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Volume 570: debated on Wednesday 20 November 2013

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher of 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on Tuesday 5 November. It is clear from the tributes paid that he was a professional and well respected soldier who made a huge contribution to the Army over many years on a number of operational tours. Our thoughts and our condolences should be with his family and his friends.

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 every Member will want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s tribute—a reminder that in this season of remembrance we will in faith always remember their service to our country.

MPs from across the House will have grave concerns about the nightmare unfolding at the Co-operative bank. Does the Prime Minister share my sense of disbelief that a person such as Reverend Flowers, responsible as he was for such large sums of our constituents’ money, was ever appointed to the position of chairman? What can my right hon. Friend now do to find out how on earth that happened?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Constituencies across the House will have people who hold Co-op bonds who are very worried about what will happen to their investment. Let me be clear that the first priority is to safeguard this bank—and to make sure that it is safeguarded without using taxpayers’ money. That must be the priority. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be discussing with the regulators what is the appropriate form of inquiry to get to the bottom of what went wrong, but there are clearly a lot of questions that have to be answered. Why was Reverend Flowers judged suitable to be chairman of a bank, and why were alarm bells not rung earlier, particularly by those who knew? In the coming days, it will be important for anyone who has information to stand up and provide it to the authorities.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Ian Fisher of 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment. He died serving his country, and all our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us how his campaign to save the Chipping Norton children’s centre is going?

I support children’s centres across the whole of the country. The fact is that, in spite of very difficult decisions that have to be made right across the country, the number of children’s centres has reduced by around 1%. Like all Members of Parliament, I fight very hard for services in my constituency.

The Conservatives are going round saying that children’s centres are safe and there is no threat to them. Things are so bad that the Prime Minister has even signed a petition in his own area to save his local children’s centre. Can he clarify: is the petition addressed to his local Tory council, or is he taking it right to the top?

More people are using children’s centres than ever before in our country. The right hon. Gentleman does not want to give the figures, but there are 3,000 children’s centres. This Government can hold their head up high, because we are increasing the amount of money that is going to local councils for children’s centres. That is what is happening under this Government.

We all wish the right hon. Gentleman luck in his fight as a local Member of Parliament. Imagine what he could achieve if he were Prime Minister of the country!

I think that we have established the Prime Minister’s double standards in Oxfordshire. Let us take another example. In Tory Essex—[Interruption.] I know that the Tories do not care about children’s centres, but they should hush down a bit and listen. In Tory Essex, they propose to close 11 centres and downgrade 37, whose opening hours will fall from 50 a week to as few as five. So there will be fewer centres, fewer staff and fewer hours. How is that doing what the Prime Minister promised to do before the election, which was to protect and improve Sure Start?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening to child care under this Government. For the first time ever, there are 15 hours a week of child care for every three and four-year-old in the country. That never happened under Labour. For the first time, under this Government, there are free child care hours for every disadvantaged two-year-old in the country. That never happened under Labour. Also, to come, there will be tax-free child care under this Government. That never happened under Labour. And the child tax credit has been upgraded by £420 under this Government. That is what is happening, but let me be clear: there is one policy that we will not adopt, and that is Labour’s policy of funding more hours through its bank levy. I will tell you why: Labour has already spent the bank levy 10 times over. The youth jobs guarantee, VAT cuts, more capital spending—Mr Speaker, that is not a policy; it is a night out with Reverend Flowers.

Order. Let the House calm down. I am concerned, as always, about Back Benchers, and Back Benchers who want to speak should be accommodated, so calm down and let us move on.

The Prime Minister obviously wants to talk about who he associates with. He has taken nearly £5 million from Michael Spencer, whose company was found to be rigging LIBOR; he has a party chairman who operated a company under a false name and was investigated for fraud; he has taken millions from tax exiles and tax avoiders; his party has never paid back the money from Asil Nadir—and they are just the people I can talk about in this House. Did not the planning Minister have it right yesterday, when he said

“the single biggest problem the Conservative party faces is being seen as the party of the rich”?

How extraordinary that, today of all days, the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the people he associates with and takes money from, because what we can now see is that this bank, driven into the wall by this chairman, has been giving soft loans to the Labour party, facilities to the Labour party, donations to the Labour party, has trooped in and out of Downing street under Labour, and is still advising the leader of the Labour party—and yet now we know that Labour knew about his past all along. Why did Labour do nothing to bring to the attention of the authorities this man who has broken a bank?

I think we can take it from that answer that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about his planning Minister. Where is the planning Minister? Where is he today? Only last January, the Prime Minister was praising him to the rafters, saying that he was leading the debate. I think that the House should hear more from him. This is what he says about the Tory party: that it stands for people who

“work for private equity”


“make a ton of money.”

He is right, isn’t he?

We have finally found a public inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman does not want. He comes to the House and asks for inquiry after inquiry into the culture and practices of this and that, but when it comes to the Co-op bank, he is absolutely frightened of it.

This is also an interesting week in which to talk about people on the Front Bench. This week, the right hon. Gentleman referred to his own shadow Chancellor as a “nightmare”. I am sorry; I hate to say “I told you so”, but I have been saying that for three years. However, that is not the most interesting thing in this fascinating exchange of e-mails. Labour’s head of strategy—yes, they do actually have one—replied to the shadow Chancellor:

“When did built to last become a part of our thing?”

I agree. Their policies are not built to last; they are built to self-destruct in about five seconds.

What the Prime Minister has shown comprehensively today is that he has no answers on the cost of living crisis facing families up and down the country. That is the truth and his close friend the planning Minister is right. [Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. Questions will be heard, however long it takes; it is very simple.

The Prime Minister’s close friend the planning Minister is right. He says this: there are many people who “don’t like” the Tory party and “don’t trust” its motives, and he says that the Prime Minister is not the man to reach them. What he is really saying is that this Prime Minister is a loser.

What this proves is the right hon. Gentleman cannot ask about the economy because it is growing, he cannot ask about the deficit because it is falling, he cannot ask about the number of people in work because that is rising, and he cannot even ask about banking because he is mired in his own banking scandal. [Interruption.] What we have learned in the last fortnight is that he is too—[Interruption.]

What we have learned in the last fortnight is that the right hon. Gentleman is too weak to stand up to his paymasters in the trade unions, too weak to stand up to his bankers and too weak to stand up to his shadow Chancellor. We all know that it would be a nightmare, and that is why we are dedicated to making sure the British people do not have to live through it.

Q2. My right hon. Friend will recall visiting the London Gateway port in Thurrock, which is now open for business, but is he as appalled as I am to hear that Unite is picketing the potential clients of that port and encouraging its sister unions to boycott any ship that docks there? Is that not more evidence that Unite’s bully-boy tactics cost jobs, not save them? (901146)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have visited the London Gateway port and it is one of the most compelling things I have seen in recent years about Britain’s industrial renaissance. It is an extraordinary investment that is going to be of huge benefit, bringing about 12,000 direct and indirect jobs. She is absolutely right about the dangers of union intimidation and bully-boy tactics. That is why it is important that we have a review and, frankly, it is important that both Unite and the Labour party take part in that review.

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that the victims of terrorism deserve not just words of sympathy but our full support and help and must be at the core of any process dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. Given the very worrying statement by the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland overnight, made on his own account and his own behalf and without consultation, does the Prime Minister agree there can be no question of an amnesty for any terrorist atrocities and crimes and that all victims of terrorism deserve truth and justice?

First, let me agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, which is that the words of the Northern Ireland Attorney-General are very much his own words and not made at the behest of anybody else. I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to legislate for an amnesty for crimes that were committed during the troubles. As he knows, Richard Haass is currently consulting all the Northern Ireland parties on issues from the past as well as parades and flags, and I think that is the right forum in which to discuss these issues.

Q3. General Synod is meeting today and hopefully will find a way to enable women as soon as possible to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. If this is successful, will my right hon. Friend and the Government support amendments to the Bishops Act to ensure that women bishops can be admitted to the House of Lords as soon as possible rather than new women bishops having to queue up behind every existing diocesan bishop before we can see women bishops in Parliament?


My hon. Friend follows these matters closely and asks an extremely important question. I strongly support women bishops and hope the Church of England takes this key step to ensure its place as a modern Church in touch with our society. On the problem he raises—there is, of course, a seniority rule for bishops entering the House of Lords—the Government are ready to work with the Church to see how we can get women bishops into the House of Lords as soon as possible.

Q4. Does the PM believe that the proposal from the Conservative Free Enterprise Group, supported by 42 of his own MPs, to put VAT on food and children’s clothes shows the true face of the party he leads? (901148)

I recently joined the Plough and Share credit union in my constituency. Credit unions can help to ensure that a lot of people do not have to go to payday lenders. What more can the Government do to support credit unions and encourage anybody with a few pounds to spare to put them into a credit union and take trade away from awful payday lenders?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Government strongly support credit unions and think them a big part of the answer to the problems of payday lending. We have invested £38 million in credit unions and want to see them expand. Also, for the first time, we are properly regulating payday lending through the new regulator and are prepared to consider all the steps that can be taken to sort out this problem.

Q5. Today is universal children’s day, and the Prime Minister will be aware that Save the Children has highlighted the importance of early years in children’s development. Does he accept that the closure of three Sure Start centres a week is undermining the life chances of countless needy children? (901149)

I would challenge the hon. Gentleman’s figures. Whereas the pot of money for children’s centres was £2.3 billion in 2012-13, it is going up to £2.5 billion in 2014-15; there are 3,000 children’s centres open; and as I said, only about 1% have closed, so I think the Government have an excellent record on this front.

Q6. Now that the changes to Enfield’s A and E and maternity services have been given the green light—not by politicians and bureaucrats, as happened under the previous Government, but by local GPs—will the Prime Minister confirm that Enfield is getting increased primary care funding and that Chase Farm hospital is getting 24/7 access to urgent care? (901150)

First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I know has worked hard on this difficult issue for his constituents. I understand that the Barnet, Enfield and Haringey strategy has been approved, and once it has been implemented Chase Farm hospital will provide a service giving access to GPs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Enfield is also getting an increase in primary care funding. That is part of our plan of not cutting but expanding our NHS.

I am absolutely delighted to join the hon. Gentleman, and everyone in Hull and around the country, in celebrating this great award of the city of culture to Hull. It is a very exciting opportunity for Hull. We will be able to celebrate the birthplace of Wilberforce and the fact that Andrew Motion lectured there and Philip Larkin was the librarian. Slightly more incongruously, Peter Mandelson is the high sheriff—but every city has its burden to bear. And of course Hull has a fantastic record on popular music. I remember some years ago that great Housemartins album, “London 0 Hull 4”—so named because they said they were the fourth-best band in Hull. I am sure it will be a huge success for Hull and for Humberside more generally.

Q7. My constituency registered 600 new business start-ups last year, putting it among the top-10 places in the UK for new business growth. In preparation for small business Saturday on 7 December, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss a review of business rates to encourage future growth, especially in London, where rateable values are very high and therefore rates are excessive? (901152)

I am very happy to discuss this issue with my hon. Friend, who always stands up for business and enterprise. She refers to the number of start-ups. It is a real success story for our country, with an extra 400,000 businesses now operating. The Minister for Skills and Enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), will shortly be telling the House about the 10,000th StartUp loan—a Government scheme that has got off the ground extremely quickly. Of course, there are concerns about business rates, and I am happy to discuss those with her, but may I take this opportunity to encourage all colleagues to take part in small business Saturday? It is a brilliant initiative that worked well in the United States and which will allow everyone to demonstrate how much they care about small businesses on our high streets.

Does the Prime Minister agree with his planning Minister that when modern Britain looks at the Conservative party it sees an old-fashioned monolith?

We have had some interesting interventions from Front Benchers past and present. I hope I can break records by explaining that a tweet has just come in from Tony McNulty—we remember him—the former Labour Security Minister, saying this:

“Public desperate for PM in waiting who speaks for them—not Leader of Opposition indulging in partisan Westminster Village knockabout.”

So I would stay up with the tweets if you want to get on the right side of this one.

Q8. I refer the House to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests because I have recently returned from a delegation to Israel—[Interruption.] (901153)

I will repeat my declaration, Mr Speaker. I refer the House to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as I have recently returned from a delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Authority with Conservative Friends of Israel. On the Israeli streets and in the corridors of power, Iran remains the No. 1 issue of concern. Earlier this week, French President Hollande visited Israel to discuss this matter with Israeli counterparts and appears to have clearly understood Israel’s legitimate concerns. When will our Prime Minister be visiting Israel, our close democratic ally in the region, to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue and other regional concerns?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that many people in his constituency care deeply about this issue and about the future of Israel. I will never forget the visit that I made as Leader of the Opposition, and I look forward to visiting, I hope, next year. I completely understand—

Of course. When I went to Israel, I visited not only occupied east Jerusalem but other places in Palestine as well, as is proper. I do understand the very real concern that Israelis have about the potential Iranian nuclear weapon. That is why I spoke to President Rouhani of Iran last night to make it clear that we want a good outcome to these talks, but it has got to be an outcome that takes Iran further away from a nuclear weapon rather than one that retains the status quo.

While agreeing with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that there should be no question of an amnesty, surely there is some merit in the proposal from the Northern Ireland Attorney-General that rather than incurring enormous expenditure pursuing crimes committed during the troubles decades ago—where the evidence is difficult, if not impossible, to establish—the justified grievances of victims, including widows of police officers and prison officers, should be addressed in other ways so that Northern Ireland can move on from its hideous past.

I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman’s views on this issue. He served in Northern Ireland and knows how important these issues are. I would make two points. First of all, I do think it is important to allow Richard Haass to do his work about parades, about flags and about dealing with the past. Clearly, the dealing with the past part is the most difficult of the three and the most difficult to unlock. The second point I would make is that we are all democrats who believe in the rule of law and believe in the independence of the police and prosecuting authorities, who should, if they are able to, be able to bring cases, and it is rather dangerous to think that you can put some sort of block on that. But of course we are all interested in ways in which people can reconcile and come to terms with the bloody past so that they can build a viable future and a shared future for Northern Ireland.

Q9. The people and the businesses of Suffolk are driving economic growth in the east of England, but they are increasingly fearful that the proposed A14 road toll will put Suffolk at a serious competitive disadvantage compared with other counties. Will my right hon. Friend seriously reconsider the current road toll proposal? (901154)

I will, and I know the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary will, listen carefully to the representations made by Suffolk MPs. I think we have all received representations. The important point is that we want new roads to be built, and we all know there are shortages in terms of the capital expenditure that we can bring forward. That is why the idea of having tolling for some new roads and new schemes is properly worth looking at, but we will listen carefully to colleagues and people in Suffolk, and businesses in Suffolk too.

Bereaved parents coming to terms with their loss have no right to paid employment leave, which forces many of them to go back to work far too soon after the death of a child. Will the Prime Minister commit to amending the Employment Rights Act 1996 so as at last to give British parents the legal right and the time to grieve?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I am happy to look at that, having suffered that experience myself. As a Member of Parliament, it is possible to take a little bit of time to stand back and come to terms with what has happened, because colleagues and the people who help us are ready to step in and do what they can. He has raised an important point; let me look at it and get back to him.