The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with colleagues on issues affecting the energy sector in Scotland, including with the Scottish Government on energy supply issues.
People in north Yorkshire have noted with great interest that the Scottish Government have banned fracking for the moment. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards a debate on energy supply not only for Scotland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend’s key words were “for the moment”. The Scottish Government have come forward with a moratorium, and I am sure that we shall all watch the debate with keen interest. I remind her and the House that we removed the Scottish provisions from the Infrastructure Bill, and that the power to license onshore exploration for oil and gas will be devolved under the Scotland Act that will come after the next election.
When the Secretary of State meets the First Minister, will he get information—this is not in the public arena—on how much compensation is being paid to wind farms in Scotland from his and my electricity bills as a consequence of the fact that they are, in my view, inefficient?
I am sure that the Secretary of State, as a highlands and islands MP, will share the sense of anger and injustice at SSE’s 2p surcharge on electricity costs, given that it made a profit of £1.5 billion last year. Will he do everything possible at the UK level to ameliorate this state of affairs, not least by endorsing the excellent campaign by The Press and Journal?
I rarely have any difficulty in endorsing a campaign run by The Press and Journal. The question of the price being paid by electricity consumers across the highlands and islands is complex, but I know that we all benefit from being part of the wider UK energy market.
Scottish generators, including Longannet, provide 12% of the electricity going into the British network, but pay 35% of the transmission charges. The Secretary of State has been in government for five years. What has he done to end that discrimination?
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that transmission charging is the responsibility of Ofgem, the energy market regulator. He will also be aware of the work that Ofgem has been doing with other parts of the energy industry in relation to Project TransmiT.
Last week, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister about this very subject, asking
“the UK Government to initiate a dedicated capacity assessment for Scotland, informed by stakeholder views, and take steps to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the authority to set our own national reliability standard for electricity.”
Having failed to end the discriminatory transmission charges, will the UK Government agree to those reasonable suggestions?
The hon. Gentleman and the First Minister must both be aware that National Grid has a constant process of reviewing energy supply. The system operators in Scotland have stress-tested 140 scenarios in which Longannet and other Scottish fossil fuel generators were closed, and National Grid has the tools to keep the lights on in every one of those scenarios, including by being resilient against one-in-600-year risks. Those are the facts, and they are preferable to the sort of scaremongering that we hear from the nationalists.
I have raised many times the devastation caused by abandoned coal mines in my constituency. The Secretary of State will be aware of the proposal for an exemption from carbon price support, which would greatly help their restoration and create 1,000 jobs. Can we expect good news on this in the Budget, and does he agree that the Scottish Government should step up to the plate with some of their £500 million surplus to help the restoration?
First, I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been a doughty fighter for her constituents’ interests in this regard. As for what will be in the Budget, I am afraid that, like the rest of us, she will have to wait and see, although I can assure her that my Department remains engaged on this issue. We continue to work closely with the Scottish Government on their joint taskforce, which will next meet in March. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will represent the UK Government on that occasion.
As a result of the clear no vote in the referendum, there remain no barriers to trade across the whole of the UK. Nothing in the draft clauses changes that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all political parties need to come together to ensure that airports such as Newcastle in the north-east have air passenger duty support so that they are not unfairly disadvantaged by the proposals of the Smith commission?
I assure my hon. Friend that the basic principle of the Smith commission proposals is that there should be no detriment to any part of the UK—that was very much what the people of Scotland voted for on 18 September. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen to levels of APD, once it is devolved, but he should take comfort from the fact that the principle is already well established that variable rates within the UK are possible, and he would be well advised to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that regard.
Had the Smith commission been faithful to the famous vow and had the Better Together parties not watered down the tepid Smith commission, does the Secretary of State think that the benefits to the north of England, as well as to Scotland, would have been greater?
I know that it hurts the hon. Gentleman and causes him genuine pain, but the truth of the matter—he will have to accept this sooner or later, so he might as well get on and accept it now—is that the Smith commission has delivered on the vow. That was why his party signed up to it, even if, having done so, the Scottish National party could not run away from its commitments fast enough.
The single market of the United Kingdom is vital to the fish processors and agricultural producers of Berwickshire, the coat hanger manufacturers of Jedburgh and the world-class knitwear manufacturers of Hawick, among others, so does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major achievements of the Smith commission was to bring more powers to Scotland, but preserve that single market?
Yes, absolutely. I particularly enjoyed joining my right hon. Friend recently in his constituency and learning from him about not only the challenges but the opportunities facing the knitwear industry. I know that that industry is of great importance to the economy in his area, and he has been a remarkable champion of it over the years.
There is obvious eagerness within local authorities in the south of Scotland to have closer trade links with their counterparts in the north of England, as evidence from the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee suggests. Does the Secretary of State intend to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure that the borderland areas are able to exploit their full potential?
Indeed. I am well aware of the work of the borderlands initiative and am more than happy to engage with it in any way it considers would be helpful. That has been very much the approach that I have taken in dealing with Scotland’s island communities—the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland—on their “Our Islands Our Future” campaign. I suggest that this Government’s willingness to hand power back to communities in Scotland bears very favourable contrast with the SNP Government in Edinburgh, who seem determined to centralise everything.
3. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on practical steps to encourage employers to pay the living wage. (907629)
I have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on a range of employment issues. The UK Government support businesses that choose to pay the living wage, where that is affordable and does not cost jobs.
I thank the Minister for that response, which seems somewhat aspirational rather than ambitious. He will be aware that the Scottish Government at Holyrood refused to support the call for a living wage that was put forward by Labour in Scotland. Will he follow the example set by my local Labour-controlled Renfrewshire council, which has not only introduced a living wage, but used the procurement process to encourage its suppliers to pay the living wage?
There are excellent examples of local authorities taking forward initiatives with the living wage, and South Lanarkshire council is one. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman heard the speech that my colleague, Ruth Davidson, made to the Scottish Conservative conference on Friday in which she called for help and support for businesses that promoted the living wage. I hope Scottish Labour and the Scottish Government will support her in that regard.
A Labour Government will ban the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts, which leave people not only not making the living wage, but unable to make a living on the minimum wage. Why will this Government not do the same?
Since this Government came to power, 107 jobs a day have been created in Scotland. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has had a memory lapse, because she cannot remember the position on employment when this Government came to power and she cannot accept the good news of the creation of new jobs.
What I do remember is that the Labour Government implemented the minimum wage in the face of opposition from the Conservative party. According to new research from the House of Commons Library, 82% of these new jobs are in the low-paying sectors. That news comes days after the TUC revealed that one in five workers in Scotland is paid below the minimum wage. Just this morning, the Office for National Statistics revealed that 28% of workers are on zero-hours contracts. This Government stand up for the wrong people: they help out their friends who have been avoiding their taxes, yet they do not help those who work hard and play by the rules, but do not even get a decent wage in return. Will the Minister take any action in what remains of the last days of this Government to help ordinary working people to get a decent wage, or is the only hope is that in 71 days’ time, we get rid of this out of touch Government and get a Labour Government who will put working people first?
The hon. Lady could start by endorsing Ruth Davidson’s proposal to incentivise the paying of the minimum wage, and that is actually a fact, not rhetoric. As I have told the hon. Lady on numerous occasions, if she has evidence of people not being paid the minimum wage, she should bring that forward. Yesterday, the Government did something the Labour Government never did: we named and shamed 70 companies, including some in Scotland, that do not pay the minimum wage. What she should be celebrating is the fact that this Government have delivered 107 jobs a day in Scotland, 1,645 of which are in her constituency, as can be seen from the drop in jobseeker’s allowance claimants.
As part of the Scotland Act 2012 implementation process, UK Government Ministers have been in contact with Scottish Government Ministers to discuss devolved taxes, including property taxes, since the beginning of this year.
The right hon. Lady will understand my hesitation when I say that we have to take the Scottish Government at their word. They assure us that they are ready and we have done everything within our power to assist them. If it should transpire that there are further difficulties that have not yet been foreseen or disclosed, we will do everything that we can to ensure that the system operates.
I think that is quite remarkable. The whole point of devolution is to allow the Scottish Government to do things differently. We devolved stamp duty land tax under the 2012 Act. They came forward with something that was different until this Government introduced a new system, when before we knew it they had changed to follow what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Work Programme (Job Outcome Payments)
Work programme participants are some of the hardest to help and can experience multiple barriers to finding work. There are two providers in Scotland: Ingeus has supported 21.2% of all claimants into a job outcome; and Working Links has supported 20.4% of claimants into a job outcome.
The Work programme has performed worse in Scotland than in any English region. In the meantime, successful local projects such as the Engine Shed in my constituency have had to close. Does the Minister agree that powers over this should be devolved as quickly as possible—and not just to the Scottish Parliament, but to local authorities?
I certainly agree that the Engine Shed was a great project. I have made it clear to the Deputy First Minister that if proposals are brought forward after the election for the devolution of the Work programme, separate from other items to be devolved, I would have an open mind about that.
Thanks to this Government, those helped into employment though the Work programme do not have to pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. Does the Minister agree that that represents progress towards economic growth in Scotland and opportunities for its young people?
By any measure the Work programme has been a failure. It has wasted public money and let down the people depending on it. When will the Government listen to not only the Smith commission, but the dozens of civil society organisations in Scotland that have called for employment support to be devolved so that we can develop an integrated system in Scotland that actually works?
I do not think that the 32,620 people who have found work through the Work programme would agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. It is now time for her party to come forward with its proposals for an alternative to the Work programme, rather than just criticising the Government and calling for more powers. This Government have given a commitment to effect a transition to such a programme, but first we need to know what it will be.
I fully acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a fervent campaigner on this issue—and, indeed, on employment—in his constituency, but I am sure that he welcomes the fact that over the past five years, under this Government, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in his constituency has gone down by 842—some 27%.
I absolutely dispute the claim that the Work programme has failed them. The Work programme looks to help the most vulnerable people into work, and people have moved into work over the past five years in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where the JSA claimant count has come down by 1,403—some 39%. I am sure that even he welcomes that.
The Scotland Office is holding a series of events across Scotland to enable stakeholders to provide feedback on the draft clauses and how the new powers might be used. I can announce to the House today that the Government will now begin a public information campaign to enable people in Scotland to learn more about the devolution settlement and how it is changing. [Interruption.] This campaign will use social media, local media and an information booklet for every house in Scotland. [Interruption.]
The nation would be interested to know that draft clause 1 has been widely condemned as legally vacuous. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure that the people of Scotland realise that it is legally vacuous and that if they support it, they will be supporting a meaningless constitutional proposal?
13. Has the Secretary of State specifically discussed the question of varying tax bands under the Smith agreement, which seems a marvellous opportunity for Scotland to decide how it treats people with differing levels of income? It might be different from the way they are treated in the rest of the UK. (907639)
The hon. Gentleman is right and he takes the debate in a direction in which it has to go. Surely the time has come when we should no longer be discussing where powers lie, but discussing what can be done with the substantial powers that the third most powerful devolved legislature anywhere in the world will have as a result of these proposals.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The out of touch House of Lords Constitution Committee has said that not enough thought has been given to the impact of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. I hope the Government will reject this recommendation and give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to have their say on who represents them in the Scottish Parliament.
I confess that I always hold their lordships’ views in very high regard, but they would not normally be the first port of call that I would make when I was looking for advice either on democratic elections or on young people. The order will be before their lordships’ House tomorrow night. I am confident that it will be passed, as it was passed in this House, without Division.
Given the powers that the Scottish Government already have, has the Secretary of State ever received an apology from them for their failure to spend £34 million on disabled children and their families and instead using it for the gimmick of keeping council tax static?
There are many, many things for which the Scottish Government should apologise and I suspect that in the event that these apologies ever start coming, the right hon. Gentleman and I will not be at the top of the list to receive them. He is right, though, to point out that the freeze on council tax has caused real difficulties for many local authorities in Scotland, which will be outraged to see the size of the Scottish Government’s underspend this year.
The provision of road transport in Scotland is a devolved matter. Department for Transport Ministers did, however, offer to work with Transport Scotland on a joint feasibility study on dualling the A1. The Scottish Government chose not to take up that offer.
Now that this coalition Government have committed £290 million to dualling the A1 on the English side of the border, should not the SNP Government in Scotland bring forward plans to dual remaining single carriageway sections on the Scottish side of the border?
As we await the dualling of the A1, has the Minister heard of the success of the average speed cameras on the A9? Accidents have been cut by 97%, speeding is down by 90% and the road experience has been totally transformed. Will he now get his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to abandon his reckless and irresponsible campaign to take those cameras down and put my constituents at risk once again?
English Votes for English Laws
There is clear consensus that change is needed to address the anomalies in our constitutional arrangements, but no consensus on what form this change should take. The solution must be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom and strengthen the links between our family of nations so recently reaffirmed in the referendum in Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that most Scots, unlike Labour Members, recognise the unfairness of their MPs at Westminster intervening to affect English schools, English health and English councils now that those matters have been devolved from England to Scotland?
The Prime Minister was asked—
British support in Ukraine is welcome, but combined efforts against President Putin’s naked aggression have been woefully lacking. When the Prime Minister leaves office in 70 days, is he content for his place in history to be the Prime Minister whose weakness left Britain mired in years of conflict?
At the end of this Parliament, I believe that Government Members can be proud of the fact that we closed the massive black hole in our defence budget left by Labour. We can be proud of the fact that we see Voyager airplanes flying out of Brize Norton. We can be proud of the fact that we are building two aircraft carriers. We can be proud of the fact that we have got the Type 45 destroyers. We can be proud of the fact that submarines are rolling out of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and into the seas of the Atlantic to keep our country safe.
Last year my right hon. Friend strongly supported my Bill, which became the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, to protect women and girls from female genital mutilation and similar abominations. My amendment on Report to the Serious Crime Bill to protect young girls and women at risk from FGM in this country gained 272 votes. There were many deliberate abstentions, but it was defeated by a three-line coalition Whip. Following a letter from the Minister before the Report stage, several matters remained unresolved. I tried to intervene but I was not allowed to do so. Will my right hon. Friend write to me to explain how these young girls and women will be fully protected under the guidelines under the Act and otherwise?
I commend my hon. Friend for his Bill and for the campaign that he has waged in favour of that Bill and of equality in how we deliver aid and in this vital area. On the specific issue of the piece of legislation that he is referring to, my understanding is that we believe that the law as drafted covers the point that he is concerned about. I will of course write to him. But let me be absolutely clear: I think the work that we are doing, supported right across the House, in terms of combating FGM and forced marriage, and making sure that there are real rights for women in our country and across the world, is of vital importance.
The reputation of every Member of this House is damaged when we see revelations such as those that we have in the past couple of days. Can I take it from the Government’s amendment today on second jobs that the Prime Minister is proposing no change to the current system?
Let me start by agreeing very much with the right hon. Gentleman that the allegations made against two very senior Members of this House of Commons are extremely serious; they need to be properly investigated. I believe that both Members have done the right thing by referring themselves to the House of Commons standards commissioner, and in having the Whip withdrawn and, indeed, retiring from this House. I think that is vitally important.
I certainly do not rule out further changes, but the most important thing we can do is to make sure we apply the rules: paid lobbying—banned; non-declaration of interests—banned; and making sure wrongdoing is investigated and punished. We are not making no change; we have just passed a lobbying Act, and we have also passed a recall Act so that people can sack their MP.
The right hon. Gentleman says we should look at the specifics. The difficulty with his specific proposal is that it would allow, for instance, someone to be a paid trade union official, but it would not allow someone to run a family business or a family shop. Like many of his proposals, it is not thought through; it is whipped up very quickly. If he thought it was such a good idea, why did he not put it in place four years ago?
That is not the only problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Let me take another problem with the proposal—his cap on earnings. Let me take a specific example—[Interruption.] I have got as long as it takes.
Let me take a very specific example. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is Labour’s education spokesman, would have last year earned over a 10% cap from being a college lecturer. I happen to think that is a very good thing: he brings to this House some outside experience, and he tops up that experience. I have to say it is a pity it does not show up in his education policy, but none the less, it is a good thing.
Fundamentally, there is a disagreement between the right hon. Gentleman and me. I think Parliament is stronger when we have people with different experiences coming to our House, but we must impose strict rules and punish people when they get it wrong.
We can definitely make progress. Let us agree to the principle of a cap, and we can consult on the level of the cap. The motion today is very specific about being a paid director or a paid consultant, and I have said from the Dispatch Box that we will also ban people who are a paid trade union official, the point the Prime Minister made to me. I repeat the offer to him: let us get it done, let us agree this to restore the reputation of the House—yes or no?
The problem is that the proposal in front of us allows for paid trade union officials, but does not allow for someone who runs a family business. I have to say that the problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal is not just the nature of the proposal; there is also a problem with the timing of his proposal. He first put it forward two years ago. In the previous year—I have done some work—the person with the highest outside earnings on the Labour side was David Miliband. The right hon. Gentleman has not thought it through, he has not worked it out, it is totally inconsistent: it is like almost every other policy he comes up with.
So the Prime Minister is worried about the precise text of the motion. I am very happy by whatever means we can, perhaps by a manuscript amendment, to insert paid trade union officials. He and all his right hon. and hon. Friends will have the chance in the Lobbies tonight—this is a very big test—to vote for two jobs or for one. I will be voting for one job. What will he be voting for?
Where the Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right—he put this in his letter to me this week—is that
“the British people need to know that when they vote they are electing someone who will…not be swayed by what they may owe to the interests of others.”
The biggest problem we have on that front is that the trade union movement owns the Labour party lock, stock and barrel. So I make an offer to him: if there is no more support from trade unions for the Labour party, then we have got a deal.
If the Prime Minister wants to talk about party funding, let us talk about a party bought and sold by the hedge funds and a man who appointed a self-declared tax avoider as his treasurer—that is the Conservative party. He has one more chance. He talked big in opposition about change. He will be judged on the way he votes tonight. He should vote for one job, not two. Last chance: yes or no?
The problem with Members of Parliament being swayed by outside interests is best seen in this one example. This is the first Parliament in the history of Britain to pass an Act on lobbying. The Labour party has been lobbied by the trade unions to get rid of that Act. What have they agreed? They have agreed to scrap the lobbying Act. That is what they have done. They are owned lock, stock and block vote by the trade unions.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank hon. Members for their welcome.
I have harangued the Prime Minister on many occasions to do more on nuisance calls, so it is right today that I thank the Government for the announcement that was made on the subject by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport this morning. Of course, vulnerable consumers will still be targeted today and tomorrow by vicious scammers, who will pay no heed to the announcement. I therefore ask him politely to do all he can to help me set up a national call blocking scheme to protect vulnerable consumers in his constituency and in mine.
I will certainly look at the specific suggestion that the hon. Gentleman makes. I can announce today that we are changing the law to make it easier to hit companies with fines of up to £500,000 if they pursue nuisance calls. That will be welcomed up and down the country. I am sure that parties from all parts of the House will be doing a little light telephone canvassing and will be talking to people, but such things should never be done by nagging people or being a nuisance, which is what can happen. Proper punishments are being brought in today.
Q2. It costs 40% more to train a teacher in Northern Ireland than in England. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that, despite commitments to tackle the costs of division in the Stormont House agreement, other parties have blocked Alliance attempts to desegregate teacher training in a way that would save money? Does that suggest to him, as it does to me, that their commitments to a shared future are not worth the paper they are written on? (907693)
I say to the hon. Lady—I think we are in absolute agreement on this—that we have to break down the barriers between communities. That is what the shared future agenda is all about. The Stormont House agreement should make that move faster. We are beginning to see shared campuses for education institutions in Northern Ireland, but we now need to see the sorts of things that she is talking about, such as shared approaches on teacher training, that can reduce costs and deliver a better service. That is what the agreement should be about.
Q3. Last Friday, I held my fourth Pendle jobs and apprenticeships fair, which was attended by more than 30 local companies and more than 700 jobseekers. Will the Prime Minister congratulate all those who have got jobs or started apprenticeships in Pendle since 2010? Unemployment in Pendle has fallen by 36% in just the last year, showing that our long-term economic plan is working. (907694)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who works tirelessly to support his constituents. I think these job fairs that many Members of Parliament have taken part in and run can do a huge amount in making sure that local people can see the opportunities that are being opened up by a successful and growing economy. In Pendle, the claimant count has fallen by 54% since the election, with the long-term youth claimant count falling by 50% in the last year alone. That shows that, as the OECD itself said yesterday, Britain has a long-term economic plan, it is working, and we should stick to it.
As we have heard, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition agree that the reputation of politics needs improving, but would the Prime Minister agree that the latest format put forward by the broadcasters for TV election debates will not contribute to that? The broadcasters need to realise that these debates are for the benefit of voters as well as themselves, and that the unfair, irrational and legally implausible exclusion of the people of Northern Ireland from those debates—particularly the DUP, which has more votes and more seats than some parties that are included—cannot be justified. So will the Prime Minister agree to go back to the broadcasters and demand a rethink on the basis of justice and fairness, so that they come forward with proposals that he and the rest of us can agree to?
I have a lot of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. My argument was that you could not include one minor party without another—obviously I was referring specifically to the Greens on that occasion, but now, with it having been decided to include Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, there does seem to be a difficulty in not addressing the question of the DUP. Certainly my party stands in every part of the United Kingdom, so I do think that is important, but I am sure his case will be taken seriously.
Q4. Following the Chancellor’s significant commitment to London last week to create half a million jobs, build 100,000 new homes and invest £10 billion in transport infrastructure, does the Prime Minister agree that this is not just a long-term economic plan for London but, in stark contrast to other parties, which only offer London a mansion tax, is a commitment to make London the greatest capital city on earth? (907695)
My right hon. Friend is correct, because this plan for London is about being incredibly ambitious and trying to outpace the growth of New York, adding £6.4 billion to the London economy by 2030. That is what we are trying to do to see a higher growth rate. We have created something like half a million extra jobs in London since the election, and we need to keep on with that progress. As the OECD said yesterday:
“The UK is an actual textbook case, or is fast becoming, of best practice of how good labour market and of how good product market reform can support growth and job creation…my main message to you today is well done. Well done so far…But finish the job.”
It said, “You have a long-term economic plan, but you need to stick with it.” That is the view of the OECD, and that, I believe, should be backed by everyone in our country.
Last week, three young women from my constituency left their homes, travelled to Turkey and are now thought to have been smuggled into Syria. Their families are devastated. I know that the Prime Minister is making every effort to find them and encourage their return. Will he set up an urgent inquiry into these events to ensure that families, schools, mosques, youth clubs, internet companies and all agencies are guided on how they can better protect our young people?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this heartbreaking case, which we also discussed in the House on Monday. Clearly, anyone who saw the parents on the television talking about their children could not help but be moved by their plight.
What I have done is asked the Home Secretary to look urgently, with the Transport Secretary, at all the protocols we have in place about young people and travelling, and at what airlines do and what we can do. My understanding is that the police did respond relatively quickly in informing the Turkish authorities, and that what the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister has said about a three-day delay is not accurate, but there are always lessons to learn. On this occasion, I suspect the lessons will be not just that we can tighten arrangements on aeroplanes and at our borders, but that we all have a responsibility—schools, parents, families, communities, universities, colleges—to fight this poisonous radicalisation of young people’s minds.
Q5. Tomorrow, the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities will be in Cheshire to sign our local growth deal. It is a deal that will deliver two bridges for Warrington—infrastructure that has been much needed for the past 30 years. Does the Prime Minister agree that the fact we are finally addressing such infrastructure needs demonstrates a commitment to the north-west that was completely lacking under the previous Government? (907696)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has campaigned consistently on this issue. When I visited his constituency, he showed me the difference that those announcements will make to Warrington South. As a result of implementing the Cheshire and Warrington local growth deal, we expect to proceed with the construction of a high-level bridge crossing the Manchester ship canal. A new high-level crossing from the A56 Chester road will open up a substantial area of land for development immediately south of Warrington town centre. That will provide traffic relief, resilience, jobs, homes and livelihoods, which is what our long-term plan is all about.
Why did the Prime Minister deem it appropriate to outsource his response to one of my concerned constituents to a political correspondence manager housed in No. 10 Downing street, on paper bearing a Conservative party logo and with contents that referred to a Conservative manifesto and a Conservative Government’s legislation? It concluded in the hope that they—the Conservative party, I presume—could rely on my constituent’s support for many years to come. No Member of the House is permitted to use our parliamentary offices or revenues for political party campaigning. No. 10 Downing street does not become the property of its incumbent’s political party, so will the Prime Minister apologise not only to my constituent, but to the country for this gross misuse of national property and revenue?
If a letter was sent from the hon. Lady to me to be answered—such letters should always be answered by the Prime Minister to other Members of Parliament, and I will look into what happened in that case. Let me put on record how hard the correspondence unit works because it gets thousands of letters, including from Members of Parliament, every week of the year. I will look into that and ensure that she gets a proper reply from me. I say to all those living in Hampstead and Kilburn that they will be getting lots of letters from me in the coming weeks.
Q6. Last week my right hon. Friend launched the franchise competition for rail services in East Anglia, including a demand for state-of-the-art rolling stock. He may be aware that some Members of the House want a long review of franchise competitions, leading possibly to a renationalisation of the railways. Does he understand the delays and misery that that would cause to commuters and travellers in Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester and up and down the Great Eastern main line if that were ever to happen? (907697)
First, I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he and other MPs from East Anglia have done to press for better rail services. We have a clear view, which is that we want to achieve journey times to Ipswich in 60 minutes and Norwich in 90 minutes, and that is what the reforms are all about.
On this day, it is worth saying happy birthday to the shadow Chancellor, given that he always makes quite a lot of noise on the Opposition Benches. Part of the aim of this programme, when the right hon. Gentleman has plenty of time after the election, is that he will be able to get to see Norwich City in just 90 minutes. I think that is only fair—he gives me a birthday present every week, so I thought I would give him one today.
If the cap is such a good idea, why are we not voting on it in the House of Commons tonight? If we want evidence that Labour’s policy has been written on the back of a fag packet, that tells us all we need to know. Obviously, with plain paper packaging we will be helping, Labour Members to have more room to write their policies on.
May I assure my right hon. Friend that I am not a paid trade union official but I fear that if Members of the House are not allowed a second job, membership of it will soon be largely confined to the inheritors of substantial fortunes or to those with rich spouses, or to obsessive crackpots or those who are unemployable anywhere else?
I want to be clear that the Father of the House does not fit into any of those categories. He makes an important point: Parliament is stronger because we have people with different experience. When we look around this Parliament, we see we have actually got practising doctors, practising dentists, people who served our country in Afghanistan or Iraq, and people who run family businesses or have other interests. What we want is a Parliament where people can come and share their experience and make some points, instead of just having a whole lot of trade union sponsored ciphers.
At the moment I am both the Member of Parliament for west Oxfordshire and I am the Prime Minister. To be honest, I do do constituency work every day, but I would mislead the House if I said that I spent more time on my constituency work than being Prime Minister. That is worth while reflecting on.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The plan is about skills, infrastructure, jobs and cutting taxes, but above all it is about people’s livelihoods—securing jobs and livelihoods for people across our country. The fact that Labour Members cannot talk about the economy any week when they come to this House is because we have created a thousand jobs every day this Government have been in office. They are keen to talk about second jobs because they do not want to talk about the jobs revolution in our country. They do not want to talk about the apprenticeships. They do not want to talk about business creation, and they do not want to talk about the OECD and the fact that our economy grew faster last year than any other major economy in the west. They cannot talk about the economy because they have got nothing to say about it.
Q9. Is the Prime Minister aware that as a result of a 40% cut in the disabled students allowance many disabled students say that they might have to drop out of the courses they are on? Will he undertake to have an urgent review of that problem, because obviously I am sure that he does not want that to be the case? (907700)
I have looked specifically at this issue and had a constituency case connected to it. I will go back and look over it again, and perhaps write to the right hon. Gentleman, but it is important to recognise that—with the reform of disability living allowance going into personal independence payments—more of the most disabled people will be paid at the higher rate.
Q10. I know the Prime Minister shares my enthusiastic support for organ donation and my joy at the 63% increase in what is the most wonderful gift that anyone can give since the organ donation task force reported in 2008—[Interruption.] (907702)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a very substantial increase in organ donation. That has been done without moving to a system of presumed consent, which I know the House discussed and voted on previously. I was not in favour of that, but I am in favour of doing more to lead by example and making sure that hospitals are pursuing the best practice. There has been a remarkable increase, and if there is anything I can do to help with his campaign, I would be delighted to do so.
Q11. The lobbying Act, which the Prime Minister mentioned earlier, did absolutely nothing to affect those who are lobbying specifically for commercial gain. Will he now introduce a register of professional lobbyists; not to stop it, but so we all know what they are up to? (907703)
First, before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I congratulate him on being appointed as the new chair of the parliamentary Labour party? I hope that in 70 days’ time he will be able to conduct a root and branch inquest into what went wrong.
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s question specifically. If he supports the lobbying Act, can he explain why trade unions in Britain have lobbied the Labour party to get rid of the Act? If we want an example of what is wrong with British politics, it is the massive money that goes from the unions to the Labour party that buys their candidates and buys their policies. The only reason their leader is sitting there is because a bunch of trade union barons thought he was more left-wing than his brother. That is what is wrong with British politics and that is what needs fixing.
When the Prime Minister wrote to my local newspapers heralding the work done to bring superfast broadband to Somerset, was he aware that, according to the Government’s own figures, Somerset has 41% coverage at the moment? BT’s monopoly means that it will be the only organisation able to bid for the next phase of connections. That offers very little hope for the residents and business people in my area who do not have access to superfast broadband. What is he going to do about that?
What we are going to do is continue spending record sums on broadband roll-out. We have seen across the country that it is almost double from the 40% we inherited. There is more to do in the most rural areas, including the hon. Lady’s constituency. All local councils now have searchable websites so people can see when they expect broadband to get to their area. We need to look at creative solutions to make sure we get to the last 5%. It is a very important part of our long-term economic plan. That can only be secured by a Conservative majority Government.
Q12. I welcome the fact that the Government have been forced to accept our demands for people to be protected when buying tickets in the secondary ticketing market. If the Government had listened to us last year, thousands of rugby world cup and Ashes cricket fans would have been saved from having to pay more than face value for tickets. Why are the Government always on the side of people like bankers, tax dodgers and the organised gangs behind ticket touting in the secondary ticketing market, and never on the side of ordinary people in the street? (907704)
This is something that has happened after four and a half years of a Conservative Prime Minister that never happened after 13 years of a Labour Prime Minister. I will tell the hon. Gentleman whose side we are on: we are on the side of working people, because we are getting them jobs, we are cutting their taxes, and we are helping with child care. We sit opposite a party that is the party of Len McCluskey and the trade unions.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, hot on the heels of devolving powers on transport and housing, the welcome announcement that Manchester will take control of its £6 billion NHS budget shows the coalition’s commitment to local decision-making for Manchester, in stark contrast to the Labour Government that oversaw the closure of Withington hospital from Whitehall? (907705)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important breakthrough. It has been made possible by our reforms. It will help to bring the NHS and social care together. The shadow Health Secretary, who presumably knew absolutely nothing about this, does not understand that eight Labour authorities in Greater Manchester have been talking to us and working with us about how to make this a reality. What a contrast: people working together to improve the NHS, instead of trying to weaponise it across the Dispatch Box.
Last year, more than 3,000 desperate migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Several hundred have already died this year trying to reach a place of safety. Many people, in absolute desperation, turn to traffickers to try to escape the crisis in Libya and in many other places. They are victims of war and oppression. The European Union is closing down Mare Nostrum, which has saved a very large number of lives, and is instead instituting something that will only protect Europe’s borders, not search for and rescue people. Will the Prime Minister go back and ensure that Europe adopts a humanitarian approach of saving these desperate people and supporting these desperate migrants who are trying to survive—that is all, survive—in Libya?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, but I am afraid that the statistics do not necessarily back up the case he is making. Mare Nostrum was a genuine attempt by the Italians to deal with this problem, but I think I am right in saying that more people died during the operation of that policy than when it was brought to an end. There are some answers. We need to make sure we press ahead with the Modern Slavery Bill, an historic piece of legislation taken through by this Government, that is doing a huge amount to deal with the problem of people trafficking. Yes, we need to do more to stabilise countries such as Libya and others on the Mediterranean, from which many of the problems derive. That serves to underline the important work done by our development budget.