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Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 3 June 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.

During the general election, my blue-collar conservatism resonated very well with my constituents in Elmet and Rothwell. They are very keen that the economic recovery continues on track. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in this Parliament we must achieve lower taxation for working people and a higher minimum wage and that we must ensure that the lowest paid are taken out of tax altogether, to show that we are a true one nation Government?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his return to the House, having doubled his majority. There were a number of results in his part of Yorkshire in which I took a particular interest and was pleased to see happen. He is absolutely right that at the heart of our plan is making work pay: that is the best way to help people out of poverty and give them more security—creating jobs, cutting taxes, seeing increases in the minimum wage and legislating so that people working 30 hours on the minimum wage do not pay income tax. That is our plan for working people.

We all agree about the importance of home ownership, and the Prime Minister has said that he is going to increase it. Can he tell us whether, since he became Prime Minister in 2010, the percentage of people owning their own home has gone up or down?

It has been a very challenging time for people to buy their own homes, but what we are responsible for is almost 100,000 people being able to buy their own homes because of the right to buy and Help to Buy—two schemes opposed by Labour.

The answer is that since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister the percentage of people who own their own home has fallen. He mentioned his plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants. He has promised that, under this new scheme, sold off properties will be replaced on a one-for-one basis. He promised that on council homes in the last Parliament. Can he remind us whether he kept that promise?

If the right hon. and learned Lady is complaining about home ownership, will she confirm that she will support the extension of the right to buy to housing associations? Will she support that approach? [Interruption.] There we are. There we have it: a landmark manifesto commitment—let us expand the right to buy to housing associations—but, as ever, the enemies of aspiration in the Labour party will not support it.

We support more people owning their own homes, which is not what happened in the last five years, during which the right hon. Gentleman has been Prime Minister. We support more people having an affordable home as well, but that did not happen in the last five years, when he has been Prime Minister, either. He promised that for every council home sold another one would be built. That did not happen: for every 10 sold, only one has been built. Less affordable housing means that people have to be in more expensive private rented accommodation, which means a higher housing benefit bill. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that for every affordable home sold and not replaced, the housing benefit bill goes up?

We built more council homes in the last five years than were built under 13 years of the previous Labour Government. I say to the right hon. and learned Lady that she cannot ask these questions about supporting home ownership unless she answers the simple question: will you back housing association tenants being able to buy their homes—yes or no?

The Prime Minister broke his promise on the replacement—one for one—of affordable council homes. He broke that promise, and as a result housing benefit has gone up. At the same time, he says he wants to take £12 billion out of welfare, so where is it coming from? Earlier this week, his spokesperson confirmed that the Government would not make any changes to child benefit, and that is a commitment for the whole of this Parliament. Will he confirm that now?

We made very clear our position on child benefit in the election, and I confirm that again at the Dispatch Box. Let us be clear—absolutely no answer from the Labour party about housing association tenants. We are clear: housing association tenants should have the right to buy. We can now see that the new Labour backing of aspiration after the election has lasted three weeks. That is how long they have given to aspiration. Let me give the right hon. and learned Lady another chance. We say housing association tenants get the right to buy. What does she say?

The Prime Minister’s commitment not to cut child benefit during the course of this Parliament has not even lasted a few days. That is what his spokesperson said, and he has not been committed to it. Will he tell us about another issue of importance to families, which is whether he is going to rule out further cuts to working families tax credits?

Again, we have said we are freezing tax credits in the next two years because we need to get the deficit down and we want to keep people’s taxes down. But is it not interesting that, for the whole of the last Parliament, Labour Members came here and opposed every single spending reduction, every single welfare saving, and they have learned absolutely nothing. Labour is still the party of more spending, more welfare, more debt. It is extraordinary: of the two people responsible for this great policy of theirs, one of them lost the election and the other one lost his seat—the messengers have gone, but the message is still the same.

The Prime Minister promised £12 billion of welfare cuts, and I am asking where those welfare cuts are coming from. Before an election, it is about promises; now they are in Downing Street, it is about the delivery. The Prime Minister spent the last five years saying everything that was wrong was because of the previous Prime Minister. Well, he cannot do that for the next five years because the last Prime Minister was him. I hope he will bear in mind, when things go wrong over the next five years, that there is no one responsible but him.

First, we are still clearing up the mess the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government left behind. She asked for an example of a welfare cut; let me give her one. We think we should cut the welfare cap from £26,000 per household to £23,000 per household. In her speech in reply to the Gracious Speech, it sounded like she was going to come out and support that. Let us see how Labour is going to approach this: will you support a cut in the welfare cap?

The right hon. and learned Lady has had her six questions. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Everyone should be clear about that.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that there is considerable concern on both sides of the House at the proposition that Britain might withdraw from the European convention on human rights. Will he take the opportunity today to make it clear that he has no plans for us to do so?

We are very clear about what we want: British judges making decisions in British courts, and the British Parliament being accountable to the British people. The plans that were set out in our manifesto do not involve us leaving the European convention on human rights, but let us be absolutely clear about our position if we cannot achieve what we need—I am very clear about that. When we have these foreign criminals committing offence after offence, and we cannot send them home because of their “right to a family life”, that needs to change. I rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done.

May I begin by expressing my sadness at the untimely death of Charles Kennedy? I know that we will pay tributes a little later.

It is a stain on the conscience of Europe that thousands and thousands of refugees have been dying in the Mediterranean, when many lives could have been saved. Does the Prime Minister agree that the role of the Royal Navy, the Italian coastguard and the navies of other European countries is making a profound difference? However, much more needs to be done, including offering refuge and asylum to those who need it.

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention Charles Kennedy. We will rightly have those tributes after Prime Minister’s questions.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to praise the role of the Royal Navy in dealing with this tragedy in the Mediterranean. HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, has been playing a key role in saving lives. However, I part company with him on his next suggestion. We need to do two things to solve this crisis. First, we need a Government in Libya that we can work with, so that it is possible to return people to Africa and stop this criminal trade. Secondly, we need to break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe. That is what needs to be done. In the meantime, everything that Britain can do as a moral and upstanding nation to save lives, we will do, and we should be proud that we are doing it.

Eighty years ago, that is what the United Kingdom did, when it offered refuge and asylum to those who were being pursued by the Nazis. We all know about the Kindertransport and the children who were accepted and given refuge in the UK. Now, in contrast, the UK has an appalling record on the resettlement of Syrian refugees and is not prepared to co-operate with other European nations on accepting refugees who have been rescued in the Mediterranean. Why does the Prime Minister think it is fair for Sweden, Germany and other countries to accept those refugees, while the UK turns its back on them?

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman. This country has an asylum system and a record of giving people asylum that we should be proud of. When people are fleeing torture and persecution, they can find a home here in Britain. But let us be clear: the vast majority of people who are setting off into the Mediterranean are not asylum seekers, but people seeking a better life. They have been tricked and fooled by criminal gangs. Our role should be going after those criminal gangs, sorting out the situation in Libya, turning back the boats where we can and using our generous aid budget—this Government achieved 0.7%—to mend the countries from which these people are coming. That is our moral responsibility and one that I am proud to fulfil.

Q2. Thanks to the careful financial stewardship of this Government, York’s economy continues to grow, with unemployment a fraction of what it was five years ago. Will the Prime Minister assure me that his offer of devolution will percolate right through the great county of Yorkshire, empowering rural communities, as well as cities such as York, to deliver a Yorkshire powerhouse that rivals Manchester and London? (900036)

I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He talks about the strength of the Yorkshire economy. The claimant count in his constituency —the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—has come down by 74% since 2010. We see the northern powerhouse as the linking of the great northern cities as a counterpoint and a counterpoise to the strength of London. We are making good progress on that, but we certainly want more money, resources and powers to be devolved to those cities. The York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local growth deal, for example, is creating at least 3,000 jobs and allowing 4,000 homes to be built. We have made good progress, but there is more to be done in this Parliament.

Q3. In March, the Prime Minister rightly apologised for successive Governments who had failed to address properly the claims and the righteous indignation of the families whose lives were torn apart and of those who lost their lives in the contaminated blood scandal. He also said in response to a question that he would deal with this matter as a priority if he was re-elected. Can he update us now on his commitment to and progress on that issue, so that it is dealt with finally and fully for all those people who have lost their lives and for those who live with the damage caused by this scandal? (900037)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. All of us as Members of Parliament have come across people who, through no fault of their own, were infected with blood with either HIV or hepatitis C, which has had very serious consequences for them.

In terms of what we are going to do about it—as the Scottish National party Member, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), shouts from a sedentary position—I said very clearly before the election that we have made available £25 million to help those families, and there will be a full statement by the Government before the summer recess to make sure that we deal with this issue in the best way we possibly can.

Q4. A national health service free at the point of use was at the heart of the Conservative general election campaign. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will continue to deliver the shorter waiting times, better ambulance response times, better access to cancer drugs and more funding that make the NHS the envy not just of the world but of my constituents in Monmouthshire? (900038)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I absolutely say to him that under this Government the NHS will remain free at the point of use, and, more to the point, we are backing the Simon Stevens plan with an extra £8 billion of spending, a commitment that the Labour party still refuses to make. That is not surprising given the Labour record in Wales, where it has cut the NHS, in stark contrast to the decision we made to increase investment in the NHS. That is why we see in the Welsh NHS performance worse figures on A&E, on waiting times and on cancer, and I urge the Labour party in Wales even at this late stage: “Change your approach. Do a U-turn. Put the money into the NHS like we’re doing in England.”

Q5. The fragility of our economic recovery in my constituency is demonstrated by the impending closure of Dixons Carphone in the area, with the loss of 500 jobs and £8 million to the local economy. Will the Prime Minister intervene to keep Wednesbury working—to save these jobs—or at the very least ensure that the company provides appropriate compensation and support for employees to secure alternative employment? (900039)

I shall look very closely at the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Obviously, everything that Jobcentre Plus can do to find employment for those people should be done. He talks, though, about the “fragility” of the economy. In his constituency, the claimant count has fallen by a third over the last year, so jobs are being made available. But as I say, where Jobcentre Plus can help with finding people work, we will certainly make sure that it does.

The UN Secretary-General has described the refugee situation in Jordan and Lebanon as

“the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”

What more can Britain do, in tandem with other countries, to help relieve the suffering, and to learn from the lessons of history to ensure that poorly resourced refugee camps do not become breeding grounds for extremism?

The first thing that we can do is to continue our investment, using our aid budget as—I think—the second largest bilateral donor in providing refugee support and refugee camps, whether in Jordan or elsewhere in the region. We should continue with that, but clearly the answer to this problem is to allow those people to go back home, whether to Iraq or to Syria, so what we need is a Government in both those countries that can represent and work with all their people.

There is some progress in Iraq with the Abadi Government in Iraq, and we need to make sure that they can represent Sunnis as well as Shi’as. In Syria, the situation is far, far worse, but we should still continue, with others, with the plan of training the moderate Syrian opposition and trying to bring about a transition, so we get rid of the Assad regime and Assad himself, who is one of the biggest drivers of terror in the region, because of what he has done to his people. That is the strategy we should pursue, for however long it takes to succeed.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place and congratulate her on her election success. The first question she asks is about fiscal responsibility and sustainability. I take that as a sign of progress. I would say to her: there is a leadership election on, throw your hat in the ring. In that one question she has made more sense than all the rest of them put together—go for it!

Q7. A push for greater diversity in employment is a key part of my plan for Portsmouth. Can the Prime Minister assure my constituents that the leasing of part of the dockyard to Magma Structures will be confirmed in due course, as we look forward to welcoming yet another high-tech company to the city? (900041)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election success and on standing up already for Portsmouth, on all the work she did as a candidate and all the things I know she will do as a Member of Parliament? We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the Portsmouth ship hall is used in the most effective way to deliver capability, to create jobs and to boost growth in the region. The developments in Portsmouth at the moment are exciting, whether in ship servicing, welcoming the carriers when they come to Portsmouth or the Ben Ainslie centre that is being constructed with Government support. May I just say how good it is that Portsmouth is going to be represented in this place by strong Conservative women?

In Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech last week, the Government made a commitment to legislate to implement the Stormont House agreement. As the Prime Minister knows, the agreement has the Democratic Unionist party’s full support. The agreement was signed by all five main parties in Northern Ireland, and by the British and Irish Governments. Now that it has been reneged on—certainly the welfare reform aspect—by Sinn Féin, with vulnerable people being hurt, public services hit as a result of the implementation of £2 million-a-week fines and a black hole in the Northern Ireland budget, does he agree with his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, following the talks yesterday, that all parties that signed up to the agreement, including the SDLP and Sinn Féin, should implement it? If they fail to do so, will he take steps to preserve the integrity of the agreement?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that everyone who was party to those talks—they were exhaustive and lengthy talks, ending in an agreement—should implement that agreement in full. The agreement did include welfare reform. That is the first point and he is absolutely right. Whatever happens, we need to make sure that Northern Ireland and the Assembly have a sustainable and deliverable budget, so I hope that even at this late stage people will look at what they can do to make sure that happens.

Q8. Last year saw record numbers of adoptions and prospective adopters, but there are still more than 3,000 children in care waiting to be adopted, with half of them having waited for more than 18 months. What plans does my right hon. Friend, who has a strong commitment on this issue, have to enable more children to be placed in a loving, stable family home sooner rather than later? (900042)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Speeding up the rate at which adoptions take place, and making sure more adoptions can take place, is absolutely key to giving more children a better start in life. In the past three years we have seen a 63% increase in adoptions, so we have made progress. In the Gracious Speech and in the Bill being published today there are the plans to create regional adoption agencies, bringing together the many agencies there are in this country. I think that is right because it matters far more that a child gets a loving home than whether that home is in a particular county council area. Let us get on and create these agencies and make sure more adoptions take place.

The UK steel industry is a key foundation industry for Britain, but it is in crisis. Will the Prime Minister join me and the rest of the all-party group for the steel and metal-related industry to call on the leadership in Mumbai to intervene directly in this situation and get their colleagues in Tata Europe to get back around the table and avoid potentially the worst crisis in the steel industry in 35 years?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that the Government talk intensively to the leaders of the steel industry, Tata in particular, about what we can do to try to make sure that we safeguard the growth and the jobs that there have been in the steel industry over previous years. We have started those discussions—we have had discussions, for instance, about the steps we are taking for high energy-intensive industries and the help that we can give—but at the heart of a successful steel industry is always going to be a successful economy and a successful construction industry, which is why we should stick to the long-term economic plan.

Q9. Today, Tidal Lagoon Power, headquartered in Gloucester, announces that China Harbour Engineering is the preferred bidder for a £300 million investment in the world’s first ever tidal lagoon, in Swansea bay. There will be high UK content in the supply chain and there is a commitment to pursue tidal projects together in Asia. This confirms our ability both to attract Chinese investment and to create new export opportunities. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that the Energy Secretary will soon agree the development consent order needed and also agree soon on the pricing of power from this exciting example of British innovation and engineering? (900043)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this specific case, and also the general case of wanting to attract Chinese investment to Britain. We have seen something like a 73% increase, between 2010 and 2013, and that is partly because this Government have pursued Chinese investment and attracted it to Britain. On the specific case of the Swansea tidal lagoon, it is obviously subject to a planning decision, but I think tidal power has significant potential. I have seen some of the plans for myself and I hope this is something we can make progress on; and obviously, attracting investment to this country to help make it happen is a win-win for both countries.

The devolution of powers to our nations, our regions and our great cities will be one of the themes of this Parliament, but does the Prime Minister accept that Londoners, under their elected Mayor, will expect at least the same powers that are being devolved to the northern powerhouse?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and there has been an ongoing discussion with the Mayor of London about what more powers can be—[Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] He is running London, that’s where he is, and he is doing a very, very good job. He is doing an excellent job—very good. But I think the hon. Lady is right: we have devolved powers to London and we are very happy to go on having discussions, about transport and about other economic powers. London has created half a million more jobs over the last five years. It is a staggering performance and we want that to continue.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that any onshore wind farm proposal not already granted planning permission should not expect to receive any public subsidy? (900044)

I am very glad to see my hon. Friend back in his place. He campaigned very hard on this in the last Parliament, and in our manifesto we made it very clear that there should be no more subsidies for onshore wind farms. It is time to give local people the decisive say. That is what will happen in England; in Wales, obviously, the subsidy regime will be changed because it is a reserved issue, so I think that his desire has been met.

Q11. The Prime Minister might be aware of the ongoing case of my constituent Dr Steve Forman, who, despite his immense contribution to the music and creative scene in Glasgow, Scotland and around the world, the Home Office is seeing fit to try to deport back to the United States. Will the Prime Minister tell the House why people such as Dr Forman do not seem to be welcome in this country? If the Prime Minister cannot run an immigration policy that works for Scotland, I know a Government up the road that would be very happy to take on the job. (900045)

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election. I am not aware of the specific case that he raises, but I will look at it urgently after Prime Minister’s questions and see what I can do.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the ways forward in the European Union is to have two pillars, the first being countries that want a single currency, a common fiscal policy and ever closer political union, and the second being countries that want none of those, but instead want a free trade area—a common market?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the arguments going on in Europe is about trying to get people to accept what is already the case, which is that there are countries like Britain at the heart of the single market but not involved in the Schengen agreement or likely to join it, and not involved in the single currency, which, in my view, we should never join. We should accept that this sort of flexibility is here to stay. I think the challenge for Europe is to build a European community that is flexible enough for the single currency countries to be happy that their problems and issues can be sorted out, while also flexible enough for countries like Britain at the heart of the single market, but not wanting to be part of the ever closer union, to be comfortable with their membership, too. That is the aim of my renegotiation, and it will be followed by an in/out referendum.

Q12. I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation that there will be no cuts in the rates of or eligibility conditions for child benefit, but will he also confirm the commitment he made during the election that there will be no cuts in the benefits paid to disabled people? (900046)

What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled. May I say how much I enjoyed meeting the right hon. Gentleman during the general election when we both addressed the Festival of Life in the ExCeL centre in his constituency? I do not know about him, but it is certainly the only time in my life that I have talked to 45,000 people at the same time, and I suspect the same goes for him.

Q13. The Prime Minister referred to Libya earlier. We have exchanged views and had many debates on Libya since our military involvement in that country in 2011, yet the situation is getting worse and worse. What new steps and initiatives is the Prime Minister going to bring, in conjunction with the allies of Egypt and Italy, to ensure that the situation is resolved? (900047)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, and there will be some discussions at the G7 in Germany this weekend. We have got to a position in which Special Representative León from the UN has been bringing everybody together to try to form a national unity Government. We need to give everything we can to support that process, so that there is some prospect of Libya having a Government, from which can flow some security, from which can flow the ability to start to deal with this migrant crisis in the way I discussed earlier.

Q14. Under the right-to-buy plan, three social houses will need to be sold to generate enough revenue to build one new one, leaving 1,500 families in York without a home for well over two years. Is that what the Prime Minister means by aspiration? (900048)

First, let me welcome the hon. Lady to the House and congratulate her on her election victory. There are two things we are doing to provide these replacement houses. One is obviously that for every housing association that sells a home, it has that receipt and is able to build a new house. We are also making sure that councils sell off the most expensive council houses when they become vacant. In parts of London, there are council houses worth over £1 million, with which many more houses can be built. What is clear from this Question Time is that Conservative Members understand home ownership, aspiration and people wanting to get on. Labour Members, after the most catastrophic election defeat in years, cannot even begin to spell aspiration.