I want and he has the top team that I want too. Long may they continue.

The point of the Office for Budget Responsibility is that it is independent. Everyone should accept everything that it says, and I do. We should look at what it says about why growth has turned out to be lower than it forecast. It said that

“we concluded from an examination of the…data that the impact of external inflation shocks, deteriorating export markets, and financial sector and eurozone difficulties were more likely explanations.”

To be fair to the shadow Chancellor, his own press release says:

“The OBR says they are yet to be persuaded”

by the case that he makes. Given that his plans are more spending, more borrowing and more debt, the country will never be persuaded.

The Prime Minister is clearly living in a fantasy land. He wants us to believe that the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility wrote him an open letter the day after his speech because he enjoyed it so much and agreed with it so much. Actually, what he said in the letter was:

“we believe that fiscal consolidation measures have reduced economic growth over the past couple of years”.

Yesterday, we learned that industrial production is at its lowest level for 20 years. That sets alarm bells ringing for everyone else in this country; why does it not for the Prime Minister?

The first point is that manufacturing declined as a share of our GDP faster under the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member than at any time since the industrial revolution. That is what happened: the decimation of manufacturing industry under 10 years of a Labour Government. He quotes from the Office for Budget Responsibility and I accept everything that it says, but let me quote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It says that borrowing under Labour would be £200 billion higher. Does he accept that forecast?

It is good to see, for a second week running, that the right hon. Gentleman is getting into practice for Opposition. He had nothing to say about industrial production, but his own Business Secretary—the guy who is supposed to be in charge of these issues—is going around telling anyone who will listen that the plan is not working. He says that

“we are now in a position where the economy is not growing in the way it had been expected.”

He goes on:

“We don’t want to be Japan with a decade of no growth.”

When the Prime Minister’s own Business Secretary calls for him to change course, is he speaking for the Government?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in industrial production. We are now producing more motor cars in this country than at any time in our history. Exports of goods to all the key markets, such as India, China, Russia and Brazil, are increasing very rapidly. None of those things happened under a Labour Government when they trashed our economy, racked up debts and nearly bankrupted the country.

On capital spending, I think that we should spend more money on capital. That is why we are spending £10 billion more than was in the plans of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member. We should be using the strength of the Government balance sheet to encourage private sector capital. That is why, for the first time in its history, the Treasury is providing those guarantees. The fact is that he wrecked the economy and put in place plans for capital cuts, and we are investing in the country’s infrastructure.

Never mind more car production, it is “Taxi for Cameron” after that answer.

Things are so bad that the Government sent out Baroness Warsi at the weekend to say that she had “full confidence” in the Prime Minister and that he had support from

“large parts of his party.”

Maybe he even has the support of large parts of his Cabinet, I am not sure. Just a week from the Budget, the Home Secretary goes out making speeches about the economy—I think the part-time Chancellor should concentrate on the Budget—then she gets told off by the Children’s Secretary, who is hiding down there by the Chair, for jockeying for position. Is not the truth that it is not just the country that has lost confidence in the Chancellor and his economic plan but the whole Cabinet?

The weakness in the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is that my party has unanimous support for his leadership, as long as he keeps the shadow Chancellor there. I have to say—[Interruption.]

Order. It is very discourteous for Members to gesticulate so aggressively at the Prime Minister. Let us hear his answer.

What is remarkable, yet again, is this—where is the argument on welfare? He has got no argument on welfare. Where is the argument on the deficit? He has got nothing to say about the deficit. Where are his plans for getting the economy moving? He has got nothing to say. That is what is happening under his leadership—absolutely nothing apart from debt, debt and more debt.

The Prime Minister is absolutely hopeless, and today’s exchanges have shown it. A week out from the Budget, they have an economic policy that is failing, a Prime Minister who makes it up as he goes along and a Government who are falling apart, and all the time it is the country that is paying the price.

Six questions, and not a single positive suggestion for how to get on top of the deficit that the right hon. Gentleman left, not a single suggestion for how to deal with the massive welfare bills that we were left, and not a single suggestion for how to improve standards in our schools. But I do know what he has been doing over these last months, because I have been passed—[Interruption.]

And it is a particularly interesting one, because I have here a copy of the right hon. Gentleman’s diary and I know what he has been up to. These are the dinners that he has held to raise money from the trade unions in the last few weeks: the GMB, USDAW, ASLEF, the TSSA, UCATT—£2.7 million, dinosaur after dinosaur, dinner after dinner. They pay the money, they get the policies, but the country would end up paying the price.

Q2. It is national apprenticeship week. More than 1,500 businesses in Kirklees are now offering apprenticeships, and we are becoming an official apprenticeship hub. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising all the businesses in my area that are taking on apprentices, Kirklees college under the leadership of Peter McCann, which is offering vocational training, and all the great young people who are going to see a positive future for our great nation? (147453)

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in what he says about national apprenticeship week. It is an important moment for our country, because over the past two and a half years we have seen 1 million people start apprenticeships, and the run rate is at more than half a million a year. That is very important for our country, and what I want to see is a new norm where we recognise that people who leave school should either be going to university or taking part in an apprenticeship. That is the agenda and the ambition that we should set for young people and our country.

Q3. Is it not the case that a couple who have separated could still live in the same home without bedroom tax rules applying? Given that glaring loophole discouraging marriage, should not the Prime Minister’s next U-turn be axing this cruel and shambolic tax altogether? (147454)

First of all, let me say once again that only the Labour party could call welfare reform a tax. A tax is when you earn money and the Government take away some of your money. This is a basic issue of fairness. There is not a spare room subsidy for people in private rented accommodation in receipt of housing benefit, so we should ask why there is a spare room subsidy for people living in council houses and getting housing benefit. It is a basic issue of fairness and this Government are putting it right.

Q4. Glossop Cartons in my constituency has just invested significantly in placing the world’s first order for the Euclid digital cutting and creasing machine. Tomorrow, Nestlé opens its brand new, state-of-the-art bottling plant for the famous Buxton water, also in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those significant investments show that this Government are making Britain well equipped to win the global race? (147455)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do see investment by large multinational companies, such as Nestlé, which now recognise that we have one of the most competitive tax systems anywhere in the world. KPMG recently reported that in just two years we have gone from having one of the least competitive corporate tax systems in the world, to having one of the most competitive. What has changed is the arrival of this Chancellor and this Government who have put right the mess made by the Labour party.

Millennium Development Goals

Q5. What progress has been made by the high-level panel on the development of priorities for the millennium development goals after 2015. (147456)

I am proud to be leading the United Nations high-level panel on what should replace the millennium development goals when they expire in 2015. In my view, we should put the strongest possible emphasis on attempting to banish extreme poverty from the world, and that focus on extreme poverty should come first and foremost. I also hope that, in replacing and enhancing the millennium development goals, we can for the first time look at what I call the golden thread of things that help people and countries out of poverty, which includes good government, lack of corruption, the presence of law and order, justice and the rule of law. Those things can make a real difference.

In view of proceedings so far I did not expect to hear myself saying this, but I commend the Prime Minister on the work he is doing on that panel and in seeking to hold to the international development budget. At a moment when we are asking people to give generously through Comic Relief this weekend, will he identify one group of people who were not included in the millennium development goals and who are often excluded from society and education—those severely disabled young people who face grinding poverty, ill health and the disadvantage of those disabilities? Will the Prime Minister give priority to them in developments over the next two years?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about helping disabled people across the world, and we should make sure that the framework we look at properly includes those people. On the wider issue of our aid budget, I know it is contentious and I know it is difficult, but I believe we should not break a promise that we made to the poorest people in our world. To those who have their doubts I say that of course there is a strong moral case for our aid budget, but there is also a national security case. It is remarkable that the broken countries—countries affected by conflict—have not met one single millennium development goal among them. By helping to mend those countries, often through security work as well as aid work, we can help the poorest in our world.

Engagements

Q6. In 1997 there were no excess deaths in the mortality data at Mid Staffordshire hospital, but as early as 2002 there were 120 excess deaths. That figure rose year on year, yet Labour Health Secretary after Labour Health Secretary did nothing apart from award the trust foundation status in 2009. In total, 1,197 excess deaths occurred, some of which were patients who died in their own faeces. Does the Prime Minister believe that the Mid Staffordshire scandal underlines the fact that Labour’s supposed claim to be the party of the NHS is the greatest lie in British politics— (147457)

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Members may cheer, but first I am afraid the question was too long, and secondly I ask the Prime Minister to bear in mind what is his responsibility and what is not, in a very brief answer, and then we can move on.

My responsibility is to respond properly to the Francis report, and I commend Francis for what he did. It is important to remember that it is this Government who set up a proper, independent inquiry into the disgraces that happened at Mid Staffs. Everyone has to learn their lessons from what went wrong, including Ministers in the previous Government, but I think we should listen to Francis when he says that we should not seek scapegoats. What we need to do, right across politics, the House and our country, is end any culture of complacency. I love our NHS; there are some fantastic parts to our NHS, but in too many parts we do see—as my hon. Friend said—very bad figures and we need to deal with them.

Q7. In a few weeks we will be 15 years on since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and although devolution is in place, significant challenges remain in delivering on the agreement’s full potential and the commitments contained within it to build reconciliation, unequivocal support for the rule of law, and to deal comprehensively with the past and its legacy. Does the Prime Minister agree that there must be renewed urgency in progressing those outstanding issues, and will he outline, in the light of this week’s positive engagement with the Irish Taoiseach, the rule he sees for both Governments as joint custodians of the agreement in moving that forward? (147458)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her very constructive work in Northern Ireland. I know that the whole House wants to wish her well with the difficulties that she and her office have faced in recent weeks.

I think there is of course a responsibility for the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to work together, and we had a very good set of meetings this week; but the greatest possible responsibility lies with the devolved institutions. It is great that they are working and that the agreement has bedded down, but I would appeal to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all those involved in the Assembly to put away the conflicts of the past, work on a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland, start to take down the segregation, the peace walls and the things that take people apart in Northern Ireland, find the savings from those things and invest in a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Ministerial Visits

I have no immediate—sorry. I look forward to visiting Mid Derbyshire soon. I very much enjoyed my recent visit to Derbyshire, when I went to the Toyota factory, in which many of my hon. Friend’s constituents work, and I am sure I will be back there soon.

I know that my right hon. Friend is quite rightly taking a proactive role in leading trade missions to India and other countries. Does he agree that small manufacturing companies such as those based in Mid Derbyshire should also be given the chance to play their part in driving Britain’s exports to emerging markets such as India, China and the rest?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have improved our performance in terms of exports and goods, as I said earlier, to these key emerging markets, but the real challenge is to get SMEs exporting. If we could increase the figure from what I think is one in five to one in four, we would wipe out our trade deficit and create many jobs and a lot of investment at the same time. I have led trade missions to every single G20 country, apart from Argentina, and I look forward to doing more in the future. I will certainly include SMEs, and perhaps some from my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Engagements

Q9. If the Prime Minister’s Government succeed in closing four A and E departments in west London, those departments will be replaced by privately owned clinics and out-of-hours services. Some of those leading the closure programme have already profited by up to £2.6 million each from their ownership of those primary care services. Does he think that personal financial gain should debar GPs and others from taking part in decisions on hospital closures? (147460)

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right in any part of his question. The first point I would make is that the NHS in north-west London is going to be getting £3.6 billion this year. That is £100 million more than the year before. Under this Government, we are increasing the investment. As for the changes he talks about, if they are referred to the Health Secretary, he will of course consider whether they are in the best interests of patients, and that is the right process to follow.

The Prime Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the strong contribution made to the British economy by the inbound tourism industry. Does he therefore share my concern, as expressed by the Tourism Alliance, that changes to visas are likely to suppress the number of visitors coming, particularly from Brazil? What can we do to ensure that the Border Agency does not become a growth suppressant to the UK?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the National Security Council met recently to consider some of these border issues and has decided not to put visas on to Brazilian nationals. We want to work with the Brazilians and ensure that we enhance border security; but, in defence of the Home Office and the UKBA, there have been great improvements in the time spent processing visas and we are looking at a number of steps to ensure that we attract tourists from the fastest-growing markets, including China and elsewhere.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister accept that families face a triple whammy in meeting the costs of child care? Places are plummeting, costs are going up and the average family has lost more than £1,500 a year in support. Therefore, does he also accept that any measure he may announce next week to help with the costs of child care will be small remedy for a crisis of his own making? (147461)

I do not accept what the hon. Lady says, because it is this Government who extended the number of hours to three and four-year-olds and introduced, for the first time, child care payments for vulnerable two-year-olds. We have also lifted 2 million people out of tax altogether. Someone on a minimum wage working full time has seen their income tax bill cut in half. I know that the hon. Lady wants to try to put people off a very major step forward—when we will be helping people who work hard, who want to do the right thing and who want child care for their children—but that is what we will be announcing, and I think it will be welcome.

Q11. Britain is in a global race not just with our traditional competitor economies but with countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Ahead of the Budget next week, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment he has made of where we would be likely to finish in that race if we abandoned our deficit reduction programme and relied on some magical faraway tree of money, as the Opposition recommend? (147462)

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. One of the most important reasons for continuing to get our deficit down is that it is absolutely essential to have the low interest rates that are essential for home owners and for businesses. If we listened to the Labour party and abandoned those plans, we would have more spending, more borrowing and more debt—exactly the things that got us into this mess in the first place.

The price of petrol and diesel at the pumps is set to rise to near record levels in the near future, and the resulting rise in the cost of living is causing real problems for our constituents. We know what the Government have already done, but will the Prime Minister reassure the House today that further action will be taken to cut the toxic fuel duty tax and bring petrol and diesel prices down, to help hard-pressed motorists, families and industry?

Of course I will listen carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman says, but petrol and diesel prices are 10p a litre lower than they would have been had we stuck to the absolutely toxic plans that were put in place by the Labour party. We have taken action, and we are doing everything we can with the cost of living. That is why we are legislating to get people on to the lowest gas or electricity tariff, why we have taken 2 million out of tax and why we have frozen the council tax; and I hope that we can do more to help people.

Q12. The Prime Minister is right: this Government do have a good record on fuel duty. We are paying 10p a litre less on the mainland and 15p a litre less on islands than under Labour, but the rising price of fuel in a widespread area such as Argyll and Bute is causing real problems, and I hope that there will be good news in the Budget. For a start, will the Chancellor be able to announce that the September fuel duty increase inherited from Labour will be cancelled? (147463)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about what the Government have already done on fuel duty. He omitted to say that we had also taken the step to help far-flung and island communities such as the one he represents with special conditions, to try to help with this major aspect. In many cases, people who live in his constituency do not have a choice but to use a car, and we have to respect that.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I will pay all of the taxes that I am meant to. [Interruption.] Let me just point out one small point. I had a letter this week which I thought people might enjoy. It is from Ed who lives in Camden. It says this: “I am a millionaire. I live in a house worth £2 million which I got through a combination of inheritance and property speculation. I am worried that if I sell my house and buy another one, I will have to pay the 7% stamp duty that the wicked Tories have introduced. Under Labour, we talked about fairness but we never made the rich pay more. What should a champagne socialist like me do?”

Q14. I know that the Prime Minister recently visited the ACE Centre in Oxford, and I am sure that he shares my view that it does a fantastic job helping young and disabled people to communicate more effectively using technical aids. What guarantees can he give that augmentative and assistive communication aids will be made available to more young people than is currently the case, so that everyone who could benefit from them is able to do so? (147465)

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The ACE centre, which was previously in Oxford and is now located in my constituency, has done incredible work for people with disabilities over many years. It is making the most of the extraordinary changes in technology. When I visited it recently, we looked at a whole raft of ways in which we could make sure that the NHS is making these things available to more people, and I am very committed to working with my hon. Friend and the ACE centre to make sure that that happens.

Q15. Prime Minister, you gave a promise to protect the defence budget in its entirety, but you did not. The Defence Secretary, who has left the Chamber, promised to balance the budget, but the National Audit Office said he failed. Prime Minister, will you now guarantee that there will be no— (147466)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here 16 years. He should not use the word “you” in the Chamber. I am sorry, but he knows the rules. Come on, quickly, finish the question.

The commitment I can give is that the £38 billion black hole that we inherited has been got rid of. Freezing the budget across this Parliament at £33 billion gives us the fourth largest defence budget in the world, and we are determined to use that money to ensure that we equip our forces with what they need for the future. That is in massive contrast to the record of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

Given the appalling nursing care standards revealed at Stafford and the Government’s welcome boost to apprenticeships across the professions, does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time to re-examine whether the nursing profession should remain all-degree or whether we should get back to training at patients’ bedsides?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not think we want a de-professionalisation of nursing—huge improvements have been made in the professional skills and training of nurses—but we have to get back to ensuring that patient care is at the heart of nursing. No one can be a good nurse without those things, so we need to return to such values.

Order. We must get out of this bad habit of Members using the word “you” in the Chamber. “You” refers to the Chair. Please address the House through the Chair.

Mr Speaker, I do not expect the Prime Minister to know the full details, or indeed to be directly responsible, but against the background of “We’re all in this together”, does he think it fair that the lowest-paid workers in this place have been offered a 1% increase, while senior managers have been offered 5%?

That is a matter for the House authorities, not for me. The point I would make, however, is that we have frozen public sector pay at 1%, which we think is fair. The extraordinary thing about Labour’s position is that it supports that 1% increase for public sector workers, but thinks that people on welfare should be getting more than 1%. That seems to be an extraordinary set of priorities.

Whenever alcohol is too cheap, more people die. I know the Prime Minister wants to reduce avoidable early mortality and cut violent crime. Will he meet me so that I can explain to him the evidence base behind minimum pricing and how abandoning this policy would critically undermine the future efforts of those who want to do something about this?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. We have had many discussions about this issue over the past two and a half years. There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores, and I am determined to deal with it. We have published proposals, and are considering the results of the consultation on them, but we must be in no doubt that we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. It has got to change.

I am sure the Prime Minister is aware of the Visteon pension action group, whose members we are meeting outside at 12.30 today. We would like to invite him to join a cross-party group of MPs who will be meeting them on this important date—the fourth anniversary of their campaign.

I shall consider the hon. Lady’s remarks carefully. I have a meeting almost straight after Prime Minister’s questions with the leader of her party to discuss the Leveson proposals, and it might not be possible to rearrange my diary, but may I say how important it is that we support pensioners and achieve proper dignity for people in old age?

Does the Prime Minister agree that the results in Eastleigh, where Labour failed to gain anything at all, show that the Leader of the Opposition’s policies are completely without support in the country?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House of Commons, and if he asks questions like that, I think he will get along just fine.