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Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 15 October 2014

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

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?

Those are not the views of the Government. They are not the views of anyone in the Government. The minimum wage is paid to everybody, disabled people included. [Interruption.]

Order. Passions are running high but the answer from the Prime Minister must be heard, and I want to hear it.

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?

I am happy to look at what my hon. Friend says. We do have the Telephone Preference Service that helps people to avoid a lot of those calls, but I have had pressure for more to be done, and I am happy to look at what he says.

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.

Q8. South Tyneside hospital in my constituency is facing an extra 30,000 visits a year because of the closure of the walk-in centre in nearby Jarrow. Is that acceptable? (905382)

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.