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Engagements

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

Today is the first Armistice day we have commemorated since the last surviving members of our armed forces who fought in the first world war passed from our midst. The whole House will want to pay our tribute to them and our tribute to the succeeding generations of our men and women who have paid the full price for our freedom. Today we also pay a special tribute to the outstanding work across the generations of the Royal British Legion.

The whole House will also wish to join me in expressing our profound condolences to the families, the friends and the colleagues of those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Today we mourn, from 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, Warrant Officer Class 1 Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford and Guardsman James Major; from the Royal Military Police, Acting Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith; from 3rd Battalion the Rifles, Acting Serjeant Phillip Scott; from 2nd Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Philip Allen; and from 4th Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Samuel Bassett. As we remember them, and the debt that we owe them, we remember and honour the courage and the selflessness of all our armed forces now serving in Afghanistan. Each day we can be extraordinarily proud of their professionalism, their dedication and their bravery.

I am sure that the whole House will want to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s condolences and, on this Armistice day, to express our gratitude to all the brave men and women who have died in the service of our nation over the years. But we also have to think of those military personnel who are currently serving. Therefore, what is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that our troops have enough of the right equipment, and can he tell us when we can expect the decision from our American allies about their troop deployment in Afghanistan?

We are the first country to have agreed to send additional troops for the next stage of the mission in Afghanistan, and we are seeking to persuade other countries to join us in this. I have an assurance from the chiefs of staff that every one of our armed forces who serve in Afghanistan are and will be fully equipped.

I have also talked to President Obama, and I expect him to announce in a few days what his numbers for Afghanistan will be. At the same time, I am talking to President Karzai to make sure that large numbers of Afghan troops are recruited who are able to be trained by the British forces. Our strategy is to train up the Afghan forces so that they are in a position to take responsibility for their country.

As for equipment, the extra money that we are spending means that there are more vehicles in the field and more helicopters going into the field. As I have said, I have an assurance from the chiefs of our forces that every serving member of our armed forces who goes to Afghanistan will be not only fully trained but fully equipped for the job.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Serjeant Phillip Scott, Rifleman Philip Allen, Rifleman Samuel Bassett, Warrant Officer Class 1 Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford, Guardsman James Major, Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith. As the Prime Minister said, on this Armistice day we should remember all those servicemen and women who have given their lives in the service of our country. Their sacrifice must never be forgotten.

I join the Prime Minister in praising the work of the Royal British Legion. All of us know from our constituency surgeries that it is one of the most effective organisations for looking after the families and those who have served, and everyone in this House, I know, will want to pay it a tribute today.

Today, the youth unemployment rate has reached a record high in our country. Almost 1 million young people—that is one in five—cannot find work. The Prime Minister once promised “to abolish youth unemployment”. Does he accept that he has failed?

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman allows us to discuss today employment opportunities for young people, because we are the Government who introduced this summer, knowing the problems that young people faced, the summer school leavers’ guarantee. It has meant that tens of thousands of young people are now able to be in education or training or in work, where otherwise they would be unemployed. That was opposed by the Conservative party.

We have also made it clear that young people who are 18 to 24 will get help, if they are unemployed, to get back to work, and already 95,000 young people are getting the help that is necessary, so that soon they will have the training and work that is necessary for them to get back to work. I have to say about the youth unemployment figures that the right hon. Gentleman quotes that 250,000 of that number are full-time students looking for part-time work, and they are not fully unemployed. No Government in Europe are doing more to help young people who are out of work.

The Prime Minister is living in a parallel universe. The figures announced today are that there are 943,000 young people who cannot find work in our country. He talks about other European countries; the whole of Germany has 537,000 young people unemployed, and France has 765,000. We, I repeat, have 943,000. He said:

“Our plan is nothing less than to abolish youth unemployment.”

Anyone must accept that he has failed. He also promised full employment. In fact, unemployment is up by almost 500,000 since he came to power. He promised that no young person should spend years without a job. In fact, the number of young people unemployed for more than a year has gone up by 50 per cent. Does he accept that on any of these yardsticks—youth unemployment, total unemployment, the amount of time young people are unemployed—he has failed?

No; there are 700,000 more young people in work than in 1997. Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman can say can change the fact that there are more people in full-time education and in work under this Government than there were when we took over. As for youth unemployment, he knows perfectly well that the rate of youth unemployment in Spain is 40 per cent and that the rate in Ireland is nearly 30 per cent. What we have tried to do, facing a situation in which young people face the prospect of unemployment, is to give them jobs, but every measure has been opposed by the Opposition. They opposed our summer school leavers’ guarantee. They opposed the new deal efforts for 18 to 24-year-olds and want to abolish the new deal in its entirety. They oppose education maintenance allowances. Nothing that they would do would make unemployment lower; it would make unemployment higher.

As ever, the Prime Minister is completely wrong. Our plan to get Britain working will help more people and help them more quickly, and it is fully funded, because we have taken tough decisions about the deficit. The Prime Minister ought to know about it—after all, it was drawn up by David Freud, who was his welfare guru, one of the many people who have left the bunker and come to work for us. [Interruption.]

Is it not the case that the state of the public finances is so bad that the Government are planning deep cuts in every Department, including those responsible for helping the unemployed?

Let me say that we have put £1 billion into the future jobs fund to provide 100,000 jobs for young people, with another 50,000 in areas of high unemployment. I simply ask the right hon. Gentleman, does he support our measure or not?

We have set out schemes far greater than anything that the Prime Minister has come up with. If we want to spend a little time on the Prime Minister’s schemes, what about the mortgage rescue scheme, which was meant to help thousands? How many has it helped? Just 16 families. What about the capital for enterprise fund? It was meant to transform British businesses. How many has it helped? Just five. What about the asset-backed securities guarantee? How many assets has it backed? None—zero. The Prime Minister says that he is investing money, but I have here a leaked memo from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. [Interruption.] They do not want to listen. It is 11 pages, and the Prime Minister has got a copy, too—it was sent to Peter Mandelson, so it must be important. It calls for a cut in apprenticeship rates of 10 per cent., a cut in the adult learning budget of 10 per cent. and a cut in development loans of 50 per cent. Does that leaked memo not tell us that, far from the Prime Minister’s mantra about investment, he is planning cuts, because of the mess he has made of our finances?

Every time we mention policy, he loses it. The right hon. Gentleman cannot answer the question about whether he supports the measures that we are taking now to help young people back into work. As for his claims about mortgages, all the forecasts were that repossessions would be at the level of the 1990s, but they are half that level. The reason the mortgage rescue support scheme has not had a lot of people on it is that it has not had to be used, because we have helped them in other ways. The scheme was the fall-back option if we could not help people in other ways. Every time that the right hon. Gentleman tries to talk about policy, he does not have a clue about what is happening.

The fact is that the Prime Minister’s policies are not working. The people who have lost out are the 943,000 young people who have lost their jobs under his Government. He has given us the deepest and longest recession since the war and the fastest rising unemployment. Why cannot he admit—[Interruption.]

Order. Government Back Benchers are far too excitable. They must calm down. We want to get some Back Benchers in on these exchanges.

They know they have got a party leader who has lost it. Why cannot the Prime Minister admit what everybody knows to be true—that the Government are having to make cuts? Let me read to him what the Chancellor of the Exchequer says about him:

“I am trying to talk sense into that man. He just doesn’t get it—going on about ‘Tory cuts’ is not going to make an impact on the electorate… The voters aren’t stupid—they know how bad the economic situation is”.

Will the Prime Minister finally acknowledge that he is planning cuts in departmental spending next year, 2010?

Once again, not one policy from the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are cutting apprenticeships, but we are increasing them. He says that we are cutting opportunities for young people, when 10,000 more young people went to university this year. He says that we are trying to cut opportunities for people who are unemployed, when we are giving them more opportunities. He was wrong on the recession, wrong on every aspect of bank restructuring, wrong about helping home owners and wrong about helping people into jobs. He is now wrong about youth unemployment and everything affecting young people. He is wrong about every policy on the economy.

This Prime Minister told us, “No more boom and bust”, yet he presided over the biggest boom and the biggest bust; he told us that we were the best prepared for the recession, yet, unlike others, we are still in recession. He has given us the fastest rising unemployment and the biggest bust. Take the official figures for public spending, take off what you are planning to spend on unemployment benefit and on debt, and departmental spending is being cut by 0.7 per cent. The Prime Minister asks about policy; we have said what we would do about public sector pay and pensions. We have the courage of our convictions; the Prime Minister has neither courage nor convictions.

The right hon. Gentleman gave a cast-iron commitment on Europe, and what happened to that? He gave a cast-iron commitment last week to the national health service, and what is going to happen to that? He is giving a cast-iron commitment on what he will do for young people, but he cannot match what we are doing for young people now. He opposes Sure Start, he opposes education maintenance allowance, he opposes child tax credits, he opposes the new deal and he opposes everything that will get young people back to work. The Conservatives were responsible for the highest level of unemployment this country has seen, and they would put us back to that if ever they were given the chance. That is why people want a Labour Government that is working.

On Sunday, the family of 18-year-old Jimmy Major paraded through the streets of Cleethorpes to attend a Remembrance day service; a couple of miles away in Grimsby, the family of Matthew Telford were doing the same; and yesterday the families were at Wootton Bassett for the return of their sons. Given this loss and the loss through the generations, on this, Armistice day, does my right hon. Friend share the concern expressed by 200 Members of this House at the desecration and vandalism of war memorials to the fallen? Will he meet me and other Back Benchers to see what we can do to ensure that that never happens again?

I echo exactly what my hon. Friend has said about the way that different communities in this country have come out in support of, and to honour, those people who are heroes to them and to us, who have given their lives serving in Afghanistan. What happened yesterday at Wootton Bassett and what is happening in the towns and villages where the servicemen who died come from is, again, an outstanding tribute of the British people to our armed forces.

I think it is important that we never forget the sacrifices that have been made. That is why it is important that the war memorials are kept up to the standard that is necessary. That is why we have made funding available for the upkeep of memorials—£1.5 million since 2005—and other additional money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but of course I will meet my hon. Friend and any Members who are concerned about the state of war memorials in their communities. It is absolutely crucial to the future of our nation that we never forget the service of those who died to make us free.

I am sure that most people will recognise the genuine sincerity, as always, of the sympathy and condolence that the Prime Minister expressed on all our behalves to the family and friends of those who tragically lost their lives, not only in Afghanistan, but in previous conflicts. I, of course, add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Warrant Officer Class 1 Darren Chant, Sergeant Matthew Telford, Guardsman James Major, Acting Corporal Steven Boote and Corporal Nicholas Webster-Smith, who were killed in that terrible incident last week, and to the families and friends of Serjeant Phillip Scott, Rifleman Philip Allen and Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan this week.

How is it possible, in the middle of a recession, with unemployment at 2.5 million and rising, that this Government—a Labour Government—should be planning to change local housing allowance rules to take £15 a week from some of the poorest people in Britain?

This Government have done more to take people out of poverty than any Government, and we have taken people out of poverty by giving them tax credits and improved housing benefits. I do not believe that the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given me are accurate. This is a Labour Government who want to help people into work and help people who are in work.

That response beggars belief—they are the Prime Minister’s figures. How would he feel if he was on £80 a week and the Government came along and said, “We’re going to take £15 of that away”? This is going to hit up to 300,000 of the poorest people in this country and it will not save the Treasury any money. It took him months to do the right thing—the U-turn—on the 10p tax rate fiasco. Will he now look at this measure, stop it, and stop it now? Will he do that—yes or no?

This is the man who talked about savage cuts in public services. What we are trying to do is to reform housing benefit in a way that helps those who are most in need. What we are also trying to do is to use our resources to help those who are unemployed get back into work. If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about proposals on housing benefit, he is talking about proposals for consultation—no decision has been made.

Despite the robust rejection that he received from the United States, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on his attempt to advocate the case for an international application of the Tobin tax on speculative capital transactions? At a time when nation states are manifestly failing to meet the funding obligations that they have made on the eradication of poverty, the delivery of food security and climate change mitigation, will he go back to the international community and again make the case that we should tackle speculators, if we are to deliver the programmes that will save the planet and transform the prospects for our future?

This is a first: it is the first time that my hon. Friend has supported my economic policy. Even though the Leader of the Opposition opposes this, we will have to face up to the social responsibility of the banking system. We will have to face up to the responsibilities that financial institutions have at a global level, in a situation in which we have global financial markets and not national financial markets. Therefore, we will have to consider measures that bring the financial institutions in line with the values that are held by the vast majority of people round the world. That means that we will have to consider an insurance fee against banks collapsing and our having to pick up the bill. We have to look at contingent capital liabilities and whether there should be a resolution fund in case of crises to resolve or a financial levy, such as has been discussed before. These measures are now on the table and have to be discussed. I make no apology for putting them on the agenda: in the long run, it is the only way that we can solve the problem of the social responsibility of world banking to the community.

Q2. A year ago today, we heard the verdict in the baby Peter case and started to understand the horrors behind that tragically short life. Ministers rightly said that it should never happen again. Today the Local Government Association has produced a report showing that 60 per cent. of local authorities are struggling to retain and recruit key child protection social workers. We know how demoralised the profession is—social workers are shackled to computers and spend 80 per cent. of their time on bureaucratic procedures. Why should vulnerable children in this country today feel any safer than they did two years ago with the death of baby Peter, or nine and a half years ago with the death of Victoria Climbié in equally tragic circumstances? (299023)

As a result of the tragedy of baby P and the action that we took in Haringey to change the whole management of the services there, we also set up the inquiry by Lord Laming, who looked at all the issues related to the assessment and proper care of children. Our determination to ensure that children are protected from harm is enshrined in the recommendations of his report. We confirmed that changes that had been recommended by Lord Laming will be made. We have accepted and implemented all his recommendations, and that is the basis on which we want to ensure that vulnerable children across the country are protected. I believe that there is wide support in the House for the recommendations of that report, and we are implementing them.

Q3. As the number of people progressing into very old age increases, the Prime Minister will agree that it is necessary to take measures to protect them properly, unlike—unfortunately—many Tory and Lib Dem councils, which are closing care homes and evicting very elderly people, such as 106-year-old Mrs. Louisa Watts in my constituency. She loves her— (299024)

Order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that we cannot have an essay: we need a question with a question mark.

She is hanging on against all the legal measures being taken by the council, and I ask the Prime Minister if he will make room in the Queen’s Speech for a measure that will properly protect very old people in our country. In the meantime, will he ask the Secretary of State to look into her case particularly?

We are publishing a national care strategy to help those people who are in need of help in old people’s homes, as well as those who receive help in the community. I urge my hon. Friend to be part of the consultation so that we can agree on the right legislative measures, so that every old person has the dignity and security that they want in retirement. Having heard of the case of Louisa Watts and her friends at the care home, I hope that the council will reconsider and accept the generous offer that is being made to it to keep Louisa Watts and her friends in their home for another year.

Q4. Is the Prime Minister comfortable with the fact that nine of his ex-ministerial colleagues have written to him to say that his proposals to scrap tax relief on child care are wrong and immensely damaging to working women? (299025)

We have said—I repeated this yesterday to a meeting and again this morning—that nobody who is receiving tax relief for child care vouchers will lose it. That assurance, which I make here and which was made yesterday as well, is one that people will welcome. At the same time, we want to expand nursery care for two-year-olds and create a situation in which nursery education runs into primary and secondary education from two to 18. However, no Government have done more to advance and support child care in our country, and we shall continue to do so in the next few months.

Q5. My constituent Jean Edwards died recently after falling ill in Turkey. Her family have received a bill for £100,000 for the private care that she received. The travel insurance did not materialise. Will the Prime Minister look at a report out soon by the Law Commission recommending reforms to the insurance industry across the insurance spectrum? It is providing a draft Bill, and it would be interesting if that were looked at in future legislation. (299027)

First, I send my condolences to the family and friends of Jean Edwards, my hon. Friend’s constituent, who tragically fell seriously ill in Turkey and shortly after died. The Law Commission is looking at this matter now. It is an important area in protecting the consumer, and he is right to raise it as an issue that has to be dealt with in future laws. We will consider the Law Commission’s proposals very thoroughly and with other priorities for legislation at the right time. However, I commend him for raising this important matter where a change of law is obviously needed.

Q6. We have seen our normal weekly clash. Would it be nice to have all the party leaders on the same political platform at the next general election by having, at the same time, a referendum on European Union membership? After all, that would release the poison, and relieve the distortion, that this unanswered question puts into British politics. (299028)

The real Tory party speaks! The Leader of the Opposition made a cast-iron commitment to hold a referendum. What faith can the public have in any promise that he makes now?

Q7. The news today of the biggest rise in the number of people in employment for 18 months is good. However, in my constituency there have been many job losses, particularly in the steel industry. One company told me that the greatest help that it has received has come from the effects of the fiscal stimulus, public sector investment in building and infrastructure, and training. As we begin to see an improvement in the economy, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to support manufacturing? (299029)

I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend that the help that we have been able to give to small businesses, as well as low interest rates, have been vital in helping the Grimsby economy and all economies in this country. I also remind him that 200,000 businesses, including those in Scunthorpe and Grimsby, have benefited from the help that we have given. That would not have been possible, if we had followed the ideas of the Opposition.

On 1 October, the European Commission served notice on the United Kingdom Government that they are in breach of European law for failing to pay disability living allowance and other exportable benefits to expatriate UK citizens. Will the Prime Minister now give the order so that these elderly and frail men and women, some of whom have served in our armed forces, get the money that they need and deserve?

Q8. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent discovery in Staffordshire of the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. Will he give his backing to a plan to create in the region a Saxon tourist trail and support the Tamworth Herald campaign to bring this gold to be displayed in the ancient Saxon capital of the kingdom of Mercia—the town of Tamworth? (299030)

My hon. Friend makes a very strong case for the gold going to Tamworth, but the British Museum is concerned to ensure that it remains in the west midlands and available for people to see, if not use.

I met Corporal Steven Boote in Aldershot shortly before he deployed with the Royal Military Police, together with two of his colleagues. Yesterday I received an e-mail from one of those colleagues, in which he expressed his devastation at the loss of his colleague Corporal Boote, but also said, “We are winning in the job we are doing out here.” Will the Prime Minister please ensure that he and his Government get that positive message across to the media and the British people about what our fantastic troops are doing out in the field as we speak?

I say and say again that we are so proud of the work that our troops do in Afghanistan—they are committed; they are brave; they are utterly professional. What we have to do is show people, first, why we are in Afghanistan—that there is a chain of terror that comes from the Pakistan-Afghan mountains that could threaten the streets of London. Then we have to show people that, with the great commitment, energy and expertise of our armed forces, we have a plan to ensure that the Afghans can take more control of their own affairs, so that over time our troops can come home. I applaud the extreme bravery of every member of our armed forces in Afghanistan, particularly in the most difficult circumstances, where three quarters of deaths are due to explosive devices.

Q9. A recent survey for the Commonwealth Fund of 10,000 physicians in 11 developed nations said that the NHS offers the best primary health care in the world. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to explain to the House that the NHS is safe in this Government’s hands, but would never be safe in the hands of the Opposition? (299031)

Yesterday we were able to say that personal guarantees will be made to patients and families from the NHS that they will receive cancer treatment if necessary within two weeks by seeing a consultant, that they will receive hospital operations if these are needed within 18 weeks and that they will have GPs available in the evenings and at weekends. That is how a modern health service must work, ensuring that personal services are available to every person in the country. It is unfortunate that those guarantees, which we are prepared to make, the Opposition oppose.

Q10. The Prime Minister will know that there are about 1.3 million carers, who do the most fantastic job looking after people, often 24/7. This year £50 million was allocated by the Prime Minister to support respite care, but only 10 per cent. of that has been spent. In my primary care trust area, £365,000 is available, but only £3,600 has been spent. What will he do to ensure that carers get the respite that they need and not simply another headline? (299032)

First, let me thank the 6 million carers in our country for the work that they do, often under the most extreme pressure to help and be at the side of their relatives. We are determined to do more over time to help all carers, ensuring that their pension arrangements are better and that they have the respite care that the hon. Gentleman talked about. We have set aside the money; I want to see it spent. It is a necessary means by which we can support the energy of carers, who need time off, and therefore need respite care to be available. I will ensure that I look at the facts that he has given me.