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Volume 570: debated on Wednesday 6 November 2013

With Remembrance day coming, I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering those who have given their lives in the service of our country. Perhaps particularly with the President of the Republic of Korea here, we should remember those who fell in that conflict and all those who served, many of whom are now coming to the end of their lives, and we should again pay tribute to the heroic job our armed forces do to keep us safe.

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.

I am sure we all wish to associate ourselves with the Prime Minister’s fitting tribute.

Hard-working businessmen facing tough decisions, decent trade unionists and newspapers including the Daily Mirror will have been appalled by the so-called leverage tactics of Unite in the Grangemouth dispute. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that families, children and homes are protected from a minority of militants?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This sort of industrial intimidation is completely unacceptable. We have seen “Wanted” posters put through children’s letterboxes, we have seen families intimidated and we have seen people’s neighbours being told that they are evil. What has happened is shocking. It is also shocking that the Labour party is refusing to hold a review and to stand up to Len McCluskey. At this late stage, it should do so.

Let me start by joining the Prime Minister in recognising the enduring importance of giving thanks on Remembrance Sunday to all those men and women who have served our country. This is a moment to remember all those who have lost their lives and to think about their families. That is why I know Members from across the House and people across the country are wearing their poppies with pride this week.

Can the Prime Minister guarantee that there will not be an accident and emergency crisis this winter?

We will do everything we can to make sure that the NHS continues to perform in the excellent way it does today. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the latest figures: last week was the 27th week in a row that we met our A and E targets. The NHS is treating 1.2 million more people in A and E than it was when he was in office. But I can tell him where there will be a particular problem. There will not be a winter crisis in the NHS in Wales, where Labour is in control, because there is a crisis every day of the week in Wales, where Labour is in control.

The Prime Minister is simply wrong about the figures. If we look at what is happening in our hospital A and E departments, we see that the target has been missed for 15 consecutive weeks. The whole country will have heard that he cannot guarantee that there will not be a crisis in our A and E departments this winter, and that is because there already is a crisis. That is what the president of the College of Emergency Medicine says. [Interruption.] I know that Government Members do not want to hear about the crisis in A and E departments. He says that

“there are almost daily instances in most A&E departments of patients facing extended trolley waits.”

The Prime Minister said two years ago:

“I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A&E”.

He has broken that promise, has he not?

As I said, A and E departments in this country are now treating 1.2 million more patients than they were under Labour. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one simple fact—[Interruption.]

Order. There is simply too much noise on both sides of the Chamber. I appeal to the House, because I get bucket-loads of letters every week from members of the public complaining about it. Cut it out: it is low-grade, down-market and unnecessary.

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one simple fact: today in our A and E departments the average waiting time is 50 minutes. When the shadow Health Secretary was sitting on the Government Front Bench the average waiting time was over 70 minutes. Those are the facts. Because this Government did not take the shadow Health Secretary’s advice—[Interruption.] I would not listen to him, because he is the man who refused to apologise for the mess at Stafford. The NHS in our country is getting better under this Government.

Across the medical profession they are saying that there is a crisis in A and E, but the Prime Minister is saying, “Crisis? What crisis?” How out of touch can he be? In the last year, 1 million people waited more than four hours in A and E. A and E waiting times are up, the number of patients kept waiting on trolleys is up, delayed discharges are up, and ambulance response times are up. Why is that happening? It is because of his top-down reorganisation, which nobody wanted and nobody voted for. Can he tell the House how many NHS managers have received a six-figure redundancy package as a result of his reorganisation?

What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that there are now 20,000 fewer administrative grades in the NHS, 5,500 more doctors in our NHS, 1,000 more midwives in our NHS and 1,000 more health visitors in our NHS. Let me tell him why that is the case: his shadow Health Secretary said that it would be irresponsible to increase spending on the NHS, and we rejected that advice. We rejected Labour. We invested in our NHS. We are proud of our NHS.

What the shadow Health Secretary did was warn against cutting social care, and that is exactly what the Government did. That is the crisis the Prime Minister has produced. Here is the answer to the question he did not answer: 2,300 managers have received six-figure payoffs—[Interruption.]

Order. There is too much noise. It had better stop, or the process will take longer. To those who cannot grow up I say: try.

The Prime Minister is giving P45s to nurses and six-figure payoffs to managers. Can he tell us how many of the people who have been let go from the NHS have been fired, paid off and then re-hired?

First, we are saving £4.5 billion by reducing the number of managers in our NHS. For the first time, anyone re-employed has to pay back part of the money they were given. That never happened under Labour. We do not have to remember Labour’s past record, because we can look at its record in Wales, where it has been running the health service. It cut the budget by 8.5%, it has not met a cancer target since 2008, and it has not met an A and E target since 2009. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman is too weak to stand up to the poor management of the NHS in Wales, just as he is too weak to sack his shadow Health Secretary.

And we have a Prime Minister too clueless to know the facts about the NHS. Let us give him the answer, shall we? The answer is that over 2,000 people have been made redundant—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says it is rubbish; it is absolutely true—we have a parliamentary answer from one of the Health Ministers. Two thousand people have been made redundant and re-hired, diverting money from the front line as this Prime Minister sacks nurses. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister seems to be saying it is untrue; well, if he replies he can tell me whether it is untrue. We know why the NHS is failing: his botched reorganisation, the abolition of NHS Direct, cuts to social care, and 6,000 fewer nurses. There is only one person responsible for the A and E crisis, and that is him.

We have taken 20,000 administrators out of the NHS—and I am not going to take lectures from a Government who saw patients drinking out of—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are shouting at the tops of their voices at the Prime Minister, and they must stop doing so.

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the facts about the NHS under this Government: mixed-sex accommodation down by 98%, 1.2 million more people treated in A and E, and half a million more in-patients. We are doing all that, and we are not following Labour’s advice, which was to cut the NHS. That is the truth under this Government—the NHS getting better. Labour would have cut it, and Labour never stands up for the NHS.

What the whole country will have heard today is a Prime Minister complacent about the A and E crisis and clueless about what is actually happening in the NHS. What the British people know is that the NHS is heading into winter with fewer nurses, a lack of senior A and E doctors, and a shortage of beds. He promised he would protect the NHS, but it is now clear that the NHS is not safe in his hands.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is just wrong on the facts. Let me give him a simple fact: there are more A and E consultants working in A and E than there were five years ago. That is why we are meeting our targets in England and that is why Labour is missing its targets in Wales. I am clear that my job is to stand up for the NHS and deliver a stronger NHS—when is he going to understand that his job is to stand up to the bully boys of Unite and show some courage?

Q2. Over the past week we have heard about the Unite union’s attempts and strategy to disrupt business supply chains. Given the Government’s push for inward investment, what signal does the Prime Minister think Unite’s action sends around the world to businesses looking to invest in Britain? (900929)

This sort of industrial intimidation is bad for Britain, and it very nearly cut off petrol supplies to a large part of our United Kingdom. Every week the Leader of the Opposition comes here calling for an inquiry into this, an inquiry into that—he never stops calling for public inquiries, but he has not got the guts to hold one of his own into Unite.

People watching these exchanges today will be struck that when nearly 1,800 people have learned that they are to lose their jobs, neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the Prime Minister has seen fit to raise it thus far. I hope that the Prime Minister’s thoughts are with the families of people who are set to lose their jobs. Will he confirm that he agrees with the BAE statement that Glasgow is the best place to build frigates?

I do think this is a vitally important issue, and that is why the Defence Secretary will be making a statement right after Prime Minister’s questions. These are extremely difficult decisions, and our first thoughts should be with all those who are affected. Frankly, I was surprised that the Leader of the Opposition did not choose to raise this vitally important issue.

Let us be clear about what we need to do here. We want our Royal Navy to have the best and most modern ships and the best technology, and that means we will go on building warships on the Clyde. We will be announcing three new offshore patrol vessels, keeping that yard busy rather than paying it to remain idle, as the previous Government proposed. In Portsmouth, yes, there will be job reductions, but there are many more people involved in ship servicing than in shipbuilding, so the work force will go from 12,000 to 11,000. But no one should be in any doubt of two things. Under this Government, we will have aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers, the new frigates, and the hunter-killer submarines; and there is something else they should know: if there was an independent Scotland we would not have any warships at all.

Q3. As we approach Remembrance Sunday and the centenary of the first world war, will the Prime Minister join me in commending the work of the Victoria Cross Trust? Will he consider how the Government might assist the trust in its important task of restoring and maintaining the graves of some of the nation’s bravest soldiers, sailors and aircrew? (900930)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his support for the Victoria Cross Trust and the hard work that he has done. I welcome any initiative that commemorates those who have given their lives in the defence of our country. Many Victoria Cross holders’ graves fall under the protection of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We will continue to work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Victoria Cross Trust to do everything possible to ensure that those people are remembered properly.

Page 47 of the Tory party manifesto says:

“We will stop the forced closure of A&E and maternity wards, so that people have better access to local services”.

How is that going, Prime Minister?

There are no changes to services unless they are supported by local GPs. That is completely different from what happened under Labour, when there were top-down closures of hospitals. That is not happening under this Government.

Q4. According to Unite, it is“increasingly recognised that…bullying, harassment and violence are a major problem throughout industry.”Does the Prime Minister agree that the authorities should always investigate allegations of harassment against employees and their families, including when the allegations involve the members of a trade union? (900931)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The allegations of industrial intimidation are serious and need to be looked at properly. Because the Labour party is ducking its responsibilities, we will have to consider what we can do to look at the matter. The leader of the Labour party is behaving like the mayor of a Sicilian town towards the Mafia: “They put me in and I don’t want them to take me out.”

Q5. Last month, I asked a question about zero-hours contracts. I think most hon. Members would agree that the response that I received was a fudge about the determination of employers and employees. I will put it plainly and simply to the Prime Minister: how many people in this Palace and in the Government buildings are employed on zero-hours contracts? (900932)

I do not have those figures to hand. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we are having a review of zero-hours contracts. We are looking particularly at people on zero-hours contracts who are forbidden from working for other employers. This Government will look at the matter. The last Government, who saw zero-hours contracts go through the roof, did absolutely nothing about it.

Q6. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor closed the gaping loophole left by the last Government that allowed the rich to avoid stamp duty. Is it not time to close the other disgraceful loophole that they left, which allows overseas residents to buy up the best housing in London without paying capital gains tax? (900933)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The stamp duty change that we made is vital in ensuring that foreign buyers pay stamp duty in London. That needed to happen. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor, who was the City Minister when all these things went wrong, is shouting his head off as usual. It is this Government who have insisted that people pay the taxes that are due.

Q7. The Prime Minister is right to extend supervision to prisoners with short sentences and to look for new ways to reduce reoffending, but he must be aware of the growing concern that his Government’s plans will fatally undermine the probation service. Now that a criminal investigation has been opened into G4S and Serco, will he sit down with his Justice Secretary, reconsider the options and at least trial the payment-by-results proposal to see whether it works? (900934)

The right hon. Gentleman has huge experience in this area. I welcome what he says about the importance of ensuring that there is probation support for people as they leave prison, which will happen under the plans that we are putting in place. I think that payment by results can make a big difference in reducing reoffending. The cruel fact is that half of all prisoners are back in prison within two years. It is time to try a different approach and that is what the Lord Chancellor is doing.

Q8. Manufacturing business Petford Tools in my constituency accessed the regional growth fund earlier this year, creating 23 jobs as a result. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating managing director Melvin Sinar and major customers Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley and JCB on that success, and consider visiting the company with me on his next visit to the black country? (900935)

I would be delighted to make that visit with my hon. Friend. I have made visits with him in the past to look at what is happening in the black country in terms of greater job opportunities. That is part of the picture of a country where there are 1.4 million more people in private sector employment. In spite of the predictions that we would lose jobs, 1 million more people are in work in Britain today.

It is the first duty of any Government to protect the public. Since the Prime Minister decided deliberately to downgrade the country’s anti-terror laws, two suspects have used their Government-granted freedom to escape, the latest one clad in a burqa. Will the Prime Minister admit that that decision was a hugely irresponsible mistake, and in particular will he revisit the sunset clause that will lift the remaining regime on the remaining suspects in January?

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. The facts are these: under the control order regime, seven people absconded under control orders. Control orders were being endlessly hacked away at by the courts, so we needed to put a new system in place—a system that has the confidence of the police and the security services. Of course we will look at every single thing we can do to make sure the system is as good and robust as it can be, but we in this House should be frank that we are dealing with people who we are not able to charge and lock up, many of whom we would like to throw out of our country but currently cannot. We have to have some sort of regime like this, but we will do everything we can to make it as robust as possible.

Q9. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in congratulating DST Engineering in Morecambe? It exports and fabricates metal products throughout the world and has contributed to the 15% drop in youth unemployment in my constituency. Overall, unemployment has fallen by 10% in the past three months alone. Is that not in stark contrast to the gloomy economic predictions of the Labour party, and will my right hon. Friend visit DST Engineering with me? (900937)

My hon. Friend does an excellent job standing up for the people of Morecambe, and across the north-west private sector employment is up by 45,000 since 2010. The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance is down by 29,000. He is right that the Labour party predicted we would lose 1 million jobs, but the answer is the complete opposite. There are 1 million more people working in our country, and it is about time Labour apologised for prediction after prediction being wrong.

Q10. Last month, Tory councillor Abdul Aziz was at an invite-only party at No. 10. Councillor Aziz is subject to an arrest warrant in Pakistan in connection with a brutal murder. After shaking this man’s hand and having photos taken at No. 10 with this gentleman, would the Prime Minister now like to say that he thinks he should return to Pakistan and face justice? (900938)

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he is of the opinion that the intelligence services of some countries may be dangerously out of political control? Is he confident that he is kept fully informed of all sensitive external initiatives taken by our services?

I do not want to break the rule of not commenting on intelligence issues, but to answer my right hon. Friend’s question as directly as I can, I have looked very carefully at the governance that we have in the UK for our intelligence services, the work of the Intelligence Services Commissioner and the Intelligence and Security Committee, and the oversight, particularly by the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. I think we have a good system in our country, and to answer my right hon. Friend’s question, yes, I am fully involved in these decisions.

Q11. Two years ago, the Prime Minister rightly agreed that extra resources should be made available to assist in the search for Madeleine McCann and yet, only months later, he turned down a similar request from Kerry Needham, my constituent, whose son Ben is still missing after 22 years. Will the Prime Minister please think again and respond positively to my recent letter to him by making extra resources available to help a desperate mother to search for her son? (900939)

This is an absolutely heartbreaking case—the whole country has followed it over the years. I will look carefully at the letter the hon. Lady has written to me. Obviously, it is important that the police make such decisions themselves. Governments should always stand by to help, which is what happened in the Madeleine McCann case, but I will look at what the hon. Lady says and see what I can do.

Will the Prime Minister elaborate on his earlier statement on what the Government will put in play in terms of mediation and mitigation of the dreadful effects of the 940 core jobs at BAE in the dockyard in Portsmouth, and the many thousands of jobs in its supply chain, that are going? I should be grateful if he would expand on that fairly rapidly.

I will expand a little but leave the Defence Secretary to give a detailed answer. As I have said, what is happening in Portsmouth is this: the current work force of 12,000 in defence-related and shipbuilding activities will go down to 11,000. The Ministry of Defence will invest £100 million in Portsmouth in vital ship-servicing work. As the hon. Gentleman knows, many more people have been involved in ship servicing than in shipbuilding. Of course, some of the largest and best-equipped warships we have ever had in our country will be based and hosted at Portsmouth—the two aircraft carriers and the Type 45 destroyers in particular—which will mean a lot of work for Portsmouth and for our naval base there for many, many years to come.

Q12. Many women face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, so how will charging them £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal help them? Before the Prime Minister has another attack of the Lyntons and starts talking about all the dreadful trade unionists on the Opposition side of the House, I should like to make it clear that I am a trade unionist and damn proud of it. (900940)

Millions of people in our country can be very proud of being trade unionists. The problem is that they are led so badly by bully-boys—[Interruption.] They are led so badly by people who seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the Leader of the Opposition. That is what we have come to with Unite. They pick the candidates, choose the policy, pick the leader and bully him till they get what they want.

Order. Actually, I think the question was about tribunals, if memory serves.—[Interruption.] No it is a good idea to remember the essence of the question that was put.

Q13. Judicial reviews can be valuable in enabling communities to have their say, but what steps is the Prime Minister taking to prevent what is happening in Bristol, where a small, unrepresentative group is using judicial review, costing the local taxpayer thousands of pounds, to prevent the building of a badly needed stadium for Bristol Rovers football club, which Bristolians badly want, and which would bring game-changing benefits to our city? (900941)

My hon. Friend has been campaigning very hard and relentlessly to provide Bristol Rovers with the ground they need. I commend her for that. Obviously, there has been an issue with judicial reviews. Judicial reviews play a role in holding the Government to account, but I share her frustration that judicial review has become something of an industry. We need to fix that and have taken a series of steps to try to do so.

Order. I call Mr David Winnick—[Interruption.] Order. Can we have a bit of hush and a bit of courtesy? The hon. Gentleman happened not to hear me call him, which is perfectly understandable.

Q14. One of the domestic objectives of the second world war was to bring about a fairer society in Britain. Is the Prime Minister aware how wrong it is for him and the Chancellor, who have never had any form of financial insecurity, to pursue policies that hit the most hard-pressed and most vulnerable—the millions of people in our society, many of whom are on low pay, who find it difficult to feed and clothe their children? What is happening is totally unacceptable, and I find it contemptible. (900942)

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we have taken 2.4 million of the poorest people in our country out of income tax altogether. The figures simply do not fit with the story he is trying to tell. Inequality is at its lowest level since 1986—fact. The pupil premium is directing more money to the poorest children in our schools—fact. Applications from disadvantaged children to universities have gone up, not down—fact. There are fewer workless households—[Interruption.] I am keen to answer the question, and it is a very direct answer. Workless households down by 425,000, payday lending regulated properly for the first time and, yes, a proper consultation on zero-hours contracts—those are the actions that we are taking to build a fairer country and instead of complaining about them, the hon. Gentleman should be backing them.

On 3 September I wrote to the prisons Minister requesting a meeting to discuss the future of HMP Wellingborough. I received no response to that request. This week, I received a letter from the prisons Minister saying that the site of Wellingborough prison was to be sold. I do not understand that, as Wellingborough prison was the third cheapest in the country to run. Would the Prime Minister meet me and concerned constituents to discuss the matter?

What I will do is arrange very quickly for my hon. Friend to have that meeting with the prisons Minister that he asked for, so that he can discuss the future of the prison estate. It is important that we modernise it and make sure that we get good value for money for the people whom we keep in prison, and for the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister has just been boasting again about 1 million extra jobs. Can he therefore explain why in my constituency the number of people unemployed for more than two years has risen by 350% in the last year alone? It is now the worst figure in the country. Nine of the 10 worst constituencies on this measure are in the north-east, including all three Sunderland seats. Is that because they are the same old Tories, who do not care about the north-east?

We are seeing across our country, including in every region, more job opportunities, more people involved in our private sector and the claimant count coming down. In the north-east, for example, we have the new Hitachi factory, which will make a real difference, and the expansion of Nissan, which is doing extremely well. But I totally accept that we need to do more to keep our economy growing, to keep people employed and to grow the number of jobs. I am certain about one thing: we will not do that if we put up borrowing or taxes. The fact is that today Labour is the greatest risk to our recovery.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that in the review of levies on energy bills the fairness of the funding process will be the priority, and that the Government still support vital measures to insulate people’s homes to ensure that the fuel-poor can keep their houses warmer in winter?

Of course we want to see insulation programmes and of course we want to help people, especially vulnerable households, to keep their bills down. But we should be looking at every subsidy and every levy and ensuring that it is value for money and that it is not in place for a moment longer than it is needed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer would not answer this question yesterday, so let me give the Prime Minister a try. How many of the so-called new private sector jobs that he crows about are people on zero-hours contracts?

I do not have the figure for that, but the fact is that there are more people at work in our economy than ever before, two thirds of those jobs have been full-time jobs, and while we are on the subject of pay, perhaps it is a good moment to recognise that Labour-controlled Doncaster does not pay the living wage, whereas Conservative-controlled London does.

On a difficult day for UK shipbuilding, is it not more important than ever to tell our young people that modern engineering offers varied and rewarding careers, and that we urgently need many more engineering apprentices and graduates—the message both of this week’s “tomorrow’s engineers” week, and of Monday’s report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills chief scientist, Professor John Perkins?

My hon. Friend is right about that, and he has campaigned long and hard to encourage respect for engineering and for more young people to study engineering. We are seeing a growth in the number of young people studying engineering, but it is true that there are still engineering jobs on the skills shortage list of the Migration Advisory Committee. That is a rebuke to our country, and we need to get more young people studying maths and science at school and more people studying engineering at our universities.

Last year, bankers’ bonuses grew 91% faster than wages for ordinary working people, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances that this would not happen. Will the Prime Minister tell us: is he unwilling to act or just a bit useless at being Prime Minister?

The point the hon. Lady should bear in mind is that bonuses were 85% higher when the shadow Chancellor was sitting in the Treasury. It is this Government who are making sure that people—[Interruption.]

In fact, we inherited a situation where cleaners were paying higher tax rates than the hedge fund managers they were working for. If the hon. Lady wants to see someone who is useless, she should look at her own Front Bench.