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Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015

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

The Chancellor was asked six times this morning whether he had had conversations with Lord Green about tax avoidance. He refused to answer. Will the Prime Minister now clarify whether he or the Chancellor had conversations with Lord Green when he was a trade Minister about tax avoidance at HSBC?

We dealt with all this a fortnight ago. All the proper checks were made. This is the same Lord Green, the same Stephen Green, that Labour gave a job to just before the election. That is the truth and they cannot get away from it.

Q2. A centre for excellence is to be created on the Isle of Wight for composites, advanced manufacturing and marine technology. This project, led by GKN Aerospace and the Isle of Wight College, will benefit new and existing island businesses. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an excellent example of the Government supporting the local economy and ensuring that young people on the island have the skills that the industries of the future will need? (907853)

My hon. Friend is right: this is an excellent development. Solent local enterprise partnership has received nearly £11 million in funding through the growth deal to build the centre of excellence for composites on the Isle of Wight. This will provide 550 students with workshop and learning facilities, and will include more than 250 apprentices. This is all part of our long-term plan to build up Britain’s skills, build up Britain’s manufacturing, build up our apprenticeships and make sure more people get the security and stability of work.

Before the last election, the Prime Minister made a no ifs, no buts promise on immigration. Can he remind the House exactly what that promise was?

We promised to cut net migration. We have cut it from outside the European Union, but it has increased from inside the European Union, not least because we have created more jobs than the rest of the European Union put together.

The Prime Minister was rather coy about his precise promise. It was in his contract with the British people: net migration cut to the tens of thousands. But now it is at 298,000—higher than when he took office. Here is what he said in the contract:

“If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time.”

When he said that, did he mean it?

There are two reasons for high migration. One is the growth of our economy, and the other is that our benefit system allows people to access that benefit system straight away. I say: let’s keep the strong economy; let’s change the benefit system. The right hon. Gentleman wants to keep the benefit system and trash the economy.

I have to say to the Prime Minister that his promise on immigration makes the Deputy Prime Minister’s promise on tuition fees look like the model of integrity. If he can break so spectacularly a solemn promise on a fundamentally important issue, why on earth should anyone believe any of his election promises this time?

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman mentions the document, because I have brought it with me. I have, as you say, procured a copy for the interests of the House, and I would like to run through the commitments we made. We said:

“We will protect pensions”,

and we have protected pensions. We said we would train 4,000 Sure Start health visitors, and we have trained 4,000 Sure Start health visitors. We said we would

“protect free TV licences for over 75s and keep free eye tests… for pensioners”,

and we kept that promise. [Interruption.] There is plenty more. I’ve got all day, Mr Speaker. I think these are very important. The contract says:

“We will keep the winter fuel allowance”,

and we kept the winter fuel allowance.

It said we would

“ensure that cancer patients get the…treatment they need”,

and we made sure that happened. There is lots more, so let us keep going. There is plenty of time. [Hon. Members: “More!”] We said we would increase health spending every year, and we have increased health spending every year. We said we would introduce the married couples tax allowance, and we have introduced a married couples tax allowance. We said we would increase the basic state pension, and we have increased the basic state pension. There is plenty more. These are commitments made, and commitments kept. What a contrast—

So now we know: we cannot believe the promise on immigration from the leader of the Conservative party. It is not worth the paper it is written on. [Laughter.]

Order. I ask the House to have some regard to the views of the public about our behaviour, given that we will be seeking their support in the weeks ahead. It is quite straightforward really.

They are laughing about the Prime Minister’s broken promise on immigration. I will ask again. He promised net migration in the tens of thousands. Will he now admit that he has broken that promise—yes or no?

I have been very clear: we have cut migration from outside the EU, but we have seen it rise inside the EU. We have a plan to deal with that. The right hon. Gentleman talks about commitments, but I have a few more. The contract said we would cut wasteful spending, and we have cut wasteful spending. We said we would reduce carbon emissions, and we reduced carbon emissions. We said we would have 400,000 apprentices—we have broken that promise, because we have had 2 million apprentices. It is election time, and we are all getting to think about leaflets, so I have a little question. Apparently, someone can go around to his office, and he stands on a soapbox to make himself look a little taller. How many people will put the Leader of the Opposition on their leaflets? Come on! Hands up! [Laughter.] I think that is enough about leaflets for now.

So it is all about leadership. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Excellent. Great. We have a good chance to discuss these issues. The broadcasters have proposed a live, head-to-head debate between the Prime Minister and me on 30 April—a week before polling day. I will be at that debate—will he?

Yes, it is all about leadership, but we have seen none from the Labour party. What is interesting is that we are having a debate now, and the Opposition cannot talk about the economy—they cannot talk about jobs, because more jobs are being created; they cannot talk about growth, because growth is going up; and they cannot even talk about living standards, because of today’s breakthrough report showing that living standards are back at their pre-crisis peak. I say let us have these debates, and let us get on with them before the election.

Okay, if the Prime Minister wants an additional debate between me and him before the election, I am happy to agree to it, but the broadcasters have set a date. He says the election is all about me and him, but the one thing he wants to avoid is a televised debate between me and him. I will give him another chance: I will be there on 30 April for a debate between me and him. Will he be there—yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman has now given up on the seven-cornered debates; he does not want to debate with the Greens any more. He watched the press conference: we all thought it was a car crash; he probably thought it was a master-class. We are having a debate now, and he cannot talk about the economy; he cannot talk about jobs; he cannot talk about living standards; he cannot talk about what we have done for our economy. The reason for that is that he has no leadership whatsoever. The truth is that we have a recovering economy, and we must not let Labour wreck it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Next Monday, a seemingly minor amendment to the Road Traffic Acts will allow 70,000 severely disabled wheelchair-using children legally to use a heavier class of wheelchair that better meets their complex needs. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the excellent Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children in my constituency, which has been campaigning for this change in the law for over five years, and can now continue to make a real difference to the quality of life of some of the most severely disabled children in our country?

I am very happy, with my hon. Friend, to praise that business and to pay tribute to all those who give disabled young people the chance of having more choice over wheelchairs. Anyone who has had a child in a wheelchair knows that choice is important so that their child can have a better quality of life. I am delighted that this change in the law will help make that possible.

Q3. My father died of cancer; my mother died of cancer; and my sister died of cancer. A year ago, the Prime Minister set a target for those on urgent cancer referrals to receive their first treatment within two months. Last year, 20,000 people did not have that target met for them. Does the Prime Minister understand that, even if the national health service can survive another five years of a Conservative Government, 100,000 cancer patients cannot? (907854)

The hon. Gentleman, probably like everyone in this House and most people in our country, knows someone who has been affected by, or died of, cancer. We all know that, and we know it is one of the biggest killers that we must get to grips with in our country. What we have seen over the last five years, partly because we have protected health spending, is a 50% increase of referrals into cancer treatments, so about half a million extra people have been treated. When it comes to cancer, what we need is earlier diagnosis by the GP. That is why the information campaigns matter so much. When people go into treatment, it does matter that the waiting targets are met. Two out of the three key cancer targets are being met, and we need to make sure that all of them are met. We also need to keep on with the cancer drugs fund, which has given many cancer sufferers access to drugs and a longer life as a result.

Q4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, too often, some of NATO’s leaders confuse announcements with action? Will he ensure that NATO does what it said it would do at Cardiff last year, so that those who, for their own domestic reasons, want to undermine the political and territorial integrity of the alliance realise that when we say we will defend it, we mean it, that we have the means to do so and that we will do so? (907855)

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Cardiff conference was so important. We said we would stick to article 5—and we will stick to article 5. We said we would draw up an action plan to help countries in eastern Europe, including the Baltic states—and we are doing so. For Britain’s part, we have the Typhoons taking part in the Baltic air patrol and we have 4,000 British troops taking part in operations in eastern Europe. It is very important that we are clear to those Baltic allies that when we sign up to article 5, we mean it. They want to hear our support—when they face not only a conventional threat, but threats of cyber-attack as well. We need to show that we are standing with them at this time.

Q5. Without wishing to be personal, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that many people consider him to be a Prime Minister who simply does not understand the lives of millions of people of this country who try to live on modest incomes? The Tory party has been, and remains, the party of the rich and the privileged. (907856)

I would say to the hon. Gentleman that a Government should be judged according to what happens to the people living in the country. We are now seeing 1.85 million more people with a job. That means that 1,000 people are getting a job for every day that the Government have been in office, and it means the security of a pay packet and the chance to provide for a family. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is the reality of Britain today: more apprentices, more jobs, and more people able to provide for their families. I should have thought that the Labour party would welcome that.

The Department for Education has overruled Norfolk county council’s proposal for an interim executive board to resolve the future of The Hewett school in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister seek to establish why the DFE considers its own centrally imposed proposal to be preferable, given that it seems to go against the spirit of localism?

What we have done is ensure that when schools are not succeeding and when they are coasting, they are taken over and turned around, and I think it very important that we intervene on behalf of local parents to make sure that that happens. However, I will look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Q6. At a time when the Government are losing millions through tax avoidance, how does it make sense to close North Ayrshire tax office, given that every officer there brings in taxes amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds that would otherwise be lost to the Exchequer? (907857)

We have made at least 40 changes to ensure that people pay their taxes. We inherited circumstances in which foreigners were not paying stamp duty, hedge fund managers were paying less tax than their cleaners, and a number of people were avoiding tax on an industrial scale. [Interruption.] Opposition Members sit there now, but they were the friends of the tax avoiders. They had 13 years in which to act, but they did nothing, and it took a Conservative Government to sort it out.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister believe that his own behaviour and that of the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister’s Question Time enhances or damages the image of the Houses of Parliament and, indeed, that of politicians in the eyes of members of the public? (907858)

Prime Minister’s Question Time is, inevitably, a robust exchange. I am sure that there are always ways in which we can improve it, but it has an important function in ensuring that we have accountable government in our country, and that people can ask the Prime Minister anything they want.

Q8. Yesterday the Prime Minister rightly designated child sexual exploitation as a national threat. Sadly, the police are receiving more reports of abuse than ever before, but there are fewer investigations and prosecutions than there were in 2010-11. Since then, 16,000 police jobs have been cut. How can it be right to cut a further 1,100 next year? (907859)

Let me begin by thanking the hon. Lady for mentioning the fact that we have made child sexual exploitation an issue of national importance. That will trigger work not just by local police forces, but by the National Crime Agency. That means that more resources will be put into investigations of this kind, which will employ all the tools that modern police are able to bring to their investigations. Rather than seeing priority being given to other issues, the hon. Lady will see priority being given to this issue. Yes, police budgets have been reduced, but the percentage of police on the front line has risen, and crime has fallen all over the country.

In a dangerous world, experience as a statesman is one of the many advantages that my right hon. Friend has over any alternative Prime Minister. Does he agree that, in such a dangerous world, the ultimate guarantee of our security is our nuclear deterrent, and will he confirm that he would never be involved in any shabby deal to give away our nuclear deterrent as part of a wider deal with a unilateralist party, simply to get the keys to No. 10?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ultimate guarantor of Britain’s security is our independent nuclear deterrent. That is why we support it, and will ensure that it is properly renewed during the next Parliament. I think it important for everyone in the House to make that clear pledge.

It is concerning that nearly three quarters of Labour candidates oppose the renewal of Trident. I think that now is the time for Labour to rule out any agreement with the Scottish National party, because no one wants to see some grubby deal between the people who want to break up the United Kingdom and the people who want to bankrupt the United Kingdom.

Q9. To have the accountable Government the Prime Minister just talked about, he needs to answer the questions asked of him. A two-way debate is planned by broadcasters for 30 April. For the third time today, I ask him: will he be there? (907860)

I have been very clear. I have said, “Get on with the debates before the election campaign,” and I think we should start now.

I bring the House good news. For the first time in 10 years British beer sales are up. The Campaign for Real Ale said the Chancellor’s scrapping of Labour’s hated beer duty escalator and two cuts in beer duty have saved 1,050 pubs. The Sun newspaper, which champions Britain’s beer drinkers, says today that the Chancellor is poised to repeat the cuts. Will the Prime Minister join me in assuring beer drinkers that this Government are on the side of publicans and on the side of British brewers, and will he urge the Chancellor to have a third cut?

I praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done to support the beer industry, to support Britain’s pubs and to stand up for our local communities where the pub is so often the hub of the village and the community. This Government have been a good friend of Britain’s pubs and the beer industry. I am delighted with the figures my hon. Friend read out. It always goes to show that life’s better under the Conservatives.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who says that prosecuting people who do not pay the minimum wage is the politics of envy? (907861)

Prosecuting people for not paying the minimum wage is absolutely the right thing to do, and what we have done is made sure that the resources are there for that to happen, and let me give the hon. Lady the figures: 3,200 penalties have been issued for non-payment of the minimum wage, amounting to nearly £3 million in fines. What we have seen is the maximum penalty being increased, we are naming and shaming non-compliant businesses, and we are getting that sort of action under a Government led by me.

Q11. Our long-term economic recovery plan for the north-east has seen wages up, apprenticeships doubled and exports up, and unemployment in every constituency in the north-east has fallen in the last year, and by 37% in Hexham. We are fixing the mess left behind by the Labour Government. Can the Prime Minister set out the future plan for the north-east? (907862)

We are setting out our long-term economic plan for the north-east. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the figures in his own constituency: the claimant count in Hexham is down by 53%. But what is really fascinating about what is happening today is what is happening to youth employment, and I can tell the House a new figure: in the last year the UK saw a bigger rise in employment levels for under-25s than the whole of the rest of the European Union combined. That is what is happening with our economy recovering. The biggest risk to that economic recovery is the wrecking ball of the Labour party.

My constituent Mr Irfon Williams of Bangor has been refused the drug treatment for his cancer. He has moved to England and I understand he will begin treatment next Wednesday. What would the Prime Minister say to Mr Williams and others who have had to fight on a case-by-case basis for the treatment prescribed? Mr Williams himself is a senior health care professional.

What I would say to Mr Williams is, first, that he has my sympathy and understanding for the condition that he has. I hope he will get the treatment he needs in England, where we are investing £60 million in this Parliament to introduce bowel scope screening in the NHS, which I think will be absolutely vital. On the question of identifying this cancer, which is a major killer, much earlier, the English NHS is performing 850,000 more operations each year compared with 2010, but the problem is that in Wales the Labour party has made the wrong decision and cut NHS spending. It did not have to make that decision, because of course the increase in NHS spending in England triggers Barnett money being available in Wales, so even at this late stage I would plead with the Labour Government in Wales: make the right decision on health, increase the spending, increase the cancer treatments, and give people like the hon. Gentleman’s constituent the treatment they deserve.

Q12. On a recent visit to my constituency to announce the growth fund allocation for the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, my right hon. Friend learned how, as part of the city deal, the marine industrial campus on unwanted Ministry of Defence land in Devonport’s South Yard could create 1,000 new skilled jobs. As he knows, however, that opportunity could be lost if the land is not transferred to the city council before purdah. Can he confirm when that transfer is going to happen? (907863)

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency in January to see at first hand the plans for the maritime industrial campus, which is a very exciting development. As he knows, discussions are under way between Plymouth city council and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. I do not think there is any reason why they cannot be completed by the end of the month, and I am pressing the Ministry of Defence to do everything it can to make that happen. I can also confirm that funding is there, should the case be approved; that funding was secured as part of the city deal. This is very important for Plymouth and I want to see it happen.

I will tell the hon. Lady what we have done. We have created a system in which the universities are now better funded than others in Europe, the number of students going to university has increased and the number of people from poor backgrounds has gone up as well. The party opposite has taken four years to work out its policy, and it is a policy that hits universities, helps rich students rather than poor ones and does nothing to expand university education in our country. It is going to be paid for by additional pension taxes on senior nurses, military figures and firefighters. It has taken the Opposition four years to come up with a completely useless policy. It is, if you like, a monument to the chaos we would get under a Labour Government.

Unemployment in my constituency and across northern Lincolnshire has plummeted since 2010, and that is in large part due to infrastructure investment by this Government, including investment in the Humber bridge and in the A160 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). May I urge the Prime Minister to look closely at the possibility of a feasibility study for the electrification of the southern TransPennine line in northern and north-eastern Lincolnshire?

I will certainly have a look at my hon. Friend’s proposal. As he knows, we have made real progress on the electrification of railway lines as part of our infrastructure investment. I was in his constituency recently with representatives of the Homes and Communities Agency to look at a vital road development that is opening up economic development there, but I would be happy to look at the electrification project as well.

Schools with outstanding academic results can go for years and years with no inspection of their child protection procedures. Is it not time to make child protection much more central to the Ofsted process, and to ensure that every school’s child protection arrangements are inspected regularly?

I will look carefully at the hon. Lady’s point. For many years, inspections were seen as almost too routine in outstanding schools that were delivering good results. We needed to focus more on the failing schools and those requiring improvement. She makes an important point, however. Child sexual exploitation is an issue that we need to address in this Parliament and beyond, as are the issues of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and it is important to know that the right safeguarding policies are in place. Of course, these things can also be triggered by boards of governors or by concerned parents, rather than having to have a routine inspection, but I will have a look at her proposal.

Two years ago, a toddler in my constituency, Millie Thompson, tragically died following a choking incident at a local nursery. Her parents set up Millie’s Trust to campaign for a change in the law to require all relevant nursery staff to have paediatric first aid qualifications. An e-petition with more than 100,000 signatures and a Back-Bench business debate led to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) promising a review, which is currently being undertaken. Does the Prime Minister support the campaign, and if so, will he respectfully ask the Minister to get a move on?

I will certainly talk to my hon. Friend the Minister about the review. Obviously, it makes sense for as many people as possible to have that sort of training, because where we can prevent accidents and needless loss of life, we should do so. So let me talk to the Minister and get back to my hon. Friend.

Let us try the Prime Minister on another one of his promises: to make energy companies put their customers on the lowest possible tariff. Too many of my constituents are still paying many hundreds of pounds more per year for energy. Will he again make that promise or is he content to wait until an incoming Labour Government in May fix this energy market?

What we promised was to get energy companies to cut their bills by taking some of the charges off them, and that has been delivered. What the Labour party is promising is a price freeze even when prices are coming down. So even before the election Labour has started to inflict real damage on consumers in our country by helping to keep prices higher than they otherwise would be.

Worcestershire is one of the three fastest growing county economies in the UK, and in Worcester youth unemployment is now down by two thirds since it peaked under Labour. Businesses are investing in our world-class county, but one factor holding back that investment is the long journey time it takes to reach us by rail from the capital. Will the Prime Minister, whose constituency is on the same line, join me in the Fast Track Worcester campaign to deliver us a two-hour service?

I am very keen to join my hon. Friend in this campaign because it would benefit my constituency too. We have seen a dualling of more parts of the Cotswold railway line in recent years and an improvement in car parks, which is all to the good. This is a vital railway service—[Interruption.] We are hearing a lot from the shadow Chancellor today. He told us that he was a “long slow burn”, but I have to say that the only thing lying in ashes is Labour’s economic credibility.

Recent figures produced by the TUC have shown that 40% of workers in my constituency earn less than the living wage, with women particularly badly affected—53% of women workers earn less than £16,000 a year. What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that workers in my constituency start to feel the recovery?

First, I support the living wage and I think that those employers who can pay it should pay it. But what we do to help all people in this situation is to make sure that the minimum wage is properly enforced, to see it increased over time and then, of course, to lift people out of tax. We have lifted 3 million people out of tax by raising to £10,600 the amount of money that someone can earn before they start paying tax. That has benefited low-paid people and has benefited women, and if we get a Conservative Government after the next election, we will raise that threshold to £12,500 so that someone can work 30 hours on the minimum wage and pay no income tax whatsoever.

As we approach the general election, may I urge my right hon. Friend to abandon his natural reticence and remind the British people that the last Labour Prime Minister destroyed the public finances, ran up a massive £156 billion budget deficit, plundered the pension funds and sold off the gold at a ridiculously low price, whereas under my right hon. Friend’s stewardship and five years of hard graft the United Kingdom now has the fastest-growing economy in the G7, with average wages rising in real terms for the first time since 2007? What we need is, as my right hon. Friend said, a Conservative Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I have not felt particularly reticent today, but what I would say is that the economy is recovering. We see that in jobs, we now see that in living standards and we see it in the lowest rate of inflation that we have had for many years in our country. The economy has turned around, we have turned that corner, things are getting better and we must not let Labour wreck it.

The suffering of constituents of mine such as Liza Brady, Simon Davey and James Titcombe, who lost their babies at Furness general hospital, is hard to imagine. They have had years of struggle to get to the point yesterday where the Kirkup report put through a host of recommendations, both for our local hospital and for the wider NHS. Will the Prime Minister honour their struggle today by saying that the Government will implement those recommendations in full?

It is a very important report, which is why the Health Secretary made the statement that he did. We want to see many of these changes put in place. Where we have problems in our NHS—we saw them in Mid Staffs and in the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions—it is important that we do not sweep them under the carpet; we need to be open and honest about them. We should send in the inspectors with the newly beefed-up Care Quality Commission. We have this new post of chief inspector of hospitals, which brings focus to the whole organisation, and we need to work out how to turn a hospital around; how to put it into special measures; and how to get things fixed so that these tragedies do not happen again. My heart goes out to all those people who have lost their children as a result of things that should never have happened in our country.