Skip to main content


Volume 601: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2015

At the last Prime Minister’s questions before Armistice day I know the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all those who have fallen serving our country. They gave their lives so we could live ours in freedom, and it is also right to pause and reflect every year on Armistice day on the contribution of all those who serve our country.

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.

I would like to associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments and I look forward to joining the Armistice day parade in Bedworth in my constituency which has been in existence since 1921 and has grown to be the largest in Britain.

On the military, from speaking to constituents in North Warwickshire I know that the Government commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence was very welcome. Does the Prime Minister agree that, given the volatile state of many parts of the world, it is more important than ever that we maintain that commitment and give our brave troops all the support, resources and equipment available?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do live in a very dangerous and uncertain world, and we have made key commitments—the 2% on defence spending throughout this Parliament, the 0.7% on aid spending, which helps our security as well as making sure we are a generous and moral nation, and, crucially, having the ultimate insurance policy of a replacement for our Trident submarines.

I concur with the Prime Minister’s remarks concerning Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance weekend. We mourn all those who have died in all wars, and surely we also resolve to try and build a peaceful future where the next generation does not suffer from the wars of past generations.

Last week I asked the Prime Minister the same question six times and he could not answer. He has now had a week to think about it. I want to ask him one more time: can he guarantee that next April nobody will be worse off as a result of cuts to working tax credits?

Let me be absolutely clear. What I can guarantee next April is that there will be an £11,000 personal allowance, so you can earn £11,000 before paying tax. What I can guarantee is that there will be a national living wage of £7.20, giving the lowest paid in our country a £20 a week pay rise next year, compared with the situation at the election. On the issue of tax credits, we suffered the defeat in the House of Lords so we have taken the proposals away. We are looking at them and we will come forward with new proposals in the autumn statement. At that point, in exactly three weeks’ time, I will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he wants to spend the next five questions asking me that all over again, I am sure he will find it very entertaining and interesting, but how it fits with the new politics I am not quite sure. Over to you!

This is not about entertainment—[Interruption.] This is not funny for the people who are desperately worried about what is going to happen next April. If the Prime Minister will not listen to the questions I put, and will not listen to the questions that are put by the public, perhaps he will listen to a question that was raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on tax credits last week. He said, “The changes cannot go ahead next April” and that “any mitigation should be full mitigation.” What is the Prime Minister’s answer to his Friend?

It is very much the same answer that I gave to the hon. Gentleman. In three weeks’ time, we will announce our proposals and he will be able to see what we will do to deliver the high-pay, low-tax, lower-welfare economy that we want to see. That is what we need in our country. We are cutting people’s taxes and increasing people’s pay, but we also believe it is right to reform welfare. So he will have his answer in three weeks’ time. But in the meantime, he has to think about this: if we do not reform welfare, how are we going to fund the police service that we are talking about today? How are we going to fund the health service that we could be talking about today? How are we going to pay for the defence forces that we are talking about today? The hon. Gentleman has been completely consistent: he has opposed every single reform to welfare that has ever come forward. If we listened to him, we would still have families in London getting £100,000 a year in housing benefit. So the answer to the question is: you will find out in three weeks’ time. Carry on!

The reality is that the Prime Minister makes choices, and he has made a choice concerning working tax credits that has not worked very well so far. I shall give him an example. A serving soldier, a private in the Army with two children and a partner, would lose over £2,000 next April. I ask the question—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Surely it is the whole point of our Parliament that we are able to put questions to those in authority.

I have a question from Kieran, a veteran of the first Gulf war. His family are set to lose out, and he writes:

“It’s a worry to the family…There’s fear and trepidation about whether we’re going to be able to get by”,

and he asks:

“Is that how this government treats veterans of the Armed Forces?”

Let me take the case of the serving soldier. Many soldiers—indeed, I think all soldiers—will benefit from the £11,000 personal allowance that comes in next year. That means they will be able to earn more money before they even start paying taxes. Serving soldiers that have children will benefit from the 30 hours of childcare, and of course serving soldiers and others will be able to see our proposals on tax credits in exactly three weeks’ time. What I would say to the serving soldier is that he is now dealing with an Opposition party whose leader said he could not see any use for UK forces anywhere in the world at any time. That serving soldier would not have a job if the hon. Gentleman ever got anywhere near power.

May I invite the Prime Minister to cast his mind to another area of public service that is causing acute concern at the present time? I note he is trying to dig himself out of a hole with the junior doctors offer this morning, which we await the detail of, but there is a question that I want to put to him. I quote Dr Cliff Mann, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, who said that

“this winter will be worse than last winter, and last winter was the worst winter we’ve ever had”

in the NHS. Can the Prime Minister guarantee there will be no winter crisis in the NHS this year?

First, when it comes to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, it actually supports what we are saying about a seven-day NHS and the junior doctors contract. The hon. Gentleman says, “Wait for the detail.” I would urge everyone in the House and I would urge all junior doctors who are watching to go on to the Department of Health website and look at the pay calculator, because they will be able to see that no one working legal hours will lose out in any way at all. This is an 11% basic pay rise, and what it will deliver is a stronger and safer NHS.

As for the state of our NHS more generally, it is benefiting from the £10 billion that we are putting in—money that the Labour party at the last election said it did not support. I believe the NHS has the resources that it needs, and that is why we are seeing it treating more patients, with more treatments, more drugs being delivered and more tests being carried out. It is a much stronger NHS, and the reason is simple: because we have a strong economy supporting our strong NHS.

I note that the Prime Minister has not offered any comment whatsoever about the winter crisis of last year or about what will happen this year. [Interruption.]

Order. The Leader of the Opposition is entitled to ask questions without a barrage of noise, and the Prime Minister is entitled to answer questions without a barrage of noise. That is what the public are entitled to expect.

If the Prime Minister will not answer questions that I put, then I quote to him the renowned King’s Fund, which has enormous expertise in NHS funding and NHS administration. It said that the national health service

“cannot continue to maintain standards of care and balance the books…a rapid and serious decline in patient care is inevitable”

unless something is done. May I ask the Prime Minister which is rising faster—NHS waiting lists or NHS deficits?

Let me deal directly with the King’s Fund. What we have done on this side of the House is appoint a new chief executive to the NHS, Mr Simon Stevens, who worked under the last Labour Government and did a very good job for them. He produced the Stevens plan, which he said required at least £8 billion of Government funding. We are putting in £10 billion behind that plan. That is the plan that we are producing, and we can see the results: 1.3 million more operations, 7.8 million more out-patient appointments and 4.7 million more diagnostic tests. What is going up in the NHS is the number of treatments—the number of successful outcomes.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to know who is heading for a winter crisis, I would predict that it is the Labour party. We have seen it in a lot of his appointments: his media adviser is a Stalinist, his new policy adviser is a Trotskyist and his economic adviser is a communist. If he is trying to move the Labour party to the left, I would give him “full Marx”.

The issue I raised with the Prime Minister was the national health service—in case he had forgotten. I would just like to remind him that since he took office in 2010 the English waiting list is up by a third. There are now 3.5 million people waiting for treatment in the NHS. If his party cannot match its actions by its words, I put this to him: will he just get real? The NHS is in a problem: it is in a problem of deficits in many hospitals; it is in a problem of waiting lists; and it is in a problem of the financial crisis that it faces, with so many others. Can he now address that issue and ensure that everyone in this country can rely on the NHS, which is surely the jewel in all of our crowns?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the health service since I became Prime Minister, so let me tell him what has happened in the NHS since I became Prime Minister: the number of doctors is up by 10,500; the number of nurses is up by 5,800; fewer patients are waiting more than 52 weeks to start treatment than was the case under Labour; we have introduced the cancer drugs fund; we have seen mixed-sex wards virtually abolished; and we have seen rates of MRSA and hospital-acquired infection come plummeting down. And it has happened for a reason: because we have had a strong economy, because we have some of the strongest growth anywhere in the world, because we have got unemployment coming down and because we have got inflation on the floor, we are able to fund an NHS, whereas the countries he admires all over the world, with their crazy socialist plans, cut their health service and hurt the people who need the help the most.

Q3. The UK’s internet economy is by far the largest of the G20 nations, at 12.4% of our GDP. But as consumers move online, so do criminals. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that the investigatory powers Bill must give our security services the powers they need to keep us safe, while ensuring that proper controls exist on how we use those powers? (901984)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, and it is one of the most important Bills this House will discuss. Obviously, it is going through pre-legislative scrutiny first. The Home Secretary will today, at this Dispatch Box, set out very clearly what this Bill is about and why it is necessary. Let me just make one simple point: communications data—the who called whom and when of telecommunications—have been absolutely vital in catching rapists and child abductors and in solving other crimes. The question before us is: do we need those data when people are using social media to commit those crimes rather than just a fixed or mobile phone? My answer is: yes, we must help the police and our security and intelligence services to keep us safe.

At this week’s Remembrance events, we remember all the sacrifices from past and present conflicts. We also show our respects to veterans and to service families. Does the Prime Minister agree that everything must be done to deliver on the military covenant—both the spirt and the letter?

I certainly agree with both parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. These Remembrance services are very important, right up and down our country, and the military covenant is one of the most important things that we have. We make a promise to our military that because of the sacrifices they make on our behalf they should not have less good treatment than other people in our country and indeed that, where we can, we should provide extra support. We are the first Government to put the military covenant properly into law and to deliver almost every year big improvements in the military covenant—hospital treatment, free transport, council tax discount and so many other things—and we report on it every year.

However, is the Prime Minister aware that many, many service widows continue to be deprived of their forces pensions if there is a change in their personal circumstances? Does he agree that that is a clear breach of the spirit of the military covenant, and what will he do to rectify that wrong?

I think that it was last year that we made a big change at around the time of Armistice day to ensure that many people who had remarried were able to get their pensions. That was a very big step forward, which was welcomed by the British Legion. If there are further steps that we need to take, I am very happy to look at them and see what can be done. I also remember that, in the last Budget, we looked at the case of police widows, and we tried to put right their situation as well.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the town of Prestatyn in my constituency, which is a finalist in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s great British high street awards? Will he confirm whether the UK Government will be holding discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government about the devolution of business rates to councils in Wales so that other town centres in my constituency, such as Rhyl, have a better opportunity to regenerate? (901986)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Prestatyn. I do not know whether Prestatyn is in the same category for this prize as my home town of Chipping Norton, which has also been nominated, so I might have some conflicts of interest. Obviously, in Wales, business rates are a devolved issue, but it is open to the Welsh Government, should they choose, to take the approach that we are taking of devolving that business rate income directly to local councils, so that local councils have a better connection between the money that they raise and the decisions that they take to attract business, investment and industry to their area.

Q2. I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the Prime Minister went to Eton. Both schools invest heavily in excellent teaching and facilities for music, dance, arts and drama, and yet while he has been Prime Minister, the schools that educate 93% of our pupils have cut the number of teachers in those subjects. Will his legacy be that Britain stops being a world leader in creative and cultural industries and becomes an also-ran? (901983)

I do not accept that. If Members look at what has happened with school funding, they will find that it has been protected under this Government, and we want to continue protecting school funding. What I make no apology for is the very clear focus that we have on getting the basics right in our schools. It is essential that we get more children learning the basic subjects and getting the basic qualifications. It is then more possible to put in place the arts, the dance and the drama that I want my children to enjoy when they go to their schools.

Q6. The channel tunnel and the port of Dover are major pieces of national infrastructure, but when there are big disruptions to services it causes chaos on Kent’s roads. As the Government complete their final work on the spending review, will the Prime Minister give special consideration to the need for an urgent and long-term solution to Operation Stack? (901987)

I absolutely recognise the serious problems that are caused to Kent residents and businesses when it becomes necessary to put in place Operation Stack. We have already implemented short-term measures to reduce the impact, including using the temporary availability of Manston airfield as a contingency measure. I know that my hon. Friend and other Kent MPs met the Chancellor this morning. We are happy to build on that work. I understand the pressures, and we will do everything we can to relieve them.

Q4. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about what will happen this weekend and also with the comments made by the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson)? Thousands of people who served our nation in the Royal Navy before 1987 are not entitled to full compensation. That means that people who have been exposed to asbestosis and have contracted the cancer disease mesothelioma stand to lose out massively when compared with people in civilian life. Someone who has been exposed to asbestosis in industry could get £150,000 in compensation, while it is probable that a service person will get only £31,000. Will the Prime Minister look into that and report back to this House, as it is clearly a moral outrage as well as a clear breach of the military covenant? (901985)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I understand that the Defence Secretary is looking at the matter. As I have said, since putting the military covenant into law, we have tried every year to make progress, whether it is on the issue of widows or of other groups that have been disadvantaged in some way. I am happy to go away and look at the point that he makes.

Q9. The Royal Society has identified a need for 1 million scientists, engineers and tech professionals by 2020. One way to bridge the skills gap is through an increase in high-quality apprenticeships, such as those delivered by PROCAT, the Prospects College of Advanced Technology, in Basildon. However, for every one place available, 20 people apply. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to meet our commitment to 3 million new apprenticeships? (901992)

My hon. Friend is right that the 3 million target is essential, and I believe that we can achieve it. To go back to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), one way we can achieve that is by making sure that more of our young people have the qualifications necessary to apply for an apprenticeship. Many firms find that lots of people apply, but when we knock out the people who do not have a qualification in English or maths the number comes right down. I am delighted to announce today that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) will take the place of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has moved on to other things, as my adviser on apprenticeships to help me ensure that businesses deliver on this agenda.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister realise that my constituents in Blackpool face a double whammy on police cuts from his spending review and from the Home Office formula, which chops 14%, or £25 million, off Lancashire’s police? With letters from a cross-party group of Lancashire MPs, from my neighbourhood watch group, from our police and crime commissioner and six others, mostly Tories, and from our chief constable all saying that the process is flawed, how many blue lights does he need before we hit meltdown? (901988)

The reforms to the police funding formula are in consultation and no decisions have been taken. Through the hon. Gentleman, may I congratulate Lancashire police, as crime is down in Blackpool by 5% over this Parliament? Funding for Lancashire police is £180 million, the same in cash terms as in 2003, and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary

“found that Lancashire Constabulary is exceptionally well prepared to face its future financial requirements.”

That is the view of HMIC in a country where crime, however we measure it, has fallen significantly since the Government took office.

Q12. My constituent, Dr Sarah Pape, one of the UK’s leading burns specialist, went out on Monday to Bucharest to help the Romanian medical teams dealing with the nightclub fire disaster. I understand that some 150 patients are in need of critical burns care and that there are only 25 burns beds in Bucharest. Sarah Pape has asked whether the Prime Minister will consider offering practical humanitarian medical assistance to these burns victims by allowing the use of UK burns facilities for their treatment. (901995)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the tragic events that took place in Bucharest last Friday. All our thoughts are with the victims and their families. I am pleased to hear about Dr Pape’s visit and her selfless work to help. It is a good suggestion to consider whether we can offer specialist help and support and I will take that away and see what can be done.

Q8. The Prime Minister will understand the heartbreak of the death of a child, but for parents then not to know what has happened to the ashes of that child, as is the case for Mike and Tina Trowhill in Hull and other families up and down the country, is simply very cruel. Will the Prime Minister agreed to meet Mike and Tina to discuss why we need national and local inquiries into what happened to baby ashes in such cases? (901991)

I completely understand how the hon. Lady’s constituents feel. This must have been an absolutely tragic event, only made worse by not knowing what had happened to the child. I am happy to arrange that meeting. I am not aware of the case and had not heard of it before, but let me look into it very carefully and see what I can do.

Q13. I was delighted that the Chancellor chose our county city of York to launch the new National Infrastructure Commission. Will the Prime Minister confirm that this is the start of a new era in which important investment decisions on issues such as roads and railways between the great cities of the north will help to bring growth and prosperity to our region? (901996)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. People in Yorkshire have long felt that there has not been a fair enough deal for transport funding for roads and rail. People can now see that £13 billion is being spent on transport in the north as part of our plan to rebalance Britain’s economy. We have committed more than £4.8 billion of major road improvements and are continuing to invest in improving the A64, which is vital for the people of York. We will go on looking at what more we can do to ensure that this vital part of our economy has the transport links it needs.

Q10. On 9 September the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that“there are no plans to sell Channel 4”.Can the Prime Minister confirm that that remains the Government’s position, and that no discussions are under way to privatise, and thus imperil, this much-loved and important public institution? (901993)

First, let me say that I am a huge fan of Channel 4, which was a great Conservative innovation; I think that it was a combination of Willie Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher who helped bring it to our screens. I want to ensure that Channel 4 has a strong and secure future, and I think that it is right to look at all the options, including seeing whether private investment could help safeguard the channel for the future. Let us have a look at all the options and not close our minds, like some on the Opposition Front Bench who think that private is bad and public is good. Let us have a proper look at how we can ensure that that great channel goes on being great for many years to come.

Everybody who has had any contact with the adoption process will be familiar with the frustration that unnecessary delays cause prospective parents. Will the Prime Minister take action to speed up the adoption process so that more children can be placed with the right families much more quickly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. We have seen a 72% increase in the number of children being adopted, and the average waiting time has come down by something like five months, but it is still far too long. If we look across the 150 different councils responsible for adoption, we see that around 68 of them have no mechanism for what we call early placement, where fostering and adoption are run alongside each other. If we can introduce that, not least through the regional adoption agencies that we will be establishing, we will see many more children get the warm and loving home we want them to have.

Q11. Will the Prime Minister spare a thought on Armistice Day for the 633 of our bravest and best who died as a result of two political mistakes: 179 in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and 454 in the Helmand incursion that promised that no shot would be fired? Will he rethink his own plan to order more of our brave soldiers to put their lives on the line in the chaos and confusion of a four-sided civil war in Syria? (901994)

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I suggest, with respect, that on Armistice Day we should put aside political questions about conflicts and decisions that were made and simply remember the men and women who put on a uniform, go and serve and risk their lives on our behalf. Let us make Armistice day about that, not about other questions.

The past week has been a very good one for Cornwall airport in Newquay, with the announcement of the scrapping of the airport development fee, which was an additional tax on passengers and a barrier to growth, the announcement of new air links that will link Cornwall directly to mainland Europe, and the upgrading of the Gatwick link, with the support of the public service obligation. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the team at Cornwall airport in Newquay on their excellent work supporting the Cornish economy?

I am a huge fan and frequent user of Newquay airport. The Government made a series of promises about helping the airport to ensure there is that vital connectivity between Cornwall and the rest of the country, and indeed continental Europe, and I am delighted that it is doing so well.

I thank the Prime Minister for welcoming the campaign launched this week whereby 200 leaders from across society will join the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), Alastair Campbell and me in calling for equality for those who suffer from mental ill health. The truth is that those who suffer from mental ill health do not have the same right to access treatment as others enjoy in our NHS. The moral and economic case for ending this historical injustice is overwhelming. Will the Prime Minister do what it takes to ensure that this spending review delivers the extra investment in mental health needed to deliver genuine equality?

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman, who did a lot of work on this in the previous Parliament, that I very much welcome the campaign that has been launched and what it aims to achieve. We set out in the NHS constitution parity between mental and physical health and we have taken steps towards that by, for instance, introducing for the first time waiting times and proper targets for talking therapies. There are now twice as many people undergoing those talking therapies as there were five years ago. But I completely accept that there is more to do in healing the divide between mental and physical health, and this Government are committed to doing that.

Further to the question from the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I thank the Prime Minister for his support and emphasise that this is indeed an all-party campaign. Does he agree that there is an opportunity now to build on the work of the coalition over the past five years and, with widespread support across all parts of society, end an historical injustice and inequality in the treatment of mental ill-health and physical illness?

My right hon. Friend is right. Let me tell him what we are doing. We are investing more in mental health than ever before—we will be spending £11.4 billion this financial year. Crucially, we have asked every clinical commissioning group to ensure real-terms increases in its investment in mental health services so that it cannot be treated as the Cinderella service, as has sometimes been the case in the past. If we do that and deal with some of the other issues, such as mental health patients being held in police cells inappropriately, we will have a far better system for dealing with mental health in our country.

With the announcement yesterday of the loss of 860 manufacturing jobs at the Michelin plant in Ballymena, one of the factors being high energy costs, will the Prime Minister undertake to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to address both the short-term and the medium-term issues as a matter of urgency? People who are currently in work in Northern Ireland are extremely worried about the impact of cuts to working tax credits. Given that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Government are in listening mode and are showing a surprising degree of flexibility across a range of issues, will the Prime Minister reverse the thrust of that policy and remove the burden and threat against working families in Northern Ireland and across the country?

First, on the issue of industries, if a company qualifies as part of the energy-intensive industries, it will see a reduction in its bill because of the action that I announced from this Dispatch Box last week. Secondly and specific to Northern Ireland, we have passed in this House historic legislation to allow Northern Ireland to set its own rate of corporation tax. The sooner we can put together all the elements of the Stormont House agreement, the sooner Northern Ireland will be able to take action to try and build a stronger private sector in Northern Ireland, which is exactly what I want to see.

On the issue of tax credits, I give the right hon. Gentleman the same answer: he will know in three weeks’ time. He also knows that people who work in that business or in other businesses will be able to earn £11,000 before they start paying taxes, get more help with their childcare and have a higher wage to start with. Let us build an economy where people earn more and pay less taxes, and where we keep welfare costs under control so that we can build great public services.