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Volume 568: debated on Wednesday 16 October 2013

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the England football team on their excellent win last night, which has enabled them to qualify for next year’s World cup competition. I send my commiserations to the other home nation teams, including Scotland, who delivered an impressive win over Croatia last night, but I am sure that everyone in the United Kingdom will now swing behind the English team—you can always dream and hope, Mr. Speaker.

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

May I associate myself with what the Prime Minister said about the English football team? I only hope that Sheffield United will follow their lead.

We will all have heard from constituents who, while struggling to make ends meet, have taken out payday loans and then found themselves trapped in spiralling debt owing to excessive charges and escalating interest. Yesterday all the major national consumer and debt advice organisations came together in Parliament to launch a charter calling for the tough regulation of payday lenders, which has been backed by Members representing every party in the House. Will the Prime Minister add his support to it?

Let me first commend the hon. Gentleman for the work that he does in relation to payday loans and the need for tough regulation. I think it absolutely right for us to look at the issue, and to ensure that we get things right.

Earlier this month, the Government published two reports which showed that the problems in the payday market persist, and that consumers continue to suffer. As a result, the Financial Conduct Authority has made a series of proposals, all of them worth while. They include proposals to use powers to ban loans and advertisements of which it does not approve, to ensure that lenders cannot roll over loans more than twice, and to limit the number of attempts that a payday lender can make to take money out of accounts.

We are still considering the issue of a cap, and I do not think we should rule it out, although we must bear in mind what has been established in other countries, and by our own research, about whether a cap would prove effective. It is absolutely right for us to regulate this area properly.

May we have a full and transparent assessment of whether The Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is bizarre that from some the hacking of a celebrity phone demands a prosecution, whereas leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable is seen as opening a debate?

I commend my right hon. Friend for raising the issue. I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways The Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files. It knows that what it is dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think that it is up to Select Committees in the House to examine the issue if they wish to do so, and to make further recommendations.

I join the Prime Minister in sending warmest congratulations to the England team on its victory last night and on getting to the World cup finals next summer, and I add my commiserations to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Today’s economic figures show a welcome fall in unemployment. They also show that prices have risen faster than wages, and that is 39 out of 40 months that living standards have fallen since he became Prime Minister. Will he confirm what everybody knows: that there is a cost of living crisis in this country?

First of all, let me welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the unemployment figures. Not everyone in the House will have been able to study them, but it is good news. The number in work is up 155,000, unemployment is down 18,000, women’s unemployment is down, youth unemployment is down, long-term unemployment is down and vacancies are up, and crucially the fall in the claimant count is 41,000 this month alone. That is the fastest fall in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit since February 1997. These are welcome figures. Of course we all want to see living standards improve, and last year disposable income increased, but the way to deliver on living standards is to grow the economy, keep producing the jobs and cut people’s taxes.

There are almost 1 million young people still out of work and record numbers of people working part-time who cannot find full-time work. That is no cause for complacency from this Government, and I think the British people will be very surprised to hear the Prime Minister telling them that their living standards are rising when they know the truth: under him, living standards are falling month upon month upon month. There is a cost of living crisis, and one of the reasons is rising energy bills, which one leading charity reports today is one of the things driving people to food banks. In the light of that, does the Prime Minister think that the energy company SSE’s decision to raise its customers’ energy bills by 8.2% is justified?

Let me come back to the right hon. Gentleman on the youth unemployment figures which he mentions, because the youth claimant count—the number of young people claiming unemployment benefit—is down 79,000 since the election. There is absolutely no complacency—we need more young people in work, we need more jobs—but one of the remarkable things about today’s figures is that they show for the first time that there are 1 million more people in work than there were when this Government came into office.

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of something he predicted. In October 2010 he said this—[Interruption.] I think people will want to listen to this. He said the Government clearly

“have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million…jobs.”

That was his prediction. He was 100% wrong, and he should apologise to this House of Commons. Of course we all want to see energy prices come down. That is why we are putting people on the lowest tariff, but the one thing that will not work is a price con, and that is what he is recommending.

The person who should be apologising is this Prime Minister, for the cost of living crisis facing millions of families. Let us talk about SSE. It says on its website—and I quote—that it has just one strategic priority and it calls it its “dividend obsession”: it is not to get bills down; it is not to be on the side of the consumer. So it is make-up-your-mind time for the Prime Minister. Whose side is he on: the energy companies’ or the consumers’?

We are on the side of hard-working families, which is why we have cut income tax for 25 million people, why we have frozen the council tax, why we have lifted 2 million people out of tax. Let me make this simple point about living standards: if we want to help with living standards, the best way to do that is to cut people’s taxes. Now, we can only cut taxes if we cut spending. The right hon. Gentleman has opposed every single spending cut that we have proposed; even now he still wants to spend more money. That is the truth: more spending, more borrowing, more debt. It is the same old Labour.

Is it not striking that the one thing the Prime Minister does not want to talk about is energy prices? He cannot talk about that because he has no answer. Let us have an answer on the energy price freeze. Can he confirm that in opposing the freeze he has on his side the big six energy companies, and in supporting a freeze we have on our side consumer bodies such as Which? and small energy producers such as Co-op Energy and the vast majority of the British people?

If an energy price freeze was such a great idea, why did the right hon. Gentleman not introduce it when he stood at this Dispatch Box as Energy Secretary? The fact is that it is not a price freeze; it is a price con. He is not in control of worldwide gas prices, which is why he had to admit the next day that he could not keep his promise—that is the truth. The reason why he does not want to talk about the economy is because he has not got a credible economic policy. He cannot explain why the deficit is falling, the economy is growing and unemployment is coming down. I have to say to him that given that his problem is having no credible economic policy, he does not help himself by having a totally incredible energy policy.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might get to the record of the last Government, because his Government have found a new tactic; they have been floundering all over the place and they blame the last Government and green levies. Let us talk about green levies, because who said, “Vote blue, go green”? I think it was this Prime Minister. Who said, as Leader of the Opposition:

“I think green taxes as a whole need to go up”?

It was him. He has been talking about my record as Energy Secretary, so I looked back at the record on the Energy Bill of 2010. Did he oppose that Bill? No, he supported it. You could say, Mr Speaker, that it was two parties working together in the national interest. Does he not feel faintly embarrassed that in five short years he has gone from hug a husky to gas a badger?

Oh dear! The only embarrassing thing is this tortured performance.

The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the record of the last Labour Government. Let me remind him, on the cost of living, that they doubled the council tax; they doubled the gas bills; they put up electricity bills by half; they put up petrol tax 12 times; they increased the basic state pension by a measly 75p; and then when it came to the low-paid, they got rid of the 10p income tax band altogether. Labour has absolutely no economic policy, and that is why the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said on 9 September:

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

We have all been waiting, but I think we should give up waiting because they are a hopeless Opposition.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what happened, because he talks about the last Labour Government: living standards went up by £3,700 over the 13 years of the last Labour Government; living standards are down by £1,500 under him. This is the reality of Britain under this Prime Minister: food bank use on the rise; energy bills soaring; even if you are in work, you are worse off; and a Prime Minister in total denial about the cost of living crisis facing millions of families.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate the last Labour Government, I say, “Bring it on.” They crashed the economy; they bust the banks; they doubled the national debt; and they bankrupted this country. I have to say to him that today we can see that 1 million more people are in work in our country, and that is 1 million reasons to stick to the economic plan that we have, it is 1 million reasons to keep on getting the deficit down, delivering on education and delivering on welfare, and it is 1 million reasons to say, “More borrowing, more spending, more debt—that is the same old Labour.” Never again.

Last night, Mr Speaker, you presented an Attitude magazine award to the nieces of Alan Turing, the gay world war two code-breaker who helped this country to win world war two. The Government indicated in July that they would move to give a pardon to Mr Turing for his conviction for gross indecency which led him to take his own life. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell us when that pardon will be granted?

Let me pay tribute to what Alan Turing and all the people who worked at Bletchley Park did for our country—it was absolutely remarkable and it was crucial in winning the second world war. Clearly what happened to him was completely wrong and now, looking back, everyone can see that—everybody knows that. I am very happy to look at the specific issue of the pardon and respond to the hon. Gentleman, but above all what we should do is praise Alan Turing and the brave people who worked for him.

Q2. Today is world food day. The Prime Minister embraced the IF campaign, including the need to cut pseudo-green biofuel mandates, which in effect hijack food productivity for the world’s poor for fuel consumption by the rich. Today the EU presidency is proposing a 7% cap, as opposed to the 5% cap advocated by the European Commission. That difference could feed 68 million people a year. What efforts is the Prime Minister making actively to avert EU Governments compromising the fight against world hunger? (900499)

First, let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the campaign that he has waged on this issue. We are absolutely clear that the production of biofuels should not undermine food security, and on some occasions in some countries it clearly does. A 5% cap on biofuels made from crops was one of the key asks of the IF campaign. I support the IF campaign and pay tribute to what it did. That is exactly what we are pushing for in current EU negotiations, and I hope we will be successful.

The use of contaminated blood products by the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s exposed 5,000 people to hepatitis C and some 1,2000 included in that number to HIV as well. Of those 1,200, only just over 300 are still alive. There has never been an apology or a public inquiry. Will my right hon. Friend, who has an outstanding record in seeking to close historic wrongs, meet me and one of my affected constituents, look again at the possibility of public acknowledgement of perhaps this last historic health scandal, and ensure that those who survive now are treated equally and fairly by a state that wronged them in the first place?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue in the way that he has. I, too, have constituents who have been affected by this appalling thing that happened in our country. In January 2011 we announced a package of measures to provide additional support for those affected, not least because there has been a change in the potential outcomes for people with HIV compared with those with hep C. I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend, consider all the issues that he raises and see whether there is more we can do to bring this very sad chapter to a close.

Q3. The Prime Minister will know of the many injustices that have been meted out by Atos in the past few years. They were mentioned again on Monday at Department for Work and Pensions questions. The latest victim was a farmer and a butcher in Bolsover who went to Atos in December 2012 and was stripped of his benefit. For 11 months he waited for an appeal and then his aggressive cancer took his sight, took his hearing, and then last Friday took his life. Is it not time that we put an end to this system whereby people who are really suffering should not be allowed an appeal, having to live on £70 a week, for him and his widow? There are two things the Prime Minister should do: first, with immediate effect, make an ex gratia payment to his widow to cover the suffering, the pain and the loss of income, and secondly, abolish this cruel, heartless monster called Atos—get rid of it. It is not fit for purpose. (900500)

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises what is clearly a desperately sad case and I am very happy to look at the specifics of it. Everyone who has constituency surgeries and talks to constituents knows that we have to improve the quality of decision making about this issue, but where I take issue with him is that I think it is important that we carry out proper assessments of whether people qualify for benefits or do not qualify for benefits. [Interruption.] That is why, before Members on the Opposition Benches shout about this, they started to look at work capability—[Interruption.]

Order. The question was heard, and heard, I think, with great courtesy, and the answer must be heard.

That is why the previous Government did look at the issue of work capability assessments and making sure that we have a proper way of judging who should be receiving benefits and who should not. As I say, we can always improve the system. There are appeals in the system, but I am very happy to look at the individual case.

The Arctic 30 include six British citizens, including Alexandra Harris, a friend of my daughter. I am really concerned that their ecological protest about Sakhalin Island and the grey whales is being misinterpreted as piracy because nobody wants the scrutiny of the environmental work they are doing. Will something be done?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. One of the people involved is a constituent of mine. We need to follow this case extremely closely, and that is exactly what the Foreign Office is doing. A Foreign Office Minister had a meeting, which I am sure my hon. Friend attended, and we are daily seeking updates from the Russian Government about how those people are being treated.

Q4. Last week, in answer to a question on his marriage tax policy, the Prime Minister said that“all married couples paying basic rate tax will benefit from this move.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 151.]That was not correct, was it? Will he confirm that? (900501)

What I said was that the married couples tax allowance tax is available to all couples who are on basic rate tax. Anyone who has unused tax allowance is able to transfer it between the husband or the wife. It comes back to a very simple principle: we want to back marriage in the tax system. We do not want to do so only in the inheritance tax system, as the Labour party did; we want to back marriage for less well-off couples. If the shadow Chancellor wants to raise another point of order, I am very happy to stick around and hear it out.

Q5. I had originally intended to raise the A14 with my right hon. Friend, but a really important announcement has been made today by the Supreme Court. It has unanimously turned down the appeal on prisoners’ voting rights and, importantly, reasserted that it is the role of this Parliament to make the decision, rather than others. Will he ensure that we will not be voting for prisoners’ voting rights in this Parliament? (900502)

I thank my hon. Friend for forsaking the A14 to raise this very important issue. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on this excellent result. He fought this case himself in front of the Supreme Court and made a compelling and forceful argument. This is a victory for common sense. My views on the issue are well known: I do not believe that prisoners should have the vote, and I believe that that is a matter for this House of Commons. The Supreme Court has today stood up for common sense and democracy and made it clear that this issue has nothing to do with the European Union, and I think that we can all rejoice at the result.

Q6. The number of people helped by food banks in 2012-13 was triple what it was the previous year. Is the Prime Minister proud of that achievement? (900503)

Food bank usage went up 10 times under the previous Labour Government. Of course, I want all families being helped with their living standards. That is why we should recognise that we are getting more people into work, we are growing our economy, we are keeping interest rates down and, crucially, we are cutting taxes—four things that are vital to living standards and four things we would never get from a Labour Government.

Q7. In September Solihull’s ambulance service moved to a make ready system, and today there are no two-man ambulances based in the borough. Several of my constituents have already been left for totally unacceptably long periods waiting for an ambulance to take them to hospital. Talking to ambulance chiefs is like a dialogue of the deaf, so will the Prime Minister agree to meet me to see what can be done before a constituent dies waiting for an ambulance to arrive? (900504)

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the importance of ambulance response times. I think that we then have to task the NHS with how best it meets those targets, because what matters most of all is swift attendance for people who need it. I am very happy to arrange a meeting with her and Health Ministers to look at this. I know that the West Midlands ambulance service is looking at ways of improving its service, and clearly she will encourage it to do just that.

The Prime Minister will know that yesterday the Independent Police Complaints Commission published a damning report on an event involving the former Government Chief Whip. The report goes to the heart of the integrity and ethics of the police. Does he agree with the Home Secretary, who said in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that it would be right for the relevant chief constables to apologise to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and wrong if the relevant officers did not face disciplinary proceedings?

I agree 100% with what the Home Secretary said yesterday. We should be clear about what we are discussing here. The whole case of what happened outside No. 10 Downing street is with the Crown Prosecution Service and we have to leave it on one side until it makes its decision. What is being discussed here is the fact that my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip had a meeting with Police Federation officers in his constituency where he gave a full account of what had happened. They left that meeting and claimed that he had given them no account at all. Fortunately this meeting was recorded and so he has been able to prove that what he said was true and what the police officers said was untrue. That is why the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is absolutely right: my right hon. Friend is owed an apology. The conduct of these officers was not acceptable. These things should be properly investigated, as the Home Secretary has said. Crucially, it is absolutely right for the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee to discuss this with the chief constables concerned and try to get to the bottom of why better redress has not been given.

Q8. May I congratulate the Prime Minister on taking 2 million people out of income tax but note the 1.3 million earning salaries of about £40,000 who have been sucked into the higher rate? As he pursues the Tory mission to take the low-paid out of tax, may I urge him to deliver it by cutting Government spending so that we can also ease the squeeze on the middle classes? (900505)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. We have taken 2.7 million people out of income tax altogether because we have lifted the first £10,000 of what you can earn before you start paying taxes. This means also that someone on the minimum wage working full-time—the Leader of the Opposition asked about the working poor—has seen their tax bill come down by something like two thirds. Yes, I want to see taxes cut for all, but the only way we can do that is to continue to get the deficit down, to bear down on public spending, and not listen to Labour Members, who even today are making massive commitments to more welfare spending and more public spending, which would mean higher taxes, higher borrowing, and more of the same old Labour.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister consider it a source of shame that on his watch the Red Cross has announced that it will be distributing food to British families for the first time in 70 years? (900506)

What the Red Cross is choosing to do, and it is its choice, is to work with FareShare, which is an excellent charity that makes sure that supermarkets do not waste food but make that food available to people who need it. I think that is thoroughly worth while. But what we need to see—I repeat it again—is a rise in living standards which we will get if we keep growing the economy, keep getting more jobs, keep cutting people’s taxes, and keep interest rates and mortgage rates low. Those are the four things this Government are delivering—four things that we never would have delivered if we had listened to a word from Labour Front Benchers.

Q14. Yesterday I presented a petition to the Department of Health calling for a £420 million hospital redevelopment in Brighton, Kemptown. Does the Prime Minister agree that this money would make a real difference to patients right across Sussex and to the hard-working staff at my local hospital? (900511)

I understand that the business case for the £420 million redevelopment of the regional centre for teaching, trauma and tertiary care at Royal Sussex County hospital in Brighton is currently being considered. Let me make the point that obviously we can only consider it because this Government decided not to cut the NHS but to put extra resources into it. I am sure that when it is considered an announcement will be made.

Q10. Tax cuts for millionaires, tax cuts for the wealthiest companies in this country and a bonus bonanza in the City, while millions are denied the right to work and people who are hard working in work have had their pay cut by £1,500: when are this Government, made up of privileged, privately educated millionaire Ministers, going to do something and get in the real world instead of being the political front of the hedge funds and the bankers in the City? (900507)

Well, we all know who did the most for the hedge funds and the bankers—it was the people who allowed the banks to go bust in the first place. It is this Government who are cutting taxes for working people, taking 2.7 million people out of tax, compared with the disgrace of the Government the hon. Gentleman was in, who scrapped the 10p income tax rate.

Q11. We all appreciate that government requires hard choices about priorities. Does the Prime Minister agree that a generous basic state pension based on a triple lock should have greater priority than more generous benefit payments? (900508)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am proud of the fact that, last year under this Government, the basic state pension went up by £5.30 a week. We have the inflation figures for September, so we can say that, because of our triple lock, the basic state pension will go up by the rate of inflation—2.7%—next year. Of course, the Labour party’s commitment to an earnings increase in the basic state pension would not see anything like that, and yet at the same time it is choosing to uprate welfare by 2.7% when we think it should go up by 1%. We have the priorities to stand up for people who have worked hard, done the right thing and saved during their lives and who deserve dignity in retirement. Unlike the Labour party, we will never let our pensioners down.

Q12. This week the Office for National Statistics reported that house price inflation in London was running at 8.7%. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is inevitable that his mortgage guarantee scheme will simply feed this property price bubble at the expense of individual, low-cost home buyers? (900509)

I do not accept that for a moment. It is interesting that Labour has now come out against the Help to Buy scheme. Whereas we want to help people get on the housing ladder and own a place of their own, the Labour party is, as ever, standing against those people. If the hon. Lady looks at house price increases outside London and the south-east, she will see an increase of 0.8%. Mortgage activity is still way below what it was before the recession struck. We want to help people get on the housing ladder and achieve their dream of home ownership. Clearly, the Labour party does not care for them.

Q15. The Prime Minister will know that in my constituency some businesses are paying almost as much in business rates as they are in rent. What steps will he take to persuade local councils to use the powers this Government have given them to reduce those rates and make the right choices to support hard-pressed retailers? (900512)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a real champion on this issue for small business. Obviously, the first thing we need to do is get passed through the House of Commons the Bill that will cut the national insurance bill of every business in the country, helping Britain’s small businesses in particular. It will mean that single traders will be able to take on three people earning the minimum wage without paying any national insurance. That is the most important thing we can do. We should continue to look at the business rate system and encourage councils to make sure that they do everything they can to apply the discounts where they are available and to continue to work on this issue.

Q13. Under this Government, wages in real terms have fallen in every region of the UK. Given that those in Harrow and across the rest of London are, on average, £2,200 worse off each year, when will the Prime Minister take personal responsibility for this? (900510)

The hon. Gentleman has to look at disposable income as well as wages. Because this Government have cut people’s taxes and because we are allowing people to keep £10,000 of what they earn before they pay taxes, disposable income went up last year and is rising as we speak. This is important for the Labour party, because if it goes on attacking spending cuts and asking for more and more spending, everyone will know that with Labour you get—repeat after me—more borrowing, more spending and more taxes. It is the same old Labour.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment has fallen in Harlow and jobseekers are encouraged by lower tax for lower earners? Will my right hon. Friend go one step further and look in the long term at raising the threshold at which low earners pay national insurance?

I am very happy to look at what my hon. Friend says. He is a real champion of the low-paid and people who want to work hard and improve their circumstances. Clearly, taking people out of tax is hugely helpful. We should always look at national insurance. The priority there is to help small businesses take people on. It is worth recognising in the figures announced today that there are 1 million extra people in work and that three quarters of those jobs are full-time jobs, not part-time jobs. What I think we can see is that the country is getting stronger, the economy is improving and more people are getting into work. We need to encourage that, rather than set it back.

I know that the substantial throng of colleagues who are leaving the Chamber will do so as quickly and quietly as possible. An expectant House can now hear Mr David Morris.