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Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 9 April 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.

The Prime Minister promised by the end of this Parliament to reduce net annual migration to the UK to tens of thousands. Will that promise be met—yes or no?

We have made very good steps forward on migration from outside the EU, which is down by a third and at its lowest level since 1998. That is a success, and we have seen net migration overall come down by around a fifth. What we have not seen is what we saw under Labour, when 2.2 million people net came in over 10 years. That was unacceptable, and we are getting the situation under control.

I spoke recently to a constituent of mine who has just been diagnosed with dementia. Understandably, she is incredibly frightened about what the future might hold for her. The dementia strategy has made great progress, but it comes to an end this month. Will the Prime Minister give his personal assurance that a new dementia framework will be put in place as soon as possible to help my constituents and others to live well with dementia?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can add that we will continue our dementia challenge, which is about doubling research into dementia and treating it like a disease such as cancer or heart disease. The work we are doing to make sure that local communities are more dementia- friendly must continue, and we must also improve the care that elderly people get in care homes, nursing homes and hospitals. That vital work must continue, too, and we will continue to use our position in the G7 to push the issue globally.

The events of the last week have caused deep concern and anger to the public. What lessons has the Prime Minister learned from his handling of the situation?

First, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is still very deep and very raw public concern about the expenses scandal that rocked the last Parliament. The biggest lesson I have learned is that that anger is still very raw and needs to be acted on. I hope the one lesson that will not be learned is that the right thing to do as soon as someone has to answer allegations is just to remove them instantly, rather than give them a chance to clear their name and get on with their job.

I was asking about the Prime Minister’s handling of the situation and the lessons he has learned, and he had no answer. In his letter to the former Culture Secretary today, he wrote:

“I think it is important to be clear that the Committee on Standards cleared you of the unfounded allegations made against you”.

Can he now explain what, in his view, she did wrong?

The former Culture Secretary set out the reasons for her resignation in her letter, but the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that the former Culture Secretary was accused of a very serious offence by a Member of Parliament. She was accused of housing her parents at public expense. She was cleared of that allegation, and I thought it was right in those circumstances—other people can take their own view, but I am talking about my view—to allow her to make her apology and to continue with her job. I think that was the right way to handle the situation. Other people can take their own view, but I think that if people clear themselves of a serious offence, you let them get on with their job—you let them try to do their job. That is actually the right thing to do.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that it will be completely unclear to the country why the former Culture Secretary is not still in her job, because he thinks that she did nothing wrong. Let me explain to him—[Interruption.]

Order. This session will be conducted in an orderly way, however long it takes. I happen to know that there are children here today observing our proceedings. I would like to think that the House will show a good example. Let us see if we can.

What she did wrong was to refuse to co-operate with an inquiry, breach the code of conduct for MPs, and give a perfunctory and inadequate apology to this House, as people on all sides have been saying. The Prime Minister said six days ago that she had “done the right thing” and that we should “leave it at that”. Does he now recognise that that was a terrible error of judgment?

As I say, I think that it was right to allow her the chance to get on with her job. There is one weakness in the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. If he thought that was the case, why did he not call on her to resign? He seems to be the first Leader of the Opposition, probably in history, to come to this House and make his first suggestion that someone should resign after they have already resigned.

Now I have heard everything—it is my job to fire members of his Cabinet! This is about him and the fact that he still does not understand what the former Culture Secretary did wrong. The reason the public were so appalled was that if it had happened in any other business, there would have been no question of her staying in her job. Why was he the last person in the country to realise that her position was untenable?

It is very clear. She did do some things wrong. That is why she was asked to apologise, and she did apologise. It was not right not to co-operate properly with the Committee, and she apologised for that. It is rather extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman comes here, having not said that she should resign, saying that she should have resigned. It shows all the signs of someone seeing a political bandwagon and wanting to jump on it. He is jumping on this bandwagon after the whole circus has left town.

Where I agree with the right hon. Gentleman is that there is still more that needs to be done to deal with the problems of expenses that we suffered in the last Parliament. We have made some big steps forward. I am not sure that everybody knows this, but any expense complaint from 2010 onwards is dealt with by an independent body and not by MPs. That is right. The Committee of MPs that does the work on the past cases now has members of the public sitting on it. That is right. Let us do more to reassure the public about the scandal of expenses and how we are dealing with it. I am very happy to hold meetings with party leaders and the authorities of this House. It is absolutely right that we should do everything we can to show that this is a good and honest Parliament with good and hard-working people in it. That is the assumption that I start from, and I make no apology for that.

The Prime Minister describes it as a “bandwagon” and a “circus”. This is about members of the public in this country being absolutely appalled at the conduct of his Government over the last week. That is what it is about. It is about members of the public who cannot understand why he did not act. He said in his foreword to the “Ministerial Code”:

“the British people…expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”

Does he not realise that his failure, even now, to recognise what went wrong has undermined trust not only in his Government, but in politics?

What we see is absolutely transparent: the right hon. Gentleman came here today determined to play politics in every single way that he could. That is absolutely clear. Since 2010—[Interruption.]

I think that Members across the House know that since 2010—since the last Parliament—a lot of changes have been made. We have independent members on the parliamentary Committee; the publication of all meetings, visits and gifts for Ministers; the publication of all special adviser salaries; and the publication of Government spending. Is there more to do? Yes, absolutely, there is more to do. If the right hon. Gentleman is serious about doing it, he will sit down with other party leaders and the authorities of this House. Let us ask what we can do to put it beyond doubt that this is a good and honest Parliament with hard-working people. If he wants to play politics and he wants a good soundbite on the news, he should carry on. If you’re serious, get serious.

I will have meetings with the Prime Minister any time about how we reform the systems of this House—of course I will—but he just doesn’t get it. That is what he has shown today. He needs to learn profound lessons about how he runs his Government. The former Culture Secretary went not because of her bad conduct but because of her bad press. The Prime Minister promised in opposition to be an apostle for better standards, and he has spent the last week being an apologist for unacceptable behaviour.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it is leadership to fire someone at the first sign of trouble rather than actually give someone a chance to get on with the job, that is actually not leadership, but weakness. If that is his recommendation for leadership, I do not think the country will have any of it.

I call Mr Tim Farron. [Interruption.] Order. There should not be a collective groan. The hon. Gentleman is good-humoured about it, but—[Interruption.] Order. The House will hear the hon. Gentleman. I call Mr Tim Farron.

Thank you—that is much better.

Does the Prime Minister agree that people living in rural Britain have as much right to decent-quality and safe health care and hospital services as anybody else? If he does, will he help to intervene directly, and help me personally, to ensure that Morecambe Bay hospitals trust does not downgrade, sell off, offload or close Westmorland general hospital in Kendal?

Representing a rural constituency, I know how important it is that people have access to good health services, and I know how important it is that we get health and social services to work better together, which is the key to success in so many of our areas. My hon. Friend asks me to look into a specific case, and I am happy to do that.

Q2. In the light of this week’s historic visit by the Irish President Michael D. Higgins to the UK, building on the legacy of President Mary McAleese and of Her Majesty’s historic visit to Ireland in 2011, does the Prime Minister agree that Anglo-Irish relationships have never been stronger, and that if we are to build lasting reconciliation across these islands, we need the full commitment of his Government, along with the Irish Government, to ensure that the potential prospects of the Haass process are delivered and implemented? (903599)

First, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a landmark visit of the Irish President to this country, coming three years after the Queen’s extraordinary visit to the Republic of Ireland. I absolutely agree with him that Anglo-Irish relations are at an all-time high, and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and I are absolutely committed to building on that relationship. All the time we are thinking of new things that Britain and Ireland can do as good neighbours and good friends. On the Haass talks, I do think it would be good if we could make some progress on that issue. It is something that the parties in Northern Ireland started themselves, and I would urge them to continue it.

Q3. On the day when BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” has put the distinguished geneticist Professor Nazneen Rahman at No. 3 in its power list, I am pleased to remind the Prime Minister of his challenge to me to suggest practical policies that could address the damaging and long-standing under-representation of women in science and engineering careers. So what is his response—[Interruption.] (903600)

The Opposition do not regard this as a serious matter—I thought they did.

What is the Prime Minister’s response to the thoughtful report, published last week, which I commissioned to meet his challenge, called “Through Both Eyes”, by the campaign group ScienceGrrl?

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for campaigning and working so hard on this issue? It is really important for the future of our country—not just for gender equality but for our economic future—to get more women into STEM subjects and into engineering. I support the National Centre for Universities and Businesses’ target of doubling the number of female engineering graduates by 2030. We are working with employers, professional bodies and academic institutions to implement the Perkins review of engineering skills, and I think one of the most powerful things is role models like the one that my hon. Friend mentioned in his question.

Q4. Did the Prime Minister or any of his staff ask the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) to resign her position as Culture Secretary, and if not, should he have? (903601)

My right hon. Friend has set out the reasons for her resignation in a letter today, and I think people should accept that. I have given the fullest possible answers I could about my attitude of working with colleagues and giving them the chance to get on with their jobs. That is the right approach.

Q5. Thanks to the Government’s long-term economic plan, youth unemployment has been slashed by 42% in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister think that the opening of a new university technical college and a new free sixth-form college in Salisbury will enhance the ability of young people in south Wiltshire to compete in the global race? (903602)

My hon. Friend is entirely right in every word, because we see a decline in youth unemployment. The figures in Salisbury and the south-west are remarkable—the long-term youth claimant count has come down by 37% in the past year. To further drive down youth unemployment, we need to ensure that the training opportunities and education are there. That is why university technical colleges are so important.

Youth unemployment is still too high. When we strip out those in full-time education, it is 8.7%. That is much lower than France, Italy, Spain or the EU average, but it is still too high and we are committed to getting it down.

Q6. My constituent, Paul Cowdrey, is to lose his home after raising concerns about overcharging by solicitor Michael Sandler. That solicitor from hell found a loophole by which he could sue my constituent for complaining. The Solicitors Regulation Authority described Sandler as “morally reprehensible” but said it is powerless to act. Will the Prime Minister look at that case and intervene to stop solicitors running rings around their regulators? (903603)

I am happy to look into that case. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the legal regulators and the legal ombudsman, which were improved over previous years, are independent of the Government. It is therefore not possible to intervene directly, but I can arrange for a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister with responsibility for legal services to discuss what remedies are open to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. If that meeting will be helpful, I will certainly put it in place.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan is due to visit the United Kingdom later this month. Will the Prime Minister discuss with him specifically the reform of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? Will he urge Prime Minister Sharif to ensure that all those who are prosecuted under those laws get justice, including a British national?

I reassure my hon. Friend that I will raise that issue with Prime Minister Sharif when he comes to the UK. In the run-up to Easter, it is important to remember how many Christians are still persecuted around the world, including Christians persecuted under things such as the blasphemy laws. I will raise that important issue and look forward to meeting the Pakistan leadership.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that, for 3 million low-income families, for every £3 they gain through the higher personal tax allowance, they will lose £2 straight away through universal credit? Is he simply giving with one hand but taking away from low-paid Britain with the other? (903604)

I think the hon. Gentleman is profoundly wrong, because the point of universal credit is that people always keep a reasonable share of every extra pound earned. The difference between universal credit and the systems put in place by the previous Government is that, under the latter, people often faced over 100% marginal tax rates effectively when they were in work. Universal credit will change that. That is why I thought Labour was in favour of it. If Labour Members have changed their minds about that, as they often do about other things, perhaps they should tell us.

Q8. The number of apprenticeship starts in my constituency is now at a record high. Next week, I am holding the second Halesowen and Rowley Regis apprenticeship fair at St Michael’s school in Rowley Regis. Does the Prime Minister agree that investing in apprenticeships and skills is a critical part of our long-term economic plan to give local people in the black country the skills they need to get good quality jobs and secure their future? (903605)

I join my hon. Friend in what he says. We have seen 185,000 apprenticeship starts in the west midlands under this Government. We now have 1.6 million nationwide, so we are on target for 2 million during this Parliament. I want to ensure that we continue to grow apprenticeships and see an increase in the quality of apprenticeships. Crucially, we want to see better information for young people in school when they are deciding the pathway they want to take, whether it is an academic pathway through university or looking at apprenticeships. We will be doing more on that front.

Q9. Despite all the progress achieved in Northern Ireland, a recent poll found that 67% of 15 to 24-year-olds think their future lies outside Northern Ireland, with 70% citing their view that local politicians were not capable of agreeing a shared vision for the future as a factor in that. Does the Prime Minister agree that that should act as a wake-up call to those who continue to indulge in the politics of division and fear to start showing real leadership to inspire young people and give them hope for a shared and better future in Northern Ireland? (903606)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she does on this front. Anyone who believes that change is not possible or that politicians cannot rise to a challenge in Northern Ireland will have been struck—as I was—by seeing Martin McGuinness around the table at Windsor castle, toasting the Queen at the banquet celebrating British-Irish relations. People have come a huge way and we need to continue that vital work, including the work to fight racism and sectarianism wherever it arises. Above all, what we need is politicians in Northern Ireland to build a shared future, to take down the peace walls, and to make sure that the economy can grow and opportunities are there for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Thirty-five thousand runners in last year’s London marathon raised £53 million for good causes. I will run again this Sunday for the Forget Me Not children’s hospice in Huddersfield. Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing all the runners good luck, including a record contingent from this House, including the children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), and the shadow Chancellor?

Over the cornflakes this morning I saw a very attractive picture of my hon. Friend in his shorts and the shadow Chancellor in a curious pair of black leggings. I bow down to the bravery of colleagues who are taking part—26 miles is a very long way, and I certainly could not manage it. I am full of admiration for them and for the money that they will raise for excellent causes. I pay tribute to all hon. Members on both sides of the House who are taking part.

Q10. My constituent, Sue Martin, suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis and has been waiting more than nine months for her personal independence claim to be processed. She now has to borrow from her 84-year-old mother just to get by. Why does the Prime Minister think that is acceptable? (903607)

All delays in these sorts of payments are not acceptable: we have to make sure that benefits are paid on time. What we are trying to do with the personal independence payment is to introduce it gradually so that we ensure that the quality of decision making is good.

Last week, I was privileged to meet Walter Kammerling, a holocaust survivor. Is the Prime Minister aware of another appalling persecution occurring today, which is the ethnic cleansing of the Hazara community in Afghanistan and Pakistan? They are a gentle, religious, tolerant Islamic people who educate their sons and their daughters. Will he meet the all-party group on this issue, which is ably chaired by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), to discuss the situation?

We should be absolutely clear that the Afghanistan that we have been supporting, and will continue to support, must be a multiracial and multi-ethnic country that includes Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and the many other nationalities that make up that country. It is vital for its future, and I am happy to look at the evidence that my hon. Friend has and perhaps arrange any appropriate meetings.

Q11. Some 2,400 jobs have been destroyed in Leicester and Corby, and last Friday 650 in Newport, by one single firm that specialises in cynically buying up firms, degrading the pay and conditions of staff and then abandoning them to unemployment. What protection will the Government give to those blameless, hard-working people who suffer from the scourge of that new vulture capitalism? (903608)

I am happy to look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises, but—in terms of the job situation in the UK at present—in the last week we have had 8,000 jobs from Birmingham city airport, 12,000 jobs from Asda and more than 1,000 jobs from Vodafone. What we are seeing is businesses wanting to locate in Britain, take people on in Britain and grow in Britain, but if the hon. Gentleman has an example of bad practice, I am happy to look at it.

Q12. In 1967, the abortion term limit was set at 28 weeks. In 1990, it was reduced to 24 weeks. Given that it is now 2014, a quarter of a century on, and given recent breakthroughs in antenatal and neonatal care, does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time to reduce the abortion term limit to 22 weeks? (903609)

I have always made my own personal views on this clear. There have been opportunities recently in Parliament to vote on this issue. It is always open to Members of Parliament to bring forward legislation, to amend existing Bills and for the House to debate this. That has happened relatively recently, but it continues on the Government Benches, as I am sure it does on the Opposition Benches, to be an entirely free vote issue.

Q13. Did the Prime Minister or any member of his Cabinet ask the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) to resign? (903610)

My right hon. Friend took her own decision and has communicated that decision in a letter. I really think that Opposition Members should respect that decision.

A cloud hangs over the job prospects of 700 mineworkers in my constituency at Kellingley colliery. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure the future of the pit and the livelihoods of those men and women?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is important, despite the difficulties UK Coal faces, that the Government do everything they can, within the rules that are laid down, to look at whether there is help and assistance that we can give. That is exactly what is happening. I am being kept up to date with this, on sometimes a daily basis. I can assure him that it is getting the Government’s attention.

Q14. In the spirit of a new positive case for the Union previewed this week by Lord Robertson, can the Prime Minister perhaps give us his view as to which of the four horsemen of the apocalypse will be the first to descend on an independent Scotland? (903611)

My view is an entirely positive one about what this United Kingdom has achieved together in the past and what we can achieve in the future. I think the ones who take a narrow, inward-looking and rather selfish view about the future are Scottish National party Members.

The surgeon general of the armed forces has raised concerns about the impact of longer NHS waiting times on soldiers based in Wales. Does the Prime Minister agree that NHS outcomes for my constituents, including soldiers, are simply not good enough, and that the Welsh Government could be undermining the operations of the armed forces and are potentially in breach of the military covenant?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have seen an 8% cut to the NHS budget in Wales. The last time A and E targets were met was 2009. The last time cancer treatment targets were met was 2008. Over a third of people miss out on access to diagnostic services within eight weeks. There is a truly dreadful record when it comes to Labour’s NHS in Wales. There is a huge contrast now with the NHS in England—properly funded, well run and meeting the key targets—and the shambles in Wales.

Q15. Five years ago, in one of the worst scenes since the Good Friday agreement, my constituent Sapper Patrick Azimkar and his colleague Mark Quinsey were shot and killed outside their barracks in County Antrim. Their families still await justice. Will the Prime Minister look into this case, and into the use of Diplock trials in Northern Ireland? (903612)

First of all, may I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to the families of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey? This was a despicable terrorist attack and I fully share the desire that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Just because we are trying to deal with the legacies of the past does not mean that crimes that have been committed should not be properly prosecuted and those responsible convicted. I know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland met the parents of Sapper Azimkar to discuss their concerns. The Diplock trial system in Northern Ireland was abolished in 2007 and replaced by provisions allowing non-jury trials only in specific sets of circumstances. These provisions lapse every two years and consideration will be given to whether they ought to be renewed for a further two years in 2015.

People in my constituency will have been reassured this week by the International Monetary Fund’s upgrading of the country’s growth forecast, but does my right hon. Friend agree that they will be even more reassured to know that our long-term economic plan is working in east Lancashire following this week’s announcement by Red Rose Drylining that it has created 30 new apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. Let us look at what has been happening in Britain this week. The IMF has said that the UK will grow faster than any other G7 country, new jobs are being created at Asda in Birmingham and at Vodafone, and there are the extra apprenticeships in east Lancashire that my hon. Friend mentioned. The trade deficit is falling, and employment is rising. Britain is on its way back.

During the Committee stage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), assured the Committee that those who were refused legal aid could still apply under the new exceptional funding scheme, and described that as “a vital safeguard”. Between April and December 2013, 617 family law applications were made and eight were allowed. What kind of safeguard is that?

I will look very closely at the cases that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but the key point is that we must ensure that our legal aid system is affordable. When we compare our system with those of similar common-law countries, we see that we are still spending far more per head than, for instance, Australia and New Zealand. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is no good for Members of Parliament to come to Parliament every week and vote against every single spending decision, while not recognising that we must get our deficit down in order to help our economy to recover.

Will the Prime Minister take a few minutes over the Easter recess to read at least the winning entry in the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit competition, the results of which were announced last night? I am sure that, if he does read it, it will give him some good ideas about why leaving the European Union should become part of our long-term economic plan.

My hon. Friend and I agree on many things, but I am afraid that that is not one of them. However, I will happily look at the Institute of Economic Affairs pamphlet as a potential piece of holiday reading, and see how it competes with alternatives such as, perhaps, the novel written by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), which is obviously another possible choice for the festive period.