Skip to main content


Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 14 May 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 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.