The Secretary of State was asked—
David Livingstone: Anniversary
The Scotland Office is working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the David Livingstone 200 partnership on the programme of celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dr David Livingstone. On 19 March, the Scotland Office hosted a reception at Dover House following the commemorative service at Westminster Abbey in the presence of President Joyce Banda of Malawi.
I am sure the whole House will be pleased to hear what the Scotland Office is doing. It is fitting, especially to those of us who well remember childhood trips to Blantyre, the birthplace of David Livingstone, that tribute should be paid to him here in Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although a minority of Scots want to put artificial barriers around Scotland, the vast majority of Scots believe in the pioneering, enterprising spirit of David Livingstone, and want Scotland to play its full part in the United Kingdom, and indeed in the world in general?
I place on record my thanks to the Scotland Office and the Foreign Office for ensuring that President Joyce Banda was able to visit Scotland, particularly Blantyre in my constituency, to mark the start of the celebrations. May I draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the wide range of events happening through the year, and encourage as many people as possible to come to Blantyre in my constituency and visit the centre there and take part in the celebrations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for noting the work the UK Government, and indeed the Scottish Government, have done on the matter. He, too, is to be commended for the part he has played in promoting the David Livingstone bicentenary. He is correct: there are a number of continuing events, and all those who wish to do so should take the opportunity to take part in them.
I very much welcome the various celebrations that the Minister has announced today. Does he agree that there could be no finer commemoration of that magnificent missionary, scientist, statesman and explorer than his gravestone in Westminster Abbey? It does not list any honours, or even his dates of birth and death or his parenthood; on a piece of Scottish granite, it simply says the magnificent words “David Livingstone.”
I presume that Dr Livingstone was a great educationalist, who believed in education. What has the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State done to set up the school-industry liaison committees that he promised me some months ago?
Order. That is very tangentially related to the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone. The hon. Gentleman should not speculate about what Dr Livingstone would have said, because the fact is that he did not—he was not in a position to do so and he cannot do so now. I think we had better move on. I call Iain Stewart.
Caledonian Sleeper Train
The UK Government provided £50 million to safeguard and improve the Caledonian sleeper service in 2011. Responsibility for taking the project forward is now with the Scottish Government. We look forward finally to seeing some progress.
I am pleased that the Government have invested in the future of the Caledonian sleeper, which is a vital transport link for business and tourism alike, but does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Scottish Government have not shown the same urgency on upgrading that vital link?
I agree with my hon. Friend. He might be aware that, since the spending review, the Scottish Government have received over £1 billion in additional funding for what they said were shovel-ready projects, but the only shovelling of which they seem capable is digging the sort of hole that we saw yesterday regarding the currency.
The Scottish National party Government have in fact invested £130 million in the sleeper service—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) wants to be quiet, he can be. The SNP Government understand the importance of linking mega-regions, which has been identified by Professor Richard Florida as a win-win for all concerned. In Spain, the linking of Seville to Madrid has benefited not only Seville as intended, but Madrid far more. With the sleeper service maintained to Inverness and Fort William, when will the UK Government ensure that there are high-speed links and landing slots at Heathrow to maintain full connectivity between mega-regions, because we want England, in particular, to keep pace with Scottish prosperity post independence?
Has my right hon. Friend considered that the sleeper service might be better served if there were electrification of the east coast main line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Coincidentally, that passes through my constituency, and the project would provide a better service for the stations of Ladybank, Cupar and Leuchars.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is rightly always keen to promote his constituency interests, but he will be aware that that was one of the many projects that the Scottish National party said in opposition it would deliver—yet it does not seem to be on the agenda any more.
Does the Minister accept that the Caledonian sleeper is a vital link between the Ministry of Defence in London and the shipyards on the Clyde? Does he accept that trade on the Caledonian sleeper will drastically reduce in the event that we have separation and the Clyde shipyards close?
What I accept is that if we were to have separation, there would be a great deal of uncertainty, and not just for the operators of the Caledonian sleeper service. As we saw yesterday, for example, those promoting independence have no idea what currency would be used in an independent Scotland, which will be a significant factor in creating additional uncertainty.
3. What recent discussions he has had with the organisers of the Ryder cup in Scotland regarding their voluntary charging policy. (150800)
I am very pleased that the Ryder cup is coming to Scotland in 2014. We will work with the Scottish Government and the organisers to make it a success.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that having to pay to volunteer is a contradiction in terms, and that that debars many people from participating in a sport such as golf? Will he make further representations to the Ryder cup’s organisers that they should follow the lead of Glasgow city council by creating genuine volunteers?
The Ryder cup is a unique golf tournament, because the competitors compete not for cash prizes but for the pride of representing their country or continent, so it is perverse that volunteers will be asked to pay to deliver their services. Will the Minister add that point to his representations when he meets the event’s organisers?
My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I are in regular contact with ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions on matters relating to welfare reform in Scotland.
We now know that more than 100,000 Scots will be affected by the Government’s bedroom tax, which is opposed by over 90% of Scottish MPs and has appalled civic Scotland. It is opposed in every locality in Scotland and there have been protests in Glasgow. Does the Secretary of State agree that the bedroom tax is quickly becoming his Government’s poll tax?
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, as he will not be surprised to hear. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have been going around Scotland talking to councils and groups that have an interest in the matter and are concerned about different aspects of implementation, and we will continue to do that. However, people are clear that we want to keep together within the United Kingdom the universal and shared values that created the welfare state and the NHS, rather than for Scotland to become an independent country.
A family in my constituency with children aged two, three, four and five who have been hit by the bedroom tax were yesterday advised by those on the Government Benches in the Finance Bill Committee to take in a lodger. Does the Secretary of State think that was good advice?
I obviously cannot comment on the constituency details that the hon. Lady has brought to the Floor of the House today or on the full extent of the exchange yesterday. As I said to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) a few moments ago, we need to look carefully at how the measure is implemented. I would be happy to hear further details from the hon. Lady on that case.
13. The Secretary of State will be aware that by far the largest single part of the welfare budget goes on pensions, including the state pension, pension credit and related pensioner benefits. What discussions has he had with the Scottish Government about how pensions would work in a separate Scotland? (150811)
The hon. Gentleman raises a hugely important issue which will be one of the big questions that we ask in Scotland as we build up to the referendum next year. The security and the scale of the United Kingdom allows us the solidarity of common provision across the United Kingdom, and we have the means to pay for that, even in difficult economic times, as we have had recently. We have not seen or heard anything from the Scottish National party or their supporters about how they would do that in an independent Scotland.
There is a link between welfare and the use of food banks, and I have raised the topic of food banks a number of times in this place through questions and petitions and directly with the Prime Minister, which have all seemed to go unanswered. The Secretary of State will have seen today’s report from the Trussell Trust revealing that the number of people using food banks in Scotland has increased from fewer than 5,000 last year to more than 14,000 this year. Can he tell the House why he is letting this happen?
My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have met people at food banks, and recently I met the executive chairman of the Trussell Trust. As the chief executive would point out, as I am sure he has to the hon. Gentleman, there is a range of complex reasons going back many years for why people need access to food banks. We continue to look at this very carefully. I do not want people to have to go to food banks to get support. I am happy to continue that dialogue with the hon. Gentleman.
7. What assessment he has made of the effect of Budget 2013 on Scotland. (150804)
The Budget will support businesses, create jobs and help households in Scotland. Against a challenging international economic backdrop, the Budget has set out a range of measures to build a stronger economy and a fairer society.
Ministers will be aware of a report published today by the Fawcett Society showing that three times as many women as men have suffered long-term unemployment in the past two and a half years. That is hardly surprising given the Budget decisions from which women have suffered the most. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it is tolerable for women to continue to bear the brunt of his Government’s failed economic policies?
I obviously do not accept the hon. Lady’s analysis, but I commend her for campaigning long and hard on that issue, at which we need to continue to look very hard. In the Budget we have introduced proposals on child care which take us much further than we have gone before. We are focusing on helping low-income families in Scotland by taking more than 200,000 Scots out of tax altogether and reducing the income tax bill for 2 million people in Scotland. We will continue to take a range of measures to make sure that we recover from the awful inheritance of her Government.
The unemployment figures in Scotland have not been helped by the devastating news of the closure of a number of open-cast coal sites in the area covered by my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). As 348 people have lost their jobs in our area, I am sure the Minister will want to do everything possible to ensure that a potential buyer is able to come in. In that context and in the context of discussions following the Budget, will he make representations about the track access charges and the increase due to come into effect in 2016, which might put Scottish companies in the coal sector at a disadvantage?
First, I join the hon. Lady in her concern about the future for the families affected by that hugely significant administration of Scottish Resources Group. She and others has been working tirelessly on the issue, and we will work with her and the Scottish Government to see what we can do to support the families and communities affected. She raises the issue of track access, which I will be happy to discuss with her further.
I congratulate the Government on cancelling Labour’s planned fuel duty increase and introducing an island fuel duty discount in the Budget, which means that fuel duty on the mainland will be 13p a litre cheaper than it would be under Labour and 18p a litre cheaper on the islands. A Labour Government would have destroyed the Argyll and Bute economy. I congratulate the Government on supporting the rural economy, unlike the Labour party, which did not care and wanted to increase fuel duty by 18p a litre. [Interruption.]
Just in case Labour Members did not hear that, I repeat that the measures taken by our Government have saved remote island communities, such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, 18p a litre, and they have saved those on the mainland 13p a litre. That is a huge help to hard-pressed families the length and breadth of the country.
Many jobs in Scotland, especially in north-east Scotland, depend on investment in the oil and gas industry. Does the Secretary of State recognise the important role that the Budget has played in delivering tax certainty on decommissioning to unlock that vital investment?
My hon. Friend always makes a powerful case for the oil and gas industry, as does my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce). It is important to recognise their input in the decisions about decommissioning, which give certainty and good news for investment, not only now but for decades to come.
The International Monetary Fund has cut the UK growth forecast and questioned the Government’s austerity programme, and the UK’s credit rating has been downgraded yet again. Why should anyone believe a word that the Chancellor or the Financial Secretary to the Treasury say on the Budget, the currency, or for that matter anything else?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that nobody will be listening to him or his party when it comes to currency. I think that everybody recognises that the best deal for Scotland is to stay part of the United Kingdom and to continue to share the currency, unlike his party, which keeps changing its mind about what might be the best option for Scotland. We know already what is best for Scotland: staying part of the UK.
Everybody watching will have noted that the Secretary of State did not answer the question. The UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, and today we learnt that the number of people using food banks has doubled. Citizens Advice Scotland has said that that increase illustrates “the devastating impact” of his Government’s policy. Why should people in Scotland put up with a Government they did not elect making those damaging decisions?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, which of course assumes that everything would be rosy in an independent Scotland, despite the hard realities we keep confronting him with. We are absolutely determined to get the economy on a strong footing, invest in our future and support hard-pressed families. That is what the Budget was all about.
I am interested to hear that the hon. Lady did not welcome the reduction in unemployment announced last week. The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Scotland is below 200,000 and the unemployment rate is 7.3%, which is below the rate for the UK as a whole. We have some very long-term, deep-seated problems that we inherited from her Government that we continue to tackle. We have credible plans; where are hers?
Shockingly, the number of people in Scotland who have been out of work for two years has increased by 517% during the Secretary of State’s time in office, which is far worse than across the UK as a whole. Is there anything specific he can offer those people out of work long term in Scotland, or is he just content to be a Tory puppet repeating their lines on the Budget?
The hon. Lady knows, because she and I visited the Shettleston jobcentre in her constituency, that we are working hard to ensure that we provide support for people in very difficult circumstances in Scotland. She picks just one statistic, which is important, and ignores all the rest. Some 70,000 more people are in employment in Scotland over the past three years. We are determined to ensure that we get the economy back from the brink, where her party left it three years ago. We continue to work hard to do that.
On 15 October 2012, the UK and Scottish Governments signed an agreement to ensure that a legal, fair and decisive referendum on Scotland’s future can take place. It is for the Scottish Parliament to determine the franchise for the referendum.
Would it not be completely outrageous were the Scottish Parliament to decide to use the local election franchise and therefore allow the possibility of the future constitutional make-up of the United Kingdom to be decided by some several hundred thousand non-UK EU nationals?
This is an important matter. A service declaration is already in place which allows armed forces personnel with a link to Scotland to register at an address in Scotland. It will be for the Scottish Parliament, if it so chooses, to put additional measures in place.
Does the Minister agree that another difficulty with regard to the people who will be able to vote in this election is the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds? Has he had any discussions with the Scottish Government to see whether they have found a solution to the severe problems that that will cause, including putting 14 and 15-year-olds on the register?
I would be very happy to visit Corby, where, as a Scot, I understand I would feel very much at home, with plentiful supplies of the Daily Record, Irn-Bru and my favourite Scotch pies.
I thank the Minister for his reply and will take him up on his offer. Corby people are very proud of their Scottish connections, but they are worried that, if the break up of the Union goes through, they will no longer be able to move or trade freely or even to use the same currency. Will the Minister ensure that my constituents’ voices are heard?
Common Agricultural Policy
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions on CAP reform with a range of industry stakeholders in Scotland. On 27 March, we facilitated a meeting between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the National Farmers Union Scotland on CAP reform-related issues. The UK Government are pressing hard for a new CAP that takes account of the range of interests across the UK, including in Scotland.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 April. (150813)
Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Jonathan Webb of 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who died in Afghanistan on Tuesday 26 March. He was described as
“an outstanding professional; bright, engaging and hugely talented.”
We must pay tribute to his heroic service to our country.
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.
The whole House will wish to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Webb. We pass on our deepest condolences to his family and friends.
Labour market statistics show that, even after the tax changes, real earnings have dropped by £1,700 since the last general election. Knowing that hard-working families across our country are being hit hard in their pockets, does the Prime Minister want to show any remorse, or indeed apologise, for giving millionaires, including himself, a tax cut?
The people who should be apologising are those in the party that created the mess in the first place. We will ask the richest in our country to pay more in every year of this Parliament than they paid in any year of the last Parliament. That is the truth.
My mother, Maud, was very sad about the death of Baroness Thatcher, but she was delighted that my right hon. Friend committed our party to a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. Given that my mother will be 101 next Thursday, she wondered whether the referendum could be brought forward.
First, I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Jonathan Webb of 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and the thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.
People are hearing today about patients waiting on trolleys in A and E, in some cases for more than 12 hours. We have even heard of one hospital pitching a treatment tent outside its premises. What does the Prime Minister have to say to those patients who are waiting hour upon hour in A and E?
First of all, this Government believe in our NHS and are expanding funding in our NHS. We will not take the advice of the Labour party, which thought that the increases in spending on the NHS were irresponsible. That is its view. We will go on investing in our NHS. With 1 million extra patients visiting A and E every year, we need to continue hitting the important targets that we have so that people are treated promptly.
The Prime Minister obviously does not realise that he is singularly failing to meet the targets that he has set himself. The number of people waiting more than four hours in A and E is nearly three times higher than when he came to office. First he downgraded the A and E target. Now he is not even hitting it. As he approaches his third anniversary as Prime Minister, he needs to explain why an A and E crisis is happening on his watch.
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. For the whole of last year, we met the target for A and E attendance. That is the fact. The number of occasions on which it was breached in the last year— 15 times—is lower than the 23 times that it was breached when he was in power in 2008. Those are the facts.
The other point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that there is one part of the country where Labour has been in charge of the NHS for the past three years. That is in Wales, where no A and E target has been hit since 2009. Perhaps he will apologise for that.
Let me give the Prime Minister the figures. In 2009-10, 340,000 people waited longer than four hours in A and E. Last year, it was 888,000 people. If he wants to talk about records, the Labour Government left office with higher patient satisfaction than ever before in the NHS, lower waiting lists than ever before in the NHS and more doctors and nurses than ever before in the NHS.
Part of the problem is that the Prime Minister’s replacement for the NHS Direct service is in total chaos. He now has a patchwork, fragmented service in which, over Easter, 40% of calls were abandoned because they were not answered. What is he going to do about it?
If anyone wants a reminder of Labour’s record on the NHS, they only have to read the report into the Stafford hospital.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the number of people waiting a long time for NHS operations. That number has come down since this Government came to office. The fact that he cannot ignore is that since this Government came to office, there are 1 million more people walking into A and E and half a million more people having in-patient treatments. The fact is that waiting times are stable or down, waiting lists are down and the NHS is performing better under this Government than it ever did under Labour.
Let me just say that what happened at Stafford was terrible, and both of us talked about that on the day, but what a disgraceful slur on the transformation of the NHS that took place after 1997 and the doctors and nurses who made that happen.
The main reason why the Prime Minister is failing to meet his A and E target month after month is that he decided to take £3 billion away from the front line in a top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for. As a result, there are 4,500 fewer nurses than when he came to power. Can he explain how it is helping care in the NHS to be giving nurses their P45s?
First of all, the right hon. Gentleman is clearly in complete denial about what happened to the NHS under Labour. Let me just remind him what his spending plans are. His shadow Health Secretary was asked,
“does he stand by his comment that it is irresponsible to increase NHS spending?”—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 332.]
He said, “Yes, I do.” That is Labour’s official policy—to cut spending on the NHS, just like it is cutting spending on the NHS in Wales, where waiting times are up, waiting lists are up and quality is down. That is what is happening in the NHS under Labour.
The Leader of the Opposition also mentions what we have done in terms of reorganisation. That reorganisation will see £4.5 billion extra put into the front line compared with the cuts from Labour.
Let me just say to the Prime Minister that he is the guy who cut NHS spending when he came into office and was told off by the head of the UK Statistics Authority for not being straight with people about it.
A and E is the barometer of the NHS, and this Prime Minister might be totally out of touch, but that barometer is telling us that it is a system in distress. According to the Care Quality Commission, one in 10 hospitals do not have adequate staffing levels, and during the winter every hospital was at some point operating beyond the recommended safe level of bed occupancy. Hospitals are full to bursting. He is the Prime Minister. What is he going to do about it?
The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is to cut NHS spending, whereas we are investing in it. Let me give him some simple facts about what has happened to the NHS under this Government: 6,000 more doctors; 7,000 fewer managers; 1 million more treated in A and E; half a million more day cases; mixed-sex wards, commonplace under Labour, virtually abolished; infection rates in our NHS at record low levels; and, as I said, waiting times for in-patients down and waiting times for out-patients stable—all of that happening under this coalition Government, a far better record than he could boast.
People up and down the country will have heard that this is a Prime Minister with no answer for the crisis in our A and E services across the country. There is a crisis in A and E, and it is no surprise: he has cut the number of nurses; his NHS helpline is in crisis; and he is wasting billions of pounds on a top-down reorganisation that he promised would not happen. The facts speak for themselves: the NHS is not safe in his hands.
Let us examine the NHS in Labour’s hands in Wales. Here are the figures. Is the NHS budget being increased? No, it is being cut by 8% by Labour. The last time the urgent cancer care treatment target was met in Wales was 2008. The last time A and E targets were met was 2009. The Welsh ambulance service has missed its call-out target for the last 10 months. And, of course, there is no cancer drugs fund. That is what you get under Labour: cuts to our NHS and longer waiting lists—and all the problems we saw at the Stafford hospital will be repeated over again.
Q2. Yesterday, figures showed that this Government had reduced the deficit by a third. Does the Prime Minister agree that to borrow and spend more, which the shadow Chancellor has confirmed will be Labour’s policy in 2015, would risk squandering that progress? (150814)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are operating in very tough times, but we have got the deficit down by a third, there are 1.25 million extra private sector jobs, and we have seen a record creation of new businesses in our country. The differences between the two parties is that we believe in cutting our deficit, whereas it is their official policy to put it up. If they did that, there would be higher interest rates, more businesses going bust and harder times for home owners. That is what Labour offers.
The Government are absolutely right to prioritise the combating of sexual violence in conflict in their chairmanship of the G8, but the Prime Minister would have more credibility on the subject if he did not accept hundreds of thousands of pounds from, and have private dinners at Downing street with, Mr Ian Taylor. Mr Taylor’s company, Vitol, has admitted having dealings with the notorious Serb war criminal Arkan, who was indicted for
“wilfully causing great suffering, cruel treatment, murder, wilful killing, rape, other inhumane acts.”
Will the Prime Minister stop hosting Mr Taylor at Downing street and give the money back?
First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s very commendable efforts to make sure that rape and sexual violence are no longer used as weapons of war and conflict. The Government are putting a huge impetus behind that through the G8. However, I have to say that I think it is totally regrettable that the hon. Gentleman tries to play some sort of political card in the rest of what he said.
Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree that helping people who want to work hard is the right thing to do, that taking them out of tax altogether is the right thing to do, and that making work pay is the right thing to do—instead of insulting them, as some politicians have done by calling them trash? (150815)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is this Government who are on the side of hard-working families: we have kept interest rates low; we have frozen the council tax; we have cut income tax for 24 million people; we have taken more than 2 million people out of income tax altogether; and our welfare reforms—sadly, not supported by the Opposition—are making sure that work always pays.
Q4. Today’s Daily Telegraph reports that 1 million people have been declared fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions. Does that include people like my constituent, Michael Moore, who, despite multiple illnesses and disability, was declared fit for work in July 2011? Mr Speaker, Michael died in February this year, aged just 56. (150816)
Obviously, I am very sorry, on behalf of the whole House, about the loss of the hon. Lady’s constituent, but I am sure that she—and, indeed, I would have thought everyone in this House—would accept that it is necessary to have a system to check who is available for work, and who is able to work and who is not. The whole point of the employment and support allowance programme is that we can judge those people who can work but who need extra help and those who cannot work, who should always be looked after. I find it extraordinary that heads are shaking among Labour Members; I thought it was the Labour party, not the welfare party.
Q5. It is essential that this Government continue with much-needed welfare reform because, coupled with the tremendous increase in private sector jobs of 1.25 million, it is having a real effect in Hastings and Rye, with unemployment falling from 7.4% to 6.8%. Could I urge the Prime Minister to stay on this track and make the difficult decisions when he has to for the good of this country, and not to listen to the voices opposite, which have only one thing to suggest: borrow, borrow, borrow? (150817)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact is that since the election, the number of people on out-of-work benefits has fallen by 270,000. It is essential that we continue with programmes to boost enterprise, but also to make work pay. We should not listen to the Opposition on issues such as the benefit cap, when the shadow Chancellor was on the radio last week saying that £26,000 was an unfair cap. People across this country will be incredulous that that is the Labour position, but it is.
Q6. Bankers’ bonuses at £15 billion; executive boardroom pay up by 27%; tax cuts for millionaires; tax cuts for wealthy corporations—and the ordinary members of the public have got to pay for it. When is the Prime Minister going to represent all the people in the country and not just his privileged chums? (150818)
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what this Government have done. We have taken 2 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax altogether. We have delivered a tax cut for 24 million people. We have frozen the fuel duty. We are freezing the council tax up and down the country, and if people want to make an impact, they should vote Conservative on 2 May to make sure they keep their council tax down.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his support for the exhibition on modern slavery in the Upper Waiting Hall? Two hundred years after it was abolished, slavery—modern slavery—continues throughout the United Kingdom. It is about the buying and selling of people, and it is the second most lucrative crime in the world. Can he confirm that his Government will continue to engage with this issue?
I am very grateful for what my hon. Friend says. This is an immensely serious issue and I pay tribute to the all-party group in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I also pay tribute to Anthony Steen, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue. Anyone who thinks that slavery was effectively abolished in 1807 has got another think coming. I would urge Members, if they have not seen this excellent exhibition in that chamber in the House of Commons, to go and see it, and see all the different ways that people can be trapped into slavery. It is notable that it is not just people who are being trafficked from eastern Europe or elsewhere. There are examples of slavery involving British citizens in this country being put into forced labour. It is an excellent exhibition and there is more for the Government to do.
As I have said before, I will pay every appropriate tax, but like everybody else, every single taxpayer in this country is benefiting from the rise in the personal allowance that we have put in place. Everyone can benefit from a freeze in the council tax. Everyone can benefit from what we have done on fuel duty—and everyone would pay the price of another Labour Government.
Q8. The Government’s cap on benefits has already incentivised 8,000 people back into work. Does this not demonstrate how important welfare reform is, getting people back to work and making work pay—a policy opposed by the Opposition? (150820)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The measures on welfare reform we are taking, such as the benefit cap, the 1% increase, making sure that people are available for work and making sure that people cannot get jobseeker’s allowance unless they take proper steps to find a job, are all about fairness in our country and making work pay. What is interesting is that every single one of those welfare changes—even the proposal to stop paying housing benefit of, sometimes, up to £100,000 to a single family—has one thing in common: it has been opposed by the Labour party.
Q9. On the subject of jobs, last week 21 Tory MEPs voted against the EU emissions trading scheme, meaning that British industry will face much higher energy prices than its European competitors, threatening jobs and investment. When will the Prime Minister get a grip of his party and stand up for British business? (150821)
I thought the hon. Gentleman might start by thanking the Chancellor for the move taken in the Budget to help very important businesses in his constituency with excessive energy costs, but clearly the milk of human kindness is running a bit thinly with him. I have to say, if we are going to get into lectures about MEPs, perhaps he could get his to stop voting against the British rebate.
The Prime Minister will be aware that last week, three people in Cumbria were arrested for apparently blowing the whistle in the public interest over the actions of the police commissioner. Does he agree that that is a threat to freedom of speech and an outrage in a democratic society, and will he intervene to ensure there is an independent investigation?
Q10. The wilful neglect of residents in their care homes is a crime, but too often the victims and their families do not get justice. Time and again we have seen injury, abuse and sometimes death. Given that this is the Prime Minister’s third anniversary, when will we have a law that is fit for purpose? (150822)
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. Over the past few years we have seen some shocking examples, not just of malpractice but—let us be frank—of crime taking place in our care homes, and a number of investigations are under way. One of the most important things we can do is ensure that the Care Quality Commission is up to the task of investigating those homes properly and has robust structures in place. That was not what we found when we came to office. In terms of ensuring that criminal law is available, it is already available and when there are bad examples, the police and prosecuting authorities can intervene and they should do so.
Sixty-two people have died using DNP, a highly toxic herbicide that is banned for use as a slimming drug but easily available online alongside other dubious slimming products. What commitment can my right hon. Friend give that he will work across Government to ensure that that trade is stopped, and in so doing, help to prevent the deaths of more young people?
Like many people, this morning I read about the tragic case of the girl who died from taking this substance, and one can only think of the heartache that her family, and other families, go through when such things happen. I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. This is not an easy issue because the substance is banned as a slimming drug but, as I understand it, is legal as a herbicide. As she says, we must look carefully across Government at what more we can do to warn people about these things.
The Government’s commitment to the armed forces covenant is something that Conservative Members are immensely proud of. The Prime Minister will also be aware of the community covenant, launched by the British Legion, to which 300 local authorities have signed up, although sadly not Enfield council in my constituency or another 132 authorities. Will the Prime Minister join me in urging those councils to sign the covenant locally and help support work across the constituency, particularly before Armed Forces day?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. My local authority in Oxfordshire was one of the first to sign up to the community covenant, with all the responsibilities that we feel we have for those stationed around RAF Brize Norton, the biggest airbase in the country. I urge all local authorities to look at this issue. The armed forces covenant is a real breakthrough for our country and a way in which we can all show respect for what our armed forces and their families do. I also commend the fact that the Government are using the LIBOR fines to help fund some powerful elements of the armed forces covenant. It means that those people who behaved badly in our economy—some of the banks—are paying for some of those who behave the best.
I hate to correct the hon. Lady, but the pilots are going ahead, starting in parts of north-west England. I think it is important to have proper pilots and proper evaluation of pilots. We want to learn the lesson of some of the failures of the tax credit system, which was brought in with a big bang but ended up with big disaster. It is right that we are piloting, and as the Secretary of State said, the programme is on target and on budget.
Q13. Council tax payers in Essex paid £5,000 for the then leader of the county council and his cronies to attend the Conservative party conference. That was one of hundreds of dodgy transactions using council credit cards spread over eight years, totalling around £500,000 at an average of more than £1,000 a week, which include 60-plus overseas visits to Australia and Vietnam, among other places. Does the Prime Minister agree that such extravagant misuse of public money should be the subject of an independent inquiry? (150825)
It is obviously important that all such issues are properly looked into, but I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend. We are frequently in agreement, but on this issue, I believe that, if people in Essex want good value for money, it is important that they back the Conservatives.
Q14. The Prime Minister believes that food banks are a good example of the big society. Last year, 7,400 people across Stoke-on-Trent, including 2,600 children, needed food banks just to stop them from starving. From this week, owing to his welfare changes, food banks have been forced to restrict food to families with children and people over the age of 65. Is it not true that the Prime Minister has failed Britain, and that his big society is overwhelmed? (150826)
I am disappointed in what the hon. Gentleman says, because in 2003, the previous Government gave the Trussell Trust, the organisation behind Britain’s food banks, a golden jubilee award for voluntary service. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), whom I am glad to see in his place, said that the Trussell Trust’s
“outstanding voluntary activity has enhanced and improved the quality of life and opportunity for others in the community.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 10WS.]
Of course, these are difficult times—food bank use went up 10 times under Labour—but I think we should praise people who play a role in our society rather than sneer at them.
15. The chief executive of Cumbria county council is to leave the authority with an agreed package. I believe that the package will be substantial, and that it will run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Does the Prime Minister agree that that and similar arrangements are difficult for the public to accept, and that they are certainly not a good use of taxpayers’ money? (150827)
I agree with what my hon. Friend says. We now require councils to publish their pay policies, and councils should vote on those deals so that they can vote against excessive ones. That change has happened under this Government, but I urge all councils, of whatever political persuasion, to look at what they can do to share chief executives and finance directors, and to combine their back-office costs. Everybody knows that public spending reductions would have to be made whoever is in Government. Let us make them by taking it out of the back office rather than the front line.
Is the Prime Minister aware that Scottish Coal went into liquidation last weekend, and that 600 hard-working people in Scotland have lost their jobs, the majority of which are in my constituency? The Tories closed the deep mines during the 1980s. Will the Prime Minister stand behind the open cast industry today, or will it just be the same old Tories?
I am happy to look at what the hon. Lady says. We want to support all our industries in Britain, including the coal industry, whether in Scotland or in England. Obviously, since the election, the number of people in work in Scotland has gone up, but we need to see that go further and faster. I am happy to look at the particular industrial example she gives.
On Monday, my right hon. Friend came to Derbyshire to support our council candidates for the next election, but at the same time, he visited a manufacturing company. Does he agree that getting manufacturing companies such as the ones in my constituency to continue to export and to expand their exports is our best way out of recession?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Duresta, the furniture manufacturer that I visited, has seen its sales increase by almost 20% over the past year. It is going into new export markets, investing in apprenticeships and doing all of the things the Government are backing and supporting. We want to back many more firms to do exactly that. Her wider point is also right: people in Derbyshire who want another year of a council tax freeze need to vote very carefully on 2 May.
Will the Prime Minister give careful consideration to the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee report on bees, other pollinators and pesticides? On Monday next week, will he give his Government’s backing to the European Commission’s proposed moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoids?
I will look very carefully at what the hon. Lady says. I am the life patron of the Oxfordshire Beekeepers’ Association. I think I have been neglecting my duties in not being able to give her a better answer today, but I know how important this issue is. If we do not look after our bee populations, very serious consequences will follow.
Today sees the publication of the all-party cycling group’s report “Get Britain Cycling”, which calls for leadership from the very top on this issue. Will the Prime Minister look at the report, make sure that he produces a cross-departmental action plan and give his personal commitment and leadership to get Britain cycling? [Interruption.]
I do not always agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, but on this occasion he is absolutely right and the House should heed what he says: we should be doing much more to encourage cycling. The report has many good points. I commend what the Mayor of London has done in London to promote cycling, and I hope local authorities can follow his lead in making sure that we do more.
Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether the deep shade of red he turned when asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) whether he had been consulted on the appointment of Tanni Grey-Thompson was actually in place of the answer “Yes”?
Does the Prime Minister agree that one does not solve a debt crisis by borrowing more, and that for the Opposition to have any credibility they need to acknowledge the mess they made, apologise to my constituents, and just say sorry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On the Government Benches, we know we have to get borrowing down. Frankly, in the past week what we have seen is the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in his true colours: too weak to stand up to the shadow Chancellor on the deficit, too weak to stand up to his Back Benchers on welfare, and too weak to stand up to the trade unions on just about anything. It was a week in which he said goodbye to David Miliband and hello to George Galloway. No wonder Tony Blair said that they are fellow travellers, not leaders. He was absolutely right.