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Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2014

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

As I walked to Parliament this morning past the increasing numbers of people who are sleeping on Victoria street pavement, I reflected that this Government are the first since the 1920s to have presided over a real-terms fall in average wages for their people. Is this record of failure really the best this Prime Minister can offer to the United Kingdom?

What we have actually seen under this Government is a record fall in the number of unemployed people over the last year. Also, the hon. Gentleman might want to make reference to the fact that this morning, the Office for National Statistics has produced the figures to show that the number of workless households going down by 671,000 in our country. The number of children growing up in a home where nobody works is down by 387,000. What that means is all those children growing up seeing one of their parents going out to work, putting food on the table, providing for that family, proving a role model for their children. That is a record to be proud of.

Nicola Sturgeon this morning has called for a separate majority for Scotland in the event of an EU referendum, which is a reserved matter in respect of the Scotland Act 1998. Will the Prime Minister refuse her request—or demand—and will he also condemn the Liberal Democrats for what appears to be a veto over our referendum Bill?

We are one United Kingdom, there will be one in/out referendum and that will be decided on a majority of those who vote. That is how the rules should work. I am very disappointed that we will not be able to take forward the referendum Bill in this Parliament—it was not possible to get agreement on a money resolution—but people should be in no doubt: if they want an in/out referendum, there is only one way to get it, and that is to return a Conservative Government.

A vital tool that has helped to bring murderers, rapists and paedophiles to justice is the European arrest warrant. Why is the Prime Minister delaying having a vote on it?

I am not delaying having a vote on it. There will be a vote on it. We need, in order to have a vote on it, the small matter of a negotiation to take place within Europe, which up to now the Spanish have been blocking. I think the Spanish will shortly remove their block, and at that moment we will be able to have a vote.

We all know the reason why the Prime Minister is not having a vote: it is the by-election in Rochester and Strood. He is paralysed by fear of another Back-Bench rebellion on Europe. So I want to make an offer to him. We have a Labour Opposition day next week. We will give him the time for a vote on the European arrest warrant, and we will help him to get it through.

There is only one problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s second question: we are going to have a vote, we going to have it before the Rochester by-election—his questions have just collapsed.

All I can say is that I look forward to us walking through the Lobby together to vote for the European arrest warrant: two parties working together in the national interest—or maybe, given the Prime Minister’s Back Benchers, one and a half parties working together in the national interest.

Turning from Home Office dithering to Home Office incompetence, can the Prime Minister explain why the number of asylum applicants awaiting a decision has risen by 70% in the last year?

First of all, let me just add some details of the vote on the European arrest warrant, because this is an important issue. What we have achieved with the Justice and Home Affairs opt-out is the biggest transfer of power from Brussels back to Britain by opting out of over 100 measures, but it is important that we take action to keep Britain safe, particularly from serious criminals and terrorists, and the European arrest warrant offers the best way of doing that. I would stress to those who are concerned about this that the European arrest warrant is very different from the arrest warrant that was first introduced under the last Labour Government. A person cannot now be extradited for something that is not a crime in Britain, and judges are now able to reject European arrest warrants and have done so in many cases. Nor can a person be extradited if there is going to be a long period of detention. These are all important considerations.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is looking forward to walking through the Lobby with somebody, because he has had rather a lonely week, with the loss of his leader in Scotland, the total shambles in Yorkshire and all the other problems that he has. His next question was, I think, about asylum and immigration. Let me just say that we inherited from Labour a complete and utter shambles: a Department that was not fit for purpose, computer programmes that did not work and an immigration system that was a complete mess. Before he asks his next question, he might want to apologise for the mess that Labour made.

On this day of all days, there is only one person who should be apologising on immigration, and it is the right hon. Gentleman, for his total failure. He is not putting it right; he is making it worse. Since 2010, the backlog has gone up, not down, and this Government have wasted £1 billion on failed IT projects and lost track of 50,000 people. What was his promise before the election? He said that he would reduce net immigration to tens of thousands a year. What is net migration now?

Net migration is down a quarter from its peak under Labour, and net migration from outside the European Union is down to its lowest level since 1998. The right hon. Gentleman talks about records; I am happy to contrast our records any time. Under Labour, net migration quadrupled and 2.5 million extra people came into our country. In 2004, Labour gave eight new European countries unrestricted access to our labour markets. He forgot to mention immigration in his conference speech altogether. And of course there was that remark by Peter Mandelson admitting that the last Labour Government sent out “search parties” to look for extra migrants to bring to this country. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: get up and apologise for your record.

The right hon. Gentleman could not tell us the figure. He made a promise of tens of thousands, but it is now 243,000. He published his contract with the British people at the election. On immigration, he said:

“If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time.”

Why does he not just own up? He has broken his promise.

We have cut immigration from outside the EU by a third, we have closed down 700 bogus colleges and we have introduced new rules on benefits—all this clearing up the shocking shambles and mess left by the last Labour Government. Will the right hon. Gentleman just accept one thing—namely, that in 2004, the decision to allow every single new member state to come to Britain was a catastrophically bad decision? We opposed it at the time and I ask him again: will he apologise for that appalling decision?

The right hon. Gentleman has been Prime Minister for four and a half years, and it has got worse, not better. On immigration, this Government combine callousness with incompetence. They do not show basic humanity, saying that rescuing drowning people is a “pull factor” for immigration, and they are so incompetent that they cannot deliver their basic promises. Why does he not just admit that, on immigration, he has failed?

On immigration, we inherited the biggest mess this country has ever seen. Immigration from outside the EU down, benefits restricted and proper rules when new members join the European Union—all that is clearing up the mess made by Labour. What did we hear today? Not a single word of apology from a party that sent out search parties to look for more migrants. The British people know we are making every effort to control migration and that the right hon. Gentleman would make no effort at all, because he has got no leadership.

If the Prime Minister wants his European Union (Referendum) Bill to proceed, as he claims he does, all he needs to do is demonstrate a level of mature engagement on the granting of money resolutions. Is he proud of the fact that his party is abusing the privilege of Executive power and denying the clear will of this House by denying the money resolution for the private Member’s Bill to protect the vulnerable and disabled from the bedroom tax?

I am afraid the problem with my hon. Friend’s point is that his Bill is literally a bill: it would cost more than a billion pounds for the British taxpayer. That is why it would not be right to give it a money resolution. But if he believed in democracy, he would recognise that the European Union (Referendum) Bill passed this House with a massive majority and went into the House of Lords. We should reintroduce it as a Government Bill—that is what ought to happen.

Q2. The tax gap has been calculated at a massive £119.3 billion, even a quarter of which would transform public finances, yet the Government have chosen to cut Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ staffing by more than 11,000 since 2010 and have utterly failed to close that tax gap. Instead, they are squeezing the poor and cutting the real wages of millions of low-paid workers. Are the Government simply protecting their fat-cat billionaire pals from paying their taxes? (905714)

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what is actually happening on taxation: we have taken 3 million of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether, and the fact that that means less work for HMRC is welcome; and the top 1% of taxpayers are paying 27% of all income tax—a higher percentage than ever happened under the last Labour Government.

The preposterous demand for more British money for Brussels is a small part of a much bigger picture. The big picture is that the eurozone is failing and threatening global financial stability. Countries in the eurozone have higher unemployment, lower growth and a higher risk of deflation. Why should Britain be paying for the failures of the eurozone? Does the Prime Minister agree that European leaders’ denial of the reality of the eurozone is turning it into the European economic horror version of the emperor’s new clothes?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that there is a risk the eurozone could go into its third recession in just six years, given how low growth rates are at the moment, and obviously we are not immune from that. So one of the problems we have, whether on the EU budget or on the issue of migration, is that we are the victims of the success of our economy and its growth in comparison with the eurozone. Just on the issue of the £1.7 billion bill, it is worth recalling what the Dutch Finance Minister said in an interview yesterday. He said:

“I must be able to defend it in front of the Dutch people and Parliament. As long as I can’t see the numbers, I can’t defend it and then I won’t pay before 1 December.”

I think he is right.

Q3. I am sure the Prime Minister cares about families, particularly those under great stress. Is he aware that up and down our country there are stressed families with a challenged or challenging child who cannot obtain any help from mental health services. Research that I have conducted shows that in two thirds of our country the access is not there—not in three months, not in six months and not in a year. What can we together do to stop this dreadful system? (905715)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of mental health services. We have taken some important steps forward, for instance, giving parity of esteem for mental health in the NHS constitution, and recently announcing additional money and additional waiting time targets for mental health services. We all know from our constituency surgeries how many people are in need of these services, which may actually help them and prevent there being further pressures on the NHS if they are given.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the outstanding work done at Porton Down in my constituency to combat Ebola. However, Public Health England has refused to evaluate fully an option to create a UK centre for global response to infectious diseases at Porton and instead persists with its recommendation to move many key scientists elsewhere. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss that matter and ensure that the future of public health, the life sciences industry and the taxpayer are well served by the decision ultimately made for public health in England?

Let me, through my hon. Friend, thank everyone at Porton Down for the vital work they do on these sorts of diseases and indeed for the work they are doing on testing for Ebola, as it requires brave and courageous people to carry it out. On the meeting that he wants, the Health Secretary is sitting next to me and he says he is happy to meet him to discuss this issue in detail. We want to see life sciences and these areas succeed in Britain, and Porton Down has an important role to play.

Q4. I have held a dozen public meetings on immigration over the past few weeks, and it is absolutely clear that my constituents in Dudley do not think it is fair that people should be able to come to the UK to be unemployed. They do not think that people should be able to claim benefits as soon as they arrive, or, as the Prime Minister proposes, after a few short months. They think that people should have to work and contribute and pay into the system first. They certainly do not think it is fair that people should be able to claim child benefit for children living abroad. When will he be able to sort out those things? (905716)

I do not want to be uncharitable to the hon. Gentleman, who put his question in a reasonable way, but I long remember the years when he sat behind the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and I do not think that he whispered any of those things into his ear—he whispered quite a lot of other things into his ear by the way. I absolutely agree that we need to deal with this issue about sending benefits home, and we will . We have already lengthened the amount of time that people have to be here before they claim benefits, and we want to go further on that. But we must be frank about this: the British people are our boss, and they want this issue sorted. It is not simply about people coming here to claim or to abuse the system, but about the pressure on our health and education systems and on our schools and communities. The people want it addressed and they know that, with this party, we will address it.

Q5. I thank the Prime Minister for meeting Lawrence Dallaglio and me to discuss the lack of innovative radiotherapy, and I welcome his help in trying to solve the problem, but is he aware that NHS England overspent the cancer drugs fund by £30 million last year and that it has taken that money from the radiotherapy budget? Will he look into that and get NHS England to put that money back into radiotherapy? (905717)

I very much enjoyed meeting the hon. Lady and Lawrence Dallaglio, who is doing excellent work on these more innovative radiotherapy treatments that should become more widespread; the case that he makes is extremely powerful. The overspend on the cancer drugs budget was the result not of some sort of maladministration but of more cancer victims wanting more drugs, and under this Government they are getting them. That is not disadvantaging other parts of the health service, but I will look very carefully at what she has said and ensure that these treatments go ahead.

Given that the Prime Minister said that the Barnett formula is here to stay, is it not high time now to give Wales parity of funding with our friends in Scotland, and, once and for all, to give fair funding to Wales?

I know what I said about the Barnett formula, and I will not go away from that. What we need to see in Wales is a real debate about what I call a double yes—yes to another referendum on tax-raising powers and yes to those powers so that the Welsh Assembly takes greater responsibility for raising and spending more of its own money. That is the right pathway.

Q6. As there has never been a major hospital in Montgomeryshire, my Welsh constituents have always accessed treatment in England. They have to wait a minimum of 26 weeks for treatment. Their close neighbours living over the border wait a maximum of only 18 weeks. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair? (905718)

I know that there are some real issues of fairness here, and that there are many more patients travelling from Wales to England than there are from England to Wales. Waiting times are quite different. For example, the typical average waiting time for a hip replacement in England is 70 days, but in Wales it is 170 days. That is not right. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. They want to blame the politicians in England for the NHS, but they take absolutely no blame for the appalling state of the NHS in Wales.

This week, Jamshed Javeed, a young science teacher from Bolton, a husband and a father, has pleaded guilty to serious terrorist offences. Like hundreds of others, he has been radicalised by a poisonous ideology. The Home Secretary promised in her conference speech to make Prevent a statutory duty on all public sector organisations, and she promised a counter-extremism strategy that would tackle all forms of extremism. When will the Prime Minister take action and make the resources available necessary to implement that promise?

As the right hon. Lady knows, I have great sympathy with her views. I think there is cross-party agreement between at least me and her about the importance of combating not just violent extremism but all forms of extremism. She will be delighted to know that the Home Office is drawing up this strategy, and we had our first discussion of it in the extremism taskforce. Progress is good, and we do want, as she said, to put these arrangements on a statutory footing. There may be opportunities in the anti-terrorism legislation that will come before the House, and I want us to make progress on all these issues.

Q7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the field of poppies at the Tower of London is a stunning and deeply moving way of honouring all those who lost their lives in the first world war? Does he further agree that it serves as a timely reminder that in any conflict there can be a terrible loss of human life? (905719)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a stunning display, and it is extremely poignant and reminds us of how many people gave their lives not just in that conflict, although obviously the slaughter was horrendous, but in so many conflicts since then where our armed services personnel have been defending our freedoms and our way of life. Perhaps it is particularly poignant in this week when we think about the final troops returning from Afghanistan, and the 453 servicemen and women who were lost and the many hundreds who will be living with life-changing injuries whom we must make sure we look after for the rest of their lives.

Last week, A and E figures showed that the four-hour waiting time target has been missed for the 65th week in a row. Does the Prime Minister honestly think this is acceptable?

Of course, we want to meet the A and E targets every week of the year, and that is our aim, and that is why we put £12.7 billion extra into the NHS. There are 800 more doctors working in our emergency departments than there were when I became Prime Minister. One of the pressures that we face is 1.3 million more patients every year going into accident and emergency. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] There are a lot of shouts of “Why” from Opposition Members. They might start with their own GP contract. They might think about that. We need to enhance GP services, put the resources into A and E, improve public health, help with our frail elderly—all the things set out in Simon Stevens’ excellent plan, which needs to be backed by the money and the successful economy that this Government are delivering.

Q8. More people live in Essex than voted yes in the Scottish referendum. With fairness needed for citizens in all parts of the United Kingdom, does the Prime Minister agree that what Scotland gets, so should the people of Essex and East Anglia? (905720)

This is becoming something of a theme in my hon. Friend’s questions. The best answer I can give is that if we are to keep all our promises to the people of Scotland in terms of additional powers to the Scottish Parliament, including tax-raising powers, as I believe we should, we must make sure that Members of Parliament for Essex or other counties and towns in England, have the ability to vote on these issues as they affect England in this House. My concern is that the Labour party seems to have completely given up on this issue. It is happy to have an all-party agreement when it comes to Scottish powers, it is happy to have an all-party agreement when it comes to Welsh powers, but for some reason, when it comes to England, it has absolutely nothing to say.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister explain why, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, it has been possible to reach a settlement with the Fire Brigades Union on the question of pensions and early retirement, yet in England, where the new Minister was having constructive discussions, last week somebody above her said, “No, no more”, and now we face a four-day strike? Will the Prime Minister intervene, show some common sense, get the FBU round the table and sort this, because it could be sorted tomorrow? (905721)

I hope that the hon. Lady is right that this could be sorted out tomorrow, because I think that is what everyone wants to see. I am sure that all Members have met members of the Fire Brigades Union in our constituency surgeries and listened to their arguments, but in the end this has to be settled by the employers and the trade union. I know that the Minister will have listened very carefully to what the hon. Lady has said.

Q10. Is the Prime Minister aware of Shropshire’s economic success? Over the past few months we have seen more jobs created in the county than ever before. In fact, since the previous Labour Government left office, we have seen a dramatic fall of up to 46% in the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In fact, today we have the lowest unemployment record ever in the county, and in The Wrekin parliamentary constituency it is just 1.9%. Is not that more evidence that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working? (905722)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to the House’s attention. The fact is that the claimant count in his constituency of The Wrekin is down by 40% over the past year alone, and we now have 2 million more people employed in the private sector since the election. As I said at the outset of Prime Minister’s questions today, the figures for the fall in the number of workless households—homes where no one has been working—including homes with children, are not just statistically important; it is a socially and morally important fact that children will grow up in homes where someone is working. The employment rate for lone parents has also gone up. [Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear good news, but the fact is that, because our long-term economic plan is working, we are getting the British people back to work.

Q11. I know that the Prime Minister, like me and the rest of the Democratic Unionist party, is fully committed to the full implementation of the military covenant. Why, then, have the Government failed to keep records for all the 30,000 personnel who served in Afghanistan and returned to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, many of whom came back with injuries that should have been given priority for treatment under the military covenant? What steps will he take to rectify that situation? (905723)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we want to see the military covenant honoured properly in every part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and I am happy to help with that. On the issue of how we keep in touch with veterans, I think that we have made some breakthroughs. The veterans information service now contacts all those who have been discharged from the armed forces a year after they leave, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) in his report. We are copying from the best countries around the world on how we help our veterans, and because we are taking the LIBOR funds—multimillion pound funds from the City—and putting them into veterans charities, there is real money to support our veterans.

Does the Prime Minister agree with senior US officials who said last week that Qatar is still a permissive jurisdiction for terrorist finance? Will he press the emir and report back to the House on what action is being taken within Qatar and on those individuals named on the UK sanctions list?

The Prime Minister: I will be talking to the emir very shortly, and of course we will discuss all these issues, particularly how we can work together to combat extremism. Qatar has recently introduced a new Act to ensure that charities are not abusing charitable status and giving money to inappropriate organisations, and we will want to ensure that that is working properly. I commend my hon. Friend for his persistence on this issue, because it really does matter that we work with all our allies to ensure that extremist and terrorist groups do not get the support that they seem to be.

Q12. Research published this week shows that there are now more than 5 million workers stuck in low-paid jobs, women’s wages are lower now than they were a year ago and the gender pay gap is widening. We on the Opposition Benches have been clear about how we would strengthen the national minimum wage. What is the Prime Minister going to do to make work pay? (905724)

What we need is more jobs, which we are getting. We need to see the minimum wage increase, which it just has. Then we need to lift people out of tax by raising the tax threshold. We are doing all three of those things. On the minimum wage, we have just seen it go up to £6.50. What we have seen from the Labour party is a plan to put it up to £8 by 2020, but reasonable assumptions about inflation rates show that the minimum wage will have gone beyond that level by 2020. These geniuses on the Opposition Front Bench thought all summer about what would be a really good plan to help people, and they decided to cut the minimum wage. No wonder they are melting down in Scotland, they have a crisis in South Yorkshire, nobody trusts the shadow Chancellor and nobody believes the leader. It is the same old Labour party—a complete and utter shower.

At 3.30 this afternoon, 120 members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary will march through Carriage Gates down to the North Door of Westminster Hall in commemoration of all they have done for this nation in Afghanistan and across the globe. Will the Prime Minister, other Members from both Houses and staff throughout the Palace find time to join me at the great North Door of Westminster Hall to thank them for all they have done?

I will certainly encourage all hon. Members to do this and I will examine my own diary to see whether there is any chance that I can come along too. We should take every opportunity to thank our armed services personnel, particularly for what they have done in Afghanistan. Fourteen long years we have served and many people have been there once, twice or even on three different tours. They deserve our thanks and congratulations for their service and courage.

Q13. Last week, the Prime Minister was asked why 16 health organisations, which include doctors, nurses and patients, say that health and social care services in England—that is the bit he is responsible for—are at breaking point. He has made a lot of allegations about the position in Wales. Can we now have an English answer to an English question? (905725)

What I would say to the right hon. Lady is that of course there are pressures in the NHS but I think it is worth listening to the new chief executive of NHS England—someone who worked for the Labour party when it was in government—who said:

“Over the past five years…the NHS has been remarkably successful…We’re treating millions more patients than five years ago...the NHS has become some £20 billion more efficient”.

Those are things that we should recognise. Of course there are pressures, but what we need, and Simon Stevens says this very clearly, is improved efficiency and to make sure that we get rid of unnecessary demand for the NHS by investing in public health—and, yes, money is required. But as Simon Stevens puts it, we get more money only if we have a successful economy. As he said,

“a tax-funded health service requires a healthy UK economy”.

We have a healthy UK economy, and we will have a strong NHS.

Q14. A recent TaxPayers Alliance study revealed that the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on union office space is the equivalent of £27.4 million at London market value, with a square footage equivalent to that of the Kremlin. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for further political funding reform? (905726)

I think it is necessary to cap the donations that unions make to parties and that should be introduced. My hon. Friend comes up with an ingenious idea: if trade unions have so much extra space, maybe they should do what the Government are doing and make additional space available to entrepreneurs so that we can have more start-ups and more enterprise. That is a contribution that the trade unions could make.

Q15. May I tell the Prime Minister that sadly my constituent better known as Boomer, Port Vale football club’s beloved mascot, had a stroke last week? He was discharged home only to be told that he could face an eight-week wait for urgent speech and language therapy. Can the Prime Minister set out how the Government will ensure that there are community stroke specialists and speech and language teams giving the right community care support from day one, in both Stoke-on-Trent and the rest of England? (905727)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to do better in treating the consequences of a stroke. The NHS has made some very big improvements on diagnosing and treating stroke victims as a stroke happens; we have seen that with the better arrangements for taking people to hospitals that have that expertise. But what is now required is more effort really to look at how we can make someone who has had a stroke have a better quality of life. More money is going into that. More research and effort are being done, and I am happy to look at her particular case.