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Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 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.

I thank the Prime Minister for his answer, but I think we should congratulate Team GB on its tremendous success at the recent winter Olympics.

This week HSBC announced staff bonuses of £2.3 billion and a 140% pay rise to its chief executive. When ordinary British families face a cost of living crisis and too many people languish on the dole, is it not time for this Government to listen to Labour and to tax bank bonuses to get our young people back to work?

Let me join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Team GB on its best medal performance at a winter games since 1924. It was a huge honour to welcome them to Downing street, where I had an explanation of the tasks of skeleton bobsleighing and, indeed, curling. Our congratulations go to everyone involved and all those who helped to train them.

Bank bonuses are well down from the appalling situation that was left by the previous Labour Government, but what we need to see is the proper control of all forms of pay and bonuses. What I do not want to see, and what I think we would get from the Labour party, is a focus only on bonuses, because, of course, you can claw back a bonus, but you cannot claw back pay. We do not want to go back to the days of Fred Goodwin, where you could be paid well for an appalling performance.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister recognise that it is part of the job of Church leaders to challenge Governments about poverty? Will he discuss with them measures that can help people out of poverty, like the pupil premium, cutting tax on low pay and measures to help troubled families? There is nothing particularly moral about pouring even more borrowed money into systems that can trap people in poverty and dependence on state benefits. (902669)

My right hon. Friend, who is himself a distinguished churchman, talks perfect sense. There is nothing moral about running up huge deficits and out-of-control welfare bills. If we do not deal with those problems the whole country will be poorer. We should listen to the words of George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that

“the churches should beware of the dangers of blithely defending a gargantuan welfare budget that every serious politician would cut as a matter of economic common sense.”

I think that serious politicians have to engage with this, and that should go for everybody.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) and the Prime Minister in congratulating Team GB on a brilliant performance at the winter Olympics.

As the immediate threat of floods passes, there are still thousands out of their homes; parts of the Somerset levels are still under water; and hundreds of businesses and farms are still struggling to recover. The Committee on Climate Change, the House of Commons Library and the UK Statistics Authority have all now said that Government investment in flood defences has fallen. In the light of this and of the events we have seen, does the Prime Minister think it is right to revisit the plans for investment in flood defences?

We will look very carefully at the plans for flood defences, but of course we have set out spending figures all the way to 2020, not all of which are fully committed, which are major investments in flood defences. As I said two weeks ago, as the waters recede and as the Environment Agency and others can look at what happened, we can review and see what new measures might be necessary. Let me just repeat the point that in this four-year period, and indeed in this Parliament, overall spending on flood defences has gone up.

I am afraid that the figures the Prime Minister is quoting are phoney, and I believe he knows it. This is what the UK Statistics Authority says—[Interruption.] I know that Government Members do not want to hear it, but it says:

“government funding for flood defences was lower in both nominal and real terms during the current spending period than during the last”.

The only way to claim otherwise is by ignoring inflation and claiming credit for the money that other organisations—other than Government—spend. Why does the Prime Minister not admit it? They have cut flood defence spending, and he has been caught out.

The fact is that in the period from 2010, when I became Prime Minister, to 2014, the spending has been £2.4 billion—more than the £2.2 billion in the previous four years. In the five-year period of this Parliament, during all of which I will be Prime Minister, the spending is higher than for the previous five years. Those are the facts.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I think having this debate is slightly pointless. The whole country should be coming together to deal with flood defences. The fact is that from the moment he turned up in a flooded village with the Labour candidate alongside him, he has completely misjudged the mood of the country.

First, let me say to the Prime Minister that if it is a simple choice between the UK Statistics Authority and him, people will believe the UK Statistics Authority on what has happened. The assessment of how much to invest in flood defence depends significantly on an assessment of the risks posed by man-made climate change. In opposition, he said this about climate change:

“It’s easy to do the softer things like ride your bike, visit glaciers and rebuild your house to make it green”—

it is he who said it—

“but it’s only clear you mean it when you do the tough things as well. Like telling the truth about climate change.”

So what is the truth about climate change?

The truth about climate change is that this Government have a programme to reduce carbon right across our economy. We started with the Government themselves: compared with the Government the right hon. Gentleman left in 2010, when he was Energy and Climate Change Secretary, the Government’s own carbon emissions are down 14%.

Let me just return to the issue of flood defence spending, because I think the people of this country will want to know this. The right hon. Gentleman is committed to a zero-based spending review. [Interruption.] “Yes, we are,” says the shadow Chancellor in an unusually helpful intervention. A zero-based spending review means that the Opposition cannot pledge to match the flood spending we are making in 2016, 2017, 2018 and all the way to 2020. The people of this country have absolutely no guarantee that they will take either climate change seriously or flood defences seriously.

What total nonsense, and the Prime Minister knows it. It is very interesting, because someone who in opposition wanted to talk as much as he could about climate change is now desperate to get off the subject. I asked him a question: will he just set out for his party and for the country his views on man-made climate change?

I believe that man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world face. That is why we have the world’s first green investment bank here in Britain. That is why, unlike in the 13 wasted years of Labour, we are building the first nuclear power station for 30 years in this country. That is why we have cut the carbon that is emitted by the Government by 14% since coming to office. That is why we have set out, year after year, carbon budgets for this country. The Opposition talk a good game, but it takes people to come in and govern effectively to deal with it.

Excellent; we are getting somewhere. I agree with what the Prime Minister said about the importance of climate change. The reason this matters is that people in the most important positions in his Government are going around questioning climate change. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said:

“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries,”

and he refuses to be briefed on climate change. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), when asked about climate change, said:

“You are not going to draw me on that. I’ve not had time to get into the…climate change debate.”

That is the Energy Minister! Will the Prime Minister clarify his position? Is he happy to have climate change deniers in his Government?

This is obviously the new approach to Prime Minister’s questions: the right hon. Gentleman comes to the House and praises the Prime Minister for his commitment on climate change and the environment. I like the new style. I thought that I might miss Punch and Judy, but this is much more refreshing.

The Government have a solid track record of cutting carbon, negotiating internationally and investing in nuclear. We have the biggest renewable energy programme in our country’s history. For the first time in a long time, we are on track to meet our renewables targets. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to get up again and congratulate me on that excellent record on the environment.

The whole country will have heard that the Prime Minister cannot answer the question about whether people need to believe in man-made climate change to be part of his Government. He has gone from thinking that it was a basic part of his credo to thinking that it is a matter of individual conscience. He used to claim that it was his passion above all else. Here’s the thing: if we are properly to protect—[Interruption.]

Order. The questions and the answers will be heard, however long it takes. Those who are exercising their vocal cords in a rather excessive way really ought to calm down. There is quite a long way to go.

Here’s the thing: if we are properly to protect the British people against the threats that they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in the Government on the issue of climate change. The Prime Minister needs to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change.

People can measure the courage of my convictions by my acts in government: the green investment bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables and the investment in nuclear. The right hon. Gentleman talks a good game, but he did not achieve anything in office. The most serious form of denial in British politics today comes from the reality deniers of the Labour party. What is their plan for the deficit? Nothing. What is their plan for welfare reform? Nothing. What is their plan for long-term investment, because that is what is required in respect of climate change? It requires long-term investment like high-speed rail, long-term investment like nuclear power and long-term investment like fixing our economy. That is what this Government are doing. All he does is get up and deliver a lot of hot air.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend seek advice on the report by the whistleblowing commission set up by Public Concern at Work, which was led by Sir Anthony Hooper and included Michael Woodford, the whistleblower at Olympus, and see whether he can bring together people in Government to consider its recommendations and how we can stop the persecution of people like Dr Kim Holt, who was the whistleblower before the baby P case, and others whom I will not mention now? (902670)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. As he knows, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects most workers from being unfairly dismissed by their employer when they have reported a matter of concern—when they have blown the whistle. We strengthened those protections in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. We will always back whistleblowers when they challenge poor standards, particularly in large organisations. I am happy to ensure that he discusses with the relevant Minister—probably the Minister for Government Policy—any further steps that we need to take in that direction.

Does the Prime Minister get the depth of the hurt among victims’ families, and the deep sense of public outrage right across the country as a result of the outcome of the Downey case? He needs to understand that for a letter signed by an official to trump due process and the courts of this land without any parliamentary, legislative or statutory underpinning, is deeply offensive to the public in this country. Will he now scrap these get-out-of-jail-free letters immediately, and will he do everything in his power to reverse the despicable decision in the Downey case, so that justice can be done for the families of the bereaved?

First, I completely understand the depth of anger and concern that people will feel right across the country about the appalling events that happened in 1982, and the fact that the person responsible is now not going to be appropriately tried. Of course that is absolutely shocking, and our first thought should be with those 11 soldiers and their families and friends. It may have happened 32 years ago, but anyone who has lost someone in a situation like that will mourn them today as if it happened yesterday. We should be absolutely clear: Downey should never have received the letter that he received. It was a dreadful mistake, and we now need to have a rapid factual review to make sure that this cannot happen again. Whatever happens, we have to stick to the principle that we are a country and a Government under the rule of law.

Q4. My right hon. Friend has taken swift action to help flood-hit communities, and I welcome the £10 million relief fund for farmers. The grade 1 farmland in the Alt-Crossens basin is at risk from Environment Agency scaremongering to reduce land drainage and close pumping stations. In light of recent events, will my right hon. Friend reassure growers in my constituency that the necessary protections will be given to their land, and that as well as being able to react swiftly, the Government are planning for the long-term security of this profitable industry? (902671)

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I am glad that she is advertising to her farmers the availability of the £10 million fund, which I hope will be useful for those who have lost productive land because it has been under water for so long. The point she makes about farmers, landowners and others being nervous about dredging and draining their land because of EA rules is a good one. As I have said before, I think the pendulum swung too far against dredging, and that needs to change and that will change. It is not the only answer or the whole answer to the problems she discusses, but it does have a proper part in properly managing the landscape.

Q5. The tragic death on a Birmingham street of Sarah Child devastated her family and shocked the community. A much-loved sister and daughter, she was killed, and her sister Claire—who was pregnant—was severely injured by a speeding driver doing 64 mph, who got but four years in prison. Does the Prime Minister agree that the time has come to look again at the sentencing of those who kill with a car? (902672)

First, my heart goes out to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent who was tragically killed in this incident, and to her family. I do think it right to look again at motoring offences and the penalties that are given. I have discussed this issue with the Secretary of State for Justice, who has already made some proposals and changes in that area. I am sure he will be listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Q6. The response of NHS Wales to Sir Bruce Keogh’s e-mail recommending a Keogh-style investigation into Welsh hospitals of concern was that it would respond only to legitimate concerns. Is the Prime Minister as astounded as I am that NHS Wales thinks that the views of the chief medical director of England, and now the Royal College of Surgeons, are not legitimate, and will he work with the Leader of the Opposition and try to persuade him to get his party in Wales to reverse that terrible decision and carry out an investigation into Welsh hospitals that could save lives? (902673)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point and Sir Bruce Keogh’s views should be respected and listened to by the NHS in Wales. In particular, she makes a point about the Royal College of Surgeons and what it has said today, which is effectively that there are people on NHS waiting lists in Wales who are dying because waiting lists are too long and because the NHS is not being properly managed, properly funded and properly reformed in Wales. That is a matter for the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, and they need to get their act together.

Will the Prime Minister accept the overwhelming humanitarian case for guaranteeing long-term support to victims and survivors of terrorism? If so, will he agree to meet with me, Colin Parry and survivors of the 7/7 London bombings who have benefited from the services of the Survivors for Peace programme, which is now facing imminent closure? In doing so, will he remember his pledge that survivors of terrorism must know that they always have the support of the whole country?

First, may I commend the right hon. Lady for the extraordinary work she did in government and continues to do in opposition to help the survivors of terrorist attacks, particularly the dreadful attacks that took place in London? I have seen at first hand the experience and brilliant touch that she brings to this important work. I am very happy to have the meetings she discussed. The Foundation for Peace is a unique charity that does an extraordinary job in supporting victims and families. I will be discussing its future with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) too. Obviously, we want to make sure that all these institutions can continue their excellent work. I am happy to hold those discussions with the right hon. Lady and, as I said, with my hon. Friend.

Q7. We all want to see a more balanced economy. Does the Prime Minister agree that today’s stonking upward rise in business investment of over 9% shows that British business and British entrepreneurs are really rising to this challenge? (902674)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Right across this House, many experts have been saying that what we need is a balanced recovery—one that sees increases in exports as well as increases in consumption, and one that sees increases in investment from business. The uprating of the GDP figures showing an increase in exports, and, as he says, a very large increase in business investment, is hugely welcome for our country.

Q8. Given yesterday’s court revelations of a secret scheme, does the Prime Minister believe that, as well as the parties in Northern Ireland progressing the elements on dealing with the past from the Haass talks, there is a need for transparency from the two Governments regarding the confused and shabby ways in which they sought to deal with the past since the agreement, remembering that Downing street was involved in this matter? (902675)

I agree with the hon. Lady that the Haass talks made some good progress. They were trying to deal with some of the most difficult issues in Northern Ireland, in terms of flags and parades, and perhaps the most difficult issue of all, the past. It is going to take a lot of courage and bravery from people on all sides in order to make progress in this way. She wants to point the finger, apparently, particularly at Downing street. I would argue that, when it has come to dealing with things like the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the de Silva report, Downing street is very happy to play its role in helping to bring parties together to make sure that we continue with peace in Northern Ireland.

Given what the Prime Minister has called the Leader of the Opposition’s new approach and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s forthcoming visit tomorrow, does he think that there is something we can learn from her about an even broader based approach to coalition building that would unite the whole country? While it is true that under such circumstances he would have to give some red meat to Labour and some red meat to us, it would have the huge advantage for all of us of leaving the Liberal Democrats where they belong.

My admiration for Angela Merkel is enormous and there are many things that she has achieved that I would like to copy, not least getting re-elected, but a grand coalition is one thing I do not want to copy. I think the idea of a grand coalition is a bit too much for me.

Q9. What steps will the Prime Minister and the Government take to insist that the National Crime Agency co-operates with the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the legislation to tackle people trafficking in Northern Ireland? Will he give an assurance that those involved in criminality in Northern Ireland will not be in possession of a letter that is their passport to freedom, ever mindful that the NCA does not have free reign in Northern Ireland? (902676)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have been very impressed by the work the National Crime Agency is now doing. I think it is a huge improvement on its predecessor. It has got real strength, heft and numbers in terms of being able to tackle organised crime. It is bad for Northern Ireland that the NCA is not able to properly operate there. I hope that over time, with talks between the parties, it will be possible to make progress. That would be good for Northern Ireland and good for our fight against organised crime.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your new role as chancellor of Bedfordshire university?

In the last three years, 99 brave soldiers have given their lives for this country in Afghanistan. In the same period, 264 British women have been murdered—murders perpetrated by men—and over three quarters of those women were stalked before they were murdered. Will the Prime Minister please give a guarantee that this Government will introduce legislation to protect women from that fate in the future, particularly given the ease with which stalkers can now begin their stalking activities via social media and the internet?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she says. She is right that stalking is an appalling crime. It can destroy lives and we need to do as much as we can to crack down on it. We have, of course, introduced a new offence to make absolutely clear the view that we take of it. The new stalking laws are also equally applicable to online, cyber-stalking and harassment, and the Crown Prosecution Service has published guidelines for involving communications sent via social media, so we tackle this in the online world as well as the physical world. However, I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend with all the detail of all the things we are doing and to see whether there are further steps we can take.

Q10. When the Prime Minister was asked about the bedroom tax last year, he said:“what we have done is to exempt disabled people who need an extra room.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 254.]Now that we know that people with terminal illness who cannot share a room, those who have to store equipment such as dialysis machines and families with severely disabled children who need occasional respite are all subject to this pernicious tax, would he like to revise that answer and to apologise to the disabled people to whom he gave false hope? (902677)

First, let me repeat—this is a basic issue of fairness—that people who are renting in the private sector do not get additional money for rooms that they do not use, so it is not fair to have a different set of rules for the social sector. But we also have a large discretionary payment system in order to help families such as the ones the hon. Lady mentions.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree that the increase in jobs—or, as has been said, the “stonking” increase—in the private sector is leading the UK’s economic recovery and is helped, if I may say so, by the range of engineers, manufacturers and retailers in Erewash, who are employing people and sending their exports round the world? (902678)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We now have 1.6 million new private sector jobs, meaning that there are 1.3 million more people employed in our country. We are seeing that growth in employment in every region of the country. Some are growing faster than others, and we need to keep up the work to make sure that this is a broadly balanced recovery, but one of the indicators of economic success is that week in, week out, the leader of the Labour party comes to the House of Commons and cannot mention employment. He cannot talk about the economy or about jobs, investment and growth, because all the things he said would never happen are happening in our economy.

Could the Prime Minister focus on the fact that Atos now wants to give up its contract for the work capability test? Is it not time to change the test back to one based on the medical evidence of the consultants of those who are applying? When 158,000 appeals are upheld, surely it is time for him also to rescind his decision to charge people for appeals.

First, I hope it is not too uncharitable to point out that the Atos contract was actually awarded by the last Labour Government. Of course we are now discussing and debating with the company how this should be taken forward, but the fact is that we do need in this country a way of determining whether people are fit for work. When it comes also to the issue of sanctions in our benefits system, frankly it is right that people who are offered a job and do not take it should now face a sanction. I think that will be the choice at the next election: one party in favour of hard-working people; another party obsessed by bigger and bigger benefits.

Q12. Britain’s armed forces are the best. They defend our interests at home and overseas and, as we are witnessing, are taking essential action in flooded areas. Prime Minister, please recognise the folly of reducing the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces and stop sacking full-time servicemen and women. (902679)

First, let me take this opportunity to praise the extraordinary role that armed forces personnel have played during the floods in our country over the past few weeks. It has been extraordinary to see their work.

What we have done, in terms of defence, is remove the £38 billion black hole that we were left. Of course, that meant making difficult decisions, including difficult decisions about the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force, but we now have one of the top five defence budgets in the world, in terms of spending. We are coming to the end of all the redundancy schemes, and we can now point loudly and proudly to the extraordinary investment that we shall be making in type 45 destroyers, new aircraft carriers, our hunter-killer submarines and our A400M aircraft—the best equipment that any armed forces could have anywhere in the world.

Q15. Yesterday I met Billy. He is 24 years old, and he had worked since the age of 15 until he lost his job a year ago. Billy told me that he had to resort to going through supermarket skips to find out-of-date food just so that he could eat. Billy is desperate to work. Why will the Prime Minister not offer him a job guarantee, rather than his having to scavenge for food in Iceland’s bins? (902682)

What we are doing for Billy, and for thousands like him, is offering jobs and hope that simply were not there under the last Labour Government. Opposition Members come here week after week to try to say that the country is somehow poorer or worse off under this Government, but let me remind the hon. Lady what it was like in 2009. In 2009, there were 1 million more people in poverty, 500,000 more children in poverty, 150,000 more unemployed people, and 750,000 more people claiming benefit than there are today. So yes, there is more to do, but we have a proud record of giving people jobs, because we are sticking to a long-term economic plan.

Q13. Just over a week ago, I joined year 5 and 6 pupils at Revel primary school in Monks Kirby, in my constituency. I asked them what they would like to ask the Prime Minister. One of them said that he would like to know why the Government kept on making so many new laws. I wonder if the Prime Minister could tell my young constituent what his Administration is doing to reduce the burden of legislation. (902680)

I think that my hon. Friend’s constituent could have a promising future in this place, because that is the sort of attitude that we need. I would say to my hon. Friend’s constituent that this will be the first Government since the war to leave office at the end of their term with fewer regulations in place than were there at the beginning. That is because of the excellent work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and of the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who have done a brilliant job in taking regulation off business so that we can create the wealth and jobs that we need.

The Prime Minister will know of the disappointment that there has been no oral statement to the House about the future of Stafford hospital. University Hospital of North Staffordshire is expected to take on the entire running of the combined sites for the people of north Staffordshire. Does the Prime Minister accept that at the last count there was a funding gap of £39 million in capital costs and £4 million in revenue costs? Will he ensure that whatever the new arrangements are, there will be an opportunity to question the Government, and that these changes will not proceed at the expense of the health of people in north Staffordshire?

What I can say to the hon. Lady is that a written statement is being made today about the future of Stafford hospital. It has been very difficult to try to deal with the appalling situation that we were in with that hospital. I am sure that there will be opportunities to debate the issue in the House, but I think the hon. Lady will see that what are being proposed are good steps to ensure that A and E continues at Stafford hospital, and hard work to establish whether it will be possible to continue consultant-led maternity services in the future so that people can go on having their babies delivered at the hospital. That is what I want to see. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will set out his proposals later, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to debate them—and, indeed, to debate all the lessons that need to be learnt from the failure of Stafford hospital in the past.

Q14. Earlier this month, millions of Londoners were inconvenienced by a pointless Underground strike which was supported by only 30% of union members. Will my right hon. Friend agree to conduct a review with the aim of increasing the threshold so that pointless strikes in our public services can be outlawed? (902681)

My hon. Friend has made a good point. When we see how many people rely on essential public services, we know that the time has come to consider what changes we can make, and whether it is possible for us to see fewer of these strikes in future.

Another problem is that, despite repeated requests, the Labour party has completely refused to condemn what was a totally unnecessary strike. However, I do not think that we should be surprised, because this week they are all going on a cosy weekend with their trade union masters. We were told that they were heading for divorce; I think that they are going to renew their vows.