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Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

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.

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.

First they sold our gold reserves at a record low and then they tried to freeze our energy prices at a record high. Does not this latest display of economic illiteracy confirm that only this Government can prevent us, to be blunt—

James Blunt. Does not that confirm that only this Government can prevent us from returning back to bedlam?

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.

The Prime Minister is the person who has failed on the deficit. This Prime Minister says—[Interruption.]

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.

Order. It may well be that this session will take a bit longer, but questions and answers—[Interruption.] That is fine by me, but however long it takes, the questions and the answers will be heard.

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?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Those ideas are absolutely not on the table. As long as I am Prime Minister, the regular Army will stay at its current size.

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.