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Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 26 March 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.

What assurances can the Prime Minister give to residents in West Lancashire that localism will give them a fair chance against greed and profit when it comes to their wish to end hazardous waste dumping at Whitemoss landfill site? Given that there is no evidence of need and a promise that it would end in 1995, and that the community, including its MP, are saying “No more dumping” time and again, does the Prime Minister really believe in localism?

I do believe in localism. That is why we got rid of a lot of the regional spatial strategies and a lot of the regional organisations, and returned power to local government. We did a number of things that local councils had been asking for in terms of empowering them, not least giving them a general duty of competence so that they can act when they think it is necessary to act. I will look closely at the specific issue the hon. Lady raises and write to her.

I know that my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am about potential job losses at Honda in my constituency, but will he work with me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) to help support those who are affected at this difficult time?

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. We will be working with local partners to minimise the impact of the job losses. Honda has assured us that it is committed to the long-term success of the plant in Swindon, which I have visited—it is a remarkable plant—and the 3,000 people who work there. I know that Honda remains committed to the UK and committed to Honda. We will work with the local council and local people to ensure that Swindon continues to have a strong and successful economic future.

This morning, we learned that the energy company, SSE, will be freezing its energy prices for 20 months. Would we be right to assume that the Prime Minister believes that the price freeze is unworkable, impossible to implement and probably a communist plot?

It is hugely welcome in our country that energy companies are cutting and freezing their bills. As ever with the right hon. Gentleman, he has failed to read the small print. This is what Scottish and Southern Energy says about why it has been able to cut bills in that way. It says today that “the decisions taken” by the Government

“to reduce the…costs of the ECO were a principal factor in SSE being able to make this price commitment”.

That is what is happening under this Government. What a contrast with the doubling of the gas bills and the 50% increase in electricity bills when Labour was in power.

So, over the past six months, we have obviously misunderstood the Prime Minister. He is the champion of the price freeze—that is what he wants us to understand. Week after week, he denounced Labour’s call for an energy price freeze to help families and business, but now—apparently—he supports the price freeze. Can he explain why a price freeze was wrong six months ago but the right thing to do today?

What we have done is reduce the costs of energy charges so that companies are able to cut their bills. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the list of what has happened since I made the announcement about rolling back the costs of green charges—[Interruption.]

You are right, Mr Speaker. Opposition Members shout in support of the Leader of the Opposition in the Chamber and brief against him outside. That is what happens.

This is what has happened since I made that announcement. For dual-fuel users, British Gas has cut £50 off bills; Scottish Power £54 off bills; E.ON £50 off bills; EDF £65 off bills; and npower, Scottish Power and EDF have announced that prices will not go up further in 2014. May I therefore thank the right hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to demonstrate how that part of our long-term economic plan is as successful as all the other parts?

Once again, the Prime Minister shows how totally out of touch he is. The Office for Budget Responsibility itself says that energy prices are rising by more than double the rate of inflation. That is the reality. I am very interested in his position now on price freezes, because this morning the Energy Secretary said—[Hon. Members: “Weak.”] I will tell Government Members what is weak: not standing up to the energy companies. That is what they are not doing. The Energy Secretary, who I see over there, said this morning that he was calling on other suppliers to do the same and freeze their bills. Is it now the Prime Minister’s policy that we should freeze bills?

It is our policy that bills should be cut, and bills are being cut under this Government. That is what is happening. When we come to the small print, let us have a look at what Scottish and Southern said about the Labour policy. [Hon. Members: “Weak.”] I will tell hon. Members what is weak: weak is not having an economic policy; weak is not responding to the Budget; weak is having no long-term plan for Britain—that is what is weak. This is what Scottish and Southern says about Labour’s plans. It is worth listening to. It says that Labour policy

“does not appear to include a clear commitment or a long-term solution to reduce the costs of supplying electricity and gas…An externally-imposed 20-month price freeze would not reduce the costs of supplying energy.”

That is what Scottish and Southern says, and that is why, I assume, a Labour business supporter called John Mills said about Labour’s policy yesterday:

“I don’t think the Labour party would do that if it were in power”.

If Labour cannot convince its one business supporter, how on earth can it convince the country?

The right hon. Gentleman is not the Prime Minister at all; he is the PR man for the energy companies—that is what he is. Bills are rising and what is clear is that his argument against a freeze has been totally demolished today. A price freeze for households and businesses is feasible, workable and will happen under a Labour Government. All of this shows that he just does not get the cost of living crisis that is happening in this country. Will he confirm that the OBR itself shows that, over the course of this Parliament, living standards will be falling and that it is the first time that has happened since the war?

Is it not great that, after a week, we have finally got to the Budget? The right hon. Gentleman has finally got something to say about the Budget. If he is concerned about energy prices, he might want to explain why he voted against a Budget that has a £7 billion cut in energy prices for businesses and consumers up and down this country. Why did the Opposition vote against that? If he is concerned about the cost of living, why did they vote against a personal allowance of £10,500 for every single worker in our country? If they are concerned about the cost of living, why did they vote against giving pensioners the right to spend their own money as they choose? If they care about the cost of living, why did they vote against abolishing the savings tax, paid for by the poorest people in our country? They do not have a clue about how to help working people, no clue about how to run the economy and no clue about the Budget.

Not for the first time, “Calm down, dear, calm down.” Or should I say, for the benefit of the Chancellor, “Eyes down, dear, eyes down”? The truth is that living standards are falling over this Parliament. The Prime Minister talks about what the Chancellor did on energy, but it is classic “Give with one hand and take with another.” He introduced a carbon price floor and now he wants credit for giving part of it back to families and businesses. Let us try the Prime Minister again. Will he confirm that page 87 of the OBR document says that living standards are falling over this Parliament—yes or no?

The figures that the right hon. Gentleman quotes time and again at the Dispatch Box—[Interruption.]

Of course we were made poorer by the great recession over which the Opposition presided, but I am happy to compare our records on the cost of living any time. We are cutting income tax for 25 million people; they voted against it. We have taken 3.2 million people out of income tax altogether; they voted against it. We voted to freeze the council tax; they voted against it. We are freezing fuel duty; they voted against it. We are cutting spending so that we can cut taxes for hard-working people; they have voted against every single change. Their vote against the Budget last night will go down in the history of this Parliament as a massive own goal for Labour.

The Prime Minister will go down in history as the Prime Minister who cut people’s living standards over the course of this Parliament, and he cannot deny it. He cannot solve the cost of living crisis because he does not think there is one. He will not freeze energy bills because he thinks that that is nothing to do with the Government. The thing on which we can always rely with the Prime Minister is that he will always stand up for the wrong people.

What is happening under this Government is that inflation is falling, unemployment is coming down, 1.3 million more people are in work, and there are 400,000 more businesses in our country. We are helping the economy to recover from the ravages with which it was left by Labour. That is the truth. Everyone can see that we have a plan for a better future for our country, and everyone can see that the right hon. Gentleman is flailing around, a man with no plan and, increasingly, no future.

Children with cancer are being denied new life-saving drugs because out-of-date rules governing clinical trials allow companies to exclude children, even when the drugs could treat childhood cancers. Will the Prime Minister meet me, and members of the Institute of Cancer Research, to discuss how we can get the rules changed through the European Commission so that families can have hope and we can get those treatments to children?

I am very happy to listen to the right hon. Gentleman and his suggestions. He and I strongly support the cancer drugs fund, which has made a huge difference in getting cancer drugs to people in our country, including children. I shall be very happy to consider the suggestion that he has made.

Q2. A little calm, please.Beer and bingo may not exactly be the bread and circuses of our age, but, as leading lights of the coalition rush forward to express their love for them, will the Prime Minister dissociate himself from the snobbish and disdainful comments made by his party chairman? (903274)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for once again advertising the fact that this Government are cutting the tax on bingo operators, which is quite right, because their industry was decimated by Labour. I also thank him for drawing attention to the Chancellor’s approach of cutting beer duty because we want to back responsible drinkers, and because we back the pub trade. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) enjoys a game of bingo: it is the only time he ever gets close to No. 10. [Laughter.]

Yesterday the all-party parliamentary group on mental health heard a very powerful and moving account of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Simon and Louisa, who completed an epic run from Leeds to Parliament yesterday to promote their organisation which seeks greater research into the condition? Is it not the case that, as well as being one of the hidden costs of armed conflict, post-traumatic stress disorder affects thousands of people who have been victims of rape, sexual assault and other life-changing traumas?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those people, who achieved so much through their run and by raising and highlighting the importance of this issue. Organisations such as Combat Stress do an extraordinary job in our country. We must face up to the fact that because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be many more people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who will need our help and support not just this year and next year, but long into the future. That is why I think that the Chancellor’s decision to take the money from the LIBOR fines and use it to back military charities, including those that deal with this issue, is very far-sighted.

Q3. The 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster is less than three weeks away and the fresh inquests are due to start. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is a scandal that some police officers who were on duty on the day of the disaster are refusing to co-operate with the investigation, and may I ask what he will do to stop such a situation happening again? (903275)

An important anniversary is coming up. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating all these complaints, and in addition the families can make complaints to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The Home Secretary has written to all police forces asking them to ensure they make available all the information they hold on Hillsborough, and in my view that should include police officers co-operating with this vital inquiry.

After Dunlop’s departure, does the Prime Minister agree that we should assist investment in the most energy-efficient plants in order to ensure a competitive and sustainable future for tyre manufacturers committed to keeping jobs in Britain?

We should certainly do that. We have seen a huge recovery in our automotive industry. Obviously, Dunlop’s decision is disappointing, but we have some huge success stories in component supplies and manufacture for the automotive industry. The programme in the Budget for helping energy-intensive industries will clearly help some of the companies involved in this industry, but the broader help—the £7 billion I referred to earlier—will help all businesses, including those in automotive supply.

Q4. A month ago I asked the Prime Minister about ambulance response times and he read an answer from his folder that did not answer the question at all. Since then, an elderly Darlington woman was left for more than four hours vomiting blood before an ambulance arrived. This time, please may I not have a prepared answer; can we please have some action? (903276)

I am very happy to look at the case the hon. Lady mentions. She says she does not want that, but I think that is the right thing to do: to look at this individual case. In all our ambulance areas we have waiting time targets that ambulances are meant to meet in response times, and I am very happy to look to see what happened in this case and whether lessons can be learned for the future.

Q5. With consensus breaking out in support of Budget measures to help those providing for themselves, will my right hon. Friend join me in seeking a new consensus against imposing penal taxes on houses that have risen in value but whose owners may well be retired on modest incomes? (903277)

We want a fair tax system, and under this Government the rich have paid more in tax—specifically more in income tax—than they ever did in any year under Labour. We have made sure we have raised taxes fairly, not least through stamp duty, but we do not support a tax on the family home; we do not think that is the right step forward and we will fight it very vigorously.

Q6. Seventy per cent. of stay-at-home mums say going back to work just would not add up because rising child care costs would leave them worse off. With maternal employment rates going down on the Prime Minister’s watch, why is he doing nothing before the general election to help with rising child care costs? (903278)

We are helping families with child care, not least by giving 15 hours—[Interruption.] That is happening before the election; it has happened under this Government in this Parliament—15 hours of free nursery care for three-year-olds and four-year-olds. [Interruption.] Opposition Members say it is not enough; it is more than Labour ever provided. [Interruption.] It is good to see the shadow Chancellor gesticulating in favour of his leader now; he will be outside in a minute briefing against him.

The whole world has watched with grave concern events in Crimea and the massing of Russian troops on the eastern border of Ukraine. Coming on top of other instability in the world—in Syria, north Africa, the Central African Republic, Venezuela and elsewhere—is it not time that the Prime Minister re-examined the national security strategy and maybe, just maybe, thought about revising some of the recent deep and damaging defence cuts?

We will review the national security strategy on the four-year rolling basis that we established it—that is the right thing to do. On what we have done on defence spending, we still have a top five defence budget of any country in the world; we have removed the £38 billion black hole that we inherited; and we have set out spending of £160 billion over the next decade on defence equipment. But we would not be able to get that modern defence equipment—the things that modern defence forces need—if we had not taken difficult and long-term decisions at the start of this Parliament.

Q7. More than 80% of spending on transport infra-structure will be in London and the south-east—nearly £5,000 per head there compared with less than £250 per person in the north-east. That gross disparity does nothing to help constituencies such as Middlesbrough pursue their ambitions for growth. Should not such investment be more equitably distributed across all the regions? (903279)

This Government have spent £8 billion on transport in the north of England in the first two years of this Parliament, including: the modernisation of the Tyne and Wear metro; the new Tyne crossing; £380 million to upgrade the A1 from Dishforth to Barton; and we have committed to feasibility studies to improve the A1 north of Newcastle and between Newcastle and Gateshead. All those proposals were brought forward under this Government. We are rebalancing our economy, we are investing in infrastructure and we are making sure that the north of England gets its fair share.

Q8. Unemployment in my constituency has fallen by more than 20% in the past 12 months and with inflation recently falling, too, that is providing welcome upward pressure on living standards. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that we should take no lessons from the persistent negativity of the Labour party talking our country down, and that we should stick to our long-term economic plan? (903280)

An absolutely key part of our long-term economic plan is helping business to create the jobs that our country needs. We have got 1.3 million more people in work, and 1.7 million more private sector jobs than in 2010. So we are seeing a rebalancing of our economy. What that means for people is the safety and security of having a pay packet at the end of the week so they can support their families. That is what is changing in our country and that is why we will stick to our long-term economic plan.

Q9. Despite what the Government have said about cutting energy costs, 71% of the people in North Tyneside I surveyed are still worried about their bills and want a full energy bill price freeze now. Will the Prime Minister listen to the people of North Tyneside and meet that demand? (903281)

The most important thing we can do is to help the energy companies reduce bills by rolling back the costs of these green levies and charges. Only since we have done that have we seen energy company after energy company reduce the costs of people’s bills. We also want to see a more competitive market and to see more players in this market. These are all things we are having to correct from the disastrous stewardship of the energy Department when the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was in charge.

Q10. Each year, thousands of lives are needlessly lost in this country because people’s cancers are diagnosed far too late. The all-party group on cancer and the wider cancer community have successfully lobbied the Government to make sure that the local and national NHS are measured by their one-year survival rates in order to encourage clinical commissioning groups to introduce initiatives to promote early diagnosis—cancer’s magic key. The Government deserve great credit for listening, but twice now, and at late notice, the publication of the one-year figures has been postponed. Will the Prime Minister do what he can to ensure that we meet the next deadline? (903282)

On the specific point that my hon. Friend raises, yes we will publish those figures—they are important figures and they should be published in June. What we are doing on cancer is backing the NHS with extra money—that is important; we have the cancer drugs fund, which I spoke about earlier and which has helped more than 44,000 people since this Government came to office. Of course, no cancer drugs fund is made available for people in Wales, but it is here in England, and we are spending £750 million on cancer services. But he is absolutely right about early diagnosis, which is why it is really important to make sure that we are doing everything with our GPs to diagnose and recognise cancer earlier.

The Prime Minister, and indeed the whole House, will be well aware of the contribution to the immense suffering of thousands of innocent victims across the United Kingdom made by the Gaddafi regime’s state sponsorship of IRA terrorism and the supply of arms and Semtex over many years to republican groups. Does he agree with what he previously said: the issue of compensation from Libya remains a priority for this Government? Will he agree to meet me to review the case and to discuss what further progress might be made?

I am happy to repeat what I said earlier. The Libyan authorities are in no doubt of the importance that we attach to their engaging properly with UK victims seeking redress. I raised it most recently with the Libyan Prime Minister last September. Of course the country faces huge challenges, which makes it difficult to make progress on this issue, but I am committed to doing that, and I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister welcome the change from the previous Labour Government, who talked loosely about British jobs for British workers but who saw 90% of new jobs going to foreign nationals? This Government let the success of their long-term economic plan do the talking, with nearly 90% of new jobs going to British workers last year. (903283)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last year, employment in our country went up by 425,000—that is 425,000 more families with a breadwinner earning money for that family’s security—and 87% of those jobs went to British nationals. There is much more we need to do. We are aiming for 2 million apprenticeships in this Parliament. We have had excellent announcements this week, with Marston’s creating 3,000 jobs, Siemens creating 1,000 jobs in Hull and Barratt Homes creating 3,000 jobs in housing. We want to ensure that young people are available and trained for those jobs, which means improving our schools and our skills and investing in apprenticeships.

Westminster is awash with the rumour that the Government are considering an amendment to the Hunting Act 2004. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to quash that rumour by confirming his commitment to the coalition agreement, which allows only for a free vote on the repeal of the legislation?

There are always lots of rumours going around Westminster, and it is a good moment to talk about them. The hon. Lady will know, as I have said it before at the Dispatch Box, that proposals were made on a cross-party basis to the Environment Secretary about an amendment to the Hunting Act that would help in particular upland farmers deal with the problem of fox predation of their lands. That letter has been received and is being considered, but I regret to say that I do not think there will be Government agreement to go forward.

Order. Members are in a state of high excitement. One hopes that they are in a state of high excitement to hear the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the Prime Minister for visiting my constituency of Tewkesbury during the recent floods. We met in a village called Longford, which floods badly, yet there are plans to build 3,500 houses in that very area. Will the Prime Minister consider strengthening the planning guidance that he gives on flooding? Will he give stronger guidance to the Environment Agency, because there is a big difference, I am afraid, between rhetoric and what is happening in reality?

I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency has suffered repeatedly from flooding, and I have visited it twice in recent years to discuss it with him and with local people and businesses. Let me make two points. As he knows, any future developments have to comply with the national planning policy, which makes it clear that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided. Secondly, and more importantly, in 95% of cases where the Environment Agency objects to planning on flood-risk grounds, the final decision is in line with agency advice.

Q13. When bankers’ salaries have gone up by five times the rate of ordinary workers’ salaries and the top 100 chief executive officers are earning 133 times more than the average worker in their companies, is it not right that those on the highest incomes contribute the most through tax? With that in mind, will the Prime Minister rule out any consideration of a further cut in the highest rate of tax for the richest 1%? (903285)

We have said that that is not our priority, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the richest should be paying more in income tax and making a bigger contribution. Under this Government, that is exactly what is happening. In a way, that is what is interesting about the Opposition’s argument. They cannot talk about jobs because there are more of them. They cannot talk about inflation because it has come down, and they cannot talk about the deficit because we are cutting it. They have one argument left, which is about fairness. If they look at the figures, they will see that inequality is at its lowest level since 1986: 1 million fewer people are in relative poverty and half a million fewer children are in child poverty than when Opposition Members were in the Cabinet. The facts show that the Government are not only delivering recovery but delivering it fairly, too.

Q14. I know that the Prime Minister is acutely aware that we are coming up to the 30th anniversary of the appalling carnage at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. What more can be done at last to bring someone to justice for the appalling events that followed across India? (903286)

My hon. Friend is right that what happened at Amritsar 30 years ago led to a tragic loss of life. It remains a deep source of pain to Sikhs everywhere and a stain on the post-independence history of India. We cannot interfere in the Indian justice system, nor should we. The most important thing we can do in this country is celebrate the immense contribution that British Sikhs make to our country, to our armed forces, to our culture and to our business life and celebrate what they do for this country.

As the Prime Minister is so keen on boasting, is he proud of the fact that many elderly people in need are no longer able to get essential assistance because of the policies being pursued by this Government? Why is it that a Cabinet made up of so many multi-millionaires is so indifferent to the needs of the most vulnerable in our society?

I remember sitting on that side of the House when Labour gave pensioners a 75p increase. Do not think that we have forgotten about that. Do not think that we have forgotten about the abolition of the 10p income tax, either. This Government have taken 3 million of the poorest people out of tax and pensions have gone up by £15 a week. We are putting money into the social care system, because we have protected the national health service. That record compares very favourably with that of the Opposition.

Q15. In the week of my 50th birthday and the month of Redditch’s 50th anniversary as a new town, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Ken Williams, the head of the Kingfisher centre, for helping me to organise the anniversary as well as my first apprenticeship fair, from which we will get more apprenticeships on top of the 3,000 we have had since this Government came to power? (903287)

First, let me very publicly wish my hon. Friend a very happy 50th birthday and, at the same time, wish everyone in Redditch a very happy 50th anniversary and thank them for the kind present that she gave me of a Monopoly set with Redditch as its basis. That was a very kind gift. I do not think I have yet put it in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, so I had better put that right after this exchange. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to be pushing apprenticeship fairs and job fairs. We are aiming for 2 million apprenticeships in this Parliament and we have 1.6 million already trained. That is one of the most important things we can do to provide a strong and secure future for our country.