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Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

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.

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.

RBS is expected to ask the Government to approve bonuses of more than 100% on multi-million pound salaries. Does the Prime Minister think that that is acceptable?

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.