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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 3 December 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Care

1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on the provision of free child care places for three and four-year-olds in Wales. (906353)

Support with high-quality flexible child care is key to enabling parents to stay in the work force and gain financial stability for their families. The UK Government are increasing the provision of tax-free child care from next year; the Welsh Government need to do their part in supporting working families in Wales.

Parents in Cardiff complain that they cannot access their free child care entitlement. They can only get a place if they apply for three hours a day, five days a week at a state-run nursery school, which is useless if they work. Given that that means that parents in Wales are worse off than those in England, will the Minister speak to Assembly Ministers to ensure that parents can access their entitlement to free child care places in a way that suits them and not the Labour council?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this area in a number of roles in Parliament. The UK Government have pressed authorities in England to be as flexible as possible and have structured their policies around flexibility to enable more people to get into work and to manage their daily lives better. I will happily pursue the matter with the Welsh Government on her behalf.

We have heard about problems in Cardiff, but of course there are problems with good and affordable child care throughout Wales. For example, in rural areas there is sometimes a 200% difference in the cost from one local authority to the next. Will the Minister do his best to ensure that the Welsh Government access funds, if they exist, for that purpose and that there is a proper dialogue on this subject?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the variation in child care costs. Stability has finally come to the marketplace. The Government’s £2,000 tax-free child care account will create greater flexibility, provide more choice to parents and hopefully contribute to driving down costs.

That is a step forward, but the Minister will be aware that good, affordable child care is key to economic development. He is probably also aware that in the UK we pay far more for child care than most other OECD countries—40.9% of the average wage compared with 18%. In Sweden, by contrast, the figure is 7.1%. Does he think that we have anything to learn from the Nordic countries in that regard?

It is important that we learn from wherever good practice is in place. The greater choice will help to drive down costs, but it is important that we provide the right level of care, and the quality of care is important. I have no doubt that the stronger role that parents have to play in exercising that choice will also drive up the quality of care.

Cross-border Health Treatment

2. What discussions he is having with the Welsh Government on waiting times for cross-border health treatment in Montgomeryshire and Shropshire. (906354)

The performance of the Welsh health service is the most pressing issue for the people of Wales at this time. My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise concerns with the Welsh Government, including on the issue of cross-border services. It is essential that all patients, wherever they live, can access the very best health care that meets their needs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government should follow the UK Government’s example of commitment to the NHS by using the £70 million boost to its budget, which came about as a consequence of increased spending on health in England, on the Welsh NHS?

Decisions on how the Welsh Government use Barnett consequentials are a matter for them, but it is true that a great many people in Wales would be baffled, bemused and hugely disappointed if Welsh Ministers chose not to use every single penny of the £70 million that we have made available to them by protecting and increasing NHS budgets here at Westminster.

Infrastructure Investment

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on investment in transport infrastructure in Wales. (906356)

For too long, Wales has suffered from under-investment in infrastructure, so I am proud to be part of a Government who are putting that right. By working closely with the Welsh Government and providing additional economic resources, we have been able to set out a long-term vision for how first-class infrastructure will make Wales a more attractive place in which to invest, benefiting the people of Wales for generations to come.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and commend him on his work in securing the valley lines electrification. Does he agree that this project will have a transformative effect on those communities that were often left behind by previous Labour Governments?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his kind remarks. He is absolutely right. It was precisely because we did not want to leave those valley communities behind that we worked so hard with the Welsh Government to secure the full electrification package, electrifying the great western line all the way through to Swansea, plus electrifying those valley lines, which, as he says, will have a transformative economic and social impact for many years to come.

The Welsh Government have published figures on proposed roads expenditure showing that spending per head of population in south-west Wales will be £89, whereas the figure will be £815 for south-east Wales. Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Swansea will not have a single penny spent on roads, which means that there will be no money for relief roads for Llandeilo, Ammanford and Pencader in my constituency, and nothing for upgrades to the link between Newcastle Emlyn and Carmarthen. Does the stitch up between the UK Government and the Welsh Government to spend all Wales’s new borrowing capacity on a new M4 relief road not mean that there will be no transport infrastructure for the rest of Wales?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has got this wrong. A Plaid Cymru former Transport Minister in the Assembly championed the upgrade of the M4, but could not achieve it, because the money was not available. We are providing the resources for that upgrade. That does not mean that no other project can happen throughout Wales, however, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want more infrastructure investment in west Wales; we share that objective.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s investment in redoubling the Stroud to Swindon railway line, plus the promised investment in the A417 roundabout, add up to much improved links between the midlands and north Wales, which will be excellent for trade, manufacturing and tourism?

My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. There is a broader point: infrastructure investment not necessarily inside Wales, but in border areas, benefits people and businesses across Wales. We should not be insular when considering infrastructure investment throughout the UK because it often delivers real benefits to all parts of Wales.

Tidal Lagoon Power in my constituency is mentioned in the national infrastructure plan. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating that important company on how it has worked with determination and grit to get the project through?

I echo the sentiments of the hon. Lady, who is a strong supporter of this important project. The quality of that company’s management, vision and business plan was precisely why I wanted the project to be included in the national infrastructure plan. It is also why I have been working hard with colleagues in the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to get this potentially strategic project included in our long-term infrastructure plans.

In 2009 I managed to convince my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) to allow Denbighshire and Conwy into the objective 1 bid. Since then, those two counties have received about £500 million of EU funding. Will the Secretary of State congratulate the EU on that funding and recognise the danger to Wales of our pulling out of the EU?

The biggest danger to Wales, including north Wales, would be to abandon our clear long-term economic plan, which I know Labour Members are calling for. When I spent two days in north Wales on a business tour last week, I visited many Labour Members’ constituencies and saw just how dynamic the private sector is. Businesses in that sector are leading the economic recovery, so they are the ones that we should be saluting.

I commend my right hon. Friend on his commitment to the M4 relief road. The Severn bridge will link on to that relief road, so will he consider the importance of having a plan for when it returns to public ownership in approximately 2018?

My hon. Friend talks about an important issue that has been raised by Members on both sides of the House in recent months. I commend his work personally and that of his Select Committee on examining the impact of Severn bridge tolls on businesses and consumers in Wales. I share his concerns about the levels of the tolls. I want a long-term plan in place, so I look forward to discussing his ideas with him in more detail.

The Secretary of State says that his Government are investing in the electrification of the railways and building a prison, and now he talks about the tidal lagoon, but is not the reality that they have not yet spent a single penny on any of those projects? They have not laid a brick or a yard of electric rail. In fact, the situation is worse, because his Government have cut the Welsh capital budget by a quarter, and no amount of jam tomorrow can sweeten that unpalatable truth.

I am genuinely bemused by the hon. Lady’s question. Let us just remind ourselves that under the Labour Government no work was done to improve the M4, and not a single mile of railway line was electrified in Wales. We are cracking on with a long-term plan for infrastructure investment, and I am very proud to be part of a Government who are doing that.

I very much welcome what the Secretary of State said about electrification in south Wales, but will he turn his sights to the position in west Wales? Is he prepared to meet a delegation from the Traws Link Cymru group, which is campaigning to reopen the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen line? That would benefit our economy immeasurably and open up our part of the world generally. Is he prepared to push that agenda forward?

My hon. Friend is a strong voice for improving all transport connections in west and mid-Wales. We are seeing the largest investment in our railway infrastructure since Victorian times, and I want Wales to get the maximum benefit from that. I would very much welcome a meeting with the group that he has mentioned so that we can discuss further how we can make sure that west and mid-Wales benefit from rail infrastructure investment as much as anywhere else.

Cross-border Rail Services

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on cross-border rail services. (906358)

The Wales Office has worked closely with the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government to resolve the dispute over funding for rail electrification. Electrification of the south Wales main line will bring significant journey time savings, an increase in capacity and a much improved passenger experience.

My constituents who use commuter services to places such as Bristol are increasingly frustrated by overcrowding and lack of capacity. Will the Minister make the point to the Department for Transport that the operator of the new First Great Western franchise must be able to meet demand for such services now, and anticipate future demand, which will only grow?

The hon. Lady has already made that important point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The Secretary of State for Transport has set a minimum service requirement based on the current level of services between south Wales and London, and I have no doubt but that the hon. Lady will be a feisty champion for ensuring that those local services remain.

I congratulate the Front-Bench team on securing great investment in the railways, particularly for cross-border services between England and Wales. They know that I have long supported improvement in those services. Will Ministers tell me what discussions they have had with either the Treasury or the Department for Transport on the possibility of Barnettising the investment in High Speed 2? That would make a great difference to investment in Wales.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the role she played at the Wales Office, which contributed to early negotiations on the electrification of the railways. Of course, HS2 is a UK strategic project and therefore will not be Barnettised.

What is missing from this failed economic plan is any rail strategy that deals with freight. The main corridor from the Republic of Ireland to Wales and England comes through north Wales. Will the Minister press the Treasury to ensure that we alleviate the problems on our roads, not by building motorways in marginals, but by building freight lines across England and Wales?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Early in the new year, we plan a transport summit in north-east Wales to highlight businesses’ needs, and to ensure that business has the opportunity to make its case for electrification, so that the electrification taskforce of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and the recommendations made to the Secretary of State, can be taken into account. Freight is of course an important part of that.

Although the south Wales to London line always attracts a great deal of publicity and concern in this Chamber, the Minister should not forget the importance of the Birmingham to Machynlleth line, which is fragile and often single track. Will the Government maintain their position that the line should, wherever possible, always be open?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his persistent interest in these sorts of matters in Wales. This is an important issue, not only for the Wales Office but for the Department for Transport. It is a subject in which the Welsh Government will also want to show an interest.

In all of this, things seem to have gone a little bit quiet on the issue of north Wales electrification. Will the Minister update the House on his plans to ensure that it is an objective that he will seek to achieve?

On the contrary, things have not gone quiet on north Wales electrification. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales was in north-east and north-west Wales last week, championing the need for business to grow and make its case, so that when the Secretary of State for Transport makes his final judgments on the next round of investment, north Wales is at the forefront of his mind.

The Silk commission has proposed devolving the Wales and Borders rail franchise to the Welsh Assembly. That franchise includes services from Chester to Manchester, Chester to Warrington and Chester to Crewe. What action is my hon. Friend taking to make sure that services in England are not devolved to the Welsh Assembly?

The devolution of the electrification of the franchise is part of the electrification decisions that were taken for the valley lines and I am sure my hon. Friend will want to make a case for services that start and finish in England. The joint agreement between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government continues, and my hon. Friend will no doubt want to make his views known.

Average Weekly Earnings

7. What assessment he has made of the reasons for changes in average weekly earnings in Wales in the last 12 months. (906359)

10. What assessment he has made of the reasons for changes in average weekly earnings in Wales in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (906362)

Salary levels are not where we would like them to be, but over the past year the earnings gap between Wales and the average for the UK as a whole has narrowed. Since 2010, average earnings in Wales have increased by more than the UK average, and Wales has seen the second largest increase of all the English regions and devolved nations.

Caerphilly county borough council is clocking up a year as a living wage employer. Will the Minister follow its example and that of the Welsh Assembly by becoming a living wage employer at the Wales Office?

The Wales Office already pays above the living wage. That is an important part of our policy, but it is a matter for employers. The best solution is to deliver a long-term economic plan so that employers can pay the living wage where possible. The greater competition that we see in the work force will help to drive wages even further.

Average earnings in Flintshire fell again this year by 1.5%, in the Vale of Glamorgan by 1.3% and in Pembrokeshire by 5%. When will the Government own up to their terrible management of the economy and deliver for Welsh families?

That accusation about the management of the economy is not reflected in the fastest growing economy among the developed nations of the world, because this Government’s long-term economic plan is working. The hon. Gentleman talks of average increases in salary. The trends from 2010 to the present show that average weekly earnings in Wales have increased by 5%, compared with 3.9% across the whole of the UK.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to increase average earnings in Wales and in constituencies such as Harlow is to cut council tax for low earners and freeze fuel duty and council tax, just as this Government have done?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Whereas council tax in England has broadly been frozen, council tax in Wales has gone up by 13% in spite of additional funding being given to freeze it. If there was such a cost of living crisis as the Opposition claim, they would be pressing their colleagues in local authorities and in the Welsh Government to ensure that they do not increase council tax as they have.

Does the Tories’ much trumpeted economic plan not mean depressed earnings in Wales, generating lower taxes, and Government borrowing overshooting Labour’s planned target by more than £20 billion—the very deficit target luridly denounced by the Tories, who said it would bankrupt the country? Why does the Minister not apologise for this abysmal failure in the Government’s austerity strategy?

As the right hon. Gentleman was part of the previous Government, he should apologise for leaving Wales the poorest part of the United Kingdom. He should further apologise for the fact that wages fell at the sharpest rate between 2008 and 2009. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working for Wales, and wages are rising quicker in Wales than across the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Minister knows that low wages and poor jobs affect not just individuals and their families, but the public finances. Will he tell us what has happened to tax receipts and welfare spending in Wales since his Government came to power?

We will receive a statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor a little later which will cover the UK financial position, but I hope the hon. Gentleman, who is the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, will welcome the progress that the Government are making in reducing unemployment and in growing wages in Wales.

The Minister does not need to wait for the autumn statement, because the numbers are publicly available. Tax receipts in Wales have fallen by £2 billion since 2010, and benefit spending has gone up by £1.5 billion. That has piled an extra £6,000-worth of borrowing on every Welsh worker, and what have they got for it? They have got a twentyfold increase in food bank usage, the lowest wages in Wales and a cost of living crisis. The Tories have failed on the deficit, failed on the cost of living crisis, and they are failing in Wales once again.

The shadow Secretary of State has clearly got his facts wrong. The long-term economic plan is working for Wales. If there has been a reduction in tax receipts from Wales, it is because of our increase in the personal allowance, under which next year the average worker will pay less than £800 as a result, taking 155,000 people in Wales out of income tax altogether by next April.

Valleys Railway

8. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on when the electrification of the valleys railway line will be completed. (906360)

When I became Secretary of State, I made resolving the dispute over funding for the electrification project my No. 1 priority. I have had many discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in recent weeks, and I am delighted that we have settled a deal between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government to deliver that important project.

Has the Secretary of State considered improving the frequency of trains after electrification? Two or three trains an hour on the valleys line to Cardiff would be a massive boost to my constituents in Ebbw Vale, Llanhillith and the surrounding valley towns.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are frequency issues on those lines, but he must recognise that decisions on the frequency of services will need to be taken by Welsh Ministers, because we are devolving the franchise to the Welsh Government as part of the electrification deal.

Part of the valleys line package is a contribution by the UK Government to the capital costs involved. In principle, are the UK Government prepared to support capital investment in railways in north Wales?

I spent two days in north Wales meeting business leaders and local authorities to talk about how we can drive up the quality of infrastructure in north Wales, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have a long-term plan that will deliver the improvements for infrastructure in south Wales and north Wales too. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us have a bit of quiet in the Chamber so that Mr Howell can raise the subject of the Newport investment summit.

Newport Investment Summit

The UK investment summit in Newport was another important opportunity to focus on all that is good about the Welsh economy at this time. I was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the First Minister of Wales and businesses in Wales to bang the drum for all that is great about our nation. During the summit I met numerous companies that are looking to invest or to expand their investment in Wales.

Did my right hon. Friend discuss with business leaders the fact that there were 79 foreign direct investment projects in Wales in 2013-14, the highest level in 24 years?

My hon. Friend is exactly right; there has been a sharp increase in inward investment in Wales. The important point to note about those projects is that they were all secured with the help of UK Trade & Investment and the UK Government.

13. Does the brilliant success of that second summit, following the NATO summit, not illustrate what a marvellous habitat Newport provides for international conferences —almost certainly the best in the United Kingdom? (906365)

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman stand up and champion business investment in south Wales. He is exactly right that Newport, and the Celtic Manor in particular, provide a superb venue for not only international leaders’ summits, but inward investment conferences. It will be a key player as we look to regenerate and improve the economy of south Wales.

15. Business leaders have welcomed the introduction of the employment allowance, which reduces employers’ national insurance bills by up to £2,000 per annum. It has been taken up by 1,200 businesses and charities in Brecon and Radnorshire, but it is estimated that nearly 1,000 of all employers have not applied. What can the Government do to encourage further uptake of that important concession? (906367)

My hon. Friend is right. The employment allowance has been a huge success for small businesses up and down Wales. There is a responsibility not just on Government but on all of us as Members of Parliament to champion that project and to tell businesses in our own constituencies how they can benefit from the allowance.

14. It is clear that the successful investment summit in Newport brought in overseas investors and created jobs as part of the long-term economic plan. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should have a northern powerhouse investment summit—and if they like, the north Welsh can come too? (906366)

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. The northern powerhouse represents an exciting vision for economic and civic renewal in the north of England, and it poses huge opportunities and potential for north Wales too.

Universal Credit

11. What recent discussions he has had on delivery of the online universal credit application process in the Welsh language. (906363)

I recently discussed the provision of Welsh language services for universal credit with the welfare reform Minister, Lord Freud, who confirmed that the Department for Work and Pensions is making good progress with the development of the universal credit digital service. A meeting is scheduled with the Welsh language commissioner in the new year to discuss Welsh language provision for the live service.

I recently met the team delivering the service, who are doing a good job under difficult circumstances. They told me that the Welsh language version will not be available until after the English language version is available. Will the Minister find out why that is, and when it will happen?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales was there only last week when this issue was discussed at the Jobcentre Plus. I have also raised it with the DWP Minister. We are meeting the Welsh language commissioner to ensure that we develop a service that is appropriate and applicable, and that grows with the growth of universal credit across the whole of Wales.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the British embassy staff who were killed and injured in Kabul following the horrific bomb attack last week. Our thoughts are with their families and their friends at this time. We will not allow such inhumanity to deter us from building a stable future for the Afghan people. We have nothing but admiration for the staff of the embassy, British and Afghan, who work together, at great personal risk, to help achieve that.

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

I would like to associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s remarks about our brave staff, not just in the embassy in Kabul but, of course, across the world in very dangerous places.

The Prime Minister promised to balance the books by 2015 and to cut the debt. Despite punishing the poorest with cuts, the deficit has barely been touched, and borrowing has been greater in the last four years than it was in the previous 13. Does this country not desperately need a Labour Government?

We have got the deficit down by a third because we have taken tough and difficult decision after tough and difficult decision, and they have all got one thing in common: each and every decision was opposed by Labour.

On Monday morning at Norwich research park, I thought I heard the sound of a cuckoo, which was remarkable since we have not even reached Christmas, let alone spring. Does the Prime Minister agree that this may be further evidence of the strength of our long-term economic plan?

I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend and other Norwich MPs at Norwich research park to talk about the expansion of infrastructure in our country, and particularly the improvements that we are going to make to the A47, which will not just help Norwich and Norwich research park but help all of East Anglia right out to Lowestoft. I know how important it is to make sure that that important part of our country also benefits from our long-term economic plan.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the British embassy staff killed in the appalling terrorist attack in Kabul last week. It is a reminder of the danger that our embassy staff and military personnel still in Afghanistan face on a daily basis. All our thoughts are with the family and friends of those who died.

The Prime Minister said earlier this year:

“woe betide the politician that makes…big promises and then says ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t really mean it.’”

Can he recall any time he might have done that?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman the promises we have kept. We promised to get the economy growing—it is the fastest growing in the G7. We promised to get unemployment down—we have created 1.8 million new jobs. We promised to make Britain a great place to start a business—there are 760,000 more businesses in this country. This Government are a Government who have made their commitments, kept their commitments and, as a result, have a plan that is working.

Come to think of it, the Prime Minister might have broken a big promise quite recently: immigration down to the tens of thousands—no ifs, no buts. What did he say in his contract with the British people? He said:

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

When he said it, did he mean it?

Yes, and we have cut immigration from outside the EU by 24%. With immigration, every single step we have taken in the past four years was opposed by the Labour party. What did they do for 13 years in government? They put immigration up as a deliberate act of policy. This Government made promises to our pensioners—promises kept; promises on our NHS—promises kept; and above all, a promise to turn our economy around from the mess left by those two on the Front Bench.

So the Prime Minister did mean it: throw him out because he broke his promise. What he ought to be saying, but dare not say, is that he made a solemn promise, and he broke it.

Let us turn to another one of those big, solemn promises. This is what he said to the nurses’ conference just before the last election:

“I want to tell you what we’re not going to do: there will be no more of those pointless reorganisations that aim for change but instead bring chaos.”

When he said it, did he mean it?

What we have done is seen more doctors, more nurses, more patients treated, but if we are on promises, I have a little list. I have a list of the right hon. Gentleman’s promises. Right, here we go. Mr Speaker, he promised—[Interruption.] However long it takes. I have all day, and I can tell you, I am looking forward to what is coming next, and I think he will be too. He promised detailed plans for a graduate tax. Where is it? He promised an alternative spending review. That was in 2010. Where is that? He promised he would tell us the list of business people he had dinner with in 2011. Where is that one? He promised to stand up to the unions on public sector pay. When has he ever done that? He promised he would not let the unions run the Labour party, and they run it more than ever.

What the Prime Minister ought to be saying, but dare not, is that he made a solemn promise of no top-down reorganisation of the NHS, and he broke that promise.

Let us turn to his promise on living standards. The 2010 Conservative manifesto made this big promise of

“an economy where…our standard of living...rises steadily.”

When he said it, did he mean it?

Yes, I meant it, and 26 million people are having their taxes cut, and 3 million people—[Interruption.]

Twenty-six million people have had their taxes cut, and 3 million of the poorest people have been taken out of income tax altogether. The minimum wage has been increased for the first time since the right hon. Gentleman’s great recession. Now, people who have been in work for a year are seeing a 4% increase in their pay. They bankrupted our economy. We know that “Mrs Brown’s Boys” was a comedy; “Mr Brown’s Boys” was a tragedy.

The Prime Minister has obviously recently been visiting the David Mellor school of charm. What he ought to be saying, but dare not, is that he made a solemn promise to improve living standards and he has broken it.

What about his biggest promise of all, which was on the deficit? In October 2010, he promised:

“In five years’ time, we will have balanced the books.”

When he said it, did he mean it?

We promised to cut the deficit. It is down by a third. In a moment or two, we will see the progress that has been made. Obviously, I cannot reveal what is in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, as that would not be proper, but I make this prediction—[Interruption.]

I simply make this prediction: in a moment or two, the right hon. Gentleman will be looking as awkward as when he ate that bacon sandwich. [Interruption.] Oh yes!

If we are talking about predictions, let us remember the right hon. Gentleman’s predictions. He said that our policy would lead to the disappearance of 1 million jobs—wrong. He said that it was a fantasy that the private sector would create the jobs—wrong. [Hon. Members: “Wrong!”] He said that we would choke off jobs and growth—[Hon. Members: “Wrong!”] The Opposition told us that there would be a lost decade, that there would be a double-dip recession and that there would be 1 million more people unemployed. They have been wrong on every single economic issue.

The Prime Minister has failed every test he set himself. The thing about this Prime Minister is that he has turned breaking promises into an art form. As the election approaches, the thing the British people know about this Prime Minister is that when he says it, he does not mean it.

What a contrast: this is a Prime Minister and this is a Government who have turned our economy around, sorted out our public finances and got the economy growing. No one in this country will ever forget that the Opposition are the people who sold the gold, who broke the economy and who bankrupted the nation; and still they sit there, completely hopeless and unelectable.

Q2. The city of York is truly benefiting from the Government’s northern-led economic plan. The Government are rightly investing in transport infrastructure across Yorkshire. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister meet me and a delegation of local businesses to discuss their campaign to dual York’s northern ring road, which, given the high levels of congestion, is seen as a serious barrier to further economic growth in our city? (906404)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know what a problem that road can be. Infrastructure investment does unlock growth. That is why, on Monday, we announced the biggest roads programme in a generation, including £2.3 billion for major roads in Yorkshire and the north-east. I am very happy to arrange a meeting between him and the Secretary of State for Transport to discuss the matter. He will know that we have substantial plans to upgrade the Hopgrove junction, where traffic from the northern ring road gets on to the A64. We believe that that will make a real difference.

Does the Prime Minister intend to devolve corporation tax to Northern Ireland and Scotland in tandem, or, in contrast with the vow, has he decided to veto the devolution of corporation tax to Scotland entirely?

We are implementing the Smith commission. That is what we believe should be implemented. The Chancellor will set out our position on Northern Ireland in a moment or two. Let us be absolutely clear about the big differences between Northern Ireland and Scotland: Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic and had all the difficulties and troubles—

By shaking his head in that way, the hon. Gentleman shows how little the Scottish nationalists care about the rest of our United Kingdom.

Q3. Fifty-six years ago, Simon Wingfield Digby, the then hon. Member for West Dorset, made the first plea for improvements to the A303 in this House. Thanks to the Government’s careful management of the economy, the Prime Minister was once again warmly welcomed in Wiltshire this week to announce the £1.3 billion investment in the tunnel under Stonehenge. Will he reassure the people of the south-west that we will not have to wait another 56 years for it to be delivered? (906405)

I can certainly make that commitment. I was one of a number of people who made their way to Stonehenge this week to see how important this tunnel will be. It will be at least 1.8 miles and is part of an overall plan to create that expressway all the way between the M3 and M5 and down into Cornwall, to ensure that we improve that vital road network. As for Stonehenge, the tunnel will ensure that this extraordinary monument has the setting and attention it deserves.

Q4. A Haslingden constituent, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, was brutally murdered in 2007, kicked to death in a park by a group of males simply for being part of a sub-culture—a goth. She was a victim of hate crime, and the implications of that tragedy continue today. Will the Prime Minister meet the Sophie Lancaster Foundation to see its excellent work, and do everything he can to ensure the clear message that there are no exceptions to hate crime? (906406)

I remember that tragic case and the appalling way that that girl was treated and beaten. I am happy to see what meeting I can arrange to ensure that the agenda of how we combat hate crime in all its forms is properly addressed in our country.

This week 40 banks and building societies issued a joint declaration to deal with the multimillion pound crimes of vishing and courier fraud, when people are called by criminals posing as police officers or bank employees and asked to hand over bank cards and pin numbers to assist fraud inquiries. I have worked with Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, and call blocker manufacturers to build a scheme to protect the most vulnerable in society from that crime, but Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are too busy to discuss it. It seems that they are able to block my nuisance calls, so will the Prime Minister help the vulnerable to do the same?

I will certainly ensure that DCMS Ministers meet the hon. Gentleman if necessary, and the group he is talking about. It is important to deal with all such issues, wherever they come from.

Q5. The 2010 Conservative manifesto promised an economy in which not just our standard of living, but everyone’s quality of life would rise steadily and sustainably. Why in the last year have wages grown by the smallest amount since records began? (906407)

I am delighted that after four and a half years, the Labour party finally wants to debate the economy at Prime Minister’s questions. This is a golden day for us; it means we can talk about the 1.8 million jobs created and the fact that those who have been in work for a year are seeing their pay go up by 4%. It means that we can talk about how we have lifted the threshold for the basic rate of income tax to £10,500, and taken 3 million people out of tax. All those things are helping to ensure that millions more of our countrymen and women have the dignity and security of a job, and the ability to provide for their families. That is what is happening in Britain; the economy has been turned round from the disastrous situation left by the Labour party, and that is something the whole country can be proud of.

May I commend to my right hon. Friend the debate in Westminster Hall this morning, which was kicked off by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), on the catastrophic decline of sea bass stocks across northern Europe? We heard that successive Governments have been trying to persuade the EU for decades to address that problem. Will the Prime Minister undertake to put the Government’s entire weight into addressing the collapse of sea bass stocks when considering European Union fisheries policy this month?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about sea bass stocks but also about fish stocks more broadly. Under this Government there have been improvements in the way that fisheries policies work in the EU, with a greater level of devolution. We need to keep pushing that forward to ensure that our fisheries and stocks can recover, as that is the only way to ensure a long-term, sustainable industry.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister please explain why the Government have borrowed almost £4 billion more this year than at the same time last year? Does he regret his firm promise to balance the books by next May? (906408)

This Government have had to borrow a lot of money because we inherited the biggest budget deficit in the world. [Interruption.] Yes, it was 11% of our GDP when we came to government. We have already cut it by a third, and we will hear in a moment or two how we are now getting on. I would like to highlight something the shadow Chancellor said this week. He said that he would be tough on the deficit and tough on the causes of the deficit. As he is one of the causes of the deficit, I think we have just found the first ever example of political masosadism. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand that the House gets excited, but Mr Kawczynski will scarcely be able to hear himself, let alone will anybody else have the chance to hear him. Let the hon. Gentleman be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister sincerely for all the help he has given to all Shropshire MPs in securing our direct train service to Shrewsbury, which starts later this month. It is a vital boost for tourism and inward business investment in Shropshire. Will he take advantage of our now being connected to London, and visit Shrewsbury and the wonderful new university we are creating in our beautiful town?

I look forward to the opportunity of visiting Shrewsbury if I can.

Let me be clear: I meant to say ‘masochism’. I am sorry, Mr Speaker. Normally I say that the shadow Chancellor likes to dish it out but cannot take it, but after this quote I think he obviously quite likes taking it as well. So there we are. [Laughter.] We have learned a lot of interesting things today.

What is happening in Shrewsbury is magnificent. There have been improvements to 400 stations across the country, including Kings Cross.

Q7. The Prime Minister said that his economic policy would eradicate the deficit in this Parliament. All he can claim today is that after four years it came down by a third, but in the past few months it has been going up. Will he accept that the big fall in real wages since the election is a large part of the explanation for why his economic policy has fallen so far short on its central objective? (906409)

After four years of never mentioning the deficit and opposing every single spending cut we have had to make, there seems to have been a Damascus-like conversion—Labour Members are all suddenly interested in the deficit. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a bit of a lesson. Yes, we have had to make very difficult decisions, cutting some Government Departments and some by as much as 20%, but every single decision was opposed by the Labour party. In terms of what is happening on wages, as I have just said, the recent figures out show that people who have been in work for more than a year are seeing pay increases of 4%. We are helping everyone in work by cutting their taxes. In the end, the only way to raise living standards sustainably is to grow the economy, create jobs and cut taxes— three things we are doing; three things Labour would never do.

Q8. This morning, more people went to work than ever before in the history of our nation. Is the Prime Minister aware that in Dover and Deal unemployment has fallen by 37%, thanks to our welfare reforms and thanks to our long-term economic plan? Why would we ever return to where we were less than five short years ago? (906410)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Dover, the claimant count is down by 24% since the election. Across the south-east, the number of people employed is up by almost a quarter of a million. We have record levels of employment. Anyone getting a job is someone else who has the security and stability to provide for their family. At the same time as this increase in employment, we have also seen the pay gap between men and women, particularly under 40, reduced to its lowest ever level. We are seeing a strong and solid recovery. As the Chancellor will explain in a moment, there is no room for complacency. We have to stick to the long-term economic plan and deliver it.

Is the Prime Minister proud that the Government have added £430 billion to the national debt—more than all the Labour Chancellors of the Exchequer this century? He cannot blame Labour for that figure.

Oh yes I can. We inherited the biggest budget deficit in Britain’s peacetime history. The Labour party had the longest and deepest recession in a century. That was what we were delivered. Since then, we have turned the economy round; we have 2 million private sector jobs; we have cut the deficit; 760,000 more businesses are operating in our country; and we have the fastest-growing economy of any G7 or major European country. That is an economic record that no Labour Government could ever match.

Q9. Droitwich Spa boxing academy, run entirely by volunteers, trains talented boxers and provides a highly valued community resource, turning round the lives of many disruptive and troubled young people. It is a shining example of the big society. Does the Prime Minister understand my deep concern that the blinkered decision of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to insist on a draconian interpretation of the VAT rules for its new building will result in the academy’s closure? (906411)

First, I know of the important job done by the Droitwich Spa boxing academy, which is run entirely by volunteers, and I know how hard my hon. Friend works for his constituents. We will look carefully at this case. As he might know, unfortunately the zero rating of VAT on construction services is limited and does not apply to buildings used as sports clubs, but HMRC is willing to discuss with the owners flexible arrangements for paying the VAT through its time to pay scheme. I will ensure that discussions take place rapidly between him and HMRC to see what can be done.

Q10. Cancer waits for no one and, with fast-growing cancers in particular, time is of the essence. The cancer treatment target in England has been missed for nine months and more than 15,000 patients are waiting more than two months to start treatment. Does this not prove, yet again, that you cannot trust the Tories with the NHS? (906412)

I share the hon. Lady’s concern about how rapid our cancer treatment must be, which is why I am proud that under this Government an extra 460,000 people per year are getting cancer treatment, are getting referrals. There are about seven key cancer targets, and we are meeting all but one of them. That is quite a contrast with Wales, where the Labour party has been in control for the last four years and where it has not met a cancer target since 2008.

It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. Her party is in charge of the NHS in Wales, and it is letting down cancer patients day after day.

Following the threat of a legal challenge, NHS England has scrapped its processes for approving drugs for rare conditions, which is affecting 200 children in the country, including six-year-old Sam, in my constituency, who has Morquio. Will the Prime Minister today instruct the Health Secretary to re-establish the highly specialised commissioning service so that we can approve these drugs and ensure that children get the drugs they need immediately, before a new process is put in place?

I am happy to discuss that issue with the Health Secretary. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a procedure for licensing drugs and, for cancer drugs, we have the additional benefits of the cancer drugs fund, but I am happy to discuss his point with the Health Secretary.

Q11. The Prime Minister promised the British people that this Government would eliminate the deficit and significantly reduce immigration. Why has he failed the British people on both counts? (906413)

To sum up, the Labour party’s approach seems to be this: “We created an enormous problem, and we have come here today to complain that you have not cleared it up fast enough.” That is the extent of Labour Members’ intellectual analysis of Britain’s problems—it is quite ridiculous, given that Labour left us with the biggest budget deficit since the war. We have started to get on top of it, and we will make more progress.

Given the record number of small businesses today in Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow; given that small and medium-sized businesses represent 99% of the business community; and given that Saturday is small business Saturday, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging everyone to shop small and shop local on Saturday, and will he make small businesses a priority in our long-term economic plan?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We now see a record number of small businesses in our country—a total increase of 760,000 over this Parliament. Small business Saturday is an excellent event, by which we can boost small businesses and draw attention to the work they do. We will kick-start this event on Friday with a small business fair in Downing street. Now is a good moment to make sure that small businesses are benefiting from all the changes that we have made, such as the cut in the jobs tax of £2,000 for businesses and charities, the abolition of national insurance contributions for under-21-year-olds when they employ them, the doubling of the small business rate relief and, of course, the cutting of corporation tax for small business as well. This Government have a very strong record for saying to small business, “We respect what you do in creating the jobs, the wealth and the prosperity that our country needs”.

Q12. Skelmersdale in my constituency is the second largest town in the north-west without a railway station—a station that would bring social and economic benefits to the town, as we have heard happened in Shrewsbury. As the Prime Minister is in spending mood, albeit a little bit further south, I wonder whether he could give the people of Skelmersdale an early Christmas present with the promise of a railway station. (906414)

I am very happy to look at what the hon. Lady says. What we are seeing are more railway lines opening, more stations opening and more railways being electrified. In the entire period of the last Labour Government, I think they electrified just 13 miles of track—an absolutely pathetic record for a Government who had 13 years to do something about it. We now have the biggest road programme since the 1970s, the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorians and, under this Government, stations, lines and electrification are all taking place.

Q13. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to help get more beds for Hereford hospital? Will he send a Minister to meet the magnificent staff and, possibly, Welsh patients who have acquired addresses in England so that they can access life-saving cancer care drugs that are not available under the Labour-run Welsh NHS? (906415)

I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the £2 billion for the NHS in England, which the Chancellor announced at the weekend. That money will go directly to the front line. Obviously, we want to see continued improvements at the Hereford hospital. There are pressures from people from Wales crossing the border and wanting to use services in England. That is why it is so important that the Welsh NHS has the improvements that we have been talking about. As to meetings and visits to my hon. Friend’s hospital, I will look very carefully at what we can do to help.

Q14. Cutting net migration to tens of thousands, reducing spending on welfare and, yes, eradicating the deficit by the end of this Parliament formed the triple crown of the Prime Minister’s promises to the British people. How does it feel as Prime Minister when you are once, twice, three times a failure? (906416)

I will tell the hon. Gentleman how it feels to lead a Government who have created 2 million private sector jobs. I will tell him how it feels to lead a Government who have turned round the British economy, and I will tell him how it feels to have an economy in Britain in which businesses right around the world want to invest. That is the record of this Government: recovering from the complete shambles and mess that the hon. Gentleman left when he was part of the previous Government.

As he may well remember, the Prime Minister experienced this summer the congestion regularly faced by my constituents at junction 9 of the M3 motorway. May I thank him on behalf of the people I represent for the comprehensive package of improvements announced by the Transport Secretary earlier this week? Does he share my view that my constituents can benefit from this kind of investment only because we have a taken the decisions to get our economy in a place that we can?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know about the importance of the M3 improvements that he mentions. The fact is that all these things—whether it be improving our road network, investing in our NHS, building new railway stations and electrifying railway lines—can be done only if we have a successful and growing economy, a long-term economic plan and a demonstration that the public finances are under control. With this Chancellor and with this Government, we have all of those things in place. That is why we have been able over the previous days to talk about improving our NHS, investing in our transport infrastructure, building the flood defences that this country needs and putting in place all the infrastructure—whether it be ports, airports or energy—that a modern economy needs in order to sustain a level of growth that can deliver the prosperity and security that the British people deserve.

Q15. In the past four years the NHS has spent more than £5 billion on agency staff, about 20% of which will have gone into the pockets of the agencies rather than those of NHS staff. How many full-time permanent nurses would that have paid for? (906417)

What we have in the NHS under this Government are £1,300 extra nurses and 8,300 extra doctors, and because we have cut the bureaucracy, we have managed to remove 21,000 bureaucrats. No one wants to see extensive use of agency staff. All well-run hospitals will have fewer agency staff and more permanent staff: that is what is happening under this Government.