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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Shale Gas

1. If he will make it his policy that responsibility for licensing shale gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (906918)

That is already Government policy. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Smith commission heads of agreement stated that the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses in that respect by 25 January.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to that part of the Smith agreement, to which my party is also committed, not least because it will put an end to the attempts by some people to suggest that without the devolution of licensing, the Scottish Government are powerless to stop fracking if they want to. They already have powers over planning and regulation, but I hope that this change will close that argument down, to everybody’s benefit.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Scottish Government have planning and environmental regulation powers that would enable them to block any fracking project they wanted to block. It is sensible, in the circumstances, that they should be given responsibility for the licensing of such activities as well. That will be done as part of the Smith process.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party have been pressing for the devolution of all powers over fracking for some time. Why have the UK Government ruled out devolving power over fracking licences until after the general election?

That is part of the timetable to which we are all committed. Until I heard the Deputy First Minister speak at the National museum, I had thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party was committed to it as well. We are proceeding with that speedy and tight process. I will publish the draft clauses before 25 August—sorry, I mean 25 January, which is, incidentally, before 25 August. With 25 January being a Sunday, we might even meet the deadline with a few days to spare.

Until now, the UK Government’s position has been to remove the right of Scottish householders to object to unconventional gas or oil drilling underneath their homes. What will the position be between now and the full devolution of powers over fracking? Will the Department of Energy and Climate Change give an undertaking that it will not issue any fresh licences?

The position will be as it is at the moment, which is that if there is any fracking project in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government will have the power, using planning or environmental regulations, to block it. They should not seek to push the blame on to anyone else.

11. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. Recently, I wrote to the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism in the Scottish Government to ask whether it was their policy to block such developments. He wrote back to say that he endorsed the principle of robust regulation, but gave no answer on what their policy was. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he has heard anything from the Scottish Government on this matter? (906928)

No, I am afraid that I cannot assist the hon. Lady in that regard. All I can do is point to the fact that the Scottish Government seem to be desperate to speak about the powers that are held by others, rather than about the way in which they will exercise the powers that they already have. Her constituents and others will doubtless draw their own conclusions.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, following the amendments that I moved in the Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill yesterday, there has been movement from the Government, which we should all welcome. Will he help the House by clarifying the fact that having a licence does not enable somebody to undertake any extraction or exploration activity? It has been suggested that it does, but that is absolutely not the case.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on this matter and, in particular, for tabling his amendments. As was made clear to him yesterday in Committee, the Government will return to the matter on Report. We will table an amendment that we believe will achieve the same end, which is the carving out of Scotland from those provisions in the Infrastructure Bill. He is absolutely right that licensing is just one element—it provides no overall entitlement. For fracking to go ahead, the Scottish Government have to give consent on planning and environmental grounds.

Labour recently called for immediate devolution in this area, and we welcome the Government’s response, which as the Secretary of State has said is part of the ongoing commitment to the Smith agreement. Where appropriate, the Government should move immediately to devolve the powers agreed by the Smith commission.

Today, the leaders of Scotland’s three largest cities, home to a quarter of Scotland’s population, have joined us in calling for job-creating powers to be devolved too. Will the Secretary of State bring forward a section 106 order so that those powers can go to Scotland as soon as possible and we can start the work to reverse the failure of this Government’s Work programme?

The hon. Lady and I discussed a section 106 order when we met recently, but I have to tell her that the route that she has identified—a section 106 order followed by a section 63 order—is not, in our view, the appropriate one to honour the commitments in the Smith programme. That would devolve competence to the Government in Scotland, not the Parliament, which would need a section 30 order. I just do not see how we will achieve that end in the time available to us in this Parliament, but we are determined that where there is a need for joint working between the two Governments to achieve a better transfer of power, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be engaged in that process.

Child Poverty

2. What change there has been in the level of child poverty in Scotland since 2010; and if he will make a statement. (906919)

Estimates of the number and proportion of children in relative low income are published in the National Statistics households below average income series. Those estimates are available for each financial year up to 2012-13, and they show that since 2010 the number and percentage of children in relative low income in Scotland have remained at 200,000 and 17% respectively.

It is incredible how complacent the Government are about the fact that child poverty in Scotland is increasing. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is set to increase by a further 100,000 by 2020 if the current Government’s policies are followed. Is it not about time that both the UK and Scottish Governments, who seem to be relaxed about that increase in poverty, got together and worked out how we can effectively use policy on distribution so that the poorest can benefit?

I am somewhat surprised at the hon. Lady taking the nationalist line on the IFS figures. I completely reject those figures about prospective increases in child poverty in Scotland. This Government are not complacent, but what our policies have achieved are a reduction in unemployment, an increase in employment and wage increases outstripping inflation. Work is the best way out of poverty, and that is what this Government’s policy is.

Does the Minister agree that with the number of workless households at its lowest level for a generation across the UK as a whole, the best way to help tackle child poverty is to get people back into work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and a key figure that demonstrates our ability to deal with the issue is the record number of women in work in Scotland. I would have thought that politicians in all parts of the House would welcome that.

The Child Poverty Action Group says that more than one in five children in Scotland are living in poverty, which is far higher than in many other European countries, and that the number is increasing as the days pass. Can the Minister explain why child poverty is continuing to increase under his Government?

I do not accept the premise of an increase. The Scottish Government’s most recent report stated that we should not take a snapshot and should instead look at indications over a longer period. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) on one point, however: we have to see closer working together by the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the third sector. That is the best way to achieve a reduction in child poverty.

National Insurance Contributions

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on businesses in Scotland of the removal of the requirement for employers to pay national insurance contributions in respect of employees under the age of 21 and apprentices under the age of 25. (906920)

Abolishing employer national insurance contributions for under-21s is expected to help Scottish businesses save £45 million and support jobs for 138,000 young people. Extending that to apprentices under 25 will help about 31,000 apprentices in Scotland, and it will be more than £1,000 a year cheaper to employ an apprentice earning £16,000.

Is it correct that the employment level in Scotland rose to a record level in the last financial quarter—even higher than the UK average? Does that not demonstrate that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working across the United Kingdom and especially in Scotland?

Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is especially true in areas that are hardest to move, such as youth unemployment, which is down by 5.1% over the past 12 months. Of course it is still too high and of course there is still a great deal to do, but those figures and the ones that she has just mentioned demonstrate that the Government’s plan is right, that it is working and that we should not put it at risk by handing power to those who would just borrow, spend and play games for political ends.

When my right hon. Friend next travels down the A9, may I commend to him a stop in Brora to visit Highland Bespoke Furniture? It now employs six people as a direct result of the reduction in national insurance that has helped it to recruit further skilled work. Will the Government consider extending the scheme to workers over 25 who are coming back to work, as that would help further to expand that business and employment in that area?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I look forward to joining him in the not-too-distant future, and if Brora is a place in his constituency that he thinks I should see, I will be more than happy to go there with him. He is right to mention the opportunities that have been created as a result of this measure, and businesses the length and breadth of Scotland will tell a story similar to the one he has just related. On his proposal to extend the scheme, he will be aware that a Budget is coming up in March, and he or any hon. Member from across the House who wants to make representations can do so through the Scotland Office.

East Coast Main Line

4. What steps the Government are taking to maintain existing Scottish rail services on and connected to the east coast main line. (906921)

The new deal the Government have signed for the east coast main line franchise with Virgin and Stagecoach will provide new services, new state-of-the-art trains with more capacity, and reductions in journey times.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that the east coast main line is an important link through my constituency, but it has been reported that the new franchisee intends to drop one station south of Edinburgh from the line, raising fears that other stations may be dropped from the new service. Will he give an absolute assurance that, after the change of franchisee, services on the east coast main line will continue to stop at all the stations currently used?

I hoped that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would welcome the new franchise with its services to Falkirk and Stirling. There is no suggestion that there will be any reduction in services, but I am happy to make further inquiries for him on that point.

Will the Minister acknowledge that to increase the reliability, speed and efficiency of the service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen on the east coast main line, we need an upgrade of that line, not least the ending of the single track south of Montrose? What steps can he and/or the Scottish Government, or the two together, take to ensure that investment?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we actively engage in discussions with the Scottish Government on important strategic transport projects that impact the whole United Kingdom, such as the Forth crossing. I am sure that colleagues in the Scottish Government will have heard his points, and I will certainly raise them further with them.

The Minister said that my constituents can have confidence that there will be no reduction in the service on the east coast main line, but can he explain why the Minister at the Department for Transport who has responsibility for rail franchises said that the service at Dunbar was to be reduced?

I think the hon. Lady was not listening to my previous answer. I undertook, on behalf of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), to investigate what has been said previously about the rail link north of Edinburgh, and I will also take up her point.

It is important that the train services that are meant to run actually do so. The Minister will know that services on the east coast main line were severely disrupted on 27 December and two days later as well. Will he meet colleagues to try to ensure that when there are disruptions on the line—they were no fault of East Coast, by the way—they are dealt with more effectively, passengers are given real alternative information, and the system is made more resilient to such disruption?

As a Member who represents a significant stop on the west coast main line at Lockerbie, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about such disruption. I would be happy to meet him and any other colleagues who share those concerns.

Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage

5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural Scotland. (906922)

The Government’s superfast broadband rollout programme has provided over £120 million to the Scottish Government to improve broadband services. More than 160,000 additional Scottish homes and businesses now have access to broadband as a result. The Government have recently achieved a deal with the mobile network operators that will reduce complete not spots in Scotland by about two thirds, and partial not spots by one half.

I very much welcome that investment, but the money to bring superfast broadband to my constituency was handed over to the Scottish Government, who are supposed to be organising the delivery work. However, many of my constituents complain to me that neither the Scottish Government nor BT are able to tell them when, or even if, they will benefit from this project. Will my right hon. Friend please get on to the Scottish Government and tell them to publish a clear timetable for the delivery of this important work?

Unfortunately, this is a tale I hear as I travel around Scotland, especially in the highlands and islands. The communities my hon. Friend is talking to—I am sure he represents many of them—are not unreasonable, but they do want to know what to expect, so that they can plan for their services and their businesses. One would not think that it was that difficult.

Mobile coverage is an important social utility, as we have seen quite recently. Because of storms and lightning, BT lines have been down for weeks in parts of Lewis and Harris. Special thanks are due to BT and hydro engineers, who have been working hard in very bad weather to repair utilities. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government doing to ensure that island and rural areas are not left behind with 90% 4G telephone coverage, especially considering that 2G and 3G have been bad and that, with its high data speeds, 4G coverage is an excellent system for accessing broadband?

May I first join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hydro engineers and telecoms engineers, who are working throughout the highlands and islands even as we speak? They provide an excellent service to our local communities and we should place on record our gratitude towards them. They work in very difficult circumstances.

On 4G coverage, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the deal my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made recently with mobile network operators. That offers the opportunity for greater coverage of 3G and 4G. We will need to see, when they come forward with the actual proposals, what that will mean for our communities, but I can assure him that I am keeping an eye on it.

In echoing and endorsing entirely the points made by my immediate highland constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), may I encourage the Secretary of State to stress to the Scottish Government the need in particular to draw BT’s attention to Openreach? It is ironically entitled, as constituents and consumers cannot reach it openly and cannot contact it directly, which is why they cannot get an answer to the legitimate question: when is last year’s £10 million investment of UK Government money actually going to meet their needs and be delivered?

It is clear, beyond any doubt, that a substantial amount of money is going in from this Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and European funds to this most important area of economic development. Responsibility for delivery, at the end of that money, rests with the Scottish Government. I take it, from the comments of my right hon. Friend and others in the House, that the Scottish Government need to be telling our communities more.

Someone once said:

“We have got to stop thinking of broadband and other connectivity issues as being some sort of luxury. It is as important to the future sustainability of our communities as having a supply of water or electricity.”

Does the Secretary of State still agree with his own words? If so, can he tell communities in Ochil and South Perthshire and elsewhere in Scotland why, when we have running water and electricity, we still do not have superfast broadband?

I absolutely stand by my own words. I recognised them as soon as the hon. Gentleman started to quote them. It is a view that I still hold and it is why this Government have made a substantial investment. If he has particular cases relating to delivery, which unfortunately we have passed to the Scottish Government, I am more than happy to help him in any way I can.

City Link

6. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on job losses in Scotland resulting from City Link entering administration. (906923)

It was deeply regrettable that City Link went into administration over the festive period, particularly for its employees and contractors. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary spoke regularly with the unions to discuss the situation, and our focus now is on supporting those made redundant. The Department for Work and Pensions has been liaising with its counterparts in the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment service to ensure that support is available to those made redundant in Scotland.

Many people lost their jobs at City Link’s Eurocentral depot in my constituency. I have been struck by the fact that not only direct employees but many so-called self-employed subcontractors lost their jobs. In reality, the latter were solely employed by City Link and had worked there for decades. They have been left not just without redundancy payments but with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. What are the Government doing to ensure that bogus self-employment is tackled and that this never happens again?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service on what happened at City Link during the period immediately before the redundancies and administration were announced, and we will obviously reflect on that. I take on board her point about self-employed contractors, and I will raise that directly with DWP colleagues.

When I met workers from City Link this week, they told me they found out from the media on Christmas eve that their company was closing, and the redundancies were confirmed on Hogmanay. This is an appalling situation, and no worker should be treated in such a way. It is too late for those workers, but will the Minister ensure that his Government conduct a full and proper inquiry into the circumstances that led to the failure at City Link, so that workers can never be treated in that way again?

As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service. The Government have demonstrated, in their action over Comet, that if such a report highlights practices that should be investigated, they will be.

Smith Commission

The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have made it clear that the Government are committed to delivering draft clauses by 25 January.

Following the Prime Minister’s meeting with the new First Minister, does the Secretary of State expect full support from the Scottish Government in ensuring a speedy delivery of the proposals in the draft Bill?

I have learned over the years not to expect too much when working with the Scottish Government, but I am hopeful that that will be the case. One way or the other, however, we shall deliver on the undertakings that were given.

12. The Smith commission agreement contained a strong desire to see devolution extend to local government. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the SNP Government the need to embrace that desire, release their iron grip on power and devolve to local government? (906929)

Indeed. This is something we hear from communities across the country in Scotland. Power in Scotland has been sucked up, particularly from local councils, and exercised at the centre by the Scottish Government. That was not how devolution was ever intended to work, and they need to change their approach.

The Smith commission is not the only example of parties working together. Yesterday, we saw a fantastic example, when Scottish Labour walked through the Lobby with the Conservatives to support Conservative austerity. Does the Secretary of State envisage any other such “better together” moments coming before the next general election?

The only remarkable thing about that is that it tells us absolutely nothing about what the SNP would do to tackle the deficit, if—heaven help us—they were ever in a position to influence it.

Nuisance Calls

8. What discussions he has had with the Minister for culture, communications and creative industries on how effectively the Government are protecting vulnerable consumers in Scotland from nuisance calls. (906925)

I commend my hon. Friend on his work in recent years on this serious issue. Tackling this problem is a priority for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I understand that the Minister with responsibility for culture, communications and creative industries will meet him later today to discuss the matter.

Over the last two years, trials run by councils and trading standards officers have installed call blockers in the homes of 400 older and vulnerable Scots, blocking more than 100,000 nuisance calls, improving their quality of life and protecting them from becoming the victims of scams. Does the Minister agree that the time for pilots is over, as the technology is proven, and that we need to establish a national scheme to protect 300,000 Scots rather than just 300?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important issue. The pilots have been necessary to test the technology involved. I am sure he will be able to make that very point to the Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when he meets him later today.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Given the damaging uncertainty over future investment in jobs that the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation strategy is creating in the business community, will the Prime Minister today give a guarantee that he will not support an out vote in any future in/out EU referendum?

Since I made the announcement that there should be an in/out referendum on Europe, the investment coming into Britain has gone up. There are regularly times when Britain is getting more inward investment than the rest of Europe put together.

I am sure the whole House will want to honour the bravery of NHS Ebola volunteers and welcome the news that Nurse Pauline Cafferkey is off the critical list. As the Oxford vaccine group moves to the next stage of its Ebola trial, will the Prime Minister congratulate it on its outstanding work so far and offer all possible support in the race to develop this vital vaccine?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I am sure everyone is thinking of Pauline Cafferkey. It is very good news that she is out of critical care, but there is still a long way to go. What my hon. Friend says about developing a vaccine is vital. The Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is leading the work on this, ensuring that we do everything to cut through some of the bureaucracy that would otherwise be in place, so that we can develop a vaccine fast.

The whole country, across all faiths and communities, felt a sense of solidarity with the people of France following last week’s dreadful attacks. Those who seek to terrorise and divide us should be in no doubt: they will fail. This House of Commons has sent a clear signal on this issue: we are united.

Turning to the actions that need to be taken, does the Prime Minister agree with me that a key objective of our counter-terrorism efforts must be to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism in the first place? Does he also agree that the programme designed to tackle the problem, Prevent, needs to be expanded so that it supports, in particular, community-led action and is given the priority it deserves?

Let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman about how important it is to stand together in favour of free speech, freedom of expression, the rule of law and democracy—the values that we hold dear. I think the demonstration in Paris and the outpouring we have seen both here and around the world against these horrific attacks shows that those values will not be defeated.

On what the right hon. Gentleman says about what must be done, we have to prepare for any attack that could take place. That means making sure that we fund our counter-terrorism policing properly, as we do. It means reaching out to potentially vulnerable groups of people—for instance, I met the Jewish Leadership Council yesterday. But as the right hon. Gentleman says, it also means confronting the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism. That is what we are doing through putting a duty on every public organisation to confront extremism wherever they find it, whether that is in universities, schools, on campuses, in prisons or elsewhere. That is what the Prevent programme, which we are expanding, is all about.

Let me associate myself with what the Prime Minister said, and particularly what he said about anti-Semitism and prejudice wherever we find it. On the point about British citizens who travel to Syria to participate in the conflict, does he agree that, with more than half of them having returned, we need to do more? In particular, does he agree that we need a much more rigorous approach, including compulsory engagement with de-radicalisation programmes to turn people away from violent extremism?

I think it right for us to we do everything we can to stop people travelling to Syria to take part in these activities, and that is what the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill—which is going through the House of Lords right now—is intended to do; but also, as the right hon. Gentleman says, people coming back to this country should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and in every case consideration should be given to whether they would benefit from a counter-radicalisation programme.

As for the Prevent programme, it was reviewed by Lord Carlile in 2011, and he said of that existing programme:

“there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding.”

That is why we changed Prevent. We are now expanding the programme, and, as the right hon. Gentleman says, we need to ensure that everyone who would benefit from counter-radicalisation gets it.

Let me make one final point, in, I hope, a spirit of friendliness across the House. One or two people, referring to our current situation, have said that this is something of a zombie Parliament. Let me point out that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is absolutely vital to the defeating of terrorism, is being discussed and debated in the Houses of Parliament right now.

I am glad that we can work across parties on that issue, and we will endeavour to continue to do so. Let me now turn to an issue on which there is less agreement. In May 2010, speaking about the television debates, a party leader said:

“it would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out so I thought we’ve got to stick at this, we’ve got to do it.”

Will the Prime Minister remind us of who said that?

I am all for these debates, but you cannot have two minor parties without the third minor party. So I put the question to the right hon. Gentleman: why is he so frightened of debating with the Green party?

I will debate with anyone whom the broadcasters invite, but the man who said that it would be feeble to back out of the debates was the Prime Minister. Now, we all understand that as long ago as last Thursday his abiding passion was to give the Green party a platform, but it is frankly a pathetic excuse. [Interruption.] It is not for him, it is not for me, it is not for any party leader to decide who is in the debate. It is up to the broadcasters. That is the country that we live in. Is the Prime Minister really telling the people of Britain that he will seek to deny them the television debates if he does not get to choose who is in them?

We had a set of European elections last year, and UKIP and the Greens both beat the Liberal Democrats, I am afraid to say. It is very simple. You either have both of them, or you have none of them. So let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again: why is he so chicken when it comes to the Greens?

There is only one person who is running scared of these debates, and that is this Prime Minister. When he says that he does not want to take part because of the Greens, no one, but no one, believes him—not the people behind him, not the person next to him, not the country. However he dresses it up, everyone knows that he is running scared. These debates do not belong to me, and they do not belong to him. They belong to the British people. What does he think gives him the right to run away from these debates?

There are two credible sets of debates. You can either have a debate with all the national parties who appear in the House, or you can have a debate between two people, one of whom will become Prime Minister—or you can have both. Those are the credible debates. So I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: when he looks at the Green party, why is he so scared?

I will debate with anyone whom the broadcasters invite to debate. I think the Prime Minister doth protest too much. He has run out of excuses, he is running scared of these debates, and, in the words of his heroine Lady Thatcher, he is frit.

Is it not interesting, Mr Speaker? With just 10 of these sessions to go, the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate having a debate. He cannot talk about unemployment, because it is coming down; he cannot talk about growth in the economy, because it is going up; he cannot talk about his energy price freeze, because it has turned him into a total joke. I have to say to him that the more time he and I can spend in the television studio and on television, the happier I shall be. But please, if he has any more questions left, will he ask a serious one?

The former Prime Minister Mr Blair had to be summoned to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday to reluctantly give evidence. We now understand that the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, is refusing to give evidence to another Select Committee on the grounds that he is a Member of Parliament. He is also a paid public servant. Is it not time that we reviewed the matter of parliamentary privilege in this place?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. Obviously it is a matter for the Select Committee and the House, but the general rule should be that people involved in the senior management of the BBC who are summoned to appear in front of a Select Committee should come, because the BBC needs to be, and is, publicly accountable. I think Lord Hall does a very good job at the BBC, and I am sure he would give a good account of himself, but I will have a careful look at what my hon. Friend says.

Q2. At the Liaison Committee meeting on 16 December the Prime Minister promised to look into the full publication of the extensively redacted DEFRA report on shale gas rural economy impacts. Has he looked into this, and is he now going to insist on full and unredacted publication? (906979)

I did look into the issue, and I do not want to give the hon. Gentleman an inaccurate answer so I will go and check on the action taken after that meeting and see what I can tell him.

Q3. In a speech last week the director general of MI5 identified a number of important gaps in its surveillance which need to be addressed in law. Some have called that a breach of civil liberties, and others have said that it is just another snoopers charter, but does the Prime Minister agree that public safety must come above everything else and that civil liberty must include not being bombed, shot or beheaded by some deranged jihadist? (906980)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the first duty of every Government is to keep the country safe. We certainly do not do that by trashing our own civil liberties and traditions. When it comes to this vital issue of being able to have proper surveillance of the communications of potential terrorists, up until now this Parliament and British Governments have taken a very clear view: whether it has been about looking at letters, or about fixed telephone communications or mobile communications, we have always believed that, in extremis, on the production of a signed warrant from the Home Secretary, it should be possible to look at someone’s communications to try and stop a terrorist outrage. The decision we have to take is: are we prepared to allow in future, as technology develops, safe spaces for terrorists to communicate? The principle I think we should adopt is that we are not content for that to happen, and as a result we should look to legislate accordingly.

Raif Badawi faces 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because he wrote some articles with which his Government disagreed. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the barbaric and mediaeval regime of Saudi Arabia, and does he believe that our international alliances should be founded more on human rights and less on economic muscle?

We do not approve of these sorts of punishments, and we always raise these cases in the strongest possible way when British citizens are involved, and I know we will on this occasion, too.

Q4. Unemployment down 44%, youth unemployment down 45%, long-term unemployment down 44%, business start-ups up 31% and 800 apprenticeship starts—all in the last year in South Basildon and East Thurrock. What does my right hon. Friend think that says about our long-term economic plan? (906981)

I am delighted at the news that my hon. Friend brings. It is remarkable how in almost every constituency in this House the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is down and the number of young people claiming benefit is down. There are 224,000—almost a quarter of a million—more people in work in the east of England as a whole. Those are statistics, but every one of those statistics is about someone who is going out and earning a wage, supporting their family and managing to achieve a better standard of living. That is what we must continue with, and that is why we must stick to the long-term economic plan.

Q5. Eliminating the deficit, net migration down to tens of thousands, no VAT rise, no top-down reorganisation of the NHS —why did the Prime Minister make these promises and why did he break them? (906982)

We said we would get the deficit down and the deficit is down by half as a share of our national economy, from the disgraceful situation left by Labour. I thought the hon. Gentleman would take the opportunity to talk about the vital steel interests in his constituency, which we will be talking about later today. We are working as hard as we can to make sure we keep steel production growing in our country, but as the hon. Gentleman has introduced a political element, so might I. Under this Government steel production is up, whereas it was down under Labour. Under this Government employment in the steel industry is up, whereas it was down under Labour. Why is that? Because we have a car industry that is growing, an aerospace industry that is growing, and construction is growing. We are getting Britain back to work.

Q6. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 12 months, more than 60 journalists have been killed in the course of their work, including those at Charlie Hebdo last week? Just five weeks ago, I and several other Members of Parliament attended the signing in Paris of a declaration by representatives of every European country, recognising the vital role of journalists in a free society and pledging to do everything possible to protect their safety. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that commitment today? (906983)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in supporting the freedom of the press and I certainly reiterate what he says today. This most struck me when I visited Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, and went to see a newspaper office that had been shot up, bombed and burned. That brings home what journalists in other countries have for years faced in bringing the truth and putting it in front of the people, which is a vital part of a free democratic system. Obviously, the events in Paris are truly horrific, and the duty of everyone in public life is not necessarily to say whether or not we agree with this or that being published—everyone can have their opinion; it is not that that matters. What matters is that we should always defend the right of people to publish whatever is within the law and in their opinion right to publish. That is our job and we must do it properly.

Q7. We are seeing a meltdown in emergency care, yet the Prime Minister’s Health Secretary accuses us of whipping up a crisis. Is it not time for some honesty? This Government are simply failing our NHS. (906984)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the NHS because, absolutely, we do face real challenges this winter with the pressures on A and E. But in her own constituency, the Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust proved what can be done with the extra resources that we are putting in and the excellent management of that hospital. Last week, 96.6% of people going to A and E in her constituency were seen within four hours.

Q8. Last week I met Chloe, a care assistant apprentice who started her apprenticeship after visiting my most recent jobs fair in Halesowen. Will the Prime Minister congratulate all those people who have got jobs and started apprenticeships in my constituency since 2010, where unemployment has fallen by 30% in the last year alone—further evidence that the Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering better quality jobs and opportunities for people across Halesowen and Rowley Regis? (906985)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Chloe on starting her apprenticeship. In his constituency, nearly 4,000 people have begun an apprenticeship since 2010 and the claimant count there is down 42% since the election. The long-term youth claimant count—that should be of the greatest concern to us, because that is young people on unemployment benefit month after month—is down by 58% in the last year alone. This recovery is gathering pace and is providing jobs for people, and each one of those jobs is a chance for them to provide a better future for their families. But we must stick to the plan and a key part of the plan is getting the deficit down.

Q9. Ambulance trusts are under such pressure that they are downgrading calls from some of the sickest people in the country. In the East of England area, 57 people are believed to have died while waiting for an ambulance that never arrived. Is not the Prime Minister ashamed that this is what happens when the Tories run the NHS? (906986)

Clearly, what happened in East Anglia was wrong, and the change was made without the knowledge of the trust’s board. As soon as it was found out, the chief executive reversed the decision and ordered that an independent investigation be carried out by someone outside the trust. That investigation found that there had been no harm to patients, and I think it is important to put this in context. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly says that it is important that we conduct this debate in a good and civilised way. At the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition was asked seven times whether he had used the phrase that he wanted to “weaponise the NHS”. Seven times he refused to answer the question. Everybody knows that he said those words, and if he had a shred of decency in him, he would get up and explain that he should not have said those words, and apologise.

A few weeks ago, a tragic event occurred in my constituency when a five-year-old girl, Andrea Gada, was killed in a traffic accident. Since then, Eastbourne and her school, Shinewater primary, have rallied round to support her parents and the rest of her family. They have raised money to try to bring her grandparents and her aunt over from Zimbabwe to Eastbourne to join the family at the funeral, but the Home Office has refused those relatives entry, saying that they would abscond. The parents have given me an undertaking that this will not happen, and I have gone a step further and said that I will act as a guarantor that the relatives will return to Zimbabwe. The Home Office’s decision is cruel and unkind. Prime Minister, will you intervene?

It is absolutely horrific when children are killed in accidents like this, and we all know of individual cases in our own constituencies. It is heartbreaking when it happens. I will certainly look at the case—I was just discussing it with the Home Secretary—and make sure that the Home Office has a careful look to see what can be done.

Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that members of the public and small businesses across the UK have had to endure very high fuel bills in recent years when oil prices were averaging more than $100 a barrel. In recent weeks, that price has dropped steadily and now stands at less that half that level. However, fuel prices at the pump have not been reduced by anything like that amount. Last week, the Chancellor indicated that some action would be taken against the fuel companies. Will the Prime Minister outline what action that will be? (906987)

First, we should welcome this fall in oil prices. We are beginning to see prices fall quite substantially at the pumps, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to see them go down further and faster. Some of this will depend on the buying strategies that the fuel companies had, but we will ensure that the competition authorities and the Government do everything they can to ensure that those fuel prices are passed on.

On 30 January, I shall be holding a dementia summit in my constituency to bring together some of the fantastic work that voluntary sector organisations such as Wetherby in Support of the Elderly—WiSE—and Peter Smith in Rothwell have done on dementia. Does my right hon. Friend agree that dementia is one of the biggest challenges that this country faces in the coming century? Does he also agree that we need a strong economy if we are to be able to invest in dementia research?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a crisis for our country. It has been creeping up like a sort of silent crisis, because the diagnosis rate has not been high enough and I do not think there has been enough action across our communities to join up and deal with it. That is now happening, however, and we have a clear dementia strategy. We are doubling the amount of money going into research and we are training many more people in our NHS and our care homes to deal with people with dementia better. Also, we are ensuring that more people in the community become dementia friends, with a target of more than 1 million people doing so. We had a session in Cabinet the other day at which every member of the Cabinet became a dementia friend. I commend what my hon. Friend is doing in his constituency—I did the same in mine—getting together all the organisations that can help people with dementia so that we can spread the word about good practice. People with dementia need not only great health care but help when they are at the post office, the bank and the building society, and when they are on the bus or at the train station. They need help in every part of their life and we all have a role to play.

Q11. According to the Royal College of Nursing, the number of nurses in London has fallen by 4,500. The Prime Minister says that the number is rising. Who is right? (906988)

The fact is that nation wide we have 3,300 more nurses, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some figures for his own constituency. The NHS Redbridge clinical commissioning group is this year getting an increase in funding of 4.79% and the numbers of staff in it are up. If we look at Barts hospital, we see that last week over 6,630 people were seen within four hours, and performance across the London area has been very good. I make one further point to him, which he might want to bring home to his own local authorities—this is important when we consider what is happening in social care. He has two local authorities: Redbridge, which has seen its reserves go up by £65 million since 2010; and Waltham Forest, whose reserves have gone up by £26 million since 2010. That is what is happening and that actually would fill the gap. Finally, let me give him the information on Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Newham as a whole in terms of the winter funding money: that has provided 22 more doctors, 27 more nurses and 146 more beds.

Q12. There are over 3 million people with diabetes in this country, and today Diabetes UK has published its state of the nation report. It calls for education to help people prevent type 2 diabetes; education so that people know when to approach their general practitioner with symptoms of type 1 or type 2; and education of people with the condition so that they can self-manage and take pressure off the NHS. Will the Prime Minister look at the report and act on its findings? (906989)

I will certainly look at this report, because, of all the health care conditions, diabetes is one of the ones where, if we act on it fast, we could have a huge knock-on effect on the NHS. If we look at the costs of things such as amputations and other treatments because people are getting diabetes, we see that we could make an enormous impact. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people being able to self-regulate. An enormous amount of exciting new technology is coming forward on diabetes, and I want to make sure that that technology is rapidly adopted by the NHS.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility says that the Government’s long-term spending plans mean cutting 1 million public service workers. Could the Prime Minister tell the country which million he is planning to cut?

The OBR says exactly what the Treasury says, which is that everyone who last night voted for the fiscal mandate is committed to £30 billion of adjustment in the next two years. My party has set out exactly how we meet that: it is £13 billion of departmental cuts and £12 billion of welfare cuts and £5 billion from tax evasion and avoidance. So far the Labour party has told us absolutely diddly-squat about how it would raise a single penny of that money, so the challenge for the Labour party is: if you are going to sign up to £30 billion of adjustment, is it not time you told us which taxes are going to go up, what you are going to do about debt and how you are going to wreck this country’s economy?

Q13. Has my right hon. Friend seen the story of White Van Alison in The Sun, on page 6, today? Is he aware that under this Government white van women are flourishing? Over 20% of businesses are run by women and over 53% of apprenticeships are started by females. Does he agree that white van women, especially those from Essex, are the wheels of our long-term economic plan? (906990)

Absolutely, and those wheels must keep turning. The point my hon. Friend makes is important. Of course I look at The Sun every morning, and I was fascinated to see this article. The fact is that under Labour, female unemployment went up by 24%. Under this Government the number of women in work is at its highest since records began. The proportion of women-led businesses in our country is up by a third, but it is still true that if we could get the same level of female entrepreneurship in Britain as there is in America, we would virtually wipe out the remaining unemployment.

At 1 o’clock this afternoon a petition will be laid at No. 10 Downing street by parents and children who are suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It calls on the Prime Minister personally to get involved to get NHS England to stop a bureaucratic internal debate which is preventing the licensing of the drug Translarna, which can have an effect on young boys that means they do not have to go into a wheelchair before it is absolutely necessary. At the moment most of them are in a wheelchair before they reach their teens. Will the Prime Minister personally get involved and get this resolved as a matter of urgency?

I will try to find time to see those parents today. I was looking at this issue last night and there was a child, who was about the same age as my son, pictured with his local football team, just as my son was. It made me think how vital it is to get these drugs through as quickly as we can. I know that there has been a debate on whether these drugs should be licensed quickly and on all the issues and problems. I will meet those parents, look at their petition and see what can be done.

Q14. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what is worse: to deny the deficit, forget that it exists or have no plan to bring it back into balance? (906991)

I think that in the three stages of man—or at least the three stages of Miliband—we are now at the final part. Labour Members have, I think, finally accepted that there is a deficit. They have now voted for £30 billion of adjustment, but they cannot manage to tell us how much they will raise in taxes and what they will do with spending. They have had four and a half years to come up with an economic policy and they have absolutely no plan for our country.

My 94-year-old constituent was taken by ambulance from her GP to A and E at Charing Cross hospital where she waited six hours in a corridor before being admitted. The next morning, she was moved to another hospital because there were no beds available. Does the Prime Minister think that axing A and E and all but 24 of 360 inpatient beds at Charing Cross, as he proposes, will make such appalling incidents more or less likely in the future?

The truth is that, nation wide, 94% of people have so far this year been seeing a doctor within four hours at A and E. But everybody in this House knows, and everybody who is a neighbouring Member of Parliament of the hon. Gentleman knows, that he is absolutely instrumental in spreading disinformation campaign after disinformation campaign about his local hospitals. For once, he should take the truth and put it in a leaflet.

Q15. Some people are quick to criticise the NHS when it faces challenges. It must also then be right to celebrate its successes, so will the Prime Minister congratulate Milton Keynes hospital and the university of Buckingham on establishing a new medical school that will not only train the next generation of clinicians but raise standards at our hospital? (906992)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. Making sure that we educate the next generation of doctors, nurses and clinicians is vital. Under this Government, we have 9,000 more doctors and 3,300 more nurses. We are treating 1.3 million more people in A and E, and there are 6 million more out-patient appointments. That is what is happening in our NHS, and all credit to the hard-working staff who are carrying out that vital work.

Welfare benefit recipients are often demonised as a burden on our taxpayers, but does the Prime Minister agree that the real burden on taxpayers are those employers who can afford to pay well above the minimum wage, but do not, thereby leaving hard-working families to state dependency and food banks.

I am in favour of the living wage. Those organisations that can pay the living wage should pay the living wage. It is something that should happen. But in addition to that, what we can help with—[Interruption.] I hear the Leader of the Opposition. Doncaster council does not pay the living wage, so perhaps he should start with his own backyard. That shut him up. In addition to that and to seeing the minimum wage rise, we should be taking the lowest-paid people out of tax. Under this Government, we have taken 3 million of the lowest paid people out of tax.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member. He must know by now that points of order come after statements. In any case, I always enjoy saving up the hon. Gentleman for later.