The Secretary of State was asked—
Cost of Living
The actions the Government are taking to help with the cost of living include freezing fuel duty, cutting income tax bills, delivering the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension and helping to keep interest rates low by dealing with the deficit.
The Secretary of State may be aware that last year the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action confirmed that Belfast, with an expected loss of £840 per adult of working age, will be hit harder than any other major city in Britain. Will she advise the House on what specific steps she is taking to address the cost of living, given the depth and scale of the problem in Northern Ireland?
As I have said, the Government take this issue very seriously. That is why fuel duty today is 20 pence per litre lower than it would have been if we had stuck with the previous Government’s plans; that is why we have cut income tax for about 618,000 people in Northern Ireland and taken 75,000 out of income tax altogether; and that is why people on the minimum wage will see their income tax bills halved by April.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State can tell us what her assessment is of the Advice NI social policy report, which confirms that over 11 food banks have opened in Northern Ireland since 2012. Is she happy with that? If not, what does she plan to do about it?
Of course it is a matter of regret that anyone feels the need to go to a food bank, but the Government are doing everything they can to support people on low incomes with the cost of living. I hope the Opposition will welcome the fact that inflation fell to 2% yesterday. We will continue to give people support, in particular with our triple lock on pensions that delivered the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension, and we will continue to deal with the deficit. The real threat to the cost of living would be a Labour Government, who would put up taxes and see interest rates increased.
12. Does the Secretary of State agree that the real way to deal with cost of living issues is to pursue economic growth with a long-term strategy to rebalance the economy, and that that applies to Northern Ireland, particularly in engineering and manufacturing? (901930)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The only way to achieve a sustainable increase in living standards is to run the economy efficiently and effectively, and to have a credible plan to deal with the deficit. That is the way we can keep interest rates low and deal with inflation, and that is the way we can make this country a wealthier place.
There is very effective cross-border working. There is also very effective working between the Northern Ireland Executive and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We take this matter very seriously. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has been looking with care at the different proposals for new marker technology. I expect progress on that to be announced very soon.
One in three people, in response to Shelter Northern Ireland questionnaires, stated that this year they will struggle to pay their rent or mortgage payments and that child care costs take up a large part of their budget. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department for Work and Pensions to raise the child care element for full-time working families?
The introduction of universal credit in Northern Ireland will make about 102,000 people better off, according to Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who also commented that that would lift 10,000 children out of poverty. Our welfare reforms are designed to incentivise work. Getting people into work is the best way to deal with poverty and we will continue to push forward with welfare reform.
2. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (901919)
The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists, as illustrated by the attacks that took place before Christmas. However, action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners continues to keep those groups under pressure.
Before Christmas, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs went to Belfast and met the Parades Commission. We learnt about the budgetary challenges facing the PSNI. Will my right hon. Friend review giving the Northern Ireland Executive the same powers as all other parts of the UK to levy a policing precept?
The future resourcing of the PSNI is certainly a matter of concern to many in this House. It is within the powers of the Department of Justice to introduce precepting, if it chose to do so. That does not require legislation or further devolution from this House; it is a matter for the Department to decide. Very constructive discussions are under way between the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Justice and the PSNI, with a view to resolving the resourcing question, in particular with regard to the comprehensive spending review year 2015-16.
With the public rightly concerned after the stalemate reached in the Haass talks and the severe security threats faced by Christmas shoppers in Belfast, to which the Secretary of State referred, as well as the huge costs of £55,000 a day of policing contentious parades in Northern Ireland, will she tell us whether 2014 is really the right time to be cutting the funds to the PSNI, or are the Government going to reconsider that decision?
The PSNI is actually receiving additional funds from the Government—£200 million over the current spending review period and about £30 million in 2015-16—and as I have said, discussions continue between the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive over whether further funding can be added from the Executive in 2015-16.
Patten recommended that in a peaceful situation, the PSNI should have a minimum of 7,500 officers. Given that Northern Ireland is not exactly in that peaceful situation, owing to paramilitary activity, is the Secretary of State concerned about the PSNI’s ability to recruit sufficient officers?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee for his question and his important work on this issue. The current number of officers in the PSNI is 6,795. The Chief Constable recently told the Policing Board that the minimum number he needed to perform effectively was 6,963. It is important that consideration be given to how the shortfall can be dealt with, and as I have said, I remain optimistic about the ongoing discussions between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Justice about resolving that budgetary shortfall.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to Paul Goggins, not only a good friend of mine but a brilliant security Minister who served under me in Northern Ireland. His funeral is tomorrow.
How can the Secretary of State justify her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), given that the additional security budget, which the PSNI is entitled to apply for, has been halved this year compared with the past three years—and this at a time of rising dissident threats, as we saw in Belfast city centre before Christmas?
It is just not true that it has been halved. The Government take very seriously their security responsibilities in Northern Ireland, which is why we have provided additional funds for the PSNI to deal with the deteriorating security situation we inherited from the previous Government. We will continue to be vigilant. In particular, we will continue to work closely with Irish counterparts on deepening and strengthening the cross-border co-operation that is crucial to keeping Northern Ireland safe and secure.
On policing and security and in the context of the recent Haass talks on the past, especially past terrorist crimes, will the Secretary of State take it from me that Martin McGuinness’s comments last night about extremism are seen by many on both sides of the community as not only untrue but a transparent attempt to distract from Sinn Fein’s abject lack of leadership in addressing its continued glorification of past terrorist crimes, as witnessed in Castlederg this summer, which is causing huge damage to community relations? Will she urge Sinn Fein to stop wallowing in the filth of murder?
I encourage all party leaders to continue working on the Haass issues. Perhaps the more important thing to draw from last night’s meeting of party leaders was the welcome news that they would reassemble next week and that these discussions would continue. There is an important opportunity here still to be seized by the political parties to make real progress on these divisive issues by resolving their differences and reaching agreement.
I, too, want to see those talks take place, and we hope that all parties, including Sinn Fein, will come to the table and negotiate in good faith, but will the Secretary of State recognise that severe damage has been done to policing, and to the capacity of the policing and justice system to tackle the security situation, by decisions such as the one recently to issue one of those most involved in glorifying past terrorist crimes—Gerry Kelly—with an informed warning, rather than to prosecute him, even though the threshold for prosecution was reached, for obstructing the police during a very tense parades situation? Does she not see the damage that this sort of situation is creating?
As other hon. Members have said, Northern Ireland faces a number of security challenges at the start of this new year: the terrorist threat from dissident republicans and the potential threat to law and order posed by the downgrading of the Parades Commission. In the light of those risks, will the Secretary of State assure us—and give a specific answer—that the PSNI has an adequate number of front-line police officers to cope with these challenges, and, specifically in respect of the terrorist threat, that she is liaising with Home Office colleagues to ensure proper police co-ordination across the United Kingdom?
On the last point, I had the opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland matters with the Home Secretary yesterday, and my officials stay in regular touch with Home Office colleagues. The hon. Gentleman probably did not hear my earlier answer. There are currently 6,795 officers in the PSNI, while the Chief Constable believes that he needs 6,963, so there is a shortfall and the Chief Constable wishes to start recruiting once again. The UK Government are anxious to ensure that that is possible. That is one of the reasons why we have allocated additional national security funding. We are also working with the DOJ to ensure that discussions with the DFP reach a satisfactory conclusion on the Northern Ireland Executive’s contribution.
That shortfall is a serious concern, and it is important that the Secretary of State does something about it.
Turning to another issue, I had the privilege yesterday of meeting representatives of the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland. I heard first hand the moving and disturbing testimonies of retired police officers who suffered lasting physical and mental scars through their work on the front line during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State accept that we owe a great debt of gratitude to these retired officers, and will she make representations to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive about the erosion of their injury pension rights?
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) met the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland, and I would like to associate myself with the shadow Secretary of State’s comments to the effect that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The representations made at that meeting will, of course, be taken up with the Northern Ireland Executive. My understanding is that decisions on these matters lie primarily within the devolved field.
We have worked hard with the Executive to adapt our reforms flexibly to the circumstances of Northern Ireland. These reforms will ensure that work always pays and will help to lift people out of poverty by moving them into work. When fully implemented, universal credit will make around 3 million low-to-middle-income households across the UK better off.
The number of people living in poverty in Northern Ireland has increased from 18% in 2002 to 22% in 2013. In reality, that means that one in four people in Ulster earns and lives on a salary that falls below the basic standard of living. Will the Minister take the opportunity to give us an assurance that the cuts—the deeper and further cuts—talked about by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not force more people into poverty in Northern Ireland?
I am not in a position to know what further cuts to the welfare budget the Chancellor may be planning. Northern Ireland receives more than a quarter more in Government spending per head in comparison with constituencies such as mine in England and, indeed, all English constituencies. It is a fact that Nelson McCausland specifically said that more people will be lifted out of poverty by universal credit, including some 10,000 children. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. We are not immune to understanding people’s concerns, but we believe that it is work, not welfare, that will bring prosperity to Northern Ireland.
But does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that Northern Ireland is “getting the best deal” on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million per annum out of vulnerable people’s pockets?
I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady has quoted. What we wish to see is people in work. Unfortunately, the last Government left this country with the most appalling financial and economic catastrophe. All that the hon. Lady, her Front-Bench team and the Leader of the Opposition can suggest is more spending, more borrowing, more taxes and more debt, which will plunge us back into the disaster they left behind.
The Chancellor has indicated that he is considering a new regime for annually managed expenditure, with an overall cap on welfare spending. Does the Minister believe that that will entail a cap within a cap for Northern Ireland’s welfare spending, and what discussions is the Northern Ireland Office having with the Treasury and the devolved Administration about the serious implications of such a development?
Officials are always discussing things with the Treasury, Indeed, an excellent young man who works for us has just come from the Treasury to increase liaison.
Northern Ireland cannot be exempt from that which is affecting the rest of the United Kingdom. The Belfast Telegraph has said that the Northern Irish cannot pretend that they can
“have it both ways; that we can continue to benefit from the Treasury—we get back more than we raise in taxes—while people in other parts of the UK suffer from the reforms… we cannot expect that situation to continue indefinitely.”
I think that the hon. Gentleman, who is a serious and grown-up politician, will realise that as well.
I am relieved, as the whole House will be, that a “young man” is currently striving to bring light to this area. We wish him well.
In May 2010 the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, then sailing under the flag of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists—New Force, or UCUNF, was comprehensively rejected by the voters. In the light of that, how can the Minister justify the continuing distress caused by the rolling threat of the imposition of a £5 million fine on the Northern Ireland Executive, and will he tell us when, this month, the sanction will commence?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to go back to May 2010, I think he might note that the good people of England comprehensively rejected the Labour party and all its works at that time, which I think was pretty sensible of them.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking after the interests of everyone in the United Kingdom. For instance, 1.6 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010, including jobs in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] As has been explained to the Northern Ireland Executive, the sanction on welfare has not yet been imposed because the Treasury cannot impose it unilaterally. But might I say that the First Minister—
Public order issues are primarily a matter for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, in line with the devolution settlement. However, I meet them both regularly to discuss a range of issues, which often include public order matters.
Does the Secretary of State share the concern felt by many people in Northern Ireland about the apparently partisan way in which the PSNI has dealt with public order offences? On the one hand, members of the loyalist community who have been involved in street protests have been arrested, had their homes raided, been refused bail, and gone to jail; on the other hand, a prominent Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly who obstructed the police and encouraged others to attack them was merely given a warning. Does the Secretary of State not agree that public order offences must be dealt with firmly but also evenly, because otherwise confidence in the police will be lost?
I agree that it is always important for the police to be fair and even-handed, and I believe that they have shown those qualities in dealing with all the public order incidents that have occurred in recent years. I know that they take their duties of fairness, even-handedness and respect for human rights very seriously. I urge those who might become involved in violent protests not to do so, because such action is disastrous for them and negative for the community, and, of course, I urge all elected representatives to support the police in every possible way, given the difficult duties that they must fulfil.
Obviously, the need to deal with public order issues and to try to contain the threat from dissident republicans requires an increasing number of police officers. It is therefore extremely worrying that a steady flow of experienced police officers is haemorrhaging away from the Police Service of Northern Ireland every single month. What assurances has the Secretary of State managed to extract from the Treasury that there will be funds to guarantee recruitment to the PSNI?
A guaranteed total of £200 million in the current spending review and £30 million in the next will be provided to assist the PSNI in its national security work, which will of course enable it to be more effective across the board. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Executive and the PSNI are currently discussing the additional funding that will be needed in 2015-16 to enable the PSNI to commence the recruitment that the Chief Constable believes is necessary.
Given the impact that public order has on policing and budgets in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that the recommendations in the Haass report, which stated that there should be a legally enforceable code of conduct for all parades and protests, would go a long way to changing behaviour on the ground?
There is much to be said for the proposals on parading in draft seven of Richard Haass’s work. It is disappointing that the parties have not felt able to agree with those proposals as yet. Further work is clearly needed before we can get an agreement among the five parties. I urge them to see whether they can find a way to resolve their differences, including on the issue of a code of conduct and what sanctions should accompany it.
Accident and Emergency Doctors
First, may I say how much I appreciated the hon. Lady’s contribution to the meeting we had yesterday with the disabled police officers in Northern Ireland, to whom we owe a great deal?
I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns about the issues she raises but these are entirely devolved. [Interruption.] The commissioning and provision of medical services in Northern Ireland are matters for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland and the Health and Social Care Board. [Interruption.]
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he and the Secretary of State need to be more proactive on this matter because the policy that dictated the lack of A and E doctors emerges from Whitehall and London. Will he and the Secretary of State co-host with the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland a summit to address the shortage in A and E doctors?
Well, we will certainly ensure that we have discussions with the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland. We have had to take some very difficult decisions since 2010, but there are now more than 20% more A and E consultants in England than there were in 2010. We need to go further, but it does take six years to train a doctor and I think all Members, even those on the other side, will have spotted that we were not in power six years ago.
The Minister will be aware that Northern Ireland hospitals have been well served over the years by doctors and nurses from India, Pakistan and Malaysia, but visa restrictions have made it very difficult to get doctors in. Will he speak to his Government colleagues to see whether these restrictions can be removed?
I am very happy to take that up on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. I was not aware of that particular problem because it has not been raised with me, but I congratulate the staff in Northern Ireland hospitals, who have had such a great reputation, particularly those at the Royal Victoria hospital which I remember well from when I used to visit it.
Flags/Parades/Protests/Dealing with the Past (Public Funding)
I would urge the parties to continue their efforts to reach agreement on these matters. Since these areas fall mainly within the devolved field, funding for them is also devolved to Northern Ireland as part of the block grant.
There will be a waiting public wanting to see whether agreement can be reached on these very comprehensive matters. Will the Secretary of State ensure that whatever funding is needed in addition to the block grant to deliver this can be delivered to ensure a much more peaceful and prosperous future in Northern Ireland?
I agree that these issues are very important. They are difficult to resolve, and finding an agreed way forward would be very positive for Northern Ireland. However, it is primarily for the Northern Ireland Executive to find the money for these proposals within the block grant they are already allocated, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has pointed out, is considerably higher per head than elsewhere in the UK. We will of course consider proposals for additional funding, but the deficit means I can make no promises as to whether it will be granted.
10. What assessment she has made of progress in the Haass talks. (901928)
All parties have acknowledged that there are elements of the Haass proposals that they can support. It is important that they continue their negotiations to try to resolve their differences, and the UK Government will continue to support their efforts to do that.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply; I am sure that she was expecting that question. Will she tell us what discussions on these issues she has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, ahead of any possible recommencement of the talks?
I have had regular discussions with Eamon Gilmore on this matter, including a number of meetings in Northern Ireland and in Dublin. We are keen to work together to encourage the finding of a way forward, and to encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to reconcile their differences and get an agreement over the line.
11. I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive comments on the Haass process. Does she agree that much has been achieved and that we should now implement as much of that as possible by creating the necessary legislation and resolving the remaining differences? (901929)
I agree that considerable progress has been achieved. These issues are incredibly divisive, and the fact that all five political parties have found a degree of common ground is very welcome. I also agree that we should keep up the momentum and seize this opportunity to get an agreement over the line and to reconcile the differences that still exist among the five parties.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Launched last week, Action on Sugar aims to reduce the sugar content of food and drinks by up to 30% because of the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Voluntary arrangements with manufacturers, though well intentioned, have not worked. Will the Prime Minister meet a delegation of health experts to discuss this issue, and may we enlist his support in the war on sugar by asking him to give up sugar and sugary drinks for one day this week?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman’s last proposal will have the strong support of Mrs Cameron, so I will take it up if I possibly can. I commend him for raising this matter and for speaking out on the issues of diabetes and obesity with such consistency, because they are major health concerns for our country. We are taking them very seriously, and we are rolling out the NHS health check programme to identify all those aged between 40 and 74 who are at risk of diabetes. Childhood obesity rates are falling, but more needs to be done. I am happy to facilitate discussions between the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We take this issue very seriously, and we think that the responsibility deal has achieved great things, but there is more to be done.
Q2. Last week I had the honour of opening the new Network Rail regional operating centre at Three Bridges in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what investment the Government are putting into the existing rail work to help commuters and travellers as part of the long-term economic plan? (901969)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: investing in infrastructure is a key part of our long-term economic plan to ensure that Britain’s economy can be a success now and in the future. We have seen major investment in the south-east, with Thameslink, Crossrail and East West Rail all delivering new services for London and the south-east. I can also tell my hon. Friend that, between 2015 and 2020, we are planning to invest more than £56 billion in roads, rail and local transport. It is important to make the point that that is more than three times as much as the planned investment in HS2, so I say to those who fear that HS2 will take all the investment that it will not. Three times as much will be spent elsewhere.
What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that we will continue with our plans for RBS that have seen bonuses come down by 85% and a bonus pool at one third the level it was under Labour. I can confirm today that, just as we have had limits on cash bonuses of £2,000 at RBS this year and last year, we will do the same next year as well.
We can all agree with the general sentiments that the right hon. Gentleman expresses about bonuses, but today I am asking him a very specific question. RBS is talking to parts of the Government about the proposal to pay over 100% bonuses. He is the Prime Minister, the taxpayer will foot the bill, so will he put a stop to it right now by telling RBS to drop this idea?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what we are saying to RBS: if there are any proposals to increase the overall pay—that is, the pay and bonus bill—at RBS, at the investment bank, we will veto them. What a pity that the previous Government never took an approach like that. [Interruption.]
I am not asking about increases in pay and bonuses; I am asking a very simple question about the proposal that is expected to come forward from RBS to pay more than 100% bonuses on pay. We know that when RBS is making a loss, when it itself says that it has been failing small businesses and when these kinds of bonuses lead to risky one-way bets, it should not be allowed to happen. When ordinary families are facing a cost of living crisis, surely the right hon. Gentleman can say that for people earning £1 million a bonus of £1 million should be quite enough.
If the right hon. Gentleman is not asking me about the overall pay and bonuses at RBS, why on earth isn’t he? That is what he should be asking about. I have said very clearly that the remuneration—the total pay bill—at that investment bank must come down. I am getting a lecture from him, yet from his Government we had the biggest bust anywhere in the world with RBS, 125% mortgages at Northern Rock and all the embarrassment about Fred Goodwin. He comes here every week to complain about a problem created by the Labour party—last week it was betting, this week it is banking. He rises up with all the moral authority of Rev. Flowers, but where is the apology for the mess they made of RBS in the first place?
Q3. In the past two years, my local council’s Opportunity Sutton growth plan has created £317 million of inward investment, halved youth unemployment and seen record numbers of new businesses starting up. Sutton is also home to the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden hospital. Given that life sciences are an engine of innovation and growth, what support will the Government give to realise Sutton’s plan for a life sciences cluster based around those world-renowned centres of excellence? (901970)
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about the strength that Sutton has. Obviously, we have the patent box to attract life science businesses to Britain; we also have the investment in apprenticeships, which is very important; and, of course, as he knows, the Office for Life Sciences brings together the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health to help bring life sciences jobs here. Working with local enterprise partnerships, there is a great opportunity for more investment in these very important businesses.
The Mark Duggan inquest concluded last week with a verdict of lawful killing. It also found errors in the police investigation. Last week also saw PC Wallis admitting that he lied about the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). Does the Prime Minister accept it is now urgent that we reform the Independent Police Complaints Commission?
First, I commend what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of people respecting the outcome of the inquest. We have proper legal processes in this country and we should respect their outcomes. He also knows that there is an ongoing IPCC investigation into that case, and we should let it do its work. I am always prepared to look at reforms of organisations such as this. There was a big reform some years ago to make the IPCC much more independent.
The right hon. Gentleman is shaking his head and saying it is not working. I am very happy to look at the arguments.
On the issue of PC Wallis, it was deeply shocking to see an e-mail that purported to be from someone who had witnessed an event, whom we are told is a member of the public but turns out to be a serving police officer. That was deeply troubling and deeply disturbing, so I am not saying that all is well. The vast majority of the British police service do a magnificent job. They put their lives on the line for us day after day and we should always recall that, but I am happy to look at proposals for how we can strengthen these arrangements.
Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Street Crane Company in my constituency? May I invite him or the Chancellor to see how, with D2N2 local enterprise partnership money from the regional growth fund, it is embarking on the first phase of a £1.1 billion expansion programme, which will total £2.7 million and increase jobs by 20%? Its exports across the world demonstrate the power of British business and the fact that it, like this Government, has a long-term economic plan. (901971)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. We have seen the regional growth fund produce some real economic success stories, and that is being combined with our long-time economic plan to encourage businesses to take on employees, to put in place the infrastructure and, as he says, to back exports in terms of Britain’s performance and get out there and sell to the world.
Q5. Given that we have recently heard reports that half a dozen terror suspects could soon be released on to our streets, can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that public safety will not be compromised or put at risk once the Government’s latest experiment with terrorism controls expires? (901972)
I can assure the hon. Lady and the House that we will always take every step necessary to keep the British public safe. I think the terrorism prevention and investigation measures are working well. It is a complete myth to pretend that control orders could be kept in place for ever. Many people were taken off control orders during the existence of TPIMs. I always listen very carefully to the head of the Metropolitan Police Service and to the heads of the Security Service who are involved in drawing up those measures and who advise us on how best to keep our country safe.
Q6. In the first six months of last year, Shrewsbury benefited from the highest number of business start-ups in our town’s history. Now the unemployed claimant count is down to 2.5% in Shrewsbury. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Shrewsbury’s entrepreneurial spirit, and also redouble Government efforts, through UK Trade & Investment in the west midlands, to help more Shrewsbury firms to export? (901973)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are seeing an enterprise revolution in our country again. There are 400,000 more businesses in existence today compared with 2010. The point he makes about small businesses and exports is particularly important. Currently, one in five of them exports. If we could turn that into one in four, we would wipe out our trade deficit. I absolutely support the excellent work that he does to call UKTI to account and to encourage it to do everything it can to back Britain’s entrepreneurs.
There are sites all over the country with planning permission that have the capacity for a quarter of a million—sorry, 250,000—houses where nothing is happening, some of which are being hoarded by developers. I am in favour of giving powers to say to developers who hold land without building on it, “Use it or lose it.” The Prime Minister said the policy was nuts. Does he still believe that?
We have just had a demonstration of the grasp of maths that was involved at the Treasury. It is no wonder that we had banks collapsing and all the rest of it.
House building is picking up: we are seeing a big increase in housing starts and housing completions. Why I think the right hon. Gentleman’s policy is, as he kindly puts it, “nuts” is that if we say to developers and companies that we will confiscate land unless they build, they will not go ahead with the building in the first place. His approach is to put a freeze on the whole of development, rather than to get Britain building, which is what we need to happen.
I have to say that the Prime Minister is incredibly complacent. House completions are at their lowest level since 1924. I am interested in what he says about the policy, because his own Housing Minister has said that the policy might make a contribution, and the Mayor of London says:
“We should be able to have a use it or lose it clause…Developers should be under no illusions that they can just sit on their land and wait for prices to go up.”
So is the policy nuts or is it the right thing to do?
What we need to keep going with are the policies of this Government, which are seeing house building increase. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not like the facts, but nearly 400,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010, housing starts in the last quarter were at their highest level for five years—89% higher than the trough in 2009 when he was sitting in the Cabinet—and there has been a 16% increase in housing starts over the past 12 months compared with the year before. His shadow Ministers go around opposing our planning reforms, even though they are important to get Britain building, and time and again they criticise proposals such as Help to Buy that are helping our fellow countrymen and women to realise the dream of home ownership, so here is a question that he needs to answer: if he cares about house building and home ownership, why not make Labour councils get on with selling council houses to hard-working people?
In Labour councils, they are building far more houses than in Tory councils. Frankly, I am still no clearer at the end of this exchange what the Prime Minister thinks about the “Use it or lose it” policy. His Housing Minister says that he supports it, the Mayor of London says he supports it, but the Prime Minister does not know what he thinks. Here is the reality: he is not doing enough to close the gap between supply and demand. The truth is that the number of social housing starts is down, he has shelved his plans for new towns and rents are rising. Does he accept that Britain is building 100,000 fewer homes than we need to meet demand?
Of course we need to build new homes. That is why we have reformed the planning system, which the Opposition opposed; it is why we have Help to Buy, which they oppose; and it is why we are helping in all the ways we are to get Britain building. We are seeing the right hon. Gentleman having to jump around all over the place: when it started off, deficit reduction was not going to work, but now he cannot make that argument; then we needed plan B, but now he cannot make that argument; next it was about the cost of living, but yesterday we saw inflation fall to 2%. What we see is a Government who have a long-term economic plan and an Opposition who do not have a clue.
Q7. May I welcome the Government’s renewed commitment to ensuring that my local communities benefit from the potential of shale gas? May I urge the Prime Minister to do more to encourage the companies and the scientific community to do more to resolve the understandable and legitimate concerns that residents have about the technology and about the potential environmental impact? (901974)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue and make the remarks that he does. I think that shale has huge potential for our country. If we recovered just 7% of the Bowland shale reserves, that would provide us with gas in this country for 30 years. We must clearly do a far better job, however, of explaining the benefits to communities, of working with them on that and of talking frankly about the process. A huge number of myths are being put around to frighten people about shale gas extraction whereas, as we can see in the United States, it can be extracted safely and cleanly, providing effective low-cost and green energy for our homes and businesses and making our country more competitive at the same time.
As we sit in this Chamber, six British nationals, including Nick Dunn, a former paratrooper, are languishing in prison in Chennai after being taken prisoner from a ship off Tamil Nadu. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other representatives from this House to discuss the issue and see whether we can get those former paratroopers released from prison?
I know how important this issue is and I raised it personally with Indian Government Ministers when I was in India recently. I have discussed it with the Foreign Secretary and I shall go on making sure that we do everything we can. If a meeting needs to be arranged between Members of the House of Commons representing their constituents—I believe that one is a constituent of the Foreign Secretary himself—I am happy to arrange that.
Q8. Investing in research and innovation is essential for our economic future. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Open university’s smart city research project to improve infrastructure is just one example of how Milton Keynes is leading the way in securing our long-term economic plans? (901975)
I have visited the Open university at Milton Keynes. It is an extremely impressive organisation that is also leading a very important export drive for our universities. I congratulate Milton Keynes on its representation on the smart cities forum and on what the Open university is doing. There are many opportunities for Milton Keynes, not least those provided by HS2, and I look forward to discussing them with my hon. Friend in future.
Q9. Constituents tell me all the time that they cannot afford food, cannot afford to keep warm in winter and cannot afford to put petrol in their cars to go to work, all because their wages are not going far enough. Does the Prime Minister finally accept that the cost of living is stretching families in Islwyn and constituencies such as mine to breaking point? (901976)
I totally accept that we are still recovering from the great recession that took £3,000 out of the typical family’s income, but what we are seeing now is more people in work, including in Wales. We are seeing real wages starting to rise, and I think that we can be confident. Yes, it is difficult; yes, it is still hard work; but our economy is growing, and we want that to be a recovery for everyone in our country.
Q10. The number of people in Hereford and South Herefordshire in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance fell by 31% between November 2012 and November 2013. Youth unemployment fell by an even more impressive 40%. Does the Prime Minister share my view that the Government’s long-term plan is already giving employers the confidence to get hiring again? (901977)
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says, because an absolutely key part of our long-term economic plan is to see a growing number of people in work in our country. We see 1.2 million more people in work. In the west midlands, employment has risen by 60,000 since the election. Private sector employment is up 64,000. There is still further to go, particularly in the west midlands, where we need to get young people in particular back to work, but the figures in his constituency are very encouraging.
On his Amritsar inquiry, instead of ordering the civil servant to investigate, why does the Prime Minister not just ask Lords Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan what they agreed with Margaret Thatcher and whether it had anything to do with the Westland helicopter deal at the time?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman might have gone a conspiracy theory too fast on this one. Look, it is very important that we get to the bottom of what happened, and that is why I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead this review. He will establish this urgently and establish the facts. The process is under way. I want it to be fast; I want it to find out the truth; and the findings will be made public.
I remember and will never forget my visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is one of the most beautiful and serene places anywhere on this planet, and what happened at Amritsar 30 years ago led to a tragic loss of life. It remains a source of deep pain to Sikhs everywhere. Prime Minister Singh, in my view, was absolutely right to apologise for what has happened, and I completely understand the concerns that these papers raise, so let us wait for the outcome of the review by Sir Jeremy Heywood.
I do not want to prejudge the outcome, but I would note that, so far, it has not found any evidence to contradict the insistence by senior Indian army commanders responsible at the time that, on the responsibility for this, it was planned and carried out solely by the Indian army. It is important to put that, but we do need an inquiry, so that we can get to the bottom of this.
Q11. On 30 January, I will be hosting Carlisle skills fair for 70 businesses and training organisations, targeting 14 to 25-year-olds with training and job opportunities. If Carlisle is to prosper, it needs a skilled work force and successful businesses. Will the Prime Minister give his support to this event, and will he confirm that he and his Government will remain committed to training and upskilling the young, so that they benefit personally and local and national businesses succeed? (901978)
I commend my hon. Friend for what he is carrying out in Carlisle. Jobs and skills fairs, encouraging young people to think about apprenticeships and encouraging businesses to train people in apprenticeships, are some of the most important things that we can do. We have got 1.5 million apprenticeships started since the election. Over 250,000 apprenticeships have started in the north-west under this Government, including in his constituency, and we must keep up this good work.
Q12. The Prime Minister will be aware of the grave concern among British Sikhs about the reports in recent days of UK involvement in Operation Blue Star to storm the Golden Temple. He will also be aware that the broader events of 1984 in India resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Sikhs and that this has left lasting grief and pain in the Sikh community here in the UK and around the world. This is an open wound, which will not heal until the full truth is told. So, on the process that the Prime Minister has set up, will he ensure that there is full disclosure of all Government papers and information from that time and that there is also, following that, a proper statement in the House, where Ministers can be questioned about this? (901979)
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the deep scars that this event left and the incredibly strong feelings that exist to this day. As I say, anyone who visits the Golden Temple at Amritsar and sees what an extraordinary place of peace and tranquillity it is and what an important site it is for the Sikh religion knows how powerful this point is. We will make sure that the inquiry is held properly and its findings will be made public, which is vitally important. In the end no one should take away the responsibility for these events from the people who are properly responsible for them, and I am sure that the inquiry will find that. In terms of making a statement and revealing this information and the findings to the House, I will listen carefully to what he says, but a statement might well be the right approach.
Will the Prime Minister speak to his colleagues across Government about the funding resulting from incentives for fracking being passed directly to parishes, so that those communities that feel the impact of fracking are those that choose how that money is spent, rather than having to compete with district and county councils’ other priorities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What we have set out is the overall level of financial support: £100,000 when a well is dug; up to £10 million, theoretically, because of the 1% of revenue that will be paid; and then this absolutely vital point about 100% retention of business rates, which could have a very significant effect for local government finance. The point that she makes is how that is divided up between parishes, districts and counties, and whether one looks at individual payments to individual households who might be inconvenienced. I think that we should look at very local options, making sure that parishes and individuals will benefit. That is something that colleagues will want to discuss and think about, so that we can get this right and help this industry to take off.
Q13. I am not sure whether Members are aware that anyone joining the police force will now have to pay £1,000 for a certificate before they even fill in the application form. A £1,000 bobby tax will make it harder for the police to look like the community that it serves and that I represent. It will put off young people from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities from joining the police. We all know that the Prime Minister admires characters such as Harry Flashman, but charging for Army commissions was abolished in 1871. Why is it being introduced for the police in the 21st century? (901980)
I listened very carefully to what the hon. Lady said. What we are trying to do through the College of Policing is even further to professionalise this vital profession, but I will make sure that the Home Secretary contacts her about this particular issue.
It is not just plan B that we are not hearing about any more. The Opposition seem to have stopped talking about the cost of living. They have stopped talking about how the deficit would not come down. Remember when they told us that growth would never come. They told us that we would lose a million jobs rather than gain a million jobs. But the biggest transformation of all is the silence of the shadow Chancellor. There is a big debate today on banking, but he was not allowed on the radio and he will not be speaking in the House of Commons. They have a novel idea: to hide their shadow Chancellor by leaving him on the Front Bench.
Q14. The Prime Minister has previously shown considerable leadership in apologising to victims of state violence in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, those victims of paramilitary violence who made up the majority of victims of the troubles have not had access to such apologies. Does he agree that the Haass proposals for dealing with the past offer the best opportunity for victims and survivors to receive truth and justice? Will he commit as Prime Minister to backing those proposals, helping by co-operating and also by funding those proposals? (901981)
There is a lot of merit in the Haass proposals—he did some excellent work. I noted that Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, described them as providing the architecture for future agreement and discussion. I hope that we can take forward the Haass work, including the very difficult work done on the past, with all sides trying to agree.
Q15. I am not sure whether the Prime Minister is a follower of “Benefits Street” on Channel 4, but if he is, he will know that, sadly, there is a street like that in every constituency in the land. Does he agree that, as part of our long-term economic plans, we make sure that the benefit system is there for people who need it, it is not a lifestyle choice, and people do not get trapped in it? (901982)
I have managed to catch only a small amount of that programme, but I think that it brings home two vital points: first, we need a welfare system that is tailored to ensure that work always pays; and secondly, many people in our country have multiple disadvantages and problems and so need help to get out of poverty and benefit dependency. So it is not just about tailoring a benefit system to make work pay; it is about making sure that we intervene in people’s lives and try to correct the things that are keeping them out of work and out of earning a decent living.
May I say to the Prime Minister, as someone who strongly supports shale gas extraction by fracking, that his current package, however well intentioned, will not assuage local communities, which on a cross-party basis in Lancashire have treated his latest offers as near derisory? Why can he and the Chancellor not sit down with the cross-party Local Government Association and negotiate on its proposal for 10% of revenues to be shared with local communities, as happens in other countries?
I thought that the proposal from some Members was that it should be 10% of profits. My point is that 1% of revenues, which obviously start running the moment shale gas starts coming out of the ground, could well be a better offer. I am very happy to sit down with anybody to discuss the issue, because I think that shale is so important for the future of our country. The point I would make, having been on Monday to see the oil platforms that are already on the Nottinghamshire-Lincolnshire border, is that those went ahead without any of the sorts of community benefits that we are promising with shale: £100,000 when a well is dug, before any gas has reached the surface; 1% of revenues, which could be between £7 million and £10 million for a typical fracking well; and 100% retention of business rates, which for a set of wells could be £1.7 million, or even £2 million, for a local authority. Hon. Members should think about how much council tax a small district or metropolitan authority raises and consider the difference that £1.7 million or £2 million in revenue could make. By all means let us talk about the facts and figures and what we can do, but we also need to persuade people that this can go ahead without the environmental damage or the problems that people are worried about. Those are the concerns more than anything.
The Leader of the Opposition has said, “What Hollande is doing in France I want to do in Britain.” Given recent events across the channel, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is completely at odds with our long-term economic plan?
I did not catch all of President Hollande’s press conference yesterday, because I was appearing in front of the Liaison Committee, but one thing that I did notice is that the French proposals now are to cut spending in order to cut taxes in order to make the economy more competitive. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor, in his new silent form, will want to consider some of those ideas and recognise that this revolution of making business more competitive and trying to win in the global race is a proper plan for the economy.