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Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2013

Before listing my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. I am sure I speak for the whole nation in sending our congratulations and wishing them and Prince George a very happy and healthy life. I assure hon. Members that they will be able to offer their own congratulations next Monday when the formal motion is moved in the proper way.

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.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s congratulation to their Royal Highnesses?

Since we last met there has been a spate of good economic news, both in Tamworth and around the country. Unemployment is down and the economy is growing. Manufacturing is up, exports are up and construction is up. Is it not time for those who still propose it to stop messing around, give it up and abandon plan B?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have had welcome news over the summer: exports are up 5.8% on a year ago, business confidence is at its highest level since January 2008, consumer confidence is up and all the figures on construction, manufacturing and services are going in the right direction. We must not be complacent—these are early days—but it is because of the tough decisions that this Government took that we can now see progress.

We ought to remember that Labour Members told us that unemployment would go up, but it has come down, and that the economy would go backwards, but it has gone forwards. It is time for them to explain that they were wrong and we were right.

I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of Prince George. I wish all of them all the happiness in the world.

At the G20 summit in St Petersburg tomorrow, will the Prime Minister do everything he can to get other countries to match the UK’s important aid commitment to alleviate the humanitarian emergency in Syria, given that almost one third of Syrian families have been forced to flee their homes and yet the United Nations has less than half the resources it needs?

Of course I will be taking that action. Britain has a very proud record on humanitarian aid, not just in this conflict, but in many previous conflicts. In this one we are the second largest aid donor. We have spent more than £400 million. At the G20 it will be very important to make a number of points clear: our absolute revulsion at the use of chemical weapons, our desire for a peace process and, above all, the need to get donor countries together and make sure that they live up to their responsibilities and that we do everything we can to help the Syrian people in their hour of need.

The civil war in Syria and the refugee crisis are having profound consequences not just in that country, but across the middle east, specifically in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and especially in Lebanon, where the population is up by 25% since the civil war began. What specific support, beyond the welcome humanitarian assistance that the Government are providing, can Britain give to those countries to help them deal with the burden on their infrastructure, economies and wider societies?

I have seen for myself, having been to a refugee camp in Jordan, how great the pressures are. That refugee camp is now one of the biggest cities in that country. We have well-funded embassies and diplomatic networks, and very close relations with Lebanon and Jordan, as well as with the Turks. We are doing everything we can to help and advise them. We are well placed to do so, because we are spending serious money on the humanitarian aid programmes.

However, at the end of the day, what we need is a solution to the Syrian crisis. We need a peace process to be put in place. We also need to be absolutely clear about our revulsion to chemical weapons and should ensure that our aid programme is giving the Syrian people protection from the appalling chemical weapons attacks that they have suffered.

The revulsion at the chemical weapons attacks is shared in all parts of this House, as the debate last Thursday made clear.

I want to come on to an issue that the Prime Minister raised, which is getting the talks going between the warring parties. The opposition Syrian National Council is meeting the Foreign Secretary in the next couple of days. Will the Prime Minister tell us what work he is doing with the Syrian National Council to make the talks in Geneva happen?

What we are doing with the Syrian National Council is twofold. First, we want to support those elements of the Syrian opposition that support a pluralistic, democratic and free Syria. That is what our engagement with them has been all about. We go further than that, however, because we recognise that the so-called rebels who back those views also deserve our support through training, assistance and advice. The truth is this: we will not get a peace process in Syria unless President Assad realises that his regime is under some sort of pressure and threat not just from the rebels, but from the millions of Syrians, whom we must stand up for, who want democracy, freedom and a better future for themselves and their children. It is those people whose side we should truly be on.

There is no difference across this House on the need to stand up for the innocent people of Syria. The question at issue—[Interruption.] The House has approached this issue, so far, in a calm and measured way, and we should carry on doing that. The point at issue is how to stand up for those people. There are big barriers, as we have found out over the past year or more, to the Geneva II peace talks happening. Is there not a case for immediate talks between those countries that are backing the rebels and those countries that are backing the regime? That happened during the civil war in Lebanon and it would at least provide a basis for discussions.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Britain should use all its diplomatic muscle in discussions with those countries that have backed the regime and by joining with countries that back the rebels and the opposition to try to bring those talks about. That is why I have had repeated discussions with President Putin, for instance, most recently last Monday, and why I travelled to Sochi to see him specifically to discuss this issue.

However, I come back to this point: it is all very well the countries that support either side wanting peace talks to take place, but we also need those involved in the conflict in Syria to recognise that it is in their interests for a peace process to begin. I think that we can convince the Syrian National Council that it is in its interests, because a transition could lead to genuinely free elections and change for Syria. However, we need Assad himself to realise that it is in his interests, because there is no victory that he can win against his own people. For that to happen, we need to take, and the world needs to take, a very tough response to things such as chemical weapons attacks. I accept that Britain cannot be and will not be part of any military action on that front, but we must not in any degree give up our utter revulsion at the chemical weapons attacks that we have seen and we must press that point in every forum of which we are a member.

Nobody disagrees about our revulsion at the use of chemical weapons. As I say, the question is how to deal with it. What I said to the Prime Minister was, given the difficulty of getting direct talks moving between the Syrian Government and opposition, is there not a case for getting the regional partners involved? We all know the role that Iran has played in fuelling this conflict. However, given that successful diplomacy involves talking to those with whom we profoundly disagree, what is the Government’s position on Iran participating either in a contact group or as part of the Geneva process?

As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, he will be meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister when he is in New York for the UN General Assembly. However, let us not forget what Iran has done to our embassy and to our country. We should not put that on one side.

The point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that of course we all want these peace talks to take place and we all want Geneva II to happen, but we cannot want it more than the participants in Syria’s bloody conflict. We have to make sure it is in their interests that the talks go ahead. That is why, although diplomacy is important, the work we do with the Syrian opposition who support democracy and a pluralistic, fair and free future for Syria is also important. They are standing up for millions of Syrians who have been bombed and blasted out of their houses. Those are the people we need to talk to, in the refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, to see how they feel and how badly the rest of the world is currently letting them down.

Nobody disagrees with that, or indeed about the view we take of Iran’s behaviour. The question is, how are we going to bring the parties together, including the regional parties?

Finally, does the Prime Minister accept that there remains support across the country for Britain taking every diplomatic, political and humanitarian effort to help the Syrian people? Last week’s vote was not about Britain shirking its global responsibilities, it was about preventing a rush to war.

Last week the House of Commons voted clearly, and I have said that I respect the outcome of that vote and will not be bringing back plans for British participation in military action. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must bring to bear everything we have in our power—our diplomatic networks, our influence with other countries and our membership of all the key bodies such as the G8, the G20, the UN, the EU and NATO. My only regret from last week is that I do not think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote, but he took the decision that it was.

Q2. We hear today that the UK services business activity index is at its highest level for six and a half years. Does that not show that the Government’s economic policies are working, and will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that our increased prosperity helps to pay for Shrewsbury’s north-west relief road? (900011)

I will certainly look at the proposal my hon. Friend makes. I know that he wants Shrewsbury to be a connected hub in our country, and he puts that case regularly. The good news about this economic recovery, early days though it is, is that we are seeing it through more people in work. There are 935,000 more people employed than there were when this Government came to office and 1.3 million more private sector jobs, and we need to see further progress on that, because the best route out of poverty and the best way to improve living standards in our country is to see an increasing number of our men and women in gainful work.

May I press the Prime Minister on the issue of relations with Iran? With respect to him, his previous answer sounded as if he had taken no account of the fact that since our embassy was outrageously sacked by Ahmadinejad and his thugs, there has been an election in Iran, however imperfect, that has led to a different individual becoming President, Hassan Rouhani, who to my certain knowledge is someone the west and the British Prime Minister can deal with. May I ask him to look very carefully, with the Foreign Secretary, at how we can take steps now to improve relations with Iran, identify matters of common interest and try to get it involved in solving Syria?

I agree that the election of a President who has a greater commitment to reform is a positive step, and I have written to President Rouhani to raise a series of issues that need to be settled between Britain and Iran. Above all, we need to see progress on what President Rouhani himself has said is important, which is trying to come to an agreement whereby Iran gives up the idea of nuclear weapons and in return we see some relief on sanctions. That would be major progress, but we should not just do that from a position of hoping for the best. We have seen what Iran has been capable of in the recent past, so we should go into such discussions very cautiously.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree that accuracy of statistics is vital to inform public debate? Is he aware that 4% of people believe that Elvis is still alive? That is double the number we hear today who think that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is a natural leader. (900012)

I can see that my hon. Friend has certainly put his summer to very good use, and I am grateful for his question. Obviously, we need to see a run of opinion polls before we can see a true trend.

Why does the Prime Minister believe that his plans to restrict lobbying are opposed by organisations from the Salvation Army, the Countryside Alliance, Oxfam, the British Legion, and so on, right through to “ConservativeHome”?

I was listening to the exchanges before I came in for Prime Minister’s questions, and it seems to me that a concerted lobbying campaign is being run by the trade unions, who have mysteriously managed to convince Member of Parliament after Member of Parliament on the Opposition Benches to raise this problem. We all know what is going on—they do not want the trade unions brought within the law; they want the trade unions to go on spending millions after millions trying to alter an election campaign, rather than having them properly controlled by the law. That is what the lobbying Bill is about.

Q4. The UK economy is set to benefit from around £50 million by hosting the epic Clipper round the world yacht race, which kicked off this week. Will the Prime Minister come to Gosport to see for himself one of the UK’s top marine and sailing hubs, and personally congratulate Clipper Ventures, which is literally flying the flag for Britain’s tourism, trade and watersports? (900013)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen a model of this incredible vessel and I join her in welcoming the fantastic contribution that Clipper Ventures makes to the British economy. It was great to see the race leave London for the first time, and even better to see that the flotilla was led by a British boat and superbly supported by the great campaign. I will certainly take into account my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to come to Gosport, and I wish Sir Robin Knox-Johnston well, and all those taking part.

May I take the Prime Minister back to the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) a few minutes ago? Can he be more positive about building better relations urgently with Iran, as one of the keys—one, not all—to bring about a peace process in Syria and across the whole region? Simply attacking Iran all the time will not bring it to the negotiating table, and it is better if the Prime Minister is more positive about it.

I do not know about the hon. Gentleman, but if we are trying to build a relationship with someone, it depends on the actions that they take. Given that the Iranian Government were complicit in the complete smashing of our embassy and residence in Tehran, we will want to see some action so that we can build that sort of relationship. I have reached out by writing to President Rouhani, congratulating him on his accession to power and wanting to discuss those issues. As I have said, however, if we believe there is just some magical key to the Syrian conflict by suddenly adopting a totally different posture towards Iran, I do not think we will be making a very good decision.

Q5. Last week we saw the proportion of households with no one in work fall to the lowest level since records began. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is further evidence that the Government’s welfare reforms are working, all of which have been opposed by the Labour party? (900014)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In the second quarter of 2013 there were 3.5 million workless households in the UK, which is down 182,000 on the year and down 425,000 since the election. Each one of those statistics tells a story about people who will be able to get into work, provide for their family and make something of their lives. We should be proud of our welfare reforms, every single one of which was opposed by the Labour party. We have not just saved £83 billion in welfare measures that Labour Members opposed; we have given hope to millions of families in our country.

Like the Prime Minister, I condemn the chemical attacks in Syria, but is it not time for some joined-up thinking? Surely an American strike now would squander the opportunities offered by the new Iranian leadership and by the new US initiative in Palestine. Will the Prime Minister do what the British people want and insist that the G20 searches for a way to bring about a ceasefire, rather than a new bombing raid?

As I have said, I respect fully the decision the House came to after the debate last week and Britain will not play any part in military action, but I ask the right hon. Lady to put herself, for a moment, in the shoes of the President of the United States and others. He set a very clear red line that, if there was large-scale chemical weapons use, something had to happen. We know that the regime used chemical weapons on at least 14 previous occasions. To ask the President, having set that line and made that warning, to step away from it, would be a perilous suggestion to make. In response, I believe we would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime.

The right hon. Lady has a long track record of supporting peace and peace talks, which I respect. I will do everything I can to try to bring the Geneva II peace talks together, but I do not believe there is a contradiction in taking a tough line on the use of chemical weapons, which are revolting in our modern world, and wanting the peace talks that could bring the crisis to an end.

Q6. Cancer funding per head in Herefordshire is half that in Birmingham. Academic research suggests that the current NHS funding formula discriminates against rural areas and older people. Does the Prime Minister share my view that the NHS should move as quickly as possible towards fairer funding for rural areas? (900015)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but he will know that we have taken a lot of those decisions away from Ministers and given them to NHS England, which has said that it is looking at a fairer funding formula. I am sure it will look at the arguments he has made. In addition, I ask him to look at the Cancer Drugs Fund, which has been a phenomenal success in England. Sadly, it has not been copied by Labour in Wales, but I am full of hope. The fund has helped many of our constituents to get the treatments they badly need.

We have done something that the food bank movement had been asking for for years, but that the Labour Government did not grant because they were worried about the public relations—namely, the ability to say to people in Jobcentre Plus who needed help that they could go to a food bank. The Labour Government might not have wanted to do that because it was bad publicity; we did it because it was the right thing.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister agree that the combination of the good weather, our deficit reduction and our control of public spending has given confidence to business and individuals to create 1.3 million jobs? However, given those encouraging figures, is he somewhat surprised that the Leader of the Opposition still believes that the Government’s policy will cost 1 million jobs? (900016)

My hon. Friend could add to the good weather the fact that Andy Murray won Wimbledon and England retained the Ashes—much good news was to be had over the summer. It is important that we recognise what brought about the good news to which he refers. Parties had to make a key judgment on whether, in this Parliament, to get to grips with the deficit and take the tough decisions we needed to turn our country around. The Government parties made those tough decisions; the Labour party ducked every single one of them.

Q8. The Government are right to extend free nursery provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds, but figures show that four in 10 councils will not have sufficient places. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that all those children promised a place will have one? (900017)

We have put in place the funding to provide that for the disadvantaged two-year-olds and I am confident that they will receive the services they deserve.

Q9. Unemployment in my constituency is lower than at any time since the 2010 general election. Locally, I have organised two successful jobs fairs and we are organising a third. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that goes to show that the Government are right to stick to the economic plan, despite calls to abandon it by Opposition Members? (900018)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures on employment are encouraging. There are more people in work in our country than ever before and more people in private sector employment than ever before; there is a record number of women in work in our country; and there are almost 1 million more people in work compared with the situation we inherited. At some stage, Labour Members will have to get off the fence and admit they got it wrong. They were wrong, but even today, the shadow Chancellor is saying he will borrow even more, even when we have started turning round the economy. He has learnt absolutely nothing.

Q10. Energy companies have enjoyed a £3.3 billion profit windfall while ordinary families face energy bills going up by £300 a year. Why has the Prime Minister failed to stand up to energy companies and get a better deal from the energy market for ordinary families? (900019)

I do not know where the hon. Lady was during the debate on the Energy Bill, but this Government have legislated to make sure that people are put on the lowest tariffs. This Government have done that, but when the leader of the Labour party was Energy Secretary—when, incidentally, bills went through the roof—there was no such action.

Q11. The Office for National Statistics has revised its figures for growth upwards by 0.7%, there is a record number of apprenticeships and very low unemployment in the Cotswolds, and there are very good conditions for young people to get into work. Does my right hon. Friend think that all that would have been achieved if he had taken the advice of the shadow Chancellor? (900020)

What my hon. Friend says is very interesting. Every time there is a question about the economy—that more people are in work, more businesses are being established and the economy is growing—the Opposition do not want to hear a word of it. They know what the whole country can see—Britain is succeeding and Labour is failing.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister accept any responsibility for the fact that it is now forecast that by the time of the election working people will have lost, on average, £6,660 of wages in real terms while he has been in No. 10? (900021)

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that there is only one sustainable way to get living standards up, and that is to get the economy growing, which we are doing; to cut taxes, which we are delivering; and to keep mortgage rates low, which we are doing. The fact is that if we listened to the Opposition—who only have one plan, to spend more, borrow more and build up more debt—we would be back to where we started.

As the Syrian tragedy has unfolded, I have always had the armageddon question in the back of my mind, which I shall now, in an understated form, put to the Prime Minister, if I may. If the Americans illegally bombard the Assad forces and Assad legally invites the Russians in to degrade the rebels, what will NATO do?

The first point that I would make to my right hon. Friend is that we would never support illegal action. We debated this at some length last week, and it is not the case that the only way action can be legal is a UN resolution. We would only support action that was legal and proportionate. As I have said, Britain would not be taking part in any of this action. In a way, we have to put the armageddon question round the other way, which is that if no action were taken following President Obama’s red line and this appalling use of chemical weapons, what sort of armageddon would the Syrian people face?

Q13. The Prime Minister says that he does not support a mansion tax for people living in mansions worth more than £2 million because, he claims, some people living in them are capital rich and cash poor. How does the Prime Minister square that with his support for the bedroom tax, which punishes people who are capital poor and have no cash? (900022)

First, the hon. Gentleman has to be clear about what is and what is not a tax. Before our changes, there was a subsidy for people who had additional rooms they were not using, and we believe that it is fair to have the same rules in private sector rented accommodation and in council accommodation. The question is now for Labour. You have ranted and raved about the spare room subsidy. Are you going to reverse it? Just nod. Are you going to reverse it? Yes or no? Absolutely nothing to say, and weak with it.

It is no trivial decision for people to up sticks and leave their home and country, fleeing for their own safety. How many people must have left Syria before it is impossible for its regime to declare any kind of moral entitlement to govern that country?

I do not believe that the regime has any legitimacy. The way it has treated its own people—bombing and maiming its own citizens, and now the use of chemical weapons—means that I see it as a completely illegitimate regime. What we now have to do is bring every pressure to bear for a transition so we can end up with Syria in totally different hands. That is what is required.

Q14. The cost of secondary school uniforms has spiralled to £285 this year, as new free schools and academies insist on branded clothes. In fact, at one new academy 70% of parents had to take out loans to pay for uniforms. Why has the Prime Minister failed to act? His schools policy is now leading to loans that can only add to the profit of loan companies, such as Wonga. (900023)

First, like many people and many parents, I think it is absolutely right for schools, if they want, to choose to have a tough and robust uniform policy. I was at the opening of a new free school in Birmingham yesterday where all the parents in the room were grateful for the school’s policy. I have to say that what I see is the hon. Lady trying to find a way to oppose free schools. The fact is that we now have 194 free schools. [Interruption.] The Opposition do not like it because parents think it is a good education. The Opposition are going to have to listen to the figures: two thirds of these schools are either “good” or “outstanding”. At some stage, just as it got it wrong on the economy, the Labour party will have to admit that it got it wrong about free schools, too.

It cost the Ministry of Defence £1.4 billion to extend the life of the four Trident submarines so that the Liberal Democrats could study alternatives. Now that that study has shown there is no alternative to Trident, will the Prime Minister consider signing the main-gate contract for the first two submarines, so that we can never again be blackmailed by the Liberal Democrats in a hung Parliament?

I have to credit my hon. Friend with remarkable consistency on this issue, on which, basically, I agree: we have Trident, it is the right approach and we need to renew Trident. Actually, the delay of the main-gate decision has saved us money, rather than cost us money. His point about the review is absolutely right. It shows that if we want a proper functioning deterrent, we need to have the best, and that means a permanently at-sea submarine-based alternative. That is what a Conservative-only Government, after the next election, will deliver.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is something of an exotic creature in the House and I think that that excites interest on Government Benches, but I do wish to hear what he has to say and he must be heard.

Is it not the case that real wages have fallen by nearly £1,500 a year since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister?

Of course we live in tough times because of the incredible mess we have had to clear up from the Opposition. I have to say that the Opposition complaining about the economy and living standards is like the arsonist complaining to the fire brigade. It is this Government who are turning the economy around, and that is the way we will get living standards up.

Burnley was recently awarded, by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the prestigious award for the most enterprising town in the UK. Does my right hon. Friend wish to congratulate the many businesses in Burnley who are members of the Burnley bondholders scheme on their achievement?

I certainly congratulate businesses, large and small, in Burnley for the enterprise they have shown. The fact about this recovery is that it is a private sector-led recovery. That is what we needed after massive and excessive Government spending, and it has been very good that businesses up and down the country, including in Burnley, have done so much to take people on and to get our economy moving.

We will move in a moment to the urgent question from Yvette Cooper. Perhaps Members who are leaving the Chamber could do so quickly and quietly.