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Volume 565: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2013

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

Many people in Sittingbourne and Sheppey who have mortgages are benefiting from historically low interest rates. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give my constituents that their mortgages will continue to be affordable under his Government?

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.

Last May, the Education Secretary said that “work will begin immediately” on 261 projects under the Priority School Building programme. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many have begun?

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.

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman knows the answer. I will tell him the answer: 261 schools were promised, only one has started. Now perhaps he can explain why.

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.]

Order. The answer from the Prime Minister must be heard and questions to him, from whichever side of the House, must be heard. It is very clear, very simple—it is called democracy.

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.

Q2. Today, the Government publish the spending round for 2015-16. Will the Prime Minister confirm that it rejects the representations to borrow less by borrowing more, as proposed by the Opposition? (161523)

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.

Q7. In October 2010, the Prime Minister told the Conservative party conference:“In five years’ time, we will have balanced the books.”That promise is going to be broken, is it not, Prime Minister? (161528)

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.