The Prime Minister was asked—
Does my right hon. Friend recall the general election of 1983? It resulted in a Conservative landslide win in which I and 100 other Conservatives were elected for the first time. At that time, unemployment stood at 3 million; today it is 2 million. The rate of inflation was 8%; it is now under 2%. The work force numbered 24 million; today it is 30 million. There were 9 million women in the work force in 1983; today there are 14 million. Does he agree that those comparisons, coupled with the trump card which he and Baroness Thatcher shared, in the form of a left-wing Opposition leader who has lost control of his own party, will put Britain on course for another Conservative landslide?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was not a voter in 1983, but it is true to say that this Government are cutting unemployment and that every Labour Government always puts up unemployment. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 55% since the last election. This also speaks to a bigger picture, which is that this Government have created 1,000 jobs for every day that we have been in office. We all remember the prediction from the leader of the Labour party that our plans would cost 1 million jobs. With unemployment tumbling, perhaps today is the day he should apologise.
An hour ago, we learned that linked to the HSBC tax avoidance scandal are seven Tory donors, including a former treasurer of the Tory party, who between them have given the party nearly £5 million. How can the Prime Minister explain the revolving door between Tory party HQ and the Swiss branch of HSBC?
I saw that list just before coming to Prime Minister’s questions. One of the people named is the Labour donor, Lord Paul, who funded Gordon Brown’s election campaign. I am very clear: people should pay their taxes in our country, and no Government have been tougher than this one in chasing down tax evasion and tax avoidance.
Let us talk about the difference between the Prime Minister and me. None of those people has given a penny on my watch, and he is up to his neck in this. Let us take Stanley Fink, who gave £3 million to the Conservative party. The Prime Minister actually appointed him as treasurer of the party and gave him a peerage for good measure. Will he now explain what steps he is going to take about the tax avoidance activities of Lord Fink?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman about the difference between him and me. When people donate to the Conservative party, they do not pick the candidates, they do not choose the policies and they do not elect the leader. When the trade unions fund the Labour party, they pay for the candidates, they pay for the policies, and the only reason that the right hon. Gentleman is sitting there today is that a bunch of trade union leaders decided that he was more left wing than his brother.
He did not just take the money; he appointed the man who was head of HSBC as a Minister. It was in the public domain in September 2010 that HSBC was enabling tax avoidance on an industrial scale. Are we seriously expected to believe that when he made Stephen Green a Minister four months later, he had no idea about these allegations?
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has brought up the issue of Stephen Green, who was a trade Minister in this Government. This is the same Stephen Green whom Gordon Brown appointed as the head of his business advisory council. This is the same Stephen Green whom Labour welcomed as a trade Minister into the Government. It is the same Stephen Green whom the shadow Business Secretary, who is looking a bit coy today, invited on a trade mission as late as 2013. We know what happens: every week the right hon. Gentleman gets more desperate. He cannot talk about the economy and he cannot talk about unemployment, and so he comes here with fiction after fiction. Let me deal, while I have a moment, with the fiction we had last week. He came here and, if you remember, he talked about something called intermediary tax relief. It turns out—[Interruption.] We have as long as it takes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Labour leader asked me six times about the tax treatment of hedge funds. Now it turns out that the treatment he is complaining about was introduced in the autumn of 1997 by a Labour Government. It further turns out that it was extended in 2007. Who was in power in 2007? It was Labour. Who was the City Minister in 2007? I think we’ll find it was Ed somebody.
I know the Prime Minister does not care about tax avoidance, but on this day of all days he is going to be held accountable for answering the question. He is pleading ignorance as to what was happening with Stephen Green, but today we discover that the Minister in charge issued a press release in November 2011 which referred to the investigation into the HSBC Geneva account holders. Does the Prime Minister expect us to believe that in Stephen Green’s three years as a Minister he never had a conversation with him about what was happening at HSBC?
Why did Labour welcome Stephen Green as a trade Minister? Why were they still booking meetings with him in 2013? My responsibility is the tax laws of this country, and no one has been tougher. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman about what we found: hedge funds cutting their taxes by flipping currencies—allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories; foreigners not paying stamp duty—allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories; and banks not paying tax on all their profits—allowed under Labour, banned by the Tories. Those two in the Treasury were the friends of the tax dodger. We are the friend of the hard working tax payer.
The Prime Minister is bang to rights, just like his donors. And doesn’t this all sound familiar? The Prime Minister appoints someone to a senior job in government. There are public allegations but he does not ask the questions, he turns a blind eye. Isn’t this just the behaviour we saw with Andy Coulson?
It is desperate stuff. The Opposition cannot talk about the economy because it is growing; they cannot talk about unemployment because it is falling; and they cannot talk about their health policy because it is collapsing. What have we seen this week? They cannot even go in front of a business audience because they have offended every business in the country; they cannot go to Scotland because they are toxic; they cannot talk to women because they have a pink bus touring the country; and they have even offended Britain’s nuns. No wonder people look at Labour and say that it has not got a prayer.
For 13 years, Labour sat in the Treasury and did nothing about tax transparency, nothing about tax dodging, and nothing about tax avoidance. This Government have been tougher than any previous Government. That is why the Opposition are desperate and that is why they are losing.
At the weekend, graduates of Bournemouth university and the Arts university, Bournemouth, enjoyed yet another year of success at the BAFTAs. Last week, Bournemouth was named as having the fastest growing digital economy in the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain remains a world leader in the creative industries because of the talent of our people combined with our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our creative industries are a vital part of our economy and our country. When we look at the great results at the BAFTAs and the high hopes that we have for the Oscars, it is clear that British television and British film are conquering the world. Bournemouth university plays a very important part in that, because its training of some of our digital effects specialists and of many of our creative people is a key part of this vital and growing industry.
Q2. Last week at Prime Minister’s questions, I warned the Prime Minister about falling wages. This week, he said that Britain needs a pay rise, so I am glad to see that he is waking up to reality. Does he now agree with me that the people who most need that pay rise are the families who have lost £1,600 a year under this Government, and not those at the top to whom he has given massive tax cuts? (907568)
The hon. Lady will find that the wages in the public and private sectors are growing ahead of inflation, which is good. As we have raised to £10,000 the amount of money people can earn before they start paying taxes, they are better off. In Scotland, there are 175,000 more people in work today than when I became Prime Minister. As a result of growth in the jobs market, growth in wages, cuts in taxes, and an increase in the minimum wage, things are getting better for families in Scotland.
For years, the supermarket chain Aldi has been sitting on an empty supermarket that it acquired in the centre of Eston in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that the supermarket chain should be forced to release assets that it does not need rather than allow them to be a blight on the community?
What we need to see is successful development going ahead and brownfield sites being used. If those sites cannot be used for retail, they should be made available for other uses. One change we have made is to liberalise the use classes in planning so that we do not have the long-term planning blight of development not going ahead in towns and cities where houses, jobs and investment are needed.
Q3. Given the Prime Minister’s new-found concern that employers should give their staff decent pay rises, can he explain why he did not apply that principle to his own Government when they decided not to implement the recommended 1% pay increase for NHS staff? (907569)
What we have done with NHS staff is ensure that the lowest paid are getting a pay rise. In the NHS, there is progression pay, so everyone will get at least a 1% rise, but many people, because of progression, will get a 2%, 3% or 4% pay rise. Alongside that pay rise, they will be paying less in tax, council tax in many areas has been frozen, and diesel and petrol prices are coming down. People’s standards of living are rising because we have a long-term economic plan and we are sticking to it.
Q4. More than ever before, businesses, students and commuters in Hampshire use the trains to get around, but they are increasingly frustrated that our trains are stuck in the analogue age. Access to the internet can be really difficult and very limited. Will my right hon. Friend consider that important issue and see what the Government can do to help commuters and others get access to wi-fi on our trains?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. It is vital for businesses and for individuals to be able to access wi-fi, do their work and make other contacts while they are on trains. I am pleased to announce plans that will see the roll-out of free wi-fi on trains across the United Kingdom from 2017. The Government will invest nearly £50 million to ensure that rail passengers, who make more than 500 million journeys every year, are better connected, with the four rail operators—Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern; Southeastern; Chiltern; and Arriva Trains Wales—all benefiting from that investment.
The Motability car that my severely disabled constituent, Mark Francis, has had for 11 years is being taken from him in two weeks. Born with hereditary spastic paraplegia and unable to walk without crutches or sticks, he is sadly deteriorating by the week. I have been told that his case will be reconsidered, yet the Department for Work and Pensions is punitively and callously snatching his car from him on 25 February. Will the Prime Minister immediately rectify that heartless and disgraceful injustice?
As ever, I am very happy to look at the individual case raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, with the replacement of disability living allowance by the personal independence payment, the most disabled people will be getting more money and more assistance, rather than less, but as I say, I will happily look at the case.
Q5. Given the widespread cynicism about politicians’ promises and claims, will my right hon. Friend remind people, however long it takes, that this Government have presided over the creation of more than 2 million additional private sector jobs, which is far, far more than we ever promised? Does not that discredit the claims of the Opposition that our efforts to cut the deficit would destroy jobs? (907571)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures are clear: we have created 2 million additional private sector jobs, and if we look at the number of extra people in work, public and private sector combined, it is 1.75 million more people. Behind those statistics are families who now have a pay packet and a job, and the chance to have a more secure future, and all that at a time when the Leader of the Opposition was very clear: he warned that our policies would cost 1 million jobs. He was 1 million per cent. wrong, and it is time that the Opposition withdrew what they said and apologised for all those statements.
In November 2012, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, said that there were a dozen prosecutions in train in relation to the HSBC case load. None of them have come to court yet. Can the Prime Minister explain why?
First, on prosecutions for tax evasion, the figures are that they have gone up fivefold under this Government since 2010—2,650 cases, leading to hundreds of years of imprisonment, taken as a whole. That is what has happened, but there is an important point here, which is that, in our country, the tax collection agency, HMRC, is independent of Government and independent of Ministers, and it has to raise the taxes, carry out the investigations and order the prosecutions. It is very important in a free country that Ministers are not given the details of who is being investigated and what the prosecutions are. This does not happen in other countries, and we have a word for that: it is called corruption, but it seems to be the path suggested by the Labour party.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My constituents in Montgomeryshire are not able to see a GP as quickly as they should. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to train more GPs to take forward our plans for surgeries to be open seven days a week and in the evenings, and will he press for similar hours of opening to be available to my constituents in Wales?
I will certainly press for that change, because we now have 1,000 more GPs operating in England, and we have made the commitment that we are going to have seven-day opening, from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. That is already available now to some 4 million people. We are going to spread that across the country. I would urge the NHS in Wales, even at this late stage—and, more to the point, the Labour Government in Wales, because their decision to cut the NHS has landed the NHS in Wales with those difficulties—to reverse that policy and look at how we can expand access to GPs in Wales, because that is the right policy.
On Monday, the launch of the second major report of the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Speaker and others. Will the Prime Minister meet a group from that committee, because although the report is a work plan for the next Parliament, the issue of the security of synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings is too urgent to wait until May?
First, I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work that he does in fighting anti-Semitism. I know that he takes a very prominent role, both inside and outside the House, with the work that he does. It is vital to reassure Jewish communities at this time, particularly after the heightened tensions because of what happened in Paris and other issues. I have met with the Jewish Leadership Council; I regularly discuss the issues with it. We make support available, and I have made sure that the police have contacted all the relevant organisations to try and work with them, but I am very happy, as ever, to sit down with Members of Parliament and hear their views, too.
Q7. Local enterprise partnerships covering Harrogate district have awarded 14 grants from the business growth fund totalling over £1.7 million. This has led to the creation of 158 jobs, many in manufacturing—part of the 60% fall in unemployment that we have seen locally. Will the Prime Minister commit to further investment in northern manufacturing, as it is key to rebalancing our economy? (907573)
I am very glad that my hon. Friend sees a manufacturing revival taking place in Britain. We have seen manufacturing investment and manufacturing output increase. That is happening in all the regions of our country, which is worth while. We will be playing our part by investing £10 million in the development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in south Yorkshire. These and other catapults can make a real difference by backing the revival of manufacturing in our country.
As I remarked earlier, I have been reading the report of the Statistics Authority. The fact is that the Labour Government prosecuted more companies for corporate tax evasion than this Government have done. It is a major scandal in this country that many, many people who make money from our consumers do not pay their tax in this country. What is the Prime Minister doing to plug these gaps?
When we chaired the G8, we put at the head of the agenda the issue of tax transparency, tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, and we now have 90 countries automatically sharing their tax information, including Switzerland, so the events that we are discussing—events and allegations of crimes—all took place when Labour was in power. Were this to happen again, we would not have this situation, because we have the automatic transparent exchange of tax information, something that this Government put on the agenda. Labour started talking about it only after we did that.
Q8. According to a recent survey of 40,000 patients carried out by the Care Quality Commission, the accident and emergency service at our county hospital in Dorchester is the No. 1 in the country. Will my right hon. Friend praise all the staff who work there, and reassure the hospital that as it prepares to integrate its services for south, west and north Dorset, the money will follow that good work? (907574)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Its work shows what can be done when we better integrate health and social care, and also when we look at how we can treat frail elderly people in the community, often people who have more than one difficult condition that needs treatment. What is best for them is often not A and E, but treating them in community hospitals, looking after their ailments and helping them to do better at home. That is what we should be focused on, and that is Simon Stevens’ plan for the NHS; we have already come up with the money to get the plan well under way.
Q9. Did the Prime Minister have conversations with Lord Green about tax avoidance at HSBC—[Interruption.] (907575)
When I appointed Stephen Green, every proper process was followed. I consulted the Cabinet Secretary and the director for propriety and ethics, and of course the House of Lords Appointments Commission now looks at an individual’s tax affairs before giving them a peerage. I made the appointment, it was welcomed by Labour, and three years later, it was still holding meetings with him.
Q10. Jordan Bates is a mother of two from Redditch who works hard to give her children the best start in life. What does my right hon. Friend think she needs: measures to reward those who work hard, get on and do the right thing; or cheap, patronising, pink stunts? (907576)
I think that what Britain’s families need most to help them get on is the security of a good school place, which we are providing, the security of a good job, which we are providing, and the security of a safe community, which we are providing. On Labour’s campaign, I would say that the wheels are falling off the wagon, but I think that they are falling off the bus. We now know that it is not going to be driven by anyone on the Front Bench. Surprise, surprise, it is going to be driven by Unite.
Q11. The Prime Minister may have been briefed that the Care Quality Commission yesterday published its report on Hillingdon hospital, my local hospital. It found that we have an extremely dedicated, hard-working and professional team of staff, but patient safety is being put at risk by critical staff shortages and by the fabric of the building, which one of the report’s consultees described as being like something from the third world. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my parliamentary colleagues in Hillingdon to look at how we can secure the funds to make our constituents safe? (907577)
The CQC’s findings are clearly disappointing, but the trust seems to be taking immediate steps to address the issues that have been identified: raising standards for infection control and cleanliness; enhanced and more frequent training; and recruiting more permanent staff. I think that this relates to a bigger point, which is that for years in our NHS, when there was a problem with a hospital, it was swept under the carpet, rather than the hospital being properly examined, inspected and, if necessary, put into special measures and then corrected. That is what is happening now in our health service, and that is all to the good. It is important to say that on the day Sir Robert Francis published his report on how important it is to listen to whistleblowers in the NHS. Unlike the Labour party, we are determined to listen to the Francis report and to whistleblowers. I will certainly ensure that the Health Secretary meets the hon. Gentleman, his parliamentary colleagues and others in Hillingdon to make sure that the hospital gets the attention it deserves.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that from President Monroe onwards it has been generally acknowledged by leaders of great powers that, for the avoidance of war, it is often wise to acknowledge the concept of traditional spheres of authority and power; and that although Ukraine is of absolutely no significant strategic importance to Britain, Greece most certainly is; and that unless western statesmen show rather greater skills than they have in recent years, Greece will pass into the Russian sphere of influence without a shot being fired?
It is difficult to answer the Father of the House without a long, historical exegesis, but I would argue that, when it comes to Ukraine, it does matter on our continent of Europe that we do not reward aggression and brutality with appeasement; that would be wrong. That is why it is right to have the sanctions in place, right to keep the European Union and America together on the issue, and right to stand up to President Putin. On Greece, of course there is a British interest, which is that we want stability and growth on the continent of Europe. The eurozone crisis has held that growth and stability back; we want those concerned to come to a reasonable agreement so that Europe can move forward. It is good that the British economy is growing and jobs are being generated, but we have to recognise that our largest market at the moment is still relatively stagnant, and the situation in Greece does not help that.
Q12. There are adverts in Newcastle exhorting my constituents to report benefit fraudsters. May I ask the Prime Minister why he does not feel as strongly about tax avoidance? Will he report whether he had a conversation with Lord Green about tax avoidance? (907578)
I do feel strongly about tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. Let me tell you, when it comes to income tax, some of the things people used to get away with. Under Labour, people avoided paying tax by calling their salary from their company a loan: allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories. Businesses could avoid paying tax by paying employees through trusts: allowed by Labour, banned by the Tories. Time and time again, it is this Government who have come along and cracked down on tax evasion.
Q13. I am a proud Yorkshireman, and when I come to London I am proud that the glass pods on the London Eye are made by Novaglaze in Lockwood, in my patch, proud that the red carpet used for the royal wedding at Westminster abbey was made in Huddersfield, and proud that the upholstery in Boris’s Routemaster buses was made in Meltham in my patch. I wonder if they do upholstery for pink vans, by the way. There was more good news last week, with £2.9 million— (907579)
I am afraid, Mr Speaker, that the truth is that you cannot fit all the good things happening in Yorkshire into one question; it is impossible. My hon. Friend could have added the medals won at the Olympics, or he could have talked about the cricket team—there is no end of things. The point is that the long-term economic plan that we have announced for Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire sets out plans for transport investment, investment in science, helping universities, and getting behind the industries that are growing the fastest. That is what another Conservative Government would do: success for Yorkshire, security for families in Yorkshire.
We followed every procedure that one should, and this appointment was welcomed by the Labour party. More to the point, between 2010 and 2014 we passed law after law cracking down on tax evasion and cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance, and saw more prosecutions—all the things that Labour failed to do over and over again.
Sixth-form colleges such as Hills Road and Long Road in Cambridge do an excellent job in educating our young people, but they struggle to get by because, unlike school or academy sixth forms, they have to pay VAT of over £300,000 each. Will the Prime Minister listen to voices across this House and scrap this tax on learning?
New Magna Carta
We should be proud that in Magna Carta our country established rules of justice and freedom that, 800 years later, still inform our constitution and resonate around the world. While there is a long-standing debate over the issue, there are no plans at present for a written constitution.
I note that the Prime Minister says “at present”. Does he agree, though, that there are unacceptably high levels of voter disengagement, with more people staying at home than voted Labour and Conservative at the last election? Would he commit his Government, now, to preparing an all-party constitutional convention, in order to give every UK citizen a copy of our society’s rulebook—either a statute of the Union or a written constitution—as a part of electors feeling once again that they own our democracy?
Obviously, I always look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions very carefully, because he has made a number of sensible cross-party interventions over recent years, but I have my doubts as to whether another talking convention is the answer. I think we need to look at some of the constitutional issues that leave people feeling left behind, not least English votes for English laws, and make sure that we put those things in place. The disappointment I have with the Labour party is that it is prepared to talk about all-party talks on Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but when it comes to empowering English people and making sure that they have rights in this House, it is completely absent from the debate.
Article 39 of Magna Carta contains the origins of our right to trial by jury. In a recent report, Sir Brian Leveson, not satisfied with undermining the right to a free press, wants to restrict the right to trial by jury. Will my right hon. Friend, as long as he is Prime Minister, defend our historic rights?