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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Budget (Businesses)

1. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of the measures in the 2014 Budget on businesses in Wales. (903928)

The Budget represents the next step in our long-term economic plan with a package of measures to deliver economic security for businesses and people in Wales and across the UK.

I hope that this is not too difficult a question for my right hon. Friend, but does he agree with my Welsh relatives that the best way to help businesses is to reduce taxation?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, which is why we have reduced the rate of corporation tax from 28p in the pound to 21p, with a further reduction to 20% next year. For similar reasons, the Wales Bill makes provision for the Welsh Assembly to call a referendum on a lower rate of taxation for Wales, and I hope that it will seize that opportunity.

Given that the future of businesses in Wales depends on the vibrancy of our young workers, is the right hon. Gentleman encouraged by the fact that the Welsh Government’s policies are clearly working, in that the youth unemployment rate has come down faster and further than anywhere else in the United Kingdom? Will he be less churlish towards the Welsh Government and praise the jobs growth fund and that achievement?

Far from being churlish, I commend Jobs Growth Wales for making an important contribution. Having said that, it is a limited contribution, and the important thing is for the Welsh Government to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we can drive down even further the unemployment rates.

With businesses in Wales still cautious and a Budget that does little to help the 300,000 people in Wales who are earning less than the living wage, will the Secretary of State now back Labour’s plans to give a tax break to businesses that raise their employees’ pay to at least the living wage, so that work will pay?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have given every business in Wales relief against national insurance contributions of up to £2,000. We have also taken young people up to the age of 21 out of employers’ national insurance contributions altogether. I very much hoped that the hon. Lady would welcome that. It was an excellent Budget for business in Wales.

EU Membership

2. What assessment he has made of the net benefits to people in Wales of the UK’s membership of the EU. (903929)

3. What estimate he has made of the level of trade undertaken by businesses in Wales with countries in the EU. (903930)

4. Whether he has recently discussed the importance of UK membership of the EU with leading employers in Wales. (903931)

The EU remains a vital export market for Wales, together with countries outside the EU, but Wales and the UK would benefit from a renegotiated position within Europe, which is why the Prime Minister has committed to negotiating a new settlement in the European Union, to secure jobs and growth and to enable the EU to become more competitive, flexible and prosperous.

Given that 191,000 jobs in Wales are directly dependent on the EU, that £1 billion came to Wales last year from the EU, and that firms such as Ford in the south and Airbus in the north are committed to maintaining our relationship with the EU, will the Secretary of State join me in saying that the EU is good for Britain? The uncertainty that he is creating should be stopped.

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that membership of a free trade area is extremely good for Britain. Where I disagree with him, I think, is on the level of intervention and top-down meddlesome interference by the EU. The people of this country clearly want a referendum on Europe and only the Conservative party can and will deliver that referendum.

What Welsh business leaders want from their political leaders is certainty about our future in the European Union. Why is the Secretary of State so reluctant to say that being a member of the European Union is good for Wales? Is he personally committed to this country’s future membership of the European Union?

As I have just made clear to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), I believe that membership of a free trade area is extremely important for Britain, but what the people of this country want is a say on whether they should remain part of the sort of Europe we have at the moment. It is interesting that the Labour party is not anxious to deliver a voice to the people of Wales.

I am rightly reprimanded, Mr Speaker. I must pay attention.

On the basis that the head of European operations has made it clear that to threaten exit from the EU would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, and that 14,000 jobs in Ford Bridgend and in Dagenham would rely on our not leaving the EU, will the right hon. Gentleman say that he, as the Secretary of State for Wales responsible for protecting those jobs, is personally committed to keeping Wales within the UK and the European Union?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the director of operations for Ford’s manufacturing operations in Europe, Mr Steve Odell. Mr Odell also said:

“there are absolutely some rules and regulations…that are difficult to take”.

We agree with Mr Odell on that and that is why we want the people of this country to have their say on their future in Europe after renegotiation, which only the Conservative party can and will deliver.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people in Wales are deeply concerned about the extra powers that have been given to the European Union, largely by Labour Members, and that it is absolutely right that this coalition Government should seek to renegotiate our position in the European Union and put the results of that negotiation to the people of Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. This Conservative party intends to renegotiate our position within Europe and to put that renegotiation to the British people in a vote by the end of 2017. We think that that is democracy and it is a shame that the Labour party does not share that view.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that we need to renegotiate and get a better deal from the European Union, but does he not also agree that it is about time we ended the uncertainty and that the only way we can do that is by giving the British people, not just in Wales but across the UK, a say in an in/out vote?

My hon. Friend is right and I applaud his sterling efforts to try to achieve that. We intend to give the people of this country—the whole country—a vote on Europe and we are the only party that can and will do that.

15. Clearly, one opportunity offered by the European Union is that of greater investment in the energy supply in Wales and potential exports to the EU. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the European Union on the opportunities for such investment? (903942)

The energy sector is very important for Wales and the Government are investing heavily in energy, including giving support for the new nuclear power station at Wylfa Newydd. The market between this country and Europe is extremely important—a two-way flow—and our energy interventions will ensure that our energy sector is supported.

We know that this Government are out of touch, but listening to the Secretary of State this morning I fear that he is completely out of touch with the views of Welsh business about the European Union. Has he spoken to Ford, GE, Hitachi, Citibank, BMW or Airbus, which are all companies that have expressed their concerns? If he has not, does he know how many jobs in Wales are reliant on our membership of the European Union?

I speak regularly to Welsh businesses—I dare say more frequently than the hon. Gentleman does. What is absolutely clear is that although Welsh businesses value their engagement with Europe, they feel that there is too much regulation and too much meddlesome interference from the European Union. We need to strike a proper balance. That is why we intend to renegotiate our position with Europe and at the end of that process hold a referendum.

I doubt that the Secretary of State is actively talking to those businesses, because when I talk to them, what I hear are their grave concerns about the uncertainty that he is creating. He did not answer the question. In truth, one in seven jobs in Wales is now reliant on EU trade. Does he not accept that the attitude of his Government and the attitude of a Secretary of State who has referred to Europe as “a basket case” is jeopardising those jobs, and does he not realise that it is only Labour that will secure them? That is why a Labour vote next week is a vote for jobs in Wales.

What I recognise fully is that the Labour party is reluctant—in fact, it is refusing—to give the British people a vote on this important issue. So far as business is concerned, the hon. Gentleman ought to understand that 72% of companies interviewed in north America for the Ernst and Young attractiveness survey thought that reduced integration in the EU would make the UK more attractive as a foreign direct investment location. He does not understand that; we do, which is why we can and we will give the people of Wales and Britain a vote on their future in Europe.

With 300,000 people in Wales being paid less than the living wage, what impact does the Secretary of State consider uncontrolled immigration from the EU is having on wage levels in Wales?

These matters will of course have to form part of the negotiation that we propose. We believe that by and large our membership of the EU has been beneficial for Britain, but clearly the form that we have at the moment needs renegotiation.

Because of chuntering from the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) from a sedentary position, the intervention was of no value—[Interruption.] Order. [Interruption.] Order. Be quiet. Silly man. I call Mr Llwyd.

Farming Unions

The Minister will know that at the last Budget the annual investment allowance was increased to £500,000 until 2015, but that is restricted to plant and machinery. Will he add his voice to the farming unions’ voice and many others that that should be extended to buildings and infrastructure in the coming years? Will he therefore plead that case on behalf of Welsh farmers?

Those are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I will raise his question with Ministers at the Treasury and discuss it further. On the whole, business throughout Wales welcomed the measures in the Budget to increase the investment allowance.

On a more specific matter, the Minister knows about the case that I am about to raise with him, because he has a copy of the letter I wrote to his right hon. Friend in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Welsh Black species of cattle is not included on the native breeds endangered list in England; it is included in Wales. As a result, people are unable to export pedigree Welsh cattle over the border to England for those who wish to enter the English countryside stewardship scheme. That is a restraint of trade against Wales, it is unfair and it could be actionable. Will he please get DEFRA moving and get it to register appropriately?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the case with me and for sending me a copy of that correspondence. He raises an entirely fair and sensible point. The Welsh Black is a fine example of Welsh quality produce. There should not be any bureaucratic or policy reasons why it should not be able to be traded in England on an equal basis. I will look into the matter urgently with my colleagues from DEFRA.

Is my hon. Friend aware that on 11 June some of the best produce from Wales will be on display and available for Members to sample in the Jubilee Room when we hold Montgomeryshire day?

I was aware of that, and I encourage right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House to make their way to the Jubilee Room on that date and to sample some of Montgomeryshire’s finest produce.

One of the issues that farmers and farming representatives raise with me is the need for clearer and better labelling and traceability. Some good work has been done at all levels, including the European Union. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling for even clearer labelling so that people can be confident that they are getting Welsh Black, which could be made in Anglesey, in Wales or in the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and we have recently discussed labelling on the Floor of the House. We need to be careful about not putting extra burdens on business at this time, but clearly, high-quality labelling which provides good, relevant information for consumers, particularly about country of origin, is an important way of marketing Welsh produce on a wider level.

Transport Investment

6. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues and others on transport investment in Wales. (903933)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and key stakeholders across Wales and firmly believe that improving transport infrastructure is a key facilitator of economic growth.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Assembly Government should do their bit in electrifying the South Wales line, as they promised?

Certainly, the electrification of the South Wales line is important for Cardiff and Swansea and the stations between. We are willing and anxious to perform our part of the bargain that we struck in July 2012. I have had recent discussions with both my right hon. Friend and the Welsh Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, and I hope that we can find a way forward.

The Minister will be aware that the Department for Transport took a decision a few months ago to relocate all driver and vehicle licensing services from Northern Ireland to Swansea. What steps is he taking to ensure, along with his colleague, that the services provided to all motorists throughout the United Kingdom will not be adversely affected by this retrograde decision?

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has been established in Swansea for many years. It has a high level of expertise and I am entirely confident that it will be able to cope with all the demands that are made upon it.

14. Mid-Wales businesses depend upon good access to the west midlands to maximise their economic opportunities. For those businesses based in Brecon, that means the A438. Will the Secretary of State work with the Welsh Assembly, the Department for Transport and local government to ensure that that route is upgraded, particularly around Hereford, where a bypass is needed to avoid the bottleneck? (903941)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue that has been the subject of discussion for some time. These routes fall partly under the purview of the Welsh Government and partly under that of the Department for Transport. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about this very issue only this morning.

The Mayor of London is now making the case for a £30 billion underground orbital road. Crossrail will cost £16 billion and HS2 will cost £50 billion at least. Considering the historically low levels of transport infrastructure investment in Wales, far below our population share, when will the Secretary of State start making the case for a fair share for Wales via the appropriate funding formula mechanism?

HS2, of course, is an extremely important project that will benefit Wales, particular north Wales and mid-Wales. I am speaking to David Higgins of HS2 about that issue this very afternoon.

The Prime Minister promised to electrify the railway line from Paddington to Swansea, and now he is saying that it will go to Cardiff and from Bridgend to Swansea, but not the bit in the middle. When will he listen to Swansea business, withdraw from the Punch and Judy performance between the Welsh and UK Governments, and get the project delivered on time and to budget for the Swansea city region’s jobs?

The hon. Gentleman will know—I have made it clear previously and I make it clear once again—that the Government are entirely willing and anxious to perform their part of the bargain in the electrification of the Great Western main line. We are having continuing discussions with the Welsh Government, and I hope that they will be fruitful.

Defence Operations

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on that Department’s operations relating to Wales. (903934)

Wales Office Ministers have regular discussions with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on their operations in Wales and on how best we can support the armed forces in Wales.

The success of the St Athan enterprise zone is dependent on access to the MOD runway. The Welsh Government seem to have over-promised and under-delivered on the seven-day access. What progress is being made to ensure that they can take responsibility, so that companies based in St Athan can make the most of the opportunities provided by this MOD asset?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to an incident that took place only this weekend involving Cardiff Aviation. I have discussed the matter with the Welsh Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart, and raised it with the Ministry of Defence. Clearly we have a shared interest with the Welsh Government in ensuring that commercial operations at St Athan are a success, and that is what we are working towards.

Border Health Care

8. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues and Ministers of the Welsh Government on patient choice in health care on the Wales-England border. (903935)

Access to high-quality health care is an important issue for people across the UK, and particularly for those in the border areas. Following last week’s discussions on the matter in this House, I have written to the Secretary of State for Health and the First Minister urging swift action be taken to find a solution to the current difficulties.

The Secretary of State will know that a number of my constituents—thousands, in fact—are forced to use the NHS in Wales. They will therefore be very concerned by the report published yesterday, “Trusted to care”, which shows serious failings in the treatment of frail older people at two Welsh hospitals. Even the Labour Minister said he was shocked. Do not the people of Wales and my constituents deserve better?

I think that Members across the House were equally shocked by the contents of the report. I am glad to see that the Welsh Minister of Health has taken some action on the matter, but I repeat that the Government are more than willing to offer our assistance, perhaps by commissioning a Keogh-style inquiry.

The Midland Centre for Spinal Injuries at Gobowen provides the highest quality of care to patients from Wales with spinal injuries. They are concerned about the future of specialist services because of NHS reforms in England. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the concerns expressed to me by my constituents?

I agree entirely that the Gobowen hospital is a world-renowned centre of excellence, and I am concerned about what the hon. Gentleman says. I am very happy to meet him and would be grateful if he contacted my office.

13. Access to cross-border health services is not restricted to the border areas, but access to specialist services is relevant to my constituents. The protocols are not working at the moment. In his discussions with Ministers, will the Secretary of State ensure that cross-border protocols are working for specialist services in particular? (903940)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Key to this issue is the cross-border protocol. As a consequence of last week’s debate, I have written to both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and the Welsh Health Minister, and we will see whether we can improve that protocol.

HMRC (Welsh Language Services)

9. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues and others regarding the future of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Welsh language services. (903936)

Wales Office Ministers have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and others, including the Welsh Language Commissioner, on the delivery of Welsh language services by UK Government Departments and public bodies in Wales.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the HMRC office in Porthmadog offers a first-class service in Welsh to private individuals and businesses that work in that language and that closing that office would be a disastrous step?

I am very aware of the excellent work done by the Welsh language specialist team at Porthmadog. I would like to give him an assurance that the wider changes that are happening to the network of inquiry offices will not impact on the Welsh language service, an important service that we are determined to keep operational.

Cost of Living

The Government understand the financial pressures facing many households at this time. That is why we have introduced real practical measures to bring down the cost of living in Wales by freezing fuel duty and raising the personal allowance, taking some of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. We are putting money back into the pockets of hard-working people in Wales.

Just as in Harlow, the Conservative-led coalition Government have had a relentless focus on helping people with the cost of living, by freezing fuel duty, freezing council tax and cutting tax for lower earners. Will my hon. Friend lobby the Treasury to go ever further and raise the threshold at which lower earners pay national insurance contributions?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does campaigning for those on the lowest incomes. Decisions on national insurance contributions are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I share my hon. Friend’s objective. We are determined to return more money to the pockets of hard-working people by taking them out of income tax.

Train fares are high and electrification of the valleys lines is crucial for south Wales. What is the Minister doing to make sure that the Government are making sure that the 2019 electrification timetable will be met?

Improving the rail network in the valleys is an important way of our connecting people in those communities, where unemployment is higher than average, with the new jobs that are being created in Cardiff and Newport. As the hon. Gentleman knows, discussions about electrification of the valleys lines are part of the discussions we are having with colleagues in the Welsh Government and colleagues at the Department for Transport about how we finance that major package of infrastructure improvements for south Wales.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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 UK now has 104 billionaires—top of the global league. London alone has 72 billionaires —the top city in the world. Meanwhile, west Wales and the valleys is also top—in the top five poorest regions in western Europe. Is the Prime Minister at all concerned, or is he, like Labour’s Lord Mandelson,

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”?

I can say to the hon. Gentleman that what is worth while is the massive fall in unemployment and the increase in employment that we have seen across our country. In Wales, unemployment has fallen by 5,000 in the last quarter and fallen by 25,000 since the last election. That means that in Wales there are 59,000 more people in work. In terms of making sure that the richest in our country pay their taxes, actually we see the richest 1% paying a greater percentage of income tax than ever they did under Labour. We are seeing a broad-based recovery, and I want to make sure that everyone in our country can benefit. That is why we are cutting people’s taxes and allowing people to keep the first £10,000 of what they earn before they pay any income tax.

At the end of November, Mrs Ann Gloag, a director of the Stagecoach company, acquired Manston airport in my constituency for £1. On Budget day this year, Mrs Gloag announced that she was going into consultation with a view to closing an airport that is worth hundreds of jobs and is a major diversion field and a search and rescue base. Since then, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and I have sought to find a buyer. Last night, the RiverOak company of Connecticut, which already has airport interests, put in an enhanced and realistic offer to keep Manston open, save the jobs, and develop the business. At present, the owners are reluctant to negotiate. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to engage in commercial negotiations, but will he seek to ensure that the Civil Aviation Agency operating licence remains open, that Manston remains open, and that further discussions are held; and will he encourage those discussions to take place?

I know that my hon. Friend has been fighting very hard, with my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), about the future of Manston airport and recognises that it has played an important role in the local economy and employed local people. Ultimately, the future of Manston remains the responsibility of the airport owner, but it is important that the Government are engaged, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is engaged. He will be speaking to Mrs Gloag about this issue and also contacting RiverOak, the potential purchasers. In the end, it has to make a commercial decision, but the Government will do everything they can to help.

I welcome the fall in unemployment. For all those people who have found work, it is good for them and good for their families.

On the subject of high-skilled jobs in the UK, following the appearance of Pfizer at the Select Committee yesterday, can the Prime Minister tell us what further assurances he is seeking from Pfizer about its takeover of AstraZeneca?

First of all, may I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has welcomed the fall in unemployment? These are, of course, jobs that he predicted would never come to Britain and would never be there. This is important, because what we see today is the largest-ever quarterly increase in the number of people in work—283,000. We see unemployment coming down, youth unemployment coming down, long-term unemployment coming down, and long-term youth unemployment coming down—and of course, in our growing economy, where our long-term economic plan is working, we see the number of vacancies going up. Hon. Members may be interested to know, in addition, that three quarters of the new jobs over the last year have gone to UK nationals, and also that the employment of Romanians and Bulgarians actually went down in the first three months of this year following the lifting of the controls, which is notable.

In terms of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, this Government have been absolutely clear that the right thing to do is to get stuck in to seek the best possible guarantees on British jobs, British investment and British science. We discussed this last week and one of the most important things we have learned since then is that the right hon. Gentleman was asked for a meeting with Pfizer, but he said he was too busy political campaigning. He quite literally put party politics ahead of the national interest.

I am not going to take any lectures from the guy who was negotiating with Pfizer over the heads of the board of AstraZeneca. Pfizer does not need a public relations man—it has the Prime Minister.

For Members on both sides of the House, the appearance of Pfizer at a Select Committee raised more questions than it answered about the so-called assurances. The head of Pfizer said there would be a fall in research and development spending as a result of the takeover. Has the Prime Minister got an assurance that those R and D cuts will not take place in the UK?

We want the strongest possible guarantees, but I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman: what is the way of getting those guarantees? Is it getting stuck in with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, battling for the British interest, or is it standing back like him, doing absolutely nothing apart from playing politics? That is the point I put to him. I am clear about what the British interest is: it is British jobs, British science and British R and D, and we will do everything we can to make those guarantees that we have received—the right hon. Gentleman would have got nothing—as firm as possible. As we do so, let us remember that 175,000 people are employed in the life sciences in our country, because we are an open economy that encourages investment. Eli Lilly, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson and e Sci have chosen to come and invest here because it is a great country to come and do business.

The problem is that the assurances are “vague”, have “caveats” and are “inappropriate”. Those are not my words, but the words of the president of the Royal Society. The assurances are useless and there is no guarantee on R and D.

Let us talk about jobs. The head of Pfizer said yesterday:

“There will be job cuts somewhere”.

Has the Prime Minister got an assurance that those job cuts will not take place in the UK?

We have assurances on the percentage of R and D that will happen here and on investment in Cambridge and in Macclesfield. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking whether we want further assurances, then yes, we do. Do we want to make sure those jobs stay here? Yes, we do. Do we want more investment in British universities and British science? Yes, we do. The only difference between us is on how to get those things. I say: get stuck in, negotiate hard and fight for Britain. He says: stand up, play politics and put that before the national interest.

But the Prime Minister’s negotiations are not working—they are worthless. On R and D and jobs, he has no answer.

Let us try the Prime Minister on another issue: the possible carving up of the merged company. Nobody wants the company to be bought, split up and then sold off. Has he got assurances that that will not happen in the case of this takeover?

What we want is a good outcome for British investment and British jobs. We know what happens if you take the approach of the Labour party. Let us remember Kraft and Cadbury. What did we have? We had outright opposition, wonderful speeches about blocking investment and then complete and abject surrender and the closure of plants under Labour. That is what happened. We have learned the lessons of the mistakes Labour made. We are operating under the framework that it left us—which, incidentally, the right hon. Gentleman wrote when he was at the Treasury—and we will get results for British science, British jobs and investment by being engaged rather than standing off and playing politics.

We all know what happened the last time the Prime Minister got assurances: he sold off Royal Mail at a knock-down price and the Chancellor’s best man made a killing. That is what happens with the Prime Minister’s assurances.

The truth is that the Prime Minister cannot give us a guarantee, because the chief executive says that he wants to “conserve the optionality” of splitting up the company and flogging it off. Last week, the Prime Minister said he would judge the takeover on

“British jobs, British investment and British science.”—[Official Report, 7 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 146.]

But he cannot offer us assurances on any of those things. Is it not obvious—he should have a proper test of the public interest, and if the deal does not pass, he should block it?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman raises this issue about the public interest test. It is worth asking which party, which Government and indeed which individual, when he was sitting in the Treasury writing the rules, got rid of that test. It was the right hon. Gentleman. That is what we see: on a day when unemployment is down, on a day when more people are in work, he will try any trick other than to talk about what is happening in our economy. That is the truth. The country is getting stronger, and he is getting weaker.

The Prime Minister might not think it important to talk about a company that is 2% of UK exports and on which 30,000 jobs depend. It is important: it is crucial to our national interest. The truth is that he is not powerless. He is the Prime Minister, and he could act on a public interest test. We are talking about one of our most important companies. Nobody is convinced by his assurances. Why will he not intervene? Because he is falling back on the old idea that the market always knows best and does not need rules. From Royal Mail to AstraZeneca, this is a Prime Minister whose ideology means that he cannot stand up for the national interest.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks these companies are important, why did he not meet them, rather than going canvassing? That is what he did: he quite literally put his own party political interest ahead of the national interest. What he fails to understand is that, yes, we measure the British interest in British jobs, British science and British investment, but we also measure it in being a country that is open to overseas investment. There is a reason why companies and countries are coming here to make cars, to build aeroplanes, to build trains, to fabricate oil rigs, to make new drugs in our country—it is because we have cut taxes, we welcome investment, we are growing our economy and we have got more people in work. We will take absolutely no lectures from the people who brought this economy to its knees.

The sun is shining, and people are wisely preparing to come to Cornwall for their holiday. When they arrive, however, they will see that some of the recent storm damage still has not been put right. Cornwall does not just need a long-term economic plan; we also need help today. Will the Prime Minister meet me to see what more can be done?

I am very happy to go on discussing that with Cornish MPs and indeed the Cornish unitary council to make sure we do everything we can to help Cornwall get back on to its feet after the storms. What I have said very clearly is that there is money under the Bellwin scheme, so all the emergency funding that Cornwall had to spend it can claim back, and it still has time to work on that claim. We have also increased the amount of money going through the Environment Agency to repair storm damage, and there is an opportunity for Cornwall to have a real benefit from that money as well. The sun is shining. I am sure that people are preparing to go to Cornwall and I know, when they get there, they will have a very good time.

Q2. This week, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Ministry of Defence for failing to account for a £1.2 billion underspend, and it went on to say that this might result in even higher spending in future years. Does the Prime Minister still think that he was right to say that he has balanced the books at the MOD? (904029)

I seem to remember, coming into government, that we were left with a £38 billion black hole, so if the criticism is that the Secretary of State for Defence is careful with the pounds and the pennies, and makes sure that there is an underspend that can then, on occasion, be carried forward into further investment—to make sure that we have the very best equipment for our troops—I rather suspect that he might plead guilty.

Q3. Stevenage continues to lead the economic recovery, and unemployment figures today show that our long-term economic plan is working. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the educational institutions and businesses in my constituency that have increased apprenticeship starts from just over 200 in 2010 to over 800 a year now? (904030)

My hon. Friend is right. In Stevenage, unemployment has fallen by 24% over the past year, which shows that our long-term economic plan is working. Every single one of those people is not just a statistic, but someone who has the dignity, security and peace of mind of a pay packet to help them and their family. Increasing the number of apprenticeships is a vital part of our long-term economic plan. We have seen 1.7 million new apprentices under this Government and are aiming for 2 million. We need to do more to encourage small and medium-sized firms to take on apprentices, but the work is going well.

Q4. There has been a 61% increase in the number of working families claiming housing benefit in the Stockton borough. Is that not further proof that the jobs that the Prime Minister claims to have created are generally low-paid, part-time and zero-hours contract jobs that do not pay enough to meet the rent? (904032)

In the Stockton North constituency, unemployment has fallen by 23% over the past year. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the unemployment figures, he will see that the number of people in part-time work who want full-time work has fallen as, increasingly, people are able to find the full-time work that they want. Of course there is an increase in the number of people who are in work and claiming housing benefit, because there is an increase in the number of people in work. That is what is happening in our country—we are getting the country back to work.

The Prime Minister will know that thousands of my constituents in England are forced to use the NHS in Wales. They will be concerned about yesterday’s “Trusted to Care” report, which showed serious failings in the care of frail, older people at two NHS hospitals in Wales. Do not the people of Wales and my constituents deserve better?

Those are very concerning reports that need to be studied, because the NHS in Wales is not in a good state. We have seen an 8% cut to the NHS budget in Wales carried through by Labour. In Wales, the last time the A and E targets were met was in 2009 and the last time the urgent cancer treatment target was met was in 2008. We really do see problems in the NHS in Wales. Frankly, the Labour party, instead of chatting to each other on the Front Bench, should get a grip of this issue and sort out the NHS.

Q5. The Pfizer boss did give assurances to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee yesterday. He gave an absolute assurance that any takeover of AstraZeneca would result in a fall in research and development in its new drugs in the UK. He gave an absolute assurance that it would result in a fall in UK jobs. The AstraZeneca boss said that it could put lives at risk. How could any Prime Minister worth the title not immediately conclude that the right thing to do in the national interest is to call this in? (904033)

As I explained to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), we are operating under the legal framework that was put in place by the Government of whom he was a member. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of what was said yesterday, I think he will find that the quotes that he has given are not accurate.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister agree that the building of vital roads, such as the A5-M1 link or the Dunstable northern bypass, will create even more jobs, and that continued infrastructure investment like that is a key part of our long-term economic plan? (904035)

I agree. I have spent some time in my hon. Friend’s constituency, stuck on the A5, and I know how much that remedial work is needed. It is vital for that part of our country. We are investing more in our railways than at any time since Victorian times and more in our roads than at any time since the 1970s. That is key to the success of our long-term economic plan.

Q7. Is there a good reason why the Prime Minister will not condemn the tax affairs of Tory-supporting Gary Barlow as morally wrong? (904036)

I could not have been clearer. I condemn all aggressive tax avoidance schemes—and more than condemning them, this Government have taken legislative action to say to people, to coin a phrase, “We want your money back for good.”

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend will know that my International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 came into force last night. Will he note that it will protect women and girls throughout the world and that, furthermore, in places such as Nigeria and Syria, it provides us with an opportunity to do whatever we can to relieve their tragedy? Will he be good enough to have a word with the excellent Secretary of State for International Development and ensure that we will do whatever we can to use the Act to help people who have been so severely afflicted?

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in commending my hon. Friend for his Bill, and on his legislative achievement to get that important measure on the statute book. This year Britain is taking some huge steps forward, using the power of our aid budget and the fact that we have met our aid pledge to try to drive change in our world and end for ever the scandals of forced and early marriage and female genital mutilation. We are in a really strong position to drive change on that.

My hon. Friend mentioned Nigeria, and I can announce that we have offered Nigeria further assistance in terms of surveillance aircraft and a military team to embed with the Nigerian army in its HQ, as well as a team to work with US experts to analyse information on the girls’ location. As I said last week, this was an act of pure evil, and the world is coming together not just to condemn it but to do everything we can to help the Nigerians find these young girls.

Q8. Some 50,499 ambulances have waited in queues for at least half an hour at accident and emergency units up and down the country. What is the Prime Minister going to do about it? (904037)

What we are doing about it is making sure that the £12.7 billion extra that we are putting into the NHS—unlike the Labour NHS cut in Wales—is going to good use. We can see in our NHS that 1.2 million more people are attending accident and emergency, and over this winter period we met our targets for accident and emergency. I remember the last time that the Labour leader raised our hospitals at Prime Minister’s questions—it was back in November, and he has not had a word to say about it since. He predicted a winter crisis, and he sat there day after day, dying for it to happen. It did not happen because we have a strong NHS with more doctors and more nurses serving our country.

The Prime Minister is well aware of the wonderful work done by the Royal British Legion Battle Back centre with our brave servicemen and women who have been injured in conflict, through adaptive sports and adventurous training. At the end of this month, I will be joining a team from the Battle Back centre with the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to raise awareness of that wonderful work. Will the Prime Minister wish us every success in that aim?

I will certainly wish well my hon. Friend and hon. Members from across the House who are taking part in that. The Royal British Legion plays an absolutely key part in our country in standing up for veterans and their interests, and ensuring that we raise money and serve them properly. We work very closely with the Royal British Legion in government, and the Battle Back centre that my hon. Friend mentioned is an extraordinary facility in our country. I wish him well and hope that the fundraising goes well.

Q9. When the Prime Minister goes up to Scotland later this week, will he explain to our agricultural producers and rural communities why by 2019 we will be receiving the lowest level of support per hectare not just of any country in the UK, but of any country in the whole EU? Perhaps that explains why he does not want to publish his secret poll on support for independence. (904038)

On my visit to Scotland I will be explaining how Scotland is better off inside the United Kingdom. We have all the negotiating power of the United Kingdom around the table to get a good deal for Scotland, whereas of course an independent Scotland would have to queue up behind other countries to get back into the European Union. Specifically on agriculture, because of the hard work of my right hon. Friend the agriculture Secretary, we are ensuring that there will be extra support for Scottish farmers, which is absolutely in line with what the Scottish Government have been asking for.

Q10. According to the Watford chamber of commerce, this year Watford will benefit from a total of £1.5 billion in new investment. It has already started: we have a new road, two new train stations, two secondary schools being refitted, and a brand new university technical college. To cap that, today there has been an announcement that the number of unemployed is 667 fewer than a year ago, and I am concerned for that to continue. What is the Prime Minister’s strategy to ensure that it will continue? If he takes my advice, he will come up with something that is one, long term; two, economic; and three, a plan. (904039)

First of all, may I say to my hon. Friend how welcome it is that unemployment in Watford in the past year has fallen by 30%? We are getting the people of Watford back to work and cutting unemployment. He mentioned important investments such as the Croxley rail link, with the two new stations, and rebuilding schools and building new ones. They are absolutely vital. The long-term plan is not just about jobs and cutting taxes, important as those are. It is also about supporting business, and small business in particular, by building the infrastructure we need. Because we have taken difficult, long-term decisions, we are able to put that extra investment into our roads and railways to build a modern infrastructure for the 21st century.

Q11. In 2011 the Government stated that the ability to see a general practitioner within 48 hours was not a priority. Does the Prime Minister regret that? (904041)

The Royal College of General Practitioners says that there are something like 40 million more GP appointments since 2010. The patient survey, which was always quoted by Labour Ministers, states that 93% of people say that appointments in the GP system are convenient. Frankly, I want more. As the father of three young children, I know how important it is to get timely GP appointments. That is why we are training 5,000 more GPs, why we now have named GPs for frail and elderly people, and why 1,000 GP centres are now open from 8 am to 8 pm and at weekends.

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I regret. I regret the fact that the last Labour Government signed a contract with the GPs that meant that they did not have to offer a service out of hours or at the weekend. Because of the investment we are putting into the NHS, we are providing better services. If he is wondering about a 48-hour target, he might want to ask why Labour scrapped one in Wales.

Ribble Valley council has recently approved its core strategy. Will the Prime Minister reassure local councillors that that will give them extra power to protect those areas within the Ribble Valley that are not already earmarked for development? Will he come and visit the Ribble Valley and see for himself why it is consistently voted one of the best places to live in the United Kingdom, and why local people want to keep it that way?

I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and constituencies in Lancashire more broadly. The assurance I can give him is this: when local councils put in place their local plan, they will have far greater ability to determine how much housing and what sort of housing they have, and where it goes. That is what we are trying to put in place. The faster local councils can put in their local plans, the more power and responsibility they will have.

Q12. As the Prime Minister has acknowledged, the number of people who are in work but who have to claim housing benefit to make ends meet is growing, but the cost of that will be an extra £5 billion over the course of this Parliament. Does the Prime Minister consider that a sign of success? (904042)

The most important thing we have done with respect to housing benefit was to put a cap on it because, when we came to office, some families were claiming £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000. When we put that cap on housing benefit, what was the Labour reaction? Labour voted against it. When we said that in order to make savings housing benefit should not be paid in respect of spare rooms that people are not using, what was Labour’s attitude? Labour opposed it. That is what is happening.

The good news from the hon. Gentleman’s seat in Stalybridge and Hyde is that unemployment is not going up—it is down 31%. Of course, some of those people in work are claiming housing benefit, but because of this Government’s long-term economic plan, more of his constituents are in work and earning.

Extra flood defence funding for the Humber area following the tidal surge in December was most welcome, but many of my constituents are still out of their homes, and there is concern that we get the £300 million that is needed over the next 25 years. MPs are working cross-party and cross-Humber on that. Will the Prime Minister meet us so that we can convince him of the case for treating the Humber, which is so important to our economic recovery, as a special case given its high risk of flooding?

I have experienced very positive and good meetings with Humberside MPs on a cross-party basis. We worked very hard to ensure that the Siemens investment went into Hull. That will bring not just jobs to that factory, but, I believe, a whole new industry and supply chain to the area. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss flooding and other issues to ensure we do all we can to protect people’s homes and businesses.

I welcome the efforts to rescue the schoolgirls in Nigeria, but does the Prime Minister agree that the Nigerian Government have not lifted a finger to protect their own citizens in the north when they are attacked by Boko Haram? Will he agree to ask the Nigerian Government to support their own people, and to seek to introduce peace to that unhappy nation?

The right hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge of overseas development and these affairs. I do not think his description of the Nigerian Government is entirely fair. They face Boko Haram, a very vicious terrorist organisation, and they are investing in and training their armed forces in counter-terrorism abilities. We have worked with them on that and we are willing to do more, particularly if we can ensure that proper processes are in place to deal with human rights issues. We should help across a broad range of areas, not just counter-terrorism, surveillance and helping them to find these people. We should work with the Global Fund for Education to protect more schools—the global fund promoted by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirk—er, and—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown); thank you very much.

My mother Maud recently celebrated her 102nd birthday. She was just a child in the first world war, but she thinks it is entirely right that, in the centenary of the outbreak of that great war, we honour those who lost their lives. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we also remember all the horses that were lost, as depicted in the wonderful play “War Horse”?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is not just that wonderful play—Joey the horse came on my recent business trip to China and caused quite a stir—but the magnificent memorial in Park lane to all the animals that died in the war. It is important that we not only commemorate the 100th anniversary appropriately this year, but that we commemorate Gallipoli, Jutland, the armistice and the peace that followed.

Points of order will follow the statement by the Secretary of State for International Development. If colleagues wish to wait, they can come in later. May I just appeal to colleagues to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, so the House can hear the statement by the Secretary of State?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful. Perhaps I should declare an interest, having nominated the hon. Member for New Forest East Dr Lewis (Dr Lewis) for the post of Chair of the Defence Select Committee. There is a range of excellent candidates and I am very concerned that the window for the election is extremely short—just two hours—and closes at 1 pm. I am worried that if Members turn out in great numbers, as I am sure they will between now and 1 pm, they will not be able to get in to vote. I encourage Members to go and vote for what is a very important position for the future of the Defence Committee.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for that point of order, the answer to which I hope will satisfy the House. If hon. and right hon. Members are visibly queuing to vote, they will be able to vote. I should imagine that that would be what the House wants to hear and that is what is right, so I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. [Interruption.] I think Mr Hollobone was chancing his arm, but he is not now doing so and we are grateful to him for his forbearance.