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Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

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

Rushden Lakes is a major retail leisure park, which will create 2,000 new jobs. “Yes to Rushden Lakes”, local Conservative councils, the Northamptonshire Telegraph, Councillor Tom Pursglove’s Listening campaign and my listening campaign have all supported this proposal. In nine years in Parliament, I have never known a development to have so much public support. Will the Prime Minister use his best efforts to ensure that the outcome of the public inquiry is announced as soon as possible?

I know my hon. Friend campaigns vigorously for his constituents, for local businesses and for job-creating developments such as this one. As I am sure he is aware, I am not able to get involved in specific planning decisions, but I understand that a decision on this application will be made as soon as possible. Of course, that will mean the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government taking into account all the representations he receives, including those from my hon. Friend.

The whole House and the whole country have been watching events in Ukraine with great concern. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that Russia’s actions in surrounding Ukrainian military sites and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are completely without justification? Does he further agree that these actions deserve to be condemned unreservedly across the international community?

First of all, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that what Russia has done is completely unacceptable. We should be clear about our national interest and our aim in all of this. Our national interest is that we have a strong interest in a world where the rule of law is upheld and territorial integrity respected. Stability is a vital part of our long-term economic plan. We should be clear that our aim is to deter further Russian military action and to de-escalate this situation. He is completely right to say that the action by the Russian Government should be condemned by the whole world.

I am sure we agree that there needs to be continuing pressure on the Russian Government, and I will come to that issue. All Members will welcome the talks going on as we speak between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Given the fragility of the situation on the ground, does the Prime Minister believe that one important outcome from these talks would be if they led to direct high-level talks between Russia and Ukraine?

In order to de-escalate this situation, the most important thing that should be arranged is a forum for discussions in which the Russians and the Ukrainians can speak to each other. There have been some contacts between Russian Ministers and Ukrainian Ministers. This morning there are meetings taking place in Paris covering other issues as well. There has been some progress in putting together a contact group—an idea I proposed to the Polish Prime Minister back in January—to start having a group of countries around Russia and Ukraine to encourage such dialogue to take place. That is the single most important thing that could help to de-escalate the situation.

Clearly, we all hope for a good outcome from those talks, but the EU also has a crucial role to play. Does the Prime Minister agree that the EU, at the leaders’ summit tomorrow, must show that it is up to the task of dealing with the biggest security crisis on this continent since Kosovo? Given the issues raised about the UK’s position from the leaked Downing street document, what specifically will the UK be tabling at the summit tomorrow, including keeping open the prospect of trade sanctions?

It is important for the European Union to show a unity of purpose and have a clear voice at the leaders’ meeting tomorrow. We need first to be absolutely clear that the status quo with which we are faced today, in which Russian troops are outside their bases in Crimea, is unacceptable, and, as I have said, costs and consequences need to follow from it. That is why we have, for instance, suspended preparations for the G8 meeting—indeed, in the current circumstances it is hard to see how a G8 meeting could properly go ahead—and have withdrawn royal and ministerial visits to the Sochi Paralympic games. There are further steps that we should consider even as we look at the current status quo, but we also need to consider what extra steps—what extra, as I have put it, political, economic and diplomatic steps—can be taken to discourage Russia from itself taking further steps in terms of dismembering and disrespecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

I entirely share the Prime Minister’s view about the G8 and the other matters that he has mentioned. Let me raise one other specific issue with him. When he was Leader of the Opposition in 2008, at the time of the invasion of Georgia, he said this:

“Russia’s elite value their ties to Europe—their shopping and their luxury weekends…Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.”

Does he agree that if we do not see the required action from Russia, we should consider asset freezes and travel restrictions on designated individuals, so that Russia is clear about the consequences of its actions?

As I have put it, when we consider the diplomatic, economic and political steps that we can take, nothing should be off the table. We have already taken some important steps in ensuring that the assets of the corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs are properly dealt with, including any assets that may be here in the United Kingdom. We should not rule out other things for the future, but, as I have tried to explain today, I think that there are steps that we need to take in respect of the current unacceptable situation, and that we should agree with our European and American partners—I shall be speaking to President Obama this afternoon, and will meet Angela Merkel and President Hollande before the European Council tomorrow—what additional steps should then be taken.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will push for as broad an agreement as possible at the European Council, and we welcome that. Let me ask him about the Ukrainian Government, and about support for them. Does he agree that part of the way forward is giving the Ukrainian Government that support, while also making it clear to them that they need to be inclusive and protect the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine? Does he further agree that there is no reason for Russia to believe that the strengthening of ties between Ukraine and the EU need be at its own expense?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, it is important for this not to be seen as a tug of war between the European Union and Russia, but we should be in favour of the Ukrainian people being able to choose their own future. In my view, this has been as much about the Ukrainian people’s wanting to lean towards a better relationship with the European Union as about their wanting to get rid of the appalling levels of corruption that they have had to put up with in their Government. That is the key thing.

I think it extremely welcome, and right, that the Foreign Secretary was the first international leader to go to Kiev and meet the Ukrainian leaders. He made two important points to them. One was that they must ensure they have an inclusive set of institutions, rules and laws in Ukraine, and do not discriminate against minorities or Russian speakers. The other was that we stand ready, as members of the European Union and as leading players in the International Monetary Fund, to help Ukraine in its hour of need. There are all sorts of steps that the new Ukrainian Government will have to take in order to make that possible, but if they can do that, we should stand by them in their hour of need.

I welcome that, and the provision of all necessary support for the Ukrainian Government. Let me finally say that we all recognise that this is a delicate and dangerous moment for international security, and that a combination of diplomacy, resolve in the international community, and support for the Ukrainian Government and Ukrainian self-determination provides the best hope of our securing an end to this crisis. I can assure the Prime Minister that, in the pursuit of that goal, the Government will have our full support.

I am very grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said this morning. Tomorrow we shall need to hear a voice of unity and clarity from the countries of the European Union—which is not always easy when there are 28 different nations around the table—but it is very welcome that such a clear and unified voice is going out from this House, saying to the Russian Government “What you have done is wrong, what you have done should not be allowed to stand, and there will not only be costs and consequences from what has been done already, but further costs and consequences if you take this further.”

Last week a judge sentenced a Gosport man to nine years in prison for causing the death by dangerous driving of two teenage girls. Given that that amounts effectively to four years per life, does the Prime Minister agree that it is high time we looked again at the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving?

May I first of all congratulate my hon. Friend on her happy news at the weekend? I am sure that Members across the House will want to join me in that. The issue of death by dangerous driving was raised at Prime Minister’s questions last week, and as I said then, I think it is important that the Lord Chancellor and his Department look carefully at what more we can do to make sure we send the clearest possible message about the unacceptability of this crime.

Q2. Last July the Prime Minister rightly promised legislation banning internet rape porn, so will he explain to parents why clause 16 of his Criminal Justice and Courts Bill does not ban simulated child abuse or staged rape online? (902834)

The hon. Lady has a long track record of arguing about these issues, and I think it was very welcome that we made the announcement to ban rape porn and that is being carried through. I will look very carefully at the measures and issues she is raising now. I think we have a good record on putting in place stronger internet filters, working with the industry to make sure searches for unacceptable terms cannot be made, and separate legislative steps like banning rape porn, but I will look very carefully at the specific proposals she makes.

Q3. In 2009, 610 18 to 24-year-olds in Chester were out of work and claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Last month that number almost halved to 330. As this week is national apprenticeship week, will the Prime Minister congratulate employers who are creating apprenticeships, creating jobs and creating opportunities for young people, so we never again see the massive waste of young talent that occurred in the 1990s? (902835)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise national apprenticeship week, which is a really important moment to advertise to businesses large and small the advantages of taking on apprentices. What we are going to see during this Parliament is 2 million apprenticeship starts. That is what we are aiming for, and there have already been some 1.6 million. As my hon. Friend says, unemployment in his own constituency has fallen, as has the claimant count, but we want to see many more apprentices and we also want smaller firms to come forward and take on their first apprentice.

In 2006, 7-year-old Christi Shepherd and her little brother Bobby died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty boiler at their hotel in Greece. Their father Neil and his partner Ruth narrowly escaped with their lives and after seven agonising years the inquest into their deaths is about to begin, but the Legal Aid Agency has refused the family funding to be legally represented at the inquest, and on Friday Thomas Cook tried to prevent the inquest from even taking place. Will the Prime Minister meet me and the parents to hear why it is imperative that the parents are legally represented at this inquest so the full facts surrounding their children’s deaths are learned, and so that no other British family suffers a similar tragedy when they take their children on holiday?

I do remember this absolutely tragic case and it is appalling that it has taken so long for the inquest to take place. When you have lost a child, you want answers and to know why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and that lessons will be learned for the future. I am very content to arrange the sorts of meetings the hon. Lady talks about to help in this case and to make sure that the Foreign Office, which does an excellent job in helping people when they are dealing with issues overseas, is doing all it can to help her constituents.

In Braintree, unemployment has dropped from 3.4% to 2.3% and, equally importantly, youth unemployment has dropped from 6.3% to 4.4% since 2010. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Chancellor’s long-term economic plan is working, and following the recent success of the Braintree youth jobs fair, will he join me in thanking Braintree district council, Jobcentre Plus and Ignite for all the hard work they are doing in encouraging local businesses to hire young people?

My hon. Friend has a very strong track record of campaigning and fighting on these issues—he co-founded the Million Jobs campaign. Let us recognise that we have created more than 1 million new jobs under this Government. One of the things my hon. Friend was pushing for was for under-21s not to have to pay national insurance contributions when they are employed; that was brought in in the autumn statement, and I think it will make a huge difference. The Braintree youth jobs fair has also made a big difference locally. Opposition Members seem to groan as soon as falling unemployment is mentioned, but the fact is that it is falling across the country and that is a very welcome sign that our long-term economic plan is working.

Does the Prime Minister share my astonishment at a decision announced yesterday that First TransPennine Express, whose train services cover the whole of the north of England, is to lose one in eight of its trains, which are to be transferred to Chiltern Railways for the greater comfort and convenience of commuters in the south of England? [Interruption.] Is he aware that First TransPennine Express services are already among the most overcrowded in the country? [Interruption.]

Order. This is quite a simple issue of courtesy. The right hon. Gentleman will be heard, however long it takes. So the quicker people remember their manners, the better.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This may be a laughing matter to Government Members, but it is certainly not a laughing matter to people in the north of England. Could the Prime Minister bear it in mind that this decision has been made without the agreement of the train operating company, but by Porterbrook and the leasing company? [Interruption.]

I will look carefully at the point the right hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, we have announced plans to electrify the trans-Pennine railway line, which will make a big difference. We are also going ahead with the northern hub, which will also make a difference. So these are big steps forward. I hope that he will not find it too cheeky if I point out that the line that both he and I use, the Cotswold line, which includes Charlbury railway station, has also received a lot of extra investment under this Government and he now enjoys a double-track line when he makes his journey from my constituency into London.

Q5. May I put on the record my thanks to the Prime Minister for all the efforts that he personally puts into securing Typhoon export orders? However, may I ask for his assurance that his Government will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of Typhoon exports to support apprenticeships and highly skilled jobs in Warton in my constituency, as part of this Government’s long-term economic plan? (902837)

It was a huge pleasure to visit Warton with my hon. Friend and see the quality of the apprenticeships that BAE Systems is offering in building the Typhoon aircraft, an absolutely superb aircraft. I can give him my assurance that I will go on banging the drum for British exports, including defence exports. We had very good progress with the order from Oman, which will secure and safeguard jobs in his constituency. I was criticised by the Labour party for taking defence contractors on trade missions overseas; that party does not think it is appropriate, but I think it is. I think we should be standing up for our defence industry and defence jobs.

Will the Prime Minister end the speculation over the future of the Hunting Act 2004 by confirming that he does not intend to use a statutory instrument to repeal or amend the Act by removing the limit on the number of dogs that can be used to flush an animal to guns?

This will quite properly be a matter for the House of Commons. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a group of Welsh and other Members of Parliament have looked at a particular problem of pest control in upland areas of Wales and other parts of the country. They are making a proposal, which will be properly examined by the Department and, in the end, the House of Commons will be able to decide.

Q6. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) and during national apprenticeship week, we should celebrate the fact that in the past year half a million people began an apprenticeship, which is nearly double the number who started in 2009-10. However, we should not rest there. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should do more to incentivise schools, promote apprenticeships and get employers to come forward with apprenticeships, particularly for young people? (902838)

My hon. Friend speaks about this matter with great commitment because of his chairmanship of the Education Committee. The point that he and I have discussed, which is very important, is that we need to ensure that we are giving the clearest possible information to our young people in schools about the choices they can make. The academic path of A-levels, UCAS and universities has been well set out and well understood, including by Britain’s teachers. We need the opportunities for vocational education and apprenticeships to be at least as well understood, not least because a person does not have to choose long term between the two; people can carry out an apprenticeship and a degree, earning and learning at the same time.

This is the EU year of tackling food waste. Given the absolute scandal of up to 40% of our food being wasted in this country and the huge numbers of people who have to go to food banks because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families, will the Prime Minister throw his weight behind this initiative and support efforts to reduce food waste in this country?

It is important to tackle the issue of food waste. A number of important debates on the issue have been held in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall. When it comes to helping people with weekly budgets, the most important thing is to make sure that we keep growing the economy, getting people back to work and creating jobs. Also, if we keep people’s taxes down, they will have more of their own money to spend as they choose.

Q7. Over the past few months in Somerset, we have had a deluge of press, media and film cameras, which has now ebbed and receded and is now barely a trickle, but the floods are still with us. This week, we will have produced the local strategy, which shows that long-term local management of the rivers cannot be met within the constraints of local government finance. Will the Prime Minister commit to me that whatever needs to be changed will be changed in order to give us sustainable management for the future? (902839)

I commend all the Somerset MPs for working together extremely well, bringing together the local agencies, including the Environment Agency, local councils, farmers and others to try to come up with the right long-term solution for the people of Somerset. I agree that the cameras and the press have now departed, but it is important that we do not take our eye off the important issue of draining the Somerset levels. I am getting regular reports, and I look forward to seeing the report from my hon. Friend and other colleagues about what needs to be done.

Q8. We have known for months that our A and E departments in our hospitals are in trouble, but now we find that almost 30,000 ambulances have been stuck in queues outside our hospitals. Does the Prime Minister regret not having got a grip on that issue a bit more quickly? (902840)

The point I would make is that we have met the A and E targets more times this winter than when the shadow Health Secretary was sitting in the Cabinet with responsibility for the NHS. I commend what our doctors, nurses and A and E departments have done, because they are coping with around 1.2 million more A and E attendances every year than when we came to power in 2010. They have done magnificent work, and they are doing it on the basis of having not only many thousand more doctors but 2,000 more nurses than in 2010. That is more nurses in our NHS than at any time since Nye Bevan stood at this Dispatch Box back in the 1940s, and that is a record of which the Government can be proud.

The village of Barrow in the Ribble Valley has fewer than 300 houses. The local authority has given permission for just over 100 new houses there, but the planning inspector has overturned a refusal of the local authority and will impose 504 more houses on that village against the wishes of the local MP, the local authority and the local people. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the workings of the Planning Inspectorate to ensure that from now on the planning inspector puts the wishes of local people at the heart of the Localism Act 2011 as he intended?

I will look carefully at the specific incidents that the hon. Gentleman brings to the House. Under the Localism Act, local authorities are able to produce a local plan and get that agreed, which will give local people greater control over what is built and where. In the meantime, things are judged against the national planning policy framework, which does have protections for green belt; it does insist on going ahead with brownfield developments and it does take into account pre-existing local plans. If that needs to be clarified, then clarify it we will.

Q9. First, the Government told northern councillors to stop doffing their caps in the hopes of a handout. Then, the High Court ruled that Government cuts in European funding for Liverpool and Sheffield were illegal. What does all this say about the Government? (902841)

Of course, Liverpool—the city that the hon. Lady represents—has huge funding needs, and I believe that the funding it gets reflects those needs. Spending in Liverpool for 2014 is £2,595 per dwelling. Now, obviously, the needs of her constituency are much greater than the needs of my constituency, but that is a full £700 more per dwelling than is spent in my constituency. So I do not believe that the people of Liverpool are being short-changed. They are properly funded for the services that they need.

Q10. Last year, I met the surgeon, Tim Underwood, who leads the outstanding oesophageal cancer team at Southampton general hospital. He explained that oesophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the west but also one of the hardest to treat. Surgery is gruelling and incredibly painful. Many people are unaware that persistent heartburn and difficulties swallowing can be symptoms of oesophageal cancer. Will my right hon. Friend commit to raising much-needed awareness of this terrible disease and ensure that the NHS has the resources to diagnose it earlier? (902842)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of how we increase awareness of cancer, because that has an important effect in terms of early diagnosis. NHS England is currently running a pilot in the north-east and north Cumbria to raise awareness about oesophageal and stomach cancers, as part of its Be Clear on Cancer campaign, and we are committing more than £450 million of additional funding to support this early diagnosis. The absolute key is making sure that more people have their cancer discovered from trips to the GP and from their own inspections and self-awareness, rather than finding out these things in an emergency, often when it is too late.

Q11. There are almost 1 million young people unemployed here in the UK. There are more than 1 million people on zero-hours contracts. In my constituency, people are £1,811 worse off since 2010. How has the Prime Minister the audacity even to suggest that his party is the worker’s party? (902843)

Let me just give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the north-east since the last election. There are 24,000 more people in work in the north-east since the last election. There are 40,000 more private sector jobs since the last election. Unemployment has fallen—[Interruption.] He is shouting because he does not want to hear the answers about the long-term economic plan.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be shouting. He has asked the question. Let him hear the answer.

The hon. Gentleman could be asking about the massive expansion at Nissan in Sunderland, providing jobs in the north-east. He could be talking about the new Hitachi train factory that will be built in the north-east. All this shows that the plan is working, and frankly, more important than these figures is the fact that every job means another family with a pay packet, with stability, with security and with the peace of mind that this Government are all about.

Q12. This Friday, I am visiting SPR Trailers in Felixstowe—a small family-run business that is taking on apprentices—and with the excellent EDF scheme at Sizewell and the announcement by BT that it is creating 100 new apprenticeships at Adastral Park, does my right hon. Friend agree that earn-while-you-learn is great for young people in Suffolk and that they are building the skills vital to delivering our long-term economic plan? (902844)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the big companies in Britain—BAE Systems, BT, British Airways—are taking on apprentices in larger and larger numbers, which is hugely welcome. The challenge is now to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises in Britain to take on apprentices too. We need to make it simpler—we have done that—and we need to make sure that it pays, and we have done that. We need to advertise to promote to these companies what a great job apprenticeships can do for them and for the country.

To coincide with today’s launch of the new all-party group on youth unemployment, figures have been published by the House of Commons Library that show that, despite the figures that the Prime Minister has just cited, the dole queue for under-25s still reaches from London to Edinburgh. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks that that reflects the success of his policies, and will he commit to meet the all-party group to discuss long-term solutions to this complex problem?

Of course there are still too many people unemployed in our country, but there are 1.6 million new private sector jobs, 1.3 million more people in work, big cuts in unemployment, big reductions in the claimant count, and almost half a million fewer people relying on out-of-work benefits. That is what we want to do, and we have not forgotten the record of the Labour party. Unemployment rose by nearly half a million, female unemployment rose by 24%, and youth unemployment went up by 45%. Instead of giving lectures, the Opposition should make an apology.

Q13. In recognising British success at the Oscars, would the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Bournemouth university and the Arts University Bournemouth, as over 50 of their graduates helped with the design effects for that amazing British film, “Gravity”? Does that not prove that Bournemouth leads the way in digital media, is a great tourism destination, and does amazing party conferences as well? (902845)

As ever, my hon. Friend is right about all those things. Bournemouth university has excellent courses that have helped to build up the British post-production and facilities industries, which are busy helping to create blockbuster films. It is very good news not only that are we winning Oscars for British films but that British studios are full to bursting point making movies. The facilities and post-production industries are leading the world. We need to go on backing that industry, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken steps with things like helping the computer games industry, helping high-end television, and continuing to back the very important film tax credits that have worked so well.

Q14. Recently, East Coast Ambulance Service, a private company, has gone bust, owing thousands of pounds in wages to hard-working staff. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to protect patients, staff and national health service resources is to extend freedom of information to private companies bidding for NHS contracts and stop the invasion of our NHS by predatory private health care companies? (902847)

Obviously, I will look carefully at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raised, but this Government are putting £12.7 billion into the NHS. I do not believe that we should say that other organisations cannot help to deliver NHS services. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridge is now providing much better services because of the changes that we have made. I shall look at what he said about freedom of information requests, but it is important that we have a health service that can access the best of public, private and voluntary.

It is good news that the Prime Minister has apparently resuscitated plans for a recall Bill, but will he confirm that he intends to push ahead with a genuine system of recall, not fall back on the Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill, which has been widely discredited, is recall in name only, and would not empower voters in any meaningful sense at all.

I fear that it will be difficult to satisfy my hon. Friend on that point. We should proceed by taking the draft clauses as the starting point for what I think would be an excellent reform, which we committed to in our manifesto, and which was committed to in the coalition agreement. If Members of Parliament are in serious breach of standards and judged to be so, they should not have to wait for a general election to receive the verdict of their constituents.