The Secretary of State was asked—
I regularly meet Scottish Government Ministers to discuss a wide range of issues. I commend the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee on investigating the deplorable activity of blacklisting. The Committee’s final report will be given careful consideration by the Government when it is published.
I thank the Minister for his response. Perhaps the most ridiculous case of blacklisting that I am aware of is that of the late great Dundonian, Mr Syd Scroggie. He lost a leg and the sight in both his eyes serving his country during the second world war. He found himself on a blacklist. What was his crime? He had written to The Scotsman newspaper to commend the then Dundee district council for buying a portrait of Nelson Mandela. Will the Minister liaise with the Scottish Government to ensure that the odious practice of blacklisting is wiped out?
As someone who has been blacklisted three times in the past, I can tell the Minister that it is an obnoxious way of going about business. Will he ensure that legislation is put in place to ensure that people like me and many others in Scotland do not have to face such a practice in future?
The Government take this matter very seriously. As the hon. Gentleman will know, legislation is already in place in the form of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. We await the Scottish Affairs Committee report to see whether it proposes any further measures.
The United Kingdom Government are providing evidence and analysis to allow voters to make an informed choice about Scotland within the United Kingdom. We are publishing analysis papers on all the key issues throughout this year and next.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that. It demonstrates that Scotland enjoys the best of both worlds, with a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong voice here in Westminster. Our economy is able to benefit from the scale and support of the whole UK. Our place in the world is all the stronger, and our voice in the world all the louder, for being part of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce highlighted what it called information gaps, which are a result of Scotland not yet knowing how it would handle business and income taxes and not yet knowing what its currency, its status in the EU or its relationship with international organisations would be. What will this Government do to ensure that all voters in Scotland have the facts, rather than the assertions being made by the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government?
I commend the Scottish Chambers of Commerce for the work that it is doing, along with others. This week, the Scotland Institute has also highlighted some important deficiencies in the nationalists’ arguments on defence. Our papers on devolution, on the currency and on financial services are setting out the arguments and analysis so that Scotland can make an informed choice. I remain confident that we will decide to stay part of the United Kingdom.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on the positive case that he is making? As he has just been joined on the Treasury Bench by the Secretary of State for Defence, will he ensure that all Government Departments including the Ministry of Defence take every opportunity to examine critically the defence proposals of the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government, which have yet again been the subject of strong criticism in an independent report this week?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is very much engaged in this entire debate. Central to that debate will be the SNP’s attempt to have it both ways by reluctantly and belatedly signing up for NATO—three quarters of Scots support it, so that was perhaps inevitable—while not being willing to accept the obligations and rules that go with it, including a nuclear umbrella as part of the strategic concept.
It emerged at the weekend that insiders of the no campaign against Scottish independence secretly call the campaign “project fear”. This is a campaign based on scaremongering and negativity. Is the Secretary of State embarrassed?
I think people on the pro-UK side of the campaign could show their Twitter feeds to anyone to show what negativity and scaremongering are all about. I think, too, that hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about casting aspersions and should concentrate on getting on with the proper arguments. From his side of the debate, we have so far seen no arguments and no detail.
My hon. Friend, whose distinguished track record in these matters is well known to people across the House, makes a very important point. This week, the report of the Scotland Institute—an independent body—has put real and serious questions to the SNP and the yes campaign that they cannot answer.
3. Which Department is responsible for promoting in Scotland the UK Government’s policies on supporting home buyers; and if he will make a statement. (160886)
The Government are providing wide-ranging support to help people buy their homes. That support includes the UK-wide Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme, which is led by the Treasury and opens in January 2014. The Treasury has also worked with the Bank of England to implement the funding for lending scheme.
Next year, home buyers in Scotland will have the opportunity to access the Scottish Government’s shared equity scheme, the Scottish Government’s mortgage guarantee scheme and the UK Government’s mortgage guarantee scheme. That may sound like a surfeit of riches, but it is leading to confusion, even now, about the best way to access these schemes. Why do the Government not take more action to ensure that there is a close relationship between what the Scottish Government are doing and what the UK Government are doing to make sure that the benefits of these schemes do not go to second home buyers, buying houses of up to £600,000 a year, as the people who need them are first home buyers and people on modest incomes?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are working closely with the Scottish Government in relation to their equity scheme, which is equivalent to, but not the same as, the equity loan scheme available in England. The Home to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme will be available in Scotland, and we are working with the Scottish Government to ensure that there is a communications plan so that potential home buyers in Scotland fully understand how all the schemes work and how they relate to each other.
As my hon. Friend has just pointed out, the capital limit on the mortgage guarantee scheme of the UK Government is £600,000. This is hardly designed for those on low and modest incomes. Would the money not be better spent on providing social housing, which is badly needed across Scotland?
I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the 10% increase in loans to first-time buyers in Scotland in the first quarter of 2012. The limit of the scheme reflects house prices across the United Kingdom, and I believe that it is fair and equitable.
Common Agricultural Policy
Negotiations have been making real progress in the last few hours. We aim to deliver a strong outcome for farmers in Scotland, securing full regionalisation of the common agricultural policy to take account of the particular circumstances of Scottish producers.
Notwithstanding the proven need for environmental schemes, does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to enable the farmers to make decisions about their own production mechanisms, so that they can improve production and provide more sustainable food for this country’s future?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the last couple of hours after his all-night negotiations in Luxembourg. He remains committed to a scheme that will ensure that farmers get as productive as possible. He wants a scheme that is regionalised for Scotland, and he is delivering that. We have an arrangement that, I hope, will be fair to farmers, fair to consumers and fair to taxpayers.
Obviously the most important issue for my constituents is the future of the shipyards, which are threatened by separation, but they are also concerned about the fact that the common agricultural policy supplies public money to landlords who have surplus acres, while the Government fine tenants who are deemed to have surplus bedrooms. Is that fair?
Let me first pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and welcome his evident return to robust good health. I agree with him about the importance of the shipyards in the context of the debate about independence. As for the agricultural issue, I hope that the hon. Gentleman—who is a long-time campaigner for reform of the CAP—will see an outcome from what is still an ongoing process that is fair to his constituents as well as to farmers.
I know that regionalisation is just as important to the delivery of the common agricultural policy as it is to the delivery of the common fisheries policy, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the possible cross-border impact of the way in which the reforms are implemented in Scotland on constituencies that are very close to Scotland?
Obviously I defer to the hon. Lady’s expertise in this area, but as one who represents what I believe is the longest section of the land border between Scotland and England, I am well aware of the issues that she has raised. What the Secretary of State has been negotiating in Luxembourg is an arrangement that introduces regionalisation for the whole United Kingdom, and allows us to design a common agricultural policy that is fit for local circumstances and fair to farmers throughout the UK.
I am disappointed that the United Kingdom Government are set to negotiate a CAP deal that will leave Scotland with the lowest rural development budget not just in the UK, but anywhere in Europe. Had Scotland been negotiating on its own behalf, it would have benefited from the rule that no member state should receive less than €196 per hectare by 2020. Does the Secretary of State accept that being tied to the UK in these negotiations will cost Scottish farming £300 million a year for the next seven years?
I am disappointed by the churlish tone adopted by the hon. Lady. I hoped that she might just have studied the tweets from the Scottish agriculture Minister, which have welcomed the major breakthroughs that we have achieved. We have done that as member of the United Kingdom, sitting at the top table and with the clout to deliver a regionalised CAP. It is now for Richard Lochhead and others to get on with designing a common agricultural policy that suits Scotland’s needs, and Mr Lochhead has the ability to do that.
If agreement is reached this week on a common agricultural policy that will benefit farmers throughout Scotland, will it not constitute more evidence that Scotland speaks with a louder voice in EU negotiations as part of the United Kingdom?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the model of the negotiations reinforces his point. It should be noted that the Scottish farming Minister, Richard Lochhead, who has been involved in discussions with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs throughout the process, was in Luxembourg overnight, and has seen the United Kingdom deliver for Scotland.
The most recent labour statistics show that between February and April 2013 employment in Scotland has increased by 47,000, while unemployment has fallen by 6,000 and the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants by 900. The Government will continue to take the necessary steps to build a stronger economy in a fairer society.
I believe that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom has the most appropriate opportunities, and that not only its businesses but its consumers benefit from the great strength of the UK economy. They have more choice and more security as part of the United Kingdom, and when times get tough—as we saw at the time of the banking crisis—the United Kingdom is there to help out. That is a good deal, and we should stick with it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), I represent a constituency in which the shipyards are the main employer. Scotstoun shipyard employs 2,000 people. What will happen to them if Scotland votes for independence next year?
Once again, from the other side of the Clyde, the hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. That question is directed to the SNP routinely and it is one for which it has no answer. The arrangement we have with the shipyards and with construction at Rosyth and elsewhere is very good for Scotland, and we should long continue to be part of the UK.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that many of the jobs are in the offshore oil and gas industry, and we must not forget that that is a very dangerous environment to operate in, especially as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 lives were lost? Will he study the outcome of the conference Piper 25 held last week, to see the redoubled efforts of the industry to make conditions as safe as possible for those who work for us offshore?
My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the tragic events of 25 years ago. The loss of 167 lives is something that the families, communities and area are still dealing with a quarter of a century later. We all remember that tragedy and remain committed to ensuring that we have the highest possible standards of health and safety in the North sea. As a Government, we remain committed to working with the sector, the trade unions and others to ensure that is the case, and of course we will study the recommendations from the conference to which my hon. Friend referred.
I would have hoped the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that more people are in employment as a result of the measures we are taking, and that we have created nearly 150,000 private sector jobs in Scotland. Of course there are still challenges facing the economy, but the hon. Lady will remember the legacy she left us, and she can see for herself the crisis in the eurozone. We remain committed to taking the steps that will continue our progress on the road to recovery.
Once again the Secretary of State does not let the facts get in the way of the same old answer. Average wages in Scotland have, in fact, gone down by £1,100 since he took office. That is the equivalent of 14 tanks of petrol, 15 weekly shops, or over nine months of gas and electricity bills. The Secretary of State has said in the past
“the horrible truth is…everyone is going to have to make a contribution”.
Is this what he had in mind?
Despite the changes from the shadow Chancellor in recent days, the hon. Lady does not seem to have caught up with the new script—the recognition that the Labour party left the decks burning when it went out of office three years ago. She is not going to be credible until she faces up to that. What I have said to her is, “Yes, these are tough times, and they continue to be challenging,” but what we are doing, by raising the tax threshold so that 224,000 Scots are out of tax all together and 2 million Scots are enjoying a £600 per annum reduction in their income tax bill, is very important. We continue to work for fairness and for a successful economy.
Discretionary Housing Payments
Earlier this month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I met the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform, to discuss information received from local authorities in Scotland on this matter.
The Minister will of course know that some 80% of affected households in Scotland contain a disabled adult, yet they get only a paltry 6.5% of the total budget. Instead of concentrating on his pathetic scaremongering “project fear”, will he concentrate on the real fears of real Scots under this Tory-led Government?
What I am concentrating on is the real concerns of local authorities in Scotland. That is why the Secretary of State and I have met every single local authority in Scotland to discuss the specific concerns they have in relation to welfare reform, and we will meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities at the end of July to discuss the outcome of those discussions.
Against a tough economic backdrop of the deficit we inherited from the previous Government and the crisis in the eurozone, we are taking the measures necessary to create a rebalanced economy with sustainable public finances.
I recognise the issue the hon. Gentleman raises on his constituents’ behalf, and others have done similar. I am very happy to meet him to discuss it further if he wishes. However, we want to ensure that we have an arrangement that helps those with disabilities, and others, to get into the workplace in a sustainable manner. [Interruption.]
Superfast broadband is very important for the economy of rural areas. The Government’s target is 90% coverage by 2015, but in the highlands and islands, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s target is only 75% coverage in each local authority area by December 2016. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can get this target up to something comparable to the rest of the country?
My hon. Friend is right to champion this cause, and it is very important indeed that we get superfast broadband as far across the UK as possible, and particularly in the highlands and islands. However, he might wish to wait for further announcements from the Government in the next day or so.
As part of the “project fear” tactics, there has been a ridiculous level of scaremongering in relation to inward investment, whereas in fact, Scottish Development International and the Scottish Government have helped to deliver a 15-year high in investment levels. Will the Secretary of State apologise for the scaremongering tactics of “project fear” that he is a part of?
The hon. Gentleman needs to relax a bit and address this issue sensibly. He surely recognises that that record investment comes on the back of a United Kingdom economic framework that is supportive to businesses wherever they locate in the United Kingdom, and through which businesses can get access to the whole of the United Kingdom economy, without any false barriers created by him and his friends.
But the failing austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government are not delivering the growth we require in Scotland or in the UK. However, will he take the opportunity to welcome the help and support he is getting as part of the “project fear” campaign by those who agree with the austerity course, who will agree with the Conservative spending caps that have been announced, and who now agree with bedroom tax: namely—
That is another neat diversion by the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot avoid the fact that he and his colleagues have no answers on the central questions of Scotland’s economy: what currency it will have, how the banks and others will be regulated, how trade will work across the United Kingdom. On every single important question, there are no answers from the SNP. It will not be listened to until those answers come.
This Government have delivered just one fifth of the promised growth since 2010. Is the Secretary of State also aware that the working-age employment rate in Scotland has fallen by 2% from five years ago, leaving a jobs gap for Scotland of more than 71,000? Does that not make the case for a jobs guarantee now to get Scotland’s young and long-term jobless people back into work, generate more tax revenues and help cut the deficit, which rose, not fell, last year under this incompetent Government?
The hon. Gentleman should perhaps practise his questions a little more. Yet again, there is denial from him and his colleagues of the good progress we have been making on unemployment, and I hope he recognises that. It is absolutely essential that we take the measures to support people into work, which we are doing with the Work programme and the Youth Contract, and we will be making work pay with universal credit. He can shake his head, but he needs to get with the reality.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that connectivity through regional air hubs to international hubs is vital to the performance of the Scottish economy? What can the Government do to assist in maintaining those links, particularly at Inverness and to the highlands?
My hon. Friend is a real champion of those vital air links to the north and to the far north, which he represents. I know that he has been making strong representations recently, and we would be happy to have further meetings with him to discuss these issues.
The Office for Budget Responsibility states that real wages in Scotland will be lower in 2015 than they were when Labour left office. Why is the Secretary of State not standing up for hard-working Scots and protecting tax credits, and is instead giving a tax break to millionaires?
There we go again. The hon. Lady, once again, chooses to ignore the absolute crisis that the Labour party left for the incoming Government three years ago. She forgets the measures we have taken to take low-paid Scots—224,000 of them—out of tax altogether. She forgets all those things. Without the firm measures we have taken in the past three years we would not be moving from rescue to recovery, as we are.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26 June. (161522)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We do enjoy record low interest rates, and that is good news for home owners. What we need to do is stick to the plans that we have set out and have a sensible fiscal policy, so that the Bank of England can keep interest rates low. Here is one piece of advice I will not be taking: on Saturday the leader of the Labour party said that he wanted to control borrowing but on Sunday the shadow Chancellor said borrowing would go up. Perhaps the leader of the Labour party will admit it when he gets to his feet: Labour would borrow more.
What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that infrastructure spending under this Government has been higher than it was under Labour, and we have about £14 billion reserved for capital spending on our schools. But we have had to clear up the appalling mess left by the Building Schools for the Future programme.
We have had to recover from the appalling mess of the Building Schools for the Future programme. That is the mess that we inherited—as well as a record deficit—but it is this Government, as the Chancellor will announce in a minute, who are providing half a million extra school places.
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that one. Let us try another one. In October 2011, he said he wanted to
“bring forward every single infrastructure project that is in the pipeline”.
So, out of 576 projects set out in that plan, how many have been completed?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures for infrastructure spending. Our annual infrastructure investment is £33 billion, which is £4 billion more every year than was ever achieved under Labour. Now let me give him the figures for road schemes. We are investing more in major road schemes in each of the first—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman asked the question: how many of the schemes have been completed? You cannot build a nuclear power station overnight. By the way, the Labour Government had 13 years and they did not build a single one. Let me give him the figures on rail. This Government are electrifying more than 300 miles of railway routes. Perhaps he can tell us how many were electrified under Labour? How many? Nine miles—that is the Labour record that this Government are recovering from.
I will tell the Prime Minister about our record in infrastructure: 100 new hospitals under a Labour Government, 3,700 schools rebuilt under a Labour Government, and 3,500 new children’s centres—all under a Labour Government. He has no answer, so let me tell him it again: seven out of 576 projects, five of which were started under the previous Labour Government. He said that it takes a long time to complete these projects—I thought he might say that—but 80% have not even been started, despite the promises of three years ago. More promises, no delivery.
Let us see whether the Prime Minister can answer another one. Last year, the Government said that their NewBuy guarantee scheme would help 100,000 people buy a new home. How many people has it helped so far?
It has helped thousands of people and has been welcomed by the entire industry. The right hon. Gentleman talks about what was built under a Labour Government and we saw the results—a private finance initiative scheme on which we are still paying the debt and an 11% of GDP budget deficit that this Government will cut in half. That is the proof of what we are doing and we all know that the one question he has to answer is whether he will now admit that he wants to put borrowing up. Will he admit it?
Every time I come to Prime Minister’s questions, I ask the Prime Minister a question and he does not answer it—he just asks me one. The only fact that this House needs to know about borrowing is that contrary to the promise the Chancellor made in his autumn statement, it went up last year. That is the truth we find. Let me answer the question the Prime Minister did not know the answer to. He promised 100,000 new homes under NewBuy, but there have been just 2,000. At that rate, it will take until 2058 to meet the target he set.
The British Chambers of Commerce says that the Government’s plan for infrastructure is
“hot air, a complete fiction.”
Even the Deputy Prime Minister has woken up to the problem. He said yesterday
“the gap between…announcement and delivery is quite significant.”
No kidding, Mr Speaker. Why should we believe the promises the Chancellor makes on infrastructure today when the Prime Minister’s own deputy says that they are failing to deliver?
The right hon. Gentleman asks for the figures on housing, so let me give him those figures. We have delivered 84,000 new affordable homes. Housing supply is at the highest level since 2008, house building is increasing at a faster rate than for more than two years and we have put in place £11 billion for housing investment. Let me ask him again the question he will not answer—[Interruption.] I know that he does not want to answer the question, but that is why half the country think he is Bert from “The Muppets”, as they think he belongs in “Sesame Street”, not Downing street. Let me give him another go: will he admit that borrowing would go up under Labour?
Let me say to the Prime Minister that we will swap places any time. Here is the reality: the Prime Minister promised to balance the books, but borrowing was up last year; he said that we are all in it together, but living standards are falling; he promised to get Britain building, but the Government have not. All we need to know about this Chancellor’s spending review is that the British people are paying the price for their failure.
Let us remember what the Leader of the Opposition said at the time of the last spending review. He said unemployment would go up; it has gone down. He told us crime would go up; it has gone down. He told us volunteering would go down; it has gone up. He told us that poorer students would not go to university; the percentage has gone up. He told us that our immigration policy would not work; we have cut immigration by a third. That is what we have done—as ever, he is wrong about the economy, wrong about everything and never trusted by the British people.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. On Saturday, the leader of the Labour party told us there would be iron discipline on spending, but on Sunday, the shadow Chancellor, on the television, having been asked five times, admitted that yes, borrowing would go up. So there we have it: they want to borrow less by borrowing more; they want to spend less by spending more; they want to cap welfare by spending more on welfare. No wonder it is not just people at Wimbledon saying, “New balls, please.” [Interruption.]
Twenty-one today, twenty-one today, he’s got the key of the door, never been twenty-one before—
I certainly would not suggest a vote on it, Mr Speaker.
Is the Prime Minister aware how shocking it is that the police apparently spent more time investigating the parents and friends of Stephen Lawrence than the racist murder itself, which took place in 1993? When the Home Secretary meets Mrs Lawrence, will she apologise for what occurred? Is it really right for the police to investigate themselves?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely serious point about a very serious situation. The Lawrence family have suffered appallingly: they lost their son; there was the failure to investigate properly, year after year; and now they hear these allegations that the police were trying to undermine them, rather than help them. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out in the House on Monday the two inquiries—independent inquiries, already under way—and she met Mark Ellison QC again this morning to make sure that his inquiry will cover the allegations made overnight about the bugging by the police of a friend of Stephen Lawrence, but nothing is off the table. If more needs to be done and if further investigations or inquiries need to be held, they will be held. This is not an acceptable situation, and we must get to the bottom of it.
Q3. My Battersea constituency is attracting a large amount of inward investment from around the world for major infrastructure projects. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that one of the ways in which we are restoring the UK’s credibility overseas is by dealing with our debts and showing how we fund public spending properly? (161524)
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The redevelopment of Battersea power station, which for all those years under Labour stood there completely empty and unused, is to start this year, because under this Government we take infrastructure seriously, we get investors to come into our country, and we get projects started—unlike the wasted years under Labour.
Q4. Never mind Battersea, what about Bassetlaw? In its last six years, the Labour Government delivered £225 million-worth of major infrastructure projects. Can the Prime Minister confirm that in his three years there has been zero delivery of such projects and zero starts of such projects? When will he stop faffing around and get the new Elkesley flyover and the new Serlby Park school, which were guaranteed by the last Government, started in my constituency? (161525)
The last Government made a lot of guarantees and wrote a lot of cheques, but they could not deliver and they left us with an enormous budget deficit. Let me give the hon. Gentleman the figures: our spending on capital spending is higher than what Labour planned, and annual infrastructure investment is £33 billion, which is £4 billion more than Labour achieved, even in the boom years. That is what happened: they had an unaffordable boom and a painful bust, and it is this Government who are delivering the recovery.
The Prime Minister knows Ipswich well and he knows that it has some of the poorest wards in the country. He will know that two of those wards were promised schools by the previous Government. They did not deliver them in 13 years. I have just been to the topping out ceremony of one of them, delivered by this Government, and next year we will break ground on the other. When it comes to promises to the least advantaged people in our community, Labour are very good at promising. We deliver.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition do not like hearing the evidence of the new schools being built by the Government in difficult times. Also, when we talked about the east of England, year after year, there were calls for improvements to the A11—never delivered, but delivered by this Government.
Q5. The staging of the G8 proved that Northern Ireland is open to the world for business. Now we need the business of the world to come to Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister give us an outline of what he will do in conjunction with the American Administration and the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a successful inward investment conference in October to deliver thousands of much-needed private sector jobs? (161526)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I look forward to coming to Northern Ireland for that vital investment conference. I think that what we will be able to demonstrate is not only the success of the G8 and the great advertisement that that was for Northern Ireland but the coming together of the UK Government and the Northern Irish Assembly with plans both for economic development and for breaking down the barriers in Northern Ireland between different communities. That shared future agenda is important not just for the future of society in Northern Ireland but for the future of our economy too.
I recently met Banchory Academy’s Amnesty International group, which has highlighted concerns about the risks to women in Afghanistan. What reassurance can the Prime Minister provide that the Government will continue their efforts to make sure that there is no return to the threats to women that we have seen in Afghanistan in the past?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and we should continue to support the Afghan constitution, which gives important guarantees in that regard. I spoke yesterday to President Karzai, including on the issue of the Afghan constitution and how important it is. We are making a major investment by supporting the Afghan national security forces, and through our aid programme—over $100 million a year—we can help to secure the sort of advances in Afghanistan that we all want to see.
Q6. Further to the question that the Prime Minister failed to answer last week, can he confirm that he has never had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about alcohol pricing or cigarettes? The question is not “Has he been lobbied?”, but “Has he had that conversation?” (161527)
As I said last week, I have never been lobbied by Lynton Crosby about anything. The difference between me and, frankly, every Opposition Member is that I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have never been lobbied by trade union after trade union making donation after donation, fixing parliamentary selection after parliamentary selection. That is the real problem in British politics, and it is time that we cleaned it up.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. With Armed Forces day in mind this weekend, will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting a campaign in Rossendale and Darwen, supported by Support Our Soldiers, the Rossendale Free Press and the Lancashire Telegraph, encouraging local residents to come and pack boxes to be sent to our troops serving in Afghanistan? We hope that by the end of this weekend we will have packed 500 to be sent to our troops.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, and everyone in Rossendale and Darwen who is taking part in this excellent initiative. I have seen these boxes not only being packed in Britain but unloaded in Afghanistan, and I can see the huge pleasure and support that they give our troops in Afghanistan. We should continue to use the money that has been raised in fines from irresponsible bankers following the LIBOR inquiry to invest in the armed forces covenant. Under this Government, we have made real progress in delivering that sort of help and support to armed forces, their families and their communities.
We have cut the deficit by a third, and we will cut it further by the next election. Frankly, coming to the House complaining about borrowing when you plan to put it up is a pretty odd political strategy. That is the question that the hon. Gentleman has to put to his Front Bench. Why, if borrowing is a problem, is it Labour policy to put it up?
In 2008 Labour buried three reports warning of a culture of fear in the NHS and warning about inspections. Now we find that its Care Quality Commission has buried concerns over baby deaths. Will the Prime Minister support a root-and-branch review of the sinister culture of cover-up in our NHS over the past decade?
First, I commend my hon. Friend for this campaign that she is fighting for openness, transparency and clarity in our NHS. She makes an important point, which is that there was a culture under the previous Government of not revealing problems in the NHS. The former Health Secretary is shaking his head, but this is what the former head of the CQC, Baroness Young, appointed by the previous Government, said—[Interruption.] I know the Opposition do not want to hear it, but they are going to have to hear it, because it is important that we understand the culture that went wrong under Labour. She said this:
“There was huge government pressure, because the government hated the idea that—that a regulator would criticise it by dint of criticising one of the hospitals or one of the services that it was responsible for.”
That is what Barbara Young said. And she said:
“We were under more pressure. . . when”—
the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham)—
“became minister, from the politics.”
There was a culture problem under Labour, and the sooner the Opposition admit it, the better.
Q8. We now know from the latest Office for National Statistics figures that borrowing did rise last year, and the Prime Minister will recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer two years ago said, “We have asked the British people for all that is needed, there is no need to ask for more.” Today, why is he asking for more? (161529)
We have to have a spending review to cover the year 2015-16, which was not covered by previous spending reviews. We have got the deficit down by a third. It is hard, painful and difficult work but we are clearing up the mess left when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Government.
Sixteen to 18-year-olds can receive free school meals in schools, academies, free schools and university technical colleges, but not in sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, such as those in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister act now to end this clear injustice left by Labour?
I am very happy to look at this issue. I know that school meals are very much in the news this week because it is a week when we should be promoting healthy eating in our schools. I am happy to look at the issue, but we have to think very carefully about how best to use the education budget to get money directed to schools for all our children.
Q9. I think the Prime Minister will agree that both his generation and mine were lucky enough to come on to the labour market at a time of full employment and great opportunity. Has he seen the OECD figures this morning in a report that shows the gravity of youth unemployment in our country? May we please, at this late stage in this Government, have a determination to stop unemployment up to the age of 25, as is the case in the Netherlands? Why cannot we deliver that for young people in our country? (161530)
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that youth unemployment is a scourge. There is good news in the fact that unemployment has been coming down and youth unemployment has been coming down, but he is absolutely right that it should not be the case that we have youth unemployment of 55% in Spain, yet it is under 8% in Holland. We need to make sure here in the UK that we are performing alongside Holland, Germany and the countries with the lowest rates of youth unemployment. We do that by having a flexible labour market and by helping businesses to invest and locate here. As we stand today, employment is growing faster here than it is in any other G7 country, including Germany, so we are doing the right thing, but we need to focus more on young people.
I have the Prime Minister’s helpful recent letter to me, underlining in his own hand that housing development does not trump the green belt. I gave his letter to Martin Pike, the planning inspector reviewing Reigate and Banstead’s core strategy, and I regret to report that he upheld the principle that green fields in the green belt could be identified for development against the wishes of local people. Will my right hon. Friend now direct the amendment of the national planning policy framework to better protect green fields in the green belt from unwanted development?
I remember underlining that part of the letter. The rules about the green belt have not changed. A local authority can change the green belt only by taking something out of the green belt and putting something back in, in consultation with local people. I know my hon. Friend is having that discussion with his local authority and I am quite convinced that, with the NPPF that we have in place, we can get the balance right between environmental protection on the one hand and the need for more housing on the other.
Q10. This afternoon I shall vote enthusiastically for the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill, but can the Prime Minister explain why he has instructed his officials and Ministers to oppose the extension of the trans-European network north of London, which will mean that if we stay in the European Union, High Speed 2 and other transport links to the north of England will not be eligible for funding? (161531)
Obviously we will be looking at all the ways we can increase the funding available for high-speed rail because, as the hon. Gentleman says, it is very important not only that we achieve high-speed rail between London and Birmingham, but that we build the next stages as well.
The Prime Minister knows how hard the Shropshire MPs have worked to get a direct train service from London to Shrewsbury. Virgin wants to implement that direct service in December, but unfortunately Network Rail is trying to prevent that from happening. We are the only county town in England without a direct rail service to London. Will he use his good offices to ensure that that blockage is resolved?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Transport Secretary will be meeting him next week to discuss the issue. In terms of the answer I just gave on high-speed rail, I think that we have to recognise that there is a lot of congestion on our existing main lines and that high-speed rail will help free up services so that we can have more direct connections, particularly to important towns such as Shrewsbury.
Q11. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills proposes to abolish the protection for the name “Sheffield” that guarantees the quality of our manufactured goods. The Ministry of Defence proposes to move the headquarters of our Territorial Army regiment out of the city. What have this Government got against the businesses and people of Sheffield? (161532)
Sheffield is a fantastic city and a very important part of Britain’s industrial base, and I am proud of the fact that, through the regional growth fund and other schemes, we are investing in its future. We are actually putting more money into the reserves—an extra £1.5 billion—to ensure that we get them up to the level of strength needed for Future Force 2020. On the other issue, I am reliably informed that the hon. Lady should have some confidence.
Military bands are important not only to Her Majesty’s armed forces, but to the civilian population. The previous Labour Government cut the number of Army bands by a quarter. In this Armed Forces week, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that there will be no further cuts to Army bands?
The assurance I can give my hon. Friend, as the Chancellor will say in a few minutes, is this: yes, of course we have had to make difficult efficiencies in the Ministry of Defence, but there will be no further reductions in the size of our Army, Navy or Air Force, and we will continue with an equipment programme that I think is second to none in terms of the capabilities we will be giving our brave armed service personnel.
Q12. Mr Speaker, you will recall that over a year ago—you probably know the exact date—the Prime Minister announced an internal inquiry, to be led by the lustrously named Lord Gold, into the cash-for-access scandal, in which major Conservative party donors were richly, if not royally, entertained at Downing street and Chequers. When does the Prime Minister plan to produce and publish the results of that inquiry? (161533)
I am very happy to set out for the hon. Gentleman all the things Lord Gold recommended and all the steps that we will be taking, but as we do so perhaps he could impose the issue of donations on his Front Benchers and ask them when they will pay back the taxes they managed to dodge from their donor?
Q13. School dinners are vital to ensuring that children eat healthily and in helping to tackle childhood obesity. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the parliamentary launch of national school meals week, which will take place in the Jubilee Room this afternoon? (161534)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. I think it is a very important cause, because we have had several problems with school meals over the years. They are not attractive enough for young people who want to take them, and there are also problems with obesity, so getting this right, which has been happening over recent years, is extremely important. I speak as someone with two children who enjoy their school meals, and I want the school to go on winning the battle for school meals, rather than parents having to make the packed lunches.
The revelation that the Metropolitan police may have withheld evidence from the Macpherson inquiry has rightly been met with public derision, but the Prime Minister’s answer earlier on really did not go far enough. The public are not satisfied by the police investigating the police, nor will an inquiry held in secret, no matter how eminent the QC, satisfy public opinion. Will the Prime Minister now give an undertaking to hold a public inquiry with the power to summon people and hear evidence under oath?
As I said earlier, I rule absolutely nothing out. We have got to get to the bottom of this. But to be fair, this is not the Metropolitan police investigating the Metropolitan police. Two inquiries are under way. One is led by Mark Ellison QC, who played a very major role in prosecuting some of those responsible and who met the Home Secretary today, and the second is led by the chief constable of Derbyshire police force. We need to make sure that they have all the powers and everything that they need. But as I said very clearly, if we need to go further to get to the truth, we will.
Q14. As the spending round is published, will the Prime Minister assure the House that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will be given the resources to clamp down on tax avoidance, such as the £700,000 avoided by the Labour party? (161535)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I said that I would mention this at every Prime Minister’s questions; I have already managed to get it in once and it is a great pleasure to get it in again. They owe £700,000 of tax that could be going into schools or hospitals. It is about time they realised what hypocrites they are and paid up the money.
Q15. With more than 400,000 house building plots with planning permission remaining unbuilt on in this country, does the Prime Minister agree with me that we should now put pressure on companies to start building and creating jobs rather than simply waiting for their profits to increase? (161536)
I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to do more to encourage businesses to build on the plots they already have. That is why we have taken unprecedented steps, with schemes such as Help to Buy that are making mortgages available to young people. All those initiatives are actually making a difference, and housing starts are radically up compared with two years ago. But I do not rule out taking further steps as well.
The Government deserve credit for having introduced the cancer drugs fund, which has helped more than 30,000 cancer patients since 2010, but can I share with the Prime Minister the fact that there is growing concern about the lack of clarity regarding its replacement at the beginning of the year? Will he look at this as a matter of urgency?
I am looking at it as a matter of urgency. I am very proud of the cancer drugs fund; as my hon. Friend says, it has saved many lives and made drugs available to more than 30,000 people. It has been expanded to include some treatments as well as drugs. I certainly want to see this a record that we build on and in no way put at risk.
Last week, the Prime Minister said that people on the Labour Benches had forgotten about the bedroom tax. I can assure him that my constituents certainly have not. In my city last week, only 23 one-bedroom homes were available for let. Of those, four had more than 200 applicants. When is the Prime Minister going to admit that this is not the best way of reducing the housing benefit bill?
The point I make to the hon. Lady is that we are removing the spare room subsidy because it is right for there to be fairness as between people in privately rented accommodation and people in socially rented accommodation. But this, in a way, is the perfect prelude to the spending review that we are about to hear. Labour has told us that it is now going to be responsible about spending and that it is going to accept the cuts that have been made, yet we hear, week after week, Back Bencher after Back Bencher, Front Bencher after Front Bencher complaining about the difficult decisions that we have had to take and promising to reverse them. That is why Labour has absolutely no credibility whatever.