The Secretary of State was asked—
The previous Government were content to allow the British economy to become dangerously imbalanced with far too much reliance on the financial sector in London and the south-east. During this time Wales became poorer and fell to the bottom of the economic league tables, but we are determined to turn that around and achieve a stronger and more geographically balanced economy through a long-term plan, which is already starting to bear real fruit for Wales.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer—and offer him belated birthday wishes.
With regard to the rural economy of Wales, I heard talk when I recently returned to St David’s university college in Llanbedr Pont Steffan of moves to reopen the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway line that passes through the Teifi valley. What effect does my right hon. Friend think this would have in reinvigorating the local rural economy, and might it help to rescue my alma mater from the parlous state various vice-chancellors since Lord Morris of Castle Morris have allowed it to descend to?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his good wishes. I am a believer in investment in infrastructure. I recognise the important role investment infrastructure plays as a driver of economic growth. We have discussed at previous Wales Office questions the reopening of the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen line. He will be interested to know that I will shortly meet the campaign group Traws Link Cymru to discuss the business case for reopening the line and what support we can give, if appropriate.
I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that one of the best ways of rebalancing the economy is to ensure the interface between universities and the private and public sectors, and I know he recently visited my constituency and the new Swansea university campus at Crymlyn burrows. I am also sure he would wish to join me in congratulating the leader of Neath Port Talbot county borough council, which has developed a wonderful partnership with the university, and Councillor Ali Thomas on the honorary fellowship he will receive next week at Swansea university.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I absolutely do concur with his sentiments about the role local partners have played in taking forward the bay campus development. I was there on Friday, at the hon. Gentleman’s recommendation, and it is indeed a truly fine example of partnership-working. We know that success in the 21st century will belong to those economies that can harness knowledge and innovation, and having world-class university sites is part of that.
Has my right hon. Friend noted the recently published report of South Wales chamber of commerce, which notes that confidence in the Welsh economy has been high throughout 2014 and that it looks to remain the same for 2015? Is he as pleased as I am that real business people in Wales are so enthusiastic and keen to talk up the Welsh economy, unlike the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who devoted his recent article in the Western Mail to talking it down?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question, and he is absolutely right: the sentiment among businesses in north Wales, south Wales and west Wales is very confident and optimistic, and what they tell me every week as I criss-cross Wales talking to them is in stark contrast to the message we hear from the Opposition, who regularly now talk down the Welsh economy and the efforts of Welsh business.
On the economy, how does the right hon. Gentleman respond to today’s research by the university of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that only a fifth of claimants who have had their benefits sanctioned and then taken away have found work? Surely this will not rebalance the economy or make it stronger, let alone make it just, and it is diabolically punitive.
I have not seen that report so I am not going to get drawn into commenting on the specifics, but I have seen the latest figures for the performance of the Work programme in Wales, which should give us encouragement that we have a set of measures in place that is helping to bring down long-term unemployment.
The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I encourage him to look at the figures for long-term unemployment in Wales: they are coming down yet again this month, which is positive news. There is much more to be done, but the emerging picture is a very strong and positive one.
Tourism is very important to Wales, and to rural Wales in particular. It has been suggested that reducing VAT on visitor attractions and accommodation, as other EU countries have, would stimulate tourism and result in a higher tax-take. Does the Secretary of State agree with that view?
I am familiar with the VAT arguments from the tourism sector. Of course these matters are the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he keeps them under review, but I would just point out to my hon. Friend the most recent tourism visitor figures, which showed about an 8% increase last year in international visitors coming to Wales. That has to be a good sign that the tourism sector is on the up in Wales.
12. The new year has seen another rise in the tolls on the Severn bridge, and many businesses across Wales tell me that the bridge is now becoming a barrier to business and trade. Will the Secretary of State have urgent talks with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about reducing VAT on the tolls? (907069)
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the burden that the increased tolls place on businesses and on visitors to Wales. We recognise that that is happening. They are, for example, a major burden on the small vans crossing the bridge. I have asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), to lead a body of work to look into the options for the Severn bridge, and he is having discussions with the Department for Transport. We also look forward to hearing the views of Members on both sides of the House.
Accident and Emergency Departments
My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise concerns with the Welsh Government about the provision of health care along the England-Wales border and we are reviewing the current arrangements to ensure that they meet patients’ needs.
When my constituents in Montgomeryshire need to attend A and E, they are taken either to hospitals in England, where 87% of patients are seen within four hours, or to hospitals in Wales, where, shockingly, the figure is only 63%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government and the UK Government should work together constructively to deliver reforms to ensure that only genuine emergencies attend A and E?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a strong and constructive point. At this time of year, the NHS is facing severe pressures across the whole of the UK, and he is right to say that there is a disparity between the outcomes in Wales and those across the border in England. It is right that we should work together to address those disparities, but Welsh Government Ministers in Cardiff should be held to account for the decisions that have led to some of the problems.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the innovative medical centre at the end of Wind street in Swansea, which treats intoxicated people on the spot, freeing up ambulances, police and accident and emergency departments? Will he inform the Secretary of State for Health in England of the success of that venture, and suggest to him that similar facilities here could help to reduce the pressures caused by the removal of walk-in centres?
Since we last met, the Secretary of State has warned his Cabinet colleagues to mind their language when talking about the NHS in Wales. He said:
“I want them to take care how they speak about health services in Wales…I don’t want to hear anyone talking about a second-class NHS in Wales”.
Is he therefore disappointed that the Prime Minister has overruled him in continuing to bad-mouth the Welsh NHS?
I am surprised to hear this from the hon. Gentleman. We on this side of the House are not shutting down the debate on, and scrutiny of, the performance of the NHS. We stand on the side of patients in England and in Wales, and it is quite wrong of him to act as some kind of cheerleader for the Labour party by seeking to shut down the scrutiny and the debate on the Welsh NHS.
I take it from that answer that the Secretary of State is disappointed that the Prime Minister has overruled him. I believe that the Prime Minister has done that because talking about the Welsh NHS is his favourite way of distracting people’s attention from the failings of the NHS in England. Given that there is a crisis in hospitals near the border in Telford, in Shropshire, and in Cheltenham and Gloucester, where Welsh patients are traditionally sent, is it not now time for the Secretary of State to renew his efforts to get the PM to stop talking about Offa’s Dyke as though it were a line between life and death?
On the subject of health, there are two apologies that we need to hear from the Opposition today. The first is an apology from the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the Welsh Labour party for the way in which its Ministers in Cardiff have run the Welsh NHS into the ground. The second is from the Leader of the Opposition for his disgraceful and inappropriate suggestion that the NHS should be “weaponised”.
We have been ambitious in our infrastructure investment plans to address the historic underinvestment in Wales by previous Governments. We are enabling businesses in Wales to expand and explore new markets by investing in better train links, less-congested roads and faster broadband speeds.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the commitment to fund the northern hub in full and the ambition for HS3 to improve connectivity right across the north of England, what is his Department doing to ensure that north Wales can take full advantage of those welcome developments?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the significant infrastructure investment being made across the whole of the UK, but of course it is important that north Wales links into the rest of the UK. The fact that Crewe is the HS2 hub is important, and I look forward to hosting a transport summit in the next week or so to discuss how we best link north Wales with the rest of the UK.
13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on investment in rail in north Wales. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government have diverted funding previously allocated for the phase 1 and phase 2 modular rail signalling upgrade in north Wales to support investment in rail projects in south Wales? (907070)
I can categorically reject that. The UK Government are making significant investment in north Wales, at the Halton curve, and in south Wales, in the electrification of the main line right through to Swansea and in the valley lines and Vale of Glamorgan line services. I am proud of our record of electrifying railways in Wales. The previous Administration left us as one of the three nations across Europe without any electrified rail; Wales, sadly, was left with Albania and Moldova, and this Government are changing that.
Will the Minister congratulate the Welsh Government on providing funding for infrastructure investment in Rhyl? They have provided £28 million for new housing in Rhyl; £22 million for a new community hospital; £10 million for a new harbour; £25 million for a new Rhyl high school; and £12 million for flood defences. Will he also condemn the coalition Government, who have closed down Rhyl county court, Rhyl Army recruitment centre and Rhyl tax office, with the Crown post office possibly being relocated out of Rhyl?
The hon. Gentleman is somewhat selective in the data he shares. I am proud of the infrastructure investment record of this Government; he failed to mention the north Wales prison and the Halton curve, as well as the investment across the whole of Wales, not only in the north.
In recent months, I have been working with the communities of Salem, Cwmdu, Talley and Pumsaint, which have been without landline provision while waiting for damaged lines to be repaired. Communication problems have been exacerbated by a lack of mobile coverage, so will the Minister ensure that mobile not spots in Carmarthenshire benefit from the recently announced investment in mobile infrastructure?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. Openreach and British Telecom need to get on top of replacing those lines when they fall because of adverse weather. Let me also congratulate the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the innovation he is showing in trying to close those not spots by using both private money and the mobile infrastructure plan, which will make a major difference in these areas.
The Government are very aware of the severe pressures currently facing the UK dairy sector. I have discussed the situation in Wales with my ministerial colleagues, as well as with key stakeholders, including numerous dairy farmers. There are major short-term global factors pushing down prices, and we are calling on banks, supermarkets and major processors to show flexibility and understanding at this time.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. We all understand the global challenges facing the industry, but will he urgently speak to his Department for Business, Innovation and Skills colleagues about extending the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to the whole supply chain—to all dairy producers—and, crucially, enacting the adjudicator’s power to fine? The next review of the role is not expected until 2016, and many of our farmers will not be functioning as farmers unless we have urgent action now.
First, I commend the work my hon. Friend does on the dairy sector in Wales; he is a powerful voice on behalf of dairy farmers in his constituency and throughout Wales. We strongly support the work of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Its jurisdiction is currently limited, but a review will take place next year. I take my hon. Friend’s point about the short-term pressures, so we look forward to receiving information and updates from him on action we can take.
As a Member representing Pembrokeshire, the Secretary of State will be well aware that the dairy industry in Wales still contributes about 10% to the whole of the UK’s production, but that since 1999 its level has fallen by 51%. Will he look at yesterday’s report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says exactly what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) says: give the adjudicator greater teeth to tackle unfair pricing?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and we are looking exactly at that report. A very severe short-term crisis faces the dairy sector at this time. Nobody pretends that expanding the role of the adjudicator will fix the global problems—big market challenges need to be addressed—but we are doing everything we can to work with the dairy industry and protect the supply base.
On the market challenges that the right hon. Gentleman refers to, what steps is he taking to urge his Government to work with the Welsh Government to implement policies we have suggested—for example, the dairy equivalent of Hybu Cig Cymru to market Welsh milk, the use of rural development funding to develop supply chains to counteract volatility, and procurement in the local Welsh sector?
The right hon. Gentleman might be surprised to hear that we do follow the policy recommendations of Plaid Cymru and I have looked at the recommendation for that new body. When huge global imbalances are putting such severe pressure on dairy farmers throughout Europe, reaching for a bureaucratic solution and setting up a new quango probably will not make that much difference, but we will look at the proposal in further detail and have that discussion.
With dairy prices at 20p a litre, First Milk collapsing last week and the discount supermarkets cutting prices day by day, it is hardly surprising that one dairy farmer goes out of business every 10 days. Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to the efforts of the EU and national Government, we need to see far more action from the Welsh Government? There is a great deal they could do to support Welsh farmers, as well as farmers in North Wiltshire.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and make two points in response. First, First Milk did not collapse last week. It faces some pressures and there are specific impacts for dairy herds, but that co-operative is still very much functioning. Secondly, on the Welsh Government, we work constructively and co-operatively with them on agriculture issues.
The Secretary of State rightly recognises the severe crisis in the dairy industry, so with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s dairy price report criticising the grocery adjudicator’s role as too narrow and left toothless by this Government’s failure to set the level of fines that she can impose, will he now act with a sense of urgency, push for an immediate review of the adjudicator’s role and give that assurance to Welsh farmers?
I am surprised by the tone that the hon. Lady takes. Under the Government that she supported, no progress whatever was made on implementing a code of practice or an adjudicator. As a Government we have been taking forward these measures. We will look at the specific recommendations of the Select Committee report, but we will take no lessons from the Labour party on the dairy sector.
My right hon. Friend will know that independent grocers such as Spar in Tywyn in Gwynedd stock Welsh milk, which is clearly marked with y ddraig goch—the red dragon. What steps can he take to ensure that people in Wales drink Welsh milk rather than European milk, which will stimulate the market and support Welsh farmers?
My hon. Friend is right. Welsh produce is the best in the world, and when it is labelled as such it gives consumers powerful signals, which they respond to. That is one of the ways in which we have been able to boost exports of Welsh agriculture produce in the past two years, but we will look at what further steps we can take to support labelled home-grown produce.
Welfare Reform: Social Housing
5. What assessment he has made of the implications for the Government’s policies of the Auditor General for Wales’s report on “Managing the Impact of Welfare Reform Changes on Social Housing Tenants in Wales”, published in January 2015. (907062)
7. What assessment he has made of the implications for the Government’s policies of the Auditor General for Wales’s report on “Managing the Impact of Welfare Reform Changes on Social Housing Tenants in Wales”, published in January 2015. (907064)
This Government will not shy away from the financial and social responsibility of reforming the way in which housing benefit is allocated. There are no plans to change Government policy following the report from the Auditor General for Wales. We plan to use this report to support local authorities to respond better to local needs.
As the Minister will know, there has been a large number of Government reports on the Government’s welfare policies. A Sheffield Hallam university report, for example, shows that the south Wales valleys will experience a £430 million cut in income, endangering 3,000 local jobs as a direct result of Tory welfare reforms. Is not the Minister ashamed?
The report that the right hon. Lady mentions is an important contribution to the debate, but it focuses on only one element of Government policy. It does not take into account the wider package of welfare reform—something that the previous Administration, sadly, shied away from. This Administration will not do so, because of the important need to tackle Government finances.
The 1,500 people in Flintshire who are impacted by the bedroom tax face no choice but to cut their incomes, which are already low, because there are no properties available. Will the Minister tell me how many two-bedroom and one-bedroom properties are available in Flintshire today?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point because the number of new social properties built in Wales over the past three years is, proportionately, far fewer than the number built in England over the same period. The Welsh Government have a responsibility to deliver in that area. The Wales Audit Office report also highlights the fact that 47% of tenants had no advice given to them on how better to manage the spare room subsidy and the obligations that it would bring.
Will the Minister explain why it is right to force disabled people out of a home and into a smaller property—should one exist in the first place—rip out all the adaptations that have been made to that property and, presumably, put new ones into a second property? Apart from being cruel, how can such action possibly be cost-effective?
This Government have made additional money available through the discretionary housing payment to help individuals facing difficult circumstances. Only three out of 22 local authorities in the whole of Wales—Cardiff, Caerphilly and Conwy—applied for additional discretionary housing payments. The hon. Gentleman’s local authority did not do that. Let us be clear: the roots of the removal of the spare room subsidy lie deeply in the Labour Benches, because it was a Labour Administration who took it away from the private-rented sector. We are merely extending that principle to the social-rented sector.
My own local authority runs a useful forum for local agencies to plan a response to the bedroom tax, but its work is bedevilled by a lack of certainty over central Government support through the discretionary fund. Will the Minister prevail on his colleagues to give more certainty to future funding, which would help our work?
The discretionary housing payment is completely flexible and local authorities should use their discretion to see that it is used in the best way. The Wales Audit Office report provides excellent data and highlights some authorities such as Caerphilly and Cardiff that provide excellent practice and support their tenants in meeting the obligations of the spare room subsidy. After all, it is about returning the long-term unemployed back to the workplace, as that offers them the best opportunities and the best prospects.
Wales has the potential to be a beacon of hi-tech excellence and innovation. Since 2010, thousands of new jobs have been created in the advanced manufacturing, ICT and life sciences sectors. The growth in those sectors is contributing to the rebalancing of our economy, which is so vital to future economic success.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Remarkable transformations are occurring inside the Welsh economy. Much more work needs to be done, but the picture is a positive one. That view stands in stark contrast with what the Labour party would have us believe, as it consistently—week in, week out—talks down the achievements of Welsh business.
Shared Services Jobs
The Wales Office continues to hold discussions with the Ministry of Justice on the future of the Shared Services Connected Limited offices in Newport. The Justice Secretary has been clear that he would not support any proposals to offshore jobs from Newport.
The city of Newport has provided a splendid successful habitat for thousands of civil service jobs. Will the Minister renew his efforts to ensure that shared services, which were pioneered in Newport, are now strengthened and recognised as centres of excellence?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. It is quite obvious that the pooling of the expertise and experience in Newport provides the shared services facility a great opportunity to try to attract work from both the private and public sectors, and we are determined to do what we can in that area.
Incidents of religious and racial hatred are thankfully very low in Wales. But as we approach Holocaust memorial day, it is right that we look again at the efforts we are making to prevent such incidents and to say with a clear and united voice that anti-Semitism and all forms of racial and religious hatred are not compatible with the freedom values that are cherished by the people of Wales. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Jewish community across the whole of the United Kingdom is feeling under increasing threat. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the part of the United Kingdom that he is responsible for is as vigilant and as supported as every other part of the United Kingdom, so that his Jewish community can feel that it has our support?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. He is exactly right: no member of the Jewish community anywhere in the UK should have to live in fear. He may be interested to know that tomorrow I shall be meeting Rabbi Michael Rose in Cardiff, to talk about those concerns as they affect Wales.
Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remark not only upon Rabbi Michael Rose, but also upon the work done by Mr Saleem Kidwai, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales, who has been working so very hard in Cardiff for good community relations for many years?
My hon. Friend will also be interested to know that I am meeting the Muslim Council of Wales tomorrow. We had a remarkable and powerful demonstration of unity on the Sunday evening after the Paris attacks, when Rabbi Rose and the Muslim Council of Wales leader stood hand in hand, in unity, supporting freedom values in Wales.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Niluk is seven and he has autism. He desperately needs security and routine, but high London rents and insecure tenancies mean that he and his devoted family have moved four times in 18 months. As a result, he has had a breakdown and been admitted to hospital. Does the Prime Minister agree that insecure six-month private tenancies are no place for a family with children, and particularly not for children with autism?
I agree with the hon. Lady about how important it is that people do have security, particularly when they are looking after disabled children and they need that help. That is why we have been encouraging longer-term tenancies alongside the standard six-month tenancies, and we want to see those developed in the market.
I think I caught some of that, although I may need to buy the album to get the rest of it, but the point is a good one. The Opposition’s policy of freezing energy prices at the top of the market would be denying the price cuts that are now coming through to customers around this country. But the key to all this is to stick to our long-term economic plan, which again today is seeing unemployment fall and the number of people in work rise to record levels—something which I am sure we are going to welcome right across the House of Commons.
Let me start by saying, on the Iraq inquiry, that it was set up six years ago and I agree with the Prime Minister that it should be published as soon as possible.
On the economy, as the election approaches, can the Prime Minister confirm that we now know this will be the first Government since the 1920s to leave office with living standards lower at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning?
First of all, let me agree with the Leader of the Opposition that we want to see this Iraq inquiry published promptly, but let me make this point. If everyone in this House, including Opposition Members, had voted to set up the Iraq inquiry when we proposed, it would have been published years ago. So perhaps he could start by recognising his own regret at voting against the establishment of the inquiry.
The inquiry was established six years ago, after our combat operations had ended, and frankly, my views on the Iraq war are well known and I want this inquiry to be published.
I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer on the economy. Families are £1,600 a year worse off. He said in his 2010 manifesto that living standards would rise. Can we therefore agree that Tory manifesto promises on living standards are not worth the paper they are written on?
First of all, let us be clear: the right hon. Gentleman voted again and again and again against establishing the inquiry—but, as ever, absolutely no apology.
Let me deal very directly with living standards and what is happening in the economy of our country. The news out today shows a record number of people in work and a record number of women in work. We are seeing wages growing ahead of inflation, and we are also seeing disposable income now higher than in any year under the previous Labour Government. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s figure of £1,600, it does not include any of the tax reductions that we have put in place again and again under this Government. That is the truth. The fact of the matter is that he told us there would be no growth, and we have had growth; he told us there would be no jobs, and we have had jobs; he told us there would be a cost of living crisis, and we have got inflation at 0.5%. He is wrong about everything.
The Prime Minister has raised taxes on ordinary families, he has raised VAT, and he has cut tax credits. The reality is that people are worse off on wages and they are worse off on taxes under this Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister thinks everything is hunky-dory. Did he even notice this week the report that came out that said that half of all families where one person is in full-time work cannot make ends meet at the end of the month? You can work hard and play by the rules, but in Cameron’s Britain you still cannot pay the bills—that is the reality.
I study every report that comes out. The right hon. Gentleman is referring, of course, to the Rowntree report, which says that
“the risk of falling below a socially acceptable living standard decreases as the amount of work in a household increases.”
Under this Government, we have got over 30 million people in work, we have got the lowest rate of young people claiming unemployment benefit since the 1970s, long-term unemployment is down, and women’s unemployment is down. We are getting the country back to work. In terms of living standards, we have raised to £10,000 the amount of money people can earn before they start paying taxes, and people who are in work are seeing their pay go up by 4%. If we had listened to the right hon. Gentleman, none of these things would have happened. If we had listened to Labour, it would be more borrowing, more spending, more debt: all the things that got us into a mess in the first place.
This Prime Minister says that we have never had it so good, and he is totally wrong. He does not notice what is going on because life is good for those at the top. Can he confirm that while every day people are worse off, executive earnings have gone up by 21% in the last year alone?
The right hon. Gentleman criticises me on the deficit—he is the man who could not even remember the deficit. Also, he has now had four questions and not a single word of welcome for the unemployment figures out today. Behind every single one of those statistics is a family with someone who can go out to work, who can earn a wage, and who can help give that family security. We are the party that is putting the country back to work; Labour is the party that would put it all at risk.
That is total complacency about one month’s figures when the Prime Minister has had five years of failure under this Government. Under this Prime Minister we are a country of food banks and bank bonuses; a country of tax cuts for millionaires while millions are paying more. Is not his biggest broken promise of all that we are all in it together?
Oh dearie me—you can see the problem that Labour Members have got. They cannot talk about the deficit because it is coming down. They cannot talk about employment because it is going up. They cannot talk about the economy because the International Monetary Fund and the President of the United States all say the British economy is performing well. So what are they left with? I will tell you, Mr Speaker. They have got an energy policy to keep prices high, they have got a minimum wage policy that would cut the minimum wage, and they have got a homes tax that has done the impossible and united the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) with Peter Mandelson. To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, we learned at the weekend what he can achieve in one week in Doncaster, where he could not open the door, he was bullied by small children, and he set the carpet on fire—just imagine what a shambles he would make of running the country.
I have to say to the Prime Minister: if he is so confident about leadership, why is he chickening out of the TV election debates?
This is the Prime Minister who will go down in history as the worst on living standards for working people. He tells people they are better off; they know they are worse off. Working families know they cannot afford another five years of this Government.
Why don’t we leave the last word to the head of the International Monetary Fund? She is often quoted by the shadow Chancellor, who today seems to be having a quiet day: I can see why—because our economy is growing, and people are getting back to work. She said that the UK is
“where clearly growth is improving, the deficit has been reduced, and where…unemployment is going down. Certainly from a global perspective this is exactly the sort of result that we would like to see: more growth, less unemployment, a growth that is more inclusive, that is better shared, and a growth that is…sustainable and…balanced.”
That is the truth. Every day this country is getting stronger and more secure, and every day we see a Labour party weaker, more divided and more unfit for office.
Does my right hon. Friend fully recognise the contrast in efficiency of the inquiries into the Crimean war and the Dardanelles campaign compared with the disgraceful incompetence of the Chilcot inquiry into widely held suspicions that Mr Blair conspired with President George W. Bush several months before March 2003, and then systematically sought to falsify the evidence on which action was taken?
I obviously bow to the knowledge of the Father of the House about the previous inquiries. I would say that the one thing all three inquiries have in common is that I am not responsible for the timing of any of them. The truth is that it is extremely frustrating that the report cannot come out more quickly, but the responsibility lies squarely with the inquiry team. It is an independent inquiry, and it would not be right for the Prime Minister to try to interfere with that inquiry, but I feel sure that when the report does come out, it will be thorough and it will be comprehensive. Let me repeat again: if the Labour party had voted for the inquiry when we first put it forward, the report would be out by now.
I have made my views very clear: if we are going to have one minor party, we should have all the minor parties. When this happens, one point I will make is what Mr Farage said in 2012 about the NHS—the hon. Gentleman comes to the House week after week to talk about the NHS in Kent—when he said that
“we are going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare”.
That is the UKIP policy—privatise the NHS; I say, “Never.”
Q15. An estimated 13 million people—30% of those who should be eligible to vote—are registered incorrectly or are not registered at all on the individual electoral registration system. In the year of the election, will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government fully support national voter registration day on 5 February, and will he commit himself to taking part in Bite the Ballot’s leaders live event? It might help him in making his decision to know that the Greens have agreed to take part in that debate. (907132)
It is important that people register to vote. That is why local authorities have been given over £7 million to help in that process. Individual voter registration will help to cut out some of the fraud and some of the systems that were used in previous elections.
Q3. This week, Channel 4’s “Dispatches” did an excellent job of exposing the reality of life for millions of people who are in low-paid, part-time and insecure work. Can the Prime Minister not see that his failure to promote decent jobs with decent pay is still a fundamental problem for our economy? (907120)
If the hon. Lady looks at the figures, she will see that eight in 10 of the jobs that have been created in the last year are full-time jobs. The Labour party comes here trying to make a case, but I am afraid that all the evidence has moved away from it. Originally, it was said that no jobs would be created. We now see more people in work than ever in our history. Then we were told that all the jobs would be part time. We now see that the majority of the jobs are full time. Then we were told that the jobs would not pay more than inflation. We now see wages rising ahead of inflation. Of course, that is helped by the cuts in income tax that we have made to help people who are low-paid and take them out of income tax altogether. That is the programme that we are pursuing. There is not an ounce of complacency, because there is a lot more work to do, but we are on the right track.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Will the Prime Minister support the Magna Carta roadshow, a project that I am running in schools in Erewash to make all children aware of this important document and, more importantly, of the constitutional history of our great country and the rights and freedoms that we hold so dear?
I absolutely join the hon. Lady in making that point. This is an important anniversary, and it is important that this country and our Parliament commemorate it properly. We must teach children in schools how our constitution has evolved and what rights we have, because pride in those things is important in understanding what a precious jewel we have in a functioning democracy under the rule of law.
Q4. The target of a maximum two-month wait from an urgent referral for suspected cancer to first treatment for all cancers is being breached. Is there a bigger sign of his Government’s failure than the Prime Minister’s inability to uphold key rights for cancer patients that are enshrined in the NHS constitution? (907121)
It is vital that cancer patients get urgent treatment. Under this Government, half a million more people are getting referred for cancer treatment. That is why cancer survival rates are going up. Let me give the hon. Gentleman the figures for his own hospital area: 96.8% of patients with suspected cancer are being seen by a specialist within two weeks, which is an improvement on 2010; 100% of patients diagnosed with cancer are beginning treatment within 31 days, which is an improvement on 2010; and 94.8% of patients are beginning cancer treatment within 62 days of a GP referral, which again is an improvement on 2010. The reason we have been able to make those improvements is that we put resources into the NHS when the Labour party told us that that was irresponsible. We have also got rid of the bureaucracy in the NHS in England, which is why it is performing better than the NHS in Wales.
I share the Prime Minister’s disappointment over the delay to the Chilcot report, particularly given that the issue in 2009 was whether it would be published in time for the 2010 election, let alone the 2015 election. Does the Prime Minister agree that the invitation of the Foreign Affairs Committee to Sir John Chilcot to give evidence to us, not to point the finger of blame, but to give him a chance to explain the reasons for the delay, should be accepted to ensure that this situation never happens again?
Obviously, my view is that when people are asked to appear in front of a Select Committee, and when they are public servants, they should try to meet that obligation. How that is processed is a matter for the House and my right hon. Friend’s Committee. The most important thing right now for Chilcot and his team is to get the report ready and ensure it can be published as soon as possible after the election.
Q5. Last summer my constituent, Mr Kenneth Bailey, suffered a major stroke while out shopping. The emergency call was classed as a Red 2 priority, yet it took Yorkshire ambulance service an hour and four minutes to get to him. That is just one example of a crisis that is now nationwide. What will the Prime Minister do about that situation? (907122)
What we are doing for the ambulance service is ensuring that there are 1,700 extra paramedics, and we have put £50 million more into the ambulance service over the winter. I hope something that all sides of the House can unite over is that it would be completely wrong for the proposed ambulance strike to go ahead next week. I unreservedly condemn any attempts to go on strike and threaten our services, particularly at this time of heightened national concern, and I hope that members of the Labour party, irrespective of which union they are sponsored by, will do the same thing.
Q6. The Leader of the Opposition will not, but will the Prime Minister welcome the International Monetary Fund saying this week that Britain has the “fastest-growing advanced economy” in the world? Will he welcome today’s announcement that unemployment is falling in Dover, Deal and across Britain, and does he agree with President Obama that we “must be doing something right”? (907123)
I thought it was very kind of the President of the United States to make that point about doing something right, and the IMF is absolutely clear. It said:
“The UK is leading in a very eloquent and convincing way in the European Union. A few countries, only a few, are driving growth:”.
That is what the IMF thinks about the British and American economies. Obviously that is helping in Dover where the claimant count is down by 28% since the election, but we should not be satisfied until everyone who wants a job in our country is able to get a job in our country, and until our employment rate is the best in the G7. That is what I would define as achieving what we want, which is full employment in our country.
Q7. The Prime Minister’s crisis in the national health service has its roots in general practice, and the changes the Government made to GP pensions saw a huge number of GPs retire early. In my area in Chesterfield, 40% of places for the future recruitment of GPs are left vacant. How can we expect the country to recruit the number of GPs we need when so few of them have any confidence in the Prime Minister’s running of the national health service? (907124)
The figures show that 1,000 more GPs are working in the NHS today than when I became Prime Minister, and in the hon. Gentleman’s area there are 25 more GPs than in 2010. I agree that we need further changes to ensure that our GP and family doctor service works really well. Four million people already have access to seven-day opening at GP surgeries, and I want that expanded to the whole country. That is a step forward after the step back taken by the last Labour Government, who took GPs out of out-of-hours care altogether.
Q14. The east of England helped boost the nation’s economic recovery, and we could do even more if the East Anglian rail manifesto was implemented. Will the Prime Minister encourage colleagues to fund that with modern rolling stock for the Greater Anglia main line, and infrastructure improvements through Essex? (907131)
I want to see real improvements in the Greater Anglia service, and the hon. Gentleman is right about the economy in the eastern region of our country, which has 224,000 more people in work compared with 2010. The Chancellor said in the autumn statement that we would provide funding for improved rolling stock, and as well as improvements in Essex we want to help achieve the Norwich in 90 campaign. We also want a service from Ipswich that will get to London in under an hour. That will take investment, but that is part of our long-term economic plan.
Q8. The delay in the publication of the Chilcot report is widely considered to be a scandal. Does the Prime Minister appreciate that it is important to find out exactly what has gone wrong? We have a major forthcoming inquiry into child sex abuse. The public would not understand if powerful people that might be named in that report are able to delay publication year after year, as seems to have happened with Chilcot. (907125)
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that the inquiries are done thoroughly and rapidly. My understanding is that there is no mystery in why it is taking so long. It is a thorough report. The people who are criticised in a report have to be given the opportunity to respond to all those criticisms. That is what is happening at the moment. From what I understand, I do not believe that anyone is trying dodge or put off the report—we all want to see it—but we have to go through the proper processes.
Let me make one other point clear. There is no question of the report being delivered to me and of my deciding not to publish it before the election. The whole report will not reach the Prime Minister’s desk, whoever that is, until after the election.
Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Havering chamber of commerce and industry and the Havering branch of Mind, which are coming together tomorrow evening in an event to promote employment opportunities for people with mental health problems?
I will certainly do so. It is right that mental health is getting a much higher political profile today than in the past. We have given mental health parity of esteem in the NHS constitution, but my hon. Friend is right that one of the key challenges is helping people with mental health conditions to get in to work. Business can do a lot more by engaging with the charities to help people in that situation.
Q9. As we know, next week it will be 70 years since Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians. Is it not important that, when issues such as Palestine are raised—I have raised it and will continue to do so—it should be no excuse for anti-Semitism, a murderous disease that took the lives of millions of innocent people during my lifetime? (907126)
I agree 100% with the hon. Gentleman in everything he says. Anyone who has been to Auschwitz—I went recently—cannot help but be struck by the appalling end that came of the hatred and prejudice fostered across Europe. The sight of all those children’s clothes, toys and bags, and human hair, stays with people for a very long time after they have seen them. Ensuring that the Holocaust Commission that we have established reports soon has all-party support. We will take that work forward and continue to ensure that young people in our schools can make the harrowing but very powerful trip to see Auschwitz for themselves.
As someone who voted with his colleagues against the Iraq war, I have sought to follow the Chilcot inquiry very closely. May I tell my right hon. Friend that I am aware of no evidence that any witness has sought to alter the progress of the inquiry by delay? I am aware of reports of instances of illness, including in one case a severe illness, among members of the inquiry. After the experience of the Saville and Chilcot inquiries, is not the lesson that the proper template for future inquiries should be Leveson—judge-led, but with a strict timetable?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a strong point in the stance he takes. I agree with him. I have not heard anything to say that anyone is trying artificially to delay the report. He is absolutely right about some of the things that have happened to the inquiry panel members, most notably to the most brilliant biographer of Churchill, Martin Gilbert. I am sure the best wishes of everyone in the House go to him. My right hon. and learned Friend makes the fair point that, as inquiries are set up, we should give more thought to trying to ensure they are completed in very good time.
Q10. The Prime Minister said that his policies would eradicate the deficit in this Parliament. Unfortunately, he was mistaken—a very large deficit remains. What is the reason, in his view, why his economic plan has fallen so far short? (907127)
We inherited from Treasury Ministers, including the right hon. Gentleman, the biggest deficit of any country in the western world. As a share of GDP, we have cut that in half. We have done that through a combination of reducing public spending, making sure we have responsible tax policies and strong economic growth. That is what we have delivered. All the way through, the Labour party’s proposals have been for more spending, more borrowing and more debt. They have not even got to base camp of working out why the deficit matters.
As the Member privileged to represent the home of the British Army in Aldershot, which I can tell the Father of the House was established as a direct result of the inquiry into the Crimean war and the failures thereof, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to reassure me that press reports this morning about discussions on reducing the regular Army from the already low level of 82,000 to 60,000, are wholly unfounded and that, so long as he remains Prime Minister, no such cuts will be contemplated?
Q11. I very much welcome the reduction in UK unemployment announced this morning. I have to add, however, that that is not the case in my constituency, where unemployment has actually risen very slightly. I am sure the Prime Minister has that in his notes in front of him. For those who are in work, the value of their wages has dropped in the past year by 1.5%, while the wages of the Prime Minister’s constituents continue to rise above inflation. Is the Prime Minister proud that under his watch the poor continue to be poorer and the rich keep getting richer? (907128)
If we look at Scotland as whole, on the year unemployment is down by 20,000 and the rate of unemployment in Scotland is also down. The rate of unemployment in Scotland is lower than the rate of unemployment in, for instance, London, so the idea that this recovery is being felt only in the south of our country is simply nonsense. The hon. Lady mentions wages. Obviously, one of the most powerful things we can do to help people with the cost of living is to take them out of income tax. In Scotland, we have taken 23,000 people out of income tax altogether, and over 2 million people are benefiting from the personal allowance changes that have already helped people to the tune of more than £700 a year.
Q12. The dairy industry underpins the economy of rural Britain, including that of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. The dairy industry is currently in difficulty. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government must consider all ways to bring stability to this important sector, including whether the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator should be extended and strengthened? (907129)
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we look at how we can support Britain’s dairy farmers at a time of very low milk prices. This is an important industry for our country and I think there are a number of things we can do; first, make sure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is prepared to provide the time to pay to support our dairy farmers. There is more we can do in terms of leading exports for British food producers—I know the Secretary of State is very keen on that. Specifically on the Groceries Code Adjudicator, something we have established, it is time to make sure that that organisation has the power, if necessary, to levy fines so that it can get its will obeyed. I also think it is time to look at whether there are ways in which its remit can be extended to make sure it looks at more of this vital industry.
Q13. West Dunbartonshire desperately needs a pay rise. A quarter of our children are living in poverty, and this Prime Minister’s policies are failing them and their families. A year ago, the Chancellor suggested that he wanted to see a £7 national minimum wage from this October. Will the Prime Minister tell me why his Government’s evidence to the Low Pay Commission makes no mention of this at all? (907130)
Our evidence to the Low Pay Commission says we need another increase in the minimum wage. It is only under this Government that we have seen a minimum wage increase ahead of inflation, which never happened while Labour was presiding over economic chaos. That is the truth. Let me explain to the hon. Lady. She will have to explain to her constituents why Labour’s minimum wage policy would actually cut the minimum wage in the next Parliament. That is how incompetent and useless those on the Opposition Front Bench are. The best thing we can do is to keep growing the economy, keep creating jobs and keep cutting taxes, because we are on track and the plan is working.
There has been a spate of dog thefts across the Bradford district, where a rally has been held to bring people’s attention to the plight of Murphy, a husky stolen recently. It is very distressing for the owners and dogs concerned, who are devoted to each other. Some of these dogs are used in practice for dog fighting, and who knows what fate awaits some of the other stolen dogs? Will the Prime Minister use his good offices to draw attention to this problem and ensure that the authorities investigate these crimes and take them as seriously as any other crime?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are a nation of dog lovers—people are very attached to their pets—and it is appalling when they get stolen, particularly for the sorts of purposes he talked about. Obviously, the changes we have made on compulsory chipping should help, but my heart goes out to anyone who sees a much-loved pet taken from them.
As the Prime Minister looks back over his achievements in the past five years and considers what he might—or might not—be doing in the first few months of the next Parliament, and further to the question from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), will he commit to maintaining defence spending at 2% of GDP to ensure that our commitments to our NATO allies are met and that our country is secure and strong at home and abroad?
We are one of the few NATO countries that do achieve 2% of spending on defence, and because of that, we will see, in the coming months and years, a defence equipment programme that is second to none in Europe: two aircraft carriers, new joint strike fighters, hunter-killer submarines and new frigates. We can see a strong defence industry, supported by our commitment that the defence equipment programme specifically should be protected.