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Volume 598: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2015

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.

The “Intergenerational Fairness Index” published this week shows that prospects for young people have deteriorated since the Conservatives came to Government. Will the Prime Minister explain why he is reducing opportunities for young people further by removing the maintenance grant for poorer students, thereby either reducing their opportunities or increasing their indebtedness?

We are increasing opportunities for young people by making sure that more of them have a job. Yet again, we have seen today a decrease in youth unemployment, which is down 13,000 on the quarter and 92,000 on the year. We now have record numbers of young people going to university and, because of the action we are taking, we are able to take the cap off university numbers and see many more people going. Replacing grants with loans is the right approach. Interestingly, it was the approach taken in 1997 when the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) sat in the Cabinet.

Q2. It is bad enough that the latest figures show that there are 363 murderers in open prisons and that 106 murderers have absconded from open prisons in the last 10 years, but the figures also show that there are 179 offenders in open prisons who have previously absconded from an open prison. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to ensure that nobody who has ever absconded from an open prison will ever be allowed back into an open prison? (901017)

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this matter, and I will examine his proposal. We have already overhauled the process for allowing prisoners out on temporary licence, which has led to a 39% drop in the number breaching their licence conditions. The rate of prisoners escaping from prison has reached a record low. As I understand it, prisoners with a history of escaping or absconding while on temporary release are prevented from transferring to open conditions other than in the most exceptional cases. I will look at those exceptional cases to see whether there is a case for the blanket ban that my hon. Friend has talked about, and I will write to him over the summer.

May I ask the Prime Minister a question about Greece? It is important that a deal on Greece has now been reached. The economic trauma that the people of Greece are going through is on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the end of the second world war, and the agreement should be implemented in a way that is fair to the people of Greece as well as being acceptable to the creditors. It is being reported this morning that the International Monetary Fund is concerned about whether the deal is sustainable. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Chancellor has had discussions with Christine Lagarde about how those concerns can be addressed?

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right to raise this. We all feel for the Greek people, who have had a very difficult time, and there are no early signs of relief on the way. We talk regularly to the IMF, and the point that it is making that there needs to be debt relief for Greece must be right. The problem is that there is an argument at the heart of the eurozone about whether it is a single currency in which member states have to look after each other’s debts and have a fiscal union, a banking union and a social union—that is one view—or whether the single currency should have very strict rules and cannot deal with these things. Frankly, it is in our interests for the eurozone to resolve these issues. We are not involved in the debate directly because we are not in the euro—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] And we are not going to join the euro. But the eurozone needs to resolve these issues and it needs to resolve them quite fast.

It is important that the deal is sustainable, and it is interesting to hear the Prime Minister’s view about a measure of debt relief being necessary. Does he agree, however, that with President Putin waiting in the wings, this is about more than just economics—it has wider geopolitical significance? What is his view about that?

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right. Greece is a member of the European Union, as well as of the euro. It is a friend and ally of Britain—we are NATO members and trading partners. It is not for Britain to bail out eurozone countries, and we would not do that, but, as a member of the European Union, if Greece were to leave the euro and it wanted humanitarian assistance, I am sure this House and the British public would take a more generous view. Sorting out the problems of the eurozone—we have always warned about the dangers of it—is a matter for eurozone countries, but she is right about the dangers of Russian involvement.

But of course what happens in the eurozone affects this country, and therefore it is important that we are fully engaged.

Turning to the Budget, we are all concerned to see today’s rise in overall unemployment. For those in work, the Chancellor said that his changes on pay and tax credits will make working families better off, but they will not. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has now made it absolutely clear that the idea that a higher minimum wage will compensate for the loss of tax credits is “arithmetically impossible”. Will the Prime Minister now admit that as a direct result of his cuts to tax credits millions of working families on low incomes will be worse off?

First, let me comment on the unemployment figures. The right hon. and learned Lady is right in that there are mixed messages in the figures. It is disappointing that the claimant count has gone up, having fallen for so many months in a row—it is still at the lowest level since 1975—but long-term unemployment is down, youth unemployment is down and the rate of employment for women is at a new record high. Interestingly, when you look across the last year, you can actually see that all of the rise in employment in the last year has been among people working full time. Interestingly, in the light of the debates we had in the last Parliament, wages are up by 3.2% in these figures, which compares with yesterday’s inflation figures of zero. On the Budget, I remember her asking me from that Dispatch Box and making the point that reforming welfare would not work unless we increased minimum wages by a quarter. I can tell her that we are not going to—we are increasing them by a third, through the national living wage.

So the Prime Minister is refusing to accept the fact that has been clearly established by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: that the minimum wage increase will not compensate for his cuts in tax credits. That takes me to another claim he made about the Budget. He said that he would protect the most vulnerable. You are obviously vulnerable if you have a condition such as Parkinson’s or you are being treated for cancer, but the Budget changes mean that the support people like that will get will be cut from £100 a week to £70 a week. We agree that the deficit needs to come down, but what kind of Government is it that think the way to do that is to hit people who, through no fault of their own, are suffering from life-limiting illnesses? That is what his Budget is doing.

First, let us deal with the effects of this Budget and let me give the right hon. and learned Lady the figures. A family with two children where both parents work full time on the minimum wage will be better off by 2020 by a full £5,500. I do not think the Labour party has fully grasped the importance of this national living wage. Labour fought an election on it being £8 by the next election, but it is going to be over £9 by the next election because of the action of this Government.

The right hon. and learned Lady wants to ask questions about welfare, and I welcome what she has said. She said this week:

“we won’t oppose the Welfare Bill, we won’t oppose the household benefit cap”—

and Labour would not oppose—

“restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children”.

I welcome that. What a pity the rest of her party does not agree with her. She asked specifically about employment and support allowance, and it is really important that we get this right. There are two groups of people on ESA, with the first being the support group, who will continue to get extra money—more than on jobseeker’s allowance—for as long as they need it. In terms of future claimants in the work-related activity group, existing claimants keep the existing amount of money but it is right that new claimants should get the same amount as jobseeker’s allowance and then get all the help that we give to jobseekers to help them into work. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Members ask why. I will tell them why: we want to get people into work. We want to give people a chance. We want to give people a life. That is what this Budget was all about.

The Prime Minister talks about new claimants, but he does not really understand the reality of the situation. A lot of these people are in and out of work—they want to work but can do so only intermittently. Every time they go back into work and then come out of work, they are treated as a new claimant. I do not need to be patronised by the Prime Minister about not understanding the minimum wage—we introduced it. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that 3 million families will be at least £1,000 a year worse off.

The Minister for Skills, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), was on the radio this morning talking about party funding. He said that the Government’s curbs on trade union donations were not an attack on working people and the Labour party. Well, it does not look that way. There is an issue about big money in politics, but it must be dealt with fairly. Will the Prime Minister commit not to go ahead with these changes unless it is on a cross-party basis? Will he include the issue of individual donation caps? It is not acceptable for him to be curbing funds from hard-working people to the Labour party while turning a blind eye to donations from hedge funds to the Tories.

Finally, we see where all those questions were going. The Labour party can go round and round and round, but it always comes back to the trade unions, which call the tune. Let me answer all the questions that the right hon. and learned Lady asked. First, if the Labour party is so keen on the national living wage, why did it vote against it in the Budget last night? Secondly, on the employment and support allowance, the number of people coming off jobseeker’s allowance is more than seven times higher than that for those who have come off incapacity benefits since 2010. We want to help these people get back into work. Now she asks about the issue of trade union funding for the Labour party. There is a very simple principle here: giving money to a party should be an act of free will. Money should not be taken out of people’s pay packets without them being told about it properly. If this was not happening in the trade unions, the Labour party would say that this was appalling mis-selling. It would say that it was time for consumer protection. Why is there such a blind spot—even with the right hon. and learned Lady—when it comes to the trade union paymasters?

There is a simple principle here—it must be fair. What the Prime Minister is doing amounts to one rule for the Labour party but something completely different for the Tories. To be democratic about this, the Prime Minister must not act in the interests of just the Tory party. Instead of helping working people, he spends his time rigging the rules of the game. Now he wants to go even further and attack the rights of working people to have a say about their pay and conditions. That is on top of the Government already having changed the rules to gag charities and trade unions from speaking out. The Prime Minister says he wants to govern for one nation, but instead he is governing in the interests of just the Tory party.

The law for company donations was changed years ago, but the law for trade union donations has been left untouched. The principle should be the same: whoever we give our money to, it should be an act of free will. It should be a decision that we have to take. The money should not be taken from people and sequestered away without them being asked. Today we have seen it all. I thought that the right hon. and learned Lady was the moderate one, and the leadership contenders were the ones who were heading off to the left. What have we heard from them? They oppose every single one of our anti-strike laws; every single one of our welfare changes; and some of them even describe terrorist groups such as Hamas as their friends. In the week when we are finding out more about Pluto, it is quite clear that they want to colonise the red planet.

On Monday two men were tragically killed in an industrial explosion in my constituency. The families are devastated, and the thoughts of everyone in Norwich are with them and with the friends and colleagues of the two workers. The emergency services worked tirelessly and investigations are ongoing, including that of the Health and Safety Executive. Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing our deepest sympathy and ensuring that the relevant parts of Government do all they can to support my constituents at this difficult time?

This is a very sad case, and I certainly join my hon. Friend in sending my condolences, and those of all Members of the House, to the family and friends of Barry Joy and Daniel Timbers at what is obviously a very difficult time. No words can do justice to the loss felt by those affected. I understand that the emergency services are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident in order to get to the bottom of what happened. There will need to be a proper investigation and proper answers for the families.

Rape is an horrific crime that is abhorred by MPs of all political parties. Under the Prime Minister’s plans to restrict child benefit to two children for new parents, the Government’s Budget asks the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to

“develop protections for women who have a third child as the result of rape, or other exceptional circumstances.”

Can he explain how that will work?

We are very happy to look very closely at such issues, because there is absolutely no intention to penalise people who have been treated in this way. The principle we are applying is one that I think was set out very clearly by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). I think she put it extremely well when she said:

“When I was going around the country… talking specifically to women, so often they would say, ‘You know, we’ve got one child and we’d really love to have another, but we just can’t afford it’…They’re working hard and they feel that it’s unfair”

when other people can have

“families they would love to have…We have to listen to that.”

I think she was absolutely right, as I think all of us would agree. But, of course, in cases such as the one the hon. Gentleman raises, we will have to look very carefully to ensure that we look after them.

Rape is one of the most under-reported serious crimes in the UK. It is believed that 85% of victims do not confirm it to anybody, for a variety of very understandable reasons. Women Against Rape has said:

“Asking women to disclose very difficult information and expecting them to be able to prove it—in what is frankly a very hostile environment when the DWP is trying to take your money away—will have appalling consequences.”

I urge the Prime Minister to look again and think again about what impact his proposals will have on rape victims.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, because he is reading from the Budget Book, which sets out the issue, that we do need to look very carefully at this, think about it and ensure that we get it right. At the same time, I am sure that he welcomes what was in the Budget about investing in women’s refuges and rape crisis centres to ensure that we look after people who have suffered this appalling crime.

My right hon. Friend indicated over the weekend that he would like to see greater use made of drones in the fight against terrorism, but is he aware that for every terrorist taken out by a drone between five and 10 innocent civilians, especially women and children, lose their lives? Will he accept that we need to bear that effect in mind as we seek to win hearts and minds in the conflict against the evils of terrorism?

Of course we must always think very carefully before we act, but the rules of engagement that both Britain and America follow are there to limit collateral damage to the absolute minimum. But if my right hon. Friend is asking me whether Britain should give up using drones in extremis to take out people who are threatening our country and seeking to bring terrorism to our streets, I would say very firmly no. I will say something that I am sure we both agree with. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, a missile can kill a terrorist, but it is good governance and strong Governments that can kill terrorism.

Q3. Enniskillen, Portadown, Lisburn, Belfast, Manchester, Warrington, Canary Wharf and the Grand hotel, Brighton are all places synonymous with the use by the IRA of Semtex explosives supplied by the Libyan Government to maim and murder thousands of innocent people in the United Kingdom. The American Government have secured compensation from the Libyans for the victims of state-sponsored terrorism. In the light of the recent political agreement in Libya, will the Prime Minister now commit to press the case for UK victims of state-sponsored Libyan terrorism to be given compensation as well?


Let me commend the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue time and time again; he is absolutely right to do so. The fact is that it was Libyan Semtex that was used, and frankly could still be being used by dissident IRA groups because so much of it was delivered by Colonel Gaddafi and his hateful regime. Yes, we have raised with the Libyan Government in the past the issue of trying to seek compensation, and when there is a Libyan Government—there is not yet one in place—we will certainly raise it again.

Q4. Last week thousands of my constituents and millions of Londoners and visitors to London were severely inconvenienced by the pointless tube strike. They will all welcome the Government’s published proposals for changes to trade union laws, but will my right hon. Friend go further and state to this House and the people of this country that strikes in essential services should be absolutely the last resort and not a negotiating tactic? (901019)

I think the whole country will agree with my hon. Friend: strikes should only ever be a last resort. Frankly, with regard to the London tube services, the people driving these trains are well paid, and they are getting a pay rise and the chance of a bonus. It is absolutely right that we publish the Trade Union Bill today and we take these important steps—that a strike should not go ahead unless there is a 50% turnout and in essential services there should be an additional threshold of 40% support for the strike. [Interruption.] I know that Labour Members will not like this, and they talk about thresholds, but the fact is that people affected by this—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) says I would not have been elected on that threshold. The fact is this: people affected by these strikes do not get to vote. That is why it is right to have these thresholds. I think the whole country will see a Labour party utterly in hock to the trade unions and a Conservative Government wanting to sort this out for hard-working families.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the vicious disorder that we saw in Belfast on Monday of this week, when police officers were seriously injured and a 16-year-old girl was left hospitalised as a result of disgraceful violence relating to parading. A car was driven intentionally and malevolently at a protest group. Will he join me in calling for the loyal orders to accept the genuine offer of residents, particularly those in Ardoyne, to engage in direct and meaningful dialogue to reach an honourable solution to the dispute that exists there, and hopefully to other disputes around parading?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that those sorts of scenes are deeply damaging to Northern Ireland’s reputation and to Northern Ireland’s future. We all want to see these situations sorted out and not occurring in future. Overall, this year’s twelfth of July was overwhelmingly a peaceful celebration in most areas of Northern Ireland, but what happened in the north of Belfast is not acceptable. I agree with him that where it is possible for people to get together and solve these problems, of course that is the best thing that can happen, but in the meantime it is obviously the Parades Commission that runs the adjudication process.

Q5. May I welcome the recent announcement in the Budget that this Government are pledging an extra £8 billion for the NHS in England? Launceston medical centre in my constituency of North Cornwall has been waiting two years for the green light for its expansion. Can my right hon. Friend provide me with an update regarding the progress of its bid? (901020)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the £8 billion—effectively £10 billion when we think of the £2 billion already put in for this Parliament—is a real vote of confidence from this Government in the NHS, and money that will make a real difference. I know that he has been campaigning to expedite the situation at Launceston medical centre. I am told by NHS England that it is a priority development. I hope that perhaps it can form part of the work we are doing to create a genuine seven-day NHS—seven days for people to access the NHS and always get the same levels of high-quality treatment.

Q6. GP practices across Sheffield serving patients with complex and therefore more costly health needs are threatened by the withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee and the personal medical services premium. Will the Prime Minister ask NHS England to review the impact of these decisions to ensure that no practice closes, and will he ask Health Ministers to meet me and other Sheffield Members to consider what can be done to support effective practices? (901021)

I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health and his team will listen carefully to that and see if they can speak to the hon. Gentleman. What is happening in his city is that the number of GPs is actually increasing. This year, NHS Sheffield clinical commissioning group is getting £708 million, which is an almost 2% increase at a time of almost zero inflation. What we need to do is get the negotiations on this contract right. That does mean making some changes over time, but the contract has got to deliver the quality that the patients deserve.

I know that the Prime Minister is very aware of the tragic deaths of Corporal James Dunsby, Lance Corporal Craig Roberts and my constituent Lance Corporal Edward Maher on an SAS selection exercise in the Brecon Beacons two years ago this week. Yesterday, the coroner said that their deaths were the result of a series of “gross failures” and a

“catalogue of very serious mistakes”

by those involved in planning and running the exercise. Obviously, nothing can turn the clock back for the families, but will the Prime Minister ensure that the Army service inquiry that will now get under way does everything it can—recognising, of course, that we can continue to train the best armed forces in the world—to bring in whatever changes are needed to prevent this from ever happening again and to see that those responsible are held to account?

I am sure I speak for the whole House and indeed for the whole country when I say that our hearts go out to the families of James Dunsby, Craig Roberts and Edward Maher. Having seen at first hand some of the extraordinary things that our special forces do, the bravery of people who volunteer to join and the training that they do, I know how vital this is, but it is an absolutely tragic case. I understand that the Ministry of Defence has accepted the failures identified by the coroner and has apologised for these. I also understand that a number of changes have already been made to this particular exercise. We now need to study the coroner’s conclusions very carefully, and make sure that this cannot possibly happen again. I know the Army will also hold its own service inquiry as soon as all the civil investigations have been completed. It is an absolutely tragic case, and we will learn from it.

Q7. Cardiff has 600, Newport has 400, Rochdale has 700—yet the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary have a grand total of only three. Is this a fair and efficient way to locate asylum seekers? (901022)

I believe we are operating the dispersal system in the same way it was operated for many years under the previous Labour Government, but I will look very carefully at the points the hon. Gentleman makes.

Q8. Colchester is not only the oldest recorded town in Britain, but the fastest growing. Our claimant count is down 57% since 2010, but we want to go further. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only with much-needed investment in our local road and rail infrastructure can we attract businesses, create jobs and get Colchester moving? (901023)

Let me welcome my hon. Friend to the House. I remember campaigning with him in Colchester and how much he talked about the importance of these infrastructure schemes. That is why we have asked Network Rail to look at the options for the Anglia franchise, because we want to deliver reduced journey times on the great eastern main line. We have approved a series of major upgrades to the A12 that are absolutely vital. Now that he is speaking up for Colchester, I am sure we will be able to do even more.

Q9. The Secretary of State for Transport has refused to say when he first told the Prime Minister that the electrification of the trans-Pennine line could not go ahead. There is huge concern about this in my constituency and across the north. Was the Prime Minister told about this before the general election—yes or no? (901024)

No, I was told about this after the election, as we have set out before. The point now is that we need to do everything we can to get to the bottom of the overspending and the engineering difficulties. Frankly, we have committed vast sums of money—a £38 billion programme—to rail, and instead of griping and raising these grievances, the whole House should get behind this programme and make sure we get on with it.

With the threat level at an unprecedented high, will my right hon. Friend support 2% of GDP for the defence budget and prioritise no further cuts to front-line forces, as the constituents of Eastleigh have asked me to ask him?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We made the pledge in our manifesto that there would be no further reductions in regular armed services numbers, which was absolutely right. With the 2% and the extra commitment that we are making throughout this Parliament, we can have a strategic defence and security review that looks at options to make this country even safer. The Chancellor and the Defence Secretary have made sure that we look at options for counter-terrorism and intelligence and security, as well as defence assets, to ensure that we do everything we can at this time of heightened security to keep Britain safe.

Q10. A combination of changes that were made to the state pension in 1995 and 2011 means that many women who were born in the 1950s will not have the kind of retirement that they had hoped for. Given that senior civil servants, judges and even Members of Parliament have their pensions protected within 10 years of their normal retirement age, is it not time for the Prime Minister to look again at ensuring that this group of women have fairness in the system? (901025)

I will look carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s question, but it was absolutely right to raise the pension age. That has been one of the most important long-term changes that have enabled us to go on paying very generous pensions. It has enabled us to have the triple lock, which means that the pension will always go up by earnings, prices or 2.5%—whichever is the highest. If we went down the path that he is suggesting of not changing the pension age, pretty soon we would find that we could not pay proper pensions. That is always the Labour way—you take the easy way, you duck the difficult decisions and then you can’t pay.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 120,000 Europeans and 140,000 non-Europeans settled in this country in 2013? Does he agree that the UK Government have to control the number of migrants?

Yes, I do. That is why we took so much action in the last Parliament to cut net migration from outside the European Union. Obviously, inside the European Union there is the freedom to go and work in another European country. One reason we are focusing so much on the welfare issue is that of the people who come from Europe to the United Kingdom, 60% are jobseekers, not people who already have a job. Our proposals that people will not get benefits for the first six months of being here, that if they do not have a job after six months they will have to go home, and that they will have to pay into the system before they get anything out of the system will make a real difference.

Q11. My constituent, Kylie Strasenburgh, is a home carer who is on call six days a week. She works every hour God sends, but needs working tax credits to help make ends meet. Will the Prime Minister be honest with Kylie and admit that even with a higher minimum wage, the cuts to tax credits will make her worse off? (901026)

Careworkers up and down the country who are currently on the minimum wage and who get no more than that will benefit, not least from the 50p increase from the national minimum wage to the national living wage, which will happen straight away next year. We are only able to do that because we are cutting taxes for working people, cutting taxes for business, making welfare affordable and introducing the national living wage. Let the whole House focus on this: last night the Labour party voted against the national living wage. Put that on your leaflets!

Q12. Youth unemployment in Worcester has halved over the past two years. As of today’s figures, it is down two thirds from its peak under Labour. With this one nation Government investing in increasing the number of apprenticeships by half, will the Prime Minister back my long-term plan to have 15,000 apprenticeships a year in Worcestershire by 2020? (901027)

I thank my hon. Friend for all that he does to support apprenticeships in his constituency. Some 4,490 have been created since 2010. He is right that the challenge for the future is to have the right number of apprentices and quality of apprenticeships. That is why it is right to introduce a levy on larger firms, whereby they get the money back if they invest in apprenticeships, but have to pay if they do not. That will be one of the key ways in which we achieve our goal of 3 million apprentices in this Parliament.

Q13. If this is such a great economic recovery, why are wages still 6% below the pre-crisis level of seven years ago? Why was the growth rate in the last quarter a mere 0.4%? Why has productivity been flat for five years? Why is UK investment as a proportion of GDP one of the lowest in the world? And why is the balance of payments in traded goods now in deficit by £100 billion a year? (901028)

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know why, there are two words: ask Gordon. But if he wants to know what is actually happening in our economy, let me tell him. The deficit has been halved from its peak—[Interruption.]

Order. Andy McDonald, calm yourself, man. Take some sort of soothing medicament. You will find it beneficial.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know what is happening in our economy, the deficit is down by half, we have seen the fastest growth of any major advanced economy in 2014, we grew by 3% last year, the economy is 10% bigger than when I became Prime Minister, there are 2.2 million more people in work, and just today we can see inflation at zero, wages growing by over 3%, and a 5% cut in gas prices for 7 million customers. I would call that a long-term economic plan that is working. Added to that, just this week we have introduced a national living wage, we are building a welfare system that rewards work, and we are cutting taxes for working people. That is a Conservative party standing up for working people and delivering on the one nation agenda.