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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
09 October 2013
Volume 568

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Policies

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1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the Government’s economic policies on Wales. [900298]

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Our economic strategy is designed to equip Wales and the United Kingdom with the tools they need to succeed in the global race, and to secure a stronger economy and a fairer society.

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With the deficit down by a third and employment at record levels, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for the Labour party to admit that our economic policy is working, not only in Redditch, but in Wales?

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Indeed, it is working in Wales and in Redditch. There are clear signs that the economy is turning the corner. I am sure that all Members were pleased with yesterday’s forecast by the International Monetary Fund, which revised UK growth for next year up from 1.5% to 1.9%.

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I put it to the Secretary of State that all economies recover from all recessions at some point, but that our recovery has come three years after those of Germany and the United States because his Government’s savage cuts turned Labour’s growth and recovery from the banking crisis in 2010 into three years of austerity. The current recovery is made in the south-east for the south-east. In Wales, there is no housing bubble, long-term unemployment is dire, as is under-employment, and personal debt is high. We need investment in Wales. His Government should be supporting the Labour Welsh Government, not hindering them with budget cuts the whole time.

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It is rather rich for the right hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the Government who presided over the economic crash in 2008, to criticise this Government for the steps that we are taking to turn the economy around. Wales, as much as every other part of the country, is benefiting from the measures that we have taken. There are 67,000 more people in work than at the time of the last election. He should welcome that.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that our excellent national economic policies are being held back by the Welsh Assembly’s inward investment policies, which have led to a fall in inward investment in Wales? Wales has gone from being one of the top creators of inward investment to one of the lowest as a result of those policies.

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There were modest improvements recently, but it is the case that the Welsh Assembly Government should give serious consideration to reinstating a body like the Welsh Development Agency, which was so successful.

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Wales urgently needs job creation levers to boost our economy, as the Council for Economic Renewal said today. Last week, in an interview with Adrian Masters of ITV Cymru Wales, the Prime Minister refused to commit to a response from the UK Government to part 1 of the Silk commission before next year’s Scottish referendum. Why are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister holding back the Welsh economy?

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As I have just said, the Welsh economy is growing. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recently held a consultation on the devolution of stamp duty land tax. We are considering the responses and will make a formal response in due course.

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13. Housing construction is an important element of economic renewal and regeneration, and the Help to Buy scheme in England will make a significant impact in encouraging home ownership and new build. The situation in Wales is more confused. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Welsh Government to follow the English model as closely as possible? Otherwise, we will run the risk that lenders will not be available to lend in Wales. [900310]

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I was pleased that the Welsh Government recently announced a form of Help to Buy, and I hope, as my hon. Friend says, that they will align their policies with those of the United Kingdom Government to ensure that the recovery is spread across England and Wales.

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The Government’s economic policies are leaving people in Wales struggling to make ends meet. With average energy bills up £300 since 2010, does the Secretary of State support Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices?

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I am not entirely sure what those plans are, and I would be interested to hear about them from the hon. Lady. In fact, they unravelled less than 24 hours after the announcement. Under the previous Government we had 10 years of incoherence in energy policy, and as a consequence this Government have to take the necessary steps to keep the lights on.

Exports

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2. What assessment he has made of the value of exports to the economy in Wales. [900299]

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The Government recognise the importance of exports to the economy. I was pleased to welcome the chief executive of UK Trade & Investment, Nick Baird, to Cardiff last month to underline the support that UKTI can offer to businesses in Wales.

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That is further proof that the Government are taking action to increase exports, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that Britain and Wales continue to benefit from opportunities in Europe by trading through and to Europe?

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My hon. Friend is right. Wales is largely a country of small and medium-sized enterprises, and if more SMEs were to export at the European rate, that would wipe out the trade deficit altogether. I strongly encourage Welsh companies to engage closely with UKTI, as it has global reach and is able to maximise opportunities throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

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What impact does the Secretary of State think that uncertainty over the UK’s role in the European Union—uncertainty created by his Government—will have on exports from Wales?

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman engages closely with his constituents and will know there is general dissatisfaction with the current settlement in Europe. We think our position in Europe should be renegotiated, and it is right to take sufficient time over that negotiation. At the end of that period, by 2017, we will put the issue of whether Britain should be a member of the European Union to the people of this country in an in/out referendum.

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All constituent parts of the UK ran trade surpluses in 2012—all except England. That puts paid to the caricature of Welsh business as failing in some way, and the surplus from Wales was £5 billion in 2012. What can be done to encourage micro-businesses such as those in my constituency to understand the value of exports and the opportunities they offer in the face of austerity from this Government, and indifference and incompetence from the Government in Cardiff?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Welsh businesses have been successful, but we want them to be even more successful. I therefore encourage Welsh businesses of whatever size to engage closely with UKTI, which as I said has global reach and is in the best position to maximise opportunities throughout the world.

Wage Levels

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3. What assessment he has made of wage levels in Wales since 2010. [900300]

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11. What steps the Government are taking to tackle low pay in Wales. [900308]

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Since this Government took office, wages and salaries growth have revived, and nominal growth in 2012 of 2.8% was the strongest since 2007.

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I am sorry to disappoint the Minister, but average wages in Flintshire have fallen since the general election, and more than 300,000 people in Wales are currently earning less than the living wage. I support aspiring to a living wage. Does he?

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What I support is creating the right conditions for the private sector to create new jobs in Wales. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area in north Wales we anticipate that 40,000 new jobs will be created in the next five years. He should get out and back the support for balanced recovery that will bring benefits to his constituency and across north Wales.

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Real wages have gone down in 38 of the 39 months since this Government came to power. Zero-hours contracts, payday loans and flouting of minimum wage law, on top of rising energy, food, and transport bills, have left my constituents feeling vulnerable. Has the Minister any plans to deal with falling living standards?

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I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is another Labour Member who does not welcome the fact that unemployment has fallen in his constituency since the general election. We recognise that wage levels are not where we want them to be, but most of the deterioration in wage levels happened in the last three years of the previous Labour Government. We are helping people in Wales on low incomes by taking 130,000 people out of income tax altogether, and by freezing fuel duty. Because we have taken the responsible decision to cut the deficit, we are able to keep interest rates low, which means that low earners in his constituency, and mine, can hang on to their homes.

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12. Does the Minister agree that the Labour party should be celebrating the fact that unemployment in a constituency such as mine is lower now than it was in 2010, and that we have 69,000 new private sector jobs in Wales, compared with 2010? The Labour party should celebrate success, not play down the economy of Wales. [900309]

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I totally agree with my hon. Friend—Labour Members should celebrate the progress we are making in Wales. There is a lot more work to be done, but unemployment is lower. Rather than criticising the private sector in Wales, which they do time and time again, they should be championing business growth in Wales.

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Has my hon. Friend, as part of his assessment, carried out a full review of Welsh employment and unemployment since 2010? Perhaps he could share that with the House.

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We see a lot of positive things happening in the Welsh economy—businesses are growing. I am particularly excited when I go to north Wales and see some of the dynamic things happening in the private sector there, but we believe that this is a recovery for the whole of Wales.

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15. Wages are down by 10% in my constituency, unemployment is stubbornly high and energy prices are soaring, yet the Government do not have a plan to freeze energy prices. VAT has taken money out of the economy in constituencies such as mine. What plans do the Government have to restore pride and confidence in businesses in Ynys Môn? [900312]

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I am surprised to hear that question from the hon. Gentleman. His constituency is set to benefit from a huge level of private sector investment. We talk about the exciting things happening in north Wales and his constituency is one of the places that will benefit the most. He should back that.

High Speed 2

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential costs and benefits of High Speed 2 to Wales. [900302]

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The Wales Office is committed to ensuring Wales derives the maximum possible benefit from HS2. In addition to improved journey times and extra rail capacity that passengers across the nation will experience, my Department will be working closely with Lord Deighton’s HS2 growth task force to identify further benefits to Wales.

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With respect, that is not a good answer considering the Minister knew of this question three or four weeks ago. Is there a robust cost-benefit analysis of this whole fantastical project?

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The cost-benefit analysis indicates that there will be a positive impact of £15 billion, in which Wales will be a full participant.

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With some spending projections for this vanity project topping £80 billion, will the Secretary of State commit to fighting for a Barnett consequential equivalent for Wales, which could be between £3 billion and £4 billion and make a huge difference to the Welsh rail network? Will he join his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), in pleading this case, as reported today in the Western Mail?

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I think the right hon. Gentleman knows what my answer will be: HS2 is a UK-wide project from which every part of the United Kingdom will benefit. He is a north Wales MP. He knows that north Wales will benefit from improved journey times to London via the hub at Crewe, he knows that mid-Wales will benefit from travel times via Birmingham, and he knows that south Wales will benefit from connections at Old Oak Common. Of course it will be of national benefit.

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Last week, the Welsh Government announced the reopening of the second line between Wrexham and Chester. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such investment in rail infrastructure, including HS2, has a massive role to play in encouraging economic growth in north-east Wales and west Cheshire?

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Yes. I was pleased that the Welsh Government reversed their decision not to redouble the line between Chester and Wrexham. It plays an important part in the business case for north Wales electrification, which I am sure all Members would welcome.

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14. The £44 million of Labour investment in the Wrexham-Chester line is not a reversal of the decision; it is part of continued investment to improve the network in north-east Wales. I know the right hon. Gentleman is interested in this issue. Will he meet me to explore specifically how HS2 will link to the new development in the rail network in north-east Wales to benefit the area? [900311]

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The hon. Gentleman knows that I am always delighted to meet him to discuss rail matters. In fact, I invited him to a meeting only a few months ago to discuss the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am entirely happy to keep meeting him.

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Is there not a real danger that the economies of north Wales and northern England could be left behind if we rely solely on the existing north-south rail lines, which, by all predictions, will be full to capacity by the mid-2020s?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right: it is a question not just of speed, but of capacity. In his area, journey times from Leeds to London will be reduced by about 60 minutes, which I am sure we would all welcome.

Housing Benefit

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the effects in Wales of changes to housing benefit. [900303]

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9. What recent assessment he has made of the effects in Wales of changes to housing benefit. [900306]

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The Government remain committed to reforming housing benefit to create a fairer and more affordable system.

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Will the Minister advise me where he thinks Flintshire county council and other local authorities are supposed to find these mythical one and two-bedroom properties? While he is at it, why does he think it is a good idea to force disabled people out of homes that have been adapted by councils at high cost?

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We are not forcing disabled people out of their homes. On the hon. Gentleman’s question about Flintshire, we are making available to his local authority more than £240,000 this year in discretionary housing benefit. I ask him to ask his local authority why it has more than 275 empty properties in the social rented sector. That is part of the answer to the local housing problems in Flintshire.

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Is the Minister aware that in Swansea two thirds of the thousands of people affected by the bedroom tax are now in arrears and that those arrears have doubled since April? Will he and the Secretary of State have an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to make the case for Wales, which is the worst affected area in the whole of Britain, with fewer smaller units and the poor being thrust into dire poverty and the arms of loan sharks?

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I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about housing issues in Swansea, but he should be aware that there are about 300 empty properties in the social rented sector in Swansea. That should be part of the answer to the problems he is talking about. I am concerned to hear about the large increase in the number of people he says are suffering from rent arrears. We are making available substantial resource to Swansea borough council, and we should be asking how it is using those discretionary housing payments to assist people through the difficult transition.

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One of the best ways to help those affected by changes in housing benefit is through the provision of new single-person housing, but that has not been helped by the reduction in social housing built by the Welsh Government or by the extra Welsh-specific building regulations, which have impacted on the private sector and driven it out of Wales altogether.

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We have seen the comments by Redrow Homes and Persimmon Homes. These are important Welsh builders who need to be building new homes in Wales, but who are not building as many as they should be. The Welsh Government are responsible for the supply of new housing in Wales, and I think that serious questions need to be put to Welsh Ministers in Cardiff about that.

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It is truly extraordinary that the Minister continues to defend the bedroom tax. Will he confirm for the record whether, according to the Government’s own figures, Wales is hit harder than anywhere else in the UK? As he mentioned the disabled, will he tell us how many disabled households in Wales are hit by the bedroom tax?

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We have had this question before. Wales is not hit harder—to use the hon. Gentleman’s terminology—than other parts of the United Kingdom. What is remarkable is that he still clings to the mythical economics of plan B. More than anybody else in the Opposition, he argues for more spending, more borrowing and more debt, all of which is a road to poverty for people in Wales.

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The Government’s own impact assessment states that 46% of households in social housing in Wales have been hit by the bedroom tax, which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in Britain. Those are the Government’s own numbers. The bedroom tax will also hit 25,000 disabled families. The Minister should confer with his colleague the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who said only yesterday that the bedroom tax was not working in Wales. It is not working for those 25,000 people—25,000 reasons why we need a Labour Government to scrap the bedroom tax and deliver justice for those people in Wales.

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I did not see the specific remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but we are making available to Wales more than £7 million in extra money for discretionary housing payments. On top of that, we are making money available for rural borough councils in Wales to assist with the transition. We recognise that it is a challenge and a difficult period for people going through our changes to housing benefit, but we are supporting local authorities in Wales to help Welsh people through that transition.

Cardiff to Manchester Rail Line

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7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport about capital investment in the Cardiff to Manchester railway line. [900304]

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I regularly meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to discuss rail infrastructure priorities for Wales, and I am meeting him again soon. I will raise the important link that my hon. Friend mentions as part of that discussion.

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The new enterprise zone at Rotherwas in Herefordshire offers a superb opportunity to reopen the rail link to Hereford and establish a parkway station, which would assist local people and the many Welsh people who work in my county. Will the Secretary of State support those plans?

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The Herefordshire enterprise zone is extremely important, and my hon. Friend will know that the important thing with rail infrastructure improvement is to build up a coherent business case. I will certainly raise this matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when I meet him, and my hon. Friend’s question will form an important part of that business case.

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May I take this opportunity to support the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and to ask the Secretary of State to ensure that he reiterates the importance of the electrification of the railway line to south Wales from London and of the valley lines? Will he take the opportunity to do that now?

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Yes, indeed. The announcement that we made last year is still very much on track, and we are hoping that the link to Swansea will be completed by 2018. [Interruption.]

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Order. There are far too many persistent and very noisy conversations taking place in the Chamber. I know that colleagues will want to listen to Susan Elan Jones.

Charities

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8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on charities in Wales of the provisions of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. [900305]

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The Government have published impact assessments to accompany the three parts of the Bill. The assessment for part 2, which covers non-party campaigning, evaluates the potential effects of the proposals on third parties in the United Kingdom.

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With respect, is not that answer a complete load of nonsense? The Wales Council for Voluntary Action has said that the Government’s proposals are entirely unworkable and undemocratic. Is there any serious charitable or faith group that agrees with the Government on this mess of a Bill?

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The hon. Lady is making a point that has already been made, and that argument has now been discounted. She will know that the Government have tabled amendments to the Bill and have now reverted to the wording of the existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure that can

“reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of a party or candidate”.

That is precisely the same wording as applied in 2005 and 2010, so her fears are entirely unfounded.

Under-occupancy Penalty

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10. What assessment he has made of the effects of the under-occupancy penalty in Wales. [900307]

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The removal of the spare room subsidy, which already applies in the private rented sector, has brought fairness back into the system. This Government are prepared to tackle this long-standing inequality and are taking the tough decisions to deliver a recovery that works for all.

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I have contacted many housing associations in Wales in recent weeks, and the information so far points to the fact that—[Interruption.]

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Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I want to hear her question from start to finish, and to hear the answer. The House deserves to hear her question from start to finish.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I have contacted many housing associations in Wales in recent weeks, and the information collected so far points to the fact that about 45% of those who were previously able to meet their rent payments are now in arrears. Given that the discretionary housing payments are clearly not enough, what message does the Minister have for those who are falling into arrears?

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I have not seen the information that the hon. Lady has brought to the House today, but I will gladly sit down and go through it with her. I would be concerned if, as she says, there has been such an increase in the number of people suffering rent arrears. That is not what we are planning for, and we are making available to Welsh local authorities the resources to ease families through this difficult transition.

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An extraordinary thing has happened. The appetite for interrogation of hon. and right hon. Members seems to have dried up. We have completed all the questions and we have had the answers. The principals are here, and we are ready to go.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 October. [900323]

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Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in the appalling terrorist attack in Nairobi, and in particular the six British nationals who lost their lives. This was a despicable attack, and it demonstrates how we must continue to do all we can to defeat international terrorism.

I am sure the House will also want to join me in paying tribute to PC Andrew Duncan, who died on 21 September while on duty—a reminder of the sacrifices that police officers make on our behalf every day of every year.

On a happier note, I am sure the House will wish to congratulate Professor Peter Higgs, who is sharing this year’s Nobel prize for physics. This is a richly deserved recognition of his lifetime of research and a tribute to the UK’s world-leading universities, where this research was carried out.

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.

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May I associate myself and my constituents entirely with the tribute that the Prime Minister made to the victims of terrorism in Nairobi and to PC Andrew Duncan and, of course, offer our congratulations to Professor Higgs?

Can the Prime Minister confirm that less than a third of families in Britain will benefit from his marriage tax break?

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What I can confirm is that all married couples paying basic rate tax will benefit from this move. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I think this is important: it is not about the money; it is about the message. I think marriage is a great institution and I think we should support it, including through the income tax system.

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With the disappearance of the minimum practice income guarantee, many doctors’ surgeries serving remote rural areas such as the one in Slaidburn in my constituency face death not by a thousand cuts, but perhaps by one cut. They serve many elderly residents and a number of children who do not have access to great public transport to go into neighbouring Clitheroe. Will the Prime Minister investigate this issue and ensure that my constituents will not be isolated and will continue to receive the excellent service that they do now from their doctors’ surgery?

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I will look carefully at the case the hon. Gentleman makes. I, too, represent a large rural constituency where there are still small practices. It is the case, however, that many more doctors’ surgeries are offering many more services with practice nurses and other assistance given to patients. We want to see that growing, not least to make sure that people can go to GP surgeries rather than accident and emergency units if it is a GP that they need, but I will look at the specific point that he makes.

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I join the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the friends and families of the British nationals murdered in Nairobi and of all those killed in that cowardly act. It was a heinous act of terrorism and reminds us of the importance of combating terrorism at home and around the world.

I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to PC Andrew Duncan, whose death is a terrible tragedy and a reminder of the bravery shown by our brave policemen and women day in, day out, on our behalf. I send my condolences to his family and friends.

On a completely different note, I join the Prime Minister in celebrating the tremendous achievement of Peter Higgs in winning the Nobel prize for physics. He is a great British scientist. And while we are about it, Mr Speaker, I wish the Prime Minister happy birthday.

On Monday, the Prime Minister said:

“There’s a certain amount you can do freezing prices”

of energy, while the Chancellor said in his conference speech that it was something out of “Das Kapital”. Can the Prime Minister tell us: is freezing energy prices a good idea or a communist plot?

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I will leave the communist plots to him.

First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; of course, there is nothing I would rather do on my birthday than this. What this Government are doing is legislating to put people on to the lowest energy tariffs; I think that that is a real step forward. I have to say on this issue, however, that just promising a freeze is a classic case of him saying one thing and doing another. Month after month, he stood at this Dispatch Box as Energy Secretary, producing policy after policy, regulation after regulation and target after target, all of which put energy prices up.

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What is clear from that answer is that the Prime Minister has no answer on Labour’s energy price freeze, and what is clear is that it will not happen under him, but would happen under a Labour Government.

The Prime Minister mentioned his policy on tariffs. He said that it would put everyone on the cheapest energy tariff. Can he explain why at least 90% of the country will gain no benefit from his policy?

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First of all, let us deal with Labour’s new energy policy. Let us spend a little bit of time on it. First of all, let us examine the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is committed to a new decarbonisation target that would add £125 to the bills of everyone in the country. Perhaps he would like to mention that when he next gets to his feet.

The right hon. Gentleman also did not mention the fact that, just 12 hours after making his pledge, he said that he might not be able to fulfil it because of international wholesale gas prices. Is it not the case that what he is promising is a price increase before a promise, a broken promise, and then a price increase after a promise? One price increase, one broken promise and another price increase: that sounds like every Labour Government since the war.

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What is clear is that the Prime Minister is floundering around, and has no answer to Labour’s energy price freeze. He did not even defend his own policy, which will not benefit 90% of the country. He has no idea. He says that he wants to bring energy prices down; can he confirm that energy prices have gone up by £300 since he became Prime Minister?

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I can tell the right hon. Gentleman first of all that energy prices doubled under Labour. Electricity prices went up by 50%. And let me make this point to him: there is one thing that Governments cannot control, and that is the international wholesale price of gas.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman would like to live in some sort of Marxist universe in which it is possible to control all these things, but he needs a basic lesson in economics. Perhaps he should remember what Labour’s own industry Minister said. This is what was said by a Labour Minister who sat with him in the last Government:

“in an effort to appeal to tribal socialism and a minority in the country, he has put at risk millions of jobs. He has put a sign up over the country, don’t invest here”.

That is the new left-wing Labour party.

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I suggest that the Prime Minister should go away after Prime Minister’s Question Time and try to work out his position on the energy price freeze. Initially, he said that the policy was “nuts”. Then, on Monday, he said that it “struck a chord”, and that freezing energy prices could make a difference. He has no idea what he thinks about this policy.

Why are energy prices so high? Once again, the Prime Minister did not answer the question. Let me remind him of the words of a previous Leader of the Opposition, who said that when the gas prices go up, they will rush to pass the costs on to us, and yet when the gas prices are coming down, we wait a very long time before we see anything coming through on our bills. It was the Prime Minister who said that. Why has he changed his mind?

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What we need is a more competitive energy market so that consumers benefit. What the right hon. Gentleman seems to be suffering from is complete amnesia over the fact that he used to be the Energy Secretary. Let me remind him of one of the first actions that this Government took. We inherited from him an energy policy that would have added £179 to every single bill because of his renewable heat initiative, and we cancelled it.

While we are dealing with quotations, let us have a guess at who said this:

“to deal with the problem of climate change, energy bills are likely to rise.”

Who said that? Does anyone know? It was the last Energy Secretary, who stood here and pushed up prices again and again and again. Everyone wants low prices. We will get them by dealing with the causes of the high prices, rather than by means of a gimmick that collapsed after 12 hours.

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The Prime Minister says that he wants low prices, but prices are going up on his watch. That is the reality.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that while his energy policy, his so-called cheapest tariff policy, benefits almost no one—a fact that he did not deny—a 20-month freeze in bills would save money for 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses across the country?

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The problem is that 12 hours later the right hon. Gentleman said that he might not be able to keep his promise. This is not a policy; it is a gimmick, and the reason it is a gimmick is that he is in favour of a decarbonisation target that would add £125 to everyone’s bills. It is obvious why he wants to talk about the cost of living: it is because he does not have an economic policy any more. He told us over and over again that if we cut spending we damage public services. Now even the BBC disagrees with that. And he told us over and over again that if we cut spending the economy will not grow. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says keep going. Let me tell the House the best birthday present I could have: the shadow Chancellor staying in the shadow Cabinet.

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The Prime Minister said something very interesting: he said he does not want to talk about an economic policy; he wants to talk about the cost of living. Doesn’t that say it all? He does not realise that an economic policy is about the cost of living and what hundreds of thousands—millions—of families are facing in this country. Whatever we may say about him, he is true to form. We have a cost of living crisis in this country, and energy bills are rising, and he supports the energy companies, not the consumer. We have a Prime Minister who always stands up for the wrong people.

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We know what the right hon. Gentleman’s cost of living policy is: more spending, more borrowing and more debt, which would lead to higher taxes and higher mortgage rates. That is the double whammy that would hit every family in this country. Not only have I got the birthday present of the shadow Chancellor staying in post—and, incidentally, also the birthday present of the shadow Health Secretary staying in post—but I also have this special birthday treat. The shadow Chancellor yesterday revealed the Opposition’s election campaign: he said it all depended on the two of them together as—I am not making this quote up—they would win because of their “experience”, their “track record” and their “credibility”. That is like the captain of the Titanic running on his safety record.

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Millions of people have chosen to collect their pensions and benefits at the post office using a Post Office card account. That contract is due to expire in 18 months’ time. It is vital for these people and the future of rural post offices that either the Post Office card account or a similar Post Office product continues after 2015. I hope the Government will ensure that it does.

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The Post Office card account has been a great bonus for many people. I think it has really helped not only our post offices, but particularly elderly people who have access to those sorts of accounts, and I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says.

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Q2. Why is market intervention by the state in mortgages okay, but market intervention in the energy market is not? [900324]

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We are intervening in the mortgage market because banks are failing to provide mortgages so young people can get on to the housing ladder. We are also intervening by putting everyone on the lowest energy tariff, but what the Leader of the Opposition cannot control, although he would like to, is international gas prices. He needs a basic lesson in economics, and it sounds like the hon. Gentleman does, too.

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Industrial chemicals, herbicides and plant food are used in a variety of diet pills that are banned for human use but are widely advertised on the internet for such use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that action needs urgently to be taken to prevent the importation of these substances in capsule form, which can only be planned for human consumption?

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There have been some extremely serious cases of young people in particular suffering from such medications that can be ordered on the internet. I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about whether further legislative or regulatory action can be taken in order to protect people from substances that may be safe in other circumstances, but should not be marketed in this way.

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Q3. Why is the Prime Minister taking away £7 billion a year in support to children up to 2015? [900325]

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We are putting in more support for children. We are providing the child care offer now not just for four-year-olds and three-year-olds, but for two-year-olds. We have introduced for the first time a pupil premium, so children from the poorest homes are going to get more money following them into schools. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Frankly, he should be sitting there in shame at the OECD report that came out yesterday that showed that after a lifetime in education under Labour our young people are bottom of the league in terms of results. That is what he should be focused on.

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rose

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Order. It is time the House heard from John Randall.

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May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the recent report by Imperial college about the detrimental effects on health of aircraft noise? Will he make sure that when the Government look at and decide on the Davies commission’s report on aviation in the south-east, health and environmental considerations are paramount?

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My right hon. Friend has not had the chance to speak from the Back Benches in the way that he just has, and I look forward to hearing many other contributions from him—he brings a huge amount to this House. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of environmental noise, and I can tell him that it will be included in the report by Howard Davies and he will be making a speech about the issue soon.

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Q4. Does the Prime Minister think it is acceptable that since he came to office the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for more than two years has increased by 390%? [900326]

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What has happened since I became Prime Minister is that the number of workless households has gone down to its lowest level and the number of households claiming benefit has gone down. While we are at it, if the hon. Lady looks at what is actually happening in the north-west, she will see that since the election 18,000 more people are in employment; 45,000 more people are employed in the private sector; unemployment has fallen in the north-west by 7,000 since the election; and, as I said, the number of workless households has gone down by 26,000. She should be talking up her region instead of talking it down.

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Has the Prime Minister seen today’s BBC ICM report showing that despite reductions in spending, a majority of people think that services provided by local government, such as bin collections, parks, libraries and recycling, have got better? Does he agree that that shows we can get more for less?

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When I woke up this morning and heard that the BBC was reporting that you can cut public spending and make public services better, I thought I had died and gone to heaven for a moment. This is worth looking at and it is one of the many pillars of Labour’s policy that has collapsed today. The Opposition thought that public spending cuts would lead to a lack of economic growth, but the International Monetary Fund has shown them that that is wrong. They thought that public spending cuts would lead to worse services, but the BBC—let us praise the BBC for once—has told them that that is wrong. That is what has happened today.

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Q5. Labour’s child care guarantee will be great for working parents, so says Boris Johnson. Does the Prime Minister agree? [900327]

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We are helping working parents with child care, and that is what the tax relief on child care that this Government will be introducing will be all about.

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Q6. In January, my constituents Ross and Clare Simons were tragically killed when they were hit by a driver who had more than 10 previous convictions for dangerous driving and was disqualified from driving at the time. He received a sentence of just over 10 years for his crime. More than 8,000 people in Kingswood have signed a petition, “Justice for Ross and Clare”, calling for the law to be changed so that drivers convicted of dangerous driving while disqualified should receive tougher sentences. Will the Prime Minister receive the petition at Downing street? Does he agree that the law in this area should be looked at? [900328]

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I will certainly look at the petition that my hon. Friend talks about, and I would like to join him by offering my condolences to the friends and families of Ross and Clare.

This is the most appalling crime: someone with 10 previous convictions, as my hon. Friend says, and who was disqualified at the time driving dangerously and killing two people, snuffing out their lives. The sentence was 10 years. As I understand it, the maximum sentence available for a crime like this is 14 years. The Government have introduced a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, so we are looking at this whole area. I can also tell him that the Justice Secretary has asked the Sentencing Council to review the sentencing guidelines for serious driving offences, and we should look at this specific case in the light of that.

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Q7. A family in my constituency earning £18,000 a year are paying a massive £3,276 in energy bills, so why is the Prime Minister siding with energy bosses charging inflated prices, rather than with hard-pressed families? [900329]

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I want to see people’s energy bills come down. That is why we are legislating to put people on the lowest tariff; that is why we will go through to see what regulations and rules, put in place by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Energy Secretary, we can change to keep bills down; and that is why we need a competitive market. But simply making promises that you admit the next day you cannot meet is not proper politics.

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Does the Prime Minister agree with the director general of the CBI that whether a business is small, medium or large it must grow as a business and invest and that high taxes do not allow that?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. What we heard at Labour’s conference is that Labour will put up taxes on some of Britain’s biggest and most successful businesses. Labour’s message to business is, “Don’t invest here, don’t bring the jobs here, don’t expand here—go somewhere else. We want to fight some petty socialist campaign against successful big business.” That is absolutely wrong for our economy.

Substantive Reply to Letter

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Q8. When he plans to give a substantive reply to the letter from the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, sent on 3 July 2013. [900330]

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Local growth is a priority across Government. The regional growth fund is helping to create some 66,000 jobs with specific investment in the north-east of £330 million. We do not want to go back to the previous Administration’s system, but obviously the Local Growth Committee in the Cabinet brings together the Secretaries of State from all the key Departments.

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Is the Prime Minister aware that the Department of Health is now consulting on changing the funding formula for health care in the north-east and Cumbria? That will have the effect of taking some £230 million out of the health care budget for the region. Who in his Government stands up for the north of England?

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The whole Government stand up for the north-east of England. If the right hon. Gentleman wants some news about the north-east of England, you have Hitachi building the new train plant, Nissan expanding in Sunderland and the new Tyne tunnel. There is plenty of good news in the north-east.

Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about NHS funding. This year’s funding for the north-east clinical commissioning group is going up by £170 million, a 2.3% increase. That is what is happening under this Government. Of course, under Labour’s plans health spending would be cut. The shadow Health Secretary, the man who they have decided—inexplicably—to keep in the shadow Cabinet has said that increasing health spending is “irresponsible.” That is the Labour view. We do not agree with that and that is why we are spending more money, including in the north-east.

Engagements

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I congratulate the Government on ending the unfairness in free school meals for 16 to 18-year-olds. Will the Prime Minister look to end the similar unfairness whereby sixth-form colleges have to pay VAT whereas schools or academies with sixth forms do not?

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I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. It is good that we will now have the same system for free school meals for sixth-form colleges and for secondary schools and I also think that it is very welcome that children in infant school will not have to pay for school meals. I will look carefully at his point about VAT.

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Q9. The Prime Minister will know from his script that I am an extremely proud member of the trade union movement, which seeks to stand up for millions of workers in the public and private sectors and whose living standards have been drastically reduced under his watch. What personal sacrifices have he and his family had to make during these austere times, given that we are all in this together? [900331]

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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman stands up as a proud trade unionist and, just as I welcome the reshuffle, I am sure that Len McCluskey is delighted with it. Len McCluskey and the Leader of the Opposition probably would not call it a reshuffle—they would call it a purge, because Len McCluskey asked for the Blairites to be purged and they have all gone. The fact is that it has been tough and difficult in our country because of the appalling deficit and debt that the hon. Gentleman’s party left from when it was in government.

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In my constituency, a school called Skerton is under threat of being closed down by the county council. I spoke to the Education Secretary about that and it has been generic over four years. Will the Prime Minister assure me that his office will look into the fair play on this subject, given that the county council education portfolio holder has said that in his opinion the school should close, even though the first part of the consultation has only just been completed? That was a few months ago.

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I shall certainly look at the case my hon. Friend makes, but under our education reforms there are greater opportunities for schools to gain their independence and for new schools to establish themselves. I hope that he will consider all the structural changes we have made to education, because they might help in the specific case of this school.

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Q10. Under this Government the cost of child care is rocketing, while wages have stagnated. Families are facing nursery costs that have risen six times faster than wages last year. When is the Prime Minister going to take action and adopt Labour’s plan to extend free nursery provision to 25 hours? [900332]

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We have extended the hours that people get for four-year-olds, extended the hours for people who have three-year-olds, and for the first time introduced child care assistance for people who have two-year-olds. That has changed under this Government. We are also introducing for the first time proper tax relief on child care, so that people who work hard and do the right thing can get help with their child care. I hope that when there is a vote on it, the Opposition will support us.

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Q11. One month ago I installed call-blocking technology in a partially deaf constituent’s home. This has shown that in the past month 65% of the calls that Mrs Moffat has received have been nuisance calls. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to do all they can to remove this menace, including looking at whether telephone providers should be profiteering by charging to provide information vital to trace these calls? [900333]

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure he has advised his constituent about the Telephone Preference Service—TPS—through which one can stop some of the calls that come through, but it is a real bane in some people’s lives so I am sure we can look further at what else can be done.

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On reflection, does the Prime Minister agree that allowing more time for further diplomatic discussions to take place over Syria was preferable to rushing in and bombing the country?

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I think the fact that America was so clear that it would take action is what brought about a change of heart on the part of the Syrian Government. That is the real lesson that we should learn.

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Q12. One of the biggest factors for many young people’s budgets is the cost of their mortgage. Will the Prime Minister tell us what would be the effect on mortgage rates if the Government were to increase borrowing by £27.9 billion, as the Opposition have called for, since promising iron discipline? [900334]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most important aspects of people’s bills is the mortgage payments that they have to make. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is shouting that it is not true, but he is committed to increasing borrowing. If you borrow more, you risk interest rates and mortgage rates going up. Families across the country understand that and they understand that you only get to grips with the cost of living and living standards if you have a proper economic plan for getting the deficit down, for getting growth, for creating jobs and for cutting people’s taxes—four things this Government are doing; four things the Opposition would never do.

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My constituent Khuram Shaikh was brutally murdered and his girlfriend gang-raped while on holiday in Sri Lanka nearly two years ago. Justice continues to be denied and the key suspect is a close ally of the Sri Lankan President. Is the Prime Minister comfortable meeting this President at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit next month, and what will he say to him?

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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I think it is right for the British Prime Minister to go to the Commonwealth conference because we are big believers in the Commonwealth and in making that organisation work well and, indeed, work for us. But I think it is right that in going to the Commonwealth conference, we should not hold back from being very clear about those aspects of the human rights record in Sri Lanka that we are not happy with. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of that case, I will make sure that, along with other cases and along with other arguments, those points are properly made. Of course, those are points that we cannot make if we do not go.

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Q13. Will the Prime Minister welcome the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which came into force last week? It has the support of the Church, extra taxes will boost the Treasury revenues, and it will make the trains run on time. Can he say that about any other piece of legislation? [900335]

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First, may I say what pleasure it gives me to refer to the hon. Gentleman as my right hon. Friend—an honour he fully deserves? I welcome the effect of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, which has helped to bring revenue into the Treasury. It is also helping to deal with this scourge, which is a crime that we have seen grow in recent years, particularly because of the growth in the price of metals. The lead off the Witney church roof was stolen recently, and I know that the Act will help to make sure that that does not happen again.

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Q14. Eighty-three per cent. of the beneficiaries of the Government’s proposed marriage tax break will be men; just 17% will be women. Why does the Prime Minister have such a blind spot when it comes to women? [900336]

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I think that it is worth supporting marriage through the income tax system. Let me make this challenge to the Labour party: in government it gave a married tax break through the inheritance tax system; it gave a married tax break to the rich. I want to give a married tax break to everybody.

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Does the Prime Minister believe that when the European Union forces my constituents to buy 20 cigarettes at a time, rather than their current 10, it will reduce the number they smoke?

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It does not, on the face of it, sound a very sensible approach. I was not aware of the specific issue, so let me have a look at it and get back to my hon. Friend.

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Q15. Why has the Prime Minister told members of his party behind closed doors that forcing through same-sex marriage legislation was a terrible mistake? [900337]

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I have not. I am very proud of the fact that we passed same-sex marriage in this Parliament and very proud of the role I played in bringing it forward. As I have just been saying, I think that marriage is a wonderful thing, and that goes for a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. It is a great reform that makes our country fairer. I hope that is clear.

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With even Boris now admitting that his Thames estuary airport plan has no support, does the Prime Minister welcome Sir Howard Davies’s statement that some plans will not even pass first base environmentally?

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I do not want in any way to interfere with what Howard Davies is doing. I think that he is the right person to carry out this report. I think that it is very important that we try to build cross-party consensus on the basis that it is a good report and a thorough process so that all parties will be able to endorse it when the report’s conclusions come out.