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Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

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

This week I have launched a cross-party campaign with the support of the GMB union, to provide justice for the 3,213 workers and their families who were victims of blacklisting by 44 construction companies. We have written to all the companies involved and will post their responses on our website, Will the Prime Minister join me in this campaign to support hard-working people and stamp out the terrible disease of blacklisting?

I am very glad to join my hon. Friend and I congratulate him on the work that he has done on this issue. Blacklisting is illegal and wrong. This sort of intimidation is wrong, just as intimidation of non-striking workers, or indeed managers, is wrong. I am happy to condemn both forms of intimidation and I hope that others will as well.

Following his U-turn on payday lending, can I ask the Prime Minister why he has moved in two short months from believing that intervening in broken markets is living in a “Marxist universe” to believing that it is a solemn duty of Government?

As I have said, there are some dreadful practices that take place in the payday lending market. There are some very disturbing cases. And frankly, for 13 years, Labour did absolutely nothing about it. So I am proud of the fact that we have intervened to regulate this market properly, and we are also going to be putting in place a cap. But let me be very fair to the right hon. Gentleman: I followed very carefully his interview on “Desert Island Discs” and I think it is fair to say he is no longer a follower of Marx; he is loving Engels instead.

You would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would be spending his time trying to be the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker. What is surprising is that the Chancellor said, just a few weeks ago, that

“attempts to fix prices…crush endeavour and blunt aspiration”.

For the avoidance of doubt, can the Prime Minister reassure us that his U-turn had nothing to do with the prospect of losing a vote in Parliament the following day?

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has had a slight sense of humour failure. I do not think that is a very good start to these exchanges. I have done a little bit of research, and in three years he has never asked me a question about payday lending—not once, not a single question. I have been asked about all sorts of things. Look, it is right to intervene when markets are not working and people are getting hurt. That is what we are doing. Labour had 13 years. They looked at a cap in 2004 and they rejected it. That was when the right hon. Gentleman was working in the Treasury. We have looked at a cap. We have looked at the evidence from Australia, Florida and elsewhere. It is the right thing to do and I am proud that we are doing it.

Even by the right hon. Gentleman’s standards, this is a bit rich. On 22 May 2012, the Government voted against capping payday lenders; on 4 July 2011 they voted against capping payday lenders; and on 3 February 2011 they voted against capping payday lenders. We were for it; they were against it. Now clearly, he wants to claim that this is a principled decision, so can the Prime Minister explain why the Government intervening to cap the cost of credit is right, but the Government capping energy bills is communism?

I feel like one of those radio hosts who say, “And your complaint is, caller, exactly?” We are taking action, but they did not. We are doing the right thing. The right hon. Gentleman should stand up and congratulate us. He wants to turn to energy, so let me turn specifically to that. The point is, we do not have control of the international price of gas, so we need more competition to get profits down and roll back the costs of regulation to get prices down. That is a proper energy policy. We know his version of intervention: take money off the Co-op and don’t ask any questions.

Here is the reality. This is not a minor policy adjustment—it is an intellectual collapse of the Government’s position. For two months, they have been saying that if we take action to intervene in markets it is back to the ’70s—it is Marxism—but now they realise that they are on the wrong side of public opinion. That is the reality. On energy, the Prime Minister must realise—[Interruption.]

Order. We will get through Question Time, however long it takes. I appeal to Members simply to calm down and think of the electorate, whom we are here to serve—very straightforward.

They are shouting because they have no answer, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister must realise the gravity of the situation, as figures this week show that there were 31,000 deaths as a result of the cold winter, with about 10,000 as the result of cold homes. Can he explain how things will be better this winter than they were last?

What there will be this winter—and this is a vitally important issue—are the cold weather payments that we have doubled from their previous level. The winter fuel payment will be in place, as will the warm home discount, which helps 2 million people in our country. Last year’s increase in the pension of £5.30 a week will be in place. Every excess death in the winter is a tragedy, and there were 31,000 last year. The right hon. Gentleman might care to recall that when he was Energy Secretary there were 36,500.

I asked the Prime Minister a very specific question: how are things going to be better this winter than last? The reality is that prices will be higher this winter than last. For the average household, the British Gas bill went up £123 this week. It was also revealed that the profits of the energy companies were up 75% in the last year alone. Why, under his Government, is it acceptable for the British people to pay exorbitant prices to fund exorbitant profits?

What is intellectual incoherence is not to address the fact that there were 36,500 winter deaths when the right hon. Gentleman was standing here as Energy Secretary. That number was lower last year. What is intellectually incoherent is to promise a price freeze for 20 months’ time when we do not control the global price of gas—that is completely incoherent and a total con. When we are on the collapse of intellectual positions, more borrowing, more spending and more taxing are exactly the things that got us into this mess in the first place, and he remains committed to each and every one.

I will tell you what is the con, Mr Speaker. It is saying one thing before the election and another thing as Prime Minister. Here is what the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said about him. He likes reading out tweets, so perhaps he will listen to this one:

“‘If the PM can casually drop something that was so central to his identity, he can drop anything.’… #greencrap”.

That is this Prime Minister all over. The truth is that any action he takes on the cost of living crisis is because he has been dragged there kicking and screaming. On the cost of living crisis, he is not the solution—he is the problem. Nobody believes that he or his Cabinet have any sense of the pressures facing the people of Britain.

I think everyone can recognise a collapse when they see one, and we just saw one right now. Is it not interesting? The week before the autumn statement, and 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 numbers in work because they are rising. People can see that we have a long-term plan to turn our country around, and people can also see him sitting in his room, desperate for bad news to suit his own short-term political interests.

One in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, the silent killer of middle-aged men. Survival rates have risen from 30% to 80% because of breakthroughs in genetics, diagnostics and drugs, and because of charities such as Movember, which has gone from five blokes raising $500 to the world’s biggest prostate charity raising $300 million. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and representatives of UK research charities to see what we can do to make the NHS adopt innovation more quickly?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Everyone wants to see more research and better outcomes for prostate cancer. May I personally praise him for that magnificent growth on his top lip? I have noticed the number of my colleagues, and others on these Benches, suddenly resembling banditos. It is not something that I am fully capable of myself, so I am jealous of that. It is an important campaign. Better diagnosis, better knowledge and better information are all vital to beat prostate cancer.

Q2. The Prime Minister once said that he wanted to see rising living standards for all, not just rewards for those in high finance. Why, then, are real wages down by more than £1,600, while bank bonuses are up by 83%? (901284)

What we see happening is that because we are cutting taxes, disposable income went up last year. What we have done is lift the first £10,000 that people earn out of tax altogether. That is worth £700 for every person who pays that tax. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should welcome. In addition, we have frozen the council tax, cut the petrol duty, and helped in all sorts of ways with families’ income—every single step opposed by Labour.

Q3. The Tibbs Foundation provides uplifting support for people living with dementia in Bedfordshire and for their carers. Following his challenge on dementia last year, and ahead of the G8 summit that he will host in London next month, will my right hon. Friend send a message to my constituents about his commitment to achieving real progress on dementia research and care? (901285)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. For too long in our country people thought of dementia as a natural part of ageing, rather than what it is, which is a disease that we should be fighting with all the energy with which we are fighting heart disease and cancer. As part of the dementia challenge, we have said that we will double research funding over the lifetime of this Government from £26 million to more than £66 million a year in 2014-15. But we also want to see an increase in diagnosis rates, because getting to grips with dementia early is vital, and we want the diagnosis rate to go from less than a half to two thirds. I think my hon. Friend’s constituents will welcome those pledges, and obviously, through our G8 chairmanship, we can galvanise action around the world as well.

For two years the people of Scotland were promised that they would receive a detailed and costed White Paper that would answer all the questions. Instead, they got a thick document full of false promises. In the absence of any detailed costings, it was not a blueprint for independence, but a wish list. Given that the entire White Paper is based on the assumption that Scotland would keep the pound as part of a sterling zone with no plan B, can the Prime Minister tell us whether the lack of that plan B calls into question the entire credibility of the White Paper?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been waiting a long time for this document. We were told that it would answer every question, yet there is no answer on the currency, no answer on the issue of EU membership, and no proper answers on NATO. We are just left with a huge set of questions and, for Scottish people, the prospect of a £1,000 bill as the price of separation.

Q4. We are celebrating a year since new owners took over the former Pfizer site, and with the Prime Minister’s commitment to £40 million for our small and medium-sized enterprises in Kent, we now have 1,400 jobs and 60 companies. Does the Prime Minister agree that when the private sector meets a proactive Government, we can replicate such successes around the country? (901286)

First of all, may I praise my hon. Friend for the work that she put in? Clearly, it was a blow when Pfizer made its announcement and its decision. I think that many people thought that that would be end for the site in terms of jobs and investment, but because of the hard work that she has put in—my right hon. Friends the Business Secretary and the Science Minister have also put in a huge amount of work—the enterprise zone is working well and it has attracted over 20 high-tech companies. Pfizer is now staying, with 700 jobs as well. It has been a success and it shows that if you work together with the private sector, you can get good results like this.

The Disability Benefits Consortium of over 50 charities has signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for immediate action to exempt disabled people from the bedroom tax. Why on earth do the Prime Minister and his Government refuse to listen?

Obviously, what we have done is to exempt disabled people who need an extra room. This does, I think, come back to a basic issue of fairness, which is this: people in private sector rented accommodation who get housing benefit do not get a subsidy for spare rooms, whereas people in council houses do get a subsidy for spare rooms. That is why it was right to end it, and it is right to end it thinking of the 1.8 million people in our country on housing waiting lists.

Q5. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has had a chance to watch any of the fantastic rugby league world cup semi-final match that took place between England and New Zealand at the weekend. The tournament has been a great success, and shortly rugby fans will have the rugby union world cup to look forward to in 2015, with games in England and some games in Wales. Does he agree that this great interest in the game of rugby presents a real opportunity for my constituency to attract visitors to the birthplace of the game? (901287)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is the best possible advertisement for his town. I have done a public meeting in his high street and know what a warm, interesting and varied reception you can get in the town of Rugby. It is hard to keep up at the moment with the quantity and quality of rugby union and rugby league games. I made a wager with the New Zealand Prime Minister that I would wear Kiwi cufflinks if they won in the rugby union match. I did so last week but fortunately nobody noticed.

The Prime Minister has vowed to fight for the United Kingdom with his head, heart and soul, but when it comes to a debate it is some guts that he needs to find. We now have the blueprint for independence, and we know what his United Kingdom will look like. Will he now stop being a pathetic big feartie and get out and debate the issues with the First Minister?

I am enjoying the debate we are having now; that is where the debate should take place. Of course there should be a debate, including televised debates, but this is a debate between people in Scotland. This is not a debate between the leader of the Conservative party, or even the UK Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister; it is a debate, rightly, between the leader of the no campaign and the leader of the yes campaign, and they should fight it out on the facts and on the issues. I know the hon. Gentleman wants to find every sort of distraction possible because when it comes to the economy, when it comes to jobs, and when it comes to Europe, all the arguments are for staying together. [Interruption.]

For future reference, Mr MacNeil, you should not be yapping at the Prime Minister like an overexcited puppy dog. It is unseemly. You can do a lot better if you try.

Q6. Small businesses and traders are the lifeblood of our economy, with 14 million people employed in them. In Brentford and Isleworth, 825 new businesses have been set up in the past two years. In preparation for small business Saturday on 7 December, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging businesses to become business and enterprise champions in all our secondary schools to foster and inspire another generation of entrepreneurs? (901288)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, first of all, about the new businesses setting up in Britain. We have 400,000 more businesses than three years ago. The point she makes about encouraging businesses into schools to inspire young people about enterprise, about small business, and about what that can involve is really, really important. I would urge all MPs to make the most of small business Saturday, but also, in the visits that they make to primary and secondary schools, to push the case for good business access and good business discussions.

Four weeks ago in Eccles, I met Joy Watson, who is 55 years old, a mum and married to Tony. For the past four years, Joy has had problems with her memory and on her 55th birthday she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Her family are devastated, but she is an inspirational woman and is now fighting for better services for people in similar circumstances. Will the Prime Minister ensure, at the G8 in London in two weeks’ time, that there will be a real push for an increase in research into the quality of care and support and prevention, as well as into the important search for a cure?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. There is no one single thing we have to do: the research budget needs to go up—and it is—but we also need to work within the health and social care sectors to improve standards. Frankly, we also need to make our communities more dementia-friendly. Something we can all do is become a dementia friend, which involves a simple, relatively short test and a bit of learning about how to help people with dementia in our communities. It is not just about the health and social care sectors, but about when people are trying to go on a bus, access their bank account or go down to the post office. How they actually live their lives is something we can all make a difference to.

Q7. Last Friday, on the border between Gibraltar and Spain, the Guardia Civil opened one of our diplomatic pouches, which is a clear breach of our sovereignty. What further measures—political or otherwise—can we take towards Spain to stop this harassment of our people in Gibraltar? (901289)

First of all, my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, because it is a breach of the principle of state immunity and the principles underlying the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. An extremely serious action took place. We asked the Spanish authorities to investigate urgently and they have done so. We have now received an explanation from the Spanish and we are reassured that it will not happen again, but let me be absolutely clear: we will always stand up for the rights of people in Gibraltar and for the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Q8. Earlier the Prime Minister outlined what the Government are doing in relation to fuel poverty over the winter. Does he accept that the further north we go in the United Kingdom, the colder it is, incomes are lower and fuel prices are higher? What additional measures can he undertake to ensure that he alleviates the problems suffered by people in Northern Ireland? (901290)

As I said, I think that the cold weather payments are perhaps the key thing, because they are triggered by low temperatures and kick in at £25 a week. I think that makes the biggest difference. I outlined all of the things we are doing, including the warm home discount, which the energy companies themselves are putting in place to help tackle fuel poverty. On the previous Government’s fuel poverty measures, fuel poverty is actually lower today than it was when Labour was in office.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern in Suffolk about using a road toll to pay for improvements to the A14 and the consequent risk that introducing tolls on roads without a toll-free alternative may undermine support for the sensible concept of road pricing?

I am well aware of the strong feelings in Suffolk about this issue and I have been approached about it by many Members of Parliament. I believe that road tolls can play an important part in providing new road capacity and it is important that we find ways to pay for road capacity, but I also understand the concerns about this individual case.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister realise that he has something in common with the Scottish National Party? He refuses to back Labour’s call for a freeze on energy bills and the plan announced yesterday for an independent Scotland shows clearly that the First Minister will not get to grips with the energy companies. What does the Prime Minister think that says to the millions of Scots who face rocketing fuel bills this winter? (901291)

Getting to grips with energy bills means more competition in the market, which we are delivering. We were left the big six by the Labour party. New companies are coming in and people such as the Leader of the Opposition are sensibly deciding to switch their energy supplier, which is a very good Tory principle. We also need to roll back the cost of some of the levies, and we are looking at that as well.

The Prime Minister will be aware that MPs from rural areas and across party lines have for many years campaigned for a fair funding formula for schools, ably led by David Kidney, the former Labour MP in the previous Parliament, and by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in this Parliament. The issue has been brought to a head again and we have been led to expect news shortly. Is the Prime Minister able to reassure pupils and teachers in rural schools that good news is on its way and that they will not be disappointed?

I do understand the concerns, because these funding formulas have built up over many years. There are places in our country that do feel disadvantaged, particularly those in rural areas that can suffer exclusion and poverty, and feel that that is not properly reflected in the funding formula. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary continues to look at this, and we will see what we can do.

Q10. In my constituency, as in many others, small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine room of the economy, so why are business rates rising by an average of nearly £2,000 in this Parliament? (901292)

I can tell the hon. Lady what we have done on business rates, which is to extend the freeze on business rates that the last Government were going to get rid of. What we are also doing on business rates is to have a £2,000 cut in national insurance for every business in the country. For small businesses up and down our high streets, I cannot think of anything that will make a bigger difference than seeing their national insurance bill go down by £2,000 and being able to employ more people.

On the subject of how to help business, how on earth can it be a good idea to say that you want to increase corporation tax as you go into the next Parliament? That seems to me absolutely mad—a new Labour jobs tax.

By the end of this year, more than 8,000 people in our country will have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, of which only 4% will have even the chance of a five-year survival rate. Those figures have not changed for the last 30 years. Will the Prime Minister join the all-party group on pancreatic cancer and Pancreatic Cancer UK in their aim, which is that it is time to change and improve on those dreadful outcomes?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. An issue always raised by charities campaigning on some of the less well-known and less prevalent cancers is that they do not get a fair share of the research funding. That is an issue that I have taken up with the Health Secretary. We need to make sure that we are spreading research funding and the work we do into cancer fairly across the different disciplines and across the different cancers.

Q11. May I repeat that energy companies made 77% more profit per customer in 2012? Does the Prime Minister agree that this is not acceptable, and if so, what immediate steps does he propose to take to protect customers from blatant profiteering? (901293)

What we need to do is to create a more competitive energy market. As I said, we inherited a situation with just six big companies. We have seen seven new companies come into the market and the number of people with independent suppliers—such as the Leader of the Opposition—has actually doubled during this Parliament, so we are making progress.

I always follow what the hon. Gentleman says. Recently, he gave an interview when he went on the radio and said about Labour’s policy: “Do you know, I don’t know our position on welfare, I don’t know our position on education, I don’t know our position on how we’d run the health service?” I think a question about that would be a good thing.

Q12. The Prime Minister’s plans to restrict benefits to immigrants are wise and welcome. What lessons has my right hon. Friend learned from the failures of the last Labour Government who, despite claiming that just 13,000 Polish immigrants would arrive in the UK, deliberately allowed more than 1 million to come into our country? (901294)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course there are benefits of free movement within the EU, but there should be proper transition controls. We increased the transition controls on Bulgaria and Romania from five years to seven years when we became the Government, but it still absolutely baffles me why the last Labour Government decided in 2004 to have no transitional controls at all. They predicted 14,000 Polish people would arrive to work in Britain; in the event, the number was over 700,000. It was a shameful dereliction of duty.

Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, proposes to close nearly every single ticket office on the London Underground network, with more than 700 jobs being lost. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is the way to raise living standards for ordinary Londoners? (901297)

The best way to help Londoners is to ensure that we have a safe and affordable tube, and that we use modern technology to deliver that. The conversation that the hon. Lady needs to have is with the trade union that has done so much damage to our underground. We ought to have no-strike deals on the underground and permanent systems that provide a good service.

Q13. Earlier this week in Brighton, I was tested for HIV. This Sunday is world AIDS day. In view of the fact that one in five people with HIV in this country does not know that they have it, does the Prime Minister agree that regular testing is to be encouraged? (901295)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, all hon. Members across the House and everyone in politics who campaign so persistently and consistently on this issue. It is vital that we improve the livelihoods of people who have HIV and AIDS in the UK, but it is also vital that we continue working internationally, including through our aid budget, to tackle HIV and AIDS around the world. We can be proud of the money that we have put into things such as the global fund and of the fact that this country has achieved the target of 0.7% of gross national income, when many other countries have broken their promises.

The Prime Minister is very keen to encourage energy users to switch providers to get the best tariff. Why has it been so difficult over the past three years to switch mobile phone providers?

Across all the utilities, we want it to be easier for people to switch. We have done that on banks. It is now easier to switch bank accounts because of the hard work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is now easier to switch energy providers because of the excellent work of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. It ought to be easier to switch with other utilities. That is an important bit of work that we are doing.

Q14. The number of apprenticeships in Cornwall has doubled since 2010, which is helping to create a stronger economy and a fairer society. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a delegation of young people from Cornwall to see how we can further promote these very worthwhile schemes? (901296)

I am delighted with the news about the number of apprenticeships in Cornwall. The Government have made a major financial commitment to funding apprenticeships. That is making a difference, but there is far further to go in tackling youth unemployment and worklessness among people between the ages of 16 and 24. I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps a suitable moment might be when I am in Cornwall.

House prices are going up at a time when real wages are going down. Does the Prime Minister accept that when interest rates go up after the election, it will detonate a sub-prime debt crisis of his making?

The greatest danger in terms of interest rates would be to have a Government who believed in more borrowing, more spending and more taxing. That is what would drive up interest rates, that is what would hit the cost of living and that is what every family in this country should dread.

Points of order come after statements. That is a well-established feature of our system.

We will come to the urgent question in a moment. There is another urgent question to follow and a statement by a Minister. I therefore hope that the House will understand that I do not intend to run the first urgent question at great length. It concerns an extremely important matter, but the House will have to treat of it briefly.