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Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 12 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.

Because of this Government’s incompetent management of the NHS, 256,000 patients were forced to wait in the back of ambulances because accident and emergency departments could not admit them. Why does the Prime Minister think that the best way to deal with this is to fine hospitals £90 million for his Government’s failure?

This Government are putting £12.7 billion extra into the NHS—money that would be cut by Labour. Because of that extra money and because of the reforms, waiting times for in-patients and out-patients are both down, hospital-acquired infections are right down, and mixed-sex wards have almost been abolished in our NHS. That is a record we can be proud of.

Surely the shadow Chancellor is right when he says that the Labour party will look ridiculous if it refuses to give the people a say on our future in Europe. Can my right hon. Friend confirm the Conservative party’s commitment to renegotiation and a referendum and can he explain why a Labour leader so weak that he can resist the shadow Chancellor on nothing else refuses to do what the shadow Chancellor says on the one occasion that he is right?

On behalf of the whole House, may I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House of Commons? It is good to see him making such a strong recovery and being in such strong voice as well. He makes a very important point. On this side of the House, within this party, we are committed to renegotiation and an in/out referendum before the end of 2017, but there has been a staggering silence from Labour Members. Apparently half the shadow Cabinet support a referendum and the other half do not. Well, they will have their chance on 5 July—they can turn up and vote for a referendum in the United Kingdom.

On Syria, the Prime Minister has our support to use the G8 in the coming week to push all members to provide humanitarian assistance to alleviate the terrible crisis that is happening there. On the arms embargo and supplying weapons to the rebels, he said last week:

“If we help to tip the balance in that way, there is a greater chance of political transition succeeding.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1239.]

Given that Russia seems ready to supply more weapons to Syria, does he think it is in any sense realistic for a strategy of tipping the balance to work?

First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He is absolutely right. We should use the G8 to try to bring pressure on all sides to bring about what we all want in this House, which is a peace conference, a peace process, and the move towards a transitional Government in Syria. I am delighted to tell the House that, in advance of the G8, President Putin will be coming for meetings in Downing street on Sunday, when we can discuss this. Because we have recognised that the Syrian national opposition are legitimate spokespeople for the Syrian people, it is important that we help them, give them technical assistance, give them training, and give them advice and assistance. We are doing all those things, and I think, yes, that that does help to tip the balance to make sure that President Assad can see that he cannot win this by military means alone and that negotiations should take place for a transitional Government.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, but my question was specifically on the lifting of the arms embargo and the supply of weapons to the Syrian rebels.

Last week, the Prime Minister also told the House that

“there are clear safeguards to ensure that any such equipment would be supplied only for the protection of civilians”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1234.]

Will he tell us what those safeguards are and how in Syria they would be enforced?

First, let me say again that the point about lifting the arms embargo, which applied originally to both the regime and the official Syrian opposition, is to send a very clear message about our intentions and our views to President Assad, but we have not made a decision to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons. As I have said, we are giving them assistance, advice and technical help.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, we have systems in place—of course we do—to make sure that that sort of non-lethal equipment, such as transport, does not get into the wrong hands.

Two things: first, I think we all support the idea that we should focus on the peace conference, Geneva II, and on making it happen, but the problem is that the Government have put their energy into the lifting of the arms embargo, not the peace conference.

Secondly, I quoted the Prime Minister’s words not about non-lethal equipment, but about the supply of lethal equipment. He gave an assurance to this House that, in the circumstances of supplying lethal equipment, there would be end-use safeguards. My question was what those safeguards would be, but I did not hear an answer. Perhaps when he next gets up he will tell us.

When the Prime Minister replies, will he also confirm that if he takes a decision to arm the rebels in Syria, there will be a vote of this House on a substantive motion, in Government time, with a recall of Parliament from recess if necessary?

First, as I have said, we all want to see a peace conference come about. The question is: how are we most likely to put pressure on the parties to attend that peace conference? I have to say, going back to the very first thing that the right hon. Gentleman said about the Russian decision to arm the regime, the Russian regime has been arming it for decades and, frankly, it is naive to believe anything else. That is important.

On safeguards, we are not supplying the opposition with weapons. We are supplying them with technical assistance and non-lethal equipment. We have made no decision to supply the opposition with weapons, so that is the answer to that question.

On the issue of the House of Commons, as the Foreign Secretary and I have made clear, I have always believed in allowing the House of Commons a say on all these issues. I think that was right when it came to Iraq, it was right when we made the decision to help the opposition in Libya, and it would be right for it to happen in the future as well. Let me stress again, however, that we have made no decision to arm the rebels in Syria.

On the Government plan to double the size of our reserve forces, has the Prime Minister considered the role that retired Ghurkhas might play? Now that they are allowed to settle here, many Ghurkhas have told me that they would welcome an ongoing connection with the British Army, but there is no real routine or tradition of recruiting them. I do not think there is any impediment, but it will not happen by magic. Will the Prime Minister authorise an initiative to recruit them?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. One of the ways that we can best build up the fully funded and fully equipped larger reserve of 30,000 that we want to see is to make sure that there are better opportunities for those who have served in the regular Army to serve in the reserves. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will look at my hon. Friend’s point about the Ghurkhas and see what can be done.

Q2. I do not know whether the Prime Minister watched the “Panorama” programme on Monday night, but I am sure he will be aware of the subject of blacklisting. The programme confirmed what many of us, particularly members of the Scottish Affairs Committee, already knew: that thousands of people in this country have been subjected to blacklisting. It has been compared to McCarthyism, but I think it is worse than that: it is secretive, behind closed doors and many people who are on a blacklist do not even know that they are on one. Will the Prime Minister call for an urgent inquiry into this practice, which I refer to not as McCarthyism, but as McAlpinism? (159126)

To answer the question very directly, I did not see “Panorama” on Monday night, but I will ask for a report on it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government do not support blacklisting and have taken action against it.

Q3. I thank the Prime Minister for his recent visit to Erewash to support the historic furniture making industry. Does he agree that we can best help the hard-working staff he met at Duresta in these tough times by protecting their pensions and capping benefits, rather than by protecting benefits and cutting pensions, as the Labour party would do? (159127)

I well remember my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. She is right that people in this country want to know that we will cap welfare and get on top of the welfare bill, but protect pensioners who have worked hard all their lives and saved for their retirement. I have done a little due diligence on the Opposition’s policy. Last week, they announced that they wanted a welfare cap. I thought, “That’s interesting. That’s progress.” However, when you look at it, would they cap the welfare bill for those in work? No they would not. Would they cap housing benefit? No they would not. The one thing that they want to cap, apparently, is pensions. So there we have it: protect welfare, punish hard workers and target pensioners—more of the same “something for nothing” culture that got this country into the mess in the first place.

Today’s fall in unemployment of 5,000 people is welcome, but will the Prime Minister explain why today’s figures also show that three years into his Government, living standards continue to fall?

First, it is worth announcing to the House what today’s unemployment figures show. They show that employment—the number of people in work in this country—is going up, that unemployment is going down, and that—[Interruption.] I know that the Labour party does not want to hear good news, but I think it is important that we hear it. The claimant count—the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—has fallen for the seventh month in a row. It is interesting that over the past year, while we have lost 100,000 jobs in the public sector, we have gained five times that amount in private sector employment.

The figures show some increase in wages, but real wages have obviously been under huge pressure ever since the calamitous boom and bust over which the right hon. Gentleman presided. What is good for people is that this Government are cutting their income tax this year.

The right hon. Gentleman is into his fourth year as Prime Minister and his excuse for falling living standards is, “Don’t blame me, I’m only the Prime Minister.” It is simply not good enough. He does not understand that because of his failure to get growth in the economy, wages are falling for ordinary people. He wants to tell them that they are better off, but actually they are worse off. Will he confirm that today’s figures show that, after inflation, people’s wages have fallen since he came to power by more than £1,300 a year on average?

The right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that the figures announced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies are from 2008, when he was sitting in the Cabinet. It is worth remembering that while he was Energy Secretary, sitting in the Cabinet, the economy got smaller—it shrank month after month after month. Under this Government, there are 1.25 million more private sector jobs and there has been good growth in private sector employment this year. That is what is happening. Of course living standards are under pressure. That is why we are freezing council tax. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is shouting away, as ever. [Interruption.]

Order. There is excessive noise in the Chamber. Members must not shout at the Prime Minister any more than anyone should shout at the Leader of the Opposition. Let the answers be heard.

The answer is that there are 1.25 million more private sector jobs under this Government, and that is a good record.

There is no answer from the Prime Minister on the living standards crisis that is facing families up and down the country. It is no wonder what his side is saying about him. This is what the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) wrote about him at the weekend—[Interruption.] I know that Government Members do not want to hear it, but he said:

“It’s like being in an aeroplane. The pilot doesn’t know how to land it. We can either do something about it…or sit back, watch the in-flight movies and wait for the inevitable.”

I could not have put it better myself about this Prime Minister. The reality is that day in, day out, what people see—[Interruption.] Calm down, just calm down. The crimson tide is back. Day in, day out, people see prices rising and wages falling, while the Prime Minister tells them that they are better off. He claims that the economy is healing, but for ordinary families life is getting harder. They are worse off under the Tories.

Only someone who wants to talk down our economy could pick a day like today—more people in work, unemployment down, youth unemployment down, the claimant count down, yet not one word of respect for that good agenda on jobs. The right hon. Gentleman talks about aeroplanes. Never mind getting on aeroplanes, this is what the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said about his leadership:

“we are literally going nowhere”.

He has not even got on the aeroplane because he has not got a clue.

Last December, the whole of Shropshire welcomed the Government’s support for a new direct rail link from Shropshire to London. This week, however, Network Rail has blocked Virgin’s bid. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that Network Rail should not get in the way of the will of the Shropshire people or economic progress?

We want to see more direct rail links such as the one my hon. Friend mentioned, and there is also a need for better links to Lancashire and Blackpool. One issue that the rail industry is battling with is the shortage of capacity, and High Speed 2 will help bring that freeing up of capacity to make more of those direct links possible. I was discussing that yesterday with the Transport Secretary, and we should be making some progress.

Q4. Last week the Prime Minister could not confirm that taxpayers would not subsidise foreign buyers of property in the UK. Perhaps he can instead clarify whether his Help to Buy scheme will see taxpayers help fund purchases of second homes and holiday cottages. (159128)

Let me try to give the hon. Lady some satisfaction. First, this scheme is for people’s only home and it will have a mechanism in place to ensure that is the case. The second important thing is that in order to take part in the scheme, a person must have a credit record in this country. So no, the scheme will not do what she says it would.

Q5. As a former pensions manager I was proud that this Government introduced a new triple lock formula—[Interruption.] (159129)

Order. This is very discourteous. The hon. Gentleman, like every Member, should be treated with courtesy. Let us hear what he has to say.

As a former pensions manager I was proud when this Government introduced a new triple lock formula on our state pension that increased by £234 in its first year for every pensioner in the land. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that under the shadow Chancellor’s plans to cut or cap pensions, all our pensioners will lose that increase and their standard of living will fall sharply?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government have put a cap on the welfare that families can receive, but we have been as generous as we can with pensioners who have worked hard during their lives and want to have dignity and security in old age. That is why we have the triple lock. Very interestingly, we now know that the Labour party wants to cut the pension because it is putting a cap on pensions but not on welfare. Just this morning the shadow Foreign Secretary was on television—the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) may not know this as he might not have been following it—and when challenged about the triple lock he said that it was Labour’s policy “at present”. Given all the U-turns we have had in the last week from the Labour party, I do not think “at present” will last very long.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister congratulate Bolton Wanderers football club for doing the right thing by rejecting sponsorship from a payday loan firm, and will he also join in, do the right thing, and give local authorities the power to ban those predatory loan sharks from our high streets? (159130)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I wish Bolton Wanderers well for the future. We must give more support to credit unions in our country, which I think is one of the best ways of addressing the whole problem of payday loans and payday lending. I also hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that over the past year unemployment has fallen fastest in the north west of our country.

Q7. This is national carers week. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute—[Interruption.] (159131)

Order. If the session has to be extended to accommodate the democratic rights of Members, it will be extended. The hon. Gentleman will—I repeat will—be heard.

This is national carers week, so will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the huge commitment that thousands of carers make day in, day out, caring for ill, frail and disabled family members, friends and partners, often unrecognised and without financial assistance? Will he sign up to the carers week recommendations in “Prepared to Care?”

On this one, the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House and the whole country in praising Britain’s carers. They do an amazing job. If they stopped caring, the cost to the taxpayer would be phenomenal, so we should do what we can to support our carers, and to ensure they get the proper respite breaks from caring that they need to be able to go on doing the wonderful work they do.

Q8. Why has the number of supply teachers in secondary schools in the past year increased by a staggering 17%? (159132)

I do not have the figures for that, but we have protected the amount of money that goes into schools per pupil so that schools have the money to employ the teachers they need.

Since 2010, unemployment in Brentford and Isleworth has fallen by 6.9% and youth unemployment has fallen by 19%. I will do my part as an organiser—I held my jobs and apprenticeships fair in Isleworth recently—but does that not show that our economic plan is working?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We see today a growth in employment, a fall in the claimant count and a fall in youth unemployment. As I have said, we are losing jobs in the public sector because we had to make cuts to it, but, most importantly of all, while we lost more than 100,000 jobs in the public sector in the past year, we gained five times as many in the private sector—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor, as ever, wants to give a running commentary, but let me remind the House what he has said, because this is one of the most important quotations in the past 10 years of British politics. He said:

“Do I think the last Labour government spent too much, was profligate, had too”


“national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.”

That phrase will be hung around his neck for ever.

Q9. Five hundred homes in my constituency were flooded in November. Residents in my constituency are terrified that their homes and businesses are now worthless because this Government have failed to replace the flood insurance scheme. They have also cut more than £200 million from flood defence works. Why has the Prime Minister sold my constituency down the river? (159133)

I can give the hon. Gentleman welcome news. We had to extend the period of the scheme so that we could continue negotiations, but I am confident that we will put in place a proper successor to it. An announcement will be made quite soon.

Mathmos makes lava lamps in my constituency—it has been making them for 50 years. It has very large exports to Germany, but has run into a problem with the reclassification of the product. May I send the information to the Prime Minister and enlist his support for this innovative company operating so well within our country?

I am happy to receive the information from my hon. Friend. It is important that we get Britain’s exports up. If we moved from one in five of our small and medium-sized enterprises exporting to one in four, we would wipe out our export deficit altogether, so I am happy to get my office to look at the information she has.

Q10. The accident and emergency department at Ealing hospital is one of four that the Prime Minister is closing in north-west London. I welcome the Health Secretary’s review, but with waiting times at a nine-year high, ambulances being diverted and the risk of unnecessary deaths, will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the closures are not a serious option if the NHS is safe in his hands? (159134)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Health Secretary has asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to conduct a full review of the proposals, and it will submit its advice to him no later than mid-September. Let us be absolutely clear: whatever decision is reached, the proposals will not be due to lack of central Government funding. North-west London will receive £3.6 billion, which is £100 million more than the previous year. Of course, if we had listened to the Labour party, which said that more NHS spending was “irresponsible”, his hospitals would be receiving £100 million less.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the China-Britain Business Council, which, under its inspirational vice-chairman, Mr Peter Batey, organised a seminar on exporting to China that was attended by more than 60 businesses in Watford last Friday? I think it should be congratulated on that initiative.

I am very happy to extend my praise to the China-Britain Business Council. If we look at the evidence of the past few years, we see there is now a significant increase in British exports to China, and a big increase in Chinese direct investment into the UK. All of that is welcome and we need to see it grow even further.

Q11. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he understands the importance of the creative industries to the economy of this country, and that they need to be buttressed by adequate intellectual property rights? Is he also aware, however, that his intellectual property Minister, that horny-handed son of toil, the fifth Viscount Younger of Leckie, recently told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in relation to Google, that “I am very aware of their power…I am also very aware…that they have access, for whatever reason, to higher levels than me in No. 10”.Is that not a disgraceful comment on the way this Government—[Interruption.] (159135)

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s question, which refers to a distinguished constituent of mine, suffered from the disadvantage of being too long.

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our creative industries are incredibly important for Britain’s future. The music industry has had a record year in terms of sales. One in every four albums sold in Europe is made here in the UK, which is something we can be very proud of. We have to get the intellectual property regime right, which is why we are legislating on it. We have already taken action to extend the life of copyright protection to 75 years, which has been welcomed across the music industry. I simply do not accept what he says about my Ministers. Indeed, the Minister with most responsibility for this matter is the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), and I think his father was ennobled by Harold Wilson, so that does not really fit.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the hard work of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for ensuring that planning decisions taken at local level concerning wind turbines remain local? However, many of my constituents in South East Cornwall are becoming increasingly concerned that our green fields are becoming solar fields. Should decisions on solar fields be subject to the same planning rules as wind turbines? (159136)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in praising the excellent work done by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, which has been carried on by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). They have both done a very good job at bringing some sanity to the situation concerning onshore wind. On solar panels, the Government of course substantially reduced the feed-in tariffs to ensure that this industry was not over-subsidised, because all subsidies end up on consumers’ bills and we should think very carefully about that.

Glenfield hospital has the second best survival rates from children’s heart surgery in the country. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the quality of care—including survival rates, which are what matter most to parents—is central to any decision on the future of these services?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will make an announcement shortly about Safe and Sustainable and children’s heart operations. We have to be frank with people: we cannot expect really technical surgery, such as children’s heart operations, to be carried out at every hospital in the country. As the parent of a desperately ill child wanting the best care for that child, you need to know that you are getting something that is world best when it comes to really technical operations, but you cannot have that everywhere. Clearly, however, the conclusion is that this process, which started in 2008, has not been carried out properly, so we need to make a restart.

Q13. Is the Prime Minister aware that last year Britain became a net exporter of cars for the first time since 1976? If this trend continues, the UK will produce an all-time record of 2 million cars in 2017. Is this not a really good example of a high added-value sector upskilling and putting the “great” back into British manufacturing and exports? (159137)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a good example of a British industry that is succeeding. If we look at Honda, Nissan, Toyota or Jaguar Land Rover, we see really good news in our automotive sector. We now need to get behind it and encourage it to have as much of its supply chain onshore as possible. That is beginning to happen in these industries, and I hope for further progress in the months ahead.

Q14. This week, Newcastle city council has revealed that rent arrears have increased by more than £550,000 since the bedroom tax was introduced in April. Furthermore, 60% of affected households are falling into arrears. When will the Prime Minister admit that this devastating policy risks costing more than it saves? (159138)

We ended the spare room subsidy because we did not think it was fair to give to people in council houses a subsidy that those in private rented accommodation did not have. There is now a question for the Labour party: if it is to have this welfare cap, will it now tell us whether it will reverse this change? Will you? [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is shaking his head. Is that a no? That is right. After all the talk of the last few weeks—the iron discipline we were going to hear about, the welfare cap they were telling us about—they have failed the first test.

Q15. Tax avoidance is rightly at the heart of the G8 agenda. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell the House what advice he might have received on this issue from either the leader of the Labour party or the international, pizza and expensive curry-loving shadow Chancellor? (159139)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is this Government who are putting aggressive tax avoidance at the heart of the G8 agenda, and what do we hear this week from the Labour party? It gives tax avoidance advice to its donors. That is what it has been doing: £700,000 of tax has been avoided because of what Labour advised its donor to do.

The shadow Chancellor asks me to calm down. Frankly, I cannot calm down because this is money that ought to be going into our health service, education and training young people. Let me challenge the Opposition: will you give the money back? Yes or no? It is very simple. On 2 April, the Labour leader said—according to The Guardian, so it must be true—that

“tax avoidance is a terrible thing”.

He has also said:

“If everyone approaches their tax affairs as some of these companies have approached their tax affairs we wouldn't have a health service, we wouldn't have an education system.”

That is the shameful state of the Labour party today.

This week is carers week. Will the Prime Minister show support for the 7 million unpaid carers across the country and invest £1.2 billion from last year’s NHS under-spend in social care, as we have pledged to do, so averting the Government-made crisis in accident and emergency and social care?

We could start with the money from Labour’s tax avoiding. That is money that should be going into the care system and the NHS. The Government have put £12.7 billion extra into our NHS. That is how we are supporting carers and hospitals, but the hon. Lady can have a word with the shadow Chancellor and her leader and say, “Pay the taxes you owe.”

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, will the Prime Minister join me in recognising the challenges we face in continuing to bring oil and gas ashore from the North sea, the skills and dedication of those who do it and the paramount importance of safety in ensuring that we can continue to exploit these resources?

I certainly join my right hon. Friend in praising the North sea oil and gas industry. It is a real jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom economy. What is encouraging is that this year we are seeing a growth in production, as a number of new fields and projects come on stream, but he is absolutely right to say that at all times safety and security are absolutely paramount.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of the House. Points of order come after statements. I feel sure that he will be just as keen at that point and will spring up from his seat to favour the House with his thoughts.

We shall now have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health, who is at this moment beetling towards the Dispatch Box.