Skip to main content


Volume 574: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2014

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

Figures now show that the UK economy is growing at its fastest rate since 2007, which is further proof that our plan is working. But there is a choice: stick with it, or abandon a plan that is delivering a better economic future and jobs for my constituents in Norwich North. Does the Prime Minister agree that the long-term decisions we are taking matter most for the future of Britain and our children? After all, who is an economic plan for if not the next generation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that should be the test of the decisions we are taking—will they secure a better future, more stability and more peace of mind for our children and grandchildren? Last week we saw the biggest number of new jobs in a quarter since records began, and this week we see the fastest growth in our economy for six years. There should be absolutely no complacency. The job is nowhere near complete, but if we stick to our long-term economic plan we can see our country rise and our people rise too.

All sides of the House will welcome the Government’s significant change of heart on the issue of Syrian refugees, which I raised with the Prime Minister last week, and we look forward to the Home Secretary’s statement. Now that the decision has apparently been taken, will he reassure the House that he will act with the utmost urgency, because we are talking about the most vulnerable people in refugee camps who need help now?

What I can assure the right hon. Gentleman is that we will act with the greatest urgency, because when it comes to Syria, we have acted with the greatest urgency throughout. We have made available £600 million, which makes us the second largest humanitarian donor. We have provided food for 188,000 people, clean water for almost a million, and medical consultations for almost a quarter of a million. As the Home Secretary will make clear, we will be coming forward with a scheme to help the most needy people in those refugee camps and offer them a home in our country. We want to make sure that we particularly help those who have been victims of sexual violence—a cause that the Foreign Secretary has rightly, on behalf of the whole country, championed across the world.

I welcome the Government’s decision to accept Syrian refugees; it is a very important cause.

Let me turn to another subject. Can I ask the Prime Minister who, just before the election, said that

“showing that we’re all in this together…means showing that the rich will pay their share which is why…the 50p tax rate will have to stay”? [Interruption.]

Under this Government the richest will pay more in income tax in every year than any year when the right hon. Gentleman was in office. That is the truth. I want the richest to pay more in tax, and under this Government they are, because we are creating jobs and growth, and we are encouraging investment. What we have heard from Labour Members over the past 48 hours is that they want to attack that growth and attack those jobs; they want to attack those businesses. We now have in Britain an anti-business, anti-growth, anti-jobs party.

No, Mr Speaker; what we have is a policy with the overwhelming support of the most important people of all—the people of Britain. That is what the 50p rate is. The Prime Minister is obviously rather coy in telling us who said those words. Of course, it was him, in 2009, just before the election. He said that the 50p tax rate was a symbol of us all being in it together, and now it has gone. Can he now tell us whether he rules out cutting the top rate further to 40p?

The Chancellor set out yesterday exactly what our priorities are. We want to cut taxes for the lowest paid and for middle income people. I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear the Chancellor, because like the rest of the Labour party, he was not here yesterday—they left the shadow Chancellor all on his own.

While we are in the business of who has said interesting things in recent days—[Interruption.] Let me ask him this—[Interruption.]

There is plenty more. While we are on the subject of interesting quotes, who in the last 48 hours said this:

“do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don’t, nor our deficit, nor our national debt”?

In fact, he even said that in

“in some areas we’d spend more”.

That was the shadow Chancellor. We were talking earlier about our children. When our children in future turn to the dictionary and look up the definition of denial, it will be right there: Balls, Ed.

It is hard to remember now, but a long time ago I asked a question. The Prime Minister failed to answer it, so let us try him again and give him another go. Does he rule out—[Interruption.] The Chancellor should keep quiet for a second. Does the Prime Minister rule out giving another tax cut to the richest in society by cutting the top rate to 40p—

There is so much good news I cannot wait to get up and tell it. Our priority is to cut taxes for the lowest paid in our country. That is why we have taken 2 million people out of tax. Let us look at the reaction to the right hon. Gentleman’s 50p announcement. Businesses have said it would cost jobs, Labour Ministers whom he served alongside have queued up to say that it is economically illiterate, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that it would raise hardly any money. It has been an absolutely disastrous policy launch from a disastrous Labour economic team.

With every answer, the Prime Minister shows who he stands up for: a few at the top, not the ordinary families of Britain. That is the truth.

It is a very simple question. I know the Prime Minister does not love answering questions at Prime Minister’s questions, but that is the point of these occasions. We are asking him a very simple question. We have a clear position. We would reverse the millionaires’ tax cut and put the top rate of tax back to 50p. I am asking him a very simple question. Does he rule out reducing the top rate to 40p—yes or no?

The simple answer is that I have told him our priority: tax cuts for low earners, tax cuts for middle earners, freezing the council tax, freezing the fuel duty and helping people in our country. What have we seen from him so far this year? We have seen a banking policy that the Governor of the Bank of England says would increase risk to the banking system, an employment policy that the CBI said would cost jobs, and a tax policy that business leaders said would be a risk to our recovery. There is a crisis in our country— a crisis of economic credibility for the Labour party.

The whole country will have heard; he had three opportunities to answer and he could not give us a straight answer to the question. This is a country where, after four years of this Government, people are worse off. This is a Prime Minister who has already given those at the top, millionaires, a £100,000 tax cut, and he wants to give them another one. He can only govern for the few; he can never govern for the many.

I will tell you who we are governing for: the 1.3 million people who got jobs under this Government; the 400,000 new businesses under this Government; the 2 million people we have taken out of tax under this Government; the people on the minimum wage who have seen their tax bills come down by two thirds under this Government. That is who we are governing for. The fact is we have more factories producing more goods, more people taking home a pay packet and more security for hard-working families. Now we can see the risks. Labour—a risk to jobs, a risk to the recovery and a risk to the future of Britain’s security.

The severe flooding on the Somerset Levels is causing acute distress to the people who live in that area. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment today both to take immediate action to try to clear the flood water from the Somerset levels as soon as possible, and to put in place a long-term plan to try to make sure that this does not happen again?

I can give my hon. Friend both those assurances. Cobra will be meeting again this afternoon to explore what more we can do to help the villagers in the Somerset Levels. The current situation is not acceptable. I can tell him that it is not currently safe to dredge in the Levels, but I can confirm that dredging will start as soon as it is practical, as soon as the waters have started to come down. The Environment Agency is pumping as much water as is possible given the capacity of the rivers around the Levels, but I have ordered that further high-volume pumps from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s national reserve will be made available to increase the volume of the pumping operation as soon as there is capacity in the rivers to support that. We are urgently exploring what further help the Government can give to local residents to move around, and I rule nothing out in the days ahead to get this problem sorted.

Q2. Can I invite the Prime Minister to visit my constituency and spend a day working with a rogue employment agency on a zero-hours contract and being paid sometimes less than the minimum wage, so that he can get an insight into the world of work for many people on his watch? (902249)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be visiting his constituency in the next 16 months. I absolutely agree with him that it is unacceptable when people pay below the minimum wage. We want to see more enforcement and action to make sure that that does not happen. It is not acceptable, we have a minimum wage for a good reason and I want to see it properly enforced.

Is it not the case that we have learned over successive years during the past two or three decades that a responsible economic policy to maximise tax yields is one that sets the tax rates at the rates that will yield the most? Tax rates set too high are the politics of envy and actually raise less in taxes.

My right hon. Friend makes a sensible point. The point of setting tax rates is to raise revenue, not to make a political point. What the Opposition want to do is make a political point because they believe in the politics of envy, not in raising money for public services. In the end the truth is this: the top 1% of taxpayers in our country are now paying 30% of the total income tax take. As I said, the richest taxpayers are actually going to be paying more in every year of this Government than when those two on the Opposition Front Bench sat in the Treasury and made such a mess of our economy.

Q3. More than 300,000 people are reported to be paid less than the minimum wage. I was heartened by what the Prime Minister just said, but if that is the case and he really is committed to the minimum wage, why have there been only two employers prosecuted in the past four years and half the level of investigations? (902250)

We have seen, I think, about 700 penalties issued for not paying the minimum wage, so we are taking enforcement action, but we need to take more enforcement action. As the Chancellor has made clear, we also want the opportunity for the minimum wage to rise. As our economy recovers, it should be possible, listening to the Low Pay Commission, to restore the value of the minimum wage. We are keen to see that happen.

Q4. I know that the Prime Minister deals in facts, and the facts are that we have more jobs in this country than ever recorded before and a growth prediction higher than anybody would have thought a year ago. Will we now consider whether the level of the minimum wage could be raised to ensure that everyone benefits from this recovery? (902252)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is extremely good news that more than 30 million people—a record number—are in work. Under this Government, the minimum wage has gone up by 10%, and our tax cut for low earners is equivalent to another 10% increase in the minimum wage, but as I have said I hope it will be possible to restore the real value of the minimum wage. We should listen and allow the Low Pay Commission to do its work—I do not want this issue to become a political football—but everyone agrees that as the economy recovers it should be possible to restore that value.

Mohammad Asghar, who lived in the UK for 40 years and has family in my constituency, has recently been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in Pakistan. Mr Asghar was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2010 and was treated in Edinburgh, but the judges refused to take that into account. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary yesterday, but can the Prime Minister now assure me that he and his Ministers are doing everything they can to support this man and see him returned to the UK, where he can get the treatment he needs?

I can certainly give the hon. Lady the assurance she asks for. I, too, am deeply concerned about this death sentence passed on Mr Mohammad Asghar. As she knows, it is our long-standing policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and the Pakistani authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness with which we view these developments. Baroness Warsi spoke to the Chief Minister of the Punjab on Monday, our high commission in Islamabad continues to raise this case with the relevant authorities and Foreign Office officials are meeting Pakistan high commission officials in London today to discuss his and other cases. We take this extremely seriously and are making that clear at every level.

Q5. Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships? (902253)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Q6. Increasingly in London, young people are finding it impossible to afford to rent or buy a home, so why, under this Government, are we seeing the lowest number of housing starts since the 1920s and a housing bubble driven by wealthy overseas buyers? (902254)

On the last point, it is this Government who are introducing capital gains tax for overseas buyers—something that the Labour party did not do in 13 years. On housing, nearly 400,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010 and huge amounts of money are going into social housing. It is also this Government who are reforming the planning system, often opposed by Labour, to make all these things happen.

Q7. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the Public Administration Committee inquiry into police recorded crime statistics has uncovered serious deficiencies in the reliability of those statistics? While crime is undoubtedly falling overall, would he agree that the Home Office should work urgently with police chiefs across the country to restore the authority of these statistics, and that police chiefs should concentrate on leadership based on values and service to the public, not on discredited targets? (902255)

In fact, we have scrapped all targets apart from the target of reducing crime, which is the most important thing that the police do.

Statistics must be as robust as possible. That is why we have transferred responsibility for crime statistics to the independent Office for National Statistics and have asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an audit on the quality of crime recording in every police force. Moreover, the Home Secretary has written to all chief constables emphasising that the police must ensure that crimes are recorded accurately and honestly.

Let me also point out to my hon. Friend, and indeed to everyone, that what is notable about the recent crime statistics is that, whether we look at crimes recorded by the police or at the British crime survey, they both show that crime is falling, and has already fallen by more than 10%.

Q8. I thank the Prime Minister for his comments about Mohammad Asghar, from Edinburgh, and endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). Dozens of the Prime Minister’s own Back Benchers have said that tomorrow they will support an amendment to the Immigration Bill which everyone knows to be totally incompatible with the European treaties, and 95 Tory MPs have demanded that the British Parliament should be able to veto every single European Union law, which, as the Prime Minister knows, is totally unworkable. The Prime Minister has given concession after concession to his anti-Europeans. When will he finally learn that they will never be satisfied with anything but British withdrawal from the European Union? (902256)

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we need to correct—and we will correct, in the Immigration Bill—the fact that it has been so difficult to deport people who do not have a right to be here, and who should be facing trial overseas or deported overseas, but advance spurious arguments about the right to a family life. It is right that we are changing that. There is nothing anti-European about it. It is a very sensible step that the Government are taking, and we should pass the Immigration Bill with all speed.

Last year, the Government successfully deported the radical cleric Abu Qatada. The new Immigration Bill will crack down on illegal immigrants and will make it easier to deport foreign criminals. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that immigration law also applies to political parties and their gurus?

I can, but I am sure that I should not comment on a case that is, I believe, currently being investigated. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, don’t tempt me.

It is an important piece of law that we will be discussing on Thursday. We do not just need to have control at our borders; we need to ensure that people cannot come to Britain and abuse our health service, or get rights to council or other housing, or bank accounts or driving licences, if they have no right to be here. The Immigration Bill makes all those important changes and many more besides, including making it possible for us to deport people before they have appealed if they do not face a risk back in their own countries. They can then appeal from overseas. Those are all very good changes, and I hope that we will not delay too much before passing this important Bill.

Q9. People in my constituency, and throughout the country, are working harder and harder just to make ends meet, as their pay is consistently outstripped by prices. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Business Secretary, who said this week that a property-fuelled recovery was the wrong sort of recovery? May I be helpful to the Prime Minister, and inform him that the answer is on page 37 of his folder? (902257)

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the Business Secretary said that it was welcome that—in terms of our GDP growth—we have seen strong growth in manufacturing and industrial production, and not just in services. I think that is important.

If we are to ensure that we genuinely help people as our economy grows, we need to cut people’s taxes. The point is that we have cut people’s taxes because we have made difficult decisions about public spending. Every single one of those decisions has been opposed by the Labour party, but if we had listened to them, people would be in a more difficult situation in respect of the cost of living, rather than a better one.

I thank the Prime Minister, on behalf of all the people of Somerset, for his announcement about the dredging of the Parrett and the Tone, where an area larger than the size of Bristol is under water and has been under water for a month. I also thank all those who are working so hard on the ground. Can I take it from the Prime Minister that he is committing the whole of the Government, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and the Treasury, to working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to deal with this situation, not just for now but for future years?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This does need to be a whole Government effort, because what I do not want to see is dredging work being held up by arguments in other Departments. We have to crack this problem. I join him in praising all of those—the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local flood wardens—who have done such valuable work, including in the Somerset Levels, but we now need to move more rapidly to issues such as dredging, which I think will help to make a long-term difference.

Q10. Mount Pleasant in my constituency is a massive development site that used to belong to Royal Mail, and therefore to all of us. It was sold for an absolute song. Is it not morally right for at least half the site to be used for local people? Independent valuers have said that the developers could build 50% genuinely affordable housing and still make a huge profit. In those circumstances and given the level of local opposition to the current plan to develop the site, would it not be outrageous for the Mayor of London to approve it? How can 12% affordable housing help with the cost of living crisis for Londoners? (902258)

I am happy to look at the site that the hon. Lady mentioned, but it is important that we allow the Mayor of London to carry out his planning responsibilities. What is important is that, when there are redevelopment opportunities, they are not endlessly blocked, because we need the development, the growth and the housing.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about Holocaust memorial day. Please let us have some respect on both sides of the House.

Holocaust memorial day took place on Monday. Would the Prime Minister join me in commending the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in educating future generations about the holocaust? Would he comment on the Holocaust Commission that he formally launched this week?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Holocaust memorial day is a very important day in our annual calendar and it gave me enormous pleasure to welcome to Downing street no fewer than 50 holocaust survivors, who talked about their stories—incredibly moving and brave stories. We should thank them for the work they have done in going into school after school, college after college, to remind people of the dangers of what happened and how we should drive out hate and prejudice from every part of our national life. The Holocaust Commission has been set up—it is cross-party, with representatives from all parties—to ask the question: as, tragically, these Holocaust survivors come to the end of their lives, what should we do as a country to ensure that the memory of this never fades? Should that be a new museum, a new way of remembering, or a way of recording their memories? All those things will be looked at and I look forward to getting the commission’s report. I am sure it will have support across the House.

Q11. Despite the rhetoric, for most ordinary people the reality is that child poverty is up, food bank usage is up, payday lending is up, energy costs are up and wages are down. The Prime Minister once said that he wanted the top job because he thought he would be good at it, so when will he start to govern for all the people in all the country? (902259)

Just to correct the first thing that came out of the hon. Gentleman’s mouth, under this Government child poverty is down, on the measure that he prefers. Frankly, I am not satisfied with the measure. I think we need a better measure, but what I would say to him is that employment is up, growth is up and the number of businesses is up. Yes, we have a long way to go to restore our economic fortunes, but we have a long-term economic plan. It is delivering for Britain’s families. We have got to stick at it.

Q12. I am very pleased to report that large companies are finding Watford a very attractive place to do business. I would like to mention Wickes in particular, which is setting up its headquarters in Watford, with 200 new jobs, next week. I am very pleased about that, but I must report that at a recent meeting at Wenta, the enterprise hub in Watford which I visited last week, I saw quite a few small businesses such as AC Solutions and Pocketfit Training, and they told me that they were very frustrated by the amount of bureaucracy and red tape that is hindering their business. I would like to ask the Prime Minister what his Government intend to do about that. (902260)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about the business environment in Watford. We have helped businesses with taxes. We are helping with red tape. We are helping them with their exports. On red tape, this is going to be the first Government in modern history who at the end of the Parliament will have less regulation in place than at the beginning. I commend the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for its work, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy for his heroic efforts to get that legislation and those regulations on to websites so that people can tell us what we can remove. We are on target for scrapping 3,000 regulations under this Government, something of which we can be proud.

Q13. This month, Cabinet papers have revealed that the Thatcher Government sought to escalate the miners’ strike, close pits and undermine solidarity. The scars from that dispute run deep in communities such as Wigan, where some families have never recovered and where people have died while waiting for justice. Thirty years on, those communities deserve the truth and an apology. Why are they still waiting? (902261)

As the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said, we now have a system for releasing paperwork from 10, 20 and 30 years ago, and we should stick to that. I have to say that if anyone needs to make an apology for their role in the miners’ strike, it should be Arthur Scargill for the appalling way in which he led that union. While we are at it, if we want to ask about other people’s roles, there was the role of the then leader of the Labour party, who at the time never condemned the fact that they would not hold a ballot. So I think there are lessons for Labour to learn, and judging by their performance today, they have not learned any of them.

The Prime Minister is an ex officio Church Commissioner, and he will be aware of the plans to house the new Bishop of Bath and Wells outside the city. Will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to postpone the loss of the bishop’s palace in Wells, which has served perfectly well as the residence of the bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years?

That might well be a question for the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who guides me on these important issues, but I will go away and look into the issue of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I shall try to put the image of Blackadder out of my mind and to come up with the right answer.

If we are to have a Parliament that reflects the people that it serves, the Prime Minister must be disappointed that one in 10 of his women MPs who came into Parliament in 2010 have indicated that they will not stand again, and that one of his most senior women Select Committee Chairs is now facing deselection. What is the Tory party’s problem with women?

I am immensely proud of the fact that, while in the last Parliament we had 19 women Conservative MPs, the figure has risen to closer to 50 in this Parliament. That is progress. Do I want us to go further and faster? Yes I do, and we will start by targeting the hon. Gentleman’s seat at the next election.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on sticking to their economic guns, which is producing prosperity for the kingdom, not least in Aldershot, where the number of JSA claimants has decreased by a third over the past year. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it would be a huge and foolish mistake if the British people were to place their trust in the shadow Chancellor, who has never owned up to the last Labour Government’s responsibility for the catastrophic budget deficit and who now sticks to the unreconstructed socialist policy of tax and spend, which would ruin Britain?

My hon. Friend makes his point with characteristic strength and clarity. The fact is that the Labour party has learned no lessons from the past and says that it would do it all over again. It has tax and employment policies that would cost jobs, and businesses are now saying that it has not got a clue. I do not know whether Members have seen the film “Gravity”, but the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor remind me of two people who have stepped out into a void with absolutely no idea of what to do next. Like that great film, this is a tragedy made right here in Britain.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s welcome recognition at last week’s PMQs that Brighton is indeed a superb and sunny place, will he come and visit the Brighton Energy Co-operative in my constituency, which demonstrates the real potential of community renewables, particularly solar power? Will he also acknowledge that if the Government’s new community energy strategy were to include the provision for energy providers to sell directly to consumers, it would have far more potential? Will he pursue that strategy instead of his evidence-free fantasies about fracking?

I am sure that I will be in Brighton before long, and I look forward to hearing the renewable energy story there. I would say that we need both of those things. We have now set out the strike prices and brought in the Energy Act, so that we can be a real magnet for investment in renewable energy, but I also think that we should take advantage of shale gas, because it provides an opportunity to have clean gas, helping to keep our energy bills down. I would say to those in the green movement who oppose shale gas simply because it includes carbon that that is a deeply misguided approach. We want to have affordable energy as well as green energy. That should be our goal.