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Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2013

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died in Afghanistan. It is clear from the tributes that he was a highly talented and professional soldier. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his colleagues at this very difficult time. He has made the ultimate sacrifice, and we must never forget him.

On a happier note, I am sure the House will join me in celebrating the christening of baby Prince George later today.

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

I join my right hon. Friend in his tribute to Lance Corporal Brynin. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and comrades in 14 Signal Regiment. I also join the Prime Minister in his applause for the christening of Prince George this morning.

Does my right hon. Friend believe it is a good time for an apology from those regional branches of the Police Federation who so traduced our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and from the Leader of the Opposition?

Let me start by saying on behalf of all hon. Members that we should put on record what an incredible job the police do on our behalf every day. I see that at very close hand, and the Leader of the Opposition and I saw it at the police bravery awards last week. However, as I said last week, my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip gave a full explanation of what happened. The police in the meeting said that he gave no explanation. It is now clear, reading the Independent Police Complaints Commission report, that the police need to make an apology. The officers concerned and the chief constables are coming to the House today. I hope they will give a full account and a proper apology to the Home Affairs Committee. It is a moment for all hon. Members to consider what we said at the time. I hope the Leader of the Opposition does the same.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was a brave, professional soldier. I send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in celebrating the christening of Prince George later today and send best wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The Prime Minister has said that anyone who wanted to intervene directly in energy markets was living in “a Marxist universe”. Can he tell the House how he feels now that the red peril has claimed Sir John Major?

We are intervening—[Interruption.] I am not surprised the right hon. Gentleman wants to quote the last Conservative Prime Minister and forget the mess the people in between made of our country. Let me be absolutely clear that I believe in intervening in the energy market. That is why we are legislating to put customers on the lowest tariff. John Major is absolutely right that bills in this country have reached a completely unacceptable level. We need to take action on that. We need to help people to pay their bills, and we also need to help to get bills down. This is where we need a frank conversation about what is putting bills up. The Government are prepared to have that conversation; the Leader of the Opposition is employed in cynical ploys and gimmicks.

Of course, John Major was a Conservative Prime Minister who won a majority, unlike this Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has said something rather interesting. He obviously now agrees with Sir John Major that the energy price increases are unacceptable. If we agree that they are unacceptable, the question is: what are we going to do about it? The former Prime Minister said that,

“given the scale of those profits”,

we should “recoup that money”. He wants to do it through a windfall tax; I say we need a price freeze. What does the Prime Minister want to do to “recoup that money” for the consumer?

Let me answer that question directly. We need to roll back some of the green regulations and charges that are putting up bills. We all know who put them in place. [Interruption.]

Order. The House is very over-excited. I want to hear the answers. Let us hear the Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about John Major winning an election, and he is right. He beat a weak and incredible Labour leader. Is that not rather familiar? The first thing that John Major said is that Labour’s policy is unworkable, and he is absolutely right. What we need to do is recognise that there are four bits to an energy bill: the wholesale prices, which are beyond our control; the costs of transmission and the grid, which are difficult to change; the profits of the energy companies; and the green regulations. It is those last two that we need to get to grips with. So I can tell the House today that we will be having a proper competition test carried out over the next year to get to the bottom of whether this market can be more competitive. I want more companies, I want better regulation and I want better deals for consumers, but yes, we also need to roll back the green charges that the right hon. Gentleman put in place as Energy Secretary.

The Prime Minister really is changing his policy every day of the week. It is absolutely extraordinary. His Energy Secretary, who is in his place, says this has nothing to do with green taxes, and 60% of green taxes were introduced by him. Who is the man who said, “Vote blue to go green?” It was the Prime Minister. I will tell him what is weak: not standing up to the energy companies. That is this Prime Minister all over.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the big six energy companies. Who created the big six energy companies? When Labour came to power there were 17 companies in the market, now there are just six. I can help Opposition Members, because I have the briefing that Back-Bench Labour MPs have been given about their own energy policy. In case they have not read the briefing, they might want to hear it. Question 7:

“what would stop the energy companies just increasing their prices beforehand?”

Absolutely no answer. Question 6. [Interruption.] No, let me share their briefing with them. Question 6:

“How will you stop companies just increasing their prices once the freeze ends?”

Here we have the great Labour answer:

“the public would take a dim view”.

A dim view—how incredibly brave. Let us have question 9, because this says it all. This is what Labour’s briefing says:

“Ed Miliband was Energy Secretary in the last government - isn’t he to blame for rising bills?”

We all know the answer: yes, he is.

I will tell the Prime Minister what happened. When I was Energy Secretary, energy bills went down by £100. Since he became Prime Minister, they have gone up by £300. Let us clarify where we are. The Prime Minister says these price rises are unacceptable. He says he wants to act. He is the Prime Minister—I know he can sometimes forget that, but, heaven help us, he is the Prime Minister, so he can act. I have a suggestion: he should implement Labour’s price freeze. The Energy Bill is going through the other place. We can amend it and bring in the price freeze right now—two parties working together in the national interest. Let us do that—

I think the right hon. Gentleman has been following his own advice too much: wearing too many woolly jumpers and getting overheated. Let us do it—we can bring the price freeze right now.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well it is not a price freeze; it is a price con. He admitted it was a price con the very next day, because he could not control global gas prices. The truth is that prices would go up beforehand, he would not keep his promise and prices would go up afterwards. It is a cynical ploy from the Energy Secretary who wrecked the energy market in the first place.

I will tell the Prime Minister what is a con: telling people last week that the answer was to switch suppliers and that that would solve the broken energy market. What does he say to someone who took his advice last week to switch from British Gas, only to discover that npower was raising its prices by 10%?

It is worth people looking at switches—they can save up to £250 if they switch—but we want a more competitive energy market. The right hon. Gentleman left us a market with just six players, and we have already seen seven new energy companies enter the market. We need an annual audit of competition to make this market more competitive—something he never did in office—and to roll back the costs imposed on people’s energy bills, part of which he was responsible for. One of the first acts of the Government was to take away the £179 that he was going to put on to energy bills through his renewable heat initiative. He put bills up and is trying to con the public; we will deliver for hard-working people.

John Major said what we all know. We have a Prime Minister who stands up for the energy companies, not hard-pressed families. Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating. These are the ordinary people of this country whom this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.

The difference is: John Major is a good man; the right hon. Gentleman is acting like a conman. That is what we are seeing. He is promising something he knows he cannot deliver. He knows he cannot deliver it because he never delivered it when he was in office.

Q2. In the town of Colne, where I live, unemployment is down and small businesses are flourishing, but serious traffic congestion is holding back the economic growth of the area. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the start of a six-week consultation on a Colne bypass that would address this problem and boost job creation in Pendle and east Lancashire? (900619)

I very much welcome what my hon. Friend says. He is absolutely right about the need to build bypasses and roads in our country, which is why we are spending £3 billion over the Parliament on major upgrades. I welcome the consultation on the Colne bypass. As he says, it comes at the same time as very good news on unemployment and employment, with 1 million more people in work in our country.

On this day 20 years ago, the Provisional IRA brutally murdered innocent men, women and children on the Shankill road in Belfast. Will the Prime Minister join me and my right. hon. and hon. Friends in ensuring that no one in a civilised society will ever equate innocent victims with guilty murderers?

I join the hon. Gentleman in commemorating the appalling act and loss of life that day. We all remember it. Of course, no one should ever glorify, in any way, terrorism or those who take part in terrorism, but he and I know that everyone in Northern Ireland has to try to come together to talk about a shared future and to try to leave the past behind.

Q3. Rural post offices are vital, but they need more government work to survive. They must continue to pay pensions and benefits and are ideally placed to handle universal credit applications, provide banking and identity check facilities and act as a front office for government. Will the Prime Minister encourage all his Ministers to give more government work to post offices? (900620)

We all want to see the post office network survive and thrive. Unlike the last Government, who saw nearly a third of the rural post office network close, we have committed that no post office will close in this Parliament. I absolutely hear what my hon. Friend says. The current arrangements for collecting pensions and benefits at post offices will remain in place at least until 2015, and the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office are discussing an extension to 2017.

Q4. A total of 1.5 million people in the UK are addicted to the benzoates diazepam and “Z drugs”. I know of one individual who has been on those products for more than 45 years—a total life ruined. They are not drug misusers; they are victims of the system of repeat prescriptions. Will the Prime Minister advise the Department of Health to give some guidance to the clinical commissioning groups to introduce withdrawal programmes in line with the advice from Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle university, who is the expert in this field, to give these people back their lives? (900621)

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned strongly on this issue over many years. I join him in paying tribute to Professor Ashton, whom I know has considerable expertise in this area. He is right to say that this is a terrible affliction; these people are not drug addicts but they have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers. The Minister for public health is very happy to discuss this issue with him and, as he says, make sure that the relevant guidance can be issued.

I know that the Prime Minister is very well aware of the concerns that many of our people have about rising energy prices. Will he therefore act to reduce the effect of Mr Huhne’s unfortunate legacy by cutting the carbon reduction policy, elongating the targets and relieving the burden on both consumer and business man?

My hon. Friend makes a good point; as I say, this is why we have to have an honest discussion about this, because the fact is that on our energy bills is £112 of green taxes and green regulations. We need to work out not only what is necessary to encourage renewable energy and what is necessary to go on winning overseas investment into the UK, but how we can bear down on people’s bills. It simply is the politics of the conman to pretend that you can freeze prices when you are not in control of global energy prices. The proper approach is to look at what is driving up bills and deal with it. [Interruption.]

Order. I let it go the first time, but the word “conman” is, frankly, unparliamentary; the Prime Minister is a man of great versatility in the use of language and it is a bit below the level. We will leave it there.

Q5. Yesterday, The Independent reported the Government’s failure to close the quoted Eurobond tax loophole, which could be losing the Exchequer £500 million a year. Has the Prime Minister ever been lobbied on the loophole? Will he now pledge to close it immediately? (900622)

To my memory, I have never been lobbied on this particular issue. I looked at it this morning. The Treasury has listened very carefully to the arguments and has made the decisions for the reasons that the hon. Lady knows.

More than 300,000 new businesses have been registered in the United Kingdom over the past three years—that is a record figure. The key priority in supporting those businesses over the difficult first few years of trading is to make sure that we bear down on regulation. Much has been done through the red tape challenge, one-in, one-out and other measures. What more can the Government do to support these risk-takers at this difficult time?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The news out today is that we now have the largest number of companies we have ever had in our country, and over the past three years we have seen 400,000 extra companies established. What we have to do is help them in every way we can. The most powerful thing we are doing is cutting the national insurance that they will have to pay by £2,000, starting next year. That will be a real boost to small businesses. On the red tape they are currently throttled with, we are dealing with that at every level, including at the European Council coming up this week, where I have organised a meeting for our businesses to explain their proposals for cutting red tape to fellow European leaders from Finland, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. It is an agenda right across the board to help small businesses grow our economy.

Q6. New research shows that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are trapping low-earning aspirant parents on benefits. His benefit cap is hitting vulnerable children, stopping parents working and costing the taxpayer—is it not time for a rethink? (900624)

We know that the Labour party is against the benefit cap. It wants unlimited benefits for families. It is no longer the Labour party; it is the welfare party. That is very clear from the questions Labour Members ask. We think it is right to cap benefits so that no family can earn more out of work than they would earn in work. The early evidence is showing that this is encouraging people to look for work. For a party that believes in hard-working people, that is good news. Presumably for the welfare party it is bad news.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the business model of Welsh Water Dwr Cymru, which is a not-for-profit company that is responsible to its consumers rather than to shareholders. Does he agree that such companies would introduce real competition in the energy supply sector?

We want more competition in the energy sector, whether it comes from private businesses, from co-operative businesses or, as the hon. Gentleman says, from charitable enterprises. We want an open energy market, but the fact is that we were left with the big six by the party opposite. We were also left an Ofgem in which the Leader of the Opposition had appointed five of the nine people. The reason that the energy market is not working properly lies largely at his door.

Q7. Wigan and Leigh Housing estimates that it will take approximately seven years to rehouse the 1,400 tenants who wish to downsize because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. Would the Prime Minister advise those tenants to move to private rented accommodation, thereby increasing the housing benefit bill, or should they try to save money by turning off the heating and wearing a jumper? (900625)

What is fair about removing the spare room subsidy is that it makes the situation fair between private rented accommodation and council sector rented accommodation. It is that sort of fairness that we want to see in our country. The Labour party has opposed every single welfare reduction that we have proposed; it would have to find £85 billion to fund its opposition to every single thing that we have done to help this country get back on track.

The positive outlook for Osborne Construction in my constituency this year, with its increased turnover and a strongly increased forward order book, is mirrored in the real economy all over the country. Will the Prime Minister undertake not to be diverted from the long, hard slog of righting the public finances and reducing the burdens on business, so that plan A can continue to enable businesses in my constituency—Osborne and all the others—to put our economy right for the long term?

I am very glad to hear that Osborne Construction is working in my hon. Friend’s constituency, just as it is around the rest of the country. That is very worth while. I shall take this opportunity to pay tribute to him, as a constituency MP, for standing up for people and businesses in Reigate and for knowing that what Reigate needs is what the country needs, which is to stand up for hard-working people and to get more businesses, more jobs and more investment turning our country around.

Q8. Fixed-odds betting machines allow the user to stake £100 every 20 seconds for up to 13 hours a day. They have transformed the local bookies from places where people went for a flutter on the horses into high street digital casinos. Will the Prime Minister consider banning these addictive machines, as has recently happened in Ireland? (900626)

This is an issue on which I have been repeatedly lobbied by people across the House and more broadly—[Interruption.] I do think that it is worth having a proper look at the issue to see what we can do. Yes, we want to ensure that bookmakers are not over-regulated, but we also want a fair and decent approach that prevents problem gambling.

In Mid Bedfordshire last year, 130 parents, teachers and staff were very disappointed when their free school application failed. That application was managed by the Barnfield Federation, which is now under investigation by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Will the Prime Minister please use his good offices to ensure that the failed free school application in Mid Bedfordshire is incorporated into that inquiry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her suggestion. Obviously, we need a proper policy of ensuring that proposals for free schools are ready to go ahead before they go ahead. It is worth making the point that two thirds of the free schools in our country have been judged to be good or outstanding, which is a higher proportion than for schools in the state sector. It is therefore worth not only continuing with this policy but putting rocket boosters on it so that we see many more free schools in our country.