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Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

I know the whole House will wish to join me in offering our deepest condolences to the families and friends of all those killed in yesterday’s Airbus crash in France. It is heartbreaking to hear about the schoolchildren, the babies and the families whose lives have been brought to an end. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is very likely that some British nationals were involved. At this stage, three British nationals have been identified as having been on the flight. The Foreign Office is working urgently to establish whether any further British nationals were among those on board. We are providing consular assistance and will give further information as it becomes available. Our ambassador to France is at the crash site today. I spoke to Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Rajoy last night and made it clear that the UK is ready to offer any assistance we can. I expect to speak to President Hollande later today.

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

May I join the Prime Minister in expressing sympathies to all the families affected by yesterday’s tragedy?

In 2014, the number of people working on zero-hours contracts increased by 19%, unsecured borrowing rose by 9%, and the percentage living in relative poverty was at the highest level since 2001. Does the Prime Minister agree that on his watch the future of our young people is only getting darker?

What has happened on my watch is that 174,000 more people are employed in Scotland. Zero-hours contracts account for one in 50 jobs, and it is this Government who have outlawed exclusivity in zero-hours contracts—after the 13 years of inaction from the Labour party. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 32% since the election. That is evidence that our economic plan is working in Scotland, as it is throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

One of the most disturbing scandals has been the infection of thousands of people across the nation with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood. Today Lord Penrose publishes a report that follows nearly 25 years of campaigning by Members on both sides of this House to address the scandal. Will the Prime Minister, as the last act of his Government, ensure that there is a full apology, transparent publication and, above all, proper compensation for the families terribly affected by this scandal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, with the Penrose report being published today. I can do all of the three things he asks for. I know that many Members on all sides of this House have raised the question of infected blood, and I have spoken about how constituents have been to my surgeries. While it will be for the next Government to take account of these findings, it is right that we use this moment to recognise the pain and the suffering experienced by people as a result of this tragedy. It is difficult to imagine the feelings of unfairness that people must feel at being infected with something like hepatitis C or HIV as a result of a totally unrelated treatment within the NHS. To each and every one of those people, I would like to say sorry on behalf of the Government for something that should not have happened.

No amount of money can ever fully make up for what did happen, but it is vital that we move as soon as possible to improve the way that payments are made to those infected by this blood. I can confirm today that the Government will provide up to £25 million in 2015-16 to support any transitional arrangements to a better payments system. I commit that, if I am Prime Minister in May, we will respond to the findings of this report as a matter of priority.

Finally, I know that Lord Penrose was unable to present the findings of his report today because of illness. I am sure the whole House would want to send him our very best wishes.

Let me first say that I fully associate myself with the remarks that the Prime Minister has just made about the victims of infected blood. We undertake today to act on those recommendations as well. I also join the Prime Minister in offering my condolences to the families who lost loved ones in the devastating plane crash yesterday, especially remembering the three British victims. Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and their friends.

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced his retirement plans. He said that it was because he believed in giving straight answers to straight questions. After five years of Prime Minister’s questions, that was music to my ears. So here is a straight question: will he now rule out a rise in VAT?

In 43 days’ time, I plan to arrange the right hon. Gentleman’s retirement. But he is right: straight questions deserve straight answers, and the answer is yes.

No one is going to believe it. No one is going to believe it because of the Prime Minister’s extreme spending plans, because his numbers do not add up, and because he promised it last time and he broke his promise. Now, if the Prime Minister is in the mood for straight answers, let us try him with another one. Can he confirm that a spending cut—[Interruption.]

Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard. If we overrun, so be it; it does not matter to me. The right hon. Gentleman will be heard, and the Prime Minister will be heard, and every other Member will be heard.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the spending cuts that he plans in the next three years will be even greater than anything seen in the last five?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about that, but look: straight answer from me, straight question to him. I have ruled out VAT. Will he rule out national insurance contributions? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister will have plenty of time to ask questions after 7 May—and I am afraid to say that his own Office for Budget Responsibility has referred to

“a much sharper squeeze on real spending…than anything seen over the past five years”.

Next question, and this should be an easier one. Five years ago, the Prime Minister promised to cut net migration to tens of thousands. Straight answer to a straight question: is that a broken promise? Yes or no?

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a second chance. I answered a very simple question about VAT. I ruled out an increase. Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again: will he rule out an increase in national insurance contributions?

We all know that this is Labour’s jobs tax. This is Labour’s tax of choice. This is what Labour clobbers working people, families and enterprises with. So let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again—straight question, straight answer—will he rule it out?

There is only one person who is going to raise taxes on ordinary families, and that is the Prime Minister—and he is going to cut the national health service. Moreover, he did not answer the question. Let me now ask him a question about the NHS. Five years ago, he promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Now, this is an easy one: can he confirm that that is a broken promise? Yes or no?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in the NHS. There are 9,000 more doctors, 7,000 more nurses, and 20,000 more bureaucrats. But we have heard it now: a clear promise on VAT from this side of the House, and no answer on national insurance from that side of the House. And it goes to a bigger point. The right hon. Gentleman has had five years to come up with an economic plan, he has had five years to work out some policies for the future of this country, he has had five years to demonstrate some leadership, and he has failed on every count.

Nobody believes the right hon. Gentleman’s promises on VAT and nobody believes his promises on the national health service because he has broken his promises in this Parliament. Now, let us try him on one more: three years ago he cut the top rate of income tax. Can he rule out, under a Tory Government, a further cut in the top rate of income tax?

The richest in this country are paying more tax under this Government than they paid under the last Government. We have set out our plans for tax cuts: if you are young and you work hard, you will get an apprenticeship; if you are a family, we will take you out of tax until you earn £12,500. I do not want to see middle-income families drawn into the top rate of tax. We have made our promises. Now, let the right hon. Gentleman make a promise: will he increase national insurance? Yes or no?

Nobody believes the right hon. Gentleman’s promises. He has had five years of failing working families, with worse to come—more spending cuts, more tax cuts for the richest, more betrayal. This has been a Government of the few for the few. It is time for a better plan. It is time for a Labour Government.

Well, we have seen it all: absolutely no ability to answer a question. This is a country where unemployment is falling; the economy is growing; the deficit is coming down; in our NHS, the operations are going up; there are more good school places for our children; living standards are rising; inflation is at zero; and there are record numbers in work—all of this could be put at risk by Labour. That is the choice in 43 days’ time: competence and a long-term plan that is delivering, instead of the chaos of economic crisis from Labour.

Q3. Thirteen months ago, my constituent Leigh Smith tragically lost her three-month-old baby Beatrice due to a rare heart condition. In an effort to help other families avoid the grief and despair of losing a child, Mrs Smith wants all schools to install defibrillators and to teach life-saving skills. Will the Prime Minister offer his support to this vital cause? (908294)

First, let me say to my hon. Friend and his constituent that there is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child and we should do everything we can to help with this. The Chancellor announced in his Budget £1 million for defibrillators, including putting defibrillators into schools. I want to see a situation where community buildings, schools, pubs, village halls—all of them—have defibrillators, because we can save lives in this way, and particularly when we are saving such young lives, as in my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, we must do better.

Q4. May I start by expressing my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the tragic Germanwings air crash?There are not any in the Prime Minister’s constituency, there is just one in the Home Secretary’s seat, and yet there are 680 people seeking asylum in Rochdale, more than in the entire south-east of England. We are all proud of the assistance that this country offers to those in need, but public services in Rochdale are already stretched and this uneven dispersal of asylum seekers is not helping the situation. Does the Prime Minister accept that this is not fair on Rochdale, and what does he plan to do about it? (908295)

I think the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, that what we inherited was completely unacceptable. The numbers of asylum seekers are down by a third from the peak they reached under Labour. We are fast-tracking more cases and we are resolving more cases more quickly, but I have to say to him that the legislation governing the distribution of asylum seekers was put in place under the last Labour Government.

I have been following what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. He has sent some very good dispatches from the front in terms of knocking on doors in Rochdale, and this is what he says:

“Any Labour politician that says to you they knock on a door and Ed Miliband is popular are telling lies.”

He says that about his own side. He says:

“You know, this north London elite view of the world just doesn’t play in Rochdale, Rotherham, Runcorn or anywhere else beginning with an ‘R’ outside the M25.”

I would like to encourage him to do more interviews, because he could add Reading, Redditch, Redruth, Reigate, Rochford, Romford, Romsey, Rossendale, Rushcliffe, Rutland, Rye—and probably Rosyth too the way they are going.

Q5. I don’t think so love. In May 2010, unemployment in South Derbyshire, an ex-mining area, stood at 1,540. Today it is almost a third of that, at 580. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the strong Conservative Government and a Conservative district council with a long-term economic plan are able to succeed in bringing jobs and growth where the Labour equivalent failed to do so? (908296)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; in South Derbyshire, since the election, the claimant count—the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—is down by 68%. Those are the statistics, but every one of those people is someone with a job, with a livelihood and with a chance to provide for their family. That is what this election is going to be about: for young people who want jobs, we are offering apprenticeships; for young families who want homes, we have got homes with Help to Buy; and for pensioners who want security, we have got the pension and the pension benefits guarantee. That is what is on the ballot paper and that is what I think people will choose at the next election.

Following the publication of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs report on the disgraceful on-the-runs debacle yesterday, it has now been revealed that the man who went about distributing these letters to IRA fugitives, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, has actually received the royal prerogative of mercy for certain crimes. Will the Prime Minister now list in the Library of the House all those other Sinn Fein members and leading republicans who have likewise received a royal pardon, so that republicans in Northern Ireland can know which of their great stalwart leaders have begged or asked for, or received, probably on bended knee, such a royal pardon and secondly, so that everybody in the country can know which Governments have been involved in such nefarious activities?

I will look very carefully at the question the right hon. Gentleman asks and what more we can do to be transparent, because this Government, not least by holding the on-the-runs review, have been transparent. What I would say to him is that Governments in the past have had to make difficult decisions with respect to Northern Ireland to try to bring parties together and produce the peaceful outcome that we have today. That has involved difficult compromises and things that he and probably I have found, at times, deeply distasteful. None the less, sometimes, in the pursuit of peace, some of these things have to be done.

Q6. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department for Transport on their securing a £50 million rail infrastructure improvement scheme in South West Trains, which feeds my constituency? However, we still need better infrastructure—additional track; flyovers and power supply—if we are to get longer trains and faster journey times to Weymouth and Portland. Will he meet me to discuss this further to see whether we can further boost the economy in South Dorset? (908297)

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these issues. I believe this Government have done right by the south-west, not least with the announcement the Transport Secretary has made of an additional 57,000 seats on South West Trains every week from December and 1,400 extra car parking spaces at train stations across the region. We can have this strong transport investment, not just in the south-west, but right across our country, only because we have a long-term economic plan that is delivering the growth this country needs.

Has the Prime Minister not put himself on a fixed-term contract? Is he not now concerned that it will be a zero-hours contract after 8 May?

It is very simple what I have said. I answered a very clear question, and perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will have to answer some clear questions. It is very simple: two terms, 10 years and one kitchen.

Q7. Is my right hon. Friend as alarmed as I am— Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. Is my right hon. Friend as alarmed as I am that Alex Salmond is planning to impose a series of demands on the UK Government? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will have nothing to do with such demands? (908298)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As far as I can see, Alex Salmond has taken the entire Labour party hostage, and today we have got the ransom note. The ransom note is very clear. It says, “Higher borrowing, uncontrolled immigration, unfettered welfare, higher taxes and weaker defence.” That is what is being demanded, and the British people have only one way of saying no to this appalling hostage situation, which is to vote Conservative on 7 May.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the continually dire position at London Bridge station, which is a cause of major concern? Is he aware of the abysmal service and the chaotic scenes that have accompanied Network Rail’s latest stage of development? Will he instruct the Secretary of State for Transport personally to take responsibility for resolving the debacle and for bringing forward an early straightforward compensation scheme for the many tens of thousands of commuters who have had their lives so seriously disrupted?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that matter. Anyone who has seen the pictures of what has happened some mornings at London Bridge station knows that the pressures are immense. What we need to do is ensure that Transport for London and the Department for Transport are working together—as they are—to bring about the best possible solution. People cannot criticise this Government for failing to invest in London’s transport infrastructure. The Crossrail scheme, which I visited again a couple of weeks ago—[Interruption.] Labour Members say, “We did that”. They did not. They left an enormous bill, but it was this Government who put in the money and got it built. It is one thing to promise something, but another to put the diggers in the ground and to get it done, which is what we have done.

It is very easy to say the words, “long-term economic plan”, but in Brighton, Kemptown, the past five years have seen sharply falling unemployment, huge increases in business start-ups, and a massive £480 million investment in the new hospital. Does the Prime Minister think that the sun will continue to shine on Brighton?

First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been a real champion for Brighton. He has campaigned so hard for the extra investment and the rebuilding of the hospital, and I am glad that the redevelopment of the Royal Sussex county hospital will take place. I also note that, in his constituency, the claimant count has gone down by 52% and the long-term youth claimant count by 50% since the last election. On that basis, I think that we can say that the sun will continue to shine on Brighton.

Q9. I agree with the Prime Minister that the sun shines on Brighton; it shines bright green on Brighton Pavilion. The Brighton Argus recently revealed that, in the space of a single month, nearly 1,700 trains between Brighton and London Victoria ran late, but, to add insult to injury, unfair train company rules meant that passengers could claim compensation on just 59 of those 1,700 journeys. Will he join me in backing The Argus newspaper campaign for a fairer compensation system that puts money back into passengers’ pockets? (908300)

I should have said in my previous answer that the only place in Brighton where the sun does not shine very brightly is where the local Green council is incapable of emptying people’s dustbins. We need a Tory gain there as well. But the hon. Lady is right to raise the case of rail compensation. We are looking closely at The Argus campaign and at what can be done to make the compensation scheme simpler and easier to deliver for people.

Q10. Thanks to funding from this Government, thousands of constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire now enjoy access to superfast broadband. That is helping to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas. It is also helping small businesses in rural areas to benefit from our “long-term economic plan”—I had to say it once. However, getting broadband rolled out for the remaining properties in East Riding will be particularly difficult. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other East Riding MPs to ensure that we can get the delivery out as quickly as possible? (908301)

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend who is a real champion for his constituents. He is right to put this issue of rural broadband front and centre in his campaign. As he knows, we are investing around £780 million to get superfast broadband to 95% of UK premises by 2017. That programme is going well. Every day, our roll-out reaches another 5,000 homes and businesses. [Interruption.] The Labour party complains, but broadband roll-out has doubled under this Government. That is what has happened because of the work that we have put in. We are investing extra money to ensure that we can get to the most hard-to-reach premises, and that will include subsidising the cost of installing superfast satellite services, which will give access to those in the hardest-to-reach areas who currently have the slowest speeds.

Order—on both sides of the Chamber. It is a gross discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents. The hon. Gentleman’s question will be heard.

A young couple in my constituency were persuaded by Mr Steven Macsporran of the Advice Centre for Mortgages to put a legacy they had into a flat to rent in Turkey. He was an agent for ROPUK. They got no flat and lost £47,000. The Financial Ombudsman Service said that it could not give any advice because it was unregulated advice. Does the Prime Minister agree that that company, and companies like it, should not be allowed to advertise themselves as being regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority if they give such advice, and is it not time we dealt with this rip-off Britain problem?

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is standing down at the election. He has been a Member of Parliament for—[Interruption.] He is not?

I am sorry. Let me rephrase that. [Interruption.] I want to defend my team, because this is my 146th appearance at the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions, and they normally get these things right. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman anyway and wish him luck in the current battle he has in his constituency.

We have all heard such cases in our constituency surgeries, from people who put their money into timeshare schemes with companies that subsequently turned out to be disreputable. We have all then had the challenge of getting those companies properly uncovered and regulated. I will look into the specific case and write to him, either in his capacity as an MP or whatever it is after the election.

Q12. The Prime Minister knows that I have often been unhelpful to the Government in the Health Committee, but as a member of that Committee it is my duty to be impartial. Does he share my concern that the objective scrutiny role of the Select Committee system has been fundamentally undermined by Labour’s refusal even to discuss a draft report, having heard evidence of decreased administrative costs since the health reforms, privatisation slowing since 2005, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership not posing a threat to the NHS, no charges or top-ups introduced, and no plans to do so, and does he agree—[Interruption.] (908303)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Committee heard evidence of no charges or top-ups being introduced, and no plans to do so, and does the Prime Minister agree that refusing even to discuss that flies in the face of our public—[Interruption.]

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That Select Committee report has been held back because Labour Members of Parliament do not want to tell the truth about our national health service; they are only interested in trying to weaponise it. The fact is that there are more doctors and more nurses and more operations are being carried out. That is the truth, and it is disgraceful that Labour is trying to cover it up, just as it did in office.

No SNP gain here. This is, in fact, my last Prime Minister’s questions after 23 years in this place, but I hope that my very good friend the former Member for Banff and Buchan will be rejoining this place in May. Can the Prime Minister please tell us which causes him more anguish: his imminent return or my imminent departure?

I was quite looking forward to missing you both, but obviously that is not going to be—[Interruption.] I have sat in this House for 14 years, and all the time that the right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament, I remember some very passionate speeches, not least on the Iraq war. I remember some very passionate speeches about civil liberties in our country and making sure that we respond in the right way to terror. He has always stood up for his constituents, he cares passionately about Wales, he cares passionately about rugby, and he will be missed by everyone.

Q13. On the very last day before the 2010 general election, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, visited Montgomeryshire. It was a joyous occasion which led to my presence in the House today. Will the Prime Minister make another visit to see for himself the dramatic improvement in business confidence and the dramatic falls in unemployment that have taken place in Montgomeryshire as a result of the Government’s long-term economic plan? (908304)

It was a huge pleasure to go and visit my hon. Friend just before the last election. I thought it was a bit of a long shot, but none the less he made it here and he has been a fantastic Member of Parliament, standing up for his constituents. In Wales since the election we have 22,000 more small businesses, employment in Wales going up by 52,000, unemployment coming down and private sector growth. We see a real recovery in Wales and it needs my hon. Friend back here, standing up for his constituents and for Wales in the House of Commons.

I have here a cutting from The Press in York on 24 April 2010, which says:

“David Cameron last night dismissed claims the Tories would put up VAT if they win the election”.

That was at the last election. Why should the public believe promises that he makes at the coming election?

I have given the straightest possible answer, and this time in government we know what needs to be done—we know the changes, and both sides of this House have voted for a £30 billion adjustment. Those on the Labour Front Bench voted for it too. We have set out what needs to happen with departmental spending, welfare and tax avoidance. The Labour party has said that half of the £30 billion must be raised in taxes, so we know it: there is a tax bombshell coming from Labour, and it is going to be, we learned today, a jobs tax bombshell. They wanted to do it before the last election, and they want to do it after the next election. It would wreck our economy and put up taxes for working people, and there is only one group of people who can stop it.

Q14. Many hundreds of households in Amber Valley still suffer from noise from the A38 through my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that measures to reduce the noise should be brought forward, and that where development takes place which uses the advantages of being near the A38, the developers should use their profits from those sites to fund noise reduction measures? (908305)

Today is a good day to discuss noise pollution. It is probably appropriate that we quieten down and think about the subject for a minute. My hon. Friend has consistently campaigned on this issue. He is quite right to do so—it is a big concern to his constituents. We are providing £75 million for noise mitigation on our national road network. We are resurfacing 80% of that network with low noise surfacing. That can make a real difference, and I will look carefully at what we can do for my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Last week some of the rougher elements of the House chose to refer to the Prime Minister as “chicken”. I hope we have moved on. However, does the Prime Minister agree that it is entirely fair now to refer to him as a lame duck?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is a lame duck—trying to get into Downing street on the back of Alex Salmond’s coat tails. The Opposition now know that they cannot win the election on their own, so they are preparing to answer the ransom note. Higher taxes, more borrowing, weaker defence, breaking up our Union—that is what we have to stop. Never mind talk of ducks; I am looking at Alex Salmond’s poodle.

Q15. On Friday, together with local businesses and the local enterprise partnership, I will be launching a new campaign, Gateway to Growth, calling for a link road from the M4 to the Avon ring road that will help to deliver millions of pounds of extra investment and new jobs to the Bristol region, and provide the Kingswood area with the access to the motorway it needs. As part of his long-term economic plan, will the Prime Minister look closely at the campaign and the case for an M4 link? First of all, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his very hard work for people in Kingswood and in Bristol more generally. He is absolutely right that we do need to see better transit schemes in Bristol, and I know that the Transport Secretary will be happy to look at the campaign and the case he makes. It is also of note—and I am sure that, as a great historian and, indeed, someone who has written about Richard III, my hon. Friend would want me to say it—that we should not let this day pass without noting that of course Richard III will be buried tomorrow. That is worth remembering. It is the last time that someone did in one of their relatives to get the top job and the country ended up in chaos.

Bill Presented

Protection of Children (Removal of Police Discretion)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Barry Sheerman, supported by Sarah Champion, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Meg Munn and Liz McInnes, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to remove the discretionary decision-making power afforded to police officers in charging individuals with rape in cases relating to acts of sexual intercourse involving persons aged under 16; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March 2015, and to be printed (Bill 195). (908306)