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Engagements

Volume 563: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2013

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

Three years ago, the Prime Minister promised that borrowing would fall to £18 billion in 2015. Will he confirm that the failure to get growth going means that he will now borrow £96 billion instead—yes or no?

Three years ago, we said that we would cut the deficit and we have cut the deficit by a third—that is what has happened. On the subject of what people said a few years ago, the very first time the Leader of the Opposition came to that Dispatch Box, he attacked me for taking child benefit away from higher earners, yet today we learn it is now Labour’s official policy to take child benefit away from higher earners—total and utter confusion. Perhaps he can explain himself when he gets to his feet.

I am thrilled and delighted that the Government have revived plans for a right of recall. Instead of a proposal that would mean politicians sitting in judgment on politicians, can my right hon. Friend make it clear that a recall mechanism will include a recall ballot—a yes/no chance for constituents to make the final decision before an MP is removed?

First, let me say that I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on issues of direct democracy and has considerable expertise in such matters. I think that the right approach, and the one we put forward before, is to say yes, of course there should be a constituency mechanism, but before that, there ought to be an act of censure by a Committee of this House for wrongdoing. I think that is the right approach. I know we will not necessarily agree on this, but we will make our proposals.

On the subject of recall, I hope the Leader of the Opposition will recall his attack on child benefit when he gets to his feet.

Two years ago, during the Prime Minister’s listening exercise on the health service, he said:

“I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A and E…so let me be absolutely clear—we won’t.”

What has gone wrong?

Not a word about what the right hon. Gentleman said two years ago, the very first time he stood at that Dispatch Box, totally condemning and attacking in the strongest possible terms what now turns out to be Labour policy. What complete confusion and weakness from the Leader of the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about accident and emergency and I will deal with the question very directly. The fact that people need to know is that we are now meeting our targets for accident and emergency. There was a problem in the first quarter of this year, which is why Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS, is to hold an investigation, but the crucial fact is this: 1 million more people are walking into our accident and emergency units every year than were doing so three years ago. We must work hard to get waiting times down and keep them down, but we will not do it by following Labour’s policy of cutting the NHS.

What a complacent answer from an out-of-touch Prime Minister. The independent King’s Fund says that the number of people waiting more than four hours in A and E is higher than at any time for nine years. Can he explain to the country why A and E waiting times fell under Labour and have gone up on his watch?

The fact is we are now meeting our targets on A and E, but the right hon. Gentleman has to answer this question. In England, where this Government are responsible, we are meeting our waiting times; in Wales, where Labour is responsible, it is not meeting its waiting times. Perhaps he can tell us, when he gets to his feet, the last year in which the Welsh met their waiting times under a Labour Government.

The Prime Minister may have had six weeks away, but he has got no better at answering the question. He has got to do better than this on the A and E crisis. The College of Emergency Medicine says there is “gridlock” in emergency departments, the Patients Association says that we are “reaching crisis point”, and we have a Prime Minister who says, “Crisis? What crisis?” It is not good enough. As well as the nine-year high, the number of people held in the back of ambulances has doubled since he took office. The number of people waiting on trolleys for more than four hours has doubled, and there are now more cancelled operations than for a decade. Does not the scale of those problems show that, on his watch, there is a crisis in A and E?

The answer to the question is that the last time Labour met its targets in Wales on accident and emergency was 2009. It has not met a target for four years, under Labour. Under this Government, we are meeting targets. The right hon. Gentleman asks what is happening in our national health service; let me tell him what is happening in our national health service. Under this Government, in-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, out-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, and the rate of hospital-acquired infections is at a record low. On the number of mixed-sex wards, they have almost been abolished under this Government. There are 400,000 more operations being carried out every year and, crucially, there are 5,700 more doctors. Let me tell him what would happen if we followed Labour’s spending plans on the NHS—there are new figures out today. There would be 43,000 fewer nurses and 11,000 fewer doctors. We decided, because we value the NHS, to spend more. That man there, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said it was “irresponsible”; he is wrong.

There are people all round this country waiting for hours and hours in A and E, and all they see is a complacent, out-of-touch Prime Minister reading out a list of statistics not about A and E. People want to know about the crisis in A and E happening on his watch. Now let us talk about the causes of this. In the Government’s first two years in office, more than a quarter of NHS walk-in centres were closed. If you close NHS walk-in centres, you pile pressure on A and E departments. That is obvious to everyone else; why is it not obvious to him?

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the causes of the problems in A and E; I accept that in the first quarter of the year, there were problems, and we need to get to grips with them. One of the problems is the GPs’ contract that was signed by the last Labour Government. They signed a contract that basically let GPs get out of out-of-hours. If he wants evidence of that, perhaps he will listen to the Labour Minister for the NHS at the time. Fortunately, he lost his seat in North Warwickshire to a Conservative, but this is what he says:

“In many ways, GPs got the best deal they ever had from that 2004 contract and since then we have, in a sense, been recovering.”

That is what happened. There are a million more people coming through our doors. There has been an excellent performance by doctors and nurses, but they were let down by the last Labour Government.

The Prime Minister has been peddling this line about the GP contract for some months now, but let us just understand this. What happened to A and E waits between 2004 and 2010? They fell dramatically. That was after the GP contract. Clare Gerada, the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is absolutely clear. She said:

“I think it’s lazy to blame the 2004 GP contract. They’re blaming a contract that’s nearly 10 years old for an issue that’s become a problem recently.”

That is the reality about the GP contract.

Now let us turn to a problem that even the Prime Minister cannot deny. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation recently said that these A and E

“pressures have been compounded by three years of…structural reforms”.

In other words, the top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for. Why does the Prime Minister not admit what everyone in the health service knows—that that top-down reorganisation diverted resources away from patient care and betrayed the NHS?

What the right hon. Gentleman has to realise is that I am not peddling a line about the GP contract—I am quoting the Labour Minister responsible for this, who pointed out that this was part of the problem. If people want to know what went wrong with the NHS under Labour they have only to look at the Mid Staffordshire hospital. If they want to know what is going wrong with the NHS under Labour now they need only look at Wales, where they have not met any of their targets, and where they cut the NHS by 8%. That is the effect of Labour in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about reorganisation. The fact is, we have been scrapping bureaucracy and putting that money into the front line. That is why there are 18,000 fewer administrative staff, but there are almost 6,000 more doctors. That is what the Government have a record on—he would cut the NHS.

Everyone will see a Prime Minister who cannot defend what is happening on his watch—that is the reality. Patients waiting on trolleys; operations cancelled; a crisis in A and E; history repeating itself. Our NHS is not safe in their hands.

It is under this Government that the number of doctors has gone up; the number of operations is up; waiting times are down; waiting lists are down—that is what is happening under this Government. Is it not interesting that in the week that was meant to be all about Labour’s economic relaunch they cannot talk about their economic policy? They told us that they wanted to keep winter fuel payments; now they want to scrap winter fuel payments. They told us that they wanted to keep child benefit; now they want to scrap child benefit. They told us that they were going to be men of iron discipline, yet they said:

“Do I think the last Labour government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.”

On the economy, they are weak and divided, and they are the same old Labour.

Q15. The people of Epping Forest want to have a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), which would require a referendum by 2017? Will he enthusiastically encourage members on both sides of the House to vote for it when it is debated on 5 July? (157115)

I certainly welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I think that it is absolutely right to hold that in/out referendum before the end of 2017. The interesting thing about today’s newspapers is that we read that half the members of the shadow Cabinet now want a referendum too. Hands up, who wants a referendum? Come on, don’t be shy—why do you not want to let the people choose? Ah, the people’s party does not trust the people.

Q2. Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was new Labour. Given the treacherous decision to commit to Tory spending plans, is the Prime Minister’s greatest achievement one-nation Labour? (157102)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will recall Parliament before any action is taken to arm the Syrian opposition during the recess?

I have never been someone who wants to stand against the House having a say on any of these issues, and I have always been early on making sure that Parliament is recalled to discuss important issues. Let me stress, as I did on Monday, that no decision has been taken to arm the rebels, so I do not think that this issue arises. However, as I said, I supported holding the vote on Iraq. In my premiership, on the issue of Libya, I recalled the House as soon as I possibly could and allowed the House to have a vote. As I said, this issue does not arise at present because we have made no decision to arm the rebels.

Q3. Yet again we have no answers from the Prime Minister, who blames everyone but himself and denies that there is a crisis in A and E. Let me give him one more chance to try to give an answer. Why does he not admit what everyone in the health service knows—his £3 billion reorganisation has diverted attention and resources from patient care and he has betrayed his promises? May we now have an answer? (157103)

The abolition of the bureaucracy that this Government have brought about will put billions of pounds extra into the NHS, but the point that the hon. Gentleman has to take on is that this Government made a decision, which was not to cut the NHS. We are putting £12.7 billion extra into the NHS. That decision was described as irresponsible by his own shadow Secretary of State. If Labour were in power, it would be cutting the NHS. How do we know that? Because that is exactly what it is doing in Wales, where it cut the NHS by 8%. The hon. Gentleman may not like his own policy, but that is what it is.

Q4. Beyond those on child benefit, has the Prime Minister received any consistent representations on welfare reform from the Opposition? (157104)

I know that I have been the one on holiday in Ibiza, but the Opposition have been the ones taking—how can I put it?—policy-altering substances. Last week they were in favour of child benefit; now they are against child benefit. They were in favour of winter fuel allowance; now they want to abolish winter fuel allowance. Only this morning we find out that they may not go ahead with this policy of scrapping child benefit. I think the truth is that the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to make coffee for the shadow Chancellor, but he cannot tell him what the policy is.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the prospective Bill on lobbying will include a ban on people paying £50,000 to dine in Downing street? (157105)

What the Bill on lobbying will do is introduce a register for lobbyists, which has been promised and should be delivered. What the Bill on lobbying will also do is make sure that we look at the impact of all third parties, including the trade unions, on our politics.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the actions of the European Court of Human Rights in seeking to frustrate the will of the British people to rid ourselves of terrorists illustrate the extent to which that Court has betrayed its original principles? Will he update the House on what actions he proposes the Government will take? Has he read the comments of the president of that Court, who said that if we were to secede, it would put our credibility in doubt? In fact, it is the credibility of the Court that is in doubt because of the way it is treating the British people and this Parliament.

I completely understand and share much of my hon. Friend’s frustration. We should remember that Britain helped to found the European Court of Human Rights and it has played an important role in making sure that Europe never again suffered the abuses that we saw in the first half of the 20th century, but 50 years on it is clear that that Court needs reform. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the former Justice Secretary and now Minister without Portfolio, led that process of reform and we have achieved some changes, but it is quite clear to me that we need further changes and we need the Court to focus on real human rights abuses, not on overruling Parliaments.

Q6. The north-east has renewable energy industries ready to invest, but they need certainty. Yesterday MPs from all parts of the House voted for a decarbonisation target. Given that the Prime Minister’s majority was slashed to just 23, will he show some leadership, think again and back British industry and green jobs? (157106)

I understand completely the point that the hon. Lady makes and I agree that businesses need certainty. That is why we have given them the certainty of a levy control framework of over £7 billion. That is why we have given them the certainty that if they sign contracts now, they get the renewables obligation for 20 years. We have given them the certainty of a green investment bank, but does it make sense to fix a decarbonisation target now, before we have agreed the carbon budget and before we even know whether carbon capture and storage works properly? It does not work and the businesses that I talk to say that it is not their priority.

People convicted of sex offences against children are supposed to face a prison sentence. Will the Prime Minister retire judges who fail to imprison convicted paedophiles?

There is obviously in our country a very important separation of powers, and politicians are not allowed to comment on individual judges, although sometimes we might like to. We should not—it would be a very dangerous road down which to go—but we have clear laws in this country about how serious Parliament thinks offences are, and judges should pay heed to those laws.

Q7. I am going to give the Prime Minister another chance to answer on recall. Does he seriously plan to give a parliamentary Committee the right to block the public’s chance to vote on recalling a convicted MP? (157107)

That is not the thinking. Of course we want a process whereby constituents, through a petition, can call for the recall of their MP. But because the main way that we throw MPs out of Parliament is at an election, there should be a cause for the recall to take place. That is why we have a Standards and Privileges Committee. That is why it now has outside members and why it has the power to suspend Members of Parliament and to expel them. I believe, but we can debate and discuss this across the House, that before we trigger a recall there should be some sort of censure by the House of Commons to avoid vexatious attempts to get rid of Members of Parliament who are doing a perfectly reasonable job.

Q8. Some of us on the Government Benches believe that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with 30,000 reservists will prove a false economy. The present Territorial Army mobilisation rate of 40% suggests instead that we need 50,000 reservists, and financial incentives will mean that an ex-regular reservist will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier. Given that we have already raised this matter with the Secretary of State, and further to our letter to the Prime Minister on 9 April, will my right hon. Friend meet us to discuss this and other concerns, including the wisdom of this policy in this increasingly uncertain world? (157108)

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these and other issues. In the spending review, we produced £1.5 billion to provide the uplift for the Territorial Army that it requires. I am absolutely convinced that it is right to have a different balance between regulars and reserves, as other countries have done, but obviously it is absolutely vital that we get that new recruitment of our reserve forces. That is why the money is there.

On the wider issues of defence that I know my hon. Friend cares about, we will have some of the best equipped forces anywhere in the world. We will have the new aircraft carriers for our Navy, the hunter killer submarines, the joint strike fighter and the excellent Typhoon aircraft, and the A400M will soon be coming into service. Our troops in Afghanistan now say that they are better equipped, better protected and better provided for than they have ever been in our history.

Q9. The Prime Minister’s pledge to lead against hunger at the G8 and in the UN is welcome. Will it also extend to EU negotiations on the future of the misdirected 10% directive on biofuels, which basically burns as fuel for Europe what should be food for the poor? Does the Prime Minister recognise that that mandate is driving land grabs and rising food prices, compounding hunger and adding to carbon emissions? (157109)

I am delighted that we are bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland. I hope that it will provide a boost for the Northern Irish economy, and we can discuss some of these issues at that meeting. I agree that we should not allow the production of biofuels to undermine food security. We want to go further than the European Commission’s proposed cap of 5% on crop-based biofuels, so there is considerable merit in what the hon. Gentleman says.

The weekend before last, there was a community swim off the coast of Southwold, which could have become a tragedy were it not for the brave efforts of our emergency services, and in particular the volunteer coastguards and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking our volunteer coastguards, in particular helmsman Paul Callaghan and crewmen Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey, for pulling 56 people from the water and averting a tragedy?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. The Royal National Lifeboat Association does an extraordinary job for our country. It is really one of our emergency services and should be treated as such. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case, and I join her in paying tribute to those brave people.

Q10. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can assist me with a question that the Treasury has been unable to answer for the past two months. Will British taxpayers’ money be used to guarantee the mortgages of foreign citizens who buy property here? (157110)

The Chancellor will set out details of this in the announcements that he plans to make. [Interruption.]

Q11. I recently visited my brother in hospital in Doncaster only to find that using the television stationed above his bed would cost him £6 a day. Can the Prime Minister justify why it costs hospital patients £42 a week to watch the television when it costs prisoners only £1 a week to do so? If he cannot justify it, can he tell us what he is going to do about it? (157111)

As someone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals, I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s frustrations. It was the last Government who introduced these charges on televisions in hospital in the year 2000. I have spent many an hour battling with that very complicated telephone and credit card system that people have to try and make work. I am afraid, though, that these are devolved decisions that local hospitals can now make for themselves.

In terms of prisons, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing something. He is taking the unacceptable situation that he inherited from the Labour party, whereby people could take out a Sky subscription when they were in prison, and saying that they cannot do that any more. He is also making sure that prisoners pay if they use the television.

The Justice Secretary’s slashing of the legal aid budget is inevitably going to lead to quality advice being the exclusive preserve of the rich and the privileged. Is this by design or accident?

First, everyone in the House has to recognise that we need to grapple with the legal aid bill. Even the Labour party, in its manifesto at the last election, said that it was going to look at the cost of legal aid. The fact is that we spend £39 per head of the population, whereas New Zealand, for instance, with its common law system, spends £8 per head.

The total cost to the taxpayer of the top three criminal cases in 2011-12 was £21 million. At a time when we are having to make difficult spending decisions, it is absolutely right to look at legal aid. We put out a consultation and the responses have now been received. We can consider those responses carefully, but we need to make reductions in legal aid.

Q12. A loan of £50,000 from the regional growth fund through the mutual Black Country Reinvestment Society, of which I am a member, has helped create 12 jobs in just six months in manufacturing start-up Lordswood Architectural in Stafford. With the manufacturing purchasing managers index at a 14-month high, can I encourage my right hon. Friend in his determination to restore the UK as a manufacturing powerhouse? (157112)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. There has been some more welcome news about the economy continuing to heal. We saw the services figures out today, the construction figures out yesterday and the growth figures in the economy. We are making progress, but we have to stick to the plan and the difficult decisions that we are taking and avoid the complete chaos and confusion being offered by the Labour party.

Q13. We know that before the election, the Prime Minister said that there would be no more top-down reorganisations in the NHS and that he later went on to say that he would not lose control of waiting times in A and E departments. Why does he keep making promises that he just cannot keep? (157113)

What we promised was that we would not cut the NHS—we would put extra money in. We are putting in £12.7 billion extra. Let me say it one more time: Labour’s official policy is to cut the NHS. They said that our policy—

Oh, it’s not? That has changed as well? We have got a new health policy! Honestly, there are so many U-turns, they should be having a grand prix.

A and E staff shortages do not develop in just three years. Will the Prime Minister look into why the downgrade of Cheltenham A and E is going ahead without the outcome of the public consultation being considered in public by either the clinical commissioning group or the health and wellbeing board?

Of course, any reorganisation or reconfiguration of a hospital has to meet the tests that the Health Secretary very carefully set out, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no one, single cause of the difficulties that we faced in A and E. Clearly, 1 million extra patients is a huge amount over the past three years. We have increased the funds going into our NHS, but there are big challenges to meet. The questions are: will we meet them by cutting the NHS, which was Labour’s policy? Will we meet them by another reorganisation, which is Labour’s policy? No, we will not. We will deal with this problem by making sure that we manage the NHS effectively, and continuing to put the money in.

Q14. Was it when a journalist, masquerading as a lobbyist, entrapped a Tory MP, that the Prime Minister decided it was time to launch an all-out attack on the trade unions? (157114)

The hon. Gentleman conveniently forgets to mention the Labour peers. We do have a problem in Parliament with the influence of third parties, and we need to deal with that. Clearly, all-party parliamentary groups, which are a matter for the House and for Mr Speaker, need to be looked at. As we promised in the coalition agreement, we will be bringing forward a lobbying register, and also some measures to make sure that the trade unions behave properly too.

May I commend my right hon. Friend’s strong, unambiguous support for the continuation of the British nuclear deterrent? Now that the alternatives to Trident study has concluded that there are no alternatives cheaper or more effective than Trident, what are the reasons for delaying a maingate decision so that the matter can be settled in this Parliament?

We have set out clearly the steps that need to be taken before the maingate decision is made, but my hon. Friend knows that I am strongly committed to the renewal of our deterrent on a like-for-like basis. I think that that is right for Britain. Obviously, in the coalition a study has been carried out. My view is very clear, and I looked at the evidence again on becoming Prime Minister. I believe that if we want to have a credible deterrent, we need that continuous at-sea posture, and a submarine-based deterrent that is based not on cruise missiles but on intercontinental ballistic missiles. I believe that is the right answer, and I think all the evidence points in that direction.

The family of Drummer Lee Rigby live on the Langley estate in my constituency. I visited the parents last week, and they were very appreciative of everything that has been said in support of the family, particularly by the local estate residents. A memorial service was held in the town centre. It was greatly attended, and local Middleton people were able to pay their respects. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending the people of Middleton for their very strong but sensitive support for the family during this very sad time?

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in what he says about the people of Middleton and the great respect, support and solidarity they have shown for the family of Lee Rigby. His death was an absolute tragedy and there are many lessons we must learn from it, as we discussed in the House on Monday. I think it is another moment for everyone in this House, and this country, to reflect again on the magnificent services that the men and women of our armed forces give to our country.

Today my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) was awarded a World Health Organisation medal to mark World No Tobacco Day. Will the Prime Minister congratulate him on that great achievement and his work on that issue, and support his campaign for the plain packaging of cigarettes?

I am afraid I missed the beginning of the question, so I did not quite hear who got the medal—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman who gave a magnificent introduction to the Queen’s Speech, and I commend him for his medal. On the policy, we know that issue.