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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Block Grant

1. If he will estimate the cumulative real-terms change to the Welsh block grant over the present Parliament. (901763)

On what is a sad morning for the House, I am sure that colleagues on both sides would also wish me to mention the passing in December of the right hon. Lord Roberts of Conwy, who served the Welsh Office with such distinction for so many years. He was a doughty champion for Wales and the Welsh language, and I am sure that many Members on both sides will regret his passing.

The protections placed on health and education have insulated the Welsh Government’s resource budget from the extent of reductions faced by many UK Departments. In addition, the Welsh Government’s capital budget will increase in real terms by 8.4% next year and 2.4% the year after.

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the Welsh Government’s budget has been cut by 10% since 2010—a cut of £1.6 billion? Their capital budget to date has been cut by a third, which has impacted horrendously on front-line services. In my Bridgend constituency alone, that has meant £30 million-worth of cuts in front-line services. Does the Secretary of State not recognise the damage of these cuts to the people of Wales?

All parts of the United Kingdom are having to bear their part in repairing the economic damage that was sustained as a result of the downturn in 2008. However, I am sure the hon. Lady would recognise that since 2010 the United Kingdom Government have provided an additional £737 million to the Welsh Government, and it is up to the Welsh Government to live within their means.

Given that the UK Government have given extra money in cash terms to the Welsh Assembly in the form of its block grant, does the Secretary of State find it as extraordinary as I do that the Welsh Assembly has imposed drastic cuts on local authorities across Wales that are bound to lead to increases in council taxes and reductions in public services?

That is ultimately a matter for the Welsh Government, but it is noteworthy that, whereas council taxpayers in England are benefiting from a council tax freeze, that is not happening in Wales. Perhaps that is something the Welsh Government should be attending to.

May I first associate myself fully with the words of tribute to the late, greatly respected right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and to the late Lord Roberts of Conwy?

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that reform of the Barnett formula is still an issue about which we are all very concerned. We in Plaid Cymru have campaigned about it for more than 25 years. It is interesting that the Labour party is now in favour of reforming Barnett, which it did nothing about for 13 years. In fact, when it was in government, it denied the existence of the problem. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any views on that issue?

It is generally recognised that the Barnett formula does not have an indefinite duration. However, it is the priority of this Government to ensure that the public finances are stabilised, and that is what we intend to do.

Which does the right hon. Gentleman think is worse—the self-serving preconditions set by the Labour party to block further devolution, or the failure of his Government to propose the full tax-varying powers contained in the cross-party Silk commission recommendations?

Barnett consequentials and, indeed, funding from the European Union have been key components of spending in Wales for many years. What representations has the Secretary of State made about Barnett consequentials and European funding to address the devastation that has occurred in recent days along the Welsh coast, not least in Ceredigion, but also in the constituencies of many other hon. Members?

I have had many conversations with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Clearly, Aberystwyth has suffered extreme damage as a consequence of the storms of the past few days, and I assure my hon. Friend that, if any additional funding is provided, Barnett consequentials will follow in the usual manner.

Renewables (Jobs)

This Government’s recent announcements on strike prices aim to make the UK, including Wales, one of the most attractive places to invest in renewable technologies. Our reforms will ensure that more than 30% of our electricity comes from renewables by 2020, attracting £110 billion of investment and supporting up to a quarter of a million jobs.

May I associate myself with the kind remarks of the Secretary of State relating to both Paul Goggins and Lord Roberts, who was a true servant of north Wales and a lovely man?

On renewables, I am very disappointed that the Minister did not refer to Sharp solar in Wrexham, which as recently as 2011 was expanding and providing more jobs. I spoke to the chief executive of Sharp solar in Wrexham before Christmas, when he told me that this Government’s catastrophic and chaotic renewables policy had contributed to its decision not to continue manufacturing in Wrexham, with the loss of 600 jobs. Will the Minister break the Wales Office’s silence and apologise to the people who have lost their jobs as a result of incompetence?

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment for his constituents. The news about the Sharp job losses was a bitter blow just before Christmas. I have been in touch with Sharp, and we at the Wales Office have spoken to them. It is just not correct to associate the decision taken by Sharp with the changes to the feed-in tariff policy. If he speaks to industry experts who are knowledgeable about these issues, they will tell him that it is much more to do with the wave of cheap Chinese imports of solar panels that have come into Europe and flooded the European market, so making domestic production very challenging indeed.

Whether power is generated from renewable or non-renewable sources, there is an increasing problem in Wales and the rest of the country in getting new power sources connected to the grid because of the shortage of power engineers. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Welsh Assembly Government to see how this issue can be tackled in Wales?

As ever, my hon. Friend raises a very pertinent issue, of which both we in the Wales Office and, more importantly, the Welsh Government, who have devolved responsibility for skills, are aware. We are in discussions with the key players and stakeholders in Wales about how we can raise up a new generation of power engineers to take forward the changes that we are trying to effect.

The loss of the Sharp solar panel factory in Wrexham, which was the biggest solar panel factory in western Europe, was a devastating blow to the Welsh economy. What can the Minister do to mitigate the closure, in which his Government are complicit? Specifically, can he help to draw down UK research funding to the solar research institute in Optic Glyndwr in St Asaph?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am very aware of the important work being done at Glyndwr university, and we are in close touch with the university about its work. On what we can do to mitigate the job impact in Wrexham, I encourage both him and his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) to give full-throated support to the £250 million that the Government are putting into Wrexham to create a new prison—something for which we have yet to hear full support from Opposition Members.

Labour has called consistently for the devolution of energy consents for projects of up to 100 MW. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for the amendment, which was not supported by the Government, that he tabled to the Energy Bill. Why are the Government opposed to the devolution of energy, which would allow the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales to make their own decisions on energy and renewable energy in particular?

I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because there has been nothing consistent about Labour’s approach to energy policy either in government or in opposition.

Living Standards

3. What assessment he has made of the effects on living standards in Wales of the measures announced in the autumn statement. (901765)

7. What assessment he has made of the effects on living standards in Wales of the measures announced in the autumn statement. (901769)

The autumn statement set out further measures to ensure that there is a responsible economic recovery. That is the only way to achieve the sustained rise in living standards in Wales and across the UK that we all want to see.

May I associate myself with the tributes that have been given?

I thank the Minister for his answer, but many of us are dismayed that the autumn statement did little to address issues related to poverty. Does the Secretary of State really believe that it is right that food bank usage in Wales has gone up 1,400% since 2010? Surely that is not acceptable.

We know that the Labour party discovered food banks only in 2010. Before that, Labour Members denied that they even existed. In the autumn statement and at the end of last year, we saw average wages in Wales increasing at double the rate of inflation and personal disposable income in Wales increasing. The situation is still very challenging for many households in Wales, but the overall picture is positive, and the hon. Lady should support that.

In my constituency of Aberavon, real wages have fallen by £2,000 in recent years and some 5,000 households have witnessed a reduction in their working tax credits. That comes against the background of rising energy prices, which are higher in south Wales than anywhere else in Britain. Does the Minister agree—as a reasonable person, I am sure that he does—that the best way to address the squeeze in living standards on the people of my constituency and of Wales is to endorse Labour’s proposal of a freeze in energy prices, which would benefit 30,000 households in my constituency?

We are going further than that by delivering a reduction in energy prices of about £50 per household. One of the best ways in which we can equip households in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout Wales to face these challenging times is by returning more money to their pockets. We are taking 130,000 people in Wales out of income tax altogether and freezing fuel taxes, so that petrol prices are 20p per litre lower than they would have been under Labour’s plans. That is the way to help households meet the cost of living.

As the only Welsh Conservative MP who had the privilege of serving alongside Lord Roberts of Conwy, may I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks? May I also associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, about Paul Goggins, whose untimely death has come as such a shock to us all?

On living standards, will my hon. Friend confirm that the cumulative effect of the autumn statement will be that petrol prices will be 20p per litre lower than they otherwise would have been and that the average taxpayer will pay £700 less?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Government are taking those practical steps to help people on the lowest incomes in particular. We are determined that this should be a recovery for all sections of society in Wales.

The autumn statement contained very welcome measures to reduce the burden of business rates on small businesses in England. What efforts will the Minister make to ensure that the Welsh Government follow suit, to support small businesses in Wales?

In the autumn statement, we made resources available to the Welsh Government to take exactly the same action as the Government in Westminster have taken to help small businesses with their business rates. I was pleased that the Welsh Minister announced yesterday that they would take forward the cap on business rates in Wales. We have yet to hear whether they will deliver the £1,000 discount for small businesses that we are delivering.

11. May I associate myself with your words, Mr Speaker, on Paul Goggins, who was a great friend, and with the Secretary of State’s words on Lord Roberts, who was a great Anglesey man? Wales is a net producer of energy, a major electricity generator and a major terminal for imported gas, but people in Wales are paying some of the highest prices in the United Kingdom for gas and electricity. Will the Minister look closely at the distribution companies that are passing on extra costs to the Welsh consumer to ensure that there is a level playing field on prices? (901773)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue for his constituents and people throughout Wales. At the Wales Office, I regularly meet companies such as Western Power Distribution and National Grid to discuss why many consumers in Wales are paying those higher costs, and for all kinds of reasons. If he has specific questions that he would like me to follow up, I would be happy to meet him to do that.

May I, too, associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about Lord Roberts and in particular express my sadness at the passing of our friend and comrade Paul Goggins? I worked with Paul at the Northern Ireland Office, and I can say from personal experience that he was a wonderful Minister, a lovely man, and a hugely dedicated Member of the House. All our thoughts are with his family; everybody who knew Paul will miss him greatly.

A moment ago, the Minister said that measures in the autumn statement would cut energy bills for families in Wales by £50. That was one boast made by the Chancellor in that statement, and it came to fruition in Wales this morning with the announcement by SSE—Wales’s biggest energy supplier—that it was helping families with a price cut. Will the Minister confirm what that announcement actually means for families in Wales?

The action that we are taking across a broad range of measures—energy, fuel prices, income tax thresholds—means that we are helping people on the lowest incomes in Wales with the challenges of the cost of living at the moment. The hon. Gentleman does not refer to the fact that we are seeing improvements in wages in Wales and in personal disposable income, and he should welcome the overall positive picture that is emerging in Wales.

I had hoped that the Minister would have made a new year’s resolution to be a little more straightforward with the Welsh people. The truth is that the announcement by SSE this morning, following the announcement by the Chancellor that bills will be cut by £50, is actually that bills will rise in Wales this year by £70. It is a con trick, plain and simple, and the Minister should admit that and urge his colleagues to adopt Labour’s price freeze as the only way to curb these profiteering energy companies.

I am sorry to say this to the hon. Gentleman, but if he talks to people in industry out there who understand the economics of energy, they will all tell him that what the Labour party has proposed for energy does not make sense at all and has no credibility. The Government are taking real practical action that helps families at difficult times, and the picture that we are seeing in Wales overall is positive.

Draft Wales Bill

4. If he will publish an impact assessment of the effect of the draft Wales Bill on cross-border areas. (901766)

The Government published a summary impact assessment with the draft Wales Bill, which examines the effects of the Bill’s provisions on cross-border areas. We intend to introduce the Bill in the fourth Session, subject to agreement of the fourth Session programme, and a full impact assessment will accompany the Bill on introduction.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the draft Bill provides for a lock-step approach to varying income tax bands, against the wishes of all political parties in the Assembly and against the advice of the Silk commission. The reason given is concern about overall progressivity in the UK tax system. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on what he means by progressivity and say why he is adopting that approach?

As the Government have made clear, they believe that the progressivity of the UK tax system should remain at Westminster. That is why those provisions have been inserted in the draft Bill.

15. One damaging consequence of devolution has been the abandonment of investment in cross-border road improvement in mid-Wales because the Department for Transport—quite reasonably—sees no economic benefit to England in improving access to mid-Wales. In the response to the Silk commission report, will my right hon. Friend rectify that damaging consequence of devolution for mid-Wales? (901777)

My hon. Friend is quite right, and cross-border road routes are one unfortunate consequence of devolution, in that no overarching arrangement is in place. I have specifically asked the Silk commission to consider that issue, and I hope that it will address it in its report.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that certainty on taxation policy is key to boosting economic confidence in Wales. Although he has told us of his vision to use the Wales Bill for a 1p cut to all income tax bands in Wales, the leader of the Conservative party in Wales has said that he would cut only the top band of tax. Will the Secretary of State clear up that complete muddle about his Government’s position on taxation in Wales?

We have made it absolutely clear that we believe a competitive Welsh economy would depend to a large extent on a competitive rate of tax. However, I must remind the hon. Lady that devolution of income tax is a matter for the Welsh Government, in that it would be the Welsh Government who would have to put forward a referendum to the Welsh Assembly.

Universal Credit

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the roll-out of universal credit on people in Wales. (901767)

The roll-out of universal credit will reduce the historic dependency on benefits for the people of Wales by making the system simple and more flexible, and by increasing the incentive to work.

Is it not a fact that repeated promises to deliver the project on time and on budget have been broken yet again? Officials are warning of further delays and more wasted taxpayers’ money, and Ministers are arguing among themselves while families and children in Wales live in poverty. What way is this to run a country?

What universal credit represents for the country, including Wales—I think Opposition Members recognise this as well—is a generational opportunity to change the welfare system better to support those who need it. It is exactly right that we take the time necessary to get the systems and processes right to ensure that we get the outcomes right for people in Wales.

Department for Work and Pensions Ministers have assured me that the online application process in Welsh will be consistent with the Welsh Language Act 1993. What discussions has the Minister had with DWP colleagues to ensure that it is also consistent with the new Welsh language standards?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I regularly meet Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform, to discuss the impact of the complete welfare reform agenda in Wales. The Welsh language, specifically, is an issue that I have discussed with him. We want to see high-quality Welsh language availability for the people who need it.

Transport Infrastructure

This Government are investing more in transport infrastructure in Wales than any other in the last century, and Wales is set to benefit directly and indirectly from almost £2 billion of investment. I will be meeting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport next week to see how we can take this investment further.

Like me, the Secretary of State is a regular user of the Holyhead branch of the west coast main line. The Department for Transport is setting up a taskforce to look at electrification of the line between Crewe and Chester. Does he agree that the taskforce should look beyond Chester and consider electrifying the north Wales main line?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The proposed hub for High Speed 2 at Crewe would considerably strengthen the case for electrification of the railway line beyond Crewe and, I would hope, as far as Holyhead.

One of the most important pieces of transport infrastructure for Wales is the Severn bridge. After decades, tolls have now gone up again: £6.40 for motorists, and double and treble that for vans and lorries. Is it not time to recognise, after all these decades, that this tax on the south Wales economy is a toll too far?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the franchise of Severn crossings will continue until 2017-18. After that, the maintenance of the bridge will have to be considered, but I know that the Department for Transport is keenly aware of the issues he raises.

14. Good transport links are essential to provide opportunities for investment into Wales. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on updating road and rail links into north Wales, especially upgrading the A55? (901776)

I have regular discussions with both the Welsh Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on this issue. A business case is already being worked up, I hope, for electrification of the north Wales coast line, and I have already referred to the issue of roads.

When it comes to the Wrexham-Bidston line, the Secretary of State is all talk and no action. When can we expect some action?

It is rather rich of the hon. Gentleman to say that. In 13 years, his Government did absolutely nothing about that line. He should be aware that we already have a taskforce looking at this issue, and I hope the business case will be developed shortly.


8. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on increasing tourism opportunities in Newport in the light of the NATO summit in Celtic Manor in 2014. (901770)

Hosting the NATO summit in Newport later this year allows us to showcase Wales on a global stage, and I—and the First Minister, I am sure—will do everything possible to ensure that Wales capitalises on the tourism opportunities it should bring.

The delegates will be guests in what is probably the best hotel in Britain, the Celtic Manor. Will they have the chance to visit the other major attractions of Newport—the Roman remains at Caerleon, the magnificent transporter bridge and the splendid Tredegar house—so that they can have a rich and unforgettable experience in Newport?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that Newport—and, indeed, the whole of south-east Wales—has a huge amount to offer. As I have said, I believe that the NATO summit will do a massive amount to showcase that part of Wales to the whole world.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to pay some brief tributes. Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers was tragically killed after being engaged by enemy fire in Afghanistan on 23 December. He was a highly respected soldier, and our deepest sympathies and condolences should be with his parents, brother and girlfriend, whom he left behind. Our thoughts should also go to the victims of the US helicopter crash in Norfolk, about which details are still emerging.

I know that the sudden death this morning of Paul Goggins, MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, will have shocked everyone across the House. He was a kind, brilliant man who believed profoundly in public service. He cared deeply about the welfare of children and the importance of social work, and he brought his own clear experience to bear as an MP and Minister. He did vital work as a Northern Ireland Minister, playing a quiet but essential role in delivering the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, particularly at the Hillsborough castle talks. He was liked and admired across the House and always treated everyone, in whatever circumstances, with respect. He will be greatly missed, and we send our condolences to his wife Wyn, his children and his family.

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 am sure the House will want to be associated with my right hon. Friend’s comments. In particular, Paul Goggins was a good and decent man, and I know that he will be sorely missed on both sides of the House.

Yesterday, the British Chambers of Commerce found that manufacturing exports and services were growing strongly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows that, even though more work needs to be done, it is crucial that the Government stick to their long-term economic plan?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, including those about Paul Goggins.

It is a welcome report from the British Chambers of Commerce, but there is still a lot more work to do: we must continue to reduce the deficit, create economic growth and get more people into work. There should not be one ounce of complacency, but the report did find that manufacturing balances were at an all-time high, that exports were up and that services were growing strongly. If we stick to this plan, we can see this country rise, and our people rise with it too.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. His death, just two days before Christmas, is a reminder of the risks being taken on our behalf every day by members of our armed forces. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and all our sympathies are with his family and friends. I also join the right hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the families of the victims of the US helicopter crash in Norfolk.

I want to pay tribute to our friend and colleague, Paul Goggins. He was one of the kindest, most decent people in the House, and he was someone of the deepest principle. It shone throughout his career, as social worker, councillor, MP and Minister, and it is a measure of the man and his ability that he earned the respect, trust and affection of all sides in Northern Ireland. The Labour party has lost one of its own and one of its best. Our deepest condolences go to his wife, Wyn, to his children, Matthew, Theresa and Dominic, and indeed to his whole family.

The whole country will be concerned about the price being paid by those in communities affected by the floods and storms. I pay tribute to the work of the emergency services. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the number of people affected and on what action is being taken now to ensure areas that could be affected by further flooding have all the necessary support?

First, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his very moving words about Paul Goggins.

The flooding provides an extremely difficult situation for those affected. We should remember that seven people have lost their lives since this began. The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the emergency services, to the Environment Agency workers, to the flood wardens and to the many neighbours and individuals who showed great bravery, courage and spirit over the Christmas period in helping neighbours and friends.

As the situation is ongoing, let me bring the House up to date with the latest detail. There are currently 104 flood warnings in place across the whole of England and Wales. That means, sadly, that more flooding is expected and that immediate action is required. There are also 186 flood alerts, which means even further flooding is possible beyond what we expect to happen more rapidly. Although the weather has improved, river and groundwater levels remain so high that further flooding could come at relatively short notice. There are a number of particular concerns, including Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and Oxfordshire. Given these ongoing threats, which could last for several days to come, I urge members of the public to keep following the advice of the emergency services and the Environment Agency in those areas at risk. At a national level, we have co-ordinated this response via Cobra, which will continue to meet under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until the threat has passed.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. I know he and the Environment Secretary will keep us updated. He will recognise that some people felt that the response was, at times, too slow. In particular, will he explain whether it has become clear why it took so long for some of the energy distribution companies to restore power to homes over the Christmas period? What steps does he believe can be taken to ensure that that kind of thing does not happen again?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: in all these circumstances, no matter how good the preparation, there are always lessons to learn—and there are lessons to learn on this occasion. On the positive side, the Environment Agency warning service worked better than it has in the past and the flood defences protected up to a million homes over the December and Christmas period, but there are some negatives, too, and we need to learn lessons from them. In particular, some of the energy companies did not have enough people available over the holiday period for an emergency response, which I saw for myself in Kent. We need to learn those lessons, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy will lead this exercise. The Energy Secretary is already looking at the levels of compensation and at the preparedness and speed of response from energy companies. I would, however, welcome hearing from Members of all constituencies affected by the flooding what they saw on the ground about the lessons that could be learned so that we can ensure that preparedness is even better on a future occasion.

Given the scale of risk exposed by these floods and the expected impact of climate change, will the Prime Minister also commit to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs providing a report by the end of this month, providing a full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies and of whether the investment plans in place are equal to the need for events of this kind?

I am very happy to make that commitment. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in this current four-year period, we are spending £2.3 billion, compared with £2.1 billion in the previous period. The money is going into flood defences. As I said, in the early December flooding, about 800,000 homes were protected by previous flood defence work and over the Christmas period a further 200,000 houses were affected. Whenever there is flooding, it makes sense to look again at the proposals in the programme for flood defence work and to see what more can be done. In addition to Government money, we are keen to lever in more private sector and local authority money, which is now possible under the arrangements. I am happy to commit, as the right hon. Gentleman asked, to the Environment Secretary coming back to report to the House on the level of expenditure in the years going ahead.

Q2. Further to the Prime Minister’s remarks on the recent flooding, will he join me in paying tribute to Bournemouth borough council and Dorset emergency services, as well as local residents, in dealing with two evacuations in my constituency, one of which, owing to the River Stour bursting its banks, is still ongoing? Given the changing weather patterns we are experiencing, what more can be done in the long term towards improving river and sea defences? (901794)

As my hon. Friend knows, 290 homes have been flooded so far in Bournemouth and the Dorset area. I agree with him that the work of the emergency services and the Environment Agency has been excellent. Many local authorities, including my own, have developed very good plans and carried them out very competently. However, not every authority is doing so well, and there will be lessons to be learnt.

As for the Bournemouth and Poole area, about £14 million will be invested over the next five years under the Bournemouth beach management scheme. That should protect about 2,500 properties by 2018-2019, but I should be interested to hear from my hon. Friend what more he thinks can be done.

Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware that the majority of new housing benefit claimants are in work. He will also be aware that private sector landlords are increasingly refusing to take tenants who are on benefit, or are evicting them. What does he say to hard-working families who face losing their homes because of his housing benefit cuts? (901795)

What we say to hard-working families is, “We are cutting your taxes.” In April this year, we will raise to £10,000 the amount of money that people can earn before they start paying income tax, and I think that that will make a big difference. For instance, someone earning the minimum wage and working a 40-hour week will see his or her tax bill fall by two thirds.

However, we must take action to deal with the housing benefit bill. Housing benefit now accounts for £23 billion of Government spending. When we came to office, some families in London were receiving housing benefit payments of £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000. [Hon. Members: “How many?”] Members shout “How many?” Frankly, one was too many, and that is why we have capped housing benefit.

Q4. If the Government decided to mitigate the scale of the cuts that they plan for the next Parliament, can my right hon. Friend tell me how I would explain to the students in Meon Valley receiving personal, social, health and economic education why they should make every effort to spend within their means to avoid taking on debt, but it is quite all right for the Government to ignore the same advice? (901796)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. We have made difficult decisions to get the deficit down and to get the country back on track: difficult decisions in terms of departmental spending, and also welfare. The Labour party is now back where it started: Labour Members are saying that they want to mitigate the level of cuts, and therefore they want to spend more, they want to borrow more and they want to tax more. We may be at the beginning of a new year, but they have gone completely back to where they were three years ago.

Does the Prime Minister recognise the concern of families and communities about the impact of fixed odds betting terminals, gaming machines on which people can gamble up to £300 a minute on our high streets?

I absolutely share the concern about that issue, and I welcome the fact that we shall be debating it in the House today. There are problems in the betting and gaming industry, and we need to look at them. I think it is worth listening to the advice of the right hon. Gentleman’s own shadow Minister who said

“I accept the argument that empirical evidence is needed before making”

any changes,

“because it might just create another problem somewhere else”.—[Official Report, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 27 November 2013; c. 8.]

However, this is a problem, and it does need to be looked at. We have a review under way. We are clearing up a situation that was put in place under the last Government, but I think that if we work together, we can probably sort it out.

The Gambling Act 2005 limited the number of machines to four per betting shop, but it did not go nearly far enough. More action should have been taken. The Prime Minister asked about evidence. Local communities from Fareham to Liverpool are saying that these machines are causing problems for families and communities. Local communities believe that they already have the evidence. Should they not be given the power to decide whether or not they want these machines?

The right hon. Gentleman has made a reasonable point, but let me first deal with the facts. The first fact is that fixed odds betting terminals were introduced in 2001 after the Labour Government had relaxed gambling regulations. The second fact is that there are fewer of these machines now than there were when Labour was in office. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s last point, councils already have powers to tackle the issue, and I believe that they should make full use of those powers. I am not arguing that that is “job done”—there may well be more to do— but we have a review under way. This is an issue for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. If the right hon. Gentleman has ideas, I ask him to put them into the review, but, as I said earlier, he may want to listen to his own shadow Minister, who, as recently as November, said

“there is no evidence to support a change to stakes and prizes for FOBTs”. —[Official Report, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 27 November 2013; c. 20.]

There seems to be something of a change here, but if the right hon. Gentleman has extra evidence, he should put it into our review, and I think that we can then sort the matter out.

Our ideas are in today’s motion, and if the Prime Minister wants to vote for it, we would be very happy for him to do so. He says there are already powers in place, but the Mayor of London and the Conservative head of the Local Government Association have said that local authorities do not have the power to limit the number of machines. One in three calls to the gambling helpline are about these machines and they are clustered in deprived areas. For example, there are 348 in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country: Newham. Can the Prime Minister at least give us a timetable for when the Government will decide whether to act?

We will be reporting in the spring as a result of the review that is under way, and I think it is important that we get to grips with this. There is something of a pattern. We had the problem of 24-hour drinking, and that needed to be changed and mitigated and we have done that. We have the problems created by the deregulation of betting and gaming, which the right hon. Gentleman is raising today and we need to sort that out. We have also had problems, of course, in the banking industry and elsewhere that we have sorted out, so, as I said, if he wants to—[Interruption.] As I said, if he wants to input ideas into that review, I think that is the right way forward.

May I pay tribute to Paul Goggins and say how much he will be missed in this House?

My right hon. Friend is on the record as saying he would very much like to see the A64 on the future roads list. Can he ensure that the present economy, which is very buoyant in north Yorkshire, is not held back by congestion and poor safety on that road? Will he join me to ensure that on his future visits he can travel much faster and in much greater safety on the A64?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The quality and capacity of the road system in Yorkshire has been, and is, a major issue. The Government have taken some important steps to help, but I know there is more work to be done. I know the Chancellor was listening carefully to what she had to say and I am sure we can look carefully at this for the future roads programme.

Q5. What plans do the Government have to close the loophole that allows businesses to pay agency workers less than fellow employees doing the same job? (901797)

I looked into this loophole carefully over the Christmas period when the Opposition raised it, and I discovered two things about this loophole. The first is that it was introduced and agreed by the last Labour Government and the TUC. That is loophole fact No. 1. Loophole fact No. 2—

The hon. Gentleman shouts “CBI”, and this is what the CBI had to say about it:

“further gold plating of EU rules can only cost jobs.”

Then we have the Recruitment and Employment Federation. It said this:

“These arrangements were agreed following consultation between the last Labour Government, business and the unions…Is the Labour party really saying they want to deny British temps the option of permanent employment?”

The Institute of Directors has, of course, added to that by saying—[Interruption.] It is very clear, Mr Speaker: Opposition Members want to know what we think about this, and this is what the IOD thinks:

“It’s a bad idea all round…The initial response to this from employers would be to employ fewer people on higher wages”.

What a great start to the new year: let us come up with an idea to increase unemployment! Only Labour could come up with an idea like that.

Q6. There is considerable interest from businesses in the maritime and marine sector wishing to relocate to Portsmouth to make use of its facilities and skilled work force. What can the Government do to send a clear message to entrepreneurs that Portsmouth is open for businesses and to facilitate businesses moving to, and expanding, there? (901798)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. There are two specific things we can do to help Portsmouth at this time. The first is the Portsmouth and Southampton city deal, which we should put in place, that will bring jobs and investment. Secondly, we should emphasise the fact that the massive programme of modernising the Royal Navy, with the aircraft carriers, the Type 45s and the future frigates, will by and large be based in Portsmouth, creating jobs and making sure it remains one of the most important homes for the Royal Navy. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right: added to that there is a future in Portsmouth in other marine industries and commercial and private sector industries, and we should do everything we can to encourage business to locate there.

Q7. I would also like to pay my sympathies to Paul Goggins’s family; he was a lovely, lovely man.The Government have cut £1.8 billion from the social care budget, which means nearly half a million fewer people are eligible for social care. With home care charges up £740 a year since 2010 and the Government’s care cap nothing more than a care con, why is the Prime Minister not being honest with older people about the real care costs they will face under this Government? (901799)

Of course, difficult decisions have had to be taken right across Government spending, but if we look at health and social care, we can see that we have protected the health budget so that it is going up in real terms, and we have put some of that health budget—up to £3 billion—into social care to help local authorities. We now want to get local authorities and local health services working even more closely together to deal with the problems of blocked beds and to ensure that there are care packages for people when they leave hospital. We can really see the benefits in the areas of the country where this is working, and we want to make that happen right across the country.

Q8. Mr Speaker, our excellent local enterprise partnership estimates that Buckinghamshire has a £12 billion economy, with nearly 30,000 registered businesses and the European head offices of more than 700 foreign companies. They need the security of long-term economic policies. Given that our economic growth has clearly returned, will the Prime Minister assure me that, unlike the Labour party, he will not gamble with those companies’ future and that he will stick steadfastly to his tried and tested long-term economic policies? (901800)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what she says. There is a vibrant economy right across the Thames valley, including in Buckinghamshire, and that is going to be based on sticking to our long-term economic plan. What is particularly important for the companies that she has mentioned is to keep our rates of corporate tax low so that we attract businesses into the country and ensure that companies want to have their headquarters here. That is the right answer, rather than the answer of the Labour party, which is to put up corporation tax and to put a “Closed” sign over the British economy.

Q9. A year ago, the Prime Minister said that he would make “damn sure” that foreign companies paid higher taxes, but in the Financial Times at the weekend, it was shown that companies such as Apple and eBay were now paying even less. Why is the Prime Minister’s tough talk not adding up to very much? (901801)

The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair; I think we are making progress on this very difficult issue. At the G8, we raised the importance of having international rules on tax reporting and of more countries working together on that. Huge progress has been made, not least in the European Union, where countries such as Luxembourg and Austria, which have always held out against this exchange of information, are now taking part for the first time. The OECD work is also going ahead apace, and that is partly because Britain has put its full efforts behind this vital work.

Paul Goggins was a decent, humble man and, in my experience, one of the most effective and fair Ministers the House has seen. He will be very sadly missed.

The Prime Minister will know that the science is clear that the extreme weather conditions affecting our communities, including around the Kent estuary in Westmorland, are at least in part a destructive and inevitable consequence of climate change. Given that he has said that this should be the “greenest Government ever”, will he now agree to support the carbon reduction targets so that we can take real action to protect people and property?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are seeing more abnormal weather events. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not; I very much suspect that it is. The point is that, whatever one’s view, it makes sense to invest in flood defences and mitigation and to get information out better, and we should do all of those things. As for carbon reduction targets, this Government are committed to them and we worked with the last Government to put the Climate Change Act 2008 into place. That would not have happened without our support. We also have the green investment bank up and running in Edinburgh, and we are going to be investing billions of pounds in important green projects.

Q10. Government cuts have closed the police cells in Bassetlaw, and I now discover that the police are having to patrol villages using public transport. If the police are waiting at a bus stop, having arrested someone, should they go upstairs, should they go downstairs, or should they not make the arrest at all? (901802)

The first thing to say to the hon. Gentleman is that he did not mention the fact that recorded crime in the Bassetlaw community safety partnership area is down by 27% under this Government. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Yes, 27%. What is noticeable is that every single Opposition Member is getting up and complaining about the need to make reductions in departmental spending. Frankly, this is like “Back to the Future”—we are back to where we were three years ago, when we said, “You’ve got to make difficult decisions. You’ve got to make some cuts. You’ve got to get the deficit down” and they lived in total denial. They are back to where they were three years ago. It may be the new year, but it is the same old Labour party.

The royal pardon granted to Alan Turing two weeks ago has finally meant justice for this national hero. May I thank the Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary and everyone over the years who has paved the way to bring this about? May I invite the Prime Minister to visit Bletchley Park in my constituency to see for himself Alan Turing’s remarkable achievements?

I absolutely back what my hon. Friend has said. It is excellent news that a royal prerogative mercy, which is very rarely granted, has been granted in this very special case. I would be delighted to visit his constituency to go to Bletchley Park. One of my wife’s family worked there during the war and speaks incredibly highly of Alan Turing and what he was like to work with. Historians can argue about the degree, but there is no doubt that the work done in my hon. Friend’s constituency was vital to winning the war.

Q11. Before Christmas, I was contacted by a seriously ill constituent who is waiting for a kidney transplant. He needs five-hour dialysis sessions three times a week, yet in the Prime Minister’s Britain he has been told by the jobcentre that he is fit for work. On Monday, the Chancellor promised to take £12 billion more from the welfare budget. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts to benefits for the sick and disabled? (901803)

First, on the specific issue of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, if he wants to write to me about the individual case, I would be happy to look at that. In terms of making sure that dialysis machines are available and the expertise is available, we are putting more money into the NHS, even though the advice from the Labour party was to cut. The reason we have been able to put more money into the health service is because we have taken tough and difficult decisions about welfare. It is because we have put a cap on the amount of money a family can get that we have been able to invest in our health service; because we have put a cap on housing benefit—not giving £60,000 or £70,000 to some families—we have invested in our health service. We want to see more dignity, more security and more stability in the lives of Britain’s families, and we are making choices consistent with that.

Soaring car sales—they are back to pre-crisis levels—have helped supply chain companies such as Sertec in Coleshill in my constituency to create manufacturing jobs; 200 have been created in the past year, and a further 400 are planned. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that we are successfully rebalancing the economy and that we need to stay the course with policies that are clearly working?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I went with him to the opening of the new Ocado warehouse in his constituency, which has generated hundreds of jobs and, as he says, is going to be vital for the supply chain in his constituency. What these businesses want to see is a consistent economic policy: keeping interest rates down; getting the deficit down; cutting taxes for hard-working people; helping businesses to take more people on; and investing in education, in skills and in controlling welfare. Those are the elements of our long-term plan, and that is what we will stick to.

Q12. Two months ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether Tory Councillor Abdul Aziz, who was suspended by the Labour party, should return to Pakistan, given the arrest warrant out for him in connection to a brutal killing. Councillor Aziz attended the Prime Minister’s party in October as an invited guest. So why is the Prime Minister still hiding on whether he thinks Councillor Aziz should return to face justice? (901804)

I will make two points to the hon. Gentleman, and I have written to him this morning. The first is this—[Interruption.] He will be interested to hear. The first is that the allegations he mentions are disputed and are currently subject to legal action, so I am limited in what I can say. But what he failed to mention to the House the last time he raised this is that the allegations date from the time when Mr Aziz was a Labour councillor. I am informed that during his time as a Labour councillor the Labour party did absolutely nothing about these allegations. So perhaps next time the hon. Gentleman stands up and asks a question in the House of Commons he will give us the full facts.

Q13. May I associate myself with the tributes to Paul Goggins? His work on the reform of the law on child neglect will go on. Last year, one of my constituents, 23-year-old Christopher Scott, died as a result of taking the so-called legal high AMT—alpha-methyltryptamine. Will my right hon. Friend support my calls and those of the coroner and Christopher’s family to ensure that this dangerous drug and others like it are outlawed? (901805)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. First, let me offer my condolences to his constituent’s family. As he knows with the rules that we have, hundreds of legal highs have already been banned, and our temporary drug orders allow us to outlaw substances within days of them coming on the market. However, we are not complacent and we have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to renew our definitions of controlled drugs to ensure that we capture these newly emerging substances when there is evidence of harm. There is more work to be done here, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is absolutely on it.

May I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying warm tribute to Paul Goggins? He was a fine, decent and honourable man who was a great friend to Northern Ireland and all its people. He will be sadly missed not only in this House but throughout Northern Ireland. We offer our sincere condolences to his wife and family at this difficult time.

I commend the Prime Minister and welcome the fact that he has made a commitment on the triple-lock guarantee for pensioners if he is returned as Prime Minister in the next Parliament in 2015. Will he clarify whether he will commit to retaining the winter fuel allowance under its current eligibility thresholds and as a universal benefit?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about Paul Goggins.

On the issue of pensions, it is important to recognise that we are able to make a commitment to the triple lock, which has been important in this Parliament, only because we are committed to raising the pension age to 66, then 67 and so on. That means that the pension increase is affordable. We made a very clear pledge about pensioner benefits for this Parliament, and I am proud of the fact that we are fulfilling it. We will set out our plans in the next manifesto. I caution people against believing that not paying the winter fuel allowance or the other benefits to those, for instance, paying tax at 40p, saves money—you save a very small amount of money. Yes of course we will set out our plans in the manifesto, but it is absolutely vital that we say to Britain’s pensioners, “You have worked hard and done the right thing, and we want to give you dignity and security in old age.” The triple lock makes that possible.

Q14. Is my right hon. Friend aware that at Thrunton in my constituency, there has been a large fire of waste carpet burning since 3 September last year? The local residents have been suffering from the fumes and smoke from what we now know may be hazardous waste. The fire brigade cannot put out the fire for fear of polluting the water supply. Can I have my right hon. Friend’s support in urging the Environment Agency and the local authority to get that material off the site and to give residents back their lives? (901806)

I will certainly look in even more detail at the issues my right hon. Friend raises. I understand the concern that it is causing him and his constituents. My understanding is that environmental concerns, particularly that waste might run off and pollute local water supplies, have hampered the efforts to extinguish the fire. I understand that the local recovery group is meeting later this week to see what more can be done to remove the waste, and I am happy to intervene on my right hon. Friend’s behalf to ensure that that makes progress.

Given that the Prime Minister’s anti-independence campaign launched an initiative this week, encouraging people outside Scotland to take part in the debate, why will he not debate with the First Minister on television?

The calls for this debate show a mounting frustration among those wanting Scotland’s separation from the rest of the United Kingdom, because they know they are losing the argument. They are losing the argument about jobs and investment. They have completely lost the argument about the future of the pound sterling, and they are losing the argument about Europe. Yes of course there should be a debate, but it is a debate among the people in Scotland. The leader of the “in” campaign should debate with the leader of the “out” campaign. Of course the hon. Gentleman, as the lackey of Alex Salmond, wants to change the terms of the debate, but I am not falling for that one.

Q15. In the 13 years before 2010, there was net migration of nearly 4 million people to the UK, mostly to England, and in many cases as a result of work permits issued by the then Government. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that this Government will keep in place their cap on the number of workers from outside the European Union, and encourage employers to give a chance to talented young people here? (901807)

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. We should keep the cap on economic migrants from outside the European Union. We should continue with all the action that we are taking to make sure that people who come here do so to work and not to claim, but I think what we need to do next is recognise that the best immigration policy is to have not only strong border controls but an education approach that educates our young people for jobs in our country and a welfare system that encourages them to take those jobs. There are three sides to the argument: it is about immigration, education and welfare, and the Government have a plan for all three.

Could I agree with the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] It is genuinely absurd that the leader of the no campaign in Scotland cannot get a debate with the leader of the yes campaign in Scotland, and that the leader of the yes campaign in Scotland demands a debate with somebody who does not have a vote. [Interruption.] In these circumstances, does the Prime Minister agree with me that, in politics as in shipbuilding, empty vessels make the most noise?

I am not finished! [Hon. Members: “More!] There is more. Without seeking to give offence to the Prime Minister, may I tell him that the last person Scots who support the no campaign want as their representative is a Tory toff from the home counties, even one with a fine haircut?

I accept every part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I well remember when he came to Question Time not with an empty vessel but with a model of the vessel that he wanted to be built near his constituency, and I am proud that the Government are building that vessel and, indeed, another one like it. I humbly accept that, while I am sure there are many people in Scotland who would like to hear me talk about this issue, my appeal does not stretch to every single part. The key point that he is making is absolutely right: the reason the yes campaign head and the no campaign head cannot seem to get a debate is that those who want to break up the United Kingdom know that they are losing the argument, so they want to change the question. It is the oldest trick in the book, and we can all see it coming.