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Prime Minister

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

People using Scunthorpe general hospital today are asking for reassurance. Given that Sir Bruce Keogh says that now is not the time for hasty reactions or recriminations, will the Prime Minister commit the resource and support—as well as setting the challenge—to ensure that the hospital delivers high-quality care across all its departments?

First, let me echo what the hon. Gentleman says about the Keogh report. That good report says that even those hospitals facing these challenges that have been investigated have many instances of excellent care. On resources, the Government are putting the money in—£12.7 billion extra over this Parliament—and we are going to help the hospitals that are challenged to ensure that they provide the very best that they can in our NHS.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be as delighted as I am that unemployment in Watford has fallen once again—to its lowest level since the end of 2009. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is a good example of how the Government’s policies are working for small businesses, because those businesses were the ones providing the 1,000 jobs and apprenticeships that were shown at the Watford jobs fair two weeks ago?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that today’s unemployment figures are welcome. They show a very large fall in the claimant count—20,000 in the past month—and encouraging signs of employment growth, some of which is due to the extra resources that we put into apprenticeships. We can be proud of the fact that more than 1 million people will have started apprenticeships in this Parliament, and I hope that the fall in unemployment is welcomed across the House.

The vast majority of doctors and nurses working in the NHS perform to a very high standard day in, day out, but everyone in the country will be worried that some hospitals are letting people down. Sir Bruce Keogh’s excellent and important report found

“frequent examples of inadequate numbers of nursing staff”.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what he is doing to ensure that there are adequate numbers of nurses in the health service?

First, let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Keogh report is excellent. When there is a problem of relatively high mortality rates in some hospitals, it is right to hold an investigation to get to the truth, and then to take action to deal with the situation.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what steps we will take. We are putting £12.7 billion into the NHS and, over the course of the past year, we have seen an extra 900 nurses in our NHS, which backs up the 8,500 extra clinical staff in place since this Government came to office.

But the reality is that there are 4,000 fewer nurses than when the Prime Minister came to power. Nursing staff was one of the issues raised in Sir Bruce’s report, and that was also reflected in the Francis report with regard to benchmarks for nursing staff numbers. Given that there are 4,000 fewer nurses, will the Prime Minister say whether that is helping or hindering the process of sorting out the problems?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a link between the 11 hospitals that have been put into special measures and nursing numbers, but he might be interested in the figures. Eight of those 11 identified hospitals have more nurses today than in 2010. For instance, although Scunthorpe hospital is on that list of 11 hospitals, an extra 100 nurses are working there compared with three years ago. In addition, 10 of those 11 hospitals have higher numbers of clinical staff. The Francis report did not support mandatory nursing numbers, but let me say this: all well-run hospitals will have the right number of nurses, doctors and care assistants. One of the purposes of these reports is to ensure that hospitals are better run.

The reality is that the Prime Minister’s reforms are diverting money from patient care and that across the health service the number of nurses is falling. Let me turn to one of the biggest health problems the country faces: deaths from cancer. The Government planned legislation on plain cigarette packaging but changed their view after the Prime Minister hired Lynton Crosby, who also happens to work for big tobacco in the shape of Philip Morris. Are we really supposed to believe that is a coincidence?

First, it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to have a proper conversation about the health service and that he has not done his homework on nursing numbers. He asks about plain packaging for cigarettes. Let me be absolutely clear about this: the decision not to go ahead for the time being was made by me and the Health Secretary. If the right hon. Gentleman does not agree with that decision, he can attack me for making it. Funny enough, it is the same decision the previous Government made. I have here the letter that the former Labour Secretary of State for Health wrote to another Minister, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), explaining why he was not going ahead. He said this:

“No studies have shown that introducing plain packaging of tobacco products would cut the number of young people smoking… Given the impact that plain packaging would have… we would need strong and convincing evidence”

in order to go ahead. He did not go ahead. Let me summarise: if the Leader of the Opposition’s attack on me is that we are not doing something he decided not to do, I suggest a different line of questioning.

Once again the Prime Minister does not know his facts, because in February 2010 my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in his tobacco strategy, set out quite clearly that he was in favour of plain cigarette packaging, and that quote is from before then. Here is the difference: my right hon. Friend moved to that position in February 2010; but the Prime Minister used to be in favour of plain cigarette packaging and then changed his mind. Can he now answer the question that he has not answered for weeks: has he ever had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about plain cigarette packaging?

I have answered the question: he has never lobbied me on anything. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a lobbying scandal, why does he not try the fact that the trade unions buy his policies, buy his candidates and even bought and paid for his leadership? That is a scandal, and he should do something about it.

The whole country will have heard the same weasel words that the Prime Minister is sticking to. He cannot deny that he had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about this issue. Even by the standards of this Prime Minister, this is a disgraceful episode. His own hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) described it as

“A day of shame for this government.”

He is the Prime Minister for Benson and Hedge funds, and he knows it. Can he not see that there is a devastating conflict of interest between having a key adviser raking it in from big tobacco and then advising him not to go ahead with plain packaging?

All this on a day when this Government are doing something the Labour party never did for 13 years: publishing a lobbying Bill. Let us remember why we need a lobbying Bill. We had former Labour Ministers describing themselves as cabs for hire, Cabinet Ministers giving passports for favours and a Prime Minister questioned by the police over cash for honours. They are in no position to lecture anyone on standards in public life. Is it not remarkable that on a day of a massive fall in the claimant count, a fall in unemployment and a rise in employment the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say, and is not this the reason: last year he said that

“next year, unemployment will get worse, not better, under his policies. Nothing that he can say can deny that”—[Official Report, 18 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 739.]?

Is it not time he withdrew that and admitted he was wrong?

The reality the Prime Minister cannot admit is that against the advice of every major public health organisation he has caved in to big tobacco. That is the reality about this Prime Minister and he knows it. It is Andy Coulson all over again. He is a Prime Minister who does not think the rules apply to him. Dinners for donors, Andy Coulson, and now big tobacco in Downing street—he always stands up for the wrong people.

The reason the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership is in crisis is that he cannot talk about the big issues. We are getting to the end of a political session when the deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped, and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan. Every day this country is getting stronger and every day he is getting weaker.

I know that the Prime Minister will want to thank all the fantastic NHS staff who are rolling up their sleeves and doing everything they can to reduce avoidable early deaths. They are asking the Prime Minister for minimum unit pricing in order to help them do their job and stop people falling into addiction in the first place. Minimum pricing is sitting nervously on death row. Will the Prime Minister give it a reprieve, at least until we know the outcome from the Sheffield report and the Scottish courts?

First of all, let me say that my hon. Friend fights a strong and noble campaign on this issue that she cares a huge amount about, and I respect that. What we are able to do—[Interruption.]

We will be able to introduce something that the last Government never did, which is to say that it should be illegal to sell alcohol below the price of duty plus VAT. That is something, with all the binge-drinking problems we had under Labour, that they never managed to do.

Q2. In February I asked the Prime Minister if he thought it was fair that Mr and Mrs Goodwin, both of whom are registered blind, should pay the bedroom tax. He promised to look into the case. Mr and Mrs Goodwin’s family wrote to the Prime Minister but did not receive a reply. Why does he not keep his word? (165610)

I will look urgently at this case, because I reply to hon. Members’ correspondence right across the House, and I always will. We have put in place very fair rules on the spare room subsidy, whereby it does not affect pensioners and does not affect people who need to have that spare room. Perhaps when I do write back there is one question I will not be able to answer, which is that we still do not know whether Labour is going to replace this, because they will not give us an answer.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister assure me that while Labour Members are in Blackpool this summer on their Unite beach towels his Government, free both from weak leadership and from Len McCluskey, will not put into law welfare benefits as a human right? (165611)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, because last week there was a rare piece of candour from Labour Members. They now have a welfare reform they are in favour of: they want to make welfare a human right. That is the policy of the Labour party. They opposed the welfare cap, they opposed the reforms to housing benefit, they opposed getting the deficit down, and now they want to make it a human right to give people benefits.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing a speedy recovery to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who was injured when seeking to resolve problems in his constituency during the recent unacceptable disturbances? Will he also join with many in Northern Ireland who want to see the initiative headed up by Dr Richard Haass from the United States of America, which will require considerable effort and good will to resolve all the outstanding parading issues, which have been plagued by violent opposition for far too long?

Everyone across the House will have been very concerned to hear the news about the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) being knocked unconscious at the protests in his constituency. Everyone wishes him well and I gather he is now improving. We look forward to welcoming him back to this House.

On the issue, it is very important that we see responsibility on all sides in Northern Ireland and that we take steps, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) suggests, to make sure that these marches can go ahead in a way that respects the fact that communities must be good neighbours to each other. That is what is required in Northern Ireland and I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will help in any way she can.

Foreign National Prisoners

Q4. How many foreign national prisoners (a) are in prison and (b) were in prison in May 2010; and what steps are being taken to send them to secure detention in their own countries and to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with high-volume countries. (165612)

Overall, over 4,500 foreign national offenders were removed from the UK in 2012 and the annual removal rate has remained broadly consistent since then. However, the number of foreign nationals in prison in England and Wales is still far too high, and while it is lower than at the election, we can do more. That is why the Justice Secretary is working to secure compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with those countries with the highest populations of foreign offenders. The Government will make it clear in the immigration Bill this autumn that foreign national offenders will be deported except in exceptional circumstances. I think that everyone in this House can celebrate the removal of one foreign prisoner, Mr Abu Qatada, who has returned to Jordan, and I congratulate the Home Secretary on her hard work.

Now that my right hon. Friend and the Home Secretary have deported Abu Qatada—something the previous Government completely failed to do—will he do all he can to send foreign nationals in prison in our country back to prison in their own country, which would save British taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on this issue and the fact that it requires real drive from the centre of this Government. That is why we have held a National Security Council meeting on it and why we are trying to sign compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with countries such as Albania and Nigeria. I make sure that all Ministers raise these issues in all their meetings with other countries where there are foreign national prisoners to be returned to. We should not rule out any steps, including in some cases helping countries such as Jamaica with their own prison regime so that it is easier to return people. This is a major priority for the Government and I want us to do better.


Q5. The Prime Minister claims that he did not know that Lynton Crosby worked for big tobacco, yet Crosby is at the heart of Tory party policy and strategy. Why is the Prime Minister developing a bad habit—perhaps an addictive one—of turning a blind eye to who his advisers actually work for? (165613)

Let me explain to the hon. Lady: the role of Lynton Crosby is to advise me on how to defeat a divided and useless Labour party, but I have to say that on the basis of today’s evidence I am not sure he is really necessary.

Q6. In my Welsh constituency, patients have to wait 36 weeks for elective treatment, while the figure in the English constituency of Shropshire next door is 18 weeks. What lessons does the Prime Minister believe the Government can learn about how the NHS has been managed in Wales over recent years? (165614)

There is a very clear lesson, which is do not vote Labour, because people can see what is happening in Wales, where Labour is in control of the NHS. It cut the budget by 8% and as a result Wales has not met a single waiting time target since 2009. Meanwhile, in England we are increasing spending on the NHS. The shadow Chancellor keeps pointing at the shadow Health Secretary, but the fact is that the shadow Health Secretary is the man who said it would be irresponsible to increase spending on the NHS. I have a summer tip for the leader of the Labour party: if you want to do better, you need to move the two people next to you and you need to do it fast.

Will the Prime Minister study the precise meaning of the word “question” and the precise meaning of the word “answer”, and consider the need for a link between the two following the record number of unanswered questions and pre-prepared party-political jibes last week at Question Time, which was a demeaning spectacle that shamed him and his office? Will he make a start by giving me an answer to this question that is both relevant and courteous?

That question was a bit complicated for a Whip’s handout, so the hon. Gentleman probably did think of it himself. This Government are far more transparent than any of our predecessors in the information that we publish and the public spending data that we provide. We are far more transparent than the last Government.

Q7. I am pleased to say that unemployment in Northampton North continues to go down. Does the Prime Minister agree that today’s jobs figures prove that the Government’s economic policy has not led to “the disappearance of a million…jobs”, which was the forecast of the Leader of the Opposition? (165615)

It is extraordinary that on a day when there has been a fall in unemployment, the Leader of the Opposition had nothing to say about it. In fact, I have done a bit of checking and he has not asked a full set of questions about the economy since February, because he knows that our policies are working and Britain’s economy is mending. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the forecast was made that we would not make up for the loss of public sector jobs with jobs in the private sector—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members are shouting. They are shouting because they do not want to hear good news about falling unemployment, but people want to hear about more jobs, more businesses and progress in our economy.

There is too much shouting on both sides of the House, not just on one side. That is the reality.

That was definitely a Whip’s handout—there is no doubt about that one. Let me explain to the hon. Lady an important distinction—[Interruption.]

The top rate of tax will be higher in every year of this Government than it was in any year under the previous Government. Let me explain how it works in the hon. Lady’s party: the trade unions give Labour money and that buys the policies, it buys the candidates, it buys the MPs and it even buys the leader. I am not surprised if they are worried about the product that they have ended up with.

Q8. Enfield has had the early advantage of a welfare cap for the past three months. With jobseeker’s allowance claims in Enfield falling at twice the rate of claims in the rest of the country and with youth unemployment in Enfield at the lowest level since early 2009, will the Prime Minister ensure that where Enfield leads, the nation follows? (165616)

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the people in Enfield who have found work. Not only is the welfare cap right because it would be wrong for people who are out of work to be able to earn more than the typical family that is in work, but it is working because the figures show how many people, seeing that a welfare cap is coming down the road, are getting out there, looking for work and finding jobs. That is good news for them and good news for our economy.

Q9. Would Mr Adrian Beecroft have been asked to provide a report for the Government on employment regulation if he had not been a major donor to the Conservative party? (165617)

The right hon. Gentleman speaks as a member of Unite and someone who receives £6,000 for his constituency party. Adrian Beecroft produced an excellent report on encouraging enterprise, jobs and wealth creation. Let me explain the big difference one more time. The trade unions that give money to the Labour party can pick the candidates and vote for them, pick the leader and vote for him, and pick the policies and vote for them. I was elected by a one member, one vote system; the leader of the Labour party was elected by a trade union stitch-up.

Any Government should of course be able to introduce a reasonable cap on very high claims for taxpayer-funded benefits. However, if we are all in it together, why are the Government resisting the introduction of a cap on the taxpayer-funded benefits amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds and, in some individual cases, more than £1 million that go to the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country through the farm support system?

This Government have done a huge amount on tax reform to ensure that people pay the taxes they owe. Of course, we always look at the common agricultural policy to make sure that it is fair.

Q10. In order to save the Prime Minister a little time, I have been a member of the Unite union since I joined at the age of 16 as an engineering apprentice. I am happy to debate who spent their youth more productively. On 26 June, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on Tory dinners for donors, the Prime Minister said that he would be happy to publish the Gold report. Is the reason he has not done so because he is ashamed of the fact that his party has had more donors than a late-night kebab shop? (165618)

It is that time in Prime Minister’s questions when we ought to remember the donation of Mr Mills, the man who gave £1.6 million to the Labour party and got advice about how to dodge his taxes. When we get an answer to when the Labour party is going to pay that money back, I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

While still hoping that the Prime Minister will agree with the CBI and me and withdraw support for HS2, he will remember last November giving me an undertaking that people disrupted by this project would be fairly and generously compensated. Is he aware that on phase 1, HS2 Ltd has not yet rerun the basic consultation on compensation, and on current plans will not do so for two or three months? Will he please intervene and speed up this process before those constituents, and others whose lives are affected, are totally ruined by this flawed project?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. We will be setting out further consultation later this year, as we have previously announced. We are committed to a very generous and fair compensation scheme. Matters relating to compensation are very important, which is why we have to consider them carefully and make sure that we get the decisions right. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be happy to meet her and discuss her constituents’ concerns.

Q11. The Prime has been helping Jersey-registered companies with their exports. Perhaps he could tell the House whether the reason he took Petrofac’s Ayman Asfari with him to Kazakhstan was because he had donated £300,000 to the Tory party. (165619)

First, let us remember which Government made sure that Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and all the others paid taxes properly—it was this one. I will tell the hon. Lady directly why I took Ayman Asfari to Kazakhstan: Petrofac is a company that employs tens of thousands of people in this country. It is investing billions in the North sea and is a major British energy company. I am proud of the fact that we fly the flag for British energy companies, so when I have finished taking them to Kazakhstan, I will be taking them to India, to China and to Malaysia. We are not embarrassed about business, industry, enterprise and jobs on this side of the House—we want more of them.

During my right hon. Friend’s friendly discussions with Chancellor Merkel, did they examine the evidence that the existence of the European single currency is a major cause of the despair now sweeping across southern Europe, threatening the democracy of Portugal, Spain and Greece?

When I meet Chancellor Merkel we often discuss the single currency. It is important, whatever one’s views about the single currency—I never want Britain to join—that we respect countries that are in the single currency and want to make it work. At the same time, I believe that there is an opportunity for Britain to argue that the European Union needs to change. We need to make this organisation one that both members of the single currency and members who are not in the single currency can be comfortable in. I think Chancellor Merkel understands that. I also think that Prime Minister Letta from Italy, whom I will be meeting straight after questions, understands that point too. That is why I think getting a better settlement for Britain is achievable, and one we can consider in a referendum by the end of 2017.

Q12. The Prime Minister failed to say last week when he would give back the stolen cash that Asil Nadir gave the Conservative party. When will he give it back? (165620)

I have to say, the Whips have been very active with the hand-outs this week. What we need to know is when we will get back the taxpayer money from Mr Mills’s donation. Never mind a donation that happened 20 years ago; this happened about 20 weeks ago.

One of the first acts of the Government was to agree a request to fund security measures in Jewish voluntary-aided, maintained and free schools. Parents in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) were paying for these additional security measures from their own pockets, because the last Government refused to help. As this funding arrangement ends in 2015, will the Prime Minister support my campaign for the Education Secretary to continue the scheme?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. I am a strong supporter of free schools and of the Community Security Trust, which I think has provided a lot of security for schools in his and neighbouring constituencies. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be very happy to look at this issue to see how we can continue to give them support.

Q13. Given the scandal of price fixing in the oil and gas industry currently being investigated by the EU, does the Prime Minister agree that it is important to be absolutely transparent about the oil and gas companies Lynton Crosby’s lobbying firm has represented? (165621)

Really, have they got nothing to say about unemployment, improving education or capping welfare? It pains me to point this out to the hon. Lady, but she has received £32,000 from affiliated trade unions. Let me explain the difference: the Conservative party gives Lynton Crosby money to help us get rid of Labour—that is how it works—whereas the unions give Labour money. She said on her website:

“I am a member of Unison and Unite…and regularly raise trade union issues in parliament.”

They pay the money in, they get the results out—that is the scandal in British politics.

Q14. Many water companies in England have paid huge dividends to their shareholders, have avoided paying tax and are not properly accountable, and in this region are proposing an annual increase of £80 a year on water rates. Will the Prime Minister ensure that no public subsidy is given to Thames Water or any other water company that puts its profits and shareholders ahead of the interests of ordinary ratepayers and taxpayers in his constituency and mine? (165622)

First, let me be clear: I have always said that companies should pay the tax they owe. I do not want to comment on an individual company’s business, but that is the case. Any support from the Government must be targeted to benefit customers’ bills and to provide value for taxpayers. There is merit in the Thames tunnel proposal, and we need to look at that carefully, because it would benefit London, including the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and everyone else living in London, but I can assure him that we will use every tool at our disposal to get the best deal for London, bill payers and taxpayers.

We can run through this one again; let me have another go at explaining. Right, it works like this: the Conservative party gives Lynton Crosby money and he helps us to attack the Labour party, right? The trade unions give money to the Labour party—the other way around—and for that they buy your candidates, they buy your MPs, they buy your policies and they even give you this completely hopeless leader.

My constituent, Kelly Bridgett, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 25 when she had her first smear, and sadly she had to have a hysterectomy. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Kelly on her “Drop your pants to save your life” campaign to raise awareness of cervical cancer, and will he talk to the Health Secretary about Kelly’s wish to bring the age at which young women can have a smear down from 25 to 20?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to his constituent for their bravery in raising this campaign and speaking so frankly about it. The screening programmes we have had in the NHS under successive Governments have been one of its greatest successes in terms of early diagnosis of cancer and saving lives. We should always be asking what the latest evidence is for the screening programmes, and when they should start. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will want to talk to my hon. Friend about this campaign.