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Commons Chamber

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

House of Commons

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

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.

Some disreputable people try to reduce the cost of living by smuggling fuel across the border with the Republic of Ireland. What steps are being taken to combat this menace?

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?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I would urge all elected representatives to do all they can to support police officers in the execution of their duties which, in Northern Ireland, can sometimes be extremely difficult and highly sensitive.

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.

Welfare Reform

3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect in Northern Ireland of the Government’s proposed further reductions in welfare expenditure. (901920)

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government's welfare reform policies on Northern Ireland. (901924)

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

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland on public order in Northern Ireland. (901922)

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

8. If she will hold discussions with the responsible Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive on the number of middle-grade accident and emergency doctors in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (901925)

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.]

Order. There is far too much discordant noise in the Chamber. The question must be heard and the Minister’s answers must be heard.

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)

9. What public funding will be made available to help implement an agreement on flags, parades and protests, and dealing with the past. (901926)

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.

Haass Talks

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.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would very much welcome your guidance. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 9 October last year—14 weeks ago today—about an issue raised by my constituent, Kerry Bouskill, on child protection and the Childhood Lost campaign. She was concerned about young people reporting abuse often not being believed and how that can be a deterrent. The question on behalf of my constituent was simple enough: will the Home Secretary outline the steps taken by the Government to strengthen child protection? On 18 November my office contacted the Home Secretary’s office, but nobody called back. On 19 November I was told that I would have an answer within a week. On 2 December I was advised that changes were needed to the letter before sign-off. On 11 December I was advised that the letter was awaiting a signature. On 20 December the matter had been passed to the office of the Minister for Crime Prevention and I was told that I would receive a letter over the Christmas recess. On 8 and 9 January my office contacted his office, but again we received no call back. On 10 January I was again advised that the letter was awaiting a signature, but I have still received nothing. I would appreciate your advice.

In all courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, no one in the House or outside it could accuse him of excluding from his point of order any matter that he considered in any way to be material to the thrust of his complaint. As a consequence, I feel sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will now be fully familiar with the chronology of events that so dissatisfies him. Suffice it to say that he has certainly waited an inordinately long time for a response to his inquiries. His point of order will have been heard very clearly by those on the Treasury Bench; the Leader of the House is sitting there. I hope that hearing it will cause the Government to react in a timely way so that the hon. Gentleman’s questions are answered. I should also say to him that the Procedure Committee monitors the performance of Departments in answering parliamentary questions, and he may wish to draw the facts of this case to the attention of the Clerk of that Committee and possibly its illustrious Chairman, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).

United Kingdom Register of Places

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a Commission to establish and maintain a national register of places within the United Kingdom, including but not limited to countries, counties, cities, towns, villages and hamlets, with a permanent identity defined by historical, social and geographical boundaries, separate from existing administrative and electoral boundaries; to grant each such place the right to its own coat of arms, flag and other symbols of local identity; and for connected purposes.

The United Kingdom today is a vibrant tapestry of distinct places comprising four countries—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and a patchwork of counties from Caithness to Cornwall, Kent to Pembrokeshire, Norfolk to Antrim, Flintshire to Fermanagh, and Dunbartonshire to Dorset. Our historic counties, as distinct from administrative county areas, are real places that people take enormous pride in, but today they have no official status. My Bill would change that. Then there are our great cities, from Edinburgh to Exeter, London to Londonderry, Cardiff to Colchester, and Belfast to Birmingham, and our historic regions, such as the peak district, the black country, Snowdonia, East Anglia, the Cotswolds and the highlands. Islands too are places with their own distinct identity, from Shetland, Orkney and Lewis to Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight, and they also form part of our nation’s great heritage; and in each of our constituencies there are historic towns, neighbourhoods, villages and hamlets, all with their own unique identity. But over the years the identity of very many of these places has been eroded by changes to local government boundaries, parliamentary boundary revisions and the redrawing of council wards, where all too often artificial names are used and where parts of one area are sliced off to make up the electoral numbers in another. Over the years, one change has been compounded by another to create very many anomalies and muddled identities. All that now needs to be put right, with these real places, their boundaries and genuine identities given permanent protection from the hands of the bureaucrats.

Take, for example, my own constituency and the community of Rush Green, where I was born. Rush Green is divided between two London boroughs, two constituencies, two electoral wards and two London Assembly constituencies, even though the whole of Rush Green is historically and geographically a part of Romford. Local government boundaries have not been drawn up with the actual communities in mind.

Another example, in London, is the twin villages of Hampstead and Highgate, divided between four London boroughs, no less, all competing to promote their own identities over that of the historic villages themselves. My Bill will stop the Camdenisation of places such as Hampstead and ensure that local authorities have a duty to preserve and uphold identities of genuine towns and villages that have been around far longer than these local government constructs, which love to promote their own corporate identity over and above that of real places. My Bill will provide for the permanent registration of the actual places that exist in our nation, with their boundaries and identities completely separated and distinct from administrative and electoral boundaries.

The Post Office, too, will be duty bound to ensure that postal addresses truly reflect real place names. Indeed, the United Kingdom register of places would be the point of reference for all public bodies, Government Departments, organisations and institutions to refer to in future.

Our counties and regions, great cities and towns, neighbourhoods, villages, hamlets and islands are places with an identity that is cherished by the people who live there. In essence, such places exist due to a prevailing sense of community spirit and the pride people have in the place they come from, and yet there is no official system in Britain where all are listed and given the recognition they deserve.

As many hon. Members will know, I am particularly proud to come from the town of Romford, which I represent in this House. It lies in the traditional county of Essex, which in turn forms a part of my country of England. I also identify strongly with my local neighbourhood of Marshalls Park, where I grew up and went to school and where my family home remains to this day. Marshalls Park does not, however, exist as a defined place.

My Bill will define, for the first time, all such places in a national register of names, location and precise boundaries as entities entirely separate from existing local authority, administrative and electoral boundaries: in other words, real places not made up by boundary commissions, local authorities or Whitehall bureaucrats.

There will be significant benefits in doing this. In particular, there will be much greater scope for the collection of data, as they would be permanently based on actual towns, villages and neighbourhoods, thereby creating a consistent area to measure changes and collate statistics, rather than changeable local authority or ward boundaries. It would also have a positive impact on community cohesion, helping to encourage a greater sense of local identity across our nation. As all Members will be aware, the drawing of administrative and electoral boundaries has systematically failed to take into account the importance of community identity and of the historical and geographical factors that have led to community development.

By creating a UK register of places, there will be, for the first time, definite and clear boundaries for all counties, regions, towns, cities, neighbourhoods, villages and hamlets, which would be taken into consideration when redrawing administrative and electoral boundaries. Indeed, this Bill will ensure that the national register of places is taken into account during any future boundary revisions, and that defined places will no longer be divided and carved up in an arbitrary way.

Polling districts should be created within the defined places. They, rather than the much larger electoral wards, could then form the building blocks of any future parliamentary boundary review. As polling districts are smaller units, their use to attain the correct number of electors would avoid the huge upheavals and divisions of towns and communities of previous boundary reviews.

My Bill aims to strengthen local communities, uphold local identities and encourage people to foster a sense of pride and local patriotism in the place where they live. It will give all places the opportunity to adopt their own symbols of local identity, such as a coat of arms or a flag, that could be included on village and town signs and municipal buildings or used for a wide variety of purposes. It will redraw the map back to what it should cover—the genuine boundaries of our towns, villages, counties, cities and hamlets across these islands of ours. It will restore local identity, local patriotism and pride in the places where we live, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Rosindell, Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, Albert Owen, Ian Paisley, Priti Patel, Greg Mulholland, Sheryll Murray, Mr James Gray, Adam Afriyie, Mr Henry Bellingham, Sir Tony Cunningham and Jim Dobbin present the Bill.

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 154).

Opposition Day

[17th Allotted Day]


I beg to move,

That this House believes that Government reforms have failed to deliver a competitive banking system which serves the interests of consumers or the needs of businesses and the British economy; is concerned that customers have limited choice and low levels of trust and confidence in the banking market; is disappointed that recent legislation has fallen short of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking which called for action to diversify the sector and ensure that major new banking service providers are created; believes that banker remuneration remains unacceptably high; regrets the fact that it has taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses in Britain in the absence of domestic action, but believes that the Government as a majority shareholder in RBS should not approve any request to increase the cap; and calls on the Government to prevent a return to business-as-usual in the banking sector, which continues to require real reform and competition so that the UK can earn its way out of the cost of living crisis.

Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] My apologies, Mr Speaker; I correct my first sentence. I want to explain to the House that for many of our constituents—[Interruption]—including those of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), January can often be a difficult month financially, with families facing higher fuel bills and receiving credit card statements for the often very expensive Christmas period. Not everyone has such reactions to the new year, however, because for many of the luckiest bankers working in the City, January and February is party time—bonus season—when their high salaries are often dwarfed by even higher windfalls, which are enough to make a lottery winner look on in envy.

Last week, the City recruitment company Astbury Marsden reported that bonuses for the most senior staff in banking and financial services may increase by as much as 44% in this bonus season, despite all Ministers’ talk about how such payouts have been scaled back. In 2012, the financial sector paid out an eye-watering £14 billion in bonuses to top staff. At least £1.7 billion of bonuses were held back until just after that fateful day last April when the Chancellor of the Exchequer cut the top rate of tax for the richest 1%, who are those with earnings of more than £150,000 per year. Incidentally, the postponed payouts cost the public purse at least £85 million in lost taxes.

What about the rainmakers, as they are sometimes called—the most senior traders or masters of the universe? The number of UK bankers who earn more than £800,000 rose by 11% to 2,714 last year, which is more than in the rest of Europe combined. For that set of senior bankers, the compensation—a word that the banking sector sometimes uses instead of the word pay that the rest of us use—rose from £1.1 million to more than £1.6 million in 2012. That does not look like an industry that is licking its wounds; it looks like business as usual.

The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury seems to have glossed over the fact that City bonuses tripled in the last five years of the Labour Government. I want to ask him a more general question. Given the catastrophic role that the banking industry played in the economic downturn, why are we having only a half day’s debate on this important subject and squeezing it together with another important debate on the national minimum wage? The Treasury Committee is also meeting this afternoon to talk about these issues with the Governor and one of the deputy governors of the Bank of England. The Committee’s members will therefore not be able to participate in this debate. I wonder whether that is a reflection of the fact that Labour is not taking this matter as seriously as it should.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has alighted on the best criticism of the fact that we are having an Opposition debate today on the failures in the banking sector. He is a bit off message because he at least admits that it was the banks that got us into the economic catastrophe in the first place. That is slightly off the script that Ministers usually use.

Does my hon. Friend agree not only that this is a good day to have this debate, but that most of the people in Huddersfield, whom I represent, and in this country cannot understand the culture of bonuses for bankers? These people have failed us and have failed small businesses and start-ups, and yet they have a bonus culture that is unlike anything else in the country.

My hon. Friend is right to speak of the anger that his constituents feel. While many of his constituents and mine are struggling with the cost of living crisis, what has been the Chancellor’s response to the concerns about, and the evidence of, excessive pay? Does the Chancellor regret the millionaires’ tax cut or missing another year of the bankers’ bonus tax? Does he reflect on the outrage among the public, which my hon. Friend has expressed, who want leadership in tackling such brazen rewards? No; the response of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to oppose even the most basic transparency, which would let shareholders know about bankers who are paid more than £1 million, and to oppose any action in the UK to tackle the excessive bonus culture.

The Chancellor’s response to public concern was to travel to Brussels in September last year to oppose Europe-wide moves to limit bonus payouts to no more than 100% of salary levels for those who are on £400,000 or more, unless there is approval from shareholders. The Chancellor continues to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees to fight that new EU rule tooth and nail, even though it has only just come into force.

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman was at the beginning of my speech, but City analysts are predicting that the bonus round for 2013 will see an increase of 44%. I do not know whether he thinks that that is acceptable or whether many of his constituents are receiving increases in their pay of 44%, but I would bet that they are not.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that although bonuses may have been halved, in banks such as RBS, which is still making losses and denying the finance that is needed to businesses across the United Kingdom, bankers bonuses are still sometimes in excess of twice their salaries?

That is exactly the issue that we are debating.

For all the sophistry and smoke-and-mirrors attempts by Ministers, including the Prime Minister earlier today, to give the impression that they are taking action on bonuses, we know that they confront a key decision because of the new Europe-wide decision to limit bonuses. However they try to spin their way out of it, they will have to confront that decision. It is a matter of national embarrassment that UK policy on bankers bonuses was not led by the UK Treasury. Now that we have a bonus ratio in statute, albeit from the European Union, surely the Minister will not cast his shareholder vote, on behalf of the taxpayer, to allow state-owned banks to shell out bonuses that are above the level of their salaries.

It is deplorable that this debate has been scheduled during a Treasury Committee hearing. As a member of that Committee, I have seen over the past few months and years the attempts to clear up the appalling wreckage that was left in 2010. Is it not true that under the last Government, this country ran a budget deficit of 3% at the top of the economic cycle and that we had the highest levels in recorded history of personal and household debt?

There they go again, denying that the banks had any responsibility whatever for the global financial crisis. Obviously, it was Labour’s investment in schools and hospitals that caused the devastation in dozens of countries worldwide and recession across—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) is usually the epitome of the cerebral philosopher; an air of calm usually exudes from his every orifice. He has become uncharacteristically over-excited. He must calm himself, consider the merits of yoga and listen to what the shadow Chief Secretary has to say.

I now have an image in my mind, Mr Speaker, but we will move on.

I want to pin down the position that the Prime Minister was trying to spin in Prime Minister’s questions. The market expectations are that the loss-making RBS will pay about £500 million in bonuses in 2013, despite the string of allegations about LIBOR fixing and the accusations that it forced viable businesses into default in a bid to seize their assets on the cheap. When life is getting harder for so many households and bank lending to businesses is falling, it cannot be right for the Chancellor to approve a doubling of the bank bonus cap when the taxpayer has a stake.

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, but I want to finish this point.

The Prime Minister gave the clear impression at Prime Minister’s Question Time that he would veto higher pay and bonuses. Perhaps he was unintentionally misleading in the way that he made that point. He might want to come back to correct the record. Some of us think that he was conveniently looking at the total remuneration at RBS as a device to slip out of the question about how he will exercise the shareholder vote.

The House needs to know that RBS has reduced the number of bankers on its roll by about 2,000 in the past year. One would therefore expect its pay bill to fall, and so it should, but that does not get it out of answering the question about the individual senior bankers who are earning £400,000 or more. Will the shareholder, in this case the Chancellor of the Exchequer, give them permission not just to have bonuses of 100% of their salaries, but to bust through that and go to 200% of their salaries? That is a crucial test for the Chancellor. Whatever the sophistry and warm words we might get from the Prime Minister, they cannot wriggle out of confronting that decision.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a question of leadership? If leadership is not shown by the banking sector itself, it is for this House and this Government to show leadership. My constituents cannot understand why these people live in a stratosphere in which they are under no moral or financial obligation to behave properly. Let us show some leadership on this matter in today’s vote.

My hon. Friend is right. The motion states explicitly that the Chancellor should exercise his role as the majority shareholder to prevent an extreme approach to bonuses.

My hon. Friend will know that on 1 January the EU bankers bonus cap came in and it restricts the payment of bonuses to not more than the amount of a salary on a 1:1 ratio. Does it not tell the House all we need to know about this Government’s attitude towards bankers bonuses that their first action is to submit a legal challenge to the European Court of Justice against the EU cap?

One of the questions I have for the Minister is precisely about how much it is costing the taxpayer, in all those legal fees to hire barristers, to try to overturn the bankers bonus cap. I will be happy to give way to the Minister if he has an update for the House on whether the figure is £100,000, £200,000 or £300,000. How much is being spent on legal fees? The Minister’s eyes are not gazing across the Chamber at this point, so perhaps he will come back to that in his speech.

I wanted to quote for my hon. Friends something that the Chancellor said in August 2009, when he was in Opposition:

“It is totally unacceptable for bank bonuses to be paid on the back of taxpayer guarantees. It must stop.”

That is the position the public were led to believe the Chancellor would take when in office. Strangely, that does not seem to be the position he takes now.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important indeed to establish the amount of money that is being paid to individuals, such as the £5.8 million in the year ending 2010 to the chief executive of RBS and the £5.8 million paid out by Lloyds? Will our constituents not recognise that the Conservative party is saying absolutely nothing about the level of those payments to individuals, and that it is defending them?

Government Members will have to confront this issue, because it is a decision they will to have to take. Those traders and executives were former colleagues of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who was one of the senior bankers at Deutsche bank. Perhaps he can tell us whether, when he was a banker before the election, his bonus was more or less than 100% of his salary. Perhaps he can fill us in with that bit of history.

In our motion, we have made the point about instructing United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd and making sure that it acts accordingly and turns down this proposal if bonuses come to more than 100% of salaries. That is not fair. Most of the people watching this debate will think, “Well, it would be nice to get any bonus at all. The same amount as my pay? Crikey, that would be phenomenal, but twice the amount of pay is totally unacceptable.” The Chancellor and the Minister will have to confront the anger of the public on this issue if they fail this test.

The motion mentions the requirement for greater competition. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the dozens of challenger banks that have sprung up under this Government since 2010—

I can definitely assure the hon. Gentleman that that is absolutely correct and that many are coming forward. Does the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) regret voting in April 2012 against greater competition in the banking sector?

I am not quite sure what planet the hon. Gentleman is living on, but we have been consistently tabling amendments to financial services legislation to encourage more competition and to have an inquiry into retail banking competition. At every stage, the Government have refused to go down that route.

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that the respected Nobel prize winner Professor Joseph Stiglitz said in his book, “The Price of Inequality” that one of the ways forward is to

“curb the bonuses that encourage excessive risk-taking and short-sighted behaviour.”

The hon. Gentleman will see that we are back on that trajectory. We are heading for another crash and another period of excess in banking, as the monopolists’ rent-seeking behaviour continues in the City.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. This morning the Chancellor gave his rationale for disagreeing with the European banker bonus cap. It is a shame that he did not take a lead in trying to construct something of his own to rein in this culture. After all, we would have had a repeat of the banker bonus tax. The Chancellor’s argument is, “Oh well, this is just going to move it all on to pay and on to ordinary salaries.” Surely one of the lessons of the banking crisis is that the excessive, short-termist risk and reward bonus culture was driving dysfunctional behaviour that got us into the mess in the first place. Frankly, I am sure those bankers will try to find all sorts of little dodges and weaves to get around the rules, but we have to make the system more transparent and we need to move towards a remuneration arrangement that is much more about sustainability, stability, professionalism and serving the customers. It would be foolish for the Government to try to sue Brussels on this point and hold out against public opinion, which has had enough of this excessive behaviour.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend can help the House. Have the Government ever given any indication on what they believe the upper limit should be on bankers’ pay?

I do not think they have, although I think before the general election the Prime Minister indicated that he did not want any taxpayer-owned banks to pay out bonuses of more than £2,000. We know what happened to that proposal.

The issue goes beyond anger about bank bonus season. Serious reforms to the banking culture and the role of banking in the economy are still required. Ministers still have not grasped the role that banks ought to be playing to repair our economy. They are still out of touch on the causes of three years of economic stagnation and the reforms to the banking sector that are still needed. How much more evidence do they need? Despite the billions of pounds needed to ensure that the cash machines kept working; despite the mis-selling and ripping off consumers; despite the money laundering and sanctions busting; despite banks peddling interest rate swaps to struggling small firms; despite multi-billion losses in the disastrous London Whale scandal—London Whale was the name given to a trader—and fines of more than £1 billion for Deutsche bank in the United States for mis-selling mortgage-backed securities; and despite the rigging of LIBOR and other benchmark indices, including investigations into attempts by up to 15 banks to manipulate a £5 trillion dollar a day foreign exchange market; despite all that the Government still do not have the stomach to do what it takes to clamp down on misconduct and to finish the job.

My hon. Friend mentions the LIBOR scandal and the mis-selling of products. May I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) for his work as chair of the all-party group on interest rate swap mis-selling?

On bonuses and reward, does my hon. Friend believe that perhaps what we should say to high earners is that there will be no more bonuses until they have sorted out the mess the Financial Conduct Authority is currently investigating, and until all the individuals and companies have had their cases considered fully and have been compensated for the mess the bankers made?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the point, which is that most of our constituents would say that bonuses are supposed to be for good or excellent performance and not just part of the run-of-the-mill, ordinary pay they receive regardless of whether they do well, make losses or get involved in all sorts of problems and difficulties. That is part of the problem with the culture in the banking sector, with which, frankly, the legislation introduced by the Government has so far just not dealt with.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could update the House later on what cap on bonuses was set by the previous Prime Minister, or the one before that. Does he not accept that the past few years, as he has just demonstrated with his recitation of scandals, was a period of the most lax supervision? It was under the previous Government that the Bank of England allowed these dreadful evils to take place. That is why it has made such a difference introducing the new senior persons regime, the new authorised persons regime and all the other changes, as well as the new definition of competition in legislation.

The hon. Gentleman and I differ in our analysis of what happened—I will explain why in a moment—and that says a lot about where we need to take policy. I do not believe that we have finished the job of banking reform, which seems to be the impression we are getting from the Government Front Bench. He and I might agree that more is needed—I will talk a bit about that in a moment—but stopping short of those reforms will not prevent another bank failure or protect the interests of normal customers and society so that they, not the high remuneration of those senior bankers, come first.

Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity that the Conservative party, which in opposition accused the then Government of over-regulation, should now suggest it was previously in favour of more regulation?

There is a touch of revisionism from Government Members, but perhaps that is a bit generous; their attempt to rewrite history is breathtaking. I have no doubt that when the Minister speaks my hon. Friends will hear a complacent desire just to move on from banking reform and a desperation to make party political points about the history of the banking crisis. They will try, with all their might, to pretend that it was Labour’s spending on schools and hospitals that caused a global recession in dozens of countries worldwide, but my hon. Friends will not hear from him about how the banks must still be made to pay for their egregious and scandalous abuses and over-leveraged trades in sub-prime mortgage securities.

All sense that the banks must be held accountable for the state we are in has been airbrushed from the Government’s narrative, because they want to blame their political opponents rather than upset their corporate friends. Perhaps the Minister likes to turn a blind eye, in the knowledge that it really was the banks that were responsible for the global financial crisis, or perhaps he has now genuinely convinced himself that it was primarily the fault of Governments and that the banks were only a little bit to blame. Either way, they have the wrong analysis, which explains why they have the wrong policies. By failing to tackle the root causes of recent economic devastation and the deficit that built up as a result, they are maintaining the risk that banks could once again turn to the taxpayer to bail them out, should they fail again. Never again must the taxpayer pick up the losses for the reckless behaviour of banks, and never again must our economy and public services be thrown into such turmoil because of the negligence and monumental greed of banking executives and traders.

I apologise for arriving late, Mr Speaker. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that in the last Parliament the Conservative party, in opposition, only ever complained about red tape. Did he notice that for the first time today the Prime Minister talked about the recession not being the fault of the Labour party?

This is why this Government’s narrative is beginning to crumble around the edges. Most people realise that the banking sector was totally dysfunctional and causing great difficulties. Of course we need better policing throughout the international community and by the regulators, but if we are to rehabilitate the banking sector, we cannot shy away from the tough decisions needed to change its structures and behaviour. There are still too many areas in which the Government have left banking reform unfinished.

Returning to the point about complacency, did my hon. Friend see the briefing note from the British Bankers Association prior to this debate? It says that

“no other industry is subject to such influential pay supervision”.

I have never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. Does he agree that this “influential pay supervision” is patently failing in its job?

We have to feel sorry for senior bankers facing a bonus of merely the same amount as their basic take-home pay, as 200% bonuses are obviously vital for their survival—for the record, this is sarcasm. It is complete nonsense, of course.

I have been listening intently to my hon. Friend’s delineation of the big ticket items where the banks have failed and where the Government appear not to criticise them, but on a more localised issue, Scottish constituents of mine have consistently been rack-rented and ruined by RBS, as the Tomlinson report said, yet these bankers complain in the local press in Scotland that their £4 million-worth of bonuses is less than the £6 million that HSBC bankers get—and these are people who consistently destroyed companies in Scotland. I hope the Minister will address the question of their faults and how they have acted since the crash.

Of course, we want to see rewards, bonuses and pay that reflect performance. That is my hon. Friend’s basic point. It is not asking for too much.

In too many areas, reform has been left unfinished. Four times the Government have rejected our proposals for bankers to face an independent licensing regime with an annual validation process for competence; they have delayed a decision on leveraging that could prevent excessive risk taking; and they have continued to resist a sector-wide back-stop power for the full separation of retail and investment banking, should the ring-fencing not work. Moreover, there is insufficient scope for proper scrutiny before the further sale of Treasury assets, and we know that the Government sold both Northern Rock and the first tranche of Lloyds shares at a loss. Despite month after month of persistently falling lending to small and medium-sized enterprises—a fall of £12 billion in the past year alone—the Government have had to throw out Project Merlin, ditch credit easing and reboot their funding for lending programme, but still to little effect. It is obvious that we need a serious British investment bank, supported by a network of regional banks and capitalised with revenues from the market value of 3G spectrum licences, yet here we are, in the fourth year of this Government, and their half-hearted attempt at a business bank is still not fully up and running.

Members are listening to the hon. Gentleman with astonishment. What exactly did the previous Labour Administration do in 13 years to regulate the sector that he is talking about?

The previous Government introduced a bankers bonus tax, which raised billions of pounds that helped improve our public services. Government Members need to wake up and realise that they need to repeat that strategy.

While we are on the subject of bank taxation and the levy, let us look at what the Government have done, because it has been such a colossal disappointment so far. The Prime Minister promised that his bank levy would raise £2.5 billion each year, but they have never been bothered about making the banks pay their fair share, because their hearts are not in it, so the bank levy has fallen short of that target year after year. It raised only £1.6 billion in 2011, and despite their subsequent promises, it then again raised only £1.6 billion in 2012, and they are expecting a further shortfall this and next financial year—the Minister could confirm this. In the past three years, the bank levy has raised £2.1 billion less than they promised. With £2 billion, we could kick-start the construction of 80,000 houses or employ more than 20,000 nurses—the same number the NHS is short of. It represents a serious and scandalous shortfall in tax collection.

I would like to make some progress.

Perhaps the most serious area of reform left untouched by the Government is the continued dominance of the big five banks, which gives customers limited choice and helps feed disillusionment and low trust. The Government have an action plan to deliver competition in the banking sector, but we cannot see it. We need more competition and banks that are hungry to serve the interests of consumers, businesses and the British economy, and a wholehearted shift in the number of market participants serving households and businesses, not a half-hearted tinkering around the edges.

It has been widely trailed today that a future Labour Government, if elected, would try to force banks to sell off branches. That will cause great concern, particularly in rural areas, because it is their branches that would be most likely to be disposed of. How would his proposals help create competition for our high street businesses?

This is not about shutting branches; it is about making a more competitive sector. Time after time, we have tabled amendments to financial services Bills calling for more competition in the banking sector. The Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by Sir John Vickers, called for action to diversify the banking sector, but the Treasury’s approach to divestments of branches from NatWest and Lloyds was not exactly a raging success. It would have been better if the Government had taken our advice and gone for a competition review of the retail sector and not just the business banking sector. They often say “We are looking at competition”, but it is usually only in business banking. They need a more comprehensive approach; the customer needs better service and competition to bring down fees and charges.

There is still no obligation on banks to provide a basic bank account for all customers, even though we know it helps people on low incomes to save money and plan their budgets. The jury is out on whether the seven-day current account switching service will be enough or whether steps should be taken towards full portability of bank accounts for customers. The Government could introduce a fiduciary duty of care, explicitly putting the best interests of customers first and foremost in the financial services sector.

Today, banks are an essential utility; they are supposed to be there to help customers, not to hinder the economy or act like untouchable vested interests. We need to clean up the behaviour of the banks and end the culture of excessive risk and reward. Those are the traits of the old economy; the new economy that we need demands a more modern banking sector—more competitive and diverse, accountable to its customers, supporting long-term investment at home and delivering the sustained growth that we need. That will be the task of the next Labour Government.

I thought that Labour Members had turned over a new leaf this year: they admitted that they got it wrong on immigration and they admitted that they got it wrong on education, so I hoped that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) would follow suit and admit that they also got it wrong on banking. I hoped he would admit that it was Labour’s changes to banking regulation that led to the world’s largest banking bail-out—changes that meant that when the alarm bells were ringing, no one was listening. The Bank of England was completely powerless to act. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would also admit that City bonuses rocketed under Labour’s 13 years in office, while Labour Cabinet Ministers were telling the world that they were

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”

and they were handing out gongs to the likes of Fred Goodwin. City bonuses were surging to all-time highs, rising year after year, more than tripling over five years and peaking in 2008 at over £12 billion. Instead, this is a new year and the same old Labour.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman; I might be about to hear an apology, so I will listen carefully.

I think anyone who reads the transcript deserves an apology from the Minister, who forgot to mention that the relaxation of banking controls started with Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Government. He forgot to tell people on the record that when people like me on the Opposition Benches were urging constraint—I am an economist—the Minister’s right hon. and hon. Friends were calling for fewer controls and a lighter touch with the banks, as was the SNP in Scotland.

I think the hon. Gentleman has a challenged memory of events. I am sad to see that he had an opportunity to apologise, but did not take it.

Let us look at the facts. At the time of the changes Labour was making to the financial sector, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) warned the then Government in November 1997:

“The process of setting up the FSA may cause regulators to take their eye off the ball, while spivs and crooks have a field day.”—[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 732.]

Let me share another quote, in this case from the current shadow Chancellor from a speech he made as City Minister in 2006:

“Nothing should be done to put at risk a light-touch, risk-based regulatory regime.”

What we are hearing from Labour is the same old headline-chasing nonsense that we have come to expect and no answers at all to the problems they created.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham East on one thing: public confidence in the banking system and in bankers is still low, just as—let us be honest—public confidence in the political system and the people in this Chamber is still low. That is precisely because, five years ago, partly as a result of the irresponsible decision of some bankers, but largely as a result of the policies of the then Labour Government, our country found itself in a huge mess. When trust is lost on that scale, it is not won back overnight.

Perhaps the Minister can answer this question because the shadow Minister did not give way to me. The shadow Minister said that restricting the number of branches that banks can hold will not close branches, but of course it will. What does he think closing branches will do to people’s faith and belief in the banking sector. I have three branches of Barclays in my constituency—in Chandlers Ford, Alresford and Winchester—so if, God forbid, a Labour Government were ever elected, which one would they propose to close?

My hon. Friend highlights the fact that the Labour party has no ideas about how to increase competition in the banking sector, and any kind of approach that includes arbitrary quotas will clearly lead to the sort of problems that my hon. Friend outlines.

It is reported today that the Opposition are proposing specific market shares on specific banks. Has that ever been tried in any other country?

My hon. Friend is right. It is reported that, this Friday, the Leader of the Opposition will make a speech on the economy and attempt to set out an economic policy. I am afraid that his last such speech did not go very well. From what we know about this proposal—very little at this stage—I am not aware of any country in the developed world that has a similar approach, with the possible exception of the former Soviet Union, which adopted a similar approach to its banking sector.

I am glad we are discussing history, because I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s own history as a banker. I wonder what his remuneration and bonuses were back in those days. Given his history and the fact that he should be saying sorry—I presume—will he tell us whether he believes that bankers deserve a bonus in excess of 100% of their salary. Does he think so and does the Chancellor think so?

The hon. Lady seems to suggest that it is best to have Ministers who have no experience or knowledge in the areas for which they are responsible. We saw that under the previous Government, and look what happened. To win back the confidence of the British people, we need a long-term economic plan for recovery.

I would not want the Minister unintentionally to miss answering the important question that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked. For the record, do the Government believe that the senior bankers at the Royal Bank of Scotland should or should not be allowed to pay bonuses of over 100% of pay?

I will come to that later in my speech when I will deal with some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Bringing back confidence to the economy will of course mean dealing with the banking sector to make it more stable, more resilient and more efficient. That is exactly what this Government have been doing for the last three years.

Does the Minister agree that, as with the debate on the bedroom tax before Christmas, this debate is really one about the symptoms of inequality in our society. Since the 1970s, we have seen 80% of the gains in productivity going to the top 1%—an inequality level roughly equivalent to that of the 1920s. Governments all over Europe and in the United States are not getting to grips with inequality and the hampering of life chances that it is causing. What does the Minister think should happen? The bankers should not receive the bonuses they are getting and people should not have their life chances halted by the bedroom tax. Are this Government going to do anything serious on this issue?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman will not seek to make a speech in the debate, on the grounds that he has already done so.

The hon. Gentleman will know that inequality surged under the previous Government and has come down under this Government. In fact, the rich pay a higher proportion of tax than they have ever paid, with the top 1% of earners paying almost 30% of income tax for the first time and the top 5% paying almost half of the total income tax take. The Government are proud of making sure that the rich make a fair contribution to public finances.

My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful case, but may I remind him of the central fact of the past 15 years? The banks had the same level of leverage for 40 years, until 2007, after which it went up by two and a half times. It was that explosion of leverage, under Labour, that destroyed the banking system both in this country and internationally.

As always, my hon. Friend is spot on. Because of the changes that Labour made in the regulatory system, no one knew what was going on, and if they did, they were absolutely powerless to act, especially those in the Bank of England. That is the legacy of the last Government.

Let me now say something that the Labour party seems to be scared of saying. We need well-run successful banks in this country. We need the services that they provide. We need the loans that they give to small businesses, and the mortgages that they offer to home owners. We need the jobs that they produce—more than 450,000 throughout this country, and more than two thirds of those are outside London. We, as a Government, also need the huge taxes that the financial sector and its employees pay—some £60 billion last year—so that we can run our schools and hospitals.

Small businesses have been among the biggest victims of the financial crisis, because banks have stopped lending to them. I share some of the Minister’s scepticism about the advantages of shutting bank branches, which may indeed only harm banking and access to financial services in rural areas, but I nevertheless think that the Government could be doing a great deal more to ensure that the banks lend more to small businesses on fairer terms. What will the Minister do about that?

I agree with the hon. Lady that businesses rely on the banks for the lending that they need. The action that we have already taken through, for example, the funding for lending scheme has ensured that the banking sector has had more money at lower rates to on-lend to small businesses and, indeed, households. We also recently announced a consultation on collecting small and medium-sized enterprises credit lending data, which will help to spur further competition in that sector.

The Minister is endorsing a noble cause in recommending support for small business and for manufacturing in particular, but given that manufacturing accounts for 10% of the economy, why does only 2.6% of bank debt stock result from lending to it? Why does the Minister not do something about that?

Part of the answer might be that manufacturing was decimated under the last Government. Its share of the economy fell from about 17% to the 10% to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and, of course, lending fell with it. If the hon. Gentleman were honest and recognised the damage that his party did to the manufacturing sector, perhaps what he says would be taken more seriously.

We need a more stable, resilient, efficient banking sector, and it is on that requirement that we have focused our reforms. As Members will know, back in June 2010 my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the establishment of an Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by Sir John Vickers, to explore how the sector should be reformed in the wake of the financial crisis. Last year the House passed the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, which has enabled us to implement the commission’s recommendations. The changes will mean that banks must ring-fence the deposits of individuals and small businesses, so that everyday banking can be separated from volatile investment banking.

As all Members, and, indeed. all members of the public will know, the financial crisis saw taxpayers bailing out the banks that got into trouble, but we have taken steps to ensure that that will not be repeated. Our banking reform Act introduces a bail-in tool, as a result of which shareholders and creditors, not taxpayers, will be first in line to bear the costs of future bank failures.

I think that the Minister should admit that the Government have watered down the Vickers commission. Will he now come clean with the House, and tell us that that is what they have done?

That is exactly what we have not done. We have accepted the central recommendations of the Vickers commission.

We have not just been working to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Many Members on both sides of the House have been rightly appalled by the revelations of poor behaviour on the part of some in the industry, such as payment protection insurance, interest rate swap mis-selling, and LIBOR manipulation. Those practices were going on right under the noses of Labour Treasury Ministers, including the current shadow Chancellor, who did nothing at all to stop it.

My hon. Friend attended the local banking conference that I organised shortly before Christmas. Does he agree that “challenger banks” such as Aldermore, Virgin, Metro, and even the Bank of Salford—which is run by Labour and Unite, and is excellent—are a key element in the greater competition that we need in order to reinvent the banking market in this country?

My hon. Friend’s intervention gives me an opportunity to commend him for his initiative to promote regional banks. He is absolutely right in his assessment.

We also set up the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie). As a result of the commission’s work, we amended the banking reform Act in order to implement its recommendations on holding bankers to account more effectively for poor behaviour. If a bank were in future to enter resolution because of reckless mismanagement, senior bankers could face a prison term of up to seven years.

The Minister has spoken in strong terms about the experience of the financial services. Does he accept that the unique way in which bonuses drive short-term risk taking led to the scandals that we witnessed, and, indeed, to the financial crisis? Does he really believe that the reward for short-term risk taking behaviour to meet bonus targets should be more than 100% of the reward that someone receives for doing his or her own job?

What I do accept is that badly structured and badly designed bonuses will lead to bad behaviour. I am sure that the hon. Lady herself accepts that if an arbitrary cap is imposed on bonuses and it leads to an increase in fixed pay but no overall fall in overall pay, the bad behaviour will actually worsen.

We are putting our house in order. We are learning from the huge mistakes of the last Government, and are ensuring that we create a country in which the public can trust that their money is secure and our banking sector can flourish.

My hon. Friend is making great progress in the debate. Will he also mention the fact that taxpayers are now benefiting from the fines that have been levied on the industry, and that the Chancellor has extended the arrangement to ensure that military charities and others benefit?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has referred to that. It was the right thing to do, and it demonstrates that we can take some of the money that is coming from the banking sector and use it for good causes.

My hon. Friend mentioned the shadow Chancellor’s failure to tackle the abuses that were taking place in the banking system. Will he confirm that the shadow Chancellor encouraged the development of a less regulated environment, and that that contributed to the problems that we now face?

My right hon. Friend has made an important point. I have already quoted what the shadow Chancellor said in 2006, when he was the City Minister, but those were not just his views; they were also the views of his boss, the then Prime Minister, the man who did more damage to our financial sector than any other. This is what the last Labour Prime Minister said in his 2007 Mansion House speech:

“I congratulate you Lord Mayor and the City of London on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.”

Shortly afterwards, he carried out the world’s largest banking bail-out.

Will the Minister share with the House his thoughts about which member of the last Government recommended that Fred Goodwin should receive a knighthood as an honour from the Government?

I have to tell my hon. Friend that I am not sure who it was, but I know that the knighthood was widely supported by members of the then Government, which shows what their priorities were.

Was it not the previous Prime Minister who said, “We will do for Great Britain what we have done for the City of London”, and is it not a disaster that he said and did that?

The Minister is understandably making a case for the financial sector, as he also should for manufacturing and all other sectors. What my constituents fail to understand is why, when public and private sector employees over the last few years and now have accepted pay restraint and real-terms squeezes on their earnings, and we in this House, including Ministers, are facing public demands to accept pay restraint on our pay and conditions as well, top bankers are immune from those constraints.