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Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our warmest wishes for Christmas to our armed forces in Afghanistan. Having just returned from there, I saw at first hand once again their incredible commitment and dedication. We should remember the families who will be missing them, especially at this time of year, and indeed we should remember all our service personnel around the world. Our country owes them a huge amount for the work they do and the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

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 the Prime Minister in sending our warmest wishes to our armed forces, and also to all the public sector workers taking care of us over the Christmas period.

Unless the Mesothelioma Bill is changed, 6,000 victims who were criminally and negligently exposed to asbestos at work will not receive any compensation from insurance companies. Will the Prime Minister intervene at the eleventh hour to prevent that from happening? If he does not, it will be fair to assume that he would rather stand up for the insurance companies than for innocent people who were exposed to asbestos at work.

I very much respect the hon. Gentleman’s record of campaigning on this issue, but I will say this: the Mesothelioma Bill is a huge step forward. Frankly, for decades there has been no provision for these people, through no fault of their own, who will die from this terrible disease. Once the scheme that we are putting in place is up and running, roughly 300 people a year will receive approximately £115,000 each. I think that is an important step forward. I will obviously look at what he has to say, but I think that we should be proud of the fact that after a long delay we are tackling this issue.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in saluting the courage of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been peacefully protesting across Ukraine for the past few weeks against their President’s decision to break off talks with Europe and to move closer to Russia? Does he agree that if there is any further violence against them, those responsible should be held personally accountable, and will he continue to hold out the prospect of closer links with Europe in the longer term, which is what the people of Ukraine want?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we should pay tribute to those in Ukraine who want a future linked to Europe and the peace, prosperity and stability that that relationship would bring. I think we should also say, as he has said very clearly, that the world is watching what the Ukrainian authorities have done and are contemplating doing in response to the demonstrations. I think we should stand with the people of Ukraine, who want that peaceful, secure and prosperous future.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to all our troops serving around the world, particularly in Afghanistan. Once again this year, they have done our country proud. They have shown the utmost courage and bravery. All our thoughts are with them and their families this Christmas.

Today’s economic figures show a welcome fall in unemployment, and for every person who gets back into work it benefits not just them but their family as well. Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that it is a major challenge for Britain that at the end of this year there are more people than ever before in today’s figures working part time because they cannot get the hours they need?

It is worth looking at these unemployment figures in some detail, because I think they do paint an encouraging picture. Unemployment is down by 99,000 and the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has actually fallen by 36,000 in this month alone. There are 250,000 more people in work. Youth unemployment is down. Long-term unemployment is down. Unemployment among women is down. We have talked before about 1 million more people in work under this Government; there are now 1.2 million more in work. There should not be one ounce of complacency, because we have still got work to do to get our country back to work. Having everyone back in work means greater stability for them, a greater ability to plan for their future, and greater help for their families. But the plan is working; let us stick at it and get unemployment down even further.

The Prime Minister did not really answer the specific question I asked. It is good that our economy is creating more jobs, but the problem is that too many of them are part time, low paid or insecure. Today’s figures show what is happening to wages. Does he agree with me that it is a matter of deep concern that at the end of this year average wages are £364 lower than they were a year ago and over £1,500 lower than they were at the general election?

Let me answer very directly the question about full-time and part-time employment. Actually, full-time employment has grown much faster in recent months, and overall since the election 70% of the new jobs—and there have been millions of new jobs—are full-time jobs. I agree that we have got more to do. We have got to do more to put in place our long-term economic plan to keep the economy growing. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is all very well standing up at the Dispatch Box and saying that there would be 1 million fewer jobs; we are still waiting for him to correct the record about that. Of course I want to see more money in people’s pockets. The only way we can do that is to keep on with the economic plan, keep cutting unemployment, keep people’s taxes down, and cut the deficit so that we keep interest rates down. That is our economic plan: what is his?

Let us talk about the Prime Minister’s predictions. He said that he would balance the books in five years; he has failed. He said that he would secure Britain’s credit rating; he has failed. The worst prediction of all is that he said he would be good at being Prime Minister, and he has certainly failed at that. He has got no answer—[Interruption.]

Order. Members on both sides of the House need to calm down. It will take as long as it takes, as always; it is very straightforward.

Is it not interesting, Mr Speaker, that the thing they want to talk about least of all is the cost of living crisis facing families up and down the country? That is because they know that families are worse off. Can the Prime Minister tell us how much higher the average gas and electricity bill is this Christmas compared to last?

They have a programme which will clearly lead to the disappearance of 1 million jobs. Now we have 1.6 million more private sector jobs and 1.2 million more people in work, it is time that the right hon. Gentleman apologised for his prediction talking the economy down. He asks about the cost of living; let us compare our records on the cost of living. They doubled council tax; we have frozen it. They put up petrol tax times 12 times; we have frozen it. They put up the basic state pension by 75p; we have put it up by £15. [Interruption.] Ah, we have a new hand gesture from the shadow Chancellor! I would have thought that after today’s briefing in the papers the hand gesture for the shadow Chancellor should be bye-bye. You don’t need it to be Christmas to know when you are sitting next to a turkey. [Interruption.]

Order. We will wait until colleagues calm down. I do not mind how long it takes; I have all day if necessary.

I thought that, just for once, the Prime Minister might answer the question he was asked. Let us give him the answer: energy bills are £70 higher than they were a year ago—despite all his bluster, that is the reality—and £300 higher than when he came to office.

Let us try the Prime Minister on another important issue for families. The cost of child care is crucial for parents going out to work. Can he tell us how much the cost of child care has gone up this year?

We are providing 15 hours of child care—of nursery education—for two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds. The right hon. Gentleman was never able to do that in government. It is all very well for him to make promises, but the only reason why we are able to keep our promises is that we took tough decisions about the economy. We took tough and difficult decisions to get the deficit down. We took difficult decisions to get our economic plan in place.

What the right hon. Gentleman cannot stand is the fact that this Christmas the economy is growing, 1.2 million more people are in work, our exports are increasing, manufacturing is up, construction is doing better, the economy is getting stronger and Labour is getting weaker.

I tell you what, Mr Speaker, that was a turkey of an answer. Why does not the Prime Minister, just for once, answer the question? Child care costs have gone up £300 in the past year—nearly three times the rate of inflation—and he is not doing anything about it.

There is one group the Prime Minister has helped out with the cost of living this year: those on his Christmas card list. I know he does not like my asking about this, but can he tell us how much lower the taxes of someone earning more than £1 million a year are this year compared with last year?

The top rate of tax under this Government is higher than it ever was under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. The fact is that the highest 1% of earners are paying a greater percentage of income tax than they did when he was sitting in the Cabinet. Those are the facts. If he wants to talk about what he has done on the cost of living, we have cut income tax for 25 million people, but Labour voted against it. We have taken 2.4 million people out of tax, they voted against it. We froze the council tax, they voted against it. We froze fuel duty, they voted against it. The only reason we have been able to do this is that we have a long-term economic plan. The right hon. Gentleman ends the year with no plan, no credibility and no idea how to help our economy.

We all know what the Prime Minister’s long-term plan is: to cut taxes for those on his Christmas card list and make everyone else sink or swim. That is his long-term plan. [Interruption.]

Order. The usual low graders can make as much noise as they like. Let me just say to them, for their own benefit—I will say it again; some of them do not learn very quickly—that however long it takes, right hon. and hon. Members will be heard. It is so simple, I think it is probably now clear.

The more the Prime Minister reads out lists of statistics, the more out of touch he seems to the country. This was the year that the cost of living crisis hit families hardest. This was the year the Government introduced the bedroom tax while cutting taxes for millionaires. This was the year he proved beyond doubt that he is the Prime Minister for the few, not the many.

The right hon. Gentleman may not like the facts, but he cannot hide from them. The typical taxpayer is paying £600 less because we cut taxes. The deficit is falling—it is down by a third—because we took difficult decisions. Today, for the first time in our history, there are 30 million people in our country in work. The fact is that at the end of this year we have a recovery Labour cannot explain, growth it said would never come, and jobs it said would never happen. Meanwhile, it is stuck with an economic policy that does not add up and a shadow Chancellor it cannot defend. That is why the British people will never trust Labour with the economy again.

Order. We will just have to keep going a bit longer, because I am not going to have—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman will be heard.

I can give the House something to cheer about. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the fact that investment in our North sea oil and gas industry this year will reach a record £14 billion, accounting for an unemployment rate in my constituency of just 0.7%, but is he aware of Sir Ian Wood’s report that says we need collaboration between Government and industry to unlock between 3 billion and 4 billion barrels of oil worth £200 billion that will otherwise be left under the sea?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point: the Wood report is an excellent report and we are looking to put that in place because we want to maximise the returns and the employment and the investment in the North sea. In recent months we have seen very encouraging signs of greater investment in the North sea, not least because of the decisions taken by the Chancellor to bring into play some of the more marginal fields. We need to keep up with that and implement the Wood report as my right hon. Friend says.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister understand, even if Dr Richard Haass does not, that agreement and consensus in his talks are desirable but will be impossible to achieve if proposals re-emerge that are viewed in the Unionist community as diluting our very essence of Britishness as Northern Ireland seeks to strengthen its position within the United Kingdom, not weaken it? (901684)

I think we all agree that Richard Haass is carrying out a very important and extremely difficult task: looking into the issues of parades, of flags and, of course, the past. I have met Richard Haass, and I think he is an incredibly impressive individual. We should let him do his work and we should judge his work on the results he produces, but I hope that everyone will try to look at this process with some give and take to try and bring the communities together.

Unemployment in the Peterborough constituency stands at 5.5%, the lowest it has been since the financial crisis, and there were 1,180 fewer jobseeker’s allowance claimants than a year ago. However, there are too many young people who are jobless and lacking work skills, so will the Prime Minister give an early Christmas present to Peterborough people by giving his personal support to our bid for a university technical college, to be decided in the new year?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will look closely at the proposal for a university technical college. They are working well, and I think that is a very good innovation in our education system.

The news on youth unemployment is better—19,000 down this quarter—and the claimant count is falling as well, but there is a lot more work to do. I think we should particularly look at the work experience programmes which seem to have one of the best records at reducing youth unemployment and see what we can do to encourage companies and businesses to get involved in this work experience programme.

Q3. With the Archbishop of Canterbury reminding us of society’s responsibility to support the poor and the vulnerable, and the Archbishop of Westminster specifically criticising the inhumanity of aspects of Government policy, does the Prime Minister regret, as we approach Christmas, his Government’s retreat from the compassionate Conservatism he used to adopt? (901685)

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says at all. There is nothing more compassionate than getting more people into work. The best route out of poverty is work and what we can see for the first time in our country is 30 million people in work. I enjoy debating and listening carefully to our Archbishops. I have to say that I do not agree with what the Archbishop of Westminster said about immigration, but I think we should be frank and open about these debates and not be concerned when we do have disagreements.

Q4. Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and a merry Christmas to you and your family. The people of Suffolk have enjoyed a cracker of a Christmas present with the excellent news on the A14, which will encourage greater investment and growth. In that spirit, does my right hon. Friend agree that calls to abandon the Government’s long-term economic plan and adopt the Opposition’s plan to borrow and spend more will raise taxes and mortgage rates for hard-working people in this country? (901686)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her ingenious way of ensuring that she is called regularly in debates and questions in this House, an example that I am sure others will follow. On that note, a very happy Christmas to you and your wife and children, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend has been very clear in her campaign against the toll on the A14, and I am glad that we have settled that issue. She is right to say that the biggest threat to our economy now would be to abandon our plan. We are getting the deficit down; we are keeping interest rates down; we are cutting people’s taxes; and we are seeing the country get back to work. The biggest risk is more borrowing, more spending, more taxes—all the things that got us into this mess in the first place.

Q5. At the end of November, I visited Handsworth Grange community sports college in my constituency. The head, Anne Quaile, told me about the school collecting food to help their needy families over Christmas. Indeed, there will be a food bank on the school site in the new year. What really shocked me was when she told me about a young girl, aged 15, who arrived on a Monday—just before my visit—not having eaten all weekend, because there was no food in the house. How does the Prime Minister expect that young girl to fulfil her educational potential? (901687)

We have to do everything we can to help Britain’s families and to help families into work, and that is exactly what we are doing under this Government. We also have to make sure that we protect the income levels of the poorest, and that is why, for instance, child tax credit is up £390 under this Government, protecting the money that goes to the poorest people in our country.

Order. Opposition Members should not yell at the hon. Gentleman. He is asking his question. Let us hear it.

Experts said that Labour’s energy price freeze announcement would raise prices in the short term and protect the big six by freezing new investment. Since then, prices have gone up. National Grid says that half of new investment—

Order. I am struggling to find anything that relates to the responsibility of the Prime Minister in the hon. Gentleman’s question. Therefore, we will proceed with Mr Gordon Marsden.

Q6. As the Prime Minister sits down for Christmas dinner to chillax with his family and friends, will he spare a thought for my Blackpool constituents and 500,000 others, whose Christmas will be mired in the incompetence and random cruelty of the benefit sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions? My casework on this includes a woman denied jobseeker’s allowance for doing voluntary work at one local branch of a national charity rather than at another. Will his new year resolution be to resolve the chaos of sanctions and of universal credit? (901688)

I think the best thing we can do for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and indeed everyone’s constituents, is to keep on with the economic plan that is generating more jobs in our country. If we look at the north-west, we see that the number of people employed is up by 37,000 since the election, and unemployment has fallen by 29,000 since the election. We need to keep on with that, while of course making sure that the benefit system works for people who need it, but he does not do his constituents any favours by talking down the performance of the economy.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister pay tribute to Norfolk’s emergency services and volunteers, who have done such a brilliant job both in tackling the recent coastal floods and in helping to repair the damage? The floods were potentially worse than the floods of 60 years ago that killed 300 people and destroyed 25,000 homes. Does he agree that special mention should be made of two local newspapers, Eastern Daily Press and Lynn News, which have campaigned tirelessly? The former has raised more than £100,000 in its appeal. Will he tell the House what Departments can do, working in conjunction with Norfolk’s local authorities? (901689)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I was very impressed when I went to Norfolk—to Wells-next-the-Sea—to see the amazing contribution made by not only the emergency services, but, as he said, local newspapers in highlighting this issue and helping to prepare people for what was to come, as well as the flood co-ordinators and the people who work voluntarily to help our communities. I was particularly impressed by what I saw the lifeboats had done. An enormous wave swept through their station but, even with that, they were able to get out there and help people. As he says, because we have put money into flood defences, we protected a lot more homes that otherwise would have been affected, but the work needs to continue.

Q8. Ministers have admitted to me that there are delays in completing personal independence payment claims. My constituent, Kathy, who is suffering from cancer, made her claim in August, but a decision is still to be made. She had a home appointment yesterday with an Atos assessor, but they did not turn up. Why is the Prime Minister allowing cancer patients to suffer because of the incompetence of his Government? (901690)

I am very happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is worth noting that Atos worked under the last Government, in which he served. I am happy to look at the individual case to see what can be done.

The number of unemployed claimants in the Henley constituency has fallen to 439. That makes it the third best performing constituency in the country. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating local businesses for the role that they have played in that?

I am very happy to congratulate local businesses on what they have done. What we are seeing, which Labour predicted would never happen, is a private sector-led recovery. For every job that has been lost in the public sector, we have seen three or even four jobs created in the private sector, mostly by small businesses. We need to keep up the economic environment that is helping those businesses to take people on, invest and grow.

Q9. At the last election, many of my constituents truly believed the Prime Minister when he said“no ifs, no buts, no third runway”at Heathrow. They are now faced with the threat of a third runway and a fourth runway, with thousands losing their homes and schools being demolished. There is even the threat that we will have to dig up our dead from the local cemetery. Does he appreciate that many have lost all faith in him as a man who keeps his word? (901691)

The hon. Gentleman has a very strong view about this matter, but I simply do not accept what he says. We said that there would not be a third runway. We have stuck with that promise. We now have a report that is being done by Howard Davies, which has all-party support. The interim report is very good.

I think that people should read that report before they start shouting across the House of Commons in a completely inappropriate way. [Hon. Members: “Order.”]

Order. I know what I am doing. I do not need any help from Back Benchers. A reference was made to the treatment of constituents, not to observations that have been made in respect of Members of the House. I am clear on that and the procedure is extremely clear as well.

In the north-east, all 29 constituencies have seen an increase in apprenticeship starts since 2010. I recently opened an engineering academy in Hexham. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only through the provision of better skills and apprenticeships that we will improve the living standards of our young people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I saw for myself on a visit to Stockton and Darlington what a difference the extra apprenticeships and funding are making. We want the recovery to be shared right across our country. In the north-east, unemployment has fallen by 3,000 this quarter, but it is still too high. There are 28,000 more people in work than there were at the time of the election, but we have further to go and we must stick to the economic plan that is delivering.

Q10. Is the Prime Minister concerned that in the detail of the small print of the autumn statement, it says that by the end of this Parliament real wage levels will be 5.8% lower? (901692)

The point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that disposable income is higher this year than in any year between 1997 and 2010. The reason for that is that, in spite of slow wage growth, we have cut people’s taxes. We can cut people’s taxes only if we take difficult decisions about the deficit and about spending. We have not had the support of the Labour party for a single one of those difficult decisions.

Will the Prime Minister help to get justice for my constituents, who want to know why an investigation into the meetings that were had by Theresa Villiers, the former Transport Minister, has not been reported on, despite four months of waiting and various assurances that I would have the answer?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s letters about this matter. She has taken up the issue and I am sure that she will get an answer shortly.

Q11. On a slightly more seasonal note, may I probe the Prime Minister on the revelation in the autumn statement that over this Parliament borrowing is forecast to be £198 billion higher than originally planned? Will he accept that his pledge to balance the books by 2015 had all the credibility of a proposal to build an airport on a non-existent island in the middle of a bird sanctuary in the Thames estuary? (901693)

The hon. Gentleman always brings a flavour of pantomime to our proceedings. If he is worried about the deficit, and if he is worried about borrowing, he ought to look in front of him, rather than behind him, because we have not had one bit of support for anything we have done to cut the deficit. If he is worried about the deficit, why does the Labour party propose to put it up?

It is very good news that a record number of people are in work and keeping more of their take-home pay, but there was another milestone this week when we reached 2 million new pension savers, thanks to auto-enrolment. Is that another example of how this Government are taking the right long-term decisions for this country?

My hon. Friend is right to raise auto-enrolment. It means that more people are saving for their retirement, which means more stability and security for them, and a greater ability to plan for their future. There are 30 million people in work—so many more in work this Christmas than there were last Christmas—all of whom are better able to plan for their future and have that basic security that people in our country rightly crave.

Q12. Now that the Prime Minister has declared mission accomplished in Afghanistan, will he guarantee that none of our brave servicemen and women who have served there will face redundancy after they come home? (901694)

I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at what I said when I was praising the role that our armed forces have played. They have carried out the tasks that we asked them to carry out, and they have done it with huge professionalism and skill. As I said, they will be able to leave that country with their heads held high, secure in the knowledge that we put in place what is necessary to stop terrorism and terrorist training camps returning to Afghanistan. Very clear rules are in place about redundancy, which mean that those people about to serve, serving, or having returned from Afghanistan, are not able for redundancy.

Q14. Today 1,000 fewer people are out of work in Worcester than when unemployment peaked under Labour. With 700 businesses in the constituency likely to benefit from the Government’s extension of small business rates relief, I urge the Prime Minister to continue to do everything he can to help the high street and remove burdens on businesses creating jobs. (901696)

What is happening in Worcester is welcome news. Across the country not only is unemployment down but vacancies are up, which is good news for the future. I think we have taken some important steps forward with the rate rebate of £1,000 announced in the autumn statement for businesses on the high street, and, of course, the £2,000 employment allowance, which means that businesses do not have to pay their first £2,000 of national insurance contributions. That means that businesses in Worcester and elsewhere will be able to take on more people.

Q13. Further to the question from the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), four months have passed since serious allegations were made that the Northern Ireland Secretary broke the ministerial code during her time as Transport Minister. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Cabinet Secretary responds before the House rises for the Christmas recess? (901695)

I have seen a copy of the Cabinet Secretary’s response, and I am confident it will be sent in the next few days.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s acceptance that something needs to be done to stop EU migrants accessing British benefits. Would he agree that what he is proposing—which will probably be found illegal by the European Court—is really spitting in the wind when it comes to the problem we face, and that the only way to get back control of our borders and our benefits system is to leave the European Union?

I do not share my hon. Friend’s pessimism and we are taking these steps—including the announcement today that people coming to the UK should not be able to claim benefits within the first three months—on the basis of legal advice, and looking carefully at what other countries in the EU do. I want to do everything possible to ensure that the right of free movement is not abused. There is a right to work in different countries of the European Union, but there should not be a right to claim in different countries of the European Union. Where I would agree with my hon. Friend is that I think we need to do more in future, and we must learn the lesson from the mistake that Labour made by giving unfettered access to our labour market when Poland and others joined the European Union. That led to 1.5 million people coming to our country and was a profound mistake.

Q15. Average household incomes will be substantially lower in 2015 than they were in 2009. Is the Prime Minister concerned about that? What does he say to my constituents, who are struggling with the cost of living crisis caused by his Government’s policies? (901697)

The first thing I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituents is that we are raising to £10,000 the amount people can earn before they pay income tax. That is worth £705 to a typical taxpayer. Because of the progress we have already made, disposable income this year is higher than it was in any year between 1997 and 2010. Opposition Members might not like those facts, but they are true. It is worth remembering why we are in this situation in the first place. [Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister has a very strong voice, but he should not have to shout to make himself heard. Let us hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

The point I was making is that the reason we are in this situation was laid out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies two weeks ago. It pointed out that we had the biggest recession for 100 years under the last Government, which cost the typical family £3,000. Opposition Members should apologise for that before moving on to the next question.

Christmas in Syria will be defined by unstopping grief and horror in sub-zero temperatures. I encourage the Prime Minister to keep a relentless focus on humanitarian relief in Syria, to encourage the rest of the international community to meet the UN’s demands for £4 billion of assistance, and to ensure that that assistance is much more imaginative and generous.

On behalf of the House, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue before Christmas. That is where our thoughts should be. There is a huge humanitarian crisis affecting up to half of the Syrian population. Britain can be proud of the fact that, at £500 million, we are the second-largest bilateral donor of aid going to Syria and neighbouring countries and we are helping people in those refugee camps. We should encourage other countries to step up to the plate in the way we have done, and ensure that we fulfil our moral obligations to those people who will suffer at Christmas time.

Order. There is to be an urgent question. I feel sure the hon. Gentleman can keep his point of order in the oven until after that.