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Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2014

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.

Given the Prime Minister’s commitment to equality, will he explain why 75% of his Cabinet are still men?

The hon. Lady is being a little bit churlish. The Government before mine had four women Cabinet Ministers and three additional women attending Cabinet. We now have five full members of Cabinet and an additional three attending, so more women are attending. I am of course leading a coalition Government, and when it comes to Conservatives sitting around the Cabinet table, I am proud to say that a third of them are now women.

Having rightly reaffirmed his confidence in the Transport Secretary, may I urge my right hon. Friend to urge the Transport Secretary to give early priority to the improvement of the railway lines serving East Anglia?

I am well aware of this problem and campaigns such as Norwich in 90. I know that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, now backed by a larger team of Ministers in the Department for Transport, will give it his urgent attention.

We have always said that we will support the Government when they do the right thing, so can I join thousands of parents across the country in congratulating the Prime Minister on getting rid of the Education Secretary? Why did he demote him?

Before answering the question, I hope that the whole House can come together in this way. My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has served in this House of Commons for over 40 years and will be retiring at the next election, so when it came to replacing an extraordinary politician and someone who has given so much to this country as the Chief Whip, I wanted to find the very best candidate, and I am proud to have done so in the former Education Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously has a very short memory, because this is what he used to say about the former Education Secretary:

“I want to trust”—

the Education Secretary—

“to get on with that job for many years rather than saying…‘I’m now going to shove you over somewhere else.’”

So why did he do it? Is it the shortage of primary school places, the unqualified teachers, or the failure of his free schools?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what the former Education Secretary achieved: a record number of academies, new free schools, standards rising across the country and reforms that will endure. Is it not extraordinary that on the day of a record increase in the numbers in work in our country, the right hon. Gentleman will do anything not to talk about economic recovery, the deficit falling, the economy growing or the numbers in work rising? I am not surprised that he does not want to talk about people in work; his own job looks a bit shaky.

I am bound to say that if it has all been such a great success, I still do not know why he has sacked the Education Secretary. Let us talk about the figures today. We have welcomed the fall in unemployment, but the Prime Minister’s real problem is that this recovery does not benefit most working people, who are working harder for longer for less. There are 7 million people in working families who are paid so little that they are in poverty. Does he think that the economy is working for them?

Let me bring the House up to date on the unemployment figures released this morning. We see employment up by 254,000 this quarter, women’s employment up, youth employment up and the unemployment count falling by 121,000. We have reached an important milestone, which is that there are more people in work in our country than ever before in our history. We can now say that since this Government came to office there are 1.8 million more people in work. That is a record of which we can be proud.

On an issue that the Labour leader has raised week after week, long-term youth unemployment is now lower than when this Government came to office. Of course, it is disappointing that pay is not rising faster, but let me remind him of what the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said:

“We’ve had a great big recession. We had the biggest recession we’ve had in 100 years; it will be astonishing if household incomes haven’t fallen and earnings haven’t fallen.”

That is what has happened, and we know who is responsible for the great economic recession because, extraordinarily, they are still in their jobs.

The right hon. Gentleman is in his fifth year as Prime Minister and all he can do is try to blame someone else. He just does not get it. This week, we saw shocking figures about another group suffering from the cost of living crisis: millions of young people whose earnings are falling faster than everyone else’s. One in four are living with their parents because they cannot afford to buy a house or even rent one. Does he honestly think that they are feeling the benefit of the recovery?

Of course we want living standards to recover faster and there are two things we need to do to make that happen. First, we need to get more people into work, and we are getting people into work. Secondly, we need to cut spending so that we can cut taxes, which is exactly what we are doing. Yesterday, Labour made the important announcement that it is now its policy to put up taxes on middle-income people. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can now get to his feet and tell us which taxes on which people.

I ask the questions and the right hon. Gentleman fails to answer them. The reality is that he has the worst record on living standards of any Prime Minister in history. There is one group—[Interruption.] Government Members are shouting “weak”. I will tell them what is weak: saying a month ago from that Dispatch Box that he is happy with his team and then sacking part of his team.

One group is feeling the benefit of the recovery. Will the Prime Minister confirm that while average pay is down £1,600 a year since the last election, last year the top 1% took home an extra £15 billion after his millionaires’ tax cut?

I have to say that I am happy with my team and, looking at the shadow Chancellor, I am pretty happy with the right hon. Gentleman’s team too. Let me explain one of the things that was not noticed that happened yesterday. The deputy leader of the Labour party said on the radio, and I want to quote her very precisely:

“I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes.”

That is what she said—[Interruption.] They should? There we are. That is their policy. The squeezed middle will be squeezed more. Now the right hon. Gentleman needs to tell us which people will pay which taxes, because on this side of the House we have cut council tax, we have cut petrol duty, we have cut the jobs tax and we have increased the married couple’s allowance. Labour would put a tax on your job, on your mortgage, on your home and on your pension, so will he tell us where the middle-income taxes are coming from?

This is totally desperate stuff because the Prime Minister has nothing to say about the cost of living crisis. That is the reality, and his reshuffle had nothing to do with the country and everything to do with his party. After four years of this Government, we have a recovery that people cannot feel, a cost of living crisis that people cannot deny, and a Prime Minister whom people cannot believe.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about five years under this Government. We have record numbers in work, the economy growing, record numbers of businesses, record numbers of women in work, our health service is improving, and everyone can see the contrast: in this party, the leader reshuffles the Cabinet; in his party, the shadow Cabinet desperately wants to reshuffle the leader.

I call Mr Charles Kennedy. [Hon. Members: “More! More!”] I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is delighted to be lauded in such enthusiastic fashion.

It is just like the old days, Mr Speaker.

As the Prime Minister is enjoying a week in which he is making a lot of new best friends, when he gets to the Brussels summit will he give a particularly warm greeting to the man who might yet be his best and certainly his newest friend—President Juncker, who yesterday called for more European reform and warned that applicant states who want to join the European Union face a complex, difficult and drawn-out period of up to, perhaps, five years? As we do not meet before the Scottish referendum, barring a recall, should not the Scots voters bear those words in mind?

This is a remarkable moment when the right hon. Gentleman and Jean-Claude Juncker have together said something with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is noticeable in what the right hon. Gentleman said that there would not be new members joining the European Union in the next five years. That is very important in the context of the Scottish referendum debate. But I will take him up on one point. He says we will not meet again before the Scottish referendum. According to my diary, the House of Commons will be meeting in September.

Q2. Can the Prime Minister explain why he has now given more knighthoods to men he has sacked than he has given Cabinet jobs to women? (904884)

It is always interesting to take a lecture from a party that gave a knighthood to Fred Goodwin. That is always a good place to start. I have appointed more women to the Front Bench and more women to our Cabinet on the basis that they deserve those jobs. I want a team that reflects modern Britain and can be everything that modern Britain needs it to be. I make no apology for saying that I think in public life we should recognise public service—people who have worked hard, people who have contributed to our nation and to our Government. I think that is a good thing to do.

People with autism have specific social and communications needs which can cause distress and misunderstanding, particularly when they are admitted to hospital for routine or emergency treatment. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Baroness Angela Browning and the National Autistic Society, who tomorrow will launch the new hospital passport for people with autism? That will make a great difference to many people’s lives in this country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Baroness Browning has worked very hard on this issue over many years in both Houses, as has my right hon. Friend with the Autism Act 2009, which is making a huge difference to the way that we help young people with these conditions. I join her in making sure that these services are properly put together.

Q3. Given that recent data show that the gender pay gap is increasing again, can the Prime Minister confirm the excellent news that any woman not receiving equal pay for equal work will now have her salary topped up from Tory party funds? (904886)

First, it is welcome news that under this Government the pay gap for those below the age of 40 has all but disappeared, so we are making progress. I am happy to confirm that the Leader of the House of Lords will do the same job as her predecessor, will sit at the same place round the Cabinet table as her predecessor, and will receive the same amount of money.

Q4. Charlotte’s Helix is part of an international research project seeking to establish a link between the DNA of anorexia nervosa sufferers. This afternoon, the project is coming to Parliament, seeking to obtain DNA samples from former sufferers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of Charlotte’s Helix and all those who have been brave enough to speak out about their struggles with eating disorders? (904887)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am sure that everyone in the House has friends or family who have been affected by the condition and who desperately want to see the help that we provide as a country improve. I commend the bravery of all those who have spoken out about their experience with eating disorders. It is not an easy thing to do. We need to learn more about these conditions so that we can provide the right kind of support. In that context, what the Government are doing about parity of esteem for mental health conditions is also important.

Q5. We now know for certain that last year taxpayers were robbed of around £1 billion because of the botched, bargain basement fire sale of Royal Mail. Will the Prime Minister now do as the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills has asked and publish the list of those preferential investors? When will somebody be held to account for this right Royal Mail fiasco? (904888)

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. For year after year, Royal Mail lost money and the taxpayer had to back it up. This Government have achieved what no previous Government have achieved, which is a successful privatisation of Royal Mail. The taxpayer has received money from that sale and we now receive the tax on the profits of Royal Mail, rather than the losses and the mismanagement of the Labour years.

Q6. Later this year, North Yorkshire will become the best connected county in terms of superfast broadband, which is hugely helpful for our growing hospitality and tourism industry, which already provides thousands of jobs in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency and received a wonderful boost from the recent visit of the Tour de France. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rolling out superfast broadband is a great boost for jobs in all sectors, not just hospitality, and will help to build upon the wonderful economic legacy of the Tour de France? (904889)

I thank my hon. Friend for the warm welcome that he and people in Harrogate gave me during the stage of the Tour de France, marred only by Mark Cavendish’s tragic accident. It was an extraordinary event and showed his constituency and the whole of Yorkshire in their best light. He is quite right about the importance of superfast broadband. We are putting £790 million into superfast broadband access. We have half a million UK premises connected already and around 400,000 new premises are being upgraded every week. Everyone in the House has a duty to get out there to help to advertise what is happening with broadband and to encourage take-up rates.

It is fundamental, is it not, that the holder of the office of Attorney-General should be fiercely independent, defend the rule of law and be ready to speak legal truth to power. Given the distinction and respect with which the holder of that office pursued that role, what possessed the Prime Minister to dismiss him yesterday?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is vitally important that the Attorney-General gives unvarnished, independent advice, and is the Government’s legal adviser. But I also believe that, in government, when someone has served extremely well for four years, there are often times when it is right to bring on new talent and to make the most of all the talent in one’s party. That is the approach that I take as Prime Minister, and I explain that very clearly to my team.

Q7. The number of young people coming off the unemployment register across North Yorkshire is at a record high. Does the Prime Minister agree that today’s small business Bill, Conservative-inspired, is yet another boost to the women and men who are creating the jobs to make this happen? (904890)

Today’s Bill will help to make the United Kingdom the most attractive and easy place to start, to finance and to grow a small business. That is our ambition. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the unemployment figures. In his constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 37% in the last year and by 51% since the election, and the long-term youth claimant count is down 60% in the last year. The most important thing is to make sure that young people are getting those opportunities.

Q8. The last two European Commissioners from the UK have held major portfolios that have been central to our interests. The outgoing Commissioner has been the spokesperson on foreign affairs, and her predecessor held the trade portfolio. What post does the Prime Minister hope to secure for his nominee, Lord Hill, as the consolation prize for his failure to prevent the appointment of Mr Juncker? How does he intend to build support for his objective this time? (904891)

First, I think this is a good moment for everyone across the House to pay tribute to Cathy Ashton and to the very good work that she has done as the High Representative—effectively the Foreign Minister for Europe—over the past four years in what is a gruelling and exhausting job. We will be discussing these issues tonight; whether there will be a resolution or not I do not know, but there is an opportunity to ensure that Britain has an important portfolio so that we can maximise our influence in the areas that we care about the most. Those are areas to do with our economy, and we will work very hard to do that. Lord Hill has experience in the previous Conservative Government and in this Government, holding as he does the equivalent post that Baroness Ashton held before she became a Commissioner, and he will do a very good job for our country.

My constituency is very dependent on the oil and gas industry, in which the unemployment rate is currently 0.5%. The Prime Minister will therefore understand that there is some concern following the reshuffle, given that the Treasury Minister and the Energy Minister responsible for that industry have been changed yet again. Will he take this opportunity to reconfirm the commitment to implement the Wood review, as announced by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in a written statement today?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. North sea oil is absolutely vital and we must ensure that we have the tax regime appropriately in place. Implementing the Wood review is absolutely something that we are committed to. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the new Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, will do an excellent job, and I am delighted to welcome her to the Treasury.

Q9. On 4 August, people from across the country will come together to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the first world war. That is an important opportunity to commemorate a conflict that changed Britain for ever. Will the Prime Minister join us in supporting the 14-18 NOW “Lights Out” campaign and encourage people across the UK to turn out their lights between 10 and 11 pm on 4 August, so that as a country, we can pay a fitting tribute to those who sacrificed themselves and served their country 100 years ago? (904892)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that excellent campaign, which was inspired by Sir Edward Grey’s famous remark on the eve of the war:

“The lamps are going out all over Europe”.

This is a way to get people, particularly young people, engaged with what happened a century ago and to help them to understand the consequences for Europe, for our world and for our society. A lot of events will take place this year to commemorate the first world war appropriately. One of the most significant will take place tomorrow when the Imperial war museum—an absolutely superb museum—reopens to the public after a major investment. I know that my own children enjoy going there, and I am sure that many people will make the most of it.

Q10. Given the north-west’s and Cheshire’s proud history of contributing significantly to our national economy, does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the importance of the rapid and safe development of fracking to boosting the competitiveness of our country and to ensuring that the north-west and Cheshire continue to be a significant contributor to our wealth and welfare? (904893)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is good news that, in the north-west, we have seen the claimant count in his constituency come down by 40% in the past year. If we want to sustain the increase in employment and sustain our economic growth, however, we should not hold ourselves back from new sources of energy, including unconventional gas. It is striking that the United States has something like 100,000 unconventional gas wells, whereas there are only about 100 in the whole of Europe. We have about three quarters as much unconventional gas across the EU as there is in America, and I do not want us to miss out on this. It could help to deliver more competitive energy prices, it will help to keep our economy and our industry competitive, and I think it is vital for the future of our country.

Parliament may be about to close down for the summer, but that will not stop people from having babies, getting injured and needing routine and emergency care on the NHS. In the light of the forthcoming report into safety at Stafford hospital by the Care Quality Commission, will the Prime Minister have a word with his friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to ensure that the Treasury funds in full the changes to health services across north Staffordshire that the University hospital in Stoke-on-Trent has to provide—and provide at no extra cost to the health of people in Stoke-on-Trent?

I certainly take into account what the hon. Lady says. I am following the situation in Staffordshire very closely and am regularly advised about it. Changes do need to take place, and the inspection that is under way is vital. The important thing is that where we have problems in the health service we should not hide them but properly address them. Today, Bruce Keogh is reporting a year on from his report. He put something like 11 hospitals into special measures. What his report will show is that all 11 of them are making improvements, and that five of them can come out of special measures all together. We need to ensure that we see improvements in all our hospitals.

Q11. I thank the Prime Minister for supporting the west country and particularly for investing in our railway in Dawlish and in our broadband. Does he agree that our recently announced growth deal of £130 million needs to be matched by a fairer funding formula for rural councils such as mine in Devon, which play a vital part in delivering the Government’s long-term economic plan? (904894)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must continue to support transport infrastructure in the south-west. We have the important report on Dawlish coming out, and work is being done right now to ensure that the line is more resilient. We have had the important announcement about the sleeper service to the south-west and announcements about a number of other road and rail schemes. I will look carefully at what she says about fair funding, because it is important that everyone can see that the situations are fair.

Q12. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the Government’s new system of student fees will add £15 billion more than expected to Government debt by the end of this Parliament. Have the Government not got it all wrong when it comes to tuition fees? (904895)

Of course, what we were told by Labour is that no one would take up these loans, no one from poorer backgrounds would go anywhere near university and the numbers going to university would collapse. What has actually happened is that record numbers are going to universities, including record numbers from low-income backgrounds. Obviously, we need to ensure that this system is cost-efficient, but I am satisfied it is working. The Chancellor announced in his recent Budget that, far from having problems with the funding, we are uncapping the numbers that can go to university. That is the aspiration society we are building in this country.

Q13. Unemployment has more than halved in my constituency since 2010, and York is poised to benefit from a multi-million pound investment through three agri-science projects as it strives to become a world-class centre of excellence in agriculture. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that clearly demonstrates our commitment to tackling the north-south divide and delivering a northern-led long-term economic plan? (904896)

I am delighted to share with my hon. Friend the fact that the claimant count in his constituency is down by 42% over the past year, and by 61% since the election. [Interruption.] I know that Labour does not want to hear about falling unemployment numbers and the numbers of people in work, but the fact is that every single one of these people getting a job is someone having a livelihood and the chance to provide for their family. That is what this is about. He is absolutely right to raise the importance of the agricultural and linked industries in Yorkshire. I am sure that the new Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary will want to make an early visit to her birthplace of Yorkshire.

Q14. Specialist spinal cord injury beds are a precious resource for people and patients in desperate need. Why is it therefore that, on the Prime Minister’s watch, specialist beds at the Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries centre are being used for people who do not have spinal cord injuries? (904897)

Obviously, decisions are for individual trusts and individual clinical commissioning groups, but we made two important decisions as a Government: to fund the NHS with extra money, £12.7 billion in this Parliament; and to abolish the bureaucracy that built up under Labour, with 17,000 fewer bureaucrats. Both those decisions were opposed by the Labour party, but we can see 7,000 more doctors, 4,000 more nurses, more patients treated and an NHS that is doing well.

In the recent case of Nicklinson, on the question of assisted dying, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said that Parliament now had the opportunity to consider reforming the law in the knowledge that if Parliament does not act, the courts may. That could raise serious constitutional issues. Does the Prime Minister agree that, whatever one’s views on the subject, the other place is to be commended for having a debate, but what the public really want is a debate in this House?

It is good that a debate is being held. I am sure it will be worth while reading the report of the debate that will take place on Friday in the other place. I am very happy for a debate to be held here, and there are opportunities for Back Benchers to secure debates in the Chamber. I am sure that the new Leader of the House of Commons—I am sure we all want to welcome him to his place—will be listening carefully to that request. I myself am not convinced that further steps need to be taken. I worry about legalising euthanasia because people might be pushed into things that they do not actually want for themselves, but by all means let us have the debate.

Returning to the issue of taxes and the wealthy, when will the Prime Minister keep his promise and publish his tax return?

On the subject of taxes and middle-income people, when will we get an answer from Labour about what the deputy Leader of the party meant when she said—let me repeat it again for the record:

“I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes”?

As we go into the summer, there is one party in this House with a big tax problem, and I am looking at it.

Given that poor mental health is the single biggest driver in relation to well-being in this country, will the Prime Minister act on a recommendation from the think-tank CentreForum and tackle the £23 billion cost to business of poorly supporting mental health by signing the Government up to the mindful employer framework? They should tackle those issues by giving a lead as a Government.

I will look very carefully at the CentreForum report that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. It is important—he helped to do this in government—that we now have a situation where mental health is given proper parity of esteem through the NHS constitution. We have made good progress in making available more talking therapies for mental health patients in the NHS, and I will look carefully at the report.

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but there is a statement now and, as he will know as an experienced parliamentarian, points of order follow statements. We will hear from him later.