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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 11 September 2013


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scotland Analysis Programme

The Government are committed to ensuring a well-informed debate ahead of the Scottish referendum and have already published five analytical documents covering a range of economic and other issues. Future papers from the Scotland analysis programme will be published over the course of 2013 and 2014.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. With the Scottish Finance Minister, John Swinney, admitting in his leaked memo that the affordability of state pensions would need to be examined in the light of separation, does the Secretary of State agree that a future paper should focus on pensions in an independent Scotland?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that pensions are an issue that people across the country are very engaged in and concerned about, and that includes what an independent Scotland might mean for them. They have heard experts, such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland—I declare an interest as a member—put out their opinion, but nothing is more certain than John Swinney’s opinion. The fact that he has said that there is a worry about this should tell us everything we need to know about the pensions issue.

Does the Secretary of State plan to have a word with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on making Government time available for the House to discuss the reports and analysis? If he cannot get the time, may I suggest that he allows the Scottish Grand Committee to have those debates?

Without being impertinent to the hon. Gentleman, the old ones are the best. I know how keen he has been on the Scottish Grand Committee, although I think that he is a fairly lone voice in that regard. I agree that it is important that we have proper debates, in whatever forum, about all the issues. The Scottish Affairs Committee is working through the papers and taking evidence from me, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and others. The House can decide when we get a chance to debate that, which I hope we will.

Whitehall’s “Project Fear” papers are looking at welfare, so will the Secretary of State confirm whether those working on the paper have listened to any advice from the United Nations envoy, Raquel Rolnik? She says that the bedroom tax is “shocking” and should be scrapped. Does the Secretary of State believe that the bedroom tax is a benefit of the Union?

I have not read the details of the report, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, through welfare reform, we are focused on tackling an escalating welfare bill in very tight financial circumstances. What we are trying to do is tackle the mismatch for different families in different accommodation. We need to look carefully at the implementation, which is what my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I are doing. On welfare, the hon. Gentleman’s party commissioned a report on that earlier this year in relation to an independent Scotland. It complained that it does not have some founding principles for an independent Scotland and so could not really say very much about it. I wonder whether he can update us on any progress.

The views of the UN envoy have been very well reported. She visited both Glasgow and Edinburgh and said that the bedroom tax affects

“the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people who are on the fringes of coping with everyday life”.

The Secretary of State did not answer my question, so I will ask it a second time: does he believe that the bedroom tax is a benefit of the Union—yes or no?

We will look carefully at the report, but as I said earlier, we are making some very difficult decisions in the context of an escalating welfare bill at a time of real financial stringency. However, we have been looking carefully across Scotland at how this is being implemented. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have met or talked with all the councils in Scotland and the main housing associations. We have put additional resources into tackling the spare room subsidy issue and will go across the country again to listen to people, as we will do for the rest of the year.

Rural Economy

Scotland’s rural economy remains a key focus for the Government. In addition to our support for the economy as a whole, we have, among other things, abolished the fuel duty escalator, provided funds for rural broadband and set up the coastal communities fund.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Many of my constituents are expressing concern that a privatised Royal Mail will try to wriggle out of its universal service obligation to deliver mail to every house and collect from every postbox in the country every day at a fair, affordable price. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that the Government will never abandon the universal service obligation or allow a privatised Royal Mail to water it down in any way?

The legislation is clear. We have legislated for a six-day universal service obligation and only an affirmative resolution of the House could change that. I highlight to my hon. Friend the fact that the Government have ended the rural post office closure programme. We have introduced a groceries code adjudicator and cut income tax bills for low and middle-income families throughout rural Scotland and the rest of the country. No Government have ever done more for the rural economy in Scotland. We are committed to a stronger economy and fairer society in all parts of the UK.

The Minister of State is well aware that rural east Ayrshire has been devastated, with hundreds of job losses and up to £160 million of restoration work required in respect of the open-cast mines. Only this week, a Scottish Government Minister said that he was not prepared to prioritise funding for the issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that funding will be required for the work and that the Scottish Government have to put their money where their mouth is? Furthermore, do we not need some form of enterprise area for east Ayrshire, to compensate for this national devastation?

I sympathise with the hon. Lady and her constituents about the devastating blow for her and other hon. Members, including the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), some of whose constituents are affected. He will meet representatives of East Ayrshire council later this week. We have to make sure that, when levers are available to the Scottish Government, they use them to help the hon. Lady’s constituents and others.

What would be the impact on the rural economy of my neighbours in southern Scotland if Scotland went independent and we had a border with Scotland?

As one of my hon. Friend’s neighbouring MPs, I recognise the importance of Hexham and north Northumberland. As he knows, in a farming context and in so many other ways, any kind of legal border between Scotland and England would be an absolute disaster—not just for our constituents, but for all the United Kingdom.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent report on the effect of the Irish Government’s reduction of VAT on tourism-related businesses to 9%, creating around 10,000 jobs and a €40 million boost to the Exchequer? As 24 other EU countries already charge less VAT on hotel accommodation than the UK, will he press the Chancellor to take similar action and give a real boost to the rural economy?

The hon. Gentleman always makes serious points on behalf of his constituents. I appreciate that what he has asked about is a consistent theme of the tourism sector, and the Chancellor will no doubt regard it as an early bid for next year’s Budget measures. However, the hon. Gentleman would be more convincing if he brought along a costed example of how an independent Scotland would do such a thing.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a major contributor to the rural economy is the ability to send goods around the country. In the north highlands, sending packages by courier services comes at extreme cost; the companies charge more than for the rest of the mainland. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will present his excellent private Member’s Bill on Friday. What more can the Secretary of State do to ensure that courier charges for remote areas are in line with those for the rest of the mainland?

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) have been campaigning sensibly on the issue and raising important points. We certainly want to engage with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on his private Member’s Bill, which addresses a serious issue. We support the principles that underpin the Bill and want to see how we can use existing arrangements, through trading standards and other facilities, to make sure that nobody in remote or rural areas suffers from those excess delivery charges.

The average wage in my local authority area is 24% beneath the national average. Figures out this week show that 23.8% of households there are workless, almost 3% above the Scottish average. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government, perhaps in conjunction with the Scottish Government, should be doing much more for rural economies?

I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that these are structural problems that have persisted for a very long time, including when his party’s Government were in power. I share his desire to ensure that low-wage economies, particularly in rural areas, get the support they need. The very heart of our economic policy is to rebalance the country as a whole and move from the rescue to recovery phase. As we do that, the measures we are taking to support the economy as a whole by keeping interest rates and corporation tax down and investing in infrastructure will help rural and urban Scotland alike.

Independence (Currency)

3. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues and Ministers of the Scottish Government on the continued use of sterling in a separate Scotland. (900185)

Earlier this year, as part of the Scotland analysis programme, we published a paper on currency issues that makes the strong case for Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. There have been no discussions with the Scottish Government about the use of sterling by an independent Scotland.

Does the Secretary of State recognise the democratic deficit that is on offer whereby under nationalist plans Scotland would keep the pound but the rest of the UK would still set our interest rates, our borrowing limits and our spending limits, while at the same time we would lose our influence and our representation? Does he agree that that is not more or less independence, but worse independence?

The hon. Gentleman puts the points very neatly. People do not need to rely on his words or mine; they can listen to experts such as the Cuthberts, who said this week that they would like an independent Scotland to have its own currency and that to stay part of a currency union is no independence. Similarly, Brian Quinn, the highly respected former deputy governor of the Bank of England, observed in his recent report that the idea of a currency union is to replicate all the problems of the eurozone. The nationalists fail to answer all the points from both sides of the argument.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that should a separate Scotland become a member state of the EU, a condition of membership will be an obligation to join the euro, with the further risk that that would expose Scotland to being part of a future bail-out of eurozone members? [Interruption.]

Notwithstanding the heckling from the nationalist Benches, which hides the fact that they do not have answers to these very important questions, the point is that they used to be in favour of the euro but now they have back-tracked; they used to be in favour of a separate currency but now they have back-tracked; and they are currently saying that a currency union would be the best starting point. I think Scotland deserves to know what the end point would be.

On sterling, Alex Salmond says he is in and the chair of the yes campaign says he is out; it is a bit like the currency hokey cokey. The serious point is that this morning a report says that if the UK had a formal currency union with an independent Scotland, in the event of another financial crisis London would provide the lender-of-last-resort functions, whereas if Scotland was in the euro it would be Brussels, and if Scotland had its own currency it would probably be the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Is it not true that in the event of separation all roads lead to Scotland having less control over its own financial affairs?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best arrangement for Scotland is to stay part of the United Kingdom, where we get all the benefits of the currency but also the hugely integrated single market, which is enormously to our benefit, and a platform in the world that is great for all our businesses and those they employ.

The Scottish Secretary prayed in aid one of the Treasury’s analysis documents on Scotland in relation to currency. However, given that his own Chancellor is unable to get his economic growth forecasts correct six months to a year out, how can he possibly expect us to believe an analysis that is supposed to forecast the Scottish growth rate for the next 30 years? It is not serious, is it? It is just more “Project Fear” scaremongering designed to talk Scotland down.

I have to admire the front that the hon. Gentleman puts up. He simply does not answer any of the big issues on this. To take an example of forecasting, in our documents we take very sensible, reasonable proposals and look at how they would apply over many years to come—unlike when the Scottish National party forecasts oil revenues, when it takes all the best-case scenarios and then makes up numbers indicating that about £1.5 trillion of resources are available to Scotland. It is more like a tenth of that, but we never hear that from him.

Zero-hours Contracts

5. What discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on the use of zero-hours contracts in Scotland. (900187)

There is no single legal definition of zero-hours contracts and it is not possible to get reliable estimates. The issue was discussed at the Scottish employability forum last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth and a range of Scottish stakeholders.

Many employers in Scotland insist that employees on zero-hours contracts be available for work even if work is not guaranteed. The Labour party has pledged to outlaw this practice and the Scottish Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), has initiated an inquiry. When will this Minister and this Government put themselves on the side of working people?

It is important that our work force remain flexible, but it is also important that they are treated fairly. Officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have undertaken work over the summer better to understand how the contract works in practice, with a view to taking action if widespread abuse is found.

In June, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Government published, following an analysis, a report saying that more than 250,000 people in Scotland are underemployed. Many of them are on zero-hours contracts and the overwhelming majority of them do not want to be. What are the Government doing to address this scandal? As an afterthought, perhaps the Minister could tell us how many people in his Department are on zero-hours contracts.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Scotland Office does not directly employ any members of the Department, as I have already confirmed in response to a parliamentary question about zero-hours contracts. As I have just indicated to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont), we take this issue seriously. That is why BIS officials have been reviewing the operation of the contracts, and I very much welcome the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry, which will perhaps provide greater illumination on the specific situation in Scotland.

Zero-hours contracts are undoubtedly misused and abused by many employers but, equally, I have spoken to many employees for whom the contracts fit their lifestyle well. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that reform is necessary, not abolition, and that nothing shows this better than the number of Labour councils using these contracts?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the statement by Labour’s shadow Business Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who said:

“We’re not actually advocating an entire ban…sometimes people quite like to use them.”

I think that that is something with which we can all agree.

If I may, I would like to express my condolences and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the terrible Super Puma crash that happened while the House was in recess.

Until recently, Kyle McLean from Airdrie worked in a sports store. Like thousands of people across Scotland, his zero-hours contract meant that he could not take on other work and some weeks he earned less than £20. What does the Minister plan to do about the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the Super Puma crash and pay tribute to those who were involved in it.

The hon. Lady has a blind spot when it comes to understanding what her own Government did. She seems to suggest that zero-hours contracts suddenly materialised recently, but they were in existence under the Labour Government, who took no steps to review or do anything about them. I explained in my previous answer that BIS officials are reviewing the contracts, because while we want the employment market to be flexible we also want it to be fair.

Perhaps if the Minister looked at Labour’s policies he would get some ideas. The truth is that while the Government have sold off workers’ rights and made it easier to fire rather than hire, they have no plan to address the circumstances of people such as Kyle. Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and outlaw the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts? Will he also confirm that the Secretary of State for Scotland is on a zero-hours contract so that he can do the Tories’ dirty work in Scotland?

There is one person in this Chamber who is on a zero-hours contract: the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady, because Labour did nothing about zero-hours contracts. I have set out clearly that BIS officials are reviewing the matter, because our policy is to have a flexible work force and fair employment policies.

Independence (Pensions)

The “Scotland analysis: Financial services and banking” paper considered private sector pensions. We will be examining state and public pensions in later papers in the series.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland highlighted that, on independence, cross-border defined benefit pension schemes would have to be fully funded, which would leave a deficit of some £230 billion. That was dismissed by the First Minister, who said that he would merely call for a derogation from the EU. Given that the Czech Republic has not only been refused that, but has been fined, what does the Minister think will happen to Scottish pension arrangements now and in the future?

Spending on state pensions and public sector pensions is driven by demographics and is set to rise. The UK Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions absorb the risk of growth in demand and there would be more volatility in spending in an independent Scotland. Those are not my words, but the words of John Swinney. It is a pity that he said them in private, not in public.

10. Does the Minister agree that the ability of the Scottish economy to support the pensions that the people of Scotland depend on will be greater and better if Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom? (900192)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, not least because the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party have set out no coherent plans for a sustainable pensions system in an independent Scotland.

The Minister must think that people in Scotland are buttoned up the back. He knows as well as I do that in terms of both revenue and GDP, Scotland spends a lower percentage of its money on pensions than other parts of the UK. Does he accept that the lower life expectancy in Scotland and other demographic trends make it important that decisions on pensions are made in Scotland by Scotland for Scotland?

I know that the people of Scotland are not buttoned up the back. They understand that the Scottish Government and the SNP say one thing in private and another thing in public. In private, John Swinney has made it absolutely clear that the affordability of pensions would be a serious issue in an independent Scotland. That is a fact. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. I am sure that they will now end so that we can hear Mary Macleod.

Oil and Gas Industry

As the shadow Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland acknowledged a few moments ago, the whole House will want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the tragic helicopter incident in the North sea and to the vital work of the rescue services. That is a reminder of the risks that are faced by those who work in the oil and gas industry, and, indeed, of their bravery. The Government remain committed to working with the industry to ensure the highest levels of health and safety for all its workers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that work force engagement is crucial in restoring the confidence of offshore workers in the light of the recent helicopter crash off the coast of Shetland, which resulted in the deaths of four offshore workers?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The industry has been quick to engage with all the stakeholders and, most importantly, with the work force. The Government will engage with all partners to ensure that the lessons of this tragic accident are learned properly.

12. I hope that the Secretary of State is aware of the agreement that has been reached between the offshore unions and Oil and Gas UK to ensure that offshore work force representatives have more access to installations. Will he join me in welcoming that example of the progressive and positive way in which the unions are helping to ensure that health and safety measures are enhanced in the North sea? (900194)

Trade unions, employers and everybody else who is involved in the North sea have worked closely over many decades. Recently, as we commemorated the tragedy of Piper Alpha 25 years on, we were reminded of the importance of having the right health and safety regime. The trade unions, along with everybody else, have an important part to play in ensuring that we always have the right regime.

The tragedy with the Super Puma helicopter was a reminder that, for all the heavy engineering and high-tech industry in the North sea, it is, at heart, a people business. The families and friends of the victims and of those who travel offshore every week need to be reassured that all is being done to ensure their safety. To that end, will my right hon. Friend meet the air accidents investigation branch to see what can be done to ensure that the lessons are learned from such tragedies quickly, so that people can be reassured that all is being done to ensure the safety of the operation?

Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has for many years campaigned on North sea safety issues. Like our predecessors, this Government are committed to the highest possible standards. Of course, we want to see what lessons are learned from the tragedy, and ensure that they are shared with the whole industry, across the whole North sea and beyond.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Today marks the 12th anniversary of the tragic terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to all those who were affected by that abhorrent attack, including the families of the 67 British citizens who lost their lives. These terrorists seek to divide us, but they do not understand that their actions only make us more determined and more united in our resolve to defeat them.

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

I am sure all Members in the House will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments on this anniversary.

We are haunted by images from Syria—millions of people needing aid; children dying. I thank the Prime Minister for his leadership on humanitarian access at the G20. Will he now prepare a concrete plan? What steps will he take to gain international support prior to the United Nations General Assembly later this month?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds; inside Syria, 6.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; and the UN appeal is only 44% subscribed—there is a serious shortage of money. We have a plan between now and the UN General Assembly to encourage other countries to come forward with money, as we have done, and to back up Valerie Amos in her campaign to ensure proper access, which means including priority humanitarian routes into the country, cutting bureaucracy, and having humanitarian pauses in the conflict so the aid can get through. She will have our backing in getting others to support that, including—potentially—in a UN Security Council resolution.

I join the Prime Minister in remembering the terrible events of 11 September 2001, and especially all the British citizens who died on that day. The mindless cruelty of that attack must never be forgotten. Today, our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who died.

Today’s fall in unemployment is welcome—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”]—but does the Prime Minister recognise the concern that unemployment is still rising among young people and is close to 1 million, and that the number of people who are working part time but who cannot find a full-time job is at record levels?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about this anniversary of those dreadful events in New York. I also thank him for welcoming the fall in unemployment. Let me say clearly that of course it is welcome when unemployment falls, but we still have a long way to go. As the Chancellor said, we are turning a corner, but we need to build this recovery. We must go on backing businesses and dealing with our debts—there must be absolutely no complacency as we do everything we can to ensure the recovery delivers for hard-working people.

Let me share the unemployment figures with the right hon. Gentleman and for the House’s benefit. It is good that employment is up another 80,000 this quarter; that unemployment is down 24,000; and that the claimant count is down 32,000 just this month. Unemployment is now lower than it was at the general election, and the number of new net private sector jobs, which we have said was 1.3 million, is now 1.4 million, which is very welcome.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise youth unemployment; we do need to do more to get young people back to work. The youth claimant count is down by 10,900 this month, so there is some good news, but we need to build on our work on apprenticeships and work experience, ensure that the youth contract delivers and that children are learning the key skills at school, and help to get those young people into work.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Chancellor’s speech on Monday. The Chancellor went out and said that he had saved the economy—total complacency and total hubris at a time when, even today, unemployment is rising in half of the country: in the east of England, the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and Humber, the west midlands and Scotland. It was the Chancellor who choked off the recovery and he now wants somehow to claim credit for it. People’s living standards continue to fall. Will the Prime Minister confirm that wages are now around £1,500 lower than when he came to power?

Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman what the Chancellor said, which I think is perfectly legitimate. He pointed out that the Opposition told us that there would be no growth without plan B. Well, we have growth. They told us that unemployment would go up, not down. They told us that growth of private sector jobs would never make up for the loss of public sector jobs. They have been wrong on every single one of those issues. Of course we need to do more to help with living standards, but the only way to help with living standards sustainably is to deliver growth in the economy, and we are; to keep interest rates and mortgage rates low, and we are; and to cut people’s taxes by raising the personal allowance. All the things this Government have done; things his Government would never do.

Once again we see from the Prime Minister, as we did from the Chancellor, total complacency. We are in the midst of the slowest recovery in 100 years. Let us talk about the Prime Minister’s record. Can he tell us in how many of the 39 months that he has been Prime Minister have prices been rising faster than wages and living standards falling?

I said we face a challenge to help people with living standards, but because this Government have taken 2 million people out of tax and have cut income tax for 25 million working people, household disposable income went up last year—that is what is happening. As I said right at the beginning, we have to build on this; we have got to keep going with dealing with the deficit and helping business to employ people.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about policy. Let me just remind him what the former Chancellor said:

“I’m waiting to hear what we’ve got to say on the economy”.

That is the verdict of the former Chancellor. I have to say that we are all waiting to hear a single, constructive suggestion from the Labour party.

The whole House and the country will have heard the Prime Minister unable to answer the question about what is happening to living standards. Let me give him the answer: for 38 out of the 39 months he has been Prime Minister, living standards for working people have gone down, not up. Will he confirm that the only month when wages rose faster than prices was when he handed out the millionaires’ tax cut and City bonuses went up—

His speeches are so poor, as we saw yesterday, that it is difficult to know when he is finished. [Interruption.]

The right hon. Gentleman went to Bournemouth and completely bottled it—that is the truth. The fact is that in this economy business confidence is up, consumer confidence is up and exports are up. The point I would make about bonuses is that when he was sitting in the Treasury they were four times higher. Under this Government, the top rate of tax will be higher than in any year when he or the shadow Chancellor sat and advised the last, disastrous Labour Government. That is the truth of it. This Government are making good the mess that he made in government.

The Prime Minister cannot answer the question on living standards, because he knows that the truth is that people are worse off under this Government. Here is the reality: the Government want to give maximum support to millionaires who are getting bonuses, so they give them a tax cut, but it is a different story for those who go to food banks. We know what the Government think about those who go to food banks, because the Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said that the people who go to food banks only have themselves to blame. [Interruption.] A Government Member groans—that just shows how out of touch this Conservative party is. We would all like to hear: does the Prime Minister agree with his Education Secretary?

Food bank use went up 10 times under Labour, so we do not have to take any lectures from the Opposition. While we are on the issue of complacency, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman: real complacency is going back to tax and spend and borrowing through the roof. Real complacency is promising no more boom and bust. Real complacency is thinking you can win an election, when we have learned this week that Labour has no economic policy, no foreign policy and no leadership, either. He promised us a blank sheet of paper; three years in, I think we can agree he has delivered.

The Prime Minister neither defended the Education Secretary’s comments nor distanced himself from them. Let me just tell him: the Education Secretary is an absolute disgrace. Let us see any of those on the Conservative Benches try to live on £150 a week; then we would see what happens. We have 1 million young people out of work, unemployment up in half the country and millions of people worse off while millionaires get a tax cut. For the few, not the many—he is the two-nation Prime Minister.

It is this Education Secretary who is delivering the results we need in our education system—free schools, academies and rigour in our schools—and the right hon. Gentleman should be praising him. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is a disgrace, and that is going down to Bournemouth and caving in to the trade unions. We were promised this great big, tough fight and great big, tough speech. He told us it was going to be “Raging Bull”; he gave us “Chicken Run”.

My right hon. Friend and the Government have been working hard to attract inward investment into northern Lincolnshire and the Humber region, with considerable success, but these efforts could be undermined by further delays to determine the application by Able UK. May I urge the Prime Minister to respond to requests from the leader of North Lincolnshire council and the Humber local enterprise partnership to intervene to ensure an early determination of the application, well before the December deadline?

I have spoken to my hon. Friend and his Humberside colleagues on a number of occasions about this very important investment. We all want to see the Humber estuary become a real magnet for investment, particularly green energy investment, so I am very happy to look at the issue that he has raised with me—he has raised it with me before—and particularly at the planning permission, with, of course, the responsible council.

Q2. The parents of the 1 million young unemployed people will think the Prime Minister is totally out of touch. This year, the number of young people with jobs has dropped by 77,000, and the Government’s Youth Contract has reached fewer than one tenth of the young people it was supposed to help. Does the Prime Minister not understand that not everybody lands their first job with help from a royal equerry? (900244)

The hon. Lady should welcome the fact that the number of young people who are claiming out-of-work benefits has fallen by 10,900 this month. That is what is happening—100,000 young people accessing work experience, many of them getting into work. It is 20 times more cost-effective than the future jobs fund, which she supported. That is what is happening under our economy, but, as I said, there is absolutely no complacency: more needs to be done to get young people into work.

Last week, despite having enough evidence to prosecute, the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to proceed and prosecute doctors in Britain offering to abort a baby because it was a female. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is very uncomfortable, that the Abortion Act 1967 is now almost obsolete and puts our abortion policy on a par with those of India and China, and that a female foetus in the womb today is more vulnerable than she was last week?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. Let us be clear that abortions on the basis of a child’s sex are wrong and illegal in our country. The Daily Telegraph is to be commended for the campaign and the work it has done to highlight this important case, but in our country we have independent prosecuting authorities. It is very important that they look at the evidence and make a decision on the basis of the likelihood of getting a conviction and the public interest in taking a case to court. That is how things have to work in our country, but I share her concern about what we have read and what has happened, and it is absolutely right that professional action should be considered as well.

Q3. On Sunday, I joined Army veterans on the Anglesey leg of the Walk on Wales, an 870-mile tour of Wales organised by the charity, Walk on Wales, to raise awareness of their comrades suffering from mental illness. Great progress has been made over the past 10 years, but will the Prime Minister assure the House that he is redoubling his efforts to ensure that the NHS has access to Army records so that it can give the best possible service and treatment to our brave comrades? Will he also join me in congratulating and wishing every success to Walk on Wales? (900245)

I certainly congratulate Walk on Wales on its work, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts in his constituency, which is a beautiful one to walk around. It is important that we put money into veterans charities—as we are doing, using the LIBOR funds—to support many causes including mental health causes, but, as he says, it is also important to ensure that the national health service responds properly to these demands. I will look into his point about Army records and perhaps write to him about that specific issue.

Q4. After years of decline, manufacturing is now leading this country out of the financial mess left by the previous Government. May I compliment my right hon. Friend on his decision not to implement plan B, as suggested by the Opposition, and ask him to continue to support our outstanding manufacturing businesses, particularly those in my constituency and across the north-west in general? (900246)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the news on manufacturing is good. All 13 of the manufacturing sectors have increased—the first time that has happened since 1992. Of course, the Labour party does not like hearing that good news, including the great announcement this week that Jaguar Land Rover is creating 1,700 new jobs. We must go on backing British business, backing exports and backing manufacturing to ensure that we make this a sustainable recovery that works for hard-working people.

Q5. Is the Prime Minister embarrassed that, while so many people struggle, City bonuses are up £700 million this year? (900247)

As I have said, City bonuses are actually 86% lower than they were when the hon. Lady was supporting the last Government. She tweeted this morning—I follow these things very closely, as you know, Mr Speaker—that she had a question to the Prime Minister, and she asked for suggestions. The first suggestion came back:

“How happy are you that Ed Miliband will be the leader of the Labour Party at the next election?”

I cannot think why she rejected that advice and took advice from the shadow Chancellor instead.

Q6. Unemployment in my constituency has fallen for six months running. Today, we have learned that under this Government three times as many jobs have been created in the private sector as have been lost in the public sector. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is a “complete fantasy”, as has been suggested by the shadow Chancellor? (900248)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have seen the growth of private sector jobs far outstripping the decline in public sector jobs, by more than three times in some cases. The Opposition said that it was a fantasy to suggest that that could happen. They also said that there could be no growth without a plan B, and they predicted rises in unemployment. They have been wrong on every major economic judgment.

Q7. I also asked my constituents what I should ask the Prime Minister today. Far away from the knockabout of this session, many people are concerned about wages and prices. Is it not the case that, under this Prime Minister, when prices outstrip wages, working people are poorer than they were when this Government came into office? (900249)

When prices outstrip wages, it is really important to cut people’s taxes, and that is what we have done by delivering a tax cut to 25 million working people, lifting the personal allowance and giving people a £700 tax cut. We have been able to do that only because we have taken tough decisions on spending, tough decisions on welfare and tough decisions on the deficit—tough decisions that the Leader of the Opposition has wrongly rejected.

When the Labour party left government, 770 young people in my constituency were out of work. Today, there are just 585, and we now have Westfield and Hammerson proposing to invest £1.5 billion to transform our town centre and create thousands of jobs. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how the Government can help with the infrastructure improvements that will end the scourge of youth unemployment in our town that we inherited from the last Government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course we still have more work to do to get young people into work. Overall, however, 1.4 million more people are now employed in the private sector and we have a historic, record level of women in employment, and the number of people in work is almost up by 1 million since the election, with unemployment lower than at the election and long-term unemployment down on a year ago. We still have more work to do, but we are heading in the right direction. We have to keep on track and keep working to help business to take people on.

We are making efforts to try to bring that to an end through better working between the NHS and the police. This has been a long-standing problem under Governments of all colours for a very long time, but we are having those discussions to try to make good progress.

In May 2010, youth unemployment in Crawley stood at 7.4%; it stands now at 3.8%. On 27 September, I am holding a jobs fair in Crawley. Does the Prime Minister think that such events could be put on by all right hon. and hon. Members to help us further to turn the corner?

I congratulate businesses in Crawley and my hon. Friend on helping to encourage this private sector-led recovery, which is seeing more people into work. We are also seeing the number of young people not in education, employment or training at its lowest for a decade. As I said, there is absolutely no complacency, when more work needs to be done to make sure that this recovery delivers for people who work hard and do the right thing.

Q9. In April last year, I asked the Prime Minister about the thousands of people visiting food banks, and his reply then suggested a shocking complacency. His reply to the Leader of the Opposition today suggests that he has learned nothing since. Will he answer the question: does he think that the half a million people visiting food banks today simply need to manage their finances better, or will he admit that they cannot afford to feed their families because of his Government? (900251)

We should work with and thank the food bank movement for the excellent work it does, and we should recognise that the use of food banks went up 10 times under Labour. One of the reasons it has increased under this Government is that we took away the block that the hon. Lady’s party put in place, which was preventing jobcentres from referring people to food banks. Labour did not do it because it was bad PR, but this Government are interested in doing the right thing rather than something that just looks good.

Q10. Are national standards for sales and marketing practices in this country strong enough to protect against false advertising? Yesterday, a man in Bournemouth apparently advertised himself as made of steel, only to collapse entirely within seconds! (900252)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I admire everything that happens in Dorset, but I think it needs to look at its trading standards. I have to say that this man folded faster than a Bournemouth deckchair.

Q11. The Chancellor blames the eurozone crisis for problems in the UK economy. Since 2010, however, real wages in France and Germany have risen, when they have fallen in Britain. Will the Prime Minister finally take responsibility for the living standards crisis that families in this country are facing? (900253)

As I have said many times, times are tough because we are recovering from the calamitous situation left by the Labour party. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make comparison with eurozone countries, he will see that we have a much lower unemployment rate than many of them. There are no other European countries that can boast a record of 1.4 million new private sector jobs. The best way to help people’s living standards and the best way to help them out of poverty is to help them into work. I would have thought that the Labour party understood that.

Q12. On Monday, the TUC voted in favour of co-ordinated strike action this autumn. What effect does the Prime Minister think that that would have on our economy and on the lives of hard-working people? (900254)

I think that the document produced by the Unite union, which still sponsors and basically controls so many Labour Members, is a very frightening document. It is trade union leaders, not ordinary trade unionists, who are doing this. It is trade union leaders who want to damage our country and our economy, and who are playing politics with our future.

Q13. Tyrell Matthews-Burton was a bright 19-year-old from Walthamstow who had everything to live for. His only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet two months after his brutal murder in Crete, the only contact that the Greek authorities have had with his family has been their posting home of the clothes that he was wearing that night. Will the Prime Minister meet me, and his grieving mother, to see how we can get justice for Tyrell? (900255)

I shall be very happy to hold that meeting. I think it is really important for us to do everything we can to help families who are put in such a position. To be fair to our consular services around the world, I think that they cope extremely well. They try to go the extra mile. They work very hard, and I know that the Foreign Office encourages them in all that they do. However, there are cases in which things do not work out in the way they should, and we struggle to get answers from other countries about their justice systems and what is happening.

Tragically, John Ray infant school, one of the largest infant schools in Braintree, burnt down a few days ago. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Essex county council for the speed with which it found alternative accommodation for the children, and in welcoming the encouraging news that the school is to be rebuilt as soon as possible?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising his county council. That does sound like a tragic event, and it comes on top of the fact that, as everyone knows, we need to provide more primary school places. I commend the council for its quick action.

Q14. Since the Government took office, the United Kingdom has suffered the second biggest fall in wages that we have seen in any of the G20 countries. Does the Prime Minister think that that is evidence that he has saved our economy? (900256)

As I have said on several occasions during this Question Time, if we want to see living standards recover properly—and I do—there is only one sustainable way of making that happen. We need a growing economy, we need to keep on top of inflation, we need to ensure that mortgage rates are kept low, and we then need to cut people’s taxes by raising the personal allowance. That is how we can help households with their disposable income. If we listened to Labour and had more spending, more borrowing and more debt, the first things to go up would be interest rates and mortgage rates. For all the talk of the costs that families face, that increase in mortgage rates would wipe out all the hard work that we have done. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says “You wait.” Well, we are waiting—for one single sensible suggestion from a party whose Front Benchers have got it comprehensively wrong in the last three years.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, I am pleased to be leading a delegation as part of the preparation for our report on the Rana Plaza collapse. I thank the Department for International Development for its rapid response, and I am grateful for all the extra funding that was provided for it. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all businesses in the United Kingdom that trade in garments to ensure that their trade is ethical, and that other people are not being exploited for the benefit of our markets?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she does to further relations between Britain and Bangladesh, and thank her for her reference to DFID, which works extremely hard with that country. She is absolutely right to draw attention to that appalling industrial accident, and to encourage companies to check their supply chains and establish where their produce is coming from. She has made a very important point, and I wish her well with the work that she is doing with Bangladesh.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister think that the A and E crisis has anything to do with the fact that he has cut the number of nurses by more than 5,000 since the general election, according to figures published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre? (900257)

The point is that since the election we have protected health spending and we are putting an extra £12.7 billion into our NHS, and the number of clinical staff, including doctors, in our hospitals has gone up, whereas the number of managers has gone down. Under Labour, things were heading in an entirely different direction.

Successive Governments have condemned ethnic cleansing. Will the Prime Minister today condemn Israel for its ethnic cleansing of 40,000 Bedouin?

This Government have a very clear policy on the issue of Israel and on the issue of settlements. We respect and welcome Israel’s right to exist, and we defend that, but on settlements we think that the Israeli approach is wrong and we condemn the settlement activity, and we have been consistent in saying that both privately and publicly.

Does the Prime Minister get it, Mr Speaker: that if it were not for this House of Commons reflecting the mood of the British public, Britain and the United States would already be in the midst of what, it has turned out, would have been a wholly unnecessary war? Is not this a vindication of Parliament, and a vindication of Mr Churchill’s words that jaw-jaw is better than war-war?

What it is a vindication of is the determination to stand up to chemical weapons use. We would not be in this situation of pursuing new avenues of getting Syrian chemical weapons out of Syria and destroyed unless a strong stance had been taken. That is the right answer, not crawling up to dictators and telling them how wonderful they are.