The Secretary of State was asked—
Joint Ministerial Committee
1. When the Joint Ministerial Committee next plans to meet; and what will be discussed at that meeting. (905358)
The Joint Ministerial Committee is an important mechanism for the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to discuss shared priorities and matters of mutual interest. The European session of the JMC met on Monday 13 October.
Given that all parties now want to see further devolution to Scotland, does he agree that it is time for a review of how that Committee operates and how we can strengthen the way in which the Scottish Parliament, the UK Parliament, the Scottish Government and the UK Government work together in the best interests of the people of Scotland?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I hope that discussion about the relationship between Scotland’s two Governments will be part of the outcome of the Smith commission’s work; if not, I am sure it will form part of future debate in this House and elsewhere.
The Minister may be aware that in the past hour or so Tata Steel has announced its intention to sell the long products division—more or less, the plate mills in Scunthorpe, Workington, Teesside, Cambuslang and Motherwell—of its company. Throughout the United Kingdom, workers will be affected by this potential sale. Will the Minister ensure that he and other Ministers in both Governments intervene in this national issue for the sake of the workers and for the sake of the construction and manufacturing industry and the infrastructure of the United Kingdom?
This is a serious issue for both Governments. In the past it has been demonstrated that the Scottish Government and the UK Government can work together on serious issues that affect employment in Scotland, such as Grangemouth. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will follow exactly the same approach. The Secretary of State and I will raise this issue with ministerial colleagues and do everything we can to work with the Scottish Government, North Lanarkshire council and other interested parties.
It has been officially confirmed today that Nicola Sturgeon will become the next leader of the Scottish National party and Scotland’s first female First Minister. I would like to extend congratulations to her. She will be outstanding in those roles. Will the Minister be discussing the vow signed by the three UK leaders and the extensive new powers that it promises? What extensive new powers does the Minister especially support being devolved to Scotland?
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Nicola Sturgeon on emulating Margaret Thatcher and becoming the female leader of her party. I most certainly look forward to working with her as the first female First Minister of Scotland. My previous experience of Nicola Sturgeon is that she has adopted a constructive approach to discussions with the UK Government.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Smith commission has been established. All the political parties in Scotland have submitted their proposals. I particularly welcome the fact that the SNP will be part of that process. He will know that my leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, has made it quite clear that we see the Strathclyde commission proposals from the Conservative party as a floor and not a ceiling to those discussions.
I am sure the Minister would not be wanting to create a false impression. There is absolutely no comparison between Nicola Sturgeon and Margaret Thatcher. Nicola Sturgeon will be leading the most popular political party in Scotland. Margaret Thatcher destroyed the Tory party, and he is the living proof of its having only one seat in Scotland.
I am sure that most people in Scotland think that extensive new powers would help the economy grow, create jobs and deliver greater social fairness, so let me give the Minister another opportunity to outline which ones he is in favour of. Will he please, at the Dispatch Box, outline which extensive new powers he is in favour of devolving to Scotland?
I am very disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has not read the Conservative submission to the Smith commission, which clearly sets out, for example, our support for the devolution of 100% of income tax powers to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the comment from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) that she is open to those discussions. We have made it clear that the Conservative position is one of flexibility, and we welcome the fact that the Scottish National party is taking part in the discussions. However, the place for those discussions is the Smith commission, so rather than constantly trying to portray the vow or other commitments as having been broken, let the SNP put its time and energy into the Smith commission process.
May I begin by paying tribute to the great Scottish journalist Angus Macleod, who died recently? On behalf of the Opposition, I send condolences to his family.
During the referendum campaign, many voters expressed their deep desire for change in our politics and society. Does the Minister believe that the Joint Ministerial Committee should address the figures published today that show growing poverty across Scotland? That one in three children in Glasgow now live in poverty should not just shock us, but shake us into immediate action. What are the Government doing to give greater priority to the fight against poverty in Scotland? Does the Minister believe that Labour’s policy of increasing the minimum wage to £8 would help in that fight?
I certainly agree that the people of Scotland are fed up with the politicking they see on a range of issues. Nobody in Scotland wants to see child poverty. The people of Scotland want politicians to work together to deal with these issues. The Scottish Parliament already has extensive powers that have not necessarily been used while we have been distracted by the referendum process. I hope that a new First Minister in Scotland will be less divisive and that there will be less politicking on these issues, and that we can all work together to reduce levels of child poverty in Scotland.
Referendum Outcome (Government Policy)
3. What assessment he has made of the implications for Government policy of the outcome of the referendum on independence for Scotland. (905360)
I wish to echo the words of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), the shadow Secretary of State, about the sad passing of Angus Macleod. He was a true highland gentleman and a thorough professional, and our political and public life in Scotland will be much the poorer without him.
The referendum result ensures that Scotland remains part of our United Kingdom. I welcome the fact that all parties have chosen to participate in cross-party talks chaired by Lord Smith to deliver further devolution. On Monday, the Government published a Command Paper. Following receipt of Lord Smith’s report, we will publish draft clauses before Burns night.
This matter was dealt with at length yesterday in the House. I have always been of the view that completing the job of devolution will unlock the door to further constitutional reform across the United Kingdom. I caution the hon. Gentleman, however, that in seeking to devolve within Parliament without devolving within the Executive, we could be replacing one messy system with another.
I call on the Government to stop the clock on decisions on fracking for ethane in Scotland under the present reserved powers for the UK. It is quite clear that the matter should now lie with the Scottish people in the Scottish Parliament. I am calling for that to be devolved as a policy response to the referendum decision.
I look forward to reading the hon. Gentleman’s full submission, making that case, to Lord Smith’s commission. The hon. Gentleman will be mindful, however, that significant powers have already been given to the Scottish Parliament and Government through control of planning law, which would have a significant effect on the issue that he raises.
In June, the Prime Minister signed a joint statement with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, committing himself to “full representation” for Scotland in the House of Commons. Did the Prime Minister’s commitment extend only to the first UKIP win?
In light of the high level of public engagement in the referendum—97% registered to vote, 85% voted, and there was an electrified public debate that debunked the view that people are not interested in politics, particularly in the future of the UK—will the Secretary of State confirm that the Smith commission will engage not only with all parties but fully with the public across the UK before putting forward its recommendations?
I can certainly confirm that. That has been hard-wired into the remit that the Government gave to Lord Smith to undertake his work. It is a very important part of how, over the years, we have built consensus in Scotland about constitutional change. This is too important to be left to the political parties. We must have—I am confident that we will—the voice of business, trade unions, churches and wider civic Scotland.
The UK Government’s devolution policy was outlined in this week’s published Command Paper, which sought to devolve, in a number of ways, about a third of Scotland’s revenue base or less than half of the funding requirements of the Scottish Parliament. Given that this is not the unprecedented devolution of major powers promised by the Prime Minister, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Smith commission will not be restricted in any way by the contents of the Command Paper?
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, the purpose of the Command Paper was to bring together and to outline the proposals of the three parties. It is not a statement of Government policy. As I said when I launched the paper in a statement on Monday—I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman was here or not; I suspect not—it is clear that the publication and the content of the Command Paper are without prejudice and do not seek to limit or prescribe in any way the work that we have given to Lord Smith to undertake.
When the Secretary of State goes to the population summit in Dunoon, will he remind the Scottish Government that devolution should be not just from Westminster to Holyrood, but from Holyrood to local communities in Scotland? Will he tell the SNP Government that they should reverse policies such as centralising the police and fire services and closing local courts, which are taking people and jobs away from rural Scotland and into the central belt?
I am very much looking forward to joining my hon. Friend, leaders of his local council and Ministers from the Scottish Government in Dunoon. What he says is very much the message that Ministers from the Scottish Government will hear. It is a message that they get throughout the highlands and islands. Seven years of SNP Government in Edinburgh have given Scotland the most centralised system of government in western Europe. That has got to change.
As the Secretary of State knows, extensive new powers for Scotland are being proposed by the Smith commission. As he also knows, a number of substantial changes to income tax in Scotland have already been legislated for by this Parliament. A document that I have obtained from the UK Government indicates a number of risks to implementation—notably, that of a decision from the Scottish Government being delayed around the time of a referendum. Will the Secretary of State update us on any delays that are taking place and on what plans he has to begin to communicate with taxpayers in Scotland about imminent changes to the income tax proposals?
I do not know the document to which the hon. Lady refers. If she sends it to me, I will be more than happy to consider it, if I have not already seen it. I can tell her that discussions between Treasury Ministers and Ministers of the Scottish Government about the fine details of the transfer of income tax powers are ongoing. Once those are nailed down, a joint effort by both Governments to communicate what it will mean to Scotland’s taxpayers will obviously be of prime importance.
Referendum Campaign (Intimidation Allegations)
I hope that we can all agree that the referendum campaign was carried out in a democratic and open way, giving Scotland the debate it deserved. Given that the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom, what matters now is respecting the result and working together to secure the new devolution settlement.
Elections and voting in the United Kingdom have traditionally been viewed as free and fair, and free from intimidation, but only yesterday the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) described being called a traitor and a Judas. A former Deputy Leader of the Scottish National party was reported as saying that there will be a day of reckoning for those opposed to separation. There has been graffiti stating that those who voted no will be shot. That is disgraceful and a shame on those responsible. Notwithstanding the devolution of justice, will the Minister ask the Advocate-General for Scotland, Lord Wallace, to see whether further action should be taken and whether there was any criminal activity during the referendum campaign?
It is evident that there was some appalling behaviour during the referendum, not least towards people such as J.K. Rowling, when they expressed their views. However, I think we must regard the referendum overall as a triumph of the democratic process. After all, 85% of the Scottish population voted, and voted decisively to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom.
It is clear that there was intimidation during the referendum, but a more important question for the Minister is: when does he see the possibility of another referendum? The last thing we need to get in the way of politicians’ day business is another referendum in a generation.
I absolutely agree. It is disappointing that in the days before the referendum the First Minister of Scotland was able to say that he did not foresee another referendum in his lifetime; then he said a generation; and now he is saying a few months. That is totally unacceptable. The sovereign will of the Scottish people is that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. We should all come together to forge the new devolution settlement.
On the Tuesday before the referendum, I was present in Inverurie when a small group of Better Together supporters who had been manning a street stall day was suddenly surrounded by a flash mob of 150 nationalists waving banners, shouting, playing music and creating an intimidating atmosphere. The Better Together supporters stood their ground sufficiently to ensure that the people of Gordon rejected independence by a majority of nearly 2:1.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that such intimidatory and bad behaviour in the street and on the internet did nothing to further the cause of Yes Scotland. If demonstrators had not been outside the BBC but had been knocking on doors on the Sunday before the referendum, the result might have been closer.
May I tell the Minister what intimidation feels like? Banks threatened to leave Scotland; supermarkets threatened to put up prices; big business threatened to relocate to London; No campaigners told pensioners they would lose their pensions. The premise of “Project Fear” was built, designed and packaged to scare Scottish voters from voting for independence.
It disappoints me that the hon. Gentleman has so little faith and confidence in the voters of Scotland. I believe they were quite capable of seeing through bluff and bluster from any campaign. They voted in the way they wanted, which was to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.
Constitutional Reform (Timetable)
Lord Smith of Kelvin has agreed to oversee the process to take forward devolution commitments to Scotland. Lord Smith will publish his proposals by the end of November. The Government will publish draft clauses by 25 January 2015.
When the Government look at the timetable for constitutional reform in Scotland, will they take account of the fact that more people live in Essex than voted yes in the referendum and that if United Kingdom residents are to be treated fairly and equally, what is good enough for Scotland is good enough for East Anglia.
I can only repeat to my hon. Friend that the timetable that we have given to Scotland will be met. Let me add, however, that the distinction between Scotland and England is that we already have a well-established consensus. The main thing that was apparent to me from yesterday’s debate in the House was that the people of England still have some way to go in building that consensus, and I wish them the best of luck.
The Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box and many Opposition Members continue to repeat that the timetable is on track, but the nationalists keep putting it about that it has been broken. Why does the Secretary of State think that is, and what does he think we can do about it?
I confess that that timetable has been broken, because the Command Paper that was published on Monday was published two and a half weeks before the deadline that had been set for publication. The nationalists will have to speak for themselves, but every time they seek to undermine the work of Lord Smith and his commission, it raises a suspicion in my mind, and among a growing number of people in Scotland, that although they are part of the process, they are not acting in good faith. [Interruption.]
Given what the Secretary of State has just said, and given what he said yesterday in regard to the issue of English laws for English voters, how does he reconcile his statement from the Dispatch Box with collective responsibility in this Government? In the light of that question, is it not time that the coalition was brought to an end?
No. I am confident that the coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament. As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister has set up a Cabinet Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, which is intended to establish Government policy on this issue if that is at all possible.
In 2010, the Secretary of State called for a citizens’ convention on the constitution. Yesterday, at the Dispatch Box, he said that the constitutional convention should not be seen as kicking devolution into the long grass. Does he still stand by what he stood for in 2010 in his manifesto, and what he said in the House yesterday?
I think there are lessons that the rest of the United Kingdom can learn from the way in which we have gone about building consensus to achieve constitutional reform throughout the United Kingdom. Bringing together not just the political parties but the other interested voices is absolutely essential. It is the best way in which to proceed, and I hope very much that the rest of the United Kingdom will take a leaf out of Scotland’s book.
Scottish Constitutional Settlement
Lord Smith of Kelvin has agreed to oversee the process to take forward devolution commitments to Scotland. He will publish his proposals by the end of November, and the Government will publish draft clauses by 25 January.
My constituents are very much in favour of the direction of the settlement, but they fear that it may enshrine the £1,600 per annum public sector differential between England and Scotland. Can the Secretary of State assure us that that will be reviewed as part of the process?
One of the express elements in the vow that was delivered to the people of Scotland was an assurance that there would be no change in the Barnett formula. I should add, however, that once we have delivered the extra tax-raising powers that I believe will go to the Scottish Parliament, the formula will obviously account for a lesser proportion of the Scottish Government’s income than is currently the case.
Does the Secretary of State accept that if fundraising powers such as the power to tax income are transferred to the Scottish Parliament to a greater extent, adjustments will have to be made to the Barnett formula to take account of fluctuations, just as account will have to be taken of fluctuations in the oil price?
Adjustments will certainly have to be made to the way in which the Barnett formula operates in detail. That is already being undertaken by Treasury officials and Ministers in relation to the powers that are going to Scotland under the Scotland Act 2012.
Any future constitutional settlement must make it easier to build a fairer society in Scotland. According to a report published by Oxfam, inequality should be measured in terms of welfare, housing, health, education, justice, and employability. Five out of those six have already been devolved to Scotland. Does that not demonstrate that we have two Governments who are failing the people of Scotland?
What it shows is that these are complex problems that will require close working by Scotland’s two Governments in order to tackle them. I very much hope that, now we have got the referendum behind us, we will be able to see the cross-party and cross-government working that the people of Scotland need and demand.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Everyone in Stoke-on-Trent is finally breathing a sigh of relief that the Government have at last committed extra money to fund the merged hospital services in mid and north Staffordshire, but will he now listen to the widespread local public concern and commit to reversing his Government’s £1.2 billion privatisation of cancer care in Staffordshire?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s welcome for the fact that money is being put forward to help what the University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust is doing. A £256 million investment, including £80 million of capital funding, is going into making sure that this project can work well. I have been following the situation in Staffordshire very closely, and I will continue to do so. On cancer, I would say to her that the number of people being referred for cancer treatment under this Government is up 50%. We inherited some of the worst cancer survival rates anywhere in Europe, but in this country they are now at record levels.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the opinion of at least one Member of this House sitting on the Opposition Benches—he knows who he is—that the only way to get an EU referendum is to vote Conservative with my right hon. Friend as Prime Minister? Will he commend such eminently sound judgment?
I cannot think who my hon. Friend is referring to, but it is certainly true to say that if we are not satisfied—as I am not satisfied—with the way the EU is working at the moment and if we want change, reform, renegotiation and, crucially, an in/out referendum—not for us to decide, but for the British public to decide—there is only one choice, and that is to vote Conservative.
I should say at the outset that I am speaking through a sore throat, but I would not have missed this meeting with the Prime Minister for the world. Today’s fall in unemployment is welcome. Every time someone gets a job, it is good for them and for their family. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, however, that the latest figures show that wages are still failing to keep pace with inflation and that he is presiding over the longest fall in living standards for a century?
Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am sure the whole House will want his sore throat to get better soon. I hope that, if he gets a doctor’s appointment, he will not forget it. He must make sure he turns up on time.
I am glad that he has asked me about unemployment, because the figures out today show that our long-term plan is working. We see unemployment now below 2 million, we see the claimant count below 1 million and we have just seen the biggest annual fall in unemployment since records began. Long-term unemployment, youth unemployment, long-term youth unemployment and women’s unemployment are all down, but there is absolutely no complacency. To answer his question directly: yes of course we have seen slow wage growth, but that is because we are recovering from the longest and deepest recession in this country’s history. Let me remind him what 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”.
Of course that has happened, and we know who is responsible.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously noticed that I lost a couple of paragraphs in my speech. I have noticed that since we last met he has lost a couple of his Members of Parliament. Let us talk about what he said at conference. Before the last election he lectured the Tory party and said this:
“you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid”.
So when he announced his £7 billion unfunded tax cut he must have had a secret plan to pay for it. What is it: cutting public services or raising VAT?
People do not have to look in the crystal ball with us; they can read the book. We have cut taxes for 26 million people in our country; we have taken 3 million people out of income tax altogether; and we have raised the personal allowance to £10,000, so that if someone is on the minimum wage, we have cut their income tax bill by two thirds. But we have been able to do that only because we remembered something important: you have got to have a long-term economic plan and you have got to cut the deficit. We do have a plan, the deficit is down by a third, and the International Monetary Fund says that we are the fastest-growing economy in the G7. With a record like that, we can afford tax cuts—that people deserve.
We can see the record: higher VAT; cuts to tax credits; hitting working families; and the bedroom tax. That is the record of this Prime Minister. He cannot be straight about his tax plans, so perhaps he can be straight about his plans for tax credits. Can he confirm that as a result of his plans a one-earner family with two children on £25,000 a year will lose almost £500 a year?
The best way to help people is to take them out of income tax altogether. Next year, people will be able to earn £10,500 before they pay any income tax. We think it is better not to take money off people in the first place, but the right hon. Gentleman wants to compare records. After all, this is the Labour party, so let us look at the record on labour. Here it is: women’s unemployment up 26% under Labour, down 11% under this Government; and youth unemployment up 44% under Labour, down 22% under this Government. The fact is that the economy is growing, the deficit is coming down and we are getting Britain back to work. The long-term plan is working, but the one thing that could wreck it is a Labour Government.
The right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question or confirm the figures. Let me just tell him that they are the Chancellor’s own figures showing that people will be £500 a year worse off, and the Prime Minister cannot even admit that. Let me ask him about a very specific issue about disabled people and the minimum wage, which goes to the issue of living standards. In response to a question at the Conservative party conference, Lord Freud, the welfare reform Minister, said:
“You make a really good point about the disabled…There is a group…where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage.”
Is that the Prime Minister’s view?
No, absolutely not. Of course disabled people should be paid the minimum wage, and the minimum wage under this Government is going up, and going up in real terms. It is now at £6.50, and we will be presenting our evidence to the Low Pay Commission calling for another real-terms increase in the minimum wage. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Chancellor’s figures, so let me give him the Chancellor’s figures: inflation is at 1.2%—a five-year low; we have had the biggest annual fall in unemployment since records began; we have the fastest-growing economy in the G7; and next year pensioners will be getting an extra £150 a year. Those are the Chancellor’s figures, those are the Government’s figures, and we know that we just get mayhem from Labour.
We need to be clear about what the welfare reform Minister said, because it is very serious. He did not just say that disabled people were “not worth” the minimum wage. He went further and said that he was looking at
“whether there is something we can do…if someone wants to work for £2 an hour.”
Surely someone holding those views cannot possibly stay in the right hon. Gentleman’s Government?
Let me tell you that I do not need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people, so I do not want to hear any more of that. We pay the minimum wage, we are reforming disability benefits, we want to help disabled people in our country and we want to help more of them into work. Instead of casting aspersions, why does not the right hon. Gentleman get back to talking about the economy?
If the Prime Minister wants to protect the rights of disabled people, I suggest that he reads very carefully what his welfare reform Minister has said, because they are not the words of someone who should be in charge of policy relating to disabled people. In the dog days of this Government, the Conservative party is going back to its worst instincts: unfunded tax cuts, hitting the poorest hardest and now undermining the minimum wage. The nasty party is back.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening under this Government: inflation is down, unemployment is down, the economy is growing and the deficit is coming down. We have faced some tough and difficult times in our country, but we have a Government who are on the side of hard-working people. He came here and told us about the forgotten paragraphs in his speech—I have a copy of them with me. They came under the heading “Hard truths”. Well, I have a hard truth for him: he is not remotely up to the job.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the United Kingdom have their privacy invaded every day of the week by the menace of nuisance phone calls. Those unwanted and intrusive calls blight the lives of far too many of our citizens. Does the Prime Minister think that the Government have done enough to tackle the problem, and will he support stronger action against the perpetrators?
Q2. A survey I did of GPs in Bristol this summer showed that they are at breaking point: their workloads have doubled, they cannot recruit and surgeries are at serious risk of closure. It was said this week that the Prime Minister did not have a clue about the NHS reforms. Will he at least acknowledge that it is now harder to be a GP and to see a GP on his watch? (905374)
Of course there are pressures on our NHS; everybody knows that. We made some big decisions on becoming the Government, which were to go on spending on the NHS—we put £12.7 billion more in—and to cut the bureaucracy so that there are 20,000 fewer administrators and 6,000 more doctors, including, crucially, 1,000 more GPs. We need to go on to ensure that the reform plus the money eases the pressure on our health service so that we can continue to see the sort of success that we have in our NHS today.
Q3. As the Conservative party and only the Conservative party will deliver a referendum and a renegotiation on Europe, will the Prime Minister tell us his intentions of bringing to this House the red line issues that will feature in his renegotiations, and can he give us a preview of some of those issues today? (905375)
I have set out some of the things that need to change. They include safeguards for the single market, the ability to block new regulation, ensuring that Britain comes out of ever-closer union and, crucially, as I said in my conference speech, addressing the issue of immigration. I am looking forward to addressing all of those issues in the months ahead.
Given the very serious spread of the Ebola virus worldwide, with reports that there could be up to 10,000 new cases per week in two months’ time, will the Prime Minister, as part of his meetings later today and in Cobra, ensure that he liaises very closely with the authorities in Northern Ireland, which shares a land frontier with another jurisdiction, in relation to checks on people coming into the UK? It is a very serious issue for Northern Ireland and potentially a very serious issue for the rest of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There will be another Cobra meeting chaired today by the Foreign Secretary. I will be chairing one tomorrow. We are looking at all these issues about where people are arriving, and co-operating properly with all the devolved authorities. It is worth stressing that there are no direct flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea into the United Kingdom, so we are talking about people who come here indirectly, which is why it is so important that we put in place the screening processes, starting at Heathrow but to be rolled out more as the days go by. I am absolutely convinced that we will do everything we can to keep this country safe. I will ensure that proper liaison takes place not only with Northern Ireland but with the Republic.
Q4. Is my right hon. Friend aware that over the past couple of years in Harlow youth unemployment has been cut by 53% and general unemployment by 43%, the number of apprentices has gone up by 82% and there have been tax cuts for thousands of low earners? Does that not show that we are the true workers party now and the modern trade union movement for hard-working people? (905377)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work he does locally to help promote jobs, apprenticeships and training. He is absolutely right, and there has been a 56% decline in unemployment in his constituency, but let me stress that there is still more work to be done. We have got to stick to our long-term economic plan. We are not immune from pressures, including the problems in the eurozone, so we need to stick to the plan and do everything we can to get even more people back to work.
Q5. In the light of the National Audit Office’s estimate of a £750 million cost to the taxpayer of the sale of Royal Mail, what measures will the Government take to ensure that when they sell Eurostar, the City gravy train will not take the taxpayer for a ride yet again? (905378)
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that there was not a cost to the taxpayer of the sale of Royal Mail. There was a benefit to the taxpayer, because for the first time we had a receipt in for the sale and no longer had, as we did in the Labour years, loss after loss after loss. We are looking at expressions of interest for the business that he mentions and we will make sure that we get value for money for the taxpayer if we look to involve the private sector.
The 1984 joint declaration committed Britain and China together to preserve the freedoms and stability of, and a high degree of autonomy for, Hong Kong for 50 years. Recent large demonstrations there show that the people of Hong Kong have real concerns over proposals for the election of their next Chief Executive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should do everything possible to encourage the Governments of Hong Kong and China to find ways to provide the widest possible choice in that important election and that that is vital to the stability of Hong Kong and the interests of both Britain and China?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that democracy involves real choices. I also think that we should be very clear about the importance we attach to the 1984 joint declaration, which makes it very clear that the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, including lifestyle. It talks about:
“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence”
and, indeed, “of strike”. Those are important freedoms jointly guaranteed through that joint declaration and it is that, most of all, that we should stand up for.
Q6. Proposed cuts to GP funding, the proposed closure of a walk-in centre in Accrington, proposed cuts to the GP practice in Accrington Victoria hospital, accident and emergency in special measures, the police taking constituents to A and E at Blackburn Royal hospital in police cars: the NHS in my constituency is in crisis. What can the Prime Minister ever do, considering the broken promises he has given, to assure my constituents that the NHS is safe? (905380)
We are not cutting spending on the NHS, which is what those on the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench recommended at the beginning of this Parliament. We are spending £12.7 billion more on the NHS, and if we look at his own clinical commissioning group in East Lancashire, we can see that the funding this year of £490 million is going up by 2.14%. That is an increase of more than inflation. That is our policy and that is not the policy of the Labour party.
Q7. The Palestinian ambassador, Mr Hassassian, has described Monday’s vote on the recognition of the Palestinian state as “a momentous vote”. Indeed it was. He has also said:“Now is the time for the UK government to listen to its democratically elected parliament and to take decisive political action by recognising the State of Palestine and upholding its historical, moral and legal responsibility towards Palestine”.Does the Prime Minister agree? (905381)
Of course, I look forward to the day when Britain will recognise the state of Palestine, but it should be part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution. That is what we all want to see—a state of Israel living happily and peacefully alongside a state of Palestine—and that is when we should do the recognition.
As I have said, NHS funding is going up. If we look at South Tyneside clinical commissioning group, we see that this year its funding has increased by 2.14%. That is more money for the NHS, but obviously it is up to local commissioners to decide how to spend it. They have more money under this Government, whereas they would have had less money under Labour, which said that spending more money on the NHS was “irresponsible”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too many people who cannot be described as rich are finding themselves caught up in inheritance tax? Does he also agree that that is not only unfair, but not what the tax was originally intended for? Does he agree that we need to reform it as soon as possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It was a step forward when the threshold was effectively increased by allowing things to be passed between husband and wife, making it £650,000 rather than £350,000, which I think it was before. That only happened because of the pressure from the Conservative party when we were in opposition. Taxes, as they say, are a matter for the Chancellor in his Budget, but we all want to see a system—this might have to wait some time—in which only the very rich pay inheritance tax, not hard-working people.
Q9. This summer, mothers from Darlington marched 300 miles to show their anger at the this Government’s wasteful mismanagement of the health service. Darlington—I want to help the Prime Minister—is in the north-east of England, like the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). Does he agree with the Darlington mums and, it seems, a member of his own Cabinet that spending £3 billion on reorganising the NHS was his biggest mistake? (905383)
What we did at the beginning of this Parliament was ensure that we cut the bureaucracy and put in the extra money. The only way to have a strong national health service is by having a strong economy. Let us look at the countries that ignored their deficits. Greece cut its NHS by 14%; Portugal cut its NHS by 17%. They have something in common with the hon. Lady’s leader: they all forgot the deficit.
I welcome the £300 million investment in Stafford, Stoke, Cannock and Wolverhampton hospitals, but will my right hon. Friend recognise the substantial improvements at Stafford in recent years and the very hard work of its staff, and will he confirm when the NHS England-led review of consultant-led maternity services at Stafford will take place?
I am delighted to add to what my hon. Friend says about the hard work being done at Stafford hospital. The link-up with North Staffordshire and the extra money that has been put in gives an opportunity for a fresh start. Obviously, like him, I want to see as many services as possible maintained at Stafford hospital, and I know the importance that local people attach to maternity services. People who live in Stafford want to have their children in their local hospital, and I quite understand that.
Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that the £11.5 million wasted on a botched and abandoned reorganisation of south-west London’s NHS services would have been better spent providing more GPs so that my constituents do not have to wait over two weeks to see a doctor? (905384)
The hon. Gentleman mentions waiting times, so let me remind him that when this Government came into office there were 18,000 people waiting longer than a year. That number is down to 500, and that is because we have run the health service and the economy effectively. The reorganisation that took place in the NHS was about getting rid of bureaucracy. There are now 20,000 fewer administrators, 6,000 more doctors and 3,000 more nurses. That is a record we can be proud of.
Q11. One in four beds in our hospitals is occupied by a patient with dementia. Being treated in ordinary wards can cause them distress and confusion, hampering their recovery and that of other patients. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and with health practitioners in my local hospital in Solihull, that patients with dementia should be cared for by specially trained staff and, where necessary, in separate wards, and will he support my campaign to make it so across England? (905385)
In dementia, we face an enormous challenge in our country and, indeed, across the world, because so many people have this condition and so many people are likely to get it. This Government have increased massively the research that is going into dementia. We have trained over 1 million dementia friends so that we build more dementia-friendly communities, and we have trained over 100,000 NHS staff in how better to treat people with dementia. We are putting something like £50 million into hospitals to try to help them with the way that we treat dementia sufferers. But the hon. Lady is absolutely right: the more people who we can treat in the community and who we can maintain at home the better, because very often being in a hospital, particularly in A and E, is not the right answer for someone with dementia.
My constituent Alan Henning was brutally murdered by the self-styled Islamic State. In Eccles we have lost a local hero who ignored his own safety to take aid to children in need in Syria. People from across this country have told me that they believe that this noble sacrifice should be recognised in some way by a national honour and by support for his widow and children. Can the Prime Minister tell me if he supports these ideas and what we can do to progress them?
I will look very carefully at the suggestion that the hon. Lady makes, because she is absolutely right that Alan Henning was a hero. He went to serve others. He went with no thought of his own safety: it was about helping other people in their time of need. He was an entirely innocent man, and the fact that he was murdered in such a brutal fashion demonstrates the dreadfulness of the people who we are dealing with in ISIL. I know that people in Eccles and in Salford miss him greatly. I spoke to his wife; the family have been incredibly brave. The hon. Lady makes a very good suggestion which I will take away and look at.
Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the excellent Conservative-run Medway council on securing nearly £30 million from the Government’s national growth fund, which will further help to improve economic regeneration in the local area? The fact that youth unemployment in the local area is down, unemployment overall is down, apprenticeships are up, business creation is up and jobs are up clearly shows that our long-term economic plan is working both locally in Medway and nationally across the country. (905386)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The claimant count in his constituency is down by 36%, which is a huge advance over recent years. He is right about the importance of the local growth deal. This is going to mean more transport links in and around Medway and investment in the growth hub. A total of £442 million of growth funding has gone into this deal. Like him, I have got a feeling I will be spending some time in the Medway towns in the months and years—in the weeks—to come.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) will be pressing amendments to ensure that the Recall of MPs Bill makes MPs meaningfully accountable to their constituents—real recall. Will the Prime Minister now support these amendments in order to honour the promises on which he sought office in 2010?
We made it very clear that we wanted to see a recall Bill come in front of Parliament and be voted on, and I am delighted that we are keeping that promise; the Second Reading of the recall Bill will be happening very soon in this House. I will look very carefully at all amendments that come forward because, frankly, in getting this Bill together we have come up with the minimum acceptable for recall, but I think there are a lot of very good arguments to be had about how we can go further, and I look forward to having them in the House of Commons.
Q13. Since 2010 there has been £50 million-worth of investment in schools in Watford. Only last week, we had the announcement about St John’s Church of England primary school, under Father David Stevenson. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this situation of massive investment in schools will continue, because it is hugely benefiting my constituents and their children? (905387)
We are spending £18 billion in this Parliament on school buildings—that is more than Labour spent in their first two terms in office combined—and I want to see that continue. What we are seeing in our schools is not just this important building work but a massive change in culture and leadership as we see standards rise and we see school after school really transformed through their results. I know that is happening in Watford, as elsewhere, and so what we must do is carry on with this programme, carry on with our reforms, and make sure we give more young people the chance of a good start in life.
Today, Tata has announced that it hopes to sell its long products business, including the integrated steel site in Scunthorpe. People are understandably concerned about that. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a cross-party group of MPs whose communities are affected by the decision, in order to make sure there is a bright future for long product steel in the UK, which underpins so much of British manufacturing?
I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other north Lincolnshire MPs to discuss this vital issue. Over the past four years we have seen some good developments in the steel industry, not least with the reopening of Redcar and what has happened in Port Talbot. I want to see a strong future for steel making in Scunthorpe. I know how important this issue is. We are engaging with both Tata Steel and the company that is looking to buy, and we look forward to those discussions. The hon. Gentleman will also know that we took action in the Budget to try to ease the burden on energy-intensive users. We have seen a recovery of manufacturing in this country, particularly through the car industry, and obviously we want to see the steel industry as part of that.
As the economy gets stronger, we on the Government Benches will not forget the deficit, but if the Prime Minister can afford his tax cuts, will he also commit to continuing the protection of school budgets that we have achieved under this coalition, or must tax cuts for high earners and those inheriting estates come first?
As my hon. Friend knows, the truth about all these things is that we can afford a strong school system and a strong health system only if we maintain a strong economy. That is why he is absolutely right to say that we must not forget about the deficit, as the Leader of the Opposition did. We have to make sure that we keep getting the deficit down and keep getting the country back to work. The truth is that, as we stand here today, the British economy is growing and more people are getting into work. We are making good progress on all our economic plans, but there is no complacency, because we face real challenges in terms of what is happening in the rest of the world. The biggest threats to the British economy are sitting a few feet away from me—people who have learned absolutely nothing. They would borrow more, tax more and spend more. They would take us right back to the start.
The people of Kobane in northern Syria are desperately fighting off attack from ISIS. The United Nations Secretary-General has asked for immediate action to tackle it and support the beleaguered civilian population. What are the UK Government doing to try to make sure that massacre is prevented in Kobane?
Of course, we are taking action in the skies over Iraq, but we fully support the action that America and other states, including Arab states, are taking in the skies over Syria, which has had some effect on the town of which the hon. Lady speaks. I think there is a case for Britain doing more, but I recognise that what we have to focus on right now is the air power over Iraq and the training of an effective Syrian national opposition, because in time the right answer for Syria is the same as the right answer for Iraq: a Government who can represent all of their people and armed services that can fight on behalf of all of their people. Britain should play its role in making sure that happens.
Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the 45 companies and organisations that attended my fourth jobs fair last week? Will he also thank Selby college for putting on the event and the staff at Selby Jobcentre Plus, and welcome the fact that unemployment in Selby and Ainsty is now down by more than half since the last election?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on holding those jobs fairs, which have been a very effective way of helping people who are looking for work to get jobs. If we look at Yorkshire and Humberside overall, we see that across the year there has been a 46,000 reduction in unemployment. That demonstrates that unemployment is coming down right across our country, but we have to stick to the long-term economic plan that is delivering that.