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Prime Minister

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the sickening murders in Syria of the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and the Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with their families at this very difficult time. We should also think of our own pilots and their families, and of all those who serve. I can assure the House that we will not stop until the murderous ISIL extremists who are behind this, and their poisonous ideology, are eradicated.

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

May I associate myself with the comments that the Prime Minister has just made?

A constituent of mine, an agency worker, told me that he pays income tax only if he works overtime. Part of his wages is paid in expenses, even when he is on holiday, which affects his national insurance contributions and therefore his benefit and pension entitlement. The sum of £16 a week is deducted from his wages to administer his payroll, and he even has to pay for his own pay slip. Is that any way in which to treat our working people?

We are looking into abuse by the so-called umbrella companies that can sometimes bring such things about, but the broader point is that I want to help people like that by cutting their taxes and taking them out of income tax altogether. We have already taken 3 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax altogether, and we plan to enable people to earn £12,500 before they start to pay income tax, which will take another 1 million out of it altogether.

Will the Prime Minister welcome the increase in the number of students—especially those from the poorest backgrounds—who are applying for university places? Will he confirm that both universities and students would lose as a result of the reduction in funding that would be caused by a cut in fees? How could a policy that helped only rich graduates possibly be called progressive?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The coalition’s university policy was a long-term policy which has resulted in a record number of students going to university, as well as an increase in the number of university students from the poorest backgrounds. That is good for our country, good for students, and good for universities. What a contrast with Labour Members, who told us four years ago that they were going to get rid of tuition fees and who, four years later, have absolutely nothing to say about it. When will they make up their minds?

I join the Prime Minister in condemning the appalling murders of the Jordanian pilot and the Japanese hostages by ISIL. These were sickening and despicable acts, and simply reinforce our determination to defeat that evil organisation.

Everyone pays stamp duty on stock market transactions except those involved in hedge funds, who are allowed to avoid it. That is costing many hundreds of millions of pounds. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to act?

I have to say that for 13 years, during many of which the right hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury, they did absolutely nothing about this. What this Government have done is more than any previous Government to make sure that individuals and companies pay their taxes properly. I have to say I am delighted that he has raised the economy on the morning after his shadow Chancellor could not name one single business leader who backed Labour.

This is Prime Minister’s questions and the Prime Minister should try to answer the question. I asked him a very specific question about why hedge funds are not paying stamp duty on stock market transactions. It is costing hundreds of millions of pounds. He is being funded to the tune of £47 million by the hedge funds. Everyone knows that is why he is refusing to act, but what is his explanation?

Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman that when we came into office foreigners did not pay stamp duty on the properties they bought, foreigners did not pay capital gains tax on the properties they bought, and because of his tax rates City hedge fund managers were paying lower tax rates than the people who cleaned their offices. That is what we had to sort out. But let me put it to him again: the day after his shadow Chancellor was asked on television whether he could think of one single business leader, do you know what he said, Mr Speaker? He said, “Bill Somebody”! Bill Somebody is not a person—Bill Somebody is Labour’s policy.

I will tell the Prime Minister what people on the Opposition Benches are doing: we are standing up for hard-working families and businesses while he is a friend of the tax avoiders. I am going to keep asking him the question until he answers it. It is a very specific question about hedge funds avoiding stamp duty on their share transactions. It is costing hundreds of millions of pounds. He is bankrolled by the hedge funds. He claims he wants to act on tax avoidance. Why will he not act?

If the right hon. Gentleman has a good submission for the Budget, he can talk to the Chancellor about it. He says what they are doing on his side of the House. Let me tell him what he has been doing on his side of the House: two former Labour Health Secretaries completely condemned his health policy; all the leading university vice-chancellors condemned his university policy; and he cannot find one single business leader to back his economic policy. Is it any wonder that the Chuckle Brothers have lodged an official complaint and said they do not want to be compared to the two clowns opposite?

I am afraid I am going to keep asking the question until the Prime Minister has an answer. Let me explain it to him. [Interruption.] You can’t help him George; you’re too far away. Let me explain it to him very simply. Everybody pays stamp duty on their share transactions. [Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting. The questions and the answers will be heard. This is a democratic Chamber and no one, but no one, is going to be shouted down. The point is very simple and very obvious, and I hope everyone can grasp it.

Let me explain it to the right hon. Gentleman very simply. Everybody pays stamp duty on their share transactions, but the hedge funds are protected. We have been calling for action on this. It could raise hundreds of millions of pounds. Why will he not act?

We have acted on stamp duty. We will continue to act on stamp duty, but the right hon. Gentleman sat for 13 years in the Treasury and never did anything about it. If he wants to make sure that he acts on tax avoidance and evasion, why does he not start with Labour’s biggest donor, Mr John Mills— yes, we all remember this—who gave his donation in shares in order to cut his tax bill? Has he paid back the taxes yet?

I am really pleased the Prime Minister wants to talk about donors. Let us talk about his donors: £7 million—[Interruption.]

Order. The question will be heard. It is a very simple point. I have had to make it a second time, and I will make it as many times as necessary: the right hon. Gentleman will be heard.

I was talking about the Prime Minister’s donors, Mr Speaker: £7 million from Lord Laidlaw, a tax exile living in Monaco; £3 million from Michael Hintze with a company based in Jersey; and Michael Spencer, who gave him £4 million, involved in the LIBOR scandal. Same old Tories.

Now, let us give the Prime Minister a fifth chance. I know he does not do his homework, but this is his fifth chance. The hedge funds are avoiding tax to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. Will he now promise, from that Dispatch Box, to act for the national health service?

We had Labour for 13 years: no action on stamp duty, foreigners not paying stamp duty, foreigners not paying capital gains tax, no bank levy. The right hon. Gentleman talks about tax exiles: Andrew Rosenfeld, the man who raises his money, was for years a tax exile living in Geneva. That is what we get. But is it any wonder the right hon. Gentleman wants to find one particular issue to raise today? He cannot talk about minimum wages because his policy is to cut them, he cannot talk about energy prices because his policy is to keep them up, he cannot talk about universities because his policy is to trash them, and he cannot name a single business leader who supports Labour. No wonder the person who wrote “Things can only get better” says it no longer applies to Labour.

So basically, the right hon. Gentleman has been found out: five chances to answer the question, no answer coming. Let us close that tax loophole so we can have more doctors, more nurses, more care workers and more midwives. This is the difference: this is a Prime Minister who will not tackle tax avoidance for the simple reason that too many of his friends would get caught in the net. They are the party of Mayfair hedge funds and Monaco tax avoiders, and under him you always know that it is one rule for those at the top and another rule for everyone else.

There is only one person who has been found out this week and that is the leader of the Labour party: his economic policy has collapsed; his health policy has collapsed; his universities policy has collapsed. The most vital election in a generation is coming, and people can see the choice: a Labour party that is anti-enterprise, anti-business and that is falling apart under scrutiny, and a Conservative party turning this country around. That is the choice: competence from us, chaos from them.

This week we have seen that fear is spreading across this land among senior business people. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will stay the course of his—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s question must be heard. If he wants to continue the last bit of it, he can: spit it out.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will stay the course to prosperity with his long-term economic plan?

We will stay the course, because we can now see 1.75 million more people in work, the deficit down by half, the British economy growing faster than any major economy in western Europe, and business and enterprise large and small saying we have the right plan and we should stick to that plan. That is what we will do: it is competence versus chaos.

Q2. They were elected by fewer than 15% of the public and their first elections cost £80 million: why will the Prime Minister not scrap these ridiculous police and crime commissioners and instead put the money into front-line policing that would keep our communities safe? (907413)

The hon. Lady might want to ask why her former colleague Alun Michael stood for one of these posts. I think this is bringing accountability to our police service, because everybody knows there is now one person they have to account to. In the past, people did not know how to access their police authorities; they do now.

Q3. When my right hon. Friend visits Yorkshire tomorrow, he will be spoilt for choice by the number of businesses that are investing in creating jobs in Leeds, bringing unemployment in my Pudsey constituency down 55%, in Leeds West down 39%, and in Morley and Outwood down 51%. Does that not show that all parts of Leeds are contributing to the northern economic powerhouse, thanks to this Government’s economic policies? (907414)

I am very much looking forward to explaining how our long-term economic plan will really benefit and continue to benefit Yorkshire and north-east Lincolnshire. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have got employment up by 114,000 since the election; private sector employment is up by almost 200,000 since the election. [Interruption.]

The shadow Chancellor says come to Morley and Outwood. Believe me, I will be there, and I am afraid to say I have a plan to increase unemployment in that constituency by one, to give him a bit more time to remember a single business man who supports him.

The Labour party was in power for 13 years and failed to deliver a single additional power to Scotland that was outlined in the vow. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems have been in power for five years and, like Labour, they are not proposing the real home rule that was promised. Do the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party now understand why the voters of Scotland are sick of the Westminster parties, in contrast with the SNP, which will always put Scotland first?

This coalition Government have actually taken part in a massive exercise of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, and have already set out a significant extra increase in powers that will take place whoever is standing at this Dispatch Box after the election. Yes, we have had a Westminster Government here for the last five years. We have an SNP Government in Scotland, and as the new Labour leader in Scotland has pointed out, under the SNP, A and E waiting times in Scotland are now worse than they are in England. So apparently, it is all right to compare Scotland and England, but of course, it is not all right to compare England and Wales. That is interesting, is it not? It is a fascinating political strategy for the Scottish Labour leader to say that life is always better under the Tories, but I agree.

Q4. Given the success the Prime Minister claims for the coalition’s long-term economic plan, why, if allowed to govern alone, does he want to change it to bring in even deeper cuts to public services? (907415)

I believe that after seven years of economic growth, which is what we will have had by 2018, we should be starting to pay down the deficit by running a surplus. I think that is something that every business and every family in the country will understand. You need to fix the roof when the sun is shining, and as far as I can see, it is only the Conservative party that will offer that at the next election.

Q5. When the Prime Minister comes to Yorkshire, he might reflect on the promise he made to a Barnsley business to support efforts to secure a major international contract to manufacture solar panels. Billions of pounds of investment depend upon him keeping his word, but delays in Whitehall mean that the deal is now at risk. Will the Prime Minister do what he said he would do: intervene to make sure that we can bring hundreds of good, skilled jobs to this country? (907416)

I understand that UK Trade & Investment, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign Office have all been providing advice and support to Solar Europa, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and have met it on a number of occasions. We want to promote all projects that can create jobs in the UK and benefit relations with international partners. So I will look to see if there is anything that can be done in the Whitehall system that is getting in the way of this company, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

My constituent Mr Mohammed Naved Bashir was arrested in December. Despite pointing out on numerous occasions that he had a different name from that of the wanted man, he was held in prison cells in Halifax for three days. It was confirmed that the police had arrested the wrong person only when he was transported and presented to a judge in Glasgow. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Home Secretary to look into this case and perhaps supply the answers that Mr Bashir is not getting to the questions he is putting to the police?

This sounds like a very concerning case. My understanding is that West Yorkshire police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the arrest and detention of Mr Bashir. I cannot give the House the specifics of the case because it involves ongoing legal action, but I will discuss it with the Home Secretary as my hon. Friend asks. Of course, one option would be for Mr Bashir to make a formal complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but let me try to get my hon. Friend some more information about this.

Q6. I know that the Prime Minister has followed closely the recent upheaval in the NHS in north Staffordshire, involving the Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent hospitals merger, the PET-CT scanner and the waiting times at accident and emergency. His Government commissioned KPMG to produce the Staffordshire “distressed economy” report, but it is being withheld. Will he now commit to publishing the full report so that we can all see his real plans for the NHS in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire? (907417)

I will look closely at the specific issue that the hon. Lady has raised. As she knows, the safety of patients in Staffordshire is absolutely our main priority. I know that the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust is working hard with the trust development authority and the other parties involved to manage a safe and timely transition of services, and I think that all parties should work together to do that. I have to say that that is not helped by the Leader of the Opposition going to Stafford and deliberately scaremongering and trying to frighten local people. He has said that Stafford hospital is on “the road to closure”. This is what he means by “weaponising” the NHS. It is an absolutely disgraceful tactic. The hon. Lady knows it is not true, and the Leader of the Opposition knows it is not true but he has not got the gumption to say so.

Q7. I know that the Prime Minister shares the gratitude expressed on both sides of the House for the sacrifices made by our health care professionals and members of our armed forces, including my constituent Lieutenant Marc White, who have risked their lives to help the people of Sierra Leone to combat the scourge of Ebola. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a way should be found to recognise their bravery? (907418)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am sure that everyone would like me to put on record my praise for those incredibly brave people who have worked in very difficult conditions, including over Christmas. They include doctors and nurses from our NHS and people from our armed forces, our civil service and non-governmental organisations. They are helping to save thousands of lives in Africa and protecting the UK from the potentially disastrous consequences of the disease spreading. In recognition of the bravery of those from the UK, I intend to recommend to Her Majesty the Queen the introduction of a new medal to pay tribute to their efforts. Details will be out in due course, and this should be in place by the summer. It is absolutely right to say that those people are incredibly brave and that we owe them an immense debt of gratitude.

Today’s “Green Budget” from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that median wages were still almost 5% lower last year than they were in 2008. Will the Prime Minister now admit that families across the country are indeed facing a cost of living crisis?

What the “Green Budget” today shows—I think we should take this as an important reference work—is that Labour would lead to an extra £170 billion of borrowing. That is the official figure. The shadow Chancellor was busy yesterday. In another of his interventions, he said on Radio 2 that “debt would be higher”. The cat is out of the bag. It is official: Labour would borrow, tax and spend more, and do all the things to put us back into the mess we got out of.

Q8. In recent weeks, Dover and east Kent have suffered gridlock due to problems at the port of Dover and the fire in the channel tunnel. Will the Prime Minister support the finding of a long-term solution to the problem? Will he consider making this a national strategic priority and using lorry levy funds to help to pay for it? (907419)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this question, and I know how hard he works for people in Dover and across east Kent. I understand that he met the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) about this, and as a result we have ordered an urgent review to look at the contingency arrangements for the M20/A20 and for the M2/A2 in the event of severe disruption at Eurotunnel and the channel ports, taking account of the recent congestion. It is important that we learn the lessons from this incident, and if the report comes up with good suggestions, we will look at them very carefully.

In 2010 the Prime Minister said that if he failed to deliver on his promises, voters should kick him out—his promise on pointless reorganisations of the NHS, his promise on immigration in the tens of thousands, his promise to wipe out the deficit in this Parliament. He has broken his contract with the British people. If he is a man of his word, there is a P45 with “Cameron” on it. He should take it, take that lot and go.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman the commitments that I made. I said we would turn the British economy round—we have turned the economy round. I said we would get the country back to work—there are 1.75 million more jobs. I said we would get the deficit down—it is down by a half. I said we would protect the NHS and we have protected the NHS. I said I would look after Britain’s pensioners—we kept our promise to pensioners. I can tell the hon. Gentleman what the competition will be at the next election—competence and a long-term plan from the Government, chaos from Labour.

Q9. On Friday I visited the Cranswick pork facility in my constituency. It now employs 1,500 people at that site alone, hundreds more than in 2010. A lot of that investment came about because Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers opened up the Chinese market and have kept it open. Will the Prime Minister come and visit the facility, see the northern powerhouse in action, and see the effect of a long-term economic plan with exports at its heart? (907420)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that. One of the largest and most important manufacturing sectors in Britain is the food sector. It is very competitive. We need to do more to promote exports and my right hon. Friend the Agriculture Secretary is doing just that. The Chinese market represents an enormous opportunity. A number of important trade missions have already been carried out there, but we are also pushing within Europe for a free trade agreement with China. Other countries, including New Zealand, have shown the massive amount of benefit that that can bring to their country, and Britain will always be at the forefront of arguing for these trade agreements.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister know of anyone who owns or works for a UK- registered company that uses a Luxembourg-based holding company in order to avoid paying their fair share of tax in the UK? (907421)

I want to see more and more companies headquartered here in the United Kingdom. Under this Government, that is exactly what is happening. We inherited a situation where company after company was leaving our shores. Because we now have competitive tax rates and a business-friendly Government, more and more businesses are coming here, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Last week six-year-old Sam Brown from my constituency, with 10-year-old Kamal from London, came to see the Prime Minister to deliver personal letters to him about the NHS England failure to come up with a process to allow the NHS to fund the drugs they need for Morquio syndrome, which also apply to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. NHS England is still dragging its heels. Will the Prime Minister, who I know has taken an interest in this, please intervene to come up with an interim solution so that all these children can get the drugs that they need?

I well remember meeting the hon. Gentleman and the young boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy syndrome. I have looked into this. The consultation is under way and will finish at the end of April. Following this, the NHS will make a decision as quickly as possible whether or not routinely to fund Translarna. I have discussed this with the Health Secretary and we will do everything we can to help.

Q11. In 2010 the Government withdrew £80 million from five schools in my constituency. This destabilised the school in the village of Ryton so much that it is being forced against the will of all concerned to become an academy. The curriculum is constantly being cut, dedicated staff have lost their jobs and there is more of the same to come in the summer. What do I tell my constituent Lauren White, who loves this school, when she has seen her chosen career disappear before her very eyes? (907422)

All the evidence is that schools that have converted to academy status have seen their standards improve at a faster rate than maintained schools. Is it not interesting that the party that started to promote academies has given up on that good reform, as well as the other reforms it has given up on? We have put extra money in for school places, we are seeing improvements in school standards and we have said that any schools that are either inadequate or require improvement will need to be taken over by an academy if they do not have a proper plan for improvement. All parents who want to see their children succeed at school will welcome that.

Q12. My right hon. Friend has been admirably robust at combating anti-Semitism, and this Government have been generous in supporting security measures at state faith schools. However, 120 community buildings are now at risk of a terrorist attack of the type we saw in Paris. Will he commit to looking at creating a counter-terrorism fund to help maintain the security measures at these community buildings? (907423)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I have met the Jewish Leadership Council and discussed this issue in the light of the Paris attacks. As he knows, the schools security grant, which we introduced, has made available £2.3 million of funding in the current year to protect security at Jewish schools, and it will be maintained next year. The Education Secretary is also going to meet the Community Security Trust to see whether we can do more to help Jewish independent schools. In my view, we need to do everything we can to help this community feel safe and secure in our country. I would hate it for British Jews not to feel that they have a home here in Britain—safe, secure and a vital part of our community.

Q15. It is now two years since a meningitis B vaccine was licensed for use across the EU. To achieve its effect of being able to prevent more than 80% of meningitis B cases here, it needs to be on the routine immunisation schedule for the NHS. The Prime Minister sounded hopeful in the House in November. Can he give us some indication as to when there will be a conclusion to the negotiations between the Government and Novartis? (907426)

I am afraid I cannot give any further update; the discussions are still under way. As the hon. Gentleman knows, this would be a vital step forward, because of the horrors of this disease. But he also knows that there would be huge cost issues if we were to make sure that this was made available. So those discussions with the drug company are vital. They are ongoing, and if I can give him an update in a letter, I will do so.

Q13. The whole of Herefordshire is behind a transformative project to create a new university specialising in engineering and technology, and, in particular, the agri-technology, defence and security sectors. That is possible only because of the Government’s universities policy and their decision to lift the cap on student numbers. Will the Prime Minister look hard, with the Chancellor, at the potential to award some public capital funding to support this enormously worthwhile project? (907424)

My hon. Friend is right to say that uncapping university numbers removes the cap on aspiration. We want to have a country where everyone can have the choice of an apprenticeship or a university place. He is right that some areas of our country, including Herefordshire, have been under-served by university provision, which is why we have got the extra £200 million available in the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—capital investment. I know he is discussing this with the Chancellor to see whether we could make available some of this funding for the scheme he talked about. Let me say how important it is that we maintain a long-term plan for funding our universities. Young people in Britain want to know that we have the best universities in Europe and that they will continue to be that way. That is why what the university vice-chancellors have said this week about how our plans are working and costed, and Labour plans are completely unworking and uncosted, is so important.

Last night, the Prime Minister was on television saying that he would crack down on firms that move abroad to avoid paying their tax. So my question is this: when the Government launched the taxpayer-backed national loan guarantee scheme in 2012, why did the Prime Minister decide to allow companies based offshore in tax havens to apply for this form of state aid?

The national loan guarantee scheme was run by the banks, and it was the banks that chose what companies to fund. Let me say this: we have done more than any previous Government to ensure that companies pay their taxes. We inherited a situation from Labour in which foreigners were not paying stamp duty, companies were leaving Britain, and we were giving knighthoods to bankers who had failed Britain. All of that has changed.

Q14. This week is the anniversary of the great storm that ripped up the railway line at Dawlish in my constituency. I thank the Prime Minister and Network Rail for their very fast action to restore the line. Will he confirm his ongoing commitment to the South West rail link and the future funding for it? (907425)

First, let me join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the orange army that did such a fantastic job at Dawlish in getting that line back on track in such a short time. As she knows, we have also committed a further £30 million towards resilience and protection this year, but, more importantly, we are working with the South West Peninsula rail task force to bring together all the strategic and local transport schemes. I am absolutely determined that the south-west will have strong connections—road, rail and air—with the rest of the country, and those connections are absolutely vital to our long-term plan.