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Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2014

With Remembrance day next week, I am sure that the whole House will join me in remembering all those who sacrificed their lives defending our country and the freedoms we hold dear. This time of year once again reminds us of the incredible job that our armed forces do to ensure our safety and security. With combat troops coming home from Afghanistan, we will all want to pay particular tribute to the 453 soldiers who lost their lives and all those who were injured during that long campaign. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.

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.

May I first associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about Remembrance weekend, when we remember the contribution that so many have made, from all parts of the UK, in our armed forces?

Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said that concerned steelworkers at Clydebridge in my constituency and at sites across the UK should judge Klesch Group by its actions. With its record of asset stripping in France and Holland and the news overnight of the failure to purchase Milford Haven, does he believe that it is in the public and national interest for the strategically important UK foundation steel industry to be sold to Klesch Group?

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that what has happened at Milford Haven is very disappointing. We will continue to work with the company concerned and try to find employment opportunities for all those who work there. With regard to Tata Steel, Clydebridge employs around 90 people and, as he knows, is an integral part of the Long Products division. We took action in the Budget to support heavy industry, and we are working with Klesch Group and with the Scottish Government. It says that it is taking this on as a going concern and that due diligence has started. I think that the right thing to do is to work with the Klesch Group to try to ensure that its plans are to maintain that company. What we need overall is a situation in this country in which the steel industry continues to grow, as it has been doing under this Government.

Q14. On behalf of my constituents, may I offer my sympathy to the families of those killed and to those injured in the tragic factory fire in Stafford last week, and may I also praise the wonderful response of the emergency services? UK exports to countries outside the European Union have gone up by a remarkable 22% over the past three years, including transformers, generators and financial services IT systems from my constituency. Will the Prime Minister look at whether the support given by UK Export Finance could be increased, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises? (905886)

First, let me join my hon. Friend in offering condolences to the families of those killed in the fire in Stafford; we must get to the bottom of exactly how it started. In terms of supporting exporting companies, a very important part of our long-term economic plan is ensuring that we get more small and medium-sized companies exporting. As he will know, we have increased the budget for UK Export Finance and made available export contracts for small and medium-sized enterprises worth over £1 billion, and we will continue to work with those companies, including through the GREAT campaign, which is opening up new markets for British products to ensure that more of our companies choose to export.

Let me join the Prime Minister in recognising the importance of Remembrance Sunday. This year has particular significance: it is the year of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and, of course, 100 years since the start of the first world war. It is a moment to remember all those who lost their lives in war and everyone who has served our country. That is why we will all be wearing our poppies with particular pride this year.

The Prime Minister is nearly two years into his renegotiation with the European Union. He has to get 27 countries to agree with him. How many has he got so far?

What we have is a set of things that we want to sort out in Europe. We want to sort out safeguards for the single market. We want to get out of ever-closer union. We want reform of immigration. But here is the difference. We have a plan. He has no plan. And we have a plan that will be put to the British people in an in/out referendum. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell us, when he gets to his feet: why is he frightened of the British public?

My position on the referendum is exactly the same as his was before he lost control of his party. I think we can take it from the answer to that question that the answer is none; he has no allies. He says that his

“admiration for Angela Merkel is enormous.”

After the last couple of days, we can see that the feeling is mutual. If it is going so swimmingly, why does he think that Chancellor Merkel has already rejected his proposals?

On that the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong as well. She has herself said that there are problems in terms of free movement that need to be dealt with. He talks about support for a European referendum. Perhaps he would like to address this. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has decided to leave the House of Commons—about the only person on the Labour Benches who had any economic credibility—has said that a European referendum is inevitable. He says:

“It’s a boil that has to be lanced.”

If it is inevitable, why is the Leader of the Opposition so frightened of the British public?

We know about the boil that has to be lanced—it is his divided party. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to what his own MPs are saying. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), the one who has not defected yet, says:

“vague promises about a better deal for Britain will not wash.”

They know his renegotiation is going nowhere. Two years ago, the Prime Minister gave an interview to The Daily Telegraph, and this is what it said:

“Mr Cameron will not countenance leaving the EU and says that he would never campaign for an out vote in an EU referendum.”

Is that still his position?

I think Britain is better off in a reformed European Union. But the point is this: I have a plan for renegotiating our situation and holding a referendum. The right hon. Gentleman has absolutely no plan whatsoever. He talks about the views of Back Benchers. I have the new view of one of his Front Benchers. This is the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the man he appointed to the Front Bench, and I am sure the House will be interested. He said:

“the Labour Party…right now is…in a dreadful position.”

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) has been silent for too long. He goes on:

“And we’ve got to be honest about ourselves. We have very low esteem with the electorate. The electorate looks at us and has no idea what our policies are.”

He concludes:

“We have a moribund party”.

That is not the view of the commentators. It is not the view of the Back Benchers. It is the view of the Front Benchers. It is official. It is a dead parrot.

Let us talk about his party: defections, rebellions, demands for a pact with UKIP, and that is before the Rochester and Strood by-election. Everyone will have heard—[Interruption.]

Order. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard. However long it takes, that will happen. So people who are making a noise should calm themselves.

And he did not answer this fundamental question that matters to businesses and families. He used to say he would never be for leaving the European Union. That was his position two years ago. [Interruption.] Tory Members ask what my position is. I want to stay in the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman cannot even answer the question. That was his position then. I am just asking him to repeat the same words as he used then; that he would never campaign to leave the European Union. Yes or no?

I answered that question the last time round. I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union, but we need the reform. We have a plan. The right hon. Gentleman has no plan. We say it is time to get out of ever-closer union. What do the Opposition say? Nothing. We say, “You have to safeguard the single market.” What do they say? Nothing. We say, “You have to reform immigration.” What do they say? Nothing. Absolutely feeble. That is why he faces a crisis in his leadership: because he has nothing to say about the deficit; nothing to say about the economy; nothing to say about welfare; and nothing to say about Europe. And the whole country can see they have a nothing Leader of the Opposition.

There is no point in the Prime Minister giving us the “fight them on the beaches” speech, because the last time he tried that was over Jean-Claude Juncker and he lost 26 votes to two. That is his leadership in Europe. Everyone will have heard his weasel words. He will not be straight with his Back Benchers and he will not be straight with the British people. He had a referendum on the alternative vote, and his position was crystal clear—he was for no. He had a referendum on Scotland, and his position was crystal clear—it was no. He wants a referendum on the EU. No ifs, no buts: is he for in or for out?

The right hon. Gentleman is asking me about a referendum that he will not support; the Labour party is so chicken when it comes to trusting the British people. His position is completely unbelievable. We say renegotiate, hold the referendum and let the British people make their choice. He will not even support a referendum. He also says that we should listen to Back Benchers. Perhaps he should try listening to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) who, on immigration, said:

“Let’s be honest about it.”

He said:

“If you make a mistake you should say sorry.”

So let me ask again: why will he not have a referendum, and will he apologise for the mess on immigration?

British business will be holding their heads in their hands about a Prime Minister who cannot say that he wants to stay in the European Union. His renegotiation is going nowhere. He is caught between his Back Benchers who want to leave and our national interest that demands we stay. That is why on Europe, he dare not say yes and he dare not say no. He is a “don’t know” Prime Minister.

I am afraid, Mr Speaker, that this is what happens if we write our questions before we listen to the answer. I could not be clearer: I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union. Unlike the Labour party, we have a plan to get that reform and hold that referendum. This comes at the end of a week when the last Labour Chancellor said that the Tories are right over a referendum; the shadow Deputy Leader of the House said that Labour is in a dreadful position; and John Prescott said that Labour had a problem communicating in English. [Interruption] That is it. When you get a lecture from John Prescott on the English language, you are really in trouble. Everyone can see it: a leader in crisis and a party with nowhere to go.

Q15. May I ask the Prime Minister a sensible question? Does he welcome the fact that, for the first time ever, all local authorities, business leaders and local enterprise partnerships in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall have reached agreement on the improvements necessary to upgrade the transport infrastructure of the south-west? Will he agree to meet a small delegation from the peninsula so that we can discuss those proposals and he can help us put in place a long-term connectivity plan? (905887)

I am happy to have that meeting with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right about the need to upgrade the transport links to the south-west, which is why we have been carrying out the rail study. Even before that, we have spent more than £31 million on important rail improvements. A number of road improvements, including the Kingskerswell bypass, have already been put in place. Our roads programme includes major and important work for the south-west. But I am happy to hold that meeting.

Q2. Today’s Health Committee report on mental health services for children and young people describes how budgets have been frozen or cut, services are being closed and young people are being sent hundreds of miles away from their families or kept in police cells because there are no beds. Is that what the Prime Minister means by parity of esteem for mental health services? (905874)

We have taken a whole series of steps in difficult economic circumstances, of which the first is parity of esteem in the NHS constitution. We have seen a big expansion of talking therapies that were not available under the previous Government; we have introduced for the first time a waiting time standard for young people with psychosis, which never existed under the previous Labour Government; and we have, for the first time, a Minister with dedicated responsibility for child and adolescent mental health services. Of course much more needs to be done. The demands on our mental health services are very great, but the steps that I have mentioned have not been taken by previous Governments. We have managed to take them because we have put the money in and made important reforms to get rid of bureaucracy. All of those things are possible only if there is a strong economy backing a strong NHS.

Q3. On Saturday, the fountains of Trafalgar square, right through to Lancaster museum and Fleetwood’s Marine hall, were lit purple to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. Will the Prime Minister look very carefully at the report produced last week by the all-party group on pancreatic cancer, with the support of Pancreatic Cancer UK, calling for more research into this dreadful disease before it becomes Britain’s fourth biggest killer in terms of cancer? (905875)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the all-party group for the work that they do. I know how close this issue is to his heart and how much he feels this personally. The difficult situation here is that the one-year survival rate for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is about 20% and the five-year survival rate is only 5%, and that is not good enough. We are spending more money on research. We are investing a record £800 million over five years in a series of biomedical research centres, including the Liverpool pancreas biomedical research unit. We need the research to go in and for these new treatments to be properly tested so that we can improve these cancer survival rates as we have for other cancers.

Four weeks ago, a 150-year-old industry in my constituency announced that it will be pulling out of Northern Ireland, with the loss of 900 jobs—the equivalent of 32,000 jobs in the United Kingdom. To say that is a body blow would be an understatement. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and industry leaders to see if we can find a strategy and a way of keeping some of those jobs in Northern Ireland?

I am very happy to discuss this with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps on a forthcoming visit to Northern Ireland, we might be able to meet in Ulster and discuss these issues. I think the issue he refers to is also plain paper packaging, where I want to see us make progress; I think there are important health benefits there. I am happy to discuss the issue with him.

Q4. My right hon. Friend may be aware that my constituents Dr and Mrs Turner’s granddaughter died of the dreadful disease meningitis B. Thirty babies die of this a year. Much more worryingly, 300 babies are severely maimed; indeed, a baby in Bristol at the moment is facing quadruple amputations. There is a licensed and safe vaccine available; the issue is cost. Will my right hon. Friend please intervene to see what can be done to resolve this issue? (905876)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing up this issue. I am certainly keen to help if I can. If we were able to introduce a vaccine, I think we would be the first country in the world to do so nationally. But as he says, there are issues. That is why, following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, we are having discussions with the producer of the vaccine to see whether we can find a cost-effective way of doing this. The case that he raises, and many other heartbreaking cases, show how desirable it is to make progress on this issue.

Q5. People in Devon face being denied operations if they are overweight or smokers, as well as the loss of all fertility treatment, cataract operations restricted to just one eye, and the closure of Exeter’s very successful walk-in centre, all because of the unprecedented financial crisis facing my local NHS. Does the Prime Minister still think that his massive and costly reorganisation has been a success? (905877)

What we did by reducing the bureaucracy in the NHS is save £5 billion in this Parliament. That is why, nationally, there are over 8,000 more doctors and 2,500 more nurses. We have been able to do that only because there are 20,000 fewer administrators in the NHS. Those are the figures.

The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but those are the figures. His local clinical commissioning group is getting an £18 million cash increase in the next year, and it is going to get an additional £19 million through the Better Care fund, so locally there should be improvements in services rather than the picture he paints.

I am concerned that the revised criteria for exams in religious studies have yet to be published by the Department for Education. I am informed that the hold-up is in No. 10. Can the Prime Minister confirm that this is not the case and that they will be published very soon?

I will look carefully at the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is important to get right the issue of how religious education is carried out. If there is a blockage in my office I will make sure that I go into Dyno-Rod mode and try to get rid of it.

Q6. At his party conference, the Prime Minister promised that, if re-elected, he would cut income tax by £7 billion. That money has got to come from somewhere, so just how big an increase in VAT has he got in mind this time? (905878)

We have demonstrated in this Parliament that if you manage the economy properly, it is possible to reduce spending, to reduce the deficit and to reduce taxes at the same time. That is exactly what we have done. During this Parliament, we have taken the personal allowance—the amount people can earn before paying income tax—from about £6,000 to £10,500. [Interruption.] I know the Labour party does not want to hear good news, but people are paying less income tax under this Government. We have taken 3 million people out of income tax altogether. If re-elected, we want to raise to £12,500 the amount of money that people can earn before they start paying income tax. Why do we want to do this? Because Government Members think people should have more of their own money to spend as they choose.

Yesterday’s announcement by Rolls-Royce of significant job losses across the country will devastate people and homes, and could well damage our national engineering skills base. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and employee representatives from Rolls-Royce to see if we can try to minimise the effect of this by finding alternative engineering jobs and if we can try to preserve our vital engineering expertise? Will he reassure my constituents in Filton that he will continue to champion our world-renowned and world-class defence export manufacturing?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that I will do everything I can to champion companies such as Rolls-Royce, whether in civil aerospace or defence aerospace. I try to take it on as many of my trade missions as possible, because it is an absolutely world-class, world-beating company. Obviously, it is disappointing that it plans to reduce the number of people it employs. It is not yet clear how many of those job reductions will be here in the UK. Of course, Rolls-Royce employs over 25,000 people in the UK. If we look at what has happened to the aerospace industry over the past four years, we see that employment is up by 10%, exports are up by 48% and turnover is up by a fifth. This is a successful industry that is being backed by our modern industrial strategy, but we need to do everything we can to make sure this company, and others like it, continue to succeed in the years ahead.

Q7. In 2010, Warrington had 127 full-time equivalent GPs. At the last count, it had 97, and some of my constituents are waiting up to two weeks for an appointment. Is the Prime Minister’s failure to provide access to basic health care a result of deliberate policy, or is it simply carelessness? (905879)

First of all, there are 1,000 more GPs across the country than there were in 2010. If the hon. Lady wants to know what has happened in Warrington under this Government: when I became Prime Minister, 130 people were waiting a year for an operation; today, that number is zero. That is what has happened under this Government. Because we are making the money available, it is possible to have more GPs coming into an area, alongside the 1,000 we have already introduced.

At a time of economic crisis, the stability of the coalition has helped us to build a stronger economy. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in creating a fairer society, any further rise in the tax allowance should not be done on the backs of the poor?

It has been possible in this Parliament to raise the personal allowance to take some of the poorest people out of tax—3 million people have been taken out of tax, with a tax cut for 26 million people—at the same time as making decisions that are fair for all, such as, for instance, making sure the NHS gets an extra £12.7 billion. Of course, we do have to make difficult decisions. Some of the difficult decisions we have made have been looking at things such as the Home Office budget, where the police are being far more efficient than they were, and making changes to welfare, each and every one of which has been opposed by the Labour party. The fact is that if you manage the national finances carefully, get our economy to grow properly and ignore the shadow Chancellor, who nearly bankrupted the country, you can do these things together.

Q8. After reading yesterday’s front page of The Times, may I welcome the Prime Minister’s late conversion to ID cards, even if they are—for now—virtual and without Labour’s biometric functionality? If the Prime Minister intends to keep his promise to keep our borders safe and secure, will he tell the House when the system will be in place, and why it has taken him so long? (905880)

It is a very interesting development that Labour Members are now back in favour of ID cards. I thought even they had seen the folly of their ways. We are introducing proper border checks so that we can count people in and count people out—something that was never available under Labour, and something that Labour actually helped to get rid of. We are also ensuring that we know more about those who are coming and when they have left.

My right hon. Friend will recall our support for the training of Libyan troops at Bassingbourn barracks in my constituency. Does he share my concern that the programme failed to maintain discipline, and the consequences of that were very serious in my local community? Will the Ministry of Defence account fully to my constituents for the failures in the delivery of the programme, and does the Prime Minister agree that the Libyan soldiers should now be repatriated to Libya, and that there is no basis for any of them to seek or receive asylum in this country?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on every front. What has happened at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire is completely unacceptable. These are criminal actions, and I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff for a report into that. A decision was taken at the National Security Council, which I chaired on 28 October, to end the training altogether. The trainees will be returning to Libya in the coming days and, in the meantime, all unescorted visits from the camp have been stopped altogether.

Q9. Which does the Prime Minister believe is more immoral—raising VAT to 20%, or concealing the intention to do so? (905881)

I will tell the hon. Lady what is immoral, and that is racking up debts for our children that we are not prepared to pay ourselves. That is what we inherited. We inherited the biggest budget deficit of any country anywhere in the world. That is the moral—or rather immoral—inheritance that we received from the Labour party.

Q10. Returning to the economy, is the Prime Minister aware that the region with the most tech start-ups outside London, the fastest rate of growth in private sector businesses over the last quarter, and the highest rise in the value of exports, is the north-east of England? Does he agree that we should stick to the long-term economic plan so that we can all have the benefit of that? (905882)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is notable when we look at things like small business creation, exports and investment that growth is coming from around the country, including the north-east. That is a huge contrast with 13 years of Labour when in our economy, for every 10 jobs created in the south only one was created in the north. That is the record of the last Labour Government. We need to increase entrepreneurialism and start-ups in every part of our country—that is what start-up loans and the enterprise allowance scheme are doing. There is a new spirit of enterprise in Britain, and this Government are backing it.

Q11. In 2012 my constituent, Sam Boon, died while on a World Challenge trip to Morocco. He was 17. The coroner was so concerned at the multiple failings that she issued a section 28 report to the Minister for Schools to prevent future deaths. There are British safety standards, but they are entirely voluntary. Why is adherence to those standards not compulsory, so that no other parent has to suffer like Mr and Mrs Boon? (905883)

I would like to look carefully at the case the hon. Lady has mentioned and write to her about it. It is important to ensure that safety standards are upheld, and to try to prevent tragedies such as the one she refers to.

The Government have been absolutely right to push for 90% availability of superfast broadband by next year, and for universal basic broadband services. Is the Prime Minister aware that those targets could be missed even in urban areas such as Cheltenham, and will he ask Ministers to ensure that local delivery matches the Government’s ambition?

I will certainly do that. We review very regularly the performance of broadband targets, because that is absolutely essential, particularly for rural areas. If someone is left off superfast broadband, it is much more difficult to take part in the modern economy. Progress has been very good, and it has made a big difference that British Telecom is prepared to publish all the areas not yet covered, so that other companies can come in and see what they are able to provide. We are also making available broadband vouchers for small businesses, which are very successful, and we can look to see whether we can expand that. I am convinced that spreading broadband right around the country is one of the most important priorities for this Government.

Q12. Since the Prime Minister likes to bang on about Labour overspending, is he aware that in Labour’s 11 years before the crash in 2008 the biggest deficit was 3.3% of GDP, whereas the Thatcher and Major Governments racked up deficits bigger than that in 10 out of their 18 years? So who are the over- spenders? It is a no-brainer. (905884)

There is only one problem with what the right hon. Gentleman says, which is that the deficit that Labour left, and we inherited, was 11.5% of GDP. It was bigger than almost any other country’s anywhere in the world. If he does not believe me, he can listen to his own shadow Chancellor, who said this:

“I think that the fact that you had the massive, global financial crisis which happened on our watch meant that people saw their living standards hit…I don’t think we would be being straight with people if we only said it was the financial crisis. It was also after 13 years in government we had made some mistakes.”

There we have it—some mistakes. You bet there were mistakes: overspending, over-borrowing, overtaxing, wasteful welfare, bloated expenditure. A complete and utter failure and it is extraordinary they are still sitting there on the Front Bench.

The Prime Minister will be aware that millions of people have been to see the 888,246 poppies at the Tower of London, designed and commissioned by Paul Cummins from Derby. Will he congratulate the hundreds of volunteers who have helped to make them in Derby, and the hundreds and hundred of volunteers who helped to plant them, to commemorate this very important centenary?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising all those who have been involved in this extraordinary project, which has I think brought forward from the British public a huge amount of reverence for those who have given their lives and served our country. The numbers going to see this display have been truly extraordinary. It is worth remembering that out of this display a lot of good will come, because, as I understand it, the poppies are being auctioned to raise a lot of money for military and veterans charities that will be there to do good in many years to come. It is an extraordinary display and one that the country can be very proud of.

Q13. In the past 12 months, it is estimated that 24,000 people have died from diabetes-related complications. Next Friday is world diabetes day. As one of the 3.2 million diabetics, may I urge the Prime Minister to do all he can to raise awareness on this issue, in particular to introduce measures that will reduce the amount of sugar in our food and drink? We can prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and we can save lives. (905885)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the importance of this issue. The consequences of diabetes, in terms of appalling things such as leg amputations, cost the NHS literally billions of pounds a year. If we can get better at preventing diabetes, and then testing and better at helping diabetics themselves, we can make huge savings while improving people’s quality of life.

I gather the right hon. Gentleman also wants me to try to ban sugar and fizzy drinks in No. 10 Downing street for 24 hours. I will try to negotiate that with my children. He also, as I understand it, wants me to light my home blue. That is something I am all in favour of—keeping it that way for some time to come.

HS3 and other improvements to rail connectivity in the north-west are important, but the recent parliamentary approval given to the Able UK development in northern Lincolnshire emphasises the importance of connections on the south trans-Pennine route between Cleethorpes and Manchester. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that my constituency and northern Lincolnshire will figure in future proposals to improve connectivity, so that the area can benefit from the Government’s long-term economic plan?

I certainly assure my hon. Friend that we are looking at all the elements of east-west connectivity and trying to make sure that we bring the benefits of faster journey times, greater capacity and electrification to all parts of the country. I know the Chancellor was listening very carefully to the statement he made.