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Volume 583: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2014

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

Andy Coulson’s conviction shows that the parliamentary inquiry into phone hacking, of which I was a member, was consistently misled by him and others over the extent of, and knowledge of, phone hacking at News International. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that our first concern should be to see redress for the victims of phone hacking and to uphold the democratic principle of a free press?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The first thing is that we should remember the victims, people who had their privacy wrecked, and we should ensure that that cannot happen again. As we do so, we must, as he says, cherish a free and vibrant press in our country. I said yesterday, and I say again today, that I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. I did so on the basis of assurances that I received and that the Select Committee also received, but I always said that if those assurances turned out to be wrong, I would apologise fully and frankly to this House of Commons, and I do so again today from this Dispatch Box. I am sorry; this was the wrong decision, but I think it is right that we have had a public inquiry in this country, and it is right that we have proper investigations. Yesterday once again showed that no one is above the law in our country.

Today we know that for four years the Prime Minister’s hand-picked, closest adviser was a criminal, and brought disgrace to Downing street. We now also know that the Prime Minister wilfully ignored multiple warnings about him. On 8 July 2009, The Guardian published evidence of phone hacking on an industrial scale while Andy Coulson was editor of the News of the World. At that time, Andy Coulson was his director of communications. What action did he take?

As I said a moment ago, the assurances I sought and received were the same assurances received by the Press Complaints Commission, by a Select Committee of this House, and by police investigations. They were also thoroughly gone into by the Leveson inquiry—an inquiry the right hon. Gentleman supported. He talks about warnings. Specifically on the warning from The Guardian, Leveson had this to say:

“The editor of the Guardian did not raise the issue with Mr Cameron at meetings both in the month after the article was published and the following year.”

He says this—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will want to hear it:

“there can be no criticism of Mr Cameron for not raising the issue”.

We had an exhaustive inquiry. I know the right hon. Gentleman did not like the result of the inquiry, but he should accept it.

That is a long-winded way of saying that, when it came to Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister just did not want to know the evidence. First warning: ignored.

Let us move on to May 2010. The Deputy Prime Minister warned the Prime Minister in person about his deep concerns about Andy Coulson. So he was warned by his deputy. What action did he take?

Order. Mr Lucas, calm yourself. I am trying to offer you, on a weekly basis, therapeutic guidance, but there is a long way to go. There needs to be calm on both sides of the House.

Every single one of these issues was dealt with exhaustively by the Leveson inquiry. The terms of reference of the Leveson inquiry were agreed by the right hon. Gentleman, and they included

“the extent to which there was a failure to act on previous warnings about media misconduct”.

That is what Leveson looked into. He looked into all of these questions about the warnings I was given and the response I gave, and he made no criticism of my conduct. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was disappointed by the Leveson inquiry, but he called for it, it took place, and he should heed what it said.

No, this is about the Prime Minister’s character, his judgment, and the warnings he ignored, including from the Deputy Prime Minister. Warning No. 2: ignored.

Then, in September 2010, The New York Times published a front-page investigation detailing Andy Coulson’s extensive knowledge of phone hacking, which included one former editor saying:

“I’ve been to dozens if not hundreds of meetings with Andy”

when the subject came up. What action did the Prime Minister take?

All of these issues—every single warning—were dealt with by the Leveson inquiry: an inquiry the right hon. Gentleman called for and an inquiry whose terms of reference he agreed. I know he cannot bear it, but Leveson made no criticism of my conduct in this regard whatsoever. You cannot call for a judge-led inquiry, participate in a judge-led inquiry, write the terms of reference of a judge-led inquiry, and then ignore what it has to say. I have to say, Mr Speaker, that all of the questions he is raising today are not new; they are the questions dealt with by the Leveson inquiry. I know—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister is offering an answer and it must be heard. [Interruption.] Order. It must be heard by the House. Both sides must be heard by the House, and that will happen, as it always does, however long this session has to run—about that, let us be absolutely clear.

I can quite understand why the right hon. Gentleman does not want to listen to an eight-month-long inquiry that cost £5 million, that interviewed people under oath, and that was led by a judge, but that is what he asked for, that is what was delivered, and it did not criticise my conduct in this regard at all. Instead of casting aspersions about that, he should accept the inquiry that he supported.

No answer—[Interruption.] No answer on any of the questions. No answer on why he did not act on The Guardian; no answer on why he did not act on the Deputy Prime Minister; no answer on why he did not act on The New York Times.

Let us come to the issue of vetting. Amid all those warnings, the very least he should have—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but there is the usual ranting from the usual suspects. Be quiet, or if you cannot be quiet, and you have not got that level of self-restraint, leave the Chamber—we can perfectly well manage without you.

Let us come to the issue of vetting. Amid all those warnings, the very least that the Prime Minister should have done was insist immediately on coming to office that Andy Coulson should have the highest level of security vetting, as his six predecessors over the previous 14 years had had. Why did he not insist on that?

Again, Leveson, in his inquiry, looked directly into that issue. This is what he found—[Interruption.] He concluded:

“The level of security clearance was not the decision of either Mr Cameron or Mr Coulson but the Civil Service.”

Those are the correct procedures. If the Leader of the Opposition’s contention is that direct vetting would have got to the bottom of Mr Coulson’s conduct at the News of the World, he should be very clear about what Leveson found. He found that

“the process of considering Mr Coulson for DV status would not have involved a detailed investigation of phone hacking at the NoTW”.

That undermines the entire case that Labour has been trying to make all morning. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not agree with it. I know that he is so desperate not to talk about the economy, not to talk about unemployment, not to talk about the deficit, but he cannot rerun an inquiry that has already taken place.

Now it is clear from the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “Weak!] I will tell them what is weak: failing to stand up for doing the right thing, and that is what this Prime Minister has done. Now we know the rule of this Prime Minister: the buck does not stop here, and he blames the civil service. On the civil service—[Interruption.]

Order. Sometimes one has to repeat a thing because people do not get it the first time. If there is quiet, we will continue. If people try to shout other people down, against the principles of British democracy, they will be stopped in their tracks. It is very simple and, I would have thought, pretty clear.

On the civil service, can the Prime Minister assure the House that at no time did Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then Cabinet Secretary, or any senior civil servant raise concerns with him or his office about hiring Andy Coulson?

Gus O’Donnell made that very clear in the evidence he gave the inquiry. Indeed, on the issue of vetting, he was absolutely clear that the decision about vetting is for the permanent secretary at No. 10, Sir Jeremy Heywood, someone who has served Labour Governments with impeccable service as well as a coalition Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister. What the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do is go through all the old questions that were answered by the Leveson inquiry. He did not like the answer, because he wanted to try to prove some cooked-up conspiracy between the Conservatives and News International. He cannot manage to do it, because the Leveson inquiry cannot find it. He asked a minute ago what is weak. I will tell him what is weak: attacking Murdoch and then standing up with a copy of The Sun newspaper, only to apologise a few hours later.

The Prime Minister said in his previous answer that Sir Gus O’Donnell was asked whether he raised concerns with him or his office about Andy Coulson. He was not asked that question at the Leveson inquiry. There is now a very important question, which the whole country will want an answer to, about whether Sir Gus O’Donnell or senior civil servants raised concerns with the Prime Minister or his office about Andy Coulson.

The truth about this is that the charge against the Prime Minister is not one of ignorance; it is wilful negligence. At the heart of this scandal are thousands of innocent victims of phone hacking that he did not stand up for. The Prime Minister will always be remembered as the first ever occupant of his office who brought a criminal into the heart of Downing street.

The right hon. Gentleman brought up the warning from The Guardian. I totally disproved him using the evidence. He brought up the idea of direct vetting. I have totally disproved him using the evidence. He cannot bear the fact that an eight-month inquiry which he hoped would pin the blame on me found that I had behaved correctly throughout. That is the case. All these issues were examined by the Leveson inquiry. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate the calls we make and the leadership we give, I am happy to do so anytime, because it is leadership that has got this economy moving, it is leadership that has got our deficit down, it is leadership that is putting Britain back to work, and it is the total absence of leadership from the Labour party that shows that it has nothing to say about Britain’s economic future.

After many months of vehement anti-Iranian rhetoric from the Government and now the sudden change of heart, does the Prime Minister believe that the maxim “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” trumps all else?

No, I do not believe that. I think we should judge every regime and every organisation on its commitment to human rights, the rule of law and building pluralistic societies. We should engage with the Iranians but, as I have said, with a very clear eye and a very hard heart. We should not forget what happened to our embassy or the things that they are responsible for around the world, but we should start to build a dialogue with them in the way the Foreign Secretary has set out.

Q3. On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and I jumped from a plane 13,000 feet over the Yorkshire countryside—fortunately, we had parachutes and training from the Army’s Tigers parachute display team. As we approach armed forces day, will the Prime Minister pay tribute to our armed forces, and to the charities and the generous British people who do so much to support those who give such commitment to Queen and country, and will he reinforce the fact that this Parliament will never, ever underestimate the contribution of the armed forces of this country? (904430)

I absolutely support what my hon. Friend has said and commend him for jumping out of an aeroplane with a parachute. Not only should we commend our armed forces, but it is right that we have put the armed forces covenant—the military covenant—into the law of the land. Armed forces day is now an important part of our national character. On Remembrance Sunday, we remember those who have served and those who have fallen, but armed forces day is an opportunity to celebrate all those who serve today, to thank them and their families, and to celebrate the values they live by and all they bring to our country.

I have given a very full answer to this. Obviously, I regret the decision to employ Andy Coulson on the basis of the assurances I was given, but what I would say is that no one made any complaints about the conduct of Andy Coulson while he was at No. 10. That stands in quite a contrast to the conduct of Damian McBride, Jo Moore and Alastair Campbell. What we had from the previous Government were dodgy dossiers, burying bad news and smearing Members of Parliament.

The firefighters’ dispute continues, with some worrying consequences and no sign at present of a resolution. Before Easter, Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government got the Government Actuary’s Department to cost a set of proposals that the Fire Brigades Union was ready to put to its members. Will the Prime Minister look back at that proposal even now, and consider whether it might still have a useful part to play in bringing an end to this dispute?

I am very happy to look at what my hon. Friend suggests. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has been working extremely hard on this issue. I think it is important that we listen to what the firefighters say but at the same time recognise that the pensions they have access to would require the building of a £500,000 pot for anyone else in our country. We should bear that and the taxpayers’ contribution in mind.

Q5. Does the Prime Minister accept that his death at 60 proves that Gerry Conlon lost more than 15 terrible years in prison, and the anguish of his father’s torment, owing to the injustice from layers of this state? As well as his wider campaigning against injustice, there were two particular issues that mattered to Gerry in recent years. One was the need for proper, quality mental health services for those who suffered miscarriages of justice. Secondly—I would like the Prime Minister to address this in particular—notwithstanding the egregious 75-year seal put on the Guildford and other papers, Gerry was recently promised access to the archives at Kew and that people could accompany him. It was his dying wish that that would be honoured through the people he wanted to accompany him. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the dying wish of an innocent man is honoured? (904432)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this, and for the way in which he does it. It is hard to think what 15 years in prison, when you are innocent of a crime of which you have been convicted, would do to somebody. It is absolutely right that a previous Prime Minister apologised as fully as he did when this came to pass. I am very happy to look at the specific request about the records at Kew, which has not been put to me before, and perhaps contact the hon. Gentleman about that it.

Unemployment in north Northamptonshire is down by a third. Last week, this Conservative-led Government approved the Rushden Lakes development—2,000 new jobs, a major retail park and a fantastic leisure facility. Will the Prime Minister explain how we have such a success? Could it be down to his long-term economic plan?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for detailing what is happening in Northamptonshire in terms of the extra jobs and the development. I think what it proves is that we have an entrepreneurial economy, particularly in Northamptonshire, but we need key developments to go ahead to help unlock the jobs, growth and investment that we need for our country.

Q6. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he was just giving Andy Coulson a second chance. That means that the Prime Minister knew that there was a first offence. He knew from the very beginning that he was taking a criminal into Downing street, and then he refused to sack him. Yesterday—and again today—he was busy praising Andy Coulson. What message does that send to the victims? Is not the truth of the matter that the Prime Minister is only sorry because he got caught? (904433)

I am afraid that on this issue the hon. Gentleman has got it wrong time and time and time again. What I said about giving someone a second chance was because the individual in question had resigned as editor of the News of the World because of what had happened. Let me just refer the hon. Gentleman to what he said in this House of Commons. He said that there was no doubt that there was a

“deal…secured between the Conservative party and News International…before the general election”.—[Official Report, 13 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 32WH.]

After eight months of an inquiry that cost £5 million, that was found to be complete and utter rubbish, yet have we ever heard one word of retraction from the hon. Gentleman? As ever—not a word.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his judgment and resolution in standing up for Britain’s national interest on the question of the presidency of the EU Commission? May I put it to him that he is in tune with the concerns of the public right across Europe, unlike so many of our continental partners?

I think it is important on this issue to stand up and speak for what you believe in. I believe that the European Commission President should be chosen by the elected Heads of Government and Heads of State on the European Council. That is the right approach, and it is wrong to sign up to this power grab by the parties of Europe and the European Parliament. I also think it is important that the people involved understand that we need reform in Europe. It does not matter how hard I have to push this case, I will take it all the way to the end.

Q7. They have been to breakfast with Boris, to tea at No. 10 and have danced with the Business Secretary, but businesses in Shoreditch and the City still cannot get superfast broadband. This is now a national embarrassment. What is the Prime Minister going to do? (904434)

We have put a huge amount of money into expanding superfast broadband, and we are now doing better than other European countries in terms of the roll-out of our network and the speeds that are available. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is working very hard to deal with those areas of the country that do not yet have superfast broadband, and I will make sure that he puts Hackney firmly on his list.

The Prime Minister recruited Andy Coulson in 2007. In 2009, Nick Davies of The Guardian came to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and said:

“I have never seen a piece of paper that directly links Andy Coulson to any of the activity that we are discussing of either kind.”

In February 2010, the Select Committee, on which I serve, concluded, with all-party support:

“We have seen no evidence that Andy Coulson knew that phone-hacking was taking place.”

Does the Prime Minister agree that those who now claim they knew he was involved in 2007—that seems to include the current Leader of the Opposition—should explain why they did not pass on that information to the police or to the Select Committee? Or are they trying to rewrite history to deflect attention from their own chronic leadership shortcomings?

Q8. I am sure that the Prime Minister and the whole House will join me in welcoming the successful visit by Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Northern Ireland this week. Will the Prime Minister also join me in condemning Sinn Fein’s foolish approach to welfare reform, which, instead of protecting the vulnerable in Northern Ireland, is costing the Northern Ireland Executive £5 million per month in fines? (904435)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on both counts. As ever, the Queen’s visit to Northern Ireland has been a huge success, and it has highlighted the economic renaissance that is taking place there. With over 800 foreign investors, Northern Ireland is now one of the top UK destinations for investment. May I just say that I am extremely envious of Her Majesty’s being able to see the iron throne on the set of “Game of Thrones”? That is now one of the most successful television productions anywhere in the world, and it is hosted in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about welfare reform. The point of it is to help people to get back to work, rather than just to cut budgets, and we need to explain to all the parties in Northern Ireland that we should be engaging in welfare reform to help to get people back to work.

Q9. On this side of the House, we have a long-term economic plan, with education funding at its heart and as a consequence. This can be seen in the enhanced £269 per pupil funding that all schools in Northumberland will receive next April. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to continue to make progress on education funding, so that as the plan takes effect we get fairer funding for all the schools in this country? (904436)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that education and better schools and skills are at the heart of our long-term economic plan. He should note that we are spending £18 billion on school buildings during this Parliament, which is more than Labour spent in its first two terms combined. Specifically on the issue of a fair national funding formula, we have made some progress by allocating £350 million to the least fairly funded local authorities. That will make a real difference in the coming year.

On Monday morning, before boarding the 9 o’clock train from Dundee to London, I joined a picket line with members of the Public and Commercial Services Union. They were protesting against the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices in Dundee and trying to protect their terms and conditions. Their main concern, however, was that they believed there to be a Government plan for the privatisation of HMRC. Will the Prime Minister assure those members that there will be no such plans on his watch?

The plan we have for HMRC is to make it more efficient and more effective at collecting taxes from the people who should be paying them. That is the plan.

Q10. On Sunday, 17-year-old James Goodship tragically drowned in Lake Burwain in my constituency. His death has left his family and friends, and the local community, in shock. As this week is drowning prevention week, what can the Prime Minister do to raise awareness of the dangers of open water and to improve water safety, particularly during this warm summer? (904437)

My heart goes out to the family that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and he is absolutely right to raise this issue. For anyone to lose a son in such a tragic way is absolutely heartbreaking. We need to spread better information about the dangers of swimming in open water. We also need to do more to teach swimming and life-saving skills in schools. I also think that the heroism Bill that we are bringing forward—which will help people who want to do good and rescue people—will help, in a small way, as well.

Hundreds of young British men and some women are fighting in Syria and now with ISIS in Iraq. Some of them will come back to the United Kingdom trained, radicalised and ready to attack. Our Prevent programme has been cut by £17 million, and the funding for local authorities to do the essential long-term community work has all but disappeared. Will the Prime Minister undertake an urgent review of the Prevent strategy to make sure that we have the plans and the resources to protect our young people from the extremists?

I have great respect for the right hon. Lady on this issue, because she has always spoken clearly about the need to confront not just violent extremism but all forms of extremism. This Government have made sure that the Prevent programme is properly focused and works to target those at most risk of being radicalised. As well as doing that, we need to make sure that we shift resources in our intelligence, security and policing services to target those who are potentially returning from Syria or Iraq so that they are properly covered and dealt with. We have made a large number of arrests and we have confiscated passports. We have taken all the action necessary to keep our country safe.

Q11. Julia’s House, a wonderful children’s hospice in my constituency, is currently carrying out research with Bournemouth university into the impact of short breaks on family relationships. Will the Prime Minister give higher priority to the funding of short breaks as an invest-to-save measure? (904438)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about this issue. Any family bringing up a severely disabled child knows that finding one of these hospices—I will never forget finding Helen House in Oxford, which was actually the first children’s hospice, I think, anywhere in the country—is a complete life saver as they carry out brilliant, brilliant work. That is why we have committed over £800 million for local authorities to invest in short breaks for disabled children, and I am sure that this research by Bournemouth university will help inform our work in the future.

Q13. Is the Prime Minister aware of the alleged mis-selling of cash-back warranties by Scottish Power? Does it concern him as much as it concerns me that one of the UK’s largest utility companies has allegedly tried to evade paying back money to 625,000 people, many of whom are the poorest in our society? I wonder whether he would be prepared to meet me and a cross-party delegation to get to the truth of the matter. (904441)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. Of course, this took place over a decade ago and it was looked at at the time by the then Department of Trade and Industry, but in the light of the concern among members of the public about the outcome of the liquidation, I would like to encourage the hon. Gentleman to give the Business Department all the new information that has come to light, if he has not done so already, and I will fix a meeting for him with the Business Secretary and members of the all-party group so that we can try and get to the bottom of this issue.

My constituent Michael Butcher installed CCTV in his mother’s flat because she was a dementia sufferer, and he recorded on it a brutal assault on her by her carer. Unbelievably to me, the Crown Prosecution Service has refused to prosecute her carer, because it says it is not in the public interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we as a society should be totally intolerant of all attacks on vulnerable people with dementia?

It would not be right for me to comment on a CPS decision in a specific case, but on the general point about whether we should be intolerant of breaches of care against elderly people, particularly those with dementia and who are reliant on others, yes, we should. Our dementia strategy is all about not just increasing the research into trying to tackle dementia but about making sure that our care homes and hospitals and, indeed, communities become more dementia-friendly.

Q14. Did Gus O’ Donnell or senior civil servants raise directly with the Prime Minister any concern they may have had about Mr Coulson? (904442)

A number of senior civil servants gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and were closely questioned by Leveson. The whole process of the employment of Andy Coulson, his arrival in No. 10 Downing street, his vetting and the warnings that were given—each and every single one was dealt with by the investigation that the Leader of the Opposition supported, but the Leader of the Opposition cannot bear the fact that an independent, judge-led inquiry came to that conclusion. He is the first Leader of the Opposition not able to ask for an independent judicial inquiry—because he has already had one.

Although the World cup football results may not have been quite what we wanted in England, we have the 2015 rugby world cup to look forward to. As my right hon. Friend knows, four foreign teams will be playing in Kingsholm in my constituency. Does he agree that this is a great opportunity to use the Chancellor’s new brownfield site fund, plus perhaps a new city deal from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that the regeneration of our small cities is ready for the world cup 2015?

My hon. Friend is right to say that after the disappointment of the football, and also of that stunning test match where we lost on the second last ball, it is perhaps time to look to rugby to provide us with something to lift our spirits.

In my constituency, one-third of homes are in the private rented sector. Tenants are often ripped off and forced to move at a month’s notice, and the average rent for a two-bedroom home is £1,200 a month. Will the Prime Minister back my call for a living rent commission to explore ways of bringing rents back into line with the basic cost of living?

There is a debate shortly on the private rented sector and how we get more houses and more competitive rents. Of course we want more competitive rents, but looking at the policies of the hon. Lady’s party it seems as if it would never build any houses anywhere for anyone, and as a result rents would go up.