House of Commons
Wednesday 13 January 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues which provide opportunities to discuss a range of issues, including matters related to the funding of services across Wales such as the future funding of S4C.
The Prime Minister said last week at the Dispatch Box that he wanted to
“meet…the wording and the spirit of our manifesto promise”,
on S4C, which stated:
“We would safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C.”
In the light of last week’s commitment, may I invite the Minister to make it clear that the Government will abandon the proposed cuts to the DCMS part of S4C’s budget and undertake a review of the future funding needs of S4C?
We will meet our manifesto commitment to
“safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C.”
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Prime Minister say that we would
“meet…the wording and spirit of our manifesto commitment.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 281.]
He will also remember that on the evening before there was a debate proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) to which the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy responded by saying that he was looking at the arguments and keen to engage positively.
I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning last Tuesday’s debate because I too want to talk about the wonderful consensus that broke out in the Chamber regarding S4C’s funding. Given that consensus, will he remind his colleagues at DCMS that he has a statutory duty to protect S4C’s funding? Will he also join us in offering his personal support for an independent review of S4C?
The hon. Lady took part in that debate and she will recognise the way in which the Minister responded. He said that he was listening to the arguments and that he wanted to engage as positively as he could. I hope that she recognises the spirit in which that was intended.
Last July, the Culture Secretary and the Treasury informed the director-general of the BBC in a letter that S4C’s grant might be cut by the same percentage reduction as the BBC itself and that:
“It will be up to the Government to decide how to make up the shortfall.”
This is therefore not the only Government-driven cut facing S4C. What additional funds will the Government be providing over and above these DMCS cuts?
As the hon. Lady knows, charter renewal negotiations and discussions are under way at the moment, and I do not want to pre-empt any of the issues that will come out of that. Clearly, there will be a widespread consultation and I hope that she and other Members will engage positively in it.
I understand, of course, that we are facing the BBC charter consultation, but given the BBC’s response in the current situation there is surely now room for cross-party consensus on Silk II’s recommendation that the funding of the public expenditure element of S4C should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.
I do not accept the basis of the question. During my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s discussion that led to the St David’s day agreement, there was not agreement on this issue. We are keen to progress in consensus so that we can take everyone forward. We need to remember that it was a Conservative Government who established S4C, which has been a great success since 1982. I hope that the hon. Lady will share in and recognise that success.
What complete waffle from the Minister! The Tory party manifesto said only last spring that that party was committed in government to safeguarding
“the funding and editorial independence of S4C”,
yet now we are talking of a cut from the DCMS budget of a quarter of its funding. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is asking for my question. It is simply this: why will the Government not safeguard the funding, and why is that quarter of the DCMS funding budget still under consideration? It is a disgrace. How can we trust them on any other commitment they make?
The hon. Lady will have heard my answers to the previous questions. I find it a bit rich that Labour Members are calling for extra funding for a Welsh language channel when this morning the First Minister in the Assembly is seeking to defend his position of cutting the budget to support the Welsh language by 5.5%. That is simply a disgrace.
Our nation’s small businesses are the true heroes of this economic recovery, and I am proud to be part of a Government who are on their side. SMEs have created two thirds of all the new jobs in the private sector in Wales since 2010. As we continue to reduce regulation and lower taxes, support for small businesses right across the UK has never been stronger.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We have set ourselves a really ambitious target of £1 trillion of exports from the UK by 2020. If we are going to have any hope of meeting that target, we need to engage with SMEs right across the UK, especially in Wales. That is why I will be in north Wales tomorrow, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, promoting everything that north Wales has to offer.
The Welsh steel industry plays a critical role in underpinning business right across the board, including SMEs, but global headwinds affecting the industry have been growing stronger. Will the Secretary of State join me and Welsh MPs from all parties in asking for a meeting with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that no stone remains unturned in the fight to save the Welsh steel industry?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the spirit in which he asked it. He knows as well as we do that the steel industry right across the UK, not least in Wales, faces a global crisis. He is aware of all the different actions being taken by the Government to try to help the British and Welsh steel industry face the global nature of the crisis. I am very happy to pass on his request to the Business Secretary. We are obviously in very close contact, as is the hon. Gentleman, with Tata, and especially the plant in Port Talbot in his constituency.
My right hon. Friend will know that one of the small businesses emerging in Wales is Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd, which has exciting plans for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. The roll-out programme also includes Cardiff, Newport and north Wales. When can we expect to hear what financial support will be forthcoming from the Government so that this exciting project can proceed without delay?
My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State is right. The Swansea tidal lagoon proposition is very exciting and commands wide support across the business community in Wales, but we also need to recognise that the project is asking for a very significant level of public subsidy and intervention. It is absolutely right that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change should conduct very robust due diligence in making sure that such projects will deliver value for the taxpayer.
One of the issues that small businesses raise with me in my constituency is the lack of connectivity for superfast broadband and, indeed, mobile connections. Now that the Government and the Prime Minister agree with me on the universal obligation for broadband, will the Secretary of State help me by supporting a pilot scheme on Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglesey?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We have discussed this many times in Wales questions and debates. Improvements are happening right across Wales, and we are seeing big improvements in internet connectivity and for mobile phones in his constituency and mine. There is much more that we can do. I am very interested to hear about a pilot project in Anglesey, which I am happy to discuss with ministerial colleagues.
In early December, the UK Government announced £50 million of additional funding to address flooding issues. That figure has Barnett consequentials for Wales of £2.276 million. Since then, a further £90 million has been announced by the UK Government, and we await to see what, if any, Barnett consequentials will arise from that. On the new money to be allocated to Wales, will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the Welsh Assembly Government to allocate it to St Asaph? Many SMEs, as well as local residents, were flooded there three years ago, and there is currently a £4 million shortfall for the necessary flood defence works.
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in making that suggestion and recommendation. It is worth putting it on the record that our sympathy and thoughts are with all the families and businesses in Wales, as well as with those right across the UK, that suffered damage due to flooding over the Christmas period. All the new money that the Government have announced to address flooding issues has delivered Barnett consequentials for Wales. It is up to the Welsh Government to decide how to use that money, but we certainly want them to use every single penny to help to address flooding issues. I am afraid that we will have to come back time and again to such issues and discuss them in this place.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), the Minister will undoubtedly share our concern about press reports over the weekend. What contingency plans do the UK Government have for a worse-case scenario? Would he support a Welsh public stake in the Welsh operations of Tata, as was afforded to the banks of London during the financial crash of 2008?
I will not engage in the speculation about job cuts that we saw in the press at the weekend. Members from all parts of the House need to be responsible in how we debate these issues. We are in very close contact with Tata internationally and with regard to its operations across the UK, including in south Wales. We are discussing closely what its needs are at this moment. There are big issues and questions that need to be addressed.
We are investing in the most ambitious rail upgrade programme since Victorian times. We are committed to electrifying the Great Western main line to Swansea and have agreed to contribute £125 million towards electrifying the Vale of Glamorgan and valleys lines. That will increase services and reduce journey times for passengers across south Wales.
Blaenau Gwent needs good rail links down to Cardiff and across to Bristol for jobs. The flourishing Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line must be part of the core metro system for that to happen. How will the Minister help make sure that south-east Wales gets the modern transport infrastructure it so badly needs?
The hon. Gentleman has been a strong champion of investment in the Ebbw Vale railway line, including in the new station at Ebbw Vale and the UK Government’s investment at Pye Corner, which has improved access to Newport. The scope of the valleys lines upgrade is a matter for the Welsh Government, but the Department for Transport has made £125 million available specifically for that purpose. To my mind, the valleys lines upgrade stretches from Ebbw Vale to Maesteg and down to the Vale of Glamorgan.
The Government’s investment in the rail network is crucial to businesses and people across Wales and, in particular, in my constituency of Gower. Despite the negativity surrounding electrification from Opposition Members, will the Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the electrification of the line to Swansea?
The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Wales have confirmed that. Only last week, the Chancellor was in Cardiff and restated our position once again. We will electrify the Great Western main line the whole way to Swansea.
Given that UK commuters spend up to six times as much on rail fares as European passengers, has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of the recent rail fare increases on the Welsh economy?
The hon. Lady should know that there were limits to the recent increases. We need to contrast that with the £3 billion that is being spent on improving rail services to and within Wales, as well as our efforts to ensure that Wales benefits from the national project of HS2 by making Crewe a central hub so that north Wales benefits too.
Does the Minister accept that this investment will revolutionise connectivity in the valleys and on the main line to Swansea? Will he share with the House what assessments have been made of the impact it will have on job creation and passenger journeys?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the economic prospects that will be brought by the significant capital investment that we are bringing forward. It is worth remembering that the last Labour Government left Wales as one of only three countries in Europe, along with Moldova and Albania, without a single mile of electrified track.
We regularly have discussions on a range of issues, including transport infrastructure. The M4 is one of Wales’s vital arteries. The need for an upgrade was identified decades ago by business leaders as a No. 1 priority.
The Minister will surely be aware that the ongoing delays on the M4 are causing problems for the economy in south Wales. Will he outline what steps he is taking to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to make improvements to this vital piece of transport infrastructure?
It is hard to believe that the former right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was Secretary of State for Wales when the upgrade was first committed to, only for it to be cancelled by Labour Members. It was reconsidered later by a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government Minister, only to then be cancelled. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made additional resources available, and we just want the Welsh Government to get on with it.
The route is a matter for the Welsh Government, and we encourage them to consider all options. We want the project to start as soon as possible. Even if it started to the earliest possible timescale outlined by the Welsh Government, it would still not be completed until the end of 2022, which is unacceptable.
Cardiff City Deal
Last week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Cardiff and announced his desire to deliver a city deal by Budget 2016. We are now working with the Cardiff capital region to deliver on ambitious proposals that will increase economic growth, not only in the city but across the entire south Wales region.
Last week the Chancellor brought a welcome sense of urgency to the Cardiff city deal process, with the deadline of March and a down payment of £50 million for a compound semiconductor catapult centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that with a semiconductor catapult at the heart of the city deal process, we stand a real chance of securing a long-term transformation of the south Wales economy?
My hon. Friend is right, and I put on record my thanks for his work in championing the city deal for Cardiff. The Chancellor’s announcement last week was a massive statement of this Government’s confidence in Welsh business and our ambition for Wales. The £50 million is a down payment on the Cardiff city deal, and it is now time for local partners, Welsh businesses and the Welsh Government to crack on and conclude this transformational project.
We do not want just warm words from the Chancellor about the Cardiff city deal; we want to know whether the UK Government will match the £580 million that has been pledged by the Welsh Government for the Cardiff city deal. Can the Minister answer that?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady noticed, but during our visit to Cardiff last Thursday we were not just using warm words; we were investing £50 million of UK Government money in a new high-tech centre of innovation at Cardiff University. The Chancellor made it clear in his speech in Cardiff last Thursday that we will support in principle the infrastructure fund that will be at the heart of the Cardiff city deal project.
The northern powerhouse, which stretches from north Wales to Newcastle, is reviving the economic and civic strength of our great northern cities. It is central to our vision for rebalancing the economy, and north Wales is already benefiting from large-scale infrastructure investments.
Given the proximity of north Wales to the newly established Cheshire science corridor, the positive impact of infrastructure investment—including High Speed 2—and the 871 square miles of opportunity nearby in Cheshire and Warrington, does my hon. Friend agree that north Wales stands to benefit strongly from the northern powerhouse that is being taken forward by this Conservative Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. North-east Wales and north-west England form one single economic entity, and businesses in north Wales see the opportunity that the northern powerhouse can bring. When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), and I met businesses last year in north Wales, they were keen to be a central part of that, and, as my hon. Friend said, HS2 offers great opportunities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the £10.4 million investment in the reopening of the Halton curve will provide a significant economic boost for north Wales, as well as for Cheshire and my constituency of Weaver Vale, not least because there is a direct link to Liverpool John Lennon airport?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in securing that investment. He championed this project from the outset, and later this year the direct link from north Wales through Cheshire to Liverpool will be operational. That is a tangible demonstration of the northern powerhouse in action.
12. I, too, welcome the Halton curve and the direct link to Liverpool airport, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that HS2 coming to Crewe is also important, not just for electrification and the link to north Wales, but to speed up contacts to Manchester airport from north Wales? (902950)
The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the rail transport summit that was held in north Wales last year. It talked about how we can best bring forward a bid to modernise the railway infrastructure across north Wales, and we look forward to that bid coming forward. Only last week I spoke to the chair of the north Wales economic ambition board to discuss the progress of that project.
When I have previously questioned my hon. Friend and his colleague about the potential benefits to north Wales of the northern powerhouse, I have been disappointed to be told of a total lack of engagement on the part of the Welsh Assembly Government. Will my hon. Friend say whether they have changed their stance and are now more plugged in to the process?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for championing the benefits of the northern powerhouse. What is clear is that business sees the benefits. Local authorities also see the benefits. We encourage the Welsh Government to engage positively, because business does not recognise the administrative boundaries between the two.
The Government’s so-called northern powerhouse will bring no benefit to north Wales unless we see the much-needed investment in infrastructure that the Government have so far failed to deliver. When the Chancellor visited Broughton in July, he promised he would look at rail electrification in north Wales. Six months later, has anything happened?
Yes, a considerable amount has happened in relation to investment in north Wales. I mentioned the summit that was held last year. We are keen to develop the signalling needed to improve the railway lines. The North Wales Economic Ambition Board is delighted with the support we are giving. We are keen to develop that even further.
Let us hope that the Government can get on a bit quicker with the electrification than they are on the Great Western main line. North Wales also needs better rail links to Manchester airport. Arriva Trains Wales has proposed a direct service from Llandudno to the airport. Will the Minister explain why, instead of investing in greater capacity on routes to Manchester airport, his colleagues at the Department for Transport have rejected Arriva’s plan, supposedly in favour of extra trans-Pennine services? If the Secretary of State’s place at the Cabinet table counts for anything, what is he going to do about that?
I do not recognise the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. Significant discussions are going on between the Department for Transport, the Welsh Government, rail operators and other partners about remapping and the franchises. We will happily take positive representations on that
In all parts of the United Kingdom our welfare reforms are working, transforming the lives of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The number of workless households in Wales continues to fall, with 12,000 fewer in the last year alone.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We on the Government Benches understand that work is the best route out of poverty. I am very pleased that in Wales the number of children growing up in a home where no parent works has halved, falling by 62,000 since 2010. I am clear that if we are to transform life chances, we have to go much deeper and address the root causes of worklessness, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out in his speech on Monday.
Four years ago, my constituent Margaret Foster was sacked from Remploy by this Prime Minister. Yesterday, I raised her case in a debate. Today, I have been approached by local employers offering her work. Why are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister presiding over a system to support disabled workers so useless that it takes a Member of Parliament raising the issue in Parliament for anything to happen?
The proportion of disabled people in Wales in work has increased under this Government. There was a time when Labour Members understood and talked the language of welfare reform. Maybe when they have stopped kicking lumps out of each other they will get back to addressing it.
Swansea Tidal Lagoon
I recognise that the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon project has the potential to establish Wales as a major hub for tidal power, creating thousands of jobs and attracting millions of pounds of investment. Robust due diligence is, of course, essential in the interest of taxpayers, who would incur the cost of any subsidy through their energy bills.
Dean Quarry in my constituency is likely to be the source of stone for the tidal lagoon. For over a year, local residents have been concerned about that because it is an important tourist area and marine conservation zone, and we believe there are cheaper areas from which to source the stone. Does the Minister agree that the impact on the environment and the economy is too great and that other sources of stone are available? Will the Government look for places other than Dean Quarry to get the stone?
I am aware of the issue raised by my hon. Friend, who is as ever a powerful and effective voice on behalf of his constituents. Planning applications in relation to Dean Quarry would be dealt with by the Marine Management Organisation and local authorities, which should absolutely take into account local concerns.
Local businesses across Wales are eagerly anticipating the investment that the tidal lagoon will bring. It would be a travesty if the UK Government were to pull the plug on the lagoon, so can the Minister confirm that they remain committed to the project and to agreeing a strike price for the tidal lagoon?
The hon. Lady is right: this is a big, potentially very exciting and significant project. It is also a project that is looking for a large amount of public subsidy and intervention, and it is absolutely right—not that we would expect Opposition Members to understand this—that when we are dealing with large sums of taxpayers’ money, there needs to be due diligence.
Swansea bay tidal lagoon and the other potential lagoons that may result from it provide amazing opportunities for exports of intellectual property, technology and supply chains across south Wales. Will the Secretary of State at least commit to making it happen and doing it as soon as possible?
I repeat the answer I gave to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague. We recognise that this is a potentially very exciting and significant project, in delivering low-carbon renewable energy over a long period. We need to look carefully at the finances to ensure that it delivers value for taxpayers, who will be asked to put a large amount of subsidy into the project.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Royal College of Midwives has called the Government’s plans to cut nurses’ student grants “appalling” and the Royal College of Nursing says it is “deeply concerned”. Meanwhile, the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is a nurse, says she would have struggled to undertake her nurse training, given the proposed changes to the bursary scheme. So why does the Prime Minister still think he is right to scrap grants for student nurses?
For the simple reason that we want to see more nurses in training and more nurses in our NHS. We believe there will be an additional 10,000 nurses because of this change. The facts are that two out of three people who want to become nurses today cannot do so because they are constrained by the bursary scheme. Moving to the new system, those who want to become nurses will be able to become nurses.
Q2. The No. 1 responsibility of any Government is the protection of their people. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain’s nuclear deterrent and our membership of NATO are key to our defences and that any moves that would put that at risk would jeopardise our national security? (902990)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been common ground on both sides of this House that the cornerstone of our defence policy is our membership of NATO and our commitment to an independent nuclear deterrent, which must be replaced and updated. They are necessary to keep us safe, and at a time when we see North Korea testing nuclear weapons and with the instability in the world today we recommit ourselves to NATO and to our independent nuclear deterrent. I think the Labour party has some very serious questions to answer.
This week the Prime Minister rather belatedly acknowledged there is a housing crisis in Britain. He announced a £140 million fund to transform 100 housing estates around the country, which amounts to £1.4 million per housing estate to bulldoze and then rebuild them. [Interruption.] My maths is perfect. This money is a drop in the ocean. It is not even going to pay for the bulldozers, is it?
We have doubled the housing budget and we are going to invest over £8 billion in housing, and that comes after 700,000 homes having been built since I became Prime Minister. We have a quarter of a million more affordable homes. Here is a statistic that the right hon. Gentleman will like: in the last Parliament, we built more council houses than in 13 years of a Labour Government.
The Prime Minister has not thought this through very carefully. Every estate that he announces he wishes to bulldoze will include tenants and people who have bought their homes under right to buy. Will those people, the leaseholders, be guaranteed homes on the rebuilt estates he proposes?
I accept, of course, that this is not as carefully thought through as the right hon. Gentleman’s reshuffle, which I gather is still going on—it has not actually finished yet. We want to go to communities where there are sink estates and housing estates that have held people back and agree with the local councils and local people to make sure that tenants get good homes and that homeowners get rehoused in new houses. That is exactly what we want. Let us look at what we have done on housing. We reformed the planning rules, and Labour Members opposed them; we introduced Help to Buy, and they opposed it; we introduced help to save to help people get their deposit, and they opposed it. They have absolutely nothing to say about people trapped in housing estates who want a better start in their lives.
I notice that the Prime Minister did not give any guarantee to leaseholders on estates. I have a question to ask on behalf of a probably larger group on most estates. A tenant by the name of Darrell asks:
“Will the Prime Minister guarantee that all existing tenants of the council estates earmarked for redevelopment will be rehoused in new council housing, in their current communities, with the same tenancy conditions as they currently have?”
We are not going to be able to deal with these sink estates unless we get the agreement of tenants and unless we show how we are going to support homeowners and communities. Is it not interesting to reflect on who here is the small “c” conservative who is saying to people, “Stay stuck in your sink estate; have nothing better than what Labour gave you after the war.”? We are saying, “If you are a tenant, have the right to buy; if you want to buy a home, here is help to save; if you are in a sink estate, we will help you out.” That is the fact of politics today—a Conservative Government who want to give people life chances, and a Labour Opposition who say “Stay stuck in poverty”.
The Prime Minister does not seem to understand the very serious concerns that council tenants have when they feel they are going to be forced away from strong communities in which they live and their children go to school. Perhaps the Prime Minister will be able to help us with another issue. His party’s manifesto said:
“Everyone who works hard should be able to own a home of their own”.
Will families earning the Prime Minister’s so-called national living wage be able to afford one of his discount starter homes?
Order. I apologise for interrupting. [Interruption.] Order. I say to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) that her shrill shrieking from a sedentary position is not appropriate behaviour for a would-be stateswoman. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer.
When I became Prime Minister, people needed £30,000 for a deposit on a typical home. Because of the schemes we have introduced, that is now down to £10,000. I want people to own their homes, so let us consider this issue. We are saying to the 1.3 million tenants of housing associations, “We are on your side: you can buy your own home.” Why does the right hon. Gentleman still oppose that?
I hope that that word “hope” goes a long way, because research by Shelter has found that families on the Prime Minister’s living wage will be unable to afford the average starter home in 98% of local authority areas in England—only 2% may benefit. Rather than building more affordable homes, is the Prime Minister not simply branding more homes affordable, which is not a solution to the housing crisis? Will he confirm that home ownership has actually fallen since he became Prime Minister?
There is a challenge in helping people to buy their own homes. That is what Help to Buy was about, which Labour opposed. That is what help to save was about, which Labour opposed.
Is it not interesting that the right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question about the 1.3 million housing association tenants? I want what is best for everyone. Let us put it like this. The right hon. Gentleman owns his home; I own my home. Why should we not let those 1.3 million own their homes? Why not? What is the right hon. Gentleman frightened of?
I thank Conservative Back Benchers for their deep concern about the housing crisis in this country. It is noted.
The Prime Minister has given no assurances to tenants, no assurances to leaseholders, and no assurances to low-paid people who want to find somewhere decent to live. May I ask him one final question? It is a practical question that is faced by many people throughout the country who are deeply worried about their own housing situation and how they are going to live in the future, and it comes from Linda, who has been a council tenant for the last 25 years. She says:
“I will eventually look to downsize to a property suitable for our ageing circumstances. Due to the housing bill being debated at present, if we downsize we will have to sign a new tenancy agreement. If we stay, we face having to pay the bedroom tax and debt. If we downsize, we lose our secure home.”
Linda and many like her are facing a real problem. If she were in the Prime Minister’s advice bureau, what advice would he give her?
The first thing I would say to Linda is that we are cutting social rents in this Parliament, so she will be paying less in rent. The second thing I would say, if she is concerned about the spare room subsidy, is that of course it is not paid by pensioners, which is a point that the right hon. Gentleman failed to make. Another thing I would say to Linda, and to all those who are in council houses or housing association homes, is “We believe in giving you the chance to buy your own home, and are helping you to do that.”
Is it not interesting what this exchange has shown? We now have a Labour party whose housing policy does not support home ownership, just as its defence policy does not believe in defence, and just as we now have a Labour party that does not believe in work and a Labour leader who does not believe in Britain.
Q5. As someone who grew up in social housing, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to tearing down poor-quality, soulless high-rise estates and replacing them with affordable homes. Will he seize this opportunity to make sure that those new homes are attractive, well-designed places in which people will want to live for generations to come? (902993)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Labour wanted to have a constructive opinion, they would come along and say, “How can we help knock down these sink estates, rebuild new houses, help people to own their own homes?” That is what we want to do, and that is what we are going to see in this Parliament: one side committed to opportunity, life chances, helping people get on, and another side wanting to keep people trapped in poverty.
The economic and intellectual contribution of college and university graduates to the UK is immense. The Smith commission said that the UK and Scottish Government should
“explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time.”
Why did the UK Government this week unilaterally rule out a return of a post-study work visa without stakeholder discussions and before key parliamentary reports?
We have an excellent scheme that covers, of course, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it is this: to say to the world’s students that there is no limit on the number of people who can come and study in British universities as long as they have two things—an English language qualification and a place at a university. That is an incredibly generous and open offer. The second thing we offer is that there is actually no limit on the number of people who can stay after they have graduated, as long as they have a graduate-level job. Again, I think that is an incredibly clear message that all of us—whether we are involved in the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Administration, the Welsh Administration or the United Kingdom Administration—should get out and sell around the world. It is a world-beating offer; we want the world’s brightest graduates to come here, study here and then work here—what a great deal!
The return of post-study visas is supported by, among others, all of Scotland’s 25 publicly funded colleges, Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland, the representative body for Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, many other organisations and businesses, and all parties, including the Scottish Conservative party, so why does the Prime Minister think they are all wrong and he is right?
For the reason I have given, which is that the clarity of our offer is world beating. There is a disadvantage to inventing a new post-work study route, where we are effectively saying to people coming to our universities, “It’s okay to stay with a less-than-graduate job.” Frankly, there are lots of people in our own country desperate for those jobs and we should be training them up and skilling them up. We do not need the world’s brightest and best to come here to study and then to do menial labour jobs. That is not what our immigration system is for. What we want is a system where we can advertise to the world—“Come and study here. Come and work here”—and that is the system we have and should keep.
Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the fact that Aldi is in the process of building a distribution centre in my constituency, bringing the prospect of another 400 jobs to local people? That distribution centre is situated just off the A249, which is one of the busiest trunk roads in the south-east of England. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Department for Transport to undertake a review of the A249 to ensure that it can cope with the increased traffic generated by the expanding business activity in my constituency? (902994)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the investment in his constituency, where the claimant count has fallen by 39% since 2010. That is obviously welcome news. I will take up the point he makes, because obviously we are only going to continue to attract investment if we make sure our road and rail networks are up to date.
Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware that last week this House discussed the equalisation of the state retirement age between men and women. Does he feel the outrage of a generation of women born in the 1950s who feel robbed and cheated out of their state pension, and will he give an undertaking to look at further improvements to transitional arrangements, given the unanimous decision of this House to ask him to do so? (902991)
I know that many colleagues have been written to on this issue, and there are some important cases to look at, but what I would say is that we looked very carefully at this at the time and decided that no one should suffer more than an 18-month increase in the time before they were expecting to retire. What I would also say is that what we are putting in place—with the single-tier pension starting at over £150 a week, combined with the triple lock—is a very good settlement for pensioners. It is affordable for the taxpayer and it is generous into the future.
Q7. By 8 January—after just eight days—parts of London had exceeded the annual limit for nitrogen dioxide pollution. Given this medically serious news, will the Prime Minister ensure that the Department for Transport’s current consideration of airport expansion prioritises air pollution concerns, and will he pledge never to expand Heathrow airport while nitrogen dioxide levels are risking the health of millions of people? (902995)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. There are problems of air quality and pollution not just in London but elsewhere in our country. That is one reason we decided to delay the decision about airport capacity expansion—because we need to answer the question about air quality before we do so. That is what the Environmental Audit Committee recommended to the Government. It said:
“On air quality, the Government will need to re-examine the Commission’s findings in the light of its finalised air quality strategy.”
So the point she makes is directly being taken on by the Government.
Q4. The Prime Minister’s answer to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) about transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s was nothing like good enough. I was going to say that his own Ministers seem to have no idea how to rectify the injustice they have caused, but I do not think he does either. As he is talking to other EU leaders, will he ask why some countries are not implementing the changes until 2044, and will he also look at what transitional arrangements the Netherlands, Italy and Germany put in place to protect the people affected? (902992)
What other European countries do is a matter for them. We have the ability to make sovereign decisions on this issue, and that is entirely right. We have decided to put in place a pensions system that is affordable for our country in the long term and which sustains a very strong basic state pension right into the future. The single-tier pension is going to make such a difference to so many people in our country. We also have the triple lock, which was never put in place by Labour. We all remember that miserly increase to the pension under Gordon Brown. That can never happen again under our arrangements.
Q8. Since 2010, my constituency has seen the generation of more than 200 new businesses, while the claimant and youth unemployment rates have fallen to below 1%. With the £240 million investment in Bracknell town centre regeneration, full employment in the area is a genuine possibility. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is the Government’s sound stewardship of the economy that has led to this economic success in my constituency? (902996)
I am delighted to hear the news from Bracknell. In Britain today, we have low interest rates; inflation right on the floor; real wages growing, meaning people are feeling better off; people investing inwardly in this country in huge numbers; and business investment going up, because people are confident about the future of our economy—and all that is based on a long-term economic plan of dealing with our debts, getting our deficit down and making this a country where people can start, run and expand a business and therefore create jobs and prosperity for all our people.
Q10. Over the past four years, according to excess winter death figures from the Office for National Statistics, a staggering 117,000 people have died unnecessarily as a result of the cold. Some 43,000 people tragically died last winter. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is not only appalling but avoidable? Why does he think so many people are dying needlessly in our country, and what will he do to stop it happening? (902998)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this point. The figures on winter deaths, which are published every year, are a standing rebuke to all Governments about what more needs to be done. First, we have maintained the cold weather payments. They are vital and may kick in if the cold weather continues. There are also the winter fuel payments, which we have maintained, and the increase in the pension, which will go up by prices, earnings or 2.5%. We also now have falling energy prices, because of the falling oil price, but I agree they are not falling as fast as I would like, which is why it is right we have this Competition Commission inquiry into the energy industry to ensure that it is a fully competitive industry. But the industry has come a long way in the last few years. When I became Prime Minister, the independent energy companies comprised just 1% of the market, but they now comprise 15%, so the big six are being broken down through competition. All those changes, plus home improvements and making sure people have good insulation, can make a difference.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Let me pay tribute to Secretary of State John Kerry for the incredible work that he did, and also to the Foreign Secretary, who was by his side all the way through the negotiations of what was a very tough and difficult deal. The adoption day for the deal was in October. Since then, Iraq—sorry, Iran—has started shipping 12.5 tonnes of enriched uranium to Russia. Now we are getting close to what is called the implementation day for the deal. The key point is that Iran has granted the International Atomic Energy Agency unprecedented access to ensure that it is doing all the things it said it would do in this deal. As I said at the time, it is a good deal, in that it takes Iran away from a nuclear weapon, but we should enter into it with a very heavy heart, a very clear eye and a very hard head in making sure that the country does everything it said it would.
Q11. When the Government pushed through their changes to undergraduate funding four years ago, they said that providing maintenance grants for the poorest students was key to those students’ participation in higher education. No mention was made in the Conservative manifesto of ending those grants. Is it not therefore completely unacceptable to make that fundamental change tomorrow in Committee by the back door without a vote in this House? (902999)
This issue has been fully debated and discussed in this House, and it is absolutely right because our changes have shown, despite all the warnings from the Labour party, that more people are taking part in higher education and that more people from low income backgrounds are taking part in higher education. I am confident that that will continue to be the case.
Q12. Thanks to this Government’s long-term economic plan, unemployment in North West Leicestershire now stands at an all-time low of 522. This Saturday, East Midlands airport will host a jobs fair with 350 more positions available. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing all the businesses in North West Leicestershire more success with recruitment and retention than the Leader of the Opposition has had? (903000)
I am delighted to hear that there are only 522 people unemployed in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Let me praise him and the other Members on both sides of the House who have run jobs fairs in their constituencies. These have made a huge difference in terms of people being able to find opportunities. The truth is that, since 2010, 64% of the rise in private sector employment has taken place outside London and the south-east. Indeed, Scotland, the east midlands, the east of England, the south-west and the south-east all have higher employment rates than London. In growing terms, this is a balanced recovery, and we need to keep working at it to make sure that it is.
Q14. Last year, the Energy Secretary scrapped support under the renewables obligation for new onshore wind projects. This will impact Nissan’s £3 million investment in its wind farm in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister realise that his attacks on clean energy are detrimental to pro-green businesses such as Nissan? Will he look at this immediately and rectify the matter in the Energy Bill next week? (903002)
We had extensive exchanges about this in the Liaison Committee yesterday, and I can tell the hon. Lady that we are going to see another 50% increase in onshore wind investment during this Parliament. Also, Britain has the biggest offshore wind market anywhere in the world. The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of solar. Britain has the fourth largest solar installation of any country anywhere in the world. Indeed, my new favourite statistic is that 98% of those solar panels have been installed since I became Prime Minister. This is all good news, and it means that we have a genuine claim to be leading a renewables revolution. However, every single subsidy that is given to these technologies is extra money that we put on to people’s bills, making their energy more expensive. So it is right that we seek a balance between decarbonising our economy and making sure we do it at a low cost to our consumers and the people who pay the bills. That is what our policy is all about.
Q13. With the number of workless households in the United Kingdom at an all-time low and with 1.4 million more children being taught in schools ranked good or outstanding since 2010, does my right hon. Friend agree that the mark of a one nation Government is not the amount of money we spend on benefits, but what we do to tackle the root causes of poverty? (903001)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and it is what the exchanges earlier on proved. As far as I can see, Labour’s only answer to every single problem is to spend more money, so it ends up with more borrowing, more spending and more debt—all the things that got us into this problem in the first place. Our approach is to look at all the causes of poverty—all the things that are holding people back. Let’s fix the sink estates, let’s reform the failing schools, let’s give people more childcare, and let’s deal with the addiction and mental health problems that people have. In that way, we will demonstrate that this is the Government and this is the party helping people with their life chances, while Labour just want to stick you where you are.
The draft Wales Bill contains provisions that reverse the 2011 settlement, which was overwhelmingly endorsed at the last Welsh referendum. Unless it is amended, the National Assembly will unanimously—this will include Tory AMs—oppose the Bill during the legislative consent motion process, sparking a constitutional crisis. The veto and consent clauses do not apply in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, so why are this Government treating Wales like a second-class nation?
What this Government have done is, first, hold a referendum so that the Welsh Assembly has those law-making powers, Secondly, we are the first Government in history to make sure there is a floor under the Welsh level of spending—this is something never done by a Labour Government. And now, in the Wales Bill, we want to make sure that we give Wales those extra powers. That is what the Bill is all about. We are still listening to the suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman and by the Welsh Assembly Government, but this Government have a proud record, not only of devolution for Wales, but in delivery for Wales.
Thirty dollar oil is great for petrol prices, but it is potentially catastrophic in other respects. If it goes on like this, we risk seeing regimes under pressure, dramatic corporate failures and financial default, enormous financial transfers out of our markets to pay for other countries’ deficits, a possible collapse in share prices and dividends for pensions, and a liquidity problem in our banking sector. May I invite the Prime Minister to initiate an urgent review across Whitehall to assess the effects of continuing low oil prices on our economy and beyond, and, in particular, to work out how we can avoid the destruction of our own oil industry in the North sea?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about this very big move in the oil prices. It of course has a highly beneficial effect for all our constituents, who are able to fill up their cars for less than £1 a litre, which is a very big increase in people’s disposable income and wholly welcome. I think that a low oil price basically is good for the British economy as an economy that is a substantial manufacturing and production economy, but of course there are other consequences and he named many of them. We need to look very carefully at how we can help our own oil and gas industry. Of course, as we are coming to the end of Prime Minister’s questions, I should say that he did mention one other calamity that the low oil price brings about, which is that it has led to a complete and utter collapse of the Scottish National party’s policy.
Recent press reports suggest that although some on the Government’s Back Benches would agree with me—despite the fact that my background would be what the Prime Minister would consider to be “menial”—in calling for a reduction in the stake from a maximum £100 a minute on fixed-odds betting terminals, the Cabinet Office seems reluctant to review this £1.6 million industry and refuses to bring it under scrutiny. Can the Prime Minister assure the public that his Government will undertake a review of this dangerous, addictive and ever-growing problem?
Although the floods over Christmas were bad for many areas in the north of England and in Scotland, Calder Valley residents were hit the hardest, with 2,100 homes and 1,300 businesses flooded, three bridges lost, four schools either flooded or part-flooded, and an old tip with asbestos that slid, keeping a further 20 families out of their homes. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss how we can help with the £20 million infrastructure damage, the shortfall in future flood defence schemes and the rebuilding of Todmorden High School?
My hon. Friend and I have discussed Todmorden High School on many occasions, and I think that we should meet again and discuss it again and try to make some progress on the matter. First, let me say that my sympathies, and the sympathies of the whole House, go out to those people and those businesses that were flooded, many of which were in his constituency, at that particular time of year. We will do everything we can to help communities get back on their feet. The very large flood investment programme is in place, and the maintenance programme has been protected in real terms, but there is a number of other infrastructure pieces of work that need to be done. I commend the Highways Agency for being so quick to examine roads and, in some cases, to take over the repairs to local authority roads because it has the capacity to act quickly. That is what we need to do in these situations. As I said last week, this time the Army was in faster, the money was distributed faster, and the Environment Agency worked even harder and even more round the clock, but there are always lessons to learn to demonstrate that we want to get these communities back on their feet as quickly as possible.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wondered whether, overnight, you have had an opportunity to reflect on the point of order that I raised at the end of last night’s debate. The certification process is a new procedure, so it is very, very important that we get it right, particularly as it has such negative and adverse effects for MPs from Northern Ireland and Scotland. I intend no criticism of you, Mr Speaker. However, I hope that you will accept that when the Government table a new clause, which mentions both England and Wales, and then a designation is made in a certificate that it applies exclusively to England, it is inherently ambiguous and contradictory. That is the point that I was making. I should like clarification on how we correct a certificate that is designated apparently incorrectly.
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. Moreover, I can of course confirm to her and to the House that I am aware of the point of order that she raised with the Chair yesterday evening—the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means was present at the time.
Let me say to the hon. Lady, who I know would never be guilty of any insult to, or display of discourtesy towards, the Chair, that she and the House can usefully benefit from an explanation, which, on this occasion—I will emphasise the relevance of this later—I am very happy to provide. It is understandable that she initially surmised that new clause 62 should have been certified as relating to Wales as well as to England, but the reality is, as close examination testifies, that the application to Wales falls into the category of minor or consequential as, crucially, it makes no change in the law applying in Wales. So, in the view of the Chair, which was informed by the combined advice of the Clerks and the Office of Speaker’s Counsel, it was rightly certified as relating exclusively to England.
I do not in general intend to explain my decisions in this way—that is why I emphasised that I was happy on this occasion to provide an explanation—but as this is the first occasion of a Legislative Grand Committee, and the suggestion, which I absolutely accept was honest and well intentioned, of error on the part of the Chair, is on the record, I have thought it best to put the matter straight.
That said, I should also like to take this opportunity to say to all Members that the whole point of my publishing provisional certificates is to give them ample opportunity to make representations, if they think that an error has been made or they wish simply to express a contrary view, before I am required to make a decision, which must then be regarded—for reasons with which the House will be well familiar—as final and not subject to further appeal. The appropriate channel for timely representations on the draft or provisional certificate is via the Clerk of Legislation in the Public Bill Office. I hope that that is helpful, both to the hon. Lady and, indeed, to the House.
It is related, Mr Speaker. I am enormously grateful to you for making that statement and I have noted that it was an exception on this particular occasion.
Bearing in mind what you have said, Mr Speaker, may I note for the record that there are four Sinn Féin Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies but who do not take their seats? However, they do receive support for administrative and secretarial assistance. I sit as an independent Member representing North Down and am proud to do so. I receive no additional funding at all for secretarial or administrative assistance. In the light of the very complicated certification process that has now been introduced, which affects me and other representatives from Northern Ireland, could you give some consideration to the provision of additional support for Members such as me when we have to go through the provisional certification list? That would be very helpful.
The answer to the hon. Lady is twofold. First, it is not for me to consider the provision of additional support in the sense in which she implies it—that is to say, financially paid-for support. Secondly—I intend no discourtesy to the hon. Lady and I am not being pedantic; I am trying to be precise—there is a very real sense in which she does not go through the certification process. I do. That is the responsibility of the Chair, with which I have been invested by the House.
Thirdly—I am really trying to be helpful to the hon. Lady and to the House in the context of what is, let us face it, a new procedure—although it is not for me to pledge or to hint at any additional support of a kind that she might have had in mind, what she does have is the support of the Clerks and other procedural specialists in this House. The hon. Lady knows well the route to the Table Office and, if I may say so, I think she should take advantage of its expertise. Our bewigged friends have very considerable expertise in these matters. They are not only prepared to advise the hon. Lady and any other Member; they are positively excited by the prospect of doing so. [Interruption.] I say to the shadow Leader of the House that the fact that they are excited by the prospect rather suggests that they will have a smile on their face at the time.
And they have now. I hope that will do for today. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and I know each other well, and if she has further difficulties in the future I am always pleased to hear from her and to try to assist her and any other Member in this or other matters.
English National Anthem
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for an English National Anthem for use at sporting events that involve individuals or teams representing England; and for connected purposes.
I am neither a republican nor an atheist, and nor am I am English nationalist. I shall say more about that theme shortly, but hon. Members should detect no hostility from me towards God, Her Majesty the Queen, “God Save the Queen” or the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is precisely out of respect for preserving many of those things that I believe that the time has come to consider the question of an English national anthem. I acknowledge the excellent work already done on the issue by the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which shows that this is a real cross-party campaign. The Prime Minister has also shown sympathy with the argument for an English national anthem.
The level of interest in the matter confirms that the movement for an anthem for England is one whose time has come. As is often the case, it is for us in Parliament to catch up with public opinion and allow the voice of England to be heard. I spoke to radio stations in all corners of England this morning, such was the interest in the debate about what our anthem should be. There were vox pops on the streets of towns far and wide, and each area reflected the specific differences of our multifaceted nation. I will not say which area thought that the most appropriate choice for an English national anthem would be “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”—that will remain a secret between me and the listeners of BBC Radio Humberside—but that reflects the fact that each local area has its own sense of what Englishness means.
When England play against other home nations on the football or rugby field, I often find it incongruous that while the Welsh and Scots sing an anthem that reflects the identity of their nations, England sings about Britain. That reflects a sense that we see Britain and England as synonymous, and it not only denies us English an opportunity to celebrate the nation that is being represented, but is a cause of resentment among other countries within the British Isles, which feel that England has requisitioned the British song.
I deliberately have not referred so far to the Bill’s implications for Northern Ireland. While the measure is specifically about England and would have no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland whatsoever, I am aware of considerable interest from Northern Ireland, to which I shall respond shortly.
National anthems are a matter of convention. The British national anthem is accepted as being “God Save the Queen”, although that is not enshrined in law. The first team to sing a national anthem before a sporting contest was the Welsh rugby team in 1905, in response to the New Zealand haka. Since then, the Welsh tradition of singing “Land of my Fathers” has given an especially Welsh flavour to every sporting contest in which the team competes. The song “Flower of Scotland” has been used as the national anthem by the Scotland rugby team before each of their defeats—or should I say matches?
I remember that there was an exception.
I recognise that matters of the constitution are keenly felt in Northern Ireland, but the Bill refers to only an English consultation. The Northern Ireland football team sings “God Save the Queen”. I have had considerable contact with the media and citizens in Northern Ireland. Interestingly, the callers to BBC radio in Northern Ireland seem enthusiastic about giving people a choice, but that would be a matter for Northern Ireland. England should not be forced to take a decision on the basis that that might put pressure on Northern Ireland to make a different decision.
On constitutional matters, it is always best to allow the voice of the people to be heard, rather than to dictate, if at all possible. Important steps towards making the Scottish Parliament the most devolved Parliament in the world and other devolutionary measures mean that we need a fresh settlement for England and Britain as part of re-establishing the distinct identities of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That does not mean that we should fear recognising England as an entity, but we should welcome the opportunity to re-establish the idea that the United Kingdom is four separate nations with their own identities that are part of a wider Union for their own mutual good.
It is remarkable to me to watch footage of the 1966 World cup. I am sorry if people are unhappy at the mention of that, but it was a proud occasion. Looking at the crowd, one saw the Union Jack everywhere. Even in the 1990 World cup, England fans predominantly took the Union Jack. It was in 1996, at the European championships—possibly because England were drawn to play against Scotland—that the flag of St George came to be seen as the flag of England. The Union Jack has now virtually disappeared from Wembley when England are playing.
In 2010 the Commonwealth Games Council for England conducted a poll of members of the public which decided that the anthem for the 2010 Commonwealth games should be “Jerusalem”. The three options were “God Save the Queen”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, and “Jerusalem” was the clear winner with 52% of the vote. “Land of Hope and Glory” received 32% and “God Save the Queen” just 12%. Just as “Jerusalem” was the favoured choice of those who voted in the Commonwealth games poll, so it seems to be an early favourite among members of the public who have engaged with me. The campaign group England in my Heart is specifically campaigning for “Jerusalem” to be played before England rugby matches.
With that level of support for “Jerusalem” the outcome may seem a foregone conclusion. I do not know whether there is a way of putting people off William Blake’s classic tune, but I suspect that driving round and round Parliament Square with a van blaring it out might be precisely the way to achieve that. One cannot always choose one’s friends in these matters, but I welcome the fact that hon. Members are enthusiastic.
Since I announced my intention to bring this Bill before Parliament there has been widespread coverage of it. Anecdotally, there has been a lot of support. A Daily Mirror poll found 71% in support of a separate English national anthem and phone-ins have shown a lot of support, but we need a more formal attempt to take the pulse of the nation. I want to underline the fact that my Bill will not specify what anthem should be chosen.
My Bill bestows a duty on the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to hold a consultation across England that will decide what the English national anthem should be, and will call on the Secretary of State at the end of that consultation to write to the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, England Netball and any other sporting bodies that have athletes or teams of athletes representing England and inform them that the English national anthem should be used in the event that a piece of music is required prior to the contest or at the awarding of medals. Once the Bill has been passed it will be for the Secretary of State to decide what form the consultation should take and what the contenders should be.
Alongside the choices that were listed for the Commonwealth games poll, anthems such as “I vow to thee, my country” and “There’ll always be an England” have been suggested. Others believe that there could be an opportunity for some X Factor-style programme to combine traditional choices alongside some newly commissioned options. The opportunity for this to be a real moment of engagement with the English people about this specific aspect of our future direction is significant.
This idea has had many positive reviews, including supportive columns in the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Express. I was disappointed to read that a friend of Her Majesty the Queen has said that she considered the idea “rude”. Although I have the utmost respect for the intentions of the lady concerned, I fear that her response betrayed the extent to which the question of Englishness has passed her by. Now that two of the nations have chosen no longer to use the British anthem, it is too late for this to be a question of all the component parts of Britain acting in the same way, and it makes England the outlier.
I hope the House will support this important Bill. Although I accept that to some there should be more important issues for this House to consider, the issue of national identity is a powerful one, and my experience is that ignoring the issue only allows it to fester. I believe the consultation that my Bill proposes will lead to a national conversation across England, and ultimately the voice of England will be heard. Whatever choice the people make, it will be the majority view, and we in this House can do no better than make sure that the voice of England is heard.
I rise to oppose the Bill, though I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on following in the footsteps of Flanders and Swann. Some years ago they proposed that England should have its own national anthem and they came up with “The English, the English, the English are best”. I will not go through all the lines because, although I am not a great advocate of political correctness, some elements of them may, in this modern age, cause some discombobulation to other hon. Members, particularly my friends in the Scottish National party, but there is an excellent line, “And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!”—something to be strongly advised against as an unpleasant and somewhat malodorous habit.
I oppose the proposal for deep and serious reasons. What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born English man or true-born English woman than to listen to our own national anthem—a national anthem for our whole country, for our whole United Kingdom, of which England is but a part, but an important part—and to listen to those words that link us to our Sovereign, who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history; to sing or, if one cannot sing, to listen to the tune that invokes our loyalty to our nation? That tune has been popular since 1745, when it is thought to have started in a response to the Jacobite rebellion. I am usually in favour of Jacobites for obvious reasons, but on that occasion they were traitors and not to be encouraged.
The words that developed then and have remained constant change only when we have a woman on the throne, rather than a man. It is a tune that encapsulates the patriotism that we wish to express when supporting a team. The hon. Member for Chesterfield said that now English crowds take St George’s flag rather than the Union Jack. To me that is a matter of pity, of shame, that we have given up viewing ourselves as one United Kingdom, whether we are supporting England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. These expressions of individual nationalism are a disuniting factor in our country, a country that we ought to want to make more united.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, English crowds have taken to singing “Jerusalem” at various sporting occasions. It is sung at the beginning of test matches in some grounds, though I am glad to say that this does not seem to happen at Lord’s, which is an indication of the proper ordering of things. I am not sure that singing a jolly tune at the beginning of a match is particularly dignified and represents the nation as the nation ought to want to be represented. The crowds have taken to “Jerusalem”, which has a good tone to it. It is a happy song for people to sing, and we should all be in favour of happiness, but does it really make that patriotic pride swell up in us in the way that we would like?
When we think of the words of “Jerusalem”, a highly speculative question is posed. In the words:
“And did those feet in ancient time”
a question is being asked, but I come from Somerset and I know the answer. It is well known that Christ was taken by Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, so why in “Jerusalem” could anyone want to sing “did”, when we know that the truth is that Christ not only went to Glastonbury but, as in that old Somerset saying to assert the truth of anything, “As Christ was in Priddy”, Christ also went to Priddy, and as a young man Joseph of Arimathea probably did too. Could we possibly want to have an anthem that questioned this undeniable truth of God’s own county, the county particularly selected for visitation by our Lord when he was on Earth?
This proposed Bill seeks to regularise something that in our brilliant British way we have never previously needed to regularise. Our national anthem has come about over time without needing pettifogging regulation, bureaucracy or any of those things that we dislike, so that is a reason for opposing it. The proposal reduces the sense of devotion to our Sovereign that we ought to have, that it is proper to have and that we promise we will have when we swear in or affirm as Members of Parliament. That would be a sad thing to lose. It lacks the courage of Flanders and Swann to go the whole hog and be properly, eccentrically patriotic. It is a sort of second-tier level of national anthem, though when it was proposed that the anthem might be a song normally sung at the Labour party conference, I must confess I was relieved that the one chosen was not “The Red Flag”. Given the current trend in the leadership of the Labour party, though, it would not surprise me if in a year’s time we have a private Member’s Bill to make singing “The Red Flag” compulsory as well. [Interruption.] I am glad to get some support from Labour Members on the Front Bench below the aisle, who probably think that is a heartily good idea.
This would mean moving away to the wrong song—a song that offends Somerset sensibilities. It would be a bad thing to do. We should affirm our loyalty to our sovereign lady in the words of the British national anthem; and as for the hon. Member for Chesterfield, we should confound his politics and frustrate his knavish tricks.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Toby Perkins, Tristram Hunt, Greg Mulholland, Daniel Kawczynski, Ruth Smeeth, Sarah Champion, Mr Jamie Reed, Andrew Rosindell, Angela Smith, Bob Stewart, Michael Fabricant and Sir Gerald Howarth present the Bill.
Toby Perkins accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March and to be printed (Bill 118).
[15th Allotted Day]
Trade, Exports, Innovation and Productivity
I beg to move,
That this House regrets the continuing lack of balance in the UK economy and the UK Government’s over-reliance on unsustainable consumer debt to support economic growth; notes in particular the UK’s poor export performance, which resulted in a trade deficit in goods of £123 billion in 2014; further notes the UK’s continuing poor productivity record and the lack of a credible long-term plan to improve it; and is deeply concerned by the UK Government’s change to Innovate UK funding of innovation from grants to loans, which this House believes will result in a deterioration of private sector research and development.
This is a serious debate, and it is appropriate that we have it today given the news published yesterday that UK industrial output has suffered its sharpest fall since 2013, and the further assessment that describes how real-terms earnings in the UK are still substantially lower than they were in 2009 and that even GDP growth over the past decade or so has been lower than that of Japan during its decade of stagflation. It is important that we recognise that the matters we are going to address are not short-term issues. This is not about a quick political hit; it is about trying to get to the root cause of a long-standing and systemic problem in the UK—the failure to address trade, exports, innovation and productivity, in total, over a prolonged period.
We have chosen to debate all these matters because they are linked. The debate is also, rightly, about the imbalance in the UK economy, because that is part of the equation. That imbalance, or, more accurately, those imbalances are recognised by this Government, but they cannot and will not be resolved, first, without the real political will to do so, and secondly, until the other areas that we are discussing are fully and properly addressed. The imbalances in the economy are not only between England and Scotland or London—a city previously described by a Minister as a black hole sucking resources and talents out of everywhere else in the UK—and the rest of the UK, but still, sadly, between manufacturing and services, businesses that export and those that do not, and companies that innovate and those that do not.
The impact of all this is most starkly seen in the balance of trade numbers. For the full year in 2014, the UK ran a balance of trade deficit of £93 billion. For the same year, the deficit in trade and goods was an extraordinary £123 billion—that is £123 billion in the red just in the trade in goods. The impact in GDP terms, as is well known and published by the Government, was negative, and unsurprisingly the summer Budget confirmed that it would remain negative in every single year of the forecast period in this Parliament through to 2020.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to Japan. He will not have missed the fact that Europe has been in recession for much of the period in which our economy has been growing, and that has had an inevitable impact on our balance of trade with our biggest partners.
If the trade deficit was simply a consequence of the deep recession, the hon. Gentleman would be right, but, as I will demonstrate, this has gone on not for five, 10, 20 or 30 years, but 50 years. We need to address that deep, underlying systemic issue.
As I said, the contribution to GDP is negative for the entire forecast period, as published in the summer Budget and again in the autumn statement. Worryingly, those figures were marked down—they were actually worse than the corresponding forecast published in the spring Budget before the election. We are not seeing a stabilisation, or a recovery that would allow us some sense of normality, but a continuing decline. That appears, as I hope to demonstrate later, in almost every metric that we look at.
Yes, I have seen the OBR forecasts, and I will quote some of them later. However, I am taken by what the Chancellor said more recently than the latest OBR forecast, which is that it is no longer a case of “mission accomplished”, almost as if he is getting his excuses in first and preparing to blame other people. Despite the OBR forecasts, things are not all hunky-dory; everything in the garden is not rosy. As I pointed out, when we are looking at GDP growth over a decade worse than that of Japan’s lost decade, it would be wrong to be complacent like some of those in the hon. and learned Lady’s Government.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The long-term economic plan is just a soundbite. It was predicated on the deficit being reduced, the debt being reduced, and borrowing falling to barely £20 billion last year. Every single one of the targets the Government set, they failed to meet. The Chancellor did not meet a single one of the key fiscal targets that he set for himself in the previous Parliament.
The key thing about the impact of trade and exports on GDP is that the figures are negative and have been marked down. I ask the House to consider how different that reality is from the promise made by the Chancellor when he stated that exports would be a significant contributor to GDP growth, primarily to shift the economy away from a reliance on household consumption. As we saw in yesterday’s reports, because industrial output is down and exports are likely to continue to fall, and certainly not to grow in the way that he has promised, we will continue to see a dependence on household consumption and a rise in household debt that is inconsistent with a properly rebalanced economy.
A great deal of private sector industrial investment over the past 30 years has been connected with the oil industry. I am thinking of the threat to jobs and working families in Scotland, in particular. Will my hon. Friend commend a system of exploration credits like those successfully introduced in Norway some years ago to kick-start exploration as a means of addressing this crisis? After 30 years of Governments raking in £300 billion of revenue, should it not be payback time for North sea workers?
It certainly should in the sense that the sector is important not simply for Aberdeen or for Scotland, but for a supply chain throughout the UK. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) set out, in his question at Prime Minister’s questions, the potential damage should the sector continue to suffer. This Government—indeed, all Governments, but particularly these Ministers, because many of them are believers—should do several things: continue to protect people who want to enter the sector by making sure they are properly trained; continue to support the supply chain in the North sea basin; and, to internationalise, look again at supporting the industry as it cuts its own costs and of course at the overall fiscal framework, which is a substantial cost. Essentially, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) said, the Government should look again at all the credits available, whether for exploration or production and whether for geographic areas or specific oil types, to maximise absolutely the longevity, employment and contribution to the economy of a sector that, as he rightly reminds the Government, has raked in more than £300 billion since oil started coming ashore.
Does the hon. Gentleman see any inconsistency, in the answer he has just given to his colleague, between looking for ways to increase the output of North sea oil and the Scottish National party’s aim of totally decarbonising energy production in Scotland?
No. The decarbonisation of electricity production is sensible for many reasons, which may well include carbon capture and storage. On a number of occasions during the past five years, and very recently under this Government, we have seen the cancellation of a competition to develop an industrial-sized testbed to show the efficacy of a technology which would make us a world leader.
I will not give way at the moment, because I have been quite generous. I will make a little progress, and then I will be happy to do so.
I was talking about exports. Let us remember what the Chancellor said in his Budget speech in 2012. He acknowledged the UK’s falling share of world exports, but still said that
“we want to double our nation’s exports to £1 trillion this decade.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 797.]
Total export sales in 2013 were £521 billion, which was a reasonable start, but that fell to £513 billion in 2014. The numbers are moving in the wrong direction; yet the Chancellor and this Government still expect us to believe that exports could in effect double over this Parliament. The OBR’s most recent forecast suggests that they will miss that target by about £350 billion, so the target set is simply unachievable.
That is not an abstract political or obscure economic point. The jobs of real people depend on a thriving and growing manufacturing export market. The hopes and aspirations of people in Scotland and throughout the UK for a real rebalanced economy depend on the rhetoric and pipedreams of an out-of-touch Chancellor. However, that was not the start and end of the Chancellor and the Government’s rhetoric on exports. They described how they wanted to
“make the UK the best place in Europe to start…and grow a business; encourage investment and exports as a route to a more balanced economy”.
The Chancellor said:
“So this is our plan for growth. We want the words ‘Made in Britain’, ‘Created in Britain’, ‘Designed in Britain’ and ‘Invented in Britain’ to drive our nation forward—a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
They were powerful words, but, given the reality, no more than rather empty rhetoric.
The SNP spokesman is right to point out the importance of exports, although the current account gap has been falling consistently during the past two years. Does he not agree, however, that the way to increase exports in the long run is through innovation, new technologies and investment? By being part of a larger United Kingdom, Scotland is likely to get greater quantities of all of those—through the Technology Strategy Board—than if it was on its own.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment that we need more innovation, exports, technology and investment, all of which I will come on to. The Government and I can have a debate about precisely what they are doing, but his assertion that being part of the UK will allow such things in bigger quantities is tenuous at best and probably not confirmed by the reality.
To return to the Chancellor’s “march of the makers” speech, if those words appeared far-fetched when he first said them, they appear rather shallow and empty in the light of the reality of what is going on. In that regard, during the last Parliament—this is linked to the intervention about investment—another Tory-led Government, in a press release about business investment, a balanced and sustainable economy and all the matters we are discussing, boasted about investment in the UK Green Investment Bank. We supported that institution. We believed that it would deliver support for innovation and growth in a new industry, and indeed it has done so. Incredibly, however, it has been systematically undermined by this Government, while many of the changes they have announced since are undermining the commitment to the green economy generally.
One of the levers at the disposal of any Government to increase exports is to push aggressively for new free trade agreements. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the SNP has been less than fulsome in its support for free trade agreements around the world, particularly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, on which the SNP’s position is opaque at best?
It is not opaque, so let me make the position really clear to the hon. Gentleman. We welcome trade agreements. We think that they are a good thing in general. However, we will not countenance a trade agreement that opens the door to the systematic undermining of our essential public services. That is not opaque; that is crystal clear.
We need rather more than words from the Government: we need action to reverse declines, particularly in manufacturing, and to ensure that the last quarter’s fall in manufacturing output—which I mentioned earlier—does not become a pattern. At least in part, that will require—again, this is a response to the intervention—more innovation.
No. I have already given way to the hon. and learned Lady.
Innovation is as much a part of building a larger, more productive and faster growing manufacturing base as it is important in its own right. We know about the positive impact of innovation from many sources, not least the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers global innovation survey. It confirmed what it describes as a “direct link” between companies that focus on innovation and those that successfully grow faster. As I am sure the Minister will know, the UK’s most innovative companies grew on average 50% faster than the least innovative.
We also know that substantial problems need to be overcome. While 32% of UK companies saw innovation as very important to their success, the global figure was 43%, and while 16% of UK companies saw product innovation as a priority in the coming year, that was barely half the global figure. Most worryingly, although the UK—Scotland and the rest of the UK—has in many ways a clear competitive advantage in the university sector, a significantly lower proportion of our businesses planned to collaborate with academics than did their international competitors.
I want to say a little about the approach we have taken in Scotland specifically to deal with that issue. Funding has been approved for five new innovation centres in industrial biotech, oil and gas, aquaculture, big data and construction. That funding has been put in place to build on the original three centres that were launched three years ago, which covered the growing areas of stratified medicine, sensors and imaging, and digital health. There is the provision, essentially, of £78 million to help the development of 1,000 new inventions, products or services. That cash will also—this addresses the international comparison—support 1,200 businesses to work directly with universities.
The UK has Innovate UK and we have looked closely at its delivery plan. The SNP welcomes aspects of it, not least the £1.5 billion global challenge fund. However, the overall policy of changing Innovate UK’s funding model so that, by 2020, £165 million of innovation grants will be delivered as loans sends out all the wrong signals. We are concerned that it may suppress essential innovation even further compared with our international competitors. That fear was confirmed by KPMG’s head of small business accounting, who said that the measure was
“a false economy that threatens to stall the growth of small businesses across the UK.”
Indeed it does. The quotes from businesses when it was announced were extremely clear. They are happy to seek bank funding and to use their own resources, but when they are undertaking what may be slightly risky innovation and R and D, they have an expectation of a little help from Government. If that is a grant, the work can proceed and the thinking can go ahead. If it is a loan that requires to be repaid, that might just tip the balance in favour of the risk being too great, which will drive down innovation even further.
The reason innovation is so vital, particularly in manufacturing—and why it is so important to encourage it—is that as it has fallen as a share of R and D investment over the past 20 years, manufacturing exports, jobs and output have also fallen. One can see the speed and length of that decline. Manufacturing has gone from making up 30% of the economy in the 1970s to less than 10% today; from accounting for more than 20% of all jobs in the 1980s to only 8% today; and from making up a quarter of all business investment in the 1990s to barely 15% today.
We see the reduction in global export market share in the OBR’s most recent fiscal forecast, in which it falls throughout the forecast period to the end of this Parliament. What is more worrying is that the figures in the November forecast were marked down in every single year from those in the July forecast. Everything is going in the wrong direction. The complacency from the Government and the limited plan they have are simply no longer enough. That is why we need an unrelenting focus on innovation in manufacturing in relation to trade and exports.
I welcome this debate and the hon. Gentleman’s focus on rebalancing the economy, which is undoubtedly a huge issue. However, when we talk about rebalancing the economy, we have to remember that because the recession in 2008 was a financial recession, it was inevitably followed by monetary policy hitting the floor, perpetuating higher house prices and all those other things we wanted to avoid, but which were an economic necessity. That being so, does he regret the role his party played in advising Royal Bank of Scotland to purchase ABN AMRO, which ushered in the huge financial crash and brought down our financial giant?
There is a historical disconnect here. The fight over ABN AMRO was between the board of RBS and the board of Barclays. One of them called it wrong and one of them got lucky. I suspect that my input and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends had precisely no bearing whatsoever on Mr Goodwin’s decision to persuade his board to buy ABN AMRO. The suggestion is quite extraordinary.
I have said that we need an unrelenting focus on innovation in manufacturing in relation to trade and exports. Although manufacturing has suffered the largest falls, it still accounts for 44% of all UK exports because the deficit in trading goods is so large. Any Government who are serious about rebalancing the economy and correcting the trade deficit in goods must have a laser-like focus on encouraging innovation in manufacturing, as well as on supporting existing exporting businesses.
This debate is about more than innovation, manufacturing and exports; it is about boosting productivity. That is vital because—this is undisputed—both Scotland and the UK sit only towards the top of the third quartile of advanced countries by GDP per hour worked. We are below many smaller European countries and, importantly, below major competitors such as the US, Germany, France and even Italy. I am pleased that Scottish output is now 4% higher than pre-crisis levels. That is a good thing, but clearly there is substantially more to be done, not least because UK productivity growth is at 1.3% a year, which is barely half the level of the 2% pre-crisis rate.
Scotland has an economic plan based on four principles to boost productivity: investment in education and infrastructure; internationalisation and encouraging exports; innovation, which, as we have discussed, is essential; and—in many ways the most important aspect—inclusive growth. The latter point is vital because we know from the numbers—we have all seen them—that the UK lost 9% of GDP growth between 1990 and 2010 because of rising inequality. We are concerned that that mistake is being repeated by this Government, with their arbitrary surplus fiscal rule, which is requiring them to cut far more than is necessary to run a balanced economy and denuding them of the resources that are needed to tackle inequality and maximise economic growth.
Absolutely. I was describing the growth since the pre-crisis level. The quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year figures are undeniable. That is why I said that we all have far more to do. I will make criticisms of the UK Government where they are valid, but I certainly will not deny the numbers. I hope that the hon. and learned Lady will welcome the fact that we are 4% ahead of pre-crisis levels, notwithstanding the difficulties we have seen in the North sea. That is a quite remarkable achievement, when the limited powers of the Scottish Government are considered. In terms of the deployment of those powers—[Interruption.] The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise is chuntering away on the Treasury Bench, as she is wont to do. She will be throwing her arms in the air and harrumphing soon. If she wants to intervene, I am happy to have the debate—maybe not.
Returning to the powers that have been deployed in Scotland, we have a Scottish business pledge, which requires firms, in return for the support of Scottish agencies, to seek to innovate, to seek and take export opportunities, and to pay the living wage. That is part of the solution to tackling inequality and delivering inclusive growth that will enable us to avoid the loss of GDP output that we saw in the 20 years to 2010. I urge the UK Government to take a similar approach.
I do that not least because our concerns about a lack of balance and the need for action to tackle the ongoing productivity challenge are shared by the International Monetary Fund, which is often prayed in aid by the Government. The IMF has spoken of the need to lessen wealth inequality and the need for increased spending on infrastructure. It has also called for an enhanced focus on decentralisation.
The hon. Gentleman is making important points about inequality, and if we are serious about addressing sustainable equality—the Government do not seem to be—it is important to invest more in people on low incomes, and to reduce the gap between them and people on high incomes. I am particularly interested in his point about productivity. Since 2006, what has the SNP been able to do to reduce the productivity gap in the OECD?
I do not have the figure for 2006 to date, but if I can get hold of that specific number I will happily provide it to the hon. Lady. The whole point of tackling the attainment gap, health, investment, supporting innovation, encouraging exports, and supporting, promoting and helping the delivery of the living wage, is so that everything that can be done is being done—as it must be. It is all part of a project of lessening inequality to deliver precisely the inclusive growth that avoids the shortfall in economic growth that we have seen from the UK Government.
I was making a point about some of the demands from the IMF, one of which was an enhanced focus on decentralisation. That is vital if we are effectively to use all tools at our disposal to tackle the economic challenges we face. To give one example, research and development tax credits to support innovation are a function of corporation tax. As corporation tax is not devolved to Scotland, one of the most important tools to help support that research is denied to the Scottish Government in their efforts to build on the work already being put in place. Given the challenges we all face, that is illogical.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the role that devolved institutions can play in helping to boost productivity. May I commend to him the work of the Greater Manchester combined authority, which in its new devolved functions has awarded funding to English Fine Cottons so that it can open a £5.8 million new cotton mill in Dukinfield in my constituency—the first cotton mill to open in Greater Manchester, or “Cottonopolis”, for more than 40 years?
I welcome that intervention and the new cotton mill—I hope it is a huge success. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: there is no point in devolving powers and responsibilities, whether to Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, parts of England, or anywhere else, unless the funding and ability and authority to raise the cash go with it. That is the weakness in some of the asymmetric devolution that the Government have put in place. We believe that the Government should look again at their decision to replace £165 million of innovation grants with loans, and that they should deliver real devolution—not least of corporation tax and its associated credits—so that those tools are available to all the devolved Administrations to maximise R and D support.
Northern Ireland now has record employment and higher levels of international investment than at any other time in our history. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that having a strong devolved aspect to trade, enterprise and investment helps to boost the competitiveness of the UK regions, particularly Northern Ireland?
Yes, absolutely. The more we can devolve, including authority and real power, the more that people on the ground can do—that is self-evident. The talk of record employment is good, and I think there is near record employment almost everywhere. The issue, however, is that real-term wages have fallen and remain five points lower than before the crisis. If we are to drag living standards up, we must do all those other things as well, but—in general terms—the devolution of real power is absolutely right.
On the transfer of power, the Government should recognise that a comprehensive solution to boost productivity is required, which covers investment and education infrastructure, internationalisation, innovation, and the policies to deliver inclusive growth. They should recognise that rebalancing the economy needs a focus, not just on London versus the rest of the UK, but on the growth benefits from those firms and the whole economy, and we should export, innovate, and support more of them to do so. That focus should be heavily weighted to manufacturing because the fall in R and D, jobs, exports and output from that sector cannot be allowed to continue.
Above all, although we believe and agree with setting ambitious targets, unrealistic and unachievable export targets that fly in the face of reality will simply weaken the Government’s credibility, in exactly the same way that failing to meet debt, deficit and borrowing targets did in the last Parliament. To set a target of doubling exports without the means being put in place to deliver that is bad economics and bad politics.
Let me turn briefly to what the Government have said in this Parliament. In July they published, “Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation”, which was supposed to cover many of the areas that we are discussing today. It is very thin. Their approach to raising productivity is covered by two bullet points, a paragraph, and a little chart. The section on long-term investment merely confirms that long-term investment, going back as far as the 1960s, has bounced along the bottom of the OECD average—the 10th to 90th percentile range for those who care about these things. It hit that average in one year around 1990, but has fallen off the bottom of that for many years since.
Investment is primarily in transport. I welcome transport investment, as well as the increase in capital investment in the summer Budget. Let us be under no illusions, however, because that change came about only after the Government were discovered cutting capital spending for every year of the forecast period in the spring Budget. They have the audacity in the “Fixing the foundations” report to talk about:
“Reliable and low-carbon energy, at a price we can afford”,
while systematically undermining the sector and the Green Investment Bank. On innovation and industry, which is at the heart of the solution to a long-term problem, we have three small paragraphs.
The document was published only six months ago—[Interruption.] I am sorry if the Minister is slightly bored hearing about her Government’s failings. It mentions £1 trillion of exports by 2020. That shows a modest rise in exports to BRIC countries, a modest rise in exports to the rest of the world, and a catastrophic decline—the Minister is shaking his head—in exports to the richest OECD countries. That document was published by the Government in this Parliament. A sense of reality is probably a good starting point for a debate.
Each of the areas that we have started to discuss today could form a debate in its own right, but we believe that the motion is a starting point to begin properly to understand and address UK Government policy weakness in the areas of trade, exports, productivity, innovation, and a fundamental rebalancing of the economy. I commend the motion to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a number of the Government’s key economic priorities. I will begin, however, by singing the praise of my Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland. Not only is he outstanding as a Secretary of State, but today he made a very important announcement about what in many ways should be his private life, although it is not because it is in the public domain. It took great courage, and I am hugely proud to sit in the Cabinet with him. I can see nods all around the Chamber in support of our Secretary of State at what might be a difficult time for many, but I am sure for him is a very happy day. Finally, he can be the man he has always been, and can sing out and be proud of being that man. I pay tribute to him and I am pleased we all agree on that.
It is absolutely right and appropriate for the Secretary of State for Scotland’s Cabinet colleague to announce her support in the Chamber, and Scottish National party Members welcome what has been said. In terms of the debate, however, and notwithstanding that we hope he is happy, may we say that we fundamentally disagree with his politics?
I took that as read! I put it on the record that the First Minister for Scotland has tweeted her support. Frankly, I am not surprised. In this day and age, I think most people will just shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, whatever. Am I bothered?” Of course we are not. We celebrate what is, and should be, a happy day for my right hon. Friend.
Let us get on with the debate. The motion before us refers to the United Kingdom economy and economic growth. I wish to take a very quick trip down memory lane to put this debate into context, because that is important. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) talked about the Government’s record. I want to talk about the past six or seven months, but I also want to talk about the previous five years, notably to remind everybody of the situation we faced back in May 2010. It is important to remind everybody that at that time we were in the worst recession that our nation, the United Kingdom, had faced for 100 years: the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history and over half a million more people on the dole. That was the situation that we on the Government Benches had to pick up: an economy brought to its knees and on the brink of bankruptcy from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and from London to Inverness and Bodmin. All across our nation, we saw a country on its knees.
To save us from that economic mire we had to take some very difficult decisions to control spending, reduce the deficit and rescue our economy. Those decisions, every single one of them, were opposed by the parties sitting on the Opposition Benches, notably Labour and the SNP. Each and every decision was opposed. How wrong they were. It is thanks to the hard work of the British people that our economic plan has worked and continues to work. The deficit is down by more than half, there are over 2.2 million more people in work, and there are over 900,000 more businesses. The United Kingdom has been the fastest-growing economy in the advanced world. That is a record of which Government Members are proud.
Scotland has been part of that success story. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Dundee East has just made us a long speech full of doom and gloom, trotting out this, that and the other and talking down the Scottish economy, because it is part of the United Kingdom economy. That is wrong and sad, because there is a success story.
Although the SNP spokesman spoke for over half an hour about trade, export, innovation and productivity, he did not once mention free markets, entrepreneurship or the power of deregulation. Is it not this Government’s priority to focus on those issues to ensure we can achieve the goals we are setting?
In the Minister’s history lesson on the long-term economic plan, to which plan is she referring? Is she referring to the plan from the first two years, when the Chancellor desperately tried to reduce public spending, or the one that followed the first two years when he listened to those on the Opposition Benches and loosened up on public spending, with the result that the economy then started to grow?
I am sorry the hon. Gentleman did not hear me, so I will repeat what I said. I am referring to the long-term economic plan that delivered a deficit down by more than half, 2.2 million more people in work and 900,000 more businesses, and the long-term economic plan that made this country the fastest-growing economy in the advanced world. That is what I am referring to, and I do so with pride.
Scotland has been a part of that success story. Since 2010, we have 178,000 more people in work and over 60,000 more businesses in Scotland—economic growth that has all occurred north of the border. This has been a recovery based on private sector growth, employment and living within our means. Both the SNP and the Labour party are wedded to abandoning fiscal responsibility and putting our economic security at risk. Government Members know the job is not done. We know we must oppose Opposition Members who would return to the bad old ways and days of spending beyond our means.
We know that to lock in our future economic security and prosperity, we need our businesses to increase their exports, boost productivity and continue to innovate to stay ahead. We believe in cutting red tape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) told us. We believe in all the good strong parts of a free economy, an economy that does not believe in over-regulating people but allows businesses to get on and do business—the thing that they know best. That does not mean to say I am an ideologue who is absolutely wedded to a free market without any constraint. Of course not. I am absolutely a caring, compassionate Conservative. I do not believe in monopolies. I do believe in responsibility among all who do business, which is why I am so proud that the Government are bringing forward the living wage. That is a true benefit to workers across our country, especially the lowest paid. I am very proud of all we have achieved on that.
Does the Minister agree that Government Members are equally committed to encouraging first-time entrepreneurs, first-time employers and first-time exporters to be able to do things that perhaps their parents have never done before, and that in that way we are also encouraging social mobility?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. New small businesses and start-ups that scale up are absolutely at the heart of everything we seek to achieve, because we understand their value. It takes great courage for somebody to start their own business. We do what we can to assist them, for example through start-up loans. By devolving right down to a local level, through local enterprise partnerships, business growth hubs and the other measures we have put in place, we are ensuring that help, assistance and advice are available to them as they start up and begin to grow their business. In particular, we are doing the right thing by small businesses by reducing the regulatory burden. We achieved a lot in the past five years in government. We have more to achieve. It will be tough, but we are absolutely determined to do that.
My hon. Friend makes another important point. Starting up one’s own business is a great way for somebody to shake off their past—and the things in their background perhaps in danger of holding them back—and advance in the way that we want people to do. That is what brought people like me into politics: a desire to make the lives of everybody, especially those from less-advantaged families and backgrounds, better. I believe that our economic policy will continue to achieve exactly that.
I said I would give way to the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I am glad she has not quite forgotten about me. Does she agree that there is actually no comfort in the new minimum wage for workers under the age of 25, as they will not qualify for it? They will still languish on about £3.87 an hour, which is not good enough.
What is very interesting is the number of companies introducing the new living wage, irrespective of the age of their employees. I absolutely welcome that. For every good thing we do, however, there is always somebody who knocks us and wants something more. There is nothing wrong with wanting more, but people should give credit where credit is due. This is a huge achievement, and I am proud the Conservative party has done it.
I have to say that I really struggle to take lessons on the economy from the Scottish National party. It is a party that built its whole idea of independence, which mercifully the good people of Scotland rejected, on the idea that oil was going to be the lubricant—the foundation—of their independent economy. Goodness me! Oil is now $35 a barrel, and it is accepted that if the SNP had been successful, the cost would have been somewhere in the region of £5,000 for every single household. Scotland would have been in the most atrocious economic place if it had voted for independence—thank goodness the good people of Scotland took the wise decision that we were undoubtedly better together. It is therefore really difficult for me to take lessons from this rag, tag and bobtail SNP, which encompasses everything from tartan Tories to tartan Trots. It is going to be very interesting, as the Smith report—
The Minister is making an interesting speech, but I must challenge her on this flailing economy. The Government were meant to have eradicated the debt by 2015 and they have only halved it. They are borrowing £73.5 billion this year, so the Minister is obviously putting a positive spin on this economic plan. Let us see how long it lasts—the Government have been giving warning signs that it might not. To pick up on what the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) said, the IMF has said that if we invest more in the 20% on the lowest incomes, we will boost economic growth—something that the Government have singularly failed to do. Why have they not done that?
The IMF has been wholesome in its praise of our economic plan and the successes we have had. Much as I may like the hon. Lady on a personal level, I really struggle to take lessons from her. The last Labour Government doubled debt, whereas we have “only” halved the deficit. I am rather proud of “only” halving the deficit, while we see from her words that the poor old Labour party cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. Goodness knows the route it is now embarking on under its current leadership, but it looks set to be in opposition for a long time.
Our debt has gone up; I am not—[Interruption.] All right; it is not about scoring cheap political points, as the hon. Gentleman knows—obviously I would never engage in such a thing—but he cannot deny that 2 million more people are in work. That is part of our proud record. He should be praising that. The Labour party would do well to do that when we do the right thing. Over 2 million more people in work—why can the hon. Gentleman not give credit where credit is due?
It only took the Minister 12 minutes to revert to type. “Rag, tag and bobtail” if she likes, but that is as nothing compared with how the Scottish people describe her party. However, let me clear up just one little fact about the oil price, which I thought she might raise. Yes, we said it would be $110 a barrel. That is absolutely correct, but can we be absolutely clear that the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change had the barrel price at between $114 and $127, and at the very least admit that the UK Government got it wrong?
I will give way in a moment; I just want to say something about trade and exports, because it is important. Otherwise, I will be speaking for far too long and Madam Deputy Speaker will admonish me, and rightly so.
In considering trade and exports, we should recall the importance of the United Kingdom’s large domestic market and the benefits it brings to all parts of the UK. The rest of the UK is by far and away Scotland’s biggest economic partner. Sixty-three per cent of all Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK. The biggest threat to Scottish exports is the SNP, which would put up barriers between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Trade and exports are a key element of continuing to grow the UK’s economy, which is why this Government are committed to making it easier for companies to export. We provide support to companies wanting to export, through UK Trade & Investment, and work with other Governments to reduce barriers to trade. Our trade deficit narrowed by £0.3 billion in the three months to November, and the number of companies exporting both in the UK and Scotland is up since 2010, but we know we have a lot further to go.
Delivering on all the EU’s trade negotiations could add £20 billion to the UK economy annually. We know that trade agreements work. In the four years since the EU-Korea free trade agreement came into force, the value of UK exports has more than doubled. We have seen a 1,000% increase in the value of jet engine sales. The UK sold just 2,315 cars to Korea in the final year before the FTA was agreed. Last year, that number reached 13,337, and it is not just the big companies that benefit. One Scottish business was able to sell 100,000 jars of jam in Korea last year, after the FTA slashed import duties. That is why this Government are committed to delivering freer global trade, concluding major trade deals with the United States, Japan and many other trading partners.
That, as hon. Members might imagine, brings me to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Last year I responded to the debate in the House about TTIP. I am not going to repeat all the things I said, but it really is disingenuous of those on the SNP Benches—and, indeed, on the Labour Benches—to oppose TTIP on the utterly false premise that it would threaten our public services, in particular the NHS. It is not true. There are so many letters, including—I think a number of hon. Members were in that debate, so they will remember—the letter from the EU, which was written in December 2014, to the Chair of the Select Committee on Health, who had asked specific questions about whether TTIP posed any threat to our national health service. Every time the answer was an overwhelming no. Everybody who could have said, “There is no threat from TTIP to any of our public services, especially the NHS”, has said it, over and over again. It is grossly unfortunate that Opposition Members and Opposition parties peddle these untruths about TTIP. It is simply not right or fair to mislead people as they are.
There does seem to be some ambiguity, because despite the letter to the Select Committee, we have evidence saying completely the opposite. In view of that ambiguity, why does the Minister not say that the NHS will be exempt from TTIP and rule it out completely?
I do not know how many times I have said it, but I am going to send all the information to the hon. Lady. It will say all these things and make it absolutely clear that TTIP is not a threat to our public services and our NHS. In fact, on the contrary, it will deliver billions of pounds of wealth to our economy, because it will free up trade between us and the USA. I think Opposition Members have got to be honest about it. I think the real problem is their prejudice against the USA. They should fess up and be honest about it, because they are creating bogeys that do not exist.
If I may return to the oil price and the sheer joy that Members in the Chamber expressed at the collapse in the oil price—I look at the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who is sitting directly behind the Minister, and the joy and almost delight that were on his face. In the real world, in the constituency I represent, that means jobs are being lost. The Minister has expressed her delight at Scotland staying in the Union, so can she explain to me what the Union is doing to help Scotland at its moment of need?
It is not for me to speak on behalf of others, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no joy on the Government Benches at the fall in the oil price. The joy, I would like to think, was at the point I made, and made rather well. The hon. Gentleman is in a party that put all its faith in the oil price as the salvation of Scotland’s economy and it was absolutely wrong. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not knowing the constituency he represents, but I suspect it is in the north-east of Scotland. He makes a good point, and this is the only good point, about the concerns we all have about the future of the oil and gas industry.
I am well aware of the importance of the oil industry to north-east Scotland. I am also well aware of the redundancies announced yesterday by BP, and I agree that there is much that we—the hon. Gentleman should note the “we” bit—can do. It would be so good for the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to make sure that we do all we can. We have a fantastic oil industry, based largely in Aberdeen, that is one of the finest in the world. There is much that we can do, working together, to make sure that we do not see further job losses, especially on the scale we have seen.
I thank the Minister for what she has just said, which was helpful. However, she has twice made the incorrect and false assertion that we based any forecast only on oil, which was never true. The Minister has accused others of misleading the public over the approach to TTIP; I hope she does not want to mislead the public over her assertion that the economy is based solely on one industry.