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Volume 601: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2015

Before I answer my hon. Friend, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Michael Meacher. He died suddenly last week, and we send our condolences to his family and friends. Michael dedicated his life to public service, diligently representing his Oldham constituents in this place for a staggering 45 years. He was a passionate advocate of the causes he believed in, which included the environment, and he was able to put these into practice as a Minister between 1997 and 2003. This House and our politics are a poorer place without him, and I know that colleagues from all parts of this Chamber will remember him with affection and will miss him greatly.

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

May I associate myself with the sympathies expressed by the Prime Minister?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the fact that one in 10 of the world’s tractors are built in Basildon, that not an Airbus A380 flies without a part built in Basildon and that Thurrock is not only home to the largest inward investment in the south-east, but is attracting investment from world-renowned organisations such as the Royal Opera House? All that is leading to job creation and opportunity, so will he do all he can to ensure that Britain remains a great place to do business and prosper in?

Basildon has a special place in my heart—I did not know all those statistics, so it now has an even more special place. I can tell my hon. Friend that the long-term youth claimant count in his constituency is down by 42% in the past year. He spoke about what a good place Britain is to do business in, and I am pleased to say that we are now sixth in the world rankings for the best place to set up and to run a business. I know that the Leader of the Opposition, not least because his new spokesman is, apparently, a great admirer of the Soviet Union. will be very pleased to start the day with tractor statistics.

I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about Michael Meacher. On behalf of the Labour party, his constituents and a much wider community, I express our condolences to his family. I spoke to them last night and asked them how they would like Michael to be remembered. They thought about it and sent me a very nice message, which I would like to read out, if I may, Mr Speaker. It is quite brief, but very poignant. As “Memories of Michael”, they provided this statement:

“When I was young…one of the things he frequently said to me was that people went into politics because they had principles and wanted to change things to make the world better, but that in order to get into power they would often compromise on their principles and that this could happen again and again until, if they eventually did get into power, they would have become so compromised that they would do nothing with it.”

Those of us who knew Michael knew him as a decent, hard-working, passionate and profound man. He represented his constituency with diligence and distinction for 45 years. He was a brilliant Environment Minister, as the Prime Minister pointed out, and he was totally committed to parliamentary democracy and to this Parliament holding Governments—all Governments—to account. He was also a lifelong campaigner against injustice and poverty. We remember Michael for all of those things. We express our condolences and we express our sympathies to his family at this very difficult time. His will be a hard act to follow, but we will do our best.

Following the events in the other place on Monday evening and the rather belated acceptance by the Prime Minister of the result there, can he now guarantee to the House and to the wider country that nobody will be worse off next year as a result of cuts to working tax credits?

What I can guarantee is that we remain committed to the vision of a high pay, low tax, lower welfare economy. We believe that the way to make sure that everyone is better off is to keep growing our economy, keep inflation low, keep cutting people’s taxes and introduce the national living wage. As for our changes, the Chancellor will set them out in the autumn statement.

I thank the Prime Minister for that, but the question I asked was quite simply this: will he confirm, right now, that tax credit cuts will not make anyone worse off in April next year?

What we want is for people to be better off because we are cutting their taxes and increasing their pay, but the hon. Gentleman is going to have to be a little patient, because although these changes passed the House of Commons five times with ever-enlarging majorities, we will set out our new proposals in the autumn statement and he will be able to study them.

This is the time when we ask questions to the Prime Minister on behalf of the people of this country—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, if I may continue. People are very worried about what is going to happen to them next April, so what exactly does the Prime Minister mean? He is considering it and there is an autumn statement coming up, but we thought he was committed to not cutting tax credits. Is he going to cut them or not? Are people going to be worse off or not in April next year? He must know the answer.

I want to make two points. First, we set out in our election manifesto that we were going to find £12 billion-worth of savings on welfare. [Interruption.]

Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber. We need a bit of calm. The questions and the answers must be heard.

It is an important point because every penny we do not save on welfare means savings we have to find in the education budget, the policing budget or the health budget. My second point is that because of what has happened in the other place, we should of course have a debate about how to reform welfare and how to reduce its cost. I am happy to have that debate, but it is difficult to have it with the hon. Gentleman because he has opposed every single welfare change that has been made. He does not support the welfare cap; he does not support the cap on housing benefit; he does not think that any change to welfare is worth while. I have to say that if we want a strong economy, if we want growth and if we want to get rid of our deficit and secure our country, we need to reform welfare.

What we are talking about are tax credits for people in work. The Prime Minister knows that; he understands that. He has lost the support of many people in this country who are actually quite sympathetic to his political project, and some of the newspapers that support him have now come out against him on this. He did commit himself to cuts of £12 billion in the welfare budget, but repeatedly refused to say whether tax credits would be part of that. In fact, he said that they would not be. Will he now give us the answer that we are trying to get today?

The answer will be in the autumn statement, when we set out our proposals, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it has come to quite a strange set of events when the House of Commons votes for something five times, when there is absolutely no rebellion among Conservative Members of Parliament or, indeed, among Conservative peers, and when the Labour party is left defending and depending on unelected peers in the House of Lords. We have a new alliance in British politics: the unelected and the unelectable.

It is very interesting that the Prime Minister still refuses to answer the fundamental question. This is not a constitutional crisis; it is a crisis for 3 million families in this country who are very worried about what is going to happen next April.

Just before the last election, when asked on the BBC’s “World at One” whether he was going to cut tax credits, the former Chief Whip, now the Justice Secretary, said:

“we are not going to cut them.”

Why did he say that?

What I said at the election was that the basic level of child tax credits would stay the same, and, at £2,780 per child, it has stayed exactly the same. However, the point is this: if we want to get our deficit down, if we want to secure our economy, if we want to keep on with secure growth, we need to make savings in welfare. Presumably, even with his deficit-denying, borrow-for-ever plan, the hon. Gentleman has to make some savings in public spending. If you do not save any money on welfare, you end up cutting the NHS, and you end up cutting police budgets even more deeply. Those are the truths. When is the hon. Gentleman going to stop his deficit denial, get off the fence, and tell us what he would do?

Order. I said a moment ago that the answers needed to be heard; the questions need to be heard as well. The hon. Gentleman is going to ask his question, and it will be heard. If it takes longer, so be it.

I have asked the Prime Minister five times whether or not people will be worse off next April if they receive working tax credits. He has still not been able to answer me, or, indeed, many others. May I put to him a question that I was sent by—[Interruption.] It may seem very amusing to Conservative Members.

I was sent this question by Karen. She wrote:

“Why is the Prime Minister punishing working families—I work full time and earn the ‘living wage’ within the public sector. The tax credit cuts will push me and my family into hardship.”

Can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron guarantee to Karen, and all the other families who are very worried about what will happen to their incomes next April? They are worried about how they will be able to make ends meet? He could give them the answer today, and I hope that he will. I ask him for the sixth time: please give us an answer to a very straightforward, very simple question.

What I would say to Karen is this: if she is on the living wage working in the public sector, next year, in April, she will benefit from being able to earn £11,000 before she pays any income tax at all—it was around £6,000 when I became Prime Minister. If she has children, she will benefit from 30 hours of childcare every week. That is something that has happened under this Government. But above all she will benefit because we have a growing economy, we have zero inflation, we have got 2 million more people in work, and we will train 3 million apprentices in this Parliament. That is the fact. The reason the Labour party lost the last election is that it was completely untrusted on the deficit, on debt and on a stable economy. Since then the deficit deniers have taken over the Labour party. That is what happened. When we look at their plans—borrowing forever, printing money, hiking up taxes—we see that it is working people like Karen who would pay the price.

Q2. In my constituency, unemployment has fallen by 30% since 2010. This Government have delivered the M6 link road—after 60 years—which will create even more jobs in my area when it is completed. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the Conservatives are ensuring that Morecambe is back open for business? (901823)

I well remember visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and looking at the very important road works that are going to open up the port, and that are going to help when we bring in the new nuclear power station and all the other steps he wants to see. The long-term youth claimant count in his constituency has fallen by 30% in the last year, so those young people are now able to work, and able to benefit from our growing economy.

Scottish National party Members associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about Michael Meacher.

Last week I asked the Prime Minister about the tragic circumstances of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man from north London who took his own life after an assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions. We know that at least 60 investigations have taken place into suicides following the cancellation of benefits, but their findings have not been published. The Prime Minister said to me last week that he would look carefully at the specific question about publication. Will he confirm when those findings will be published?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman about this, but from memory we cannot publish the report because it contains personal and medical data that would not be appropriate for publication. If I have got that wrong, I will write to him, but that is my clear memory of looking into his question after last week.

Tim Salter from Stourbridge in the west midlands was 53 when he took his life. The coroner ruled:

“A major factor in his death was that his state benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute.”

Tim’s sister said:

“It’s the vulnerable people who are going to be affected the worst. The DWP need to publish these reviews.”

The Prime Minister says that he is confused about the views of the families involved. The families say the findings should be published. Will he publish them? Three million families are going to have their child tax credits cancelled. We need the answers to these questions.

First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on that last point. Under the proposals we put forward, those on the lowest levels of pay were protected because of the national living wage, and those on the lowest incomes were protected because we were protecting the basic award of the child tax credit at £2,780. I have already answered the other part of the question: I will send him a letter if I have got this wrong, but my understanding is that there were too many personal and medical details for the report to be published. That is an important consideration in deciding whether to publish something.

Q4. I would like to ask the Prime Minister about Ruby, one of my youngest constituents. She is just one month old. Why should Ruby face the prospect of spending her entire working life paying off the debt built up by this generation? (901825)

I think it is absolutely right to care about Ruby. When we became the Government £1 in every £4 spent by the Government was borrowed money. We had one of the biggest budget deficits anywhere in the world. It is always easy for people to say, “Put off the difficult decisions; don’t make any spending reductions,” but what they are doing is burdening future generations with debt. What I would say to the Labour Front Bench is that that is not generosity; that is actually selfishness.

Order. I think the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) must have misheard me. An innocent error, but I called Mrs Sharon Hodgson.

Q3. We all know about the Prime Minister’s broken promise on tax credits, but would not the final nail in the coffin of compassionate conservatism be hammered home if he were to scrap universal infant free school meals in the spending review, taking hot healthy meals out of the mouths of innocent, blameless infant children? Will he now guarantee not to scrap universal infant free school meals, so that he does not go down in history as Dave the Dinner Snatcher? (901824)

I am immensely proud that it was a Government I led that introduced that policy. In 13 years of a Labour Government, did they ever do that? [Hon. Members: “No!”] Do we remember an infant free school meals Bill from the Labour party? [Hon. Members: “No!”] No. I am proud of what we have done, and we will be keeping it.

Q6. My right hon. Friend has demonstrated considerable leadership in ensuring that Britain is the second largest bilateral aid donor in Syria, but there is another crisis going on, which the world has largely forgotten about. In Yemen, there is an ongoing war, as a result of which 1.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes, 3 million are facing starvation and at least 500,000 children are at risk from life-threatening malnutrition. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that Yemen is in the same position after five months as Syria is after five years. Please can we do more? (901827)

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We have been involved in trying to help in this situation right from the start. As in Syria, we are a major contributor in terms of humanitarian aid, and we have made it very clear that all Yemeni parties should engage in peace talks, without preconditions and in good faith, to allow Yemen to move towards a sustainable peace. That peace needs to be based on the fact that all people in Yemen need proper representation by their Government. There are similarities with Syria in that regard, in that having a Government on behalf of one part of the country is never going to be a sustainable solution.

Q5. How dare anyone in this House earning £74,000 a year tell families that a combined income of £25,000 is too much and that they need to give some of it back to balance the economy? Did the Prime Minister refuse to put this in his manifesto because he knew that, if he did, he would not be elected? (901826)

Let me remind the hon. Lady about the situation we inherited. When I became Prime Minister, nine out of 10 families were getting tax credits, including Members of Parliament. That is how crazy the system we inherited was. We reduced that to six out of 10 families during the last Parliament, although we were of course opposed by Labour and the SNP. Our proposals will now take that down to five out of 10 families. But these proposals are not on their own: they are accompanied by a national living wage for the first time. They are also accompanied by allowing people to earn £11,000 before paying tax, for the first time. Those sorts of measures will help the sort of families she talks about.

Q7. The Prime Minister spoke movingly at conference about the plight of young people in the care system. Will he tell me what the Government are actually going to do to improve the life chances of those young disadvantaged children and to give them opportunities as they move forward in their lives? (901828)

The most important thing we can do is to speed up the adoption system so that more children get adopted. We have seen an increase in adoptions since I have been Prime Minister, but because of one or two judgments, that has slipped backwards a bit, and we need to work very hard to make sure more children get adopted. For those who cannot be adopted, we need to make sure that our residential care homes are doing the best possible job. That is why I can announce today that I have asked the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, Sir Martin Narey—an excellent public servant who I worked with when he was at the Home Office—to conduct an independent review of children’s residential care, reporting to the Education Secretary and me, so that we can take every possible step to give those children the best start in life.

Q11. Redundant steelworkers such as those at Caparo Wire in Wrexham pay national insurance contributions and play by the rules. Why then are this Government limiting mortgage interest support for them in the future, and making them pay twice—once through national insurance and once through paying back the loan? Is that not the type of action that a responsible Government should not pursue, and is it not an example of compassionate Conservatism dying? (901832)

The hon. Gentleman refers to a temporary recession measure on mortgage payments that was continued for five years. He gives me the opportunity to update the House, as I promised that I would last night, on what we are doing to help the steel industry, which I know is so important to his constituency. On energy costs, I can announce today that we will refund the energy-intensive industries with the full amount of the policy cost they face as soon as we get the state aid judgment from Brussels. I can confirm that that payment will be made immediately, and that it will be made throughout this Parliament, which is far more generous than the Opposition proposal.

Q8. I have had hundreds of emails from constituents regarding the northern powerhouse, and I have chosen just one. John from Weaver Vale emailed me to tell me not to listen to the Leader of the Opposition with his strategy of higher spending, higher borrowing and more debt, but instead to stick to our long-term economic plan for a higher-wage, lower-welfare and low-tax society. Does the Prime Minister agree with John from Weaver Vale? (901829)

I do agree. John from Weaver Vale has demonstrated more sense in his email than the Leader of the Opposition did in at least six of his questions. The point is that not only have we seen an economy that is growing—2 million more people in work—inflation that is low and living standards that are rising, but there are 680,000 fewer workless households and 480,000 fewer children in workless households. If we want to measure the real difference that the growth in our economy is making, think of those children, those households and the dignity of work.

Q12. Last weekend was the first anniversary of the death from cervical cancer of Derry girl Sorcha Glenn, aged 23. In June 2013, she had been concerned enough to ask for an early smear test, but was refused because she was under 25. As Team Sorcha, which highlights other cases, her family has now written an open letter to the Prime Minister. May I ask him not to offer here a reflex repeat of the rationale for current screening age policy, but to reflect on the questions raised about how that translates into refusing smear tests to young women such as Sorcha, and to consider the age-related data since the screening age was increased in 2004? (901833)

The hon. Gentleman raises an absolutely tragic case, and our thoughts go out to the family and friends involved. He raises an important case, because the UK National Screening Committee set the age at 25. My understanding is that that was not a resources-based decision. The reason was to do with the potential perverse medical consequences of carrying out screening routinely below that age. It is felt that there could potentially be a number of false positives because of the anatomical changes that go on at that age. As he says though, the matter is worth considering, as there are people who fear that they have family history and who ask for a test. I will certainly write to him on that specific issue.

Q9. Yesterday, the EU said that we can no longer have internet filters to protect our children from indecent images. I want to know what the Prime Minister will do to ensure that our children remain protected. (901830)

Like my hon. Friend, I think that it is vital that we enable parents to have that protection for their children from this material on the internet. Probably like her, I spluttered over my cornflakes when I read the Daily Mail this morning, because we have worked so hard to put in place those filters. I can reassure her on this matter, because we secured an opt-out yesterday so that we can keep our family-friendly filters to protect children. I can tell the House that we will legislate to put our agreement with internet companies on this issue into the law of the land so that our children will be protected.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s earlier remarks about the late Michael Meacher, who was a decent man, a good constituency MP and an extremely effective Environment Minister?

Yesterday I visited the refugee camps on Lesbos, and there I met families that were inspirational and desperate. Alongside the British charity workers I found there, I am frankly ashamed that we will not offer a home to a single one of those refugee families. Will the Prime Minister agree to Save the Children’s plea that we as a country should take 3,000 vulnerable unaccompanied children in Europe, some of whom are as young as six?

Let me again welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, and it is good to see such a high turnout from his MPs.

Let me answer him directly. We have taken the decision as a country to take 20,000 refugees and we think that it is better to take them from the camps instead of from inside Europe. I repeat today that we will achieve 1,000 refugees brought to Britain and housed, clothed and fed before Christmas. On his specific question about the 3,000 children and the proposal made by Save the Children, I have looked at the issue very carefully and other NGOs and experts point to the real danger of separating children from their broader families. That is why to date we have not taken that decision.

Q10. As he begins his negotiations on our reformed relationship with the European Union in earnest, will my right hon. Friend confirm to our partners and the British people that no option is off the table and that all British options will be considered, including the option of a relationship such as that of Norway if it is negotiable and in our interest? (901831)

I can certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that no options are off the table. As I have made clear, if we do not get what we need in our renegotiation I rule absolutely nothing out. I think that it is important that as we have this debate as a nation we are very clear about the facts and figures and about the alternatives. Some people arguing for Britain to leave the European Union, although not all of them, have pointed out a position like that of Norway as a good outcome. I would guard strongly against that. Norway pays as much per head to the EU as we do and takes twice as many migrants per head as we do in this country, but has no seat at the table and no ability to negotiate. I am not arguing that all those who want to leave the EU say that they want to follow the Norwegian path, but some do and it is very important that we are clear in this debate about the consequences of these different actions.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my 17-year-old constituent, Jessy McCabe, on her 3,800 name e-petition, which has managed to get the exam board Edexcel to accept women composers on the syllabus for the first time ever? While he is at it, will he tell us whether he is a feminist?

If feminism means that we should treat people equally, yes, absolutely. I am proud that women make up a third of the people I have sitting around the Cabinet table, which we promised and we delivered. I congratulate the hon. Lady on this e-petition, which sounds thoroughly worthwhile. Her constituent and her have done a good job.

Q13. NHS England knows that the Isle of Wight clinical commissioning group is a significant outlier in relation to its allocation targets. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that progress is being made to identify the factors affecting the island? Will we benefit from amendments to the new CCG formula? (901834)

It is right that decisions on allocations are made independently of Government and not by Government. That is how the formula is reached. I can also tell my hon. Friend that there is an independent review of the funding formula under way. We expect to see its recommendations later this year, but these things should be done in a fair and transparent way.

The Prime Minister will remember meeting my constituents, Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood. Nine years ago this week, Neil took their two children, Christi aged 7 and Bobby aged 6, on holiday to Corfu. The children tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The family’s dearest wish is that no other family suffers the heartbreak and tragedy they endured. Tomorrow in the European Parliament there will be a vote on the recommendation that the Commission brings forward legislation to improve carbon monoxide safety and fire safety for tourism premises in the EU. Will the Prime Minister’s MEPs support it and, if the motion falls, will he consider instigating legislation in this country?

I well remember the meeting that we had and the great bravery of the parents, after their terrible loss, in wanting to go on and campaign to ensure that others did not lose children in the same way. I will look carefully at what the hon. Lady is saying about the European Parliament. As for legislation in this country, we have strict legislation on the use of fire-resistant materials, but I will look carefully at that too.