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Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014

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

London is a 24/7 global city, and the commercial centre of the western world. Given that the economy is growing and unemployment is falling, does the Prime Minister agree that the efforts of the RMT to bring London to a halt by means of a tube strike is nothing short of economic vandalism?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. There is absolutely no justification for a strike. We need a modernised tube line working for the millions of Londoners who use it every day. The fact is that only 3% of transactions now involve ticket offices, so it makes sense to have fewer people in those offices, but more people on the platforms and in the stations.

I unreservedly condemn this strike. When the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), was asked to do so today, he said that it was a matter for the union, so I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will stand up and condemn it unreservedly now.

The ongoing floods and storms have caused families to be driven out of their homes, and are affecting significant parts of the country. As the Prime Minister knows, many of those who have been affected feel that the Government’s response has been slow, and that more could have been done sooner. Will he tell the House what action is now being taken to ensure that the affected areas are given all the support that they need?

Let me update the House on this very serious situation. I do not accept that the Government have been slow—we have been having Cobra meetings on a daily basis, and we have taken action right across the board—but let me give the latest figures.

Currently, 328 properties are flooded, 122,000 were protected last night because of the flood prevention measures that are in place, and 1.2 million have been protected since December. There are still seven severe flood warnings in place across the coast of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. There are 69 flood warnings in place, which means that more flooding is expected, and that immediate action is required. The Environment Agency also has 219 flood alerts in place. There has been a serious situation in Dorset, with many people losing their electricity. More than 60,000 homes have been reconnected overnight, but, as of this morning, there are still 8,000 homes without power.

Whatever is required—whether it is dredging on the Rivers Tone and Parrett, support for our emergency services, fresh money for flood defences, or action across the board—the Government will help those families, and will get this issue sorted.

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s response, he will know that many people in the affected areas feel that the response has been too slow, and that they have been left on their own and isolated. Does he agree that the events that we have seen demand a comprehensive look at the Government’s investment in flood protection, and the speed of their response?

The Prime Minister promised that the Government would report to the House on these issues by the end of January. Can he tell us when that report will be available?

The Secretary of State for the Environment has given repeated statements in this House, but I can tell the House that he will make a comprehensive statement tomorrow.

Let me answer very directly the issue about flooding. This Government have spent £2.4 billion over this four-year period, which is more than the £2.2 billion spent under the previous Government, but let me announce today that a further £100 million will be made available to fund essential flood repairs and maintenance over the next year. This will cover £75 million for repairs, £10 million for urgent work in Somerset to deliver the action plan being prepared by the local agencies and £15 million for extra maintenance. I make the point that we are only able to make these decisions because we have looked after the nation’s finances carefully. I can confirm that that is new money that will protect more houses and help our country more with floods, and we will continue to do what is right.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that the figures actually show that investment by the Government has fallen not risen over the period, but the reality is that the scale of the challenge we face from climate change and floods demands that we have that comprehensive look at the investment that is required. I am glad that the Prime Minister has said the Environment Secretary will come to the House tomorrow.

I want to turn to another subject. The Prime Minister said that in 2014 he was going to lead the way on women’s equality. Can he tell us how that is going in the Conservative party?

Order. People are getting very excited on both sides of the House. The question has been posed; the answer must be heard.

I am glad that, with Falkirk going on, the right hon. Gentleman is asking me about constituency selection, but let me briefly return to the issue of floods, because I want to clarify this point about the funding. In the period 2010 to 2014, when this Government were in office, the funding was £2.4 billion—more than when Labour was in office. Secondly, let me say—this will be of interest to a number of constituency MPs—that when it comes to funding, the Bellwin scheme also matters because it is the way in which the Government support local authorities. So let me tell the House—[Interruption.] Let me tell the House—[Interruption.]

I know that many hon. Members with flooded homes in their constituencies will want to hear about the Bellwin scheme, because it is the way in which central Government help local government, so let me say we will be paying local authorities 100% of eligible costs above the Bellwin grant threshold, we will be extending the eligible—[Interruption.]

Order. However long this session takes, the questions will be heard and the answers will be heard. That is what—[Interruption.] Order. That is what the public have a right to expect of this House.

Labour Members claim to be concerned, but then will not listen to the answers. We are extending the eligible spending period for Bellwin claims until the end of March 2014, recognising that the bad weather is continuing, and I can say to colleagues in Cornwall that we will make sure they do not suffer from having a unitary authority, which I know they believe is very important.

On the important issue of getting more women into public life—[Interruption.] Yes, this is fantastically important for our country, because we will not represent or govern our country properly unless we have more women at every level in our public life and in our politics. I am proud of the fact that while I have been leader of the party the number of women Conservative MPs has gone from 17 to 48, but we need to do much more. I want this to go further. We have also seen more women in work than ever before and a tax cut for 11 million women; we have stopped pensions discriminating against women; and we are putting women at the front of our international aid programmes. Those are the actions we are taking. There is more to do, but we have a good record of helping women in our economy.

I have to say—[Interruption.] I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words. This is a Prime Minister who says—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt again. Members, calm yourselves: it is only just after midday; many hours of the day remain; do not destroy your systems by exploding.

A picture tells a thousand words. Look at the all-male Front Bench ranged before us. The Prime Minister says that he wants to represent the whole country. I guess they did not let women into the Bullingdon club either, so there we go. He said that a third of his Ministers would be women; he is nowhere near meeting that target. Half the women he appointed as Ministers after the election have resigned or been sacked. And in his Cabinet—get this, Mr Speaker—there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster as there are women. That is the picture. Does he think it is his fault that the Conservative party has a problem with women?

The right hon. Gentleman is interested in the figures; let me give him the figures. Of the full members of the Cabinet who are Conservatives, 24%—a quarter of them—are women. That is not enough; I want to see that grow. Of the Front-Bench Conservative Ministers, around 20% are women. That is below the 33% that I want to achieve. We are making progress, and we will make more progress. Let me make this point: this party is proud of the fact that we had a woman Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gove, you really are a very over-excitable individual. You need to write out 1,000 times “I will behave myself at Prime Minister’s questions”.

To be fair to the Labour party, it has had some interim leaders who have been women, but it has a habit of replacing them with totally ineffective men.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Lady Thatcher. Unlike him, she was a Tory leader who won general elections. I notice that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is in his place. He wrote an interesting article recently, in which he said:

“We men are all guilty of such unconscious slights to women”.

The Prime Minister recently greeted a leading high-profile businesswoman at a reception by asking, “Where’s your husband?” That says it all. The reason that representation matters is that it shapes the policies that a Government introduce and how they impact on women in this country. He is failing women. Can he say why, for the first time in five years, the gap between men’s and women’s pay has increased?

The fact is that there are more women in work in our country than ever before in our history. We have seen a tax cut for 12 million women, a pension increase that is benefiting women, tax-free child care that will help women who want to go out to work and more support on child care. The right hon. Gentleman talks about MPs and candidates; he might enjoy this one. The Labour candidate for Wythenshawe has made an endorsement today. He has endorsed Miliband—David Miliband.

If I were the right hon. Gentleman, I would not be talking about candidates, this week of all weeks. What is the Tory party doing? It is removing one of its most senior women and seeking to replace her with an Old Etonian. That says it all about the Conservative party. He did not answer my question, so I will tell him why the gender pay gap is increasing. It is because the minimum wage has been losing value, there is a growth in zero-hours contracts and women have a problem accessing child care. He promised to modernise his party, but he is going backwards. He runs his Government like the old boys’ network. That is why he is failing women across his party and across the country.

Is it not interesting that with six questions and an invitation to condemn the strike today, we heard not a word from the right hon. Gentleman? Is this not the truth: he raises constituency selections in a week when he has completely rolled over to the trade unions? Let us be clear about what is happening: they keep their block vote, they get more power over their discretionary funding and they get 90% of the votes for Labour’s leader. He told us that he was going to get rid of the red flag—all he has done is run up the white flag.

Q2. With 40 firms in west Norfolk, led by Bespak and Gilchrist Confectionery, expanding, which has led to unemployment falling by 20% since March last year, is the Prime Minister aware that another 440 hard-working families have been receiving a pay packet and facing a brighter future under our long-term economic plan? (902399)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: two weeks ago, we saw the biggest increase in employment in one set of quarterly figures since records began in the 1970s; we are seeing unemployment come down and more people in work; most of those new jobs—the overwhelming majority—are full-time jobs; and nine out of 10 of those jobs over the past year have been in better-paid professions, rather than low-paid jobs. So we are seeing economic success, and every one of those jobs is not just a statistic; it is someone with a pay packet who can help take care of their family, and have the dignity and security that work brings. Is it not surprising that we heard not a word about the economy today from Labour Members? As they know, that is because it is growing and all their forecasts were wrong.

In evidence to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the leader of the Welsh Conservative Assembly group said that the lockstep on income tax in the draft Wales Bill was not

“a sensible course of action”.

Subsequently that day, the Secretary of State for Wales said that the Assembly group leader was expressing

“very much a personal view of his own.”

Later, the Secretary of State received a letter from the Welsh Conservative Assembly group saying that it was very much its opinion. Who speaks for Wales? Is it the Secretary of State for Wales or the leader of that Assembly group?

The Secretary of State is doing a superb job standing up for Wales. Only yesterday, he and I were discussing how we are going to make sure that the NATO conference coming to Wales will be a success for the whole of the Welsh economy. On the future of devolution, we are in favour of taking these further steps, and we will be bringing forward legislation. We will be taking steps and making sure that people in Wales have a real say. I want the Conservatives in Wales to stand up as the low-tax party in Wales, and under our devolution plan that is exactly what they will do.

Q3. A couple of weeks ago, the Daventry university technical college opened the doors to its new campus, where, under the stewardship of its excellent principal, David Edmondson, its first 96 students will be learning the vocational skills that young people need to compete in the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that university technical colleges such as Daventry’s will ensure that young people across our country have a brighter and more secure future, and are able to reap the benefits of our long-term economic plan? (902400)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; making sure we have the best skills and the best schools is an absolutely key part of our long-term economic plan, and I support very much the university technical college movement. The number of pupils taught in underperforming schools under this Government has fallen by 250,000 in four years. Again, that is not just a statistic; it is tens of thousands of young people who are going to have the chance of a good education, a good future, and the chance to get a job and get involved in our modern economy. UTCs are well placed to help thousands of students in that way.

When, on 22 February 2012, I asked the Prime Minister about fraud at A4e, a company working with jobseekers, he told me that he was waiting for the truth before he would act. This week’s guilty pleas by A4e staff reveal a culture of fraud in that company. Is not the list of taxpayer-funded fraudsters—Serco, G4S, A4e—getting too long? When is it going to stop?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The answer I would give is that instead of bandying around names of companies, where many people in them will be working hard to do a good job, what we should do is investigate wrongdoing properly and make sure that cases are properly taken to court, as this case clearly was.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister share my outrage at the false choice presented by the chairman of the Environment Agency between protecting urban areas and protecting rural areas from flood? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that my constituents in Holderness, and people in the Somerset levels and elsewhere, expect decent maintenance and dredging, and not abandonment? (902401)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there should not be a false choice between protecting the town or protecting people who live in the countryside. What we are now seeing, quite rightly, is a shift in the debate. From the late 1990s, for far too long, the Environment Agency believed that it was wrong to dredge. Those of us with rural constituencies that have been affected by flooding have seen the effectiveness of some dredging that has taken place. If it is good for some places, we need to make the argument that it would be good for many more places. I have said that we will see dredging on the Tone and the Parrett in the Somerset levels, because that will make a difference, but it is time for Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Departments to sit around a table and work out a new approach that will ensure that something that worked for decades and centuries is reintroduced again.

Queen Victoria was on the throne when the Dunlop factory in Erdington first produced world-class tyres for the motorsport industry. Jaguar Land Rover now needs the land for the welcome expansion of the Jaguar plant. The Business Secretary and Birmingham city council have identified three sites and a financial package so that Goodyear Dunlop can relocate. Will the Prime Minister join the Business Secretary and me in urging it to look at those alternatives and not walk away from 125 years of manufacturing history?

I was being briefed on that issue just before coming to the Chamber. I am happy to look carefully at it and see what can be done. The recovery of the automotive sector, particularly in the west midlands, has been hugely welcome for our country. Dunlop is an historic name and an historic brand, and I will do everything that I can to work with the Business Secretary and the hon. Gentleman to get a good outcome.

Q6. South Essex is proof that our long-term economic plan is working. However, the current options under consideration for an additional Lower Thames Crossing are limited in their ambition and do not maximise the economic potential of the Thames Gateway. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and other interested colleagues so that he can hear why option A and certainly option C are not the right answers? (902403)

Where Essex goes so often the rest of the country follows, as my hon. Friend says. This is an important issue. We must consider all the potential bottlenecks that can hold back our economy. I am happy to meet him and colleagues. The Thames Gateway is an absolutely vital development for our country, and I want to see economic development spread throughout our country, so I am happy to hold that meeting.

Q7. Royal Mail shares are currently trading at 587 pence, almost 80% higher than when the Government sold off their share. Does the Prime Minister still honestly believe that his Government properly valued Royal Mail and that the price was set to secure the best deal for the taxpayer? (902404)

The Government did a good job to get private sector capital into Royal Mail. Frankly, that is something that has evaded Governments of all colours and all persuasions for decades. I well remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and hearing about the appalling losses in Royal Mail—tens and hundreds of millions of pounds. The fact that it is now well managed, well run and, with private sector capital in, it is a great development for our country.

Q8. In Erewash, we have a proud and strong history of supporting apprenticeships across a range of sectors. With national apprenticeship week taking place next month, does my right hon. Friend agree that the emphasis and drive of this Government on increasing apprenticeships—for men and women—is exactly what is needed to support people getting back into work and training? (902405)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have invested record amounts in apprenticeships. More than 1.5 million people have started apprenticeships, many of whom come from the east midlands, including those whom I met with her in her constituency. Again, those are not just statistics. Each and every one of those apprentices is someone who is getting a chance, a skill, a job and an opportunity to build a life for themselves and to build that stability, peace of mind and security that should be the birthright of every single person in our country.

The loss of the railway line at Dawlish in the overnight storms is a devastating blow to the economies of Devon and Cornwall. It comes just a year after we lost our railway service for a whole month because of flooding. Does the Prime Minister accept that we, as a country, will have to spend a great deal more investing in the resilience of our transport infrastructure and that we need a Government who are united in their acceptance of, and their determination to do something about, climate change?

I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman on a number of points. First, we need to ensure that urgent action is taken to restore the transport links and that is why I will chair Cobra this afternoon, bringing together the problems of the power reductions, the floods and the effect on transport. Secondly, we must ensure that we go on investing in rail schemes and this Government are putting record amounts into such rail schemes. The third point, on which I totally agree with him, is that we need to continue the analysis of the resilience of our infrastructure that is now carried out by the Cabinet Office. Where extra investment and protections are needed, they must be put in place.

Q9. The Prime Minister recently visited Vent-Axia in my constituency, a company that has brought manufacturing jobs back to this country from China. What are the Government doing to encourage more reshoring of jobs to the UK as part of our long-term economic plan? (902406)

It was a huge pleasure to go to Crawley with my hon. Friend and see that company, which makes ventilation equipment, bringing jobs from China back to the UK. That is a small trend at the moment, as 1,500 jobs in manufacturing have been reshored since 2011. If we manage to ensure that our energy market is competitive, if we keep our labour markets flexible and competitive and if we make this a friendly country for business with low tax rates, including low corporate tax rates, there is no reason why we should not see more companies coming back to Britain. We will not get that with an anti-enterprise, anti-business, anti-growth Labour party.

Q10. Last week, the Care Quality Commission issued an appalling and damning report on Liverpool community health. Will the Prime Minister undertake to have the historic HR practices, the disciplinary actions and the subsequent pay-offs that were used as a mechanism to bully staff forensically examined and to ensure that the executive team and the board are held to account, making the huge statement that bullying is not acceptable in the NHS? (902407)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise both the specific case and the general lessons it brings. Of course, we still have more to do, but I think the CQC is a hugely improved organisation. We now have a chief inspector of hospitals. It is all much more transparent than it was in the past, but I am very happy to look at the hon. Lady’s specific concerns about bullying and to ensure that the CQC deals with that. This week is the anniversary of the dreadful report into Stafford hospital and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is absolutely committed to ensuring that there is a change of culture in the NHS so that we do not put up with poor practice, so that when there are problems we are not afraid or ashamed to surface them, and so that we do not just talk about those problems but deal with them.

Q11. In my constituency, business confidence is growing and unemployment has fallen by more than a quarter in the past 12 months. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we should take no lectures from the shadow Chancellor, particularly given the green budget report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said:“The largest challenge for the Chancellor remains having to contend with the consequences of the Great Recession”—a recession caused by the Labour party? (902408)

My hon. Friend makes an important point and the IFS report, out this morning, states that the change in economic outlook from a year ago is “really quite remarkable”, and:

“The UK recovery is getting ever closer to achieving ‘escape velocity’”.

[Interruption.] We keep being told by the shadow Chancellor that it is about time, but if we had listened to him, there would have been more borrowing, more spending, more taxing and more debt. His view is very clear: if we gave him back the keys to the car, he would drive it just as fast into the same wall and wreck the economy all over again.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister make clear whether he will still, quite wrongly, try to end the ban on fox hunting? (902409)

My view remains that which was in the manifesto on which I stood—that is, that the House of Commons should have the opportunity for a debate and a vote on the issue.

Does my right hon. Friend share the anxiety of many of us that the programme for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria has fallen so badly behind?

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that after a very promising start, with chemicals not only being discovered and removed but destroyed, there seem to be indications that the programme is now slowing and that not all the necessary information is forthcoming. I discussed the issue in a telephone call with President Putin some 48 hours ago. Britain will continue to put pressure on all parties to ensure that chemical weapons are produced and destroyed.

Q13. Overseas students who are offered places at top British universities get extra coaching in English and maths, but hard-working Hackney students from poor backgrounds with top A-level predictions are not even offered a place if they have a grade C in maths. That is not fair and does not help social mobility. What is the Prime Minister going to do to support hard-working Hackney students? (902410)

First, we must continue with what has been happening in Hackney, which is the introduction of new academy schools, such as the Mossbourne academy, which is one of the most impressive schools I have ever visited anywhere in the world. We must also continue with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s plan to uncap student numbers at our universities so that anyone who can get the grades is able to have a place there. On the hon. Lady’s specific point about GCSE grades, we have to be clear that, in the end, it is universities that set the criteria, rather than the Government, but I am very happy to look at the specific issue. I also believe that, as the Education Secretary has said, if people do not get the right grades at GCSE, particularly in English and maths, we ought to encourage retakes and more work. The reason for that is that there is not a job in the world that does not require good English and maths. That is a very important message to go out.

No doubt the Prime Minister saw the scenes of destruction resulting from storm damage in Dawlish in my constituency. Our railway line is out of action, 25 families have been evacuated and one house is about to fall into the sea. Devon and Cornwall feel cut off. Can he confirm that he is taking all the action possible to get transport systems back in action and families back into their homes and, crucially, that he will look at fast-tracking a review of the funding for a breakwater to protect the railway line and residents, which currently cannot be implemented until 2019 because of lack of funding?

I am very happy to look at all the suggestions my hon. Friend makes. That is why we are holding the meeting of Cobra this afternoon. Members right across the House will know that that railway line is not only a vital artery for the south-west, but one of the most scenic and beautiful lines anywhere in our country, so what has happened is hugely upsetting and disturbing. We will look at all the options, and we will do so with great urgency.

Q14. The Prime Minister will be aware of the investigation into the systematic beating, abuse and rape of young men and boys at the former Medomsley detention centre in my constituency. The victim toll has now topped 300. It is the biggest investigation ever undertaken by Durham constabulary, which is a relatively small police force. Will he give a commitment that, if it proves necessary, his Home Secretary will meet the police and crime commissioner, the chief constable and myself to ensure that that highly successful team have the resources they need to see the investigation to its conclusion? The victims deserve no less. (902411)

I am very happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance. I do not support the police merger ideas of the past and think that some of our smaller police forces are hugely capable, but when they are doing such large and complex investigations, they occasionally need help and support, so we should ensure that it is available. I am very pleased with the work the National Crime Agency is doing. It is now fully established, up and running and able to deal with some of the more serious crimes—people smuggling, sexual abuse and the like—and I think that we will hear more from it about the great work it is doing.

While I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the European Union (Referendum) Bill, and the whole House of Commons on passing it, will he tell us whether the dead parrot is merely resting? Does he have a Baldrick-like plan to use the Parliament Act so that we can get it squawking again?

I hope that particular parrot, which obviously has beautiful plumage, can be resuscitated if one of my colleagues is fortunate enough to win the private Member’s Bill ballot. We on this side of the House know that the British public deserve a say, and I am sure that one of my colleagues would be delighted to bring the Bill back in front of the House. Let us be clear—because the Opposition have all gone a bit quiet over there—about why the Bill was killed in the House of Lords: the Labour party and, I am afraid to say, the Liberal Democrats do not want to give the British people a say. This House should feel affronted, frankly, because we supported and voted for the Bill, so I hope that it will come together as one and insist on the Bill.

Q15. In the Chancellor’s Budget of 2105, he made a very welcome announcement about tax breaks for the computer games industry. That was passed on to the European Commission last April, but since then we have heard nothing. The games body, TIGA, is saying that this is having a very detrimental effect on the industry. Will the Prime Minister and, indeed, the Chancellor do something to address this delay? (902412)

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I think it is perfectly within a Government’s rights to set out a way of helping and supporting vital industries such as this which are so important for the future of our country. We are discussing it with the European Commission and we are hopeful of good news to come shortly.

Following the questions from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), it is absolutely true that following the most recent storms, residents in Cornwall have been concerned that England will be completely cut off. In view of that, while MPs from Cornwall and the south-west have been content to support the billions of pounds necessary for HS2 and other transport projects to the north, does the Prime Minister accept that relatively small amounts are now needed to ensure the resilience of the rail line between Penzance and Paddington?

I know from personal experience how vital the Penzance to Paddington link is and how many people rely on it, so I am happy to look at this very urgently. Let me repeat something I was trying to say at the beginning of questions about the Bellwin scheme. I know that Cornish Members of Parliament are concerned that now they have a unitary authority, they would need a very big claim before triggering Bellwin. We are sorting that out so that the money and the assistance will be there. On the transport links, it is an urgent requirement to get this right.