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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2014

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Effects of Fiscal Measures

1. What assessment he has made of the effects on the economy in Wales of fiscal measures taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer since May 2010. (904679)

We have announced significant measures to boost growth and support hard-working families. We have cut corporation tax, abolished national insurance contributions for the under-21s and by next April 155,000 people in Wales will have been taken out of income tax altogether.

Given that the Chancellor’s decision to cut Britain’s corporation tax rate to the lowest in the G7 is one of the major reasons for Britain’s economic recovery, will my right hon. Friend reject the advice from the shadow Secretary of State that

“reducing headline corporation tax rates does not work”?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Government analyses have shown that high corporate taxes have a negative impact on investment, jobs and growth, and that is why we are reducing the rate to 20% from next April, the joint lowest rate in the G20. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) would appear to be at odds with the shadow Chancellor, who has committed himself to low rates of corporate taxation.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that just 14,000 people have benefited from the tax cut to taxpayers on the highest rate, at an average of £40,000 each, at a time when 75,000 people in Wales are on zero-hours contracts? Does he think that is fair?

By increasing the income tax threshold, we are taking increasing numbers out of income tax altogether. As I said in my substantive answer, by next April 155,000 people in Wales will be out of income tax. I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed that.

Actions speak louder than words. The real answer to the question was provided by the Secretary of State at the weekend, when he was the only member of the Cabinet who volunteered, as many Opposition Members have done, at a local food bank. Was that because he now agrees with us that food banks have become a vital bulwark against the impact of his Government’s fiscal policies in Wales?

I am proud to have assisted those at the Ruthin food bank over the weekend—I spent four hours with them; they are doing essential work—but, frankly, rather than turning this issue into a political football, I would have thought that the hon. Lady would be far better off supporting the work of the Trussell Trust.

Devolution of Fiscal Responsibility

2. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues and others on devolving fiscal responsibility to the Welsh Government. (904680)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on the Wales Bill, which devolves a significant package of tax and borrowing powers to the National Assembly and Welsh Ministers. The Bill completed its passage through this House on 24 June, and it will have its Second Reading in the Lords next Wednesday.

Being in the position to set tax rates and collect taxes will clearly bring a new-found fiscal responsibility, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales should take that as an encouragement to vote in a Government in Wales who will look after their best interests?

I certainly agree with that, and I also believe that it is essential, once the competence is in place, for the Welsh Government to call an early referendum on tax-varying powers to maximise the benefit we are creating through the measures in the Bill.

Is it not the case that people in Wales would be buying a pig in a poke if income tax were devolved without a proper floor being put underneath the Barnett formula? The failure to address that issue has resulted in Wales being short-changed, so if income tax were devolved without the Barnett formula being addressed, it would be a bad outcome for Wales.

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has overlooked the arrangements that we put in place with the Welsh Government in October 2012, which ensure that if there is any danger of convergence, then the issue will be resolved. I believe that we should all be ambitious for Wales, and we should indeed be looking for a lower rate of income tax in Wales to give Wales the competitive advantage that it needs.

Is it the policy of the coalition parties fully to devolve income tax powers to Scotland, and if so, why does the Wales Bill still include a tax-sharing arrangement in relation to income tax powers, with the lockstep measure for safe measure? Why are the Tories treating Wales like a second-class nation?

We have made it clear that the Scottish powers would kick in only after the next general election and they will, of course, have to be the subject of a manifesto commitment. However, Wales is not Scotland. We believe that the arrangements that we are putting in place are right for Wales. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support them.

On devolution, in the last hour there has been an extremely important ruling by the Supreme Court. It found in favour of the Labour Welsh Government in their attempt to preserve an Agricultural Wages Board for Wales and to protect low-paid farm workers in Wales. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise for wasting court time and money on seeking unlawfully to get rid of an Agricultural Wages Board for Wales, and will he commend the Welsh Government on their actions?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the Supreme Court delivered a judgment this morning. We are still considering the consequences of that. Where a procedure exists and there is an issue of doubt, it is entirely right that we should go to the Supreme Court to have the position clarified, and the position has been clarified.

The Secretary of State is trying to present this as a score draw. To be clear, he has lost 2-0. This is the second time he has referred Welsh legislation to the Supreme Court and the second time he has lost. This time he was trying to stop the Welsh Government trying to protect agricultural wages in Wales. I ask him again: will he apologise for wasting time? Will he agree with me that his interference and this ruling show that we definitely need Labour’s proposal of a reserved powers model for the Assembly in Wales?

I do not apologise for taking into account the devolution settlement and seeking clarity where it is necessary. To repeat, we are considering the ramifications of the judgment and will come back to the House in due course.

Household Disposable Incomes

3. If he will estimate the average change in disposable income for families in Wales since May 2010. (904681)

Wales has had the largest increase in disposable household income of any region or nation of the United Kingdom since 2010. Many households continue to face financial pressures. That is why we continue to introduce practical measures to help people with the cost of living at this time.

I am not sure that the Minister shared many detailed statistics with the House in that answer. Perhaps he will say a little more. The economies of Merseyside and north Wales are inextricably linked, so what is bad for north Wales is bad for Merseyside. That is why I would like to know just how much damage the Government have done to the incomes of people in north Wales.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her participation at Wales Office questions. As I said, the truth is that disposable household income is increasing faster in Wales than in any other region or nation in the United Kingdom. Wages and incomes are not where we want them to be—they need to be higher—but that is because this country is still recovering from the economic trauma visited on it by the Labour party. I am sorry that she has used her question to paint Wales in such a negative light.

Would the Minister care to comment on the recent dramatic fall in the disposable household income of the former Welsh Minister for Natural Resources and Food? Does he agree that, in that instance, the fall in household income was absolutely justified, given the disgraceful dirty tricks the former Minister was employing against other Members of the Welsh Assembly?

The Minister has no responsibility for that matter. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) has put his thoughts on the record with his usual assertiveness.

Has my hon. Friend seen the evidence from the Office for National Statistics that, since the election in 2010, the gap between disposable incomes in Wales and in the rest of the UK has narrowed every year? That gap widened in each of the three years before the last election during the tenure of the Labour party.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. There was a huge destruction of wealth in this nation during the last three years of the Labour Government and we are still recovering from that. He is right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the disposable income gap is narrowing. That is because we have a long-term economic plan that is working, and that is working for Wales.

Some 46% of the people who work in my constituency and some 33% of the workers who live in my constituency work in the public sector. The figure for the constituency of the Secretary of State is 45%. Today, it was announced that public sector workers have lost £2,500 a year since the last election. What is the Minister doing about that?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that his party’s Front Benchers are as committed as we are to the need for pay restraint across the public sector. That is one of the main ways in which we will fix the appalling record deficit that he and his party left the nation. Some 47,000 new private sector jobs have been created in Wales in the past 12 months, and he should stand up today and salute that.

Border Health Care Provision

4. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers of the Welsh Government on health care provision in Wales and the English borders. (904682)

10. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers of the Welsh Government on health care provision in Wales and the English borders. (904688)

The Wales Office continues to engage regularly with the Department of Health and the Welsh Government to discuss health care provision in Wales and along the border. Our focus is on ensuring that everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to high-quality health services that meet their needs.

Given that the NHS in Wales has had its budget cut by 8%, that waiting times are longer than in England and that it has missed its accident and emergency targets since 2009, does my right hon. Friend agree that the NHS is far from safe in the Opposition’s hands?

That is manifestly clear. While spending on the NHS has increased by £12.7 billion in England, it has been subjected to a cut of 8% by the Welsh Government. As my hon. Friend says, the consequence is that the health service in Wales is not safe in Labour’s hands.

A constituent of mine living in Chester but registered with a GP in Wales would have to wait up to 52 weeks for a hip operation. If that same constituent were registered with a GP in England, they would have to wait 18 weeks. Does my right hon. Friend think that is fair?

I do not, and of course people living on either side of the border are entitled to comparable standards of care. I am concerned that long waiting times in Wales are affecting not only Welsh patients but, as my hon. Friend said, those in England.

You really would not think the Secretary of State was the son of a north Walian chemist from listening to his answers.

Regardless of which side of the border people live on, obesity is a ticking time bomb in this country. Why do the UK Government not have cross-border talks with the Welsh Government to do something on the issue, rather than constantly talking Wales down? When will they deal with the serious issues?

I am glad to say that when my father was practising, we did not have the type of devolved health care that we are experiencing in Wales at the moment.

The hon. Lady is entirely right—it is necessary that discussions should take place, and they are taking place. I urge her to urge her friends in the Assembly to engage positively with the United Kingdom Government.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a clear relationship between levels of poverty and demand for health care? With 75,000 people in Wales now on zero-hours contracts and a higher number of people in poverty being in work than out of work, is it not time that he got a fair share for Wales by getting the £300 million by which we are under-supported by the Barnett formula and the capital investment needed to deliver the proper health service that we all need and demand in Wales?

If the Labour party recognises the links between poverty and poor health, it is surprising that the Welsh Labour Government have cut health spending by 8%.

At the moment, patients from Radnorshire and east Breconshire have to travel to Cheltenham for radiotherapy, which is a long and stressful journey at a time when they are particularly unwell. A radiotherapy facility called the Macmillan Renton unit will soon open at Hereford hospital, and it will be an excellent facility for Herefordshire and Powys. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is an example of cross-border health care at its best?

It is indeed, and it also illustrates the extent to which border communities such as those that my hon. Friend represents rely on health care provided in England—all the more reason for proper protocols to be put in place to ensure that that health care is adequate.

Wylfa Nuclear Power Station

Subject to final investment decisions, construction is expected to begin in late 2019. However, initial ground works have already begun and indications are that Wylfa Newydd remains on course to begin operating in the mid-2020s.

The Secretary of State may be aware that Wylfa will generate 10 times as much carbon-free electricity as is currently generated by every offshore and onshore wind farm in Wales. Does he agree that it is vital that we make progress on that project?

I agree entirely, and that is why the generic design assessment for Wylfa Newydd is proceeding apace. We need an energy mix, and we need to ensure that fewer carbon emissions are produced. A mixture of nuclear and wind power will achieve that.

As someone who has supported new nuclear build in Wales since my arrival in the House in 2001, and this project since its inception in 2008-09, will the Secretary of State join me in stating that the priority now must be to get the skill base and supply chain right, so that we have the jobs and high-quality skills that we deserve in north-west Wales? That means the UK Government working with the Welsh Government, local governments and stakeholders. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to meet me to form a framework for that to happen?

I am happy to commend the efforts the hon. Gentleman has made, and I entirely agree that the new build at Wylfa offers exciting prospects for the supply chain and for education. I am particularly impressed with the work that Coleg Menai is putting in, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at some future date.

There is universal opposition across north Wales to building more pylons to carry the electricity, whether from Wylfa Newydd or wind production—that extends to the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and others. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that proper and full consideration will be given to under-sea methods of transmission of electricity from any new sources?

Of course, the difficulty with nuclear generation is that it requires the infrastructure to get it to the markets. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that some concern has been expressed about this issue, and where possible underground cabling has distinct advantages. No final decisions have been made, and National Grid is carrying out further environmental and technical assessments.

Broadband

6. What assessment he has made of the progress of the broadband roll-out programme and the effects of that programme on the tourism industry in Wales. (904684)

The Superfast Cymru programme, which is jointly funded by the UK and Welsh Governments, is on track to deliver superfast speeds to 96% of premises by spring 2016, and more than 135,000 premises in Wales have already been connected. The Wales Office continues to be in close contact with BT, Ofcom and Broadband Delivery UK as the roll-out continues.

I thank the Minister for his response. Some £120 million of public money has been put into the roll-out of broadband in Wales, yet my constituency of Aberconwy has had no roll-out as yet. That is having a huge effect on businesses, not least in the tourism sector. Does the Minister agree that we need more accountability in the way that the spending of public money happens in the Welsh Government?

As I said, we are in close discussions with the Welsh Government, Ofcom, and Broadband Delivery UK about how public money is being spent on the roll-out in Wales. We are aware of concerns that my hon. Friend and colleagues have raised in recent months, and we communicate those to the Welsh Government and take them very seriously.

Further to that question, the roll-out in Wales is excruciatingly slow, and that is when connections are available. Is the Minister aware of the latest Ofcom data that show that 10 out of 22 local authority areas are category 5—the worst for broadband? What is he doing to work constructively with the Welsh Government to sort that out?

The right hon. Gentleman is right, and we face a significant infrastructure challenge in Wales for our digital connectivity. That is why we are putting in money from the UK Government, partnered with Welsh Government money, for the roll-out of the Superfast Cymru programme. If he has more specific concerns about the roll-out in his constituency, I would be grateful if he raised them with me so that I can take them up with the Welsh Government directly.

The Minister is a mind-reader. Last week, Dr Carole Jones of Aberangell rang me because she was completely unhappy about the situation. When she spoke to BT, she was informed that there is no likelihood of high-speed internet reaching Aberangell in my constituency—her area—because it will be too costly. What is the point of pumping in public money from this Government and the Welsh Government if they cannot commit to providing proper broadband services throughout Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the main superfast programme deals with 96% of residences in Wales. We are putting in additional money to look at how we connect the last few per cent. of properties that are difficult to reach, and a Welsh pilot project will be taken forward as part of that £10 million scheme. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot underestimate some of the geographical and topographical challenges that Wales faces in rolling out superfast broadband.

Infrastructure Connectivity (North Wales and England)

7. What steps the Government is taking to improve infrastructure connectivity between north Wales and England. (904685)

As part of our long-term economic plan, we are currently investing in infrastructure at unprecedented levels. Last week, we announced £10 million of investment to upgrade the Halton curve, renewing north Wales’s direct link with Liverpool and improving connectivity across the north-west of England.

On Friday, I will visit Rossett to see the investment of £44 million by the Welsh Government in the dualling of the Wrexham-Chester line, which was made a single line by the Tories in the 1980s. I welcome the investment announced by the Chancellor last week, but will the Secretary of State tell us when that will happen and when the Halton curve work will be done?

It is clearly intended to proceed as quickly as possible. Connectivity between Wrexham and Merseyside is extremely important. I welcome, of course, the belated investment by the Welsh Government, but there is more to be done, and I think the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed on the need to look at electrification further north.

The funding of the northern hub in full and the many other transport announcements are incredibly welcome, and show an investment in the north’s transport infrastructure that was barely evident under the previous Government. Having taken four hours to get from Wrexham to Leeds, however, I would like the Secretary of State to make sure that north Wales will enjoy the benefits of that record investment.

The Halton curve is, of course, important in that it connects north Wales with the city of Liverpool, which is the most important economic centre in the region. My hon. Friend is also right that we need to make sure that connectivity is improved across the whole of the north of England.

Employment

Our long-term economic plan is working—and it is working in Wales. We are rebalancing the economy to give the private sector confidence to invest and create jobs. In the last year alone, we have seen more than 47,000 new private sector jobs created in Wales.

Will the Minister update us on what has happened to youth unemployment in Wales under this Government, given that it rose by 75% under the last Government?

My hon. Friend is exactly right; he knows a lot about this issue. There was an appalling increase of more than 75% in youth unemployment on the watch of the last Labour Government. I am pleased to say that in the past four years, we have seen youth unemployment fall by 31% in Wales. We are bringing down unemployment among young people.

13. Will the Minister not just accept the success of Jobs Growth Wales—a scheme that actually works? Why will he not implement a similar scheme in England rather than carry on with the failed policies he is currently putting forward? (904691)

Jobs Growth Wales makes a contribution, and I am not going to knock anything that helps young people in our constituencies to get on the employment ladder. I am concerned, however, that the Welsh Government are still refusing to allow people on the Work programme to access the additional help of Jobs Growth Wales. We need to see the Welsh Government make more progress on tackling that.

14. Agriculture is a significant employment sector in Wales, and many people, including the Farmers Union of Wales, wanted the Agricultural Wages Board to be protected. Will the Minister say why he has twice challenged it in the High Court and in the Supreme Court, and how much that has cost the public and the taxpayer? (904692)

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the devolution settlement is a complicated one, and that it was entirely right for the UK Government to seek clarity from the Supreme Court on this issue. We welcome the fact that the Supreme Court has given its ruling and provided the clarification we needed.

Ministry of Justice Shared Services

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the potential privatisation of Ministry of Justice shared services and the effect on that body’s offices in Newport. (904687)

The Wales Office remains in close contact with the Ministry of Justice on the future of its shared service centres. Central to our discussions is how we secure the future for the work force at Newport.

The Government reward the failure of the privatiser Steria, which lost £56 million of public money, in order to punish the success of the workers who have saved £120 million of public money. Will the Minister tell us who will decide whether those jobs will be offshored? Will it be the Ministry of Justice or the Cabinet Office?

My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has made it absolutely clear that he does not support the offshoring of those jobs at Newport. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that we will take no lessons from him or his party about the interaction of Government with the private sector. We are introducing far more discipline and rigour into our contracts with the private sector providers.

Aerospace Industry

11. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of the aerospace industry to the economy in Wales. (904689)

The aerospace sector is vital to the economy of Wales, providing more than 23,000 jobs in 130 companies. The aerospace sector strategy sets out how we will work with industry to maximise the opportunities for growth.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the NATO summit which will take place in Newport in September provides an ideal opportunity for Wales and the United Kingdom to showcase before a global audience our aerospace and defence industries, which are a vital part of our economy?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the Prime Minister’s key purposes in deciding to bring the NATO summit to Wales was to showcase all that is good about our nation of Wales. It is absolutely true that the defence and aerospace sectors are some of the jewels in the crown of the Welsh economy, and the NATO summit provides an excellent opportunity for us to showcase them.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all who have been involved in the start of the Tour de France in Britain, from the event organisers to all the great cyclists I think that the event has showcased the best of Yorkshire and the whole of what Britain has to offer. I was delighted to see such incredible support throughout the race.

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

I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the news that he has just relayed.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is threatening legal action against a family-owned bakery because it would not print a political message on a cake. The requested message was completely at variance with the company’s Christian values. Does the Prime Minister agree that so-called equality is now being viewed by many as an oppressive threat to religious freedom, and that such freedoms should be protected by the introduction of a conscience clause?

I was not aware of the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I will of course go away and have a look at it. However, I think that a commitment to equality—whether we are talking about racial equality, equality between those of different sexes, equality in terms of people who have disabilities, or, indeed, tolerance of and equality for people with different sexualities—is a very important part of being British.

Will the Prime Minister welcome the President, MPs and choir of the German Parliament, who have come to sing in a joint concert with our parliamentary choir in Westminster Hall tonight to commemorate the centenary of the first world war and the tercentenary of the Hanoverian monarchy?

I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the German choir. I suspect that, after last night’s result, they will be in rather good voice.

On a serious note, let me say that we properly commemorate the outbreak of the first world war, the key battles of the first world war and, of course, Armistice day as we approach these vital 100th anniversaries. I am absolutely determined that, in Britain, we will mark them in appropriate ways. There will be a service in Glasgow, followed by a number of different events. I think it very important that we learn the lessons of that conflict, and commemorate those who fell.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the way in which the organisers, the cyclists and the millions of fans made the Tour de France such a brilliant success for Britain. I was proud to be watching it on the streets, as I know he was. I was in Leeds with the hundreds of thousands of people who were lining the streets.

All of us have been horrified by the instances of child abuse that have been uncovered, and the further allegations that have been made. All the victims of child abuse are not just owed justice, but owed an apology for the fact that it took so long for their cries to be heard. Does the Prime Minister agree that all inquiries, including those conducted by the police and those that he has set up, must go wherever the evidence leads them—in whatever institution in the country, including our own—to get at what happened?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Child abuse is a despicable crime, and the victims live with the horror for the rest of their lives. It is absolutely essential that—in the two inquiries announced by the Home Secretary, and, indeed, in the vital police inquiries that are being carried out—no stone is left unturned.

The horror of the Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris cases just shows what people were able to get away with. It was almost that on occasion they were committing crimes in plain sight, and it took far too long to get to the bottom of what happened and for justice to be done, and that is absolutely what this Government are committed to achieving.

On the issue of the 114 missing files at the Home Office, can the Prime Minister clarify when Ministers were first informed about this and what action they took? Does he agree that the review by Peter Wanless cannot be simply a review into the original review, but must seek to discover what happened to the files, who knew what about the files, and whether information was covered up, and that the Wanless review must also have full investigative powers?

It was a parliamentary question last October that revealed the points about the 2013 inquiry, but what I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is absolutely vital that Peter Wanless, who has an excellent record in this regard and will carry out the review in absolutely the right way, has all the powers he needs. Let us be absolutely clear: if he wants more powers, and if that inquiry wants greater powers and ability, they can absolutely ask for it. As the right hon. Gentleman says, the inquiry must go exactly where the evidence leads. We are determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

I agree that the most important thing is to clarify what actually happened to the files and why they went missing. I welcome the overarching inquiry that has also been set up by the Home Secretary. Can the Prime Minister say more about the terms of reference of that inquiry? Will he consider the very sensible recommendations made today by Peter Wanless around making the covering up of abuse a criminal offence and ensuring that there is an obligation on institutions to report abuse where it occurs?

Taking the right hon. Gentleman’s second point first: should we change the law so that there is a requirement to report and make it a criminal offence not to report? The Government are currently looking at that, and both reviews will be able to examine that point and advise us accordingly. I think it may well be time to take that sort of first step forward.

On the issue of the terms of reference of the wider lessons learned review, we are discussing those at the moment; we are very happy to take suggestions from other parties in this House. A number of inquiries are being carried out into specific hospitals, including the Savile inquiries; there is the inquiry taking place within the BBC; and there other inquiries, including into Welsh children’s homes. The main aim and what is vital, as I have said before, is that the Government learn all the lessons of this review. Where the Elizabeth Butler-Sloss review can really help is by having a panel of experts who can advise us about all the things that need to change in all these institutions—for instance the Church; for instance the BBC; for instance the NHS; but also, if necessary, in this place and in Government, too.

I welcome what the Prime Minister said and clearly cultural change in this is absolutely crucial in all institutions.

I want to turn to another matter: the health service. Last week the Prime Minister said that waiting times in accident and emergency had gone down, but within 24 hours the House of Commons Library had called him out. Average A and E waiting times have gone up. Will he now correct the record?

What I said last week at Prime Minister’s questions is absolutely right, and if the right hon. Gentleman goes on the website of the organisation I quoted from he will see that. Also, if you remember, Mr Speaker, at the end of Prime Minister’s questions there were some points of order and I said very specifically that

“the numbers waiting longer than 18, 26 and 52 weeks to start treatment are lower than they were at any time under the last Government.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 893.]

That was directly contradicted by the shadow Health Secretary, and I just want to give the figures to the House now so people can see that I got my facts right.

So, in April 2010 there were 217,000 people waiting over 18 weeks; it is now 186,000—lower. In March 2010 there were 92,000 people waiting 26 weeks for treatment; it is now 59,000—lower. And in terms of waiting 52 weeks —52 weeks!—for treatment, in April 2010 there were 21,000 people waiting that long; the figure now is 510—lower.

It is very obvious that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about what he said on accident and emergency, where the House of Commons called him out. [Interruption.] Let us go to the common-sense definition of what a waiting time—[Interruption.]

Order. As always, it does not matter how long it takes; the question will be heard, so the braying and the yelling and the calculated heckling might as well cease, as we are just going to keep going for as long as is necessary.

Let us go to the common-sense definition of a waiting time in A and E. It is not how long someone waits to be assessed; it is the time between arriving at the A and E and leaving it. The number of people waiting more than four hours is at its highest level in a decade. Why does the Prime Minister not just admit the truth, which everybody in the country knows? People are waiting longer in A and E.

The figures I gave last week are absolutely correct, and they are published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre: the average waiting time was 77 minutes when the shadow Health Secretary was Health Secretary and it is now 30 minutes. The fact is that we can trade statistics across the Floor of the House, but I am absolutely clear that the health service is getting better. There is a reason why it is getting better: we took two big strategic decisions. We said let us put more money into the NHS—the Opposition said that was irresponsible; and we said cut the bureaucracy in the NHS, which they wanted to keep. That is why there are 7,000 more doctors and 4,000 more nurses, and why the Leader of the Opposition has made a massive mistake by keeping a failing Health Secretary as the shadow health spokesman.

I would far rather have the shadow Health Secretary than the Government’s Health Secretary any day of the week. I will tell the Prime Minister what has happened in the health service. We had a top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for, and it has diverted billions of pounds away from patient care. The contrast we see is between the complacent claims of the Prime Minister and people’s everyday experience. People are spending longer in A and E, and hospital A and Es have missed their four-hour target for the last 50 weeks in a row. While he tries to pretend things are getting better, patients, NHS staff and the public can see it getting worse right before their eyes.

The right hon. Gentleman still has to defend the man who presided over the Mid Staffs disgrace, where standards of patient care were so bad that patients were drinking out of dirty vases because of standards in Labour’s NHS. The point is this: the reason we have been able to cut bureaucracy and the reason we have been able to put more money into the NHS is that we have taken difficult decisions, including having a 1% pay cap in the NHS. Of course, Labour said it would support that, but this week it has decided that it will back strikes instead. I have here the Labour briefing on strikes, which says, “Do we support strikes? No. Will we condemn strikes? No.” There we have it: that is his leadership summed up in one go. Have the Opposition got a plan for the NHS? No. Have they got a plan for our economy? No. Is he remotely up to the job? No.

Is the Prime Minister aware that British Airways is to cease the link between Aberdeen and London City in favour of increased services to the already well served airports of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dublin? Will he support the campaign to maintain the link, which is vital to the vibrant business economy of the north of Scotland?

I am very happy to look into that issue with the right hon. Gentleman. It is an absolutely vital service, particularly given how strongly the economy in north-east Scotland is performing, with North sea oil and gas.

Q2. Tomorrow, I will be in Carmarthen with striking teachers, nurses and firefighters—the backbone of local communities. Are the Prime Minister’s reported plans to ban public sector workers from withdrawing their labour not just a cynical attempt to silence opposition to his policies? (904734)

I am very clear that I do not think these strikes are right, I condemn them and I think that people should turn up for work. It is a pity we do not have so much clarity on that issue from the Labour party or, indeed, from the hon. Gentleman’s party. Let me give one example. The National Union of Teachers is proposing a strike based on a ballot it had almost two years ago, on a very small turnout of its members. Really, is it right to continue with this situation when the education of so many children is going to be so badly disrupted?

Speaking from the Opposition Back Benches on 9 December 2002, the Prime Minister said:

“I find the European arrest warrant highly objectionable”—[Official Report, 9 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 107.]

and my right hon. Friend voted accordingly. I still think the European arrest warrant is highly objectionable. Does the Prime Minister?

We have made a series of changes to the European arrest warrant so that we do not have the problem of people being arrested, for instance, for things that are not a crime in this country. But the question we all have to ask ourselves is, having achieved this vast opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs, which is the biggest return of power from Brussels to Britain, what are those few things that we go back into in order to fight crime and terrorism? On this I think the judgment of the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary has been absolutely right.

Q3. The head of the civil service says that the business case for universal credit has not been signed off. The Department for Work and Pensions says it has. Who is telling the truth? (904735)

The budget for universal credit has been signed off in each and every year by the Treasury and I believe it will continue to do so. The good news on universal credit is that next year we will have one in eight jobcentres rolling out universal credit. I thought we would find that the Opposition were in favour of a system that makes work pay, but we can see today that they have gone back into the hole of being against every single welfare change and everything that is getting this country moving.

The Safer Internet Centre estimates that up to 30 websites host UK online revenge pornography images, another form of sexual abuse. Does the Prime Minister agree that posting such material must be recognised for what it is—a criminal sexual offence against its victims?

My right hon. Friend is right. This is an appalling offence and a dreadful thing for someone to do, and it clearly has criminal intent. I am very glad that she is championing this cause, and I hope that having looked in detail at the amendments she is suggesting, we can take up this cause. Part of what she achieved in government—the very good work that she did in office—is making sure that we do far more to deal with porn and internet porn.

Q4. If the business case for the right hon. Gentleman’s universal credit proposals is robust, why is the head of the home civil service saying that he has not signed it off? (904736)

What has happened is that universal credit has been signed off in each and every year by the Treasury. I make no apology for the fact that we are rolling it out slowly. We have learned the lesson of the previous Government, in which the right hon. Gentleman played a prominent part, where tax credits were introduced in one go and were a complete shambles.

Q5. North West Air Ambulance has three helicopters and has flown thousands of missions since 1999, one of which saved the life of a friend of mine after an horrific car crash on the M6. The service costs £4.2 million a year to run. There are 27 such air services throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and one of them may soon become a royal air ambulance service. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to those who man the helicopters, saving lives throughout the country, and heap praise on the thousands of people who raise funds every week on wet street corners throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that the helicopters carry on flying and saving lives? (904737)

My hon. Friend is right. Our air ambulances provide an invaluable service and we should all pay tribute to the men and women who staff and support them, who often have to undertake very difficult landings and take-offs in order to rescue and get people to hospitals. It is right that up and down the country people are giving charitably in order to fund these vital services.

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that dealing with terrorism and violence, and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means were fundamental in moving Northern Ireland forward and in taking us from where we were to where we are today. Does he agree that in the Northern Ireland of 2014 republican threats of violence for political gain must not only be deplored, but everyone in government, in governmental bodies in Northern Ireland and in the community must stand up against such threats and commit themselves to fundamental freedoms, upholding democracy and the rule of law?

All threats of violence in Northern Ireland are unacceptable and should be condemned on all sides. I am very clear about that. What I hope we can achieve in the coming weeks—it will take compromise and brave decisions on all sides—is to get the Haass talks process ongoing again, with commitments from the right hon. Gentleman’s party, as well as from the Ulster Unionist party and from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to sit down and discuss these things so that we can make some progress. My fear is that if we do not make progress on these issues, we leave space open for extremists on all sides of the debate to start pushing their ideas, which would be deeply unhelpful for the future of Northern Ireland.

Q6. The long-term economic plan is working in my High Peak constituency. Unemployment is down a third in the past year. Summer approaches, and, as tourism supports so many jobs in the local economy, I am walking the boundary of my constituency to promote the area. I invite my right hon. Friend to consider joining me in August for part of the walk. As well as promoting High Peak, I will be raising money for High Peak Women’s Aid, which is a fantastic charity based in Glossop that operates across the whole of the High Peak. (904738)

I wish my hon. Friend well. He makes an enticing invitation. I am a big fan of the Peak district and what it has to offer and its very beautiful countryside. It is notable that in his constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 42% since the election, and the youth claimant count has come down by 39% in the past year. What we are seeing is an economic revival, and we need to stick to our plans to get the deficit down, help people with tax cuts, make it easier for firms to employ people, produce the schools and skills that we need and reform our welfare and immigration system. That is the plan that we will stick to, and it is the plan that is delivering for High Peak.

On GP appointments, a 62-year-old man in Eccles, who is a carer for his wife who has Alzheimer’s, sought an urgent GP appointment for her. He was told that it would be five weeks to see her GP, two weeks to see any GP, or he could take her to Salford Royal A and E. If that is the way that the NHS treats a carer of a person with dementia, does the Prime Minister not agree that it is time to support Labour’s plan to give such patients a right to a GP appointment within 48 hours?

There are 1,000 more GPs today than there were when I became Prime Minister. What we are doing is reintroducing the named GP for frail elderly people, which Labour got rid of. That is one reason, combined with the disastrous GP contract that Labour introduced, why there is so much pressure on our accident and emergency system. We need to learn from the mistakes that Labour made rather than repeat them.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that 16 to 18-year-olds in Northumberland who may live 50 miles from a further education college or 20 miles from a high school are facing charges ranging from £600 a year to several thousand pounds a year to get an education, because the Labour-controlled council has reversed the support given by the previous Liberal Democrat administration? Will he deplore that decision and see what central Government can do to promote fair access to education? (904739)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, responsibility for transport for education and training rests with local authorities. Clearly, this local authority, now controlled by Labour, has made this decision. Of course we have introduced the £180 million bursary fund to support the most disadvantaged young people and perhaps that is something that his council and these families could make the most of. I certainly join him in agreeing that this is another example of the fact that Labour costs us more.

Q8. It is estimated that each day 179 British girls are at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation, joining a total of 170,000 in the United Kingdom who have been cut. Next week, the Prime Minister hosts a summit on this issue. Does he agree that FGM is not cultural; it is criminal. It is not tribal; it is torture. Will he please read the report of the Select Committee, which is published next Thursday, and implement it in full so that we can eradicate this horrendous abuse from our country? (904740)

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the work that the Home Affairs Committee has done on that issue. He is absolutely right that this is a brutal and appalling practice that should have no place in the world, and certainly no place here in Britain and it is appalling that people living in our country are being subjected to it. I will study the report closely. The whole aim of the conference, which I am keen on us holding, is to ensure that the two practices of early forced marriage and female genital mutilation are wiped out from our planet.

Q9. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be totally unacceptable to have a statutory limitation on overseas aid without having a similar statutory provision covering defence expenditure to guarantee our NATO commitments? (904741)

We are in the happy position in this country of meeting the 2% spending on defence that NATO members are meant to undertake. When we hold the NATO conference in Wales in September we should be encouraging other countries to do the same and, indeed, to meet some of the new targets for spending on new equipment that can be used in NATO operations, which we certainly meet in this country. As well as doing that, we can also be proud of the fact that we are meeting the promise that we made of spending 0.7% on overseas aid, which is saving lives all over the world. I would not divorce that from our defence spending, because the money that we spend in places such as Somalia, Mali, Nigeria or, indeed, Pakistan is about reducing the pressures of asylum, immigration and terrorism, making our world safer. That is what our defence budget should be about, and I would argue that it is what our aid budget is about, as well.

Does the Prime Minister agree that with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, patients can be out of work for years if they do not get the right treatment? The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence should therefore look at the wider benefits rather than just the initial cost of that treatment.

I agree with the hon. Lady. My understanding is that NICE does carry out that work, but I will look very closely at the particular condition that she raises and perhaps write to her about NICE’s approach to it.

Q10. Businesses across Lincolnshire report growing confidence and lengthy order books, highly skilled workers benefiting from the tax cuts that the Government have introduced and hard-working apprentices enjoying the sorts of opportunities that they could not have had just a few years ago. Does the Prime Minister share my assessment that the shadow Chancellor’s plans for borrowing yet more money while heaping tax on British businesses and making it more expensive for employers to hire young people are no more and no less than a long-term economic scam? (904742)

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We have to stick to the plan, which involves training young people. We are on track to hit 2 million apprentices trained under this Government, but the very worst thing to do would be to start spending, borrowing and taxing more, which are exactly the proposals made by the Opposition.

Q11. Will the Prime Minister explain to the House why it is that the only people who feel that there are no problems in the national health service are members of the Conservative party? (904743)

Every single health system right across the developed world is facing huge challenges and pressures. The pressures of an ageing population, the pressures of new drugs and treatments coming on stream and the pressures of children surviving with conditions that will need to be treated throughout their lives. The question is how we respond to those pressures. Our response has been to fund the health service and protect it from cuts, and to reform the health service, getting rid of £5 billion of bureaucracy so that there are more doctors and more nurses. The figures speak for themselves, because we can see more people being treated. One million more people are being treated every year in accident and emergency, and 40 million more people are getting GP appointments, but that is only because we have taken the difficult decisions that, frankly, Labour has not taken in Wales. That is why in Wales we see longer waiting lists and real problems with the NHS.

If my hon. Friend is referring to the situation that took place in the Welsh Assembly, which I was reading about overnight, it seems to be a very worrying development. If he is referring to something else, he might have to be a bit less delphic about it and write to me, and I will get back to him.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister look into the case of a young mum in my constituency who has a significant spinal injury that has left her unable to walk? Her GP has referred her for an urgent appointment with a neurosurgeon, so could the Prime Minister explain to her, and the whole country, why “urgent” on his watch means a four-week wait lying in pain? (904744)

I will absolutely look at the case that the hon. Gentleman raises. I am always happy to look at individual cases, but the figures I quoted earlier were to demonstrate that the numbers of people waiting 18 weeks, 26 weeks or, indeed, 52 weeks, are not just lower now than when the Government came to office but are lower now than at any time under the last Labour Government. I am very happy to look at the individual case he mentions.

Is the Prime Minister aware that since 2012, when he promised to increase patient access to innovative radiotherapy, particularly for cancer patients, the number of cancers treated by radiotherapy in some hospitals has actually decreased by 70% and state-of-the-art machines are lying idle because NHS England will not allow doctors to use them? Will he meet me and other cancer cure campaigners, such as Lawrence Dallaglio, to discuss this scandal before more patients are refused treatment?

I read the report that Lawrence Dallaglio referred to over the weekend and am very happy to meet the hon. Lady, and indeed him, to discuss this. We have introduced the cancer drugs fund, which is not only for drugs, but for innovative treatment. I know that there have also been changes in the way radiotherapy is carried out and in the way the new technology is being used, which might be part of the explanation for the figures she gives, but I am very happy to discuss them in more detail.

Q13. Jobs Growth Wales has been hugely successful in tackling youth unemployment, outperforming similar schemes across the United Kingdom. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in congratulating Welsh businesses and enterprises, the Welsh Government, and indeed the young people of Wales, who have made it a success? In doing so, he can end his agenda of attacking Wales at every opportunity. Who knows? He might even get a welcome in the hillside. (904745)

I want to do everything I can to support economic recovery in Wales. That is why, for instance, I think that in September, when the NATO conference comes to Wales—entirely an initiative launched by me—there will be a very strong welcome in the valleys. That will be the first time a serving American President has ever been to Wales, so I am looking forward to it. We are doing everything we can to help businesses in Wales to employ more people and grow the economy.

Economic Development (Birmingham and Lichfield)

Q14. If he will meet the chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership to discuss economic development in Birmingham and Lichfield district; and if he will make a statement. (904746)

I met the chair of the LEP board on Monday when I hosted a meeting in Birmingham to mark the agreement of the growth deal that will see over £350 million invested in Greater Birmingham and Solihull. The projects in the deal will help to create up to 19,000 jobs, allow up to 6,000 homes to be built and generate up to £110 million from local partners and private investment.

With unemployment at just 1.5% in Lichfield and Burntwood, and down by over 28,000 across the whole LEP region, does that not demonstrate that the LEP model, bolstered by the growth funds awarded on Monday, is working? How does my right hon. Friend plan to build on that success and encourage the most ambitious LEPs, including Greater Birmingham and Solihull, to promote the local economy still further?

As I said at the meeting with the LEP, I think that the growth deal is a very big step forward for Birmingham and the west midlands. It will result in more jobs, more investment and more houses. It will see new railway stations and transport links built. I think that we need to be more ambitious about the money we can find in central Government to support these schemes, but I also hope that local councils, including Birmingham city council, will look at every piece of unused brownfield land and every extra bit of development they can put on the table so that these growth deals get ever more ambitious.

As bribes go, is offering that huge region less than £10 per head just 37 days before the general election not too little, too late?

I think that we can probably tell the difference between a ray of sunshine and the hon. Gentleman on this issue, as on so many others. This is an excellent deal for Birmingham and the west midlands. If he does not think so, he might want to explain why Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, said:

“This is good news for Birmingham. A number of major projects will now be accelerated. Transport routes across the city will be much improved… And other money will go into site development that will provide much needed jobs in the city.”

I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to spend a little more time with Sir Albert Bore.

Engagements

Q15. Tomorrow Britain faces damage and disruption from strikes, none of which has been backed by a majority of union members. Since the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) became the leader of the Labour party, it has taken £13 million from Unite alone, so he will not stand up to the union barons. Will the Prime Minister make it clear that we are on the side of the public, who by 3:1 back a voting threshold for strikes to stop this licensed sabotage? (904747)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Frankly, I think the time has come to look at setting thresholds in strike ballots. I mentioned the NUT strike earlier. A ballot is taking place—[Interruption.] Look, I know Labour Members are paid for by the unions, but they might want to listen to this, because it is going to disrupt our children’s education. The strike ballot took place in 2012. It is based on a 27% turnout. How can it possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in this way? It is time to legislate, and that will be in the Conservative manifesto.