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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2014

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


The United Kingdom is leading the international response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, from where I have just returned. We have already committed £230 million and delivered over 880 treatment and isolation beds. We have opened three laboratories, and we have doubled the number of burial teams.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The World Health Organisation believes that since February 2014 there have been nearly 18,000 recorded Ebola cases and 6,000 deaths. According to Dr Frieden, the director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, speed of response is the key to ending epidemics affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the light of her visit, will the Secretary of State indicate what further actions can be taken, notwithstanding what has already been done?

Yes, of course. We will continue to deliver the promises we have made such as getting hospitals open and delivering extra beds. A key announcement I made during my visit over the past few days was to provide more protection for the many children affected by the crisis. Many of them are orphaned or themselves suffering from Ebola and needing to recover. There will be lots more support for them. I can assure the hon. Lady that as we are able to scale up the operation, we will reach more and more patients.

I would like to thank, through the Secretary of State, the British personnel who are engaged in tackling the outbreak. Following up the question on the WHO, does she acknowledge that it did not respond quickly enough and that its mechanisms are not really fit for purpose? Will she press for a review of the workings of the WHO so that it can be more efficient in future?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to learn some lessons from how the WHO and the international community has responded to the crisis. Speed was of the essence, so I think there are lots of lessons to be learned. I had a chance to meet some of the amazing UK personnel working on our behalf, including some fantastic NHS health workers who are out there providing front-line care.

May I commend the Government for what they have done so far? How much of the money spent was directed towards projects to do with health awareness as opposed to dealing with the after-effects of Ebola?

We have a several million pound programme that is focused particularly on so-called social mobilisation. It is about training community workers to go out into communities and talk to people about how they can take practical steps themselves to reduce the risk of catching Ebola. Of course, the work we are doing in putting in place safe burial teams, which are now burying 100% of bodies safely in the main western area zone and 95% across the country, is one of the key ways in which we can stop the infection from spreading further.

The Secretary of State mentioned the toll on children in Africa—the number of Ebola orphans adding to the huge number of AIDS orphans. Will she join me in encouraging people at Christmas time to make a donation through British charities that work especially among the children of Africa?

I certainly would. Two journalists from the Sunday Mirror accompanied me on my visit, and they are running an important campaign with Street Child, which is seeking to raise money to do precisely what my right hon. Friend suggests. We work with that charity, too, and we will continue to do more.

Tax Havens (Multinationals)

2. What estimate she has made of the loss of tax receipts to developing countries by the use of tax havens by multinational companies operating in those countries in the last three years. (906669)

4. What estimate she has made of the loss of tax receipts to developing countries by the use of tax havens by multinational companies operating in those countries in the last three years. (906671)

6. What estimate she has made of the loss of tax receipts to developing countries by the use of tax havens by multinational companies operating in those countries in the last three years. (906673)

Tax avoidance is a significant challenge for developing countries, which is why the UK has led international action at Lough Erne and, more recently, in the G20 to help tackle the problem through capacity-building projects and through the implementation of international initiatives.

The EU is currently negotiating the anti-money laundering directive. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that this includes public registers and that the UK does not become part of a two-tier system of corporate transparency?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, one of the key objectives of the G8 presidency, which we had last year, was about tax transparency. I am really proud that our Government have led the way in tackling issues such as base erosion and profit shifting. Rules that have been in place since the 1920s need to be updated for today’s modern corporate world. We are making big steps on that and big steps on transparency and beneficial ownership, and we will continue to play our role, leading the international effort to improve the rules so that we can get the tax due in the countries where the work has taken place.

May I press the Secretary of State on this? Does she not accept that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies must go beyond a promise to implement the G20 principles, and actually introduce public registers of beneficial ownership?

The hon. Gentleman is talking about G20 progress that was instigated by this Government when we held the G8 presidency. I am tempted to make the point that the Labour Government had 13 years in which to take steps in this direction, and entirely failed to do so. We took some important steps during our G8 presidency, and, as he will know, that involved the overseas territories. We are not saying that we have gone all the way down the path, but we are starting to move down it for the first time, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. I assure him that we will continue to work to ensure that we bring the rest of the international community with us.

According to analysis by the ONE campaign, $1 trillion is siphoned from developing countries each year as a result of corruption, money laundering and illicit financial flows. What analysis have the United Kingdom Government conducted of the role of UK companies in that activity?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are various estimates of how much this kind of activity costs developing countries, which is one of the reasons why we put it on our G8 agenda. I mentioned the work that is being done to reform international rules. My Department is also engaged in significant work to build capacity in developing countries, so that when the progress that we are starting to see becomes international, they will be in a position to take advantage of it. The HMRC capacity building unit, which I helped to set up along with colleagues in HMRC, will work directly with tax revenue authorities such as the one in Pakistan to help them to improve their tax collection. As for corruption, DFID will continue to increase its efforts, through the Met police unit that it funds, to ensure that we can take action if money laundering and the corrupt obtaining of assets are associated with United Kingdom institutions.

Order. Members must stand if they wish to ask a question. They must not simply gesticulate. I call Mr Barclay.

May I return the Secretary of State to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith)? As she will know, the Government of the 14 overseas territories were in London last week, and published action plans last year. The British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, for instance, have delayed any action in relation to their own action plans for more than 300 days. When will we see any implementation of the commitments that they have made?

As my hon. Friend has said, for the first time overseas territories have signed up to action plans, and the next step is to ensure that they implement them. In fact, a number of countries need to stand by the promises that they made and deliver on them. However, we are delivering on our own promises.

I am sorry, but the Secretary of State can do better than that. We know that tax revenues amounting to three times the entire global aid budget are lost to developing countries every year, and that nearly a third of the estimated $32 trillion of private financial wealth that is held in tax havens comes from those countries. A year ago, the Prime Minister said that there would be a public register of beneficial ownership. That must include the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. By dithering and delaying, whose interests is the Secretary of State protecting?

There was dither and delay for 13 years under the last Government. I do not think we need take any lectures from them, either on the closing of our domestic tax gap—which grew under Labour—or, indeed, on the closing of the international gap. The hon. Gentleman would do better to welcome all the work that this Government have instigated, not least the setting up of the HMRC unit which I mentioned, which is enabling our officials to give invaluable help and advice to tax institutions around the world.

As I get older, my memory becomes more and more feeble. I cannot remember any substantial action being taken on this issue in the 13 years before 2010. Can the Secretary of State help me with my memory?

Unfortunately, there is nothing to remember, because so little progress was made. We welcome questions from Labour Members, because they give us a chance to point out that we are not only increasing the amount of funding for developing countries, reaching the 0.7% target, but working with those countries to support their so-called domestic resource mobilisation. We will do more of that work over the coming months and years.


Given that unemployment is at over 40%, nearly 60% of people have no secure access to food and three quarters have no access to safe water, 19,000 people still reside in United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters, and 100,000 have been rendered homeless, the situation is dire.

Am I right in thinking that in October the Minister at the donor conference said that a return to the status quo in Gaza was not an option? According to the latest Oxfam report, however, the number of truck-loads going in with essential materials to do the rebuilding he talks about is now less after the summer’s conflict than before. Is Israel in breach of UN resolution 1860 on Gaza access, and if so what will the Government do about it?

The Gaza reconstruction mechanism, in which we have invested heavily, had a faltering start and only 46 truck-loads were delivered in October. We are now up to 302 as of the beginning of this month. It is not good enough, and we are working for more, but it is the only game in town.

The situation in Gaza is of course made more dire by the actions of Hamas, which misappropriates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete and uses it to construct 32 terror and murder tunnels. Can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that Hamas does not similarly misappropriate aid that should be going towards ordinary Gazans?

We contributed £500,000 to the implementation of the mechanism, and the Australians have paid for the software, in order to ensure, by agreement with the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the UN, that no building materials would be misappropriated.

Boko Haram

My recollection is that we take this matter very seriously indeed with respect to—sorry, I have misappropriated the question. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr Speaker

Boko Haram can only be defeated by action by the Nigerian Government on a security front and on a development front and by provision of leadership. We in DFID have doubled our programme of investment in the north-east of Nigeria and are working to that end.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The active targeting of schools by Boko Haram, and also in Peshawar this week, shows that there is no limit to the barbarism and depravity of such extremists. In tackling such extremists it is important that the security forces maintain civilised standards. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the investigations by Amnesty International and can he assure the House that no DFID projects inadvertently or indirectly harm people by lowering the standards of the security forces?

We take that report very seriously indeed. Human rights abuses exacerbate insurgencies. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance that we do not fund or support in any way the security forces that are responsible for those actions. Indeed, our programme of Justice for All—J4A—ensures that all Nigerians can have access to better justice and human rights.

The Nigerian military have made considerable territorial gains in recent weeks. How can we build on that situation to ensure that there are free and proper elections next year?

We have a deepening democracy fund through which we are providing support for those elections next year. With respect to the advance of Government forces, we are providing intelligence and direct tactical training to the Nigerian army. The elections themselves must be a matter for the Nigerians, but we are providing the funding and the technical support.

We heard recently in the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which I chair, of a very important DFID programme to counter severe malaria in northern Nigeria. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this programme will be continued and that efforts by Boko Haram to stop such development work will not be countenanced?

We are increasing our spend in northern Nigeria. Indeed, 60% of our spend in Nigeria is in the north-eastern areas, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

What happened to the 700 women and children who were abducted some months ago? There was a big fuss about that in the Chamber. What has happened to them and what is your Department doing about it?

Of the girls who were abducted in Chibok, 219 remain missing. Since then another 300 have been abducted elsewhere. We are providing a joint intelligence cell, together with our allies in France, the United States and Nigeria, based in Abuja, and all the technical assistance that we can give.

Armed Conflict (Children)

7. What steps she is taking to support the UN goal to end the use and recruitment of children in armed conflict by the end of 2016. (906676)

This Government support the work of several UN bodies, including the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, and DFID seeks directly to reduce the impact of conflict on children through our humanitarian efforts and work to build stable and peaceful societies.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. She could go further, though, if her Government would commit to the Lucens draft guidelines on the military use of schools, amend our military codes of conduct accordingly, call on other nations to do the same, and issue a clear and unambiguous prohibition against attacks on and military use of schools. Will she commit to that today?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We take the entire issue extremely seriously. That is why we provide funding for the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. I am happy to take the points that she has made, which I think reside within the Foreign Office in terms of policy, and get them followed up, and I am happy to meet her on the broader topic because we recognise how importance it is. As she has heard from my answers to other questions, the Department does a huge amount of work supporting children.

It is the most marginalised children, such as those living in conflict-affected areas, who are most at risk of being out of school. Can the Secretary of State tell the House more about the steps that her Department is taking as part of the post-2015 negotiations to push for Governments to ensure that the most marginalised children benefit from the same educational opportunities as their peers?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Whether in terms of children’s prospects of reaching their full potential or the issues of security and stability that investment in education long-term can address, that is a key part of the post-2015 process. I can assure him that we raise these issues strongly in our work to try to make sure that that framework can deliver for everyone on our planet and will leave no one behind.

Small Businesses (Developing Countries)

8. What steps her Department is taking to reduce aid dependency by promoting small business start-ups in developing countries; and if she will make a statement. (906677)

We are providing support for small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-businesses across our areas of responsibility, because they contribute so much to both employment and economic development.

My right hon. Friend will know that it is hard enough, with some notable exceptions, to get women involved in entrepreneurial activities in this country. What is he doing to encourage women entrepreneurs in developing countries?[Official Report, 18 December 2014, Vol. 589, c. 5-6MC.]

We have provided some 29 million women with access to financial services, and we are supporting the provision of some £26 billion in commercial loans to some 50,000 businesses led by women. Last year at the conference we announced that we would provide support for mentoring for 100 women across north Africa.

It is important that businesses big and small across the world pay their workers a decent wage, yet Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament voted against the global development programme because it included a minimum wage. Is that the policy of the Government as well?

Government policy is that all businesses, particularly small businesses, should pay a living wage, but first they have to generate wealth and entrepreneurs have to begin to provide for businesses before they can pay any wages at all.

Topical Questions

This morning I returned from Sierra Leone, where I saw the latest British treatment centre to open, in Port Loko. As I have said, I announced new protection and support for children affected by the Ebola crisis, working with UNICEF. We are now providing 882 Ebola treatment and safe isolation beds across Sierra Leone, and I am incredibly proud of the work that our health workers, troops, soldiers and humanitarian staff are doing and will continue to do through the Christmas period. Alongside that, on 4 December the UK and Afghanistan co-hosted the London conference on Afghanistan.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the refugee crisis in Syria, involving 10 million refugees, is probably the worst in our lifetime, yet this Government’s programme has taken in only 90 refugees in the past year. Will the Secretary of State look again at engaging with the United Nations programme and getting more of those people out?

I have spoken directly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees lead, Antonio Guterres, about this. We also have discussions with our Home Office colleagues on the progress of that scheme. Our aim has been to help people to do what they want to do, which is to get support where they are, outside Syria, but also to have the prospect of returning home, which is what the overwhelming majority want to do.

T2. Will the Secretary of State tell us what her Department has done to address the serious and well-documented allegations of bribery and violence committed by SOCO International in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (906699)

We are aware of those serious allegations. I expect SOCO, as a British-listed company, to adhere to the highest standards. In June this year, SOCO and the WWF announced that it would complete the existing programme of work at Virunga and then not undertake or commission exploratory or other drilling within the national park unless UNESCO and the Government of the DRC agreed to it. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is quite difficult to hear the Secretary of State’s replies. We want to hear them and the questions.

The Prime Minister co-chaired the United Nations High Level Panel on sustainable development goals, yet last month Tory MEPs joined forces with UKIP to vote against the sustainable development goals to tackle climate change, tax avoidance and inequality. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning them for doing that?

The hon. Lady is right to point out that our country and our Prime Minister have played a leading role in helping to shape the debate and to create a successful post-2015 framework that will include a sustainability theme as well as tackling the things that undermine development, such as problems with the rule of law and corruption.

I notice that the Secretary of State failed to condemn her Tory colleagues in the European Parliament for that vote. The typhoon that hit the Philippines nine days ago reminds us of the threat that climate change poses to the world’s poorest people. She is spending £2.4 billion of British taxpayers’ money on helping vulnerable people to adapt to climate change, yet neither she nor any Minister from her Department attended the Lima climate change conference last weekend. Why on earth not?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government were represented by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I should also like to update the House. Since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last year, we have done a huge amount of work with the Government there, and that is one of the reasons that they were better prepared to cope with the storm that came in recently. I am proud of the work that our DFID staff have done. [Interruption.]

T3. Following the appalling atrocity in Peshawar yesterday, will my right hon. Friend pledge that any aid that we give to Pakistan will be directed towards improving governance, ending corruption and fighting the root causes of radicalisation in madrassahs and elsewhere? (906700)

I can tell my right hon. Friend that our programme is very much focused on enhancing the stability of Pakistan, and that one of our largest efforts relates to education, which in the long term provides one the best assurances of stability. He will be aware that we work directly with the Pakistan tax revenue authority to ensure that tax that is due can be collected. That is a key way in which we can tackle corruption.

T6. Yesterday’s shocking events in Pakistan illustrate that children are not safe from violence even when they are in school. UNICEF UK has highlighted the fact that a child dies from violence somewhere in the world every five minutes. Will the Secretary of State seek to secure a global target to end violence against children in the new set of sustainable development goals, so that children around the world will no longer fear horrendous acts of violence such as the one we saw yesterday? (906704)

I should also say that I send my deepest sympathies to the victims and their families who have been affected by this terrible tragedy in Pakistan. It is unthinkable that so many children could have been caught up, deliberately, in a terrorist act of this nature. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the work the Government are doing is very much aimed at enhancing the protection of children. Only yesterday, I announced support for orphans and children affected by the Ebola crisis, but it is part of a much bigger policy agenda and investment that we undertake to make sure we support children.

T4. What steps is the Department taking to reduce the number of refugees attempting to flee their home countries? (906701)

We rightly use development assistance to build up the institutions and the conditions that minimise the types of conflict, instability and state failure that lead people to becoming refugees and internally displaced in the first place.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning the outrages that have shocked the world in recent days. The siege of the café in Sydney ended in tragedy but was accompanied by heroism so typical of that great nation, and we all grieve with the Australians today. What happened several thousand miles away in a school in Pakistan is utterly heartbreaking: a massacre of the innocents that has left the world numb. The world stands, head bowed, with Pakistan today. Words can comfort but words cannot defeat the men of violence, so let this be the moment when the whole of Pakistan and every nation come together and say, “Enough. We will act together to defeat this evil in our midst.”

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our warmest Christmas wishes to all our armed forces deployed across the world, in particular, to those in the middle east, Afghanistan and west Africa. We are for ever indebted for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments on the evil atrocities that took place in Pakistan and in Australia, and with the best wishes to our armed forces, who may be serving abroad?

Today’s unemployment figures showed that in the last quarter the south-west was the region with the largest increase in employment in the United Kingdom. To continue to realise its full economic potential and to deliver the city deal, does my right hon. Friend agree that Plymouth needs a faster, better and more resilient railway line, as laid out in the south-west rail taskforce’s three-point plan, which was the discussion last week with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)?

My hon. Friend has campaigned over and over again for the important improvements in these rail links, and he knows what is being done to help the south-west in that regard. I received a presentation from the taskforce, and we are going to take forward each of the three points in its plan in the work we do in future, to make sure that there is real resilience and that there are better services for people in the south-west. On the issue of unemployment, the figures in the west country are welcome. In his constituency the claimant count has now fallen by 42% since the election. What these figures show nationally is employment up; unemployment down; and the claimant count falling for the 25th consecutive month. What is an important moment for our country is that unemployment is now below 2 million and wages are rising faster than inflation—something I am sure will be welcomed across the House.

I want to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to those murdered in the appalling massacre in Pakistan. Even as we have become accustomed to tragic events, this slaughter of innocent children in their classrooms has shocked the world. We stand in solidarity with the grieving families and the people of Pakistan, and in the fight against terrorism. I also join the Prime Minister in condemning the sickening terrorist attack in Sydney, and our condolences go to the families of those who died and to the Australian people. I also, like, the Prime Minister, pay tribute this Christmas to all our troops serving around the world; they do our country proud and they show the utmost courage and bravery.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility, established by the Chancellor to give independent expert advice, claims that his plans take

“total public spending to its lowest share of”—

national income—

“in 80 years.”

Why does he believe the OBR has joined the BBC in a conspiracy against the Conservative party?

First, I welcome what the Leader of the Opposition said about the atrocities that have taken place. Can I also welcome his welcome for the Office of Budget Responsibility? We still remember the days of the fiddled forecasts, the fake figures and all that we had to put up with. If he is going to quote the OBR he might want to read the complete quote. Let me do that for the benefit of the House. It says about our spending plans that the closest equivalent of the national accounts implies that by 2019-20 day-to-day spending on public services

“would be at its lowest level since 2002-3 in real terms.”

Now, 2002-03, in my memory, was after five years of a Labour Government, when the right hon. Gentleman was an adviser in the Treasury. Presumably he is now going to tell us that it was a time of appalling poverty and deprivation, but I do not seem to remember that that was the message at the time.

The right hon. Gentleman has spent four years saying that we spent too much; now he is saying that we spent too little. The OBR says—and this is the full quote— that it takes total public spending

“to its lowest share of national income”

in 80 years. Is he really saying that it is wrong about the proportion of national income?

The percentage of national income will be roughly the same as it was in 1999 after two years of Labour government. The fact is, after seven years of economic growth we should have a surplus; we should fix the roof when the sun is shining. Is the Labour leader really saying that he does not think that we should run a surplus ever?

If the right hon. Gentleman is just a little bit patient, in four months’ time he will get to ask the questions and I will get to answer them. He knows what has happened—the mask slipped in the autumn statement. He has been revealed for who he really is. Let us talk about the scale of the cuts to get to the 1930s vision: they are over £50 billion—more than the entire amount that we spend on schools, half of what we spend on the NHS, and significantly more than in this Parliament. Is he really pretending that cuts on this scale will not do massive damage to front-line services?

Of course we have to make difficult decisions. We have done so every day since taking over from the shambles that we inherited. Everyone can now see that the right hon. Gentleman’s pretence, which lasted for about one week, of caring about the deficit is over. This is what the Institute for Fiscal Studies says about his policy, “Under a Labour Government…there would be much more borrowing, and therefore” more “government debt”. Labour has not learned a single thing from the last four years: more borrowing, more debt, more taxes—all the things that got us into this mess in the first place.

The right hon. Gentleman is borrowing £207 billion more than he planned, and he has broken his promise. The difference is that we will cut the deficit every year—he wants to go back to the 1930s. If that was not bad enough, he has £7 billion of unfunded tax cuts on top. Before the last election, he said that

“you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid”.

What is it going to be: further cuts in public services or a rise in VAT?

What this Government have shown is that if you get on top of the national finances and if you grow the economy you can cut taxes for 26 million people. It is interesting that, on this of all days, not a word from the right hon. Gentleman about the fall in unemployment. That is the truth. Remember the predictions: the Opposition told us that there would be no growth, then there was growth. They told us that there would be no jobs, then there were jobs. They told us that the jobs would not have pay ahead of inflation; now the jobs have pay ahead of inflation. They told us the deficit would go up; the deficit has come down. They have got absolutely nothing to say about the economy because they have been wrong on every single count.

The right hon. Gentleman is crowing that everything is fixed. It may be fixed for his Christmas card list, but it is not fixed for far too many people in this country.

The right hon. Gentleman did not really answer the question on VAT, did he? This is what he said before the last election on 5 April 2010: “We have…no plans” to put up VAT. Barely two months later he put up VAT from 17.5% to 20%. He has £7 billion of unfunded tax cuts, a deficit plan that he cannot meet, and we know that he has got form. Will he now categorically rule out a rise in VAT?

We do not need to raise taxes because we have a plan for efficiencies in spending. It is the Labour party that does not have a plan. The right hon. Gentleman asks what has changed for real people over the past year, and I will tell him: 588,000 people who did not have a job last year have one this year. Long-term unemployment has fallen. Youth unemployment has fallen. You might have thought that the Labour party would welcome those things. It is Christmas, so we should all enter into the Christmas spirit. I have had my Christmas present a little early, because I have here the document being sent to every Labour MP. In case they have not had time to read it, let me advise them that if they go to page 17—[Interruption.] Be patient. It is there in black and white: on managing the economy, the Conservatives have a 17-point lead. Thank you.

I hope that over Christmas the Prime Minister will get to reflect on his year. He has lost two Members of Parliament to UKIP, he lost 26-2 in Europe, and he brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “conviction politician” when Andy Coulson went to jail. The truth is that he has given up on compassionate conservatism. They have been exposed for who they really are. His plan for the 2020s is to go back to the 1930s. It is not about balancing the books; it is about slashing the state. In just four months’ time that will be the election choice.

What this has shown is that on a day when it has been shown that unemployment has fallen, inflation is down and our economy is growing faster than any other major economy in the western world, the right hon. Gentleman has absolutely nothing to say. I almost feel sorry for Labour MPs. They cannot talk about the deficit, because it has fallen. They cannot talk about growth, because it is rising. They cannot talk about jobs, because we are increasing them. They cannot talk about immigration, because they have been told not to. They cannot talk about their leader, because he is a complete waste of space. No wonder for Labour MPs this year it is a silent night.

First, may I concur entirely with the Prime Minister’s words about the appalling tragedies that have unfolded around the world?

Bearing in mind the continuing success of our long-term economic plan, can my right hon. Friend please reassure the House that there will be no further cuts to our armed forces under a future Tory or coalition Government?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we can have a strong defence budget and strong defence forces only if we have a strong economy and a clear long-term economic plan. Our defence budget is the biggest in the EU and the second largest in NATO, and we meet the guideline of 2% of GDP. I can tell him that, because of the success of our economic plan, we are able to commit to over £160 billion of investment in equipment and equipment support over the next 10 years. That is why we will see the aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers, the future frigates, the A400Ms and the hunter-killer submarines. We are seeing incredible equipment rolling off the production lines in our country to help keep us safe.

The terrible slaughter of the innocents in Pakistan yesterday shocked the world and is another example of the obscene atrocities being visited upon children in various parts of the world by these barbaric forces. Another example was the attack on the 200 schoolchildren who were abducted in north-east Nigeria in April of this year. At the time, the Government and other Governments pledged their support to do what they could to assist in the hunt for those children. What reassurances can the Prime Minister provide on that and on the commitment that British experts will assist?

In all these cases, we see what expertise and assets we can bring into play to help Governments who are trying to combat these problems. In Nigeria, for a period, we lent the expertise of our fighter jets, with their RAPTOR pods, in order to provide imaging to try to help find the Chibok girls, and we continue to work with the Nigerian Government in every way we can. With Pakistan, again, we believe that the Pakistan Government must confront terrorism in all its forms, and they are taking steps to do that. I think today is the day when we should redouble our support and our efforts, and the whole world should do the same, to say that if the Pakistan Government want to continue to act to root out terror—and none of this can be justified—they have the support of the whole world, Britain included.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking businesses, schools, my Festomane team and the college for organising the week-long festival—week long—of manufacturing and engineering in my constituency, which was opened by the Prince of Wales? Does my right hon. Friend agree that by focusing on innovation and productivity this Government will deliver more exports and higher standards of living? (906685)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. People might know that this is an annual week-long festival, championed by him, that showcases local manufacturing success stories. I remember that when I visited his constituency we watched a 3D bike being printed in metal—it was extremely impressive. We need to continue with the long-term plan, which is delivering a more balanced recovery, with manufacturing growing, as well as construction and services. Our commitments to increasing the number of apprentices, to helping companies with research and development and to keeping tax rates low are all delivering a very strong manufacturing success rate for Britain.

Millions of people will work extra hours this Christmas in difficult and often low-paid jobs so that they can send money to relatives living abroad. Their remittances to sub-Saharan Africa alone account for more than donor aid, but their money transfers will be hit by fees and charges often as high as 15%. Five years ago, the G8 committed to reducing this transfer tax to 5%. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in calling on the transfer companies to cut their charges for Christmas as a first step to meeting the G8 promise to families in some of the poorest countries in the world?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of remittances. The amount of money that goes from our country, in the form of remittances, to countries such as Somalia and others in sub-Saharan Africa in desperate need actually outweighs significantly the aid we are able to give to those countries. So yes, we should look, and we are, at every way we can to help these remittances take place. There have been problems in the past with making sure that we apply measures on money laundering and other potential issues to them, but we are looking hard at what we can do to keep the charges down.

Q4. One of the characteristics of the decade leading up to the financial crisis was the £1 trillion increase in household debt. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that no future long-term economic plan will be financed by a debt bubble inflated on the backs of hard-working households? (906686)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the changes we have made since the crash is to put in place proper arrangements for the Bank of England to call time on the level of indebtedness in the economy and to make sure that financial regulation, including regulation of the mortgage market, for instance, is properly put in place. That is one of the important lessons. I have to say to Labour Members that one of the other important lessons is that when you have had a long period of economic growth you should be trying to pay down your debt and aiming for a surplus. That is what fixing the roof when the sun is shining is all about.

Q5. I welcome the fall in unemployment, but it is still too high in the north-east of England. Will the Prime Minister tell the House, and my unemployed constituents, who are the principal candidates for working-age benefit cuts? (906687)

Let me join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fall in unemployment; it has fallen in every region of the country over the past year. In the north-east over the past year, unemployment is down by 11,000, and that is welcome. In terms of addressing the costs of welfare, I think we should be very frank about this, as I was discussing, calmly, earlier with the Leader of the Opposition. Whoever is Prime Minister after the next election is going to have to make public spending reductions. We have a choice: whether we leave the welfare bill as it is, or whether, like Labour Members, we vote this afternoon to add £2 billion to the welfare bill—that is what they are talking about this afternoon: £2 billion on welfare—and then have to take that money out of the Education Department, or the Health Department, or policing. We think we should not do that; we think, yes, there are reductions in welfare that can be made. We will make them, and that will keep taxes down and make sure that we can have good public services.

Q6. For people starting their careers, newly married couples or others, the prospect of owning their first home is a much desired but very difficult step. What are the Government doing to help young people in my constituency make that positive move? (906688)

There are two vital steps that we can take. The first is to go on backing the Help to Buy scheme, which has helped thousands of people in our country—I think over 70,000 people now. It enables people who are working hard, who earn a decent salary and who can afford the mortgage payments to take out that mortgage and buy that home because they do not need such a big deposit. That is the first thing we should do, and we shall continue with that.

The second, as I announced on Monday, is that we want to build starter homes that are 20% below the market price. These should be homes not for rent, but that young people can buy. They will be reserved for people under the age of 40. Again, this is for people who work hard, and who want to get on and do the right thing for themselves and their families. Under a Conservative Government, they will have homes they can buy.

I was contacted at the weekend by a constituent who told me that a fall left his 78-year-old mother bleeding on the kitchen floor and that it took almost an hour and a half for the ambulance to attend. Is that not indicative of the health service under this Government? What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that pressures on ambulance services are eased?

What is indicative of the NHS under this Government is the fact that there are 1,700 more paramedics and 200 more ambulances than when we came to power. The reason for that is we did not listen to the Labour party, which said that it was irresponsible to increase health spending; instead, we put £12.7 billion into the NHS. Where any ambulance trust falls down, that is a matter of serious regret and should be looked into very carefully. I will look into this case, as I would with any other.

Q7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not unhelpful to discuss the concerns of voters in Basildon and Thurrock about border controls and immigration? Anyone who thinks that is out of touch, and perhaps should be moved on. (906689)

My hon. Friend is right. Our job as elected politicians is to respond to people’s concerns and to address them. This is why I fear for the Christmases of Labour MPs. What are they going to talk about? This document says immigration. That is out of the question: they cannot talk about that. On the figures today, there is not much point talking about unemployment, because it is plummeting. They have got nothing to say about the deficit. They spent precisely one week telling us the deficit mattered before pitching up today and spending £2 billion on welfare. I think they will want to skip over leadership issues quite quickly. It is going to be a very difficult time for them.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister has received any Christmas cards featuring husky dogs, but will he tell us whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who has said that the UK’s groundbreaking Climate Change Act 2008 should be scrapped?

I have not checked all my Christmas cards, but I do not think I have so far had the one the hon. Lady suggests. I spent an hour and three-quarters in front of the Liaison Committee yesterday discussing issues of climate change. The legislation we have in place is delivering cuts in carbon emissions. Under this Government, we have seen the world’s first green investment bank—beating the rest of the world in doing that—and we have doubled the amount of investment going into renewable energy compared with the previous two Parliaments. That is what is happening under our Government.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, owing to the long campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and, of course, the Government’s long-term economic plan, my constituents can have extended urgent care this winter, and can look forward to the rebuilding, at long last, of Chase Farm hospital in the new year? (906690)

I know how hard my hon. Friends have worked for this outcome. I am happy to say that Enfield clinical commissioning group has announced an extension to the opening hours of Chase Farm urgent care centre. This will be in place until the local urgent care review reports. Further, I can confirm that the Government have set aside £230 million for the redevelopment of the Chase Farm site. That is very good news for the people of my hon. Friend’s constituency and his borough in London. What we are doing, because we have a long-term economic plan, is investing in local health services.

Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not been studying either the documents he gets sent by his own party or the figures. Today, actually, there are new figures out on the NHS, and I am delighted to give him the new figures. We were saying that there were 2,000 extra nurses under this Government. That was wrong: there are 3,000 more nurses under this Government. We were saying until very recently that there were 7,000 more doctors under this Government. I am ashamed to say that was wrong, too: the figure is 8,000 more doctors under this Government. The NHS is performing well because we have put the money in and made the reforms.

Q9. May I commend to my right hon. Friend some advice from Karl Marx, who, as European correspondent of the New-York Tribune, observed that there were“vital interests which should render Great Britain the earnest and unyielding opponent of the Russian projects of annexation and aggrandisement.”He went on to say that in“the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation…the interests of…Democracy and of England go hand in hand.”Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the United Kingdom, Europe, the west and indeed the whole world, one of our most important foreign policy priorities for 2015 should be to see that Russia behaves, as one would expect a member of the Security Council to behave, in the interests of international law? (906691)

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. I have not spent as much time studying Karl Marx as he has, or perhaps even as the Leader of the Opposition has—I do not know what goes on in Camden these days.

In this respect, Karl Marx was right that the interests of the United Kingdom and democracy go together. We should stand up very firmly against the Russian aggression that has taken place, and we led the way in Europe in making sure that there were sanctions. What the combination of the lower oil price and the sanctions is showing is that it is not possible for Russia to be part of the international financial system but try to opt out of the rules-based international legal system. That is what is being demonstrated, and we should keep up the pressure.

Q10. The levy control framework—the total cost added to energy bills and taxation by green targets—will rise from £2.3 billion in 2012 to £9.8 billion in 2020, at a time when many households are struggling to heat their homes. Does my hon. Friend think that is fair? (906692)

The levy control framework has been fixed, and it sets the overall amount of investment that can go into renewable energy schemes, many of which are providing jobs for constituencies up and down the country—often particularly those on the east coast of our country, not least in Hull, where an enormous amount of investment is going in. I welcome that investment, and I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s view is.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that if he and the Chancellor deliver their plans for the economy, they will take public spending back to the level that was being delivered by a former Labour Chancellor, but only because he was bound by an election pledge to stick to my economic plan, which he therefore inherited from a Conservative Government?

My right hon. and learned Friend gives us a very important historical perspective. It comes back to the point that the Opposition now seem to be basing their entire economic policy on some throwaway remark on the BBC at about 10 past 6 on a Monday morning. The truth is, what is envisaged is getting public spending back to the level where it was in 2002, when the Leader of the Opposition was sitting in the Treasury. I am afraid that his whole idea, like all his economic policies, has collapsed within five minutes.

Q11. The most recent OECD report, No. 163, on income inequality, shows that the UK economy would be 20% bigger if tax policies had redistributed income to the bottom 40% of citizens. Can the Prime Minister resist the temptation to waffle and consider seriously his policies and those of Chancellor Scrooge over his five years, of rewarding the rich with tax cuts and hammering middle and low-income people with rises in the cost of living, not only— (906693)

I was just about getting the hang of it. The problem with the Labour party’s attemptive narrative is that it simply is not true. Labour Members talk about inequality, but inequality is lower than it was at the election. They talk about poverty, but there are 600,000 fewer people in relative poverty than there were at the election. They talk about child poverty, but there are 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than at the election. This afternoon we will be talking about children, and there are 390,000 fewer children in households where no one works than there were in 2010. Those are the facts. They may be inconvenient, but Labour ought to have a look at them.

Q12. Last week, my constituents, charity workers Alex and Becky Ewing, faced a tax bill of more than £8,000 as they moved into their first home. As reported in the excellent Salisbury Journal, Mr Ewing declared that he was “blown away” by the Chancellor’s statement and will be giving some of the £4,500 stamp duty that he unexpectedly saved to local charities. What message does last week’s announcement send to first time buyers this Christmas? (906694)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The message that the autumn statement sends is that we are on the side of people who work hard, want to get on, and who want to own their own flat or home. We have cut stamp duty for those families so that they can afford those houses. What a contrast with the Labour party, which wants a new homes tax.

Q13. My constituent who is paying £12 a week out of an income of £72 a week on the bedroom tax was less than impressed to find out that annual spending on housing benefit is now £4 billion higher than it was in 2010. When will this Prime Minister tackle the real causes of the increase in spending on housing benefit, which are low wages and high rents? (906695)

The point is that the Labour party has opposed every single change to welfare and housing benefit, and this afternoon Labour Members will vote in this house for an extra £2 billion of welfare spending—all that in the week when they are meant to be telling us how much they care about the deficit. It is completely incoherent, and that is why the British public will never trust the Labour party with the economy again.

Q14. The recent announcement about the building of the Glossop spur, and the consultation to extend the bypass around Tintwistle, has been widely welcomed across my constituency. There is, however, some scepticism about it actually happening, given that the previous Labour Government shelved their scheme in 2009. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that a future Conservative Government can be relied on to deliver that scheme? (906696)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that he has campaigned tirelessly to improve roads in his High Peak constituency, and the trans-Pennine routes are vital. We can give that assurance because we have a long-term economic plan that is delivering the economic growth that we need and seeing our deficit come down. Because we have made that success, we can commit to these road schemes.

Home Insulation

Q15. What steps the Government are taking to protect older people from ill health caused by cold and badly insulated homes. (906697)

The Government are using a range of measures, including cold weather payments, the warm home discount, and an increase in pensions. We will improve the warmth of 1 million homes by March 2015. That provides real help to older people by taking money off their bills and insulating their homes to ensure that they are able to keep warm this winter.

That is an interesting response, but my constituent William Sullivan has written to me to say how appalled he is that last year more than 18,000 people in England and Wales died simply because of the cold. What guarantee can the Prime Minister give me that no more of my constituents will suffer in the cold this winter for want of a properly insulated home?

Every excess winter death is a tragedy, and 18,200 deaths last year was too many. However, that is half the level of excess winter deaths in 2008-09, when the Leader of the Opposition was the Energy Secretary. We will continue with the long-term patient work of the warm home discount, keeping the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and schemes to insulate people’s homes. That is the right way forward.


Will the Prime Minister confirm that NHS spending under the coalition Government has risen by 4% in real terms? That has been passed on to Scotland, where spending has in fact been cut by 1%. Is he also aware that Grampian has a £70 million two-year shortfall in funding? Consequently, the responsibility for the crisis in the health service in the north-east of Scotland lies firmly with the Scottish Government, led until a few weeks ago by Alex Salmond, the MSP for Aberdeenshire East.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have increased spending by £12.7 billion. That translates into a real-terms increase. Scotland and Wales have had the extra money to spend, but Labour in Wales chose to cut the NHS rather than to invest in it, and in Scotland the SNP Government have not translated the full amount of money. That is why, when we look at figures for such things as accident and emergency, yes, we need to do better in England, but our performance is still well better than it is in Wales, Scotland, or, indeed, in Northern Ireland. The moral of this story is that you need a long-term economic plan and a Conservative-led Government to deliver these advances.

Points of order come after statements, and we have a statement. The hon. Gentleman ought to know that by know, with the greatest of respect. We will come to the statement in a moment.