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Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2014

Q4. Crime is down by 10% and our excellent Home Secretary’s police reforms are allowing good officers to do more with less. Will the Prime Minister implement the Normington reforms of the Police Federation immediately so that police culture can be further improved? (902546)

We are working with the Police Federation on this issue, and it is clearly an organisation in need of reform. To be fair, the new head of the Police Federation—whom I have met—recognises that and wants to act, and I think we should support him in sorting out that organisation so that it better represents its members.

Q5. Two weeks ago, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury refused to rule out any further tax cuts for millionaires, but last week he said that that would be over his dead body. Can the Prime Minister help him out today by ruling out any further tax cuts for top earners, or should his Chief Secretary be looking to up his life insurance? (902547)

I saw the Chief Secretary this morning at Cobra and he looked alive and well to me, so the hon. Lady does not have any worries on that front. I have said that that is not our priority; our priority is to cut taxes for low and middle earners, and that is what we have done. When it comes to April this year, her constituents will be able to earn £10,000 without paying any income tax at all. That is equivalent to a 10% increase in the minimum wage, and means that their income tax bill will have gone down by two thirds under this Government. Those are the sorts of tax cuts that we are interested in.

May I thank the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for their personal engagement with our issues on the Somerset levels, and may I ask the Prime Minister a question that I do not think the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government quite grasped on Monday? When the emergency, the crisis phase of this problem, is over, we must have sustainable plans to protect people on the Somerset levels. That will require a revenue stream that will come through local government, and that means changes to the way that is administered. When we have those detailed plans, will the Prime Minister meet me and others from Somerset to ensure that we have a sustainable future?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other MPs from Somerset, and I have visited twice to see for myself. The problem at the moment, as we know, is simply the pumping capacity. It is now taking 3 million tonnes—soon 5 million tonnes—of water off the Somerset levels, but because there are 65 million tonnes, or more, of water on the levels, it is going to take time. What we need to do once that water level starts to come down is get the dredging going, and then work out the long-term programme for ensuring that this man-made environment is properly looked after by man, so that it is sustainable for the future. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss that.

Q6. Conditions outside are dreadful; the voluntary sector, emergency services and individuals have been amazing, but people and businesses are angry. In my region, the south-west, people are angry because of what they see as the excessive costs of High Speed 2, when the whole of the west country is without a resilient rail network. The money that was announced—reannounced—today, is welcome but not enough. Will the Prime Minister commit in the medium term to ensuring that he supports growth and recovery in the region, and that Plymouth is put on the strategic road transport network? It is not there at the moment, and it should be. (902548)

I would make three quick points to the hon. Lady. I totally understand her concern and the concern of her constituents. First, I do not want anyone to be under the misapprehension that HS2 will be built at the expense of the west country—it will not. In the next Parliament, we will spend three times more on other road and rail schemes as we will spend on HS2, and some of those schemes will directly benefit people in the west country. Secondly, while we are working as fast as we can to restore the Dawlish link, we need to look at longer-term alternatives, and I have discussed that with Network Rail and First Great Western to see what more can be done. Thirdly, in the meantime, while Dawlish is as it is, we need to go on boosting the air services to the peninsula. That is why I met Flybe in Newquay. It has doubled the number of flights and we have taken £5 off the cost of each of those flights. We also need to make sure that the replacement bus services are as good as they can be. If we do all those things, that will lessen the impact of this tragedy for the west country.

Q7. With flooding in Frampton for residents and for businesses in Woodchester, and more risks to my constituency associated with warnings for the Severn estuary, does the Prime Minister agree that the action taken so far by various agencies and councils has been helpful? Can he reassure my constituents that the Government will continue to invest in flood defences? (902549)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is right to mention the difficulties on the River Severn, because the River Severn, the River Tame and the River Wye are all expected to respond to recent rainfall, and levels are likely to go up. In terms of the Thames, I should tell the House that a second peak in Thames levels is expected on Sunday and Monday, which could potentially put 800 properties at risk. We will go on doing whatever we can to help people—getting people to communities before they are flooded. It is worth making the point, to be fair to the previous Government as well as this one, that all the schemes that have been built since the 2007 floods, when 55,000 homes were flooded, are now protecting well over 1 million properties that would have been flooded this time around, were it not for the important work that has been done.

Q8. This week Shelter found that house prices have been rising faster than wages in most parts of the country. Does the Prime Minister not agree that the lack of affordable housing is making the cost of living crisis worse for millions of people across our country? Will he confirm that this Government have presided over the fewest new homes built since the 1920s? (902550)

Housing starts are up from the dreadful situation we were left by the previous Government. We are now investing huge amounts into affordable housing. I make no apology for the fact that it is right to deal with the demand side on housing, as well as the supply side. Programmes such as Help to Buy are helping to get builders building, because builders will not build unless they believe that buyers are able to buy. We are fixing this problem and house building is rising.

Parts of my constituency are suffering from flooding. I want to put on record my thanks to the council officers from West Berkshire council and Reading borough council, the volunteer flood wardens in places such as Purley and the soldiers of the 7th Battalion the Rifles for the work they are doing to help my constituents. I welcome the schemes the Prime Minister has talked about to help individuals and businesses. Will he ensure that the details of those schemes are made available to everyone affected, so that they can make use of them?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he is working very hard to bring people together in his own constituency to make sure that everything that can be done in Reading is done. Obviously, they will be concerned about the rise in the Thames. We will publish details of all the announcements I have made, and we will add into that the fact that the major banks are coming forward with more than £750 million of financial support, which will mean repayment holidays, reduced or waived fees, loan extensions, increased flexibility of terms and specialist support teams deployed on the ground for businesses and farmers who desperately need help. It is a time for our insurance companies and our banks to demonstrate real social responsibility. I believe that they are beginning to do that and we should encourage them to do so.

Q9. Does the Prime agree that, after months of letting energy companies get away with increasing their profits on the back of hard-working people across the country, the Energy Secretary’s letter to the regulator this week was simply too little, too late? (902551)

The Energy Secretary was right to write to Ofgem, because it is part of the competition review we have announced. It is on this side of the House that we have delivered the £50 off bills by rolling back the cost of the green levies. That is the right approach, rather than promising a freeze that only means prices will go up.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the success of coalition policies in helping to create more jobs than forecast is very encouraging? Does he also agree that to get sustained growth we need businesses to invest more? Will he do all he can to support my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary in encouraging more business investment?

In this next stage of the recovery, an increase in business investment is what we need to see. I think there are positive signs from the last GDP numbers. My hon. Friend talks about there being more jobs than forecast. It is worth remembering that the Leader of the Opposition told the CBI in October 2010:

“They have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million…jobs.”

Since he made that statement, we have seen 1.6 million new private sector jobs and 1.3 million more people in work—more forecasts like that please.

Q10. With almost 1 million young people unemployed and the Work programme, in the Chancellor’s own words, underperforming, will the Prime Minister think again and introduce Labour’s youth jobs guarantee? (902552)

The Work programme has done an excellent job in getting people into work. If we look at the job creation record under this Government, we see, as I have just said, 1.3 million more people in work, a reduction in youth unemployment and a reduction in long-term unemployment. There are more people in our work force than ever before. There is always more to do to get young people into work. The best schemes we have had are those such as the work experience scheme, which seem to be providing real hope and jobs for our young people.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to Plymouth on Monday to see for himself how hard First Great Western is working to try to get trains back on track? One thing that would be incredibly helpful would be to ensure we have a timetable for those actions so that we can deliver a resilient railway line as well.

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Obviously the gap in rail provision created by the Dawlish disaster will take time to deal with. Above and beyond that, I know that what he and people in Plymouth want is a timetable for achieving a three-hour service to Plymouth and for more trains to arrive early in the morning. As I have said, we have a longer-term programme of looking at rail alternatives at the same time as restoring the Dawlish line.

Q11. With economic growth delayed for three years after the election, we have been left—[Interruption.] We have been left with more young people out of work long term than at any time for 20 years. Surely we must do more so that we do not waste the potential of a generation. (902553)

I can only think that the right hon. Gentleman is suffering from a form of memory loss. He was a Treasury Minister when we lost 7% of our GDP, when youth unemployment doubled, and when people were being thrown out of work. Under this Government, 1.3 million more people are in work, young people are getting back to work and, while countries elsewhere are struggling, our economy is growing. That is partly because we took tough and difficult decisions to get the budget deficit, which he and his henchmen left us, under control.

Unfortunately, some tourist concerns in my constituency have reported lost bookings, partly as a result of over-sensationalising of the crisis. When the crisis is over, will the Prime Minister talk to the Treasury about allocating a sum of money to market the far south-west to potential visitors and businesses, to get the message across that we really are open for business?

This was a point made to me by a number of the businesses that I visited in Cornwall and Devon over the last couple of days, all wanting to see much more advertising and publicity about how the area is open for business. I will take every opportunity I have to help with that issue. When the Dawlish line is restored, it will be a big moment to market the benefits of Devon and Cornwall, where I have been on holiday myself.

Q12. May I invite the Prime Minister to recall the day that he asked the country to imagine a Tory Government who would be the most family-friendly in Europe? When he reflects on that day, will he also consider the recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research that shows that the cost of raising a child and getting him or her through university has risen by £5,000 in one year? Does he think that for most families money is no object? (902554)

Many families have faced a very tough time in this country, not least because of the appalling recession that we had under the Labour party. But this Government have taken steps to encourage flexible working; we are introducing tax-free child care; and we have supported more child care for more families than the last Government did, helping two, three and four-year-olds. We have the new rules on shared parental leave and, above all, many families now have someone in work because the economy is moving and businesses are employing people. Those 1.3 million extra jobs mean 1.3 million more families with the security and peace of mind of a regular pay cheque coming in. That is the best way to help our families.

May I remind the Prime Minister that in 1998 Northampton suffered serious floods, sadly killing two people and affecting 2,000 houses? Since that time I have noticed that we have not over-bothered not to build on floodplains. After this episode has been dealt with and his time is more readily available, will he ensure that we do not build on floodplains so that people are not inconvenienced in this way?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. The figures suggest that, in applications to build properties on flood plains, the official advice, which includes the advice from the Environment Agency, is followed on 99% of occasions. It is worth remembering that areas such as London are part of flood plains, so it is not possible simply to say that no house can ever be built on a flood plain, but we need to look at the rules, listen to the experts and ensure we build only where we can protect.

Q13. Thanks to Labour in the Scottish Parliament, Scots may soon be free of the iniquitous bedroom tax, so will the Prime Minister today give an assurance to the House and the Scottish people that he will work with the Scottish Government to help bring that about, or, better still, scrap that hated tax for everyone in Britain? If he will not, Labour will. (902555)

Obviously, under our devolved system, different parts of the United Kingdom can make different decisions to spend money as they choose. My view is that it is not fair to tell someone in private rented accommodation that they do not get money for extra bedrooms and tell someone in social accommodation that they do. It is a basic issue of fairness, which is why it has overwhelming public support.

Q14. Last week, I undertook a one and a half hour walk organised by Guide Dogs for the Blind to experience at first hand the difficulties that blind and partially sighted people experience as pedestrians—it was very tricky. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the recommendations of that organisation on shared surface streets? (902556)

I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. Everyone has noticed the huge amount of improvements that have been made to the way in which streets, traffic lights and pavements are arranged for that purpose. I am happy to look at what he says and see what more needs to be done.

Q15. If the Prime Minister believes that flood defence is so important, why did he cut the budget when he came into office? (902557)

As I have explained, we will be spending £2.4 billion in this four-year period, which compares with £2.2 billion under Labour. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that 2.4 is more than 2.2. Also, by setting out the spending figures all the way up to 2020, he must ask the shadow Chancellor, who is back in the gesticulation game, whether, if he has a zero-based budget review, he has to admit to his colleagues that he cannot guarantee to match any of the spending we have announced. Silence.

The Prime Minister is aware of a cross-party group of some 80 MPs campaigning for recognition of our nuclear test veterans. Given that the UK compares poorly with other countries on the treatment of veterans and the very high incidence of ill health suffered by their descendants, will the Prime Minister meet us? We have hit a brick wall with the Ministry of Defence and the Government have a good track record of recognising past wrongs.

My hon. Friend has consistently campaigned on that. I have discussed it with him before and wrote to him a month ago setting out the Government’s view. The frequently stated position of this Government and previous ones is that there is no published peer-reviewed evidence of excess illness or mortality, but it is right to go on looking at the issue, as I know he will. We will continue to discuss it with him.