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Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

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.

I send my fond regards to my hon. Friend’s mum and wish her a long, happy and healthy life. I remind her that if she votes Conservative in 2015, she will have the in/out referendum that the country deserves.

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.

Q7. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would be kind enough to tell the House how much he will benefit personally from the scrapping of the 50p tax rate? (150819)

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?

I will look carefully at that case. In general we should support whistleblowers and what they do to help improve the provision of public services, and I will have a look at this case and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

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.

Q11. Was the Prime Minister consulted on the decision to reject the appointment of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to the chair of Sport England? (150823)

These decisions are, quite rightly, made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and I think she has reached a very good decision.

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.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister explain the eleventh-hour postponement of universal credit pilots, and is it the beginning of the unravelling of his unworkable and unfair welfare reform proposals? (150824)

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.]

Order. Members on both sides are very discourteous to the good doctor. I cannot for the life of me fathom why there are groans whenever I call the good doctor, but it is very unsatisfactory.

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”?

We have an excellent new head of both Sport England and UK Sport—that is what matters. These are decisions for the Secretary of State, and it is absolutely right that she takes them.

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.