COMMONS

Today's House of Commons debates - Wednesday 22 October 2014

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 20:46

House of Commons

Wednesday 22 October 2014

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution of Fiscal Policy

1.

What steps he is taking to ensure that the Welsh Government remain fiscally accountable following the next stage of the devolution process.[905488]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

May I first pay tribute to my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who worked tirelessly for Wales, particularly over the past year, working behind the scenes to ensure that last month’s NATO summit was such a success for Wales?

The Wales Bill devolves tax and borrowing powers to the Assembly and the Welsh Government, ensuring that they raise some of the money they spend. The new income tax powers are a tool to help the Welsh economy become more dynamic and make the Welsh Government more accountable. I call on the Labour party today to support holding a referendum as soon as possible.

Glyn Davies:

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his much-deserved elevation. Does he agree that the Welsh Government cannot be regarded as a genuinely fiscally accountable governing body until they are responsible for raising public money as well as spending it, and does he accept that this step forward in the devolution process is much more important than devolving power in any more policy areas?

Stephen Crabb:

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments on fiscal devolution. I believe that this represents the next step for devolution in Wales. Devolving a portion of tax responsibility to the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly will create dynamic opportunities for the people of Wales and the Welsh economy, and I believe that the Welsh Government should seize those opportunities as soon as possible.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab):

When the Welsh Government raise money and spend it, they will potentially be spending some of it on hospital services in Chester, Clatterbridge hospital or the Christie hospital, which are local to me. What does the Secretary of State think about the fact that under his proposals I, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, will have no say about services that affect my constituents?

Stephen Crabb:

The right hon. Gentleman is referring to proposals for English votes on English laws. There are important cross-party issues, but they also work in reverse. For example, constituents on this side of the border do not have a say in the Welsh Assembly about policies that affect services they use. He has to recognise that we currently have a hopelessly lop-sided devolution arrangement, as he and I, as Welsh MPs, and Scottish MPs, have a say on laws affecting schools and hospitals in England, but English MPs have no equivalent say on services in Scotland and Wales. That must be addressed.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his post and look forward to working with him. I also welcome the Government’s concession on the lockstep in the other place. With that in mind, does he agree that every step forward increases the accountability and maturity of the Welsh Assembly?

Stephen Crabb:

I agree with my hon. Friend. Giving the Welsh Government fiscal powers for the first time means that they have to raise money as well as spend it, which I think will lead to a much healthier political debate down in Cardiff on real responsibility. It is about not only deciding how to spend the money, but taking responsible decisions on how it is raised, and I think that is a big step forward in the political development of Wales.

Minimum Wage

2.

If he will estimate the potential effect of increasing the minimum wage rate by £1.50 on the economy in Wales.[905489]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

The Government’s increase of 3% in the national minimum wage this year means that low-paid workers are enjoying the biggest cash increase in their take-home pay since 2008. The independent Low Pay Commission is responsible for recommending the level of the national minimum wage.

Jessica Morden:

About 73,000 people in Wales are in minimum wage jobs, and a quarter of a million earn less than the living wage. Will the Minister commit his party to Labour’s plan to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour, which would at least start to tackle the scandal of low pay in Wales?

Alun Cairns:

I am surprised that the hon. Lady raises that question, given that the commitment to £8 an hour by 2020 has been somewhat derided by independent commentators—Alan Milburn himself said that it lacked ambition—because the current projection shows that the minimum wage will rise to £8.23 an hour by 2020.

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con):

May I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the Front Bench, along with the Secretary of State, and associate myself with the tribute to his predecessor? Is my hon. Friend aware of the work that has been done by the Mayor of London on the living wage, promoting the idea that public authorities themselves have powers when they structure their pay settlements to lift the position of those who are on the minimum wage and on their payroll? In that regard, perhaps he shares my disappointment that the trade unions in Wales have rejected the Welsh Assembly’s plan to do just that.

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Of course, it is a matter for employers to pay the living wage. The national minimum wage is set by the Low Pay Commission, but obviously when an employer can afford to pay the living wage, we would encourage them to do so.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC):

As the Minister mentioned, Alan Milburn and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have pointed out that under Labour’s minimum wage proposals, the rate of increase between now and 2020 would be slower than that between 1999 and 2014. Does he agree that what we have heard from the Labour party about an £8 minimum wage shows that the Labour machine is still firmly stuck on the spin cycle?

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, which gives me the opportunity to underline yet again Alan Milburn’s point about the lack of ambition among those on the Labour Benches. Only my party cares about low pay and only my party has given, in the past year, the largest increase in the national minimum wage of 3%—more than twice the rate of inflation.

Hywel Williams:

Does the Minister therefore agree with my contention that the way to achieve a basic but decent standard of life is the living wage, which would benefit 266,000 workers in Wales alone, and in the UK would slash the tax credits bill by £1.5 billion per annum? Clearly, Plaid Cymru’s policy on the living wage is the best for Wales and for the UK.

Alun Cairns:

Where possible, we would encourage employers to pay the living wage, but the Government’s responsibility is to ensure that the national minimum wage is adhered to. It is set independently, and it is a balance between a discussion between employers, Government and employees.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):

If Conservative Members are so keen on improving poor wages, why did they do everything in their power to prevent the national minimum wage from coming into law? Why do Conservative Ministers regularly accuse the poor of being workshy when actually, in my constituency, many of the most hard-working are those who are hit by a double whammy—low wages and few hours? That means that when they travel to work in Wales they are working a damn sight harder than he ever did.

Alun Cairns:

We have not only increased the national minimum wage by the largest cash increase since 2008 but taken the lowest earners out of income tax, which means that a full-time employee on the national minimum wage is paying two thirds less income tax. I hope that that is something that the hon. Gentleman would welcome.

Devolution

3.

What plans the Government has for further devolution of powers to Wales.[905490]

8.

What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of the Scottish referendum result on government policy on further devolution for Wales.[905497]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

This Government are putting Wales at the heart of the debate on devolution across the UK. I am a member of the new devolution committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and I have already met the party leaders from Wales here in Westminster to discuss how we might take forward devolution in Wales as we work towards a fair and lasting settlement.

Albert Owen:

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I also welcome his moving from being an anti-devolutionist to a pragmatic devolutionist. May I encourage him to go further and become a real devolutionist? When he has discussions with colleagues and others, will he look at moving Government Departments and Government business away from central London to parts of Wales such as north-west Wales so that we can have real devolution and real jobs in those areas of the United Kingdom, and have a more balanced UK?

Stephen Crabb:

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about the need for real devolution not only to rebalance the economy of the UK but to rebalance our politics. It is also worth pointing out that the current Welsh Administration in Cardiff is probably one of the least devolutionary Administrations that we have across the UK—they are centralising more in Cardiff. We need devolution within Wales as well as from the UK to Wales.

Bob Blackman:

I am a big supporter of the Government’s devolution programme and of giving responsibility to the lowest possible level. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a concern that certain Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs want home rule for Wales, which would be oppositional to the Government’s agenda?

Stephen Crabb:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I heard the comments by the First Minister and others, at the end of the Scottish referendum campaign, about wanting home rule for Wales. When I travel round Wales and talk to people and businesses, I find there is an appetite for more devolution, but I do not detect much appetite for home rule. Indeed, support for independence in Wales is at a historic low of just 3%.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab):

May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State in his new role, and to the Minister? I also welcome the zeal that the Secretary of State has shown for devolution—unexpected zeal, because of course he used not to be so fond of it. For the benefit of the House, will he confirm today that he no longer thinks that devolution is what he once described as “constitutional vandalism”?

Stephen Crabb:

I pay tribute to the internet research skills of the shadow Secretary of State. He is referring to an article I wrote in 2007, at a time when the position of Secretary of State for Wales was reduced to a part-time job; when there was no fiscal devolution; and when there was an unbalanced, unstable devolution settlement for Wales. I am delighted to be part of a Government who are rectifying some of those wrongs.

Owen Smith:

I thank the Secretary of State for that clarification. We agree with him that devolution is not constitutional vandalism, but I will tell him what is: a Prime Minister for Britain describing Offa’s Dyke as

“the line between life and death”,

and a Tory Health Secretary hiring the Daily Mail to scuttle around traducing Welsh public services. That is constitutional vandalism and the Secretary of State’s record will be judged not by soft soap and warm words about devolution, but by what he does to condemn the war on Wales.

Stephen Crabb:

Not a single Member of Parliament with a Welsh constituency could stand up and honestly say, with their hand on their heart, that, when they get out and speak to people on the doorsteps on a Saturday morning, those people do not tell them that the quality of their health services is the No. 1 issue facing the people of Wales. It is wrong for the Welsh Labour party to seek to shut down debate about and scrutiny of the performance of its Administration in Cardiff when it comes to the most important issue for the people of Wales.

12.[905502]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in Wales we have longer waiting times, missed accident and emergency targets since 2009, the worst ambulance response times of anywhere in the United Kingdom, no cancer drugs fund and a 7% real-terms cut in funding? That is what Labour delivers for the NHS. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only the Conservatives can be trusted to run the national health service?

Stephen Crabb:

I do not want anybody holding up any part of Welsh economic and social life as a bad comparator. I want Wales to be leading and for people to be holding up Wales as a good example to follow. The truth is—I think the shadow Secretary of State would admit this in private—that the Labour Health Minister in Cardiff needs to get a grip, get on top of this issue and really deliver for the people of Wales.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD):

To return to the theme of devolution, one of the great successes of the Scottish referendum was the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds in the process. Yesterday the National Assembly spoke with one voice when it voted on returning electoral arrangements to itself. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is an issue that deserves attention? Increasingly, many young people believe it does.

Stephen Crabb:

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I visited Scotland several times during the referendum campaign and saw for myself the enthusiasm with which teenagers were engaging in the discussion. I have yet to be convinced on the argument for reducing the voting age for all elections in the UK, but it is clear that such issues will need to be considered in the future.

Zero-hours Contracts

4.

What estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales working on zero-hours contracts.[905491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

Zero-hours contracts benefit many employers and employees in Wales, but we are committed to taking strong action against abuse by banning the use of exclusivity clauses.

Chris Ruane:

I thank the Minister for that response, but does he not recognise the negative impact that zero-hours contracts have on family life, the well-being and mental and physical health of individual workers, and morale at work? Under this Government the number of zero-hours contracts has shot through the roof; what can the Minister do to reduce it?

Alun Cairns:

Again, I am surprised by the tactic used by the hon. Gentleman. If zero-hours contracts are so wrong, why do Labour-run local authorities make active use of them? Furthermore, why do more than 60 MPs make active use of zero-hours contracts?

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab):

In welcoming the new Minister to his post, may I suggest that, instead of trying to do an impression of a jumped-up rottweiler, he should try to understand and recognise the reality of the miserable state of employment for far too many workers in Wales, whether they are on zero-hours contracts, are among the 150,000 who are underemployed and want to work more hours but cannot, or are among the 50,000 people who are being shoved off disability benefits and into a world of work that is mean, difficult and hard?

Alun Cairns:

The abuse of zero-hours contracts is an important issue and that is why this Government are taking action to ban them. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned people in part-time employment. Only 19% of part-time employees are looking for full-time work. We will take strong action against those employers that are abusing zero-hours contracts, but zero-hours contracts are important to many people, such as carers, to encourage and facilitate them back into the workplace.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab):

Over 50,000 workers in Wales are on zero-hours contracts, with all the stress, insecurity and exploitation that that entails. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the trade union USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—on negotiating annualised contracts for workers with some big retail firms in Wales, giving both sides flexibility but also guaranteed income levels for workers? Will he support Labour’s calls for employees who in reality work regularly to have an automatic right to fixed-hour contracts and the security that such contracts bring?

Alun Cairns:

I do support the action taken by the union. After all, the last thing we want is the abuse of employees on zero-hours contracts. However, such contracts offer some people flexibility in the workplace. They offer a great opportunity to encourage more people back into work who would not otherwise be able to work.

Manufacturing

5.

What assessment he has made of trends in manufacturing in Wales since 2010.[905492]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Under the previous Labour Government, 83,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Wales. Our long-term economic plan has made a good start in reversing this decline, with 12,000 manufacturing jobs created since the election. I was delighted recently to visit ConvaTec and Toyota in north Wales to see for myself how two global manufacturers really value Wales as a great place to come and do business.

Stephen Mosley:

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post, and I congratulate him and the Government on the success of the NATO summit this summer. In recent weeks, Airbus has announced a $26 billion deal for 250 new aircraft with India’s largest airline, IndiGo, and a deal for 70 aircraft with a Chinese leasing company. The fact that all those aircraft will have wings built in Deeside in north Wales will generate thousands of jobs, including many hundreds in my constituency of Chester. Will he join me in congratulating the company and its employees?

Stephen Crabb:

One of my early visits as Secretary of State was to Airbus in Broughton, where I saw for myself just what a fantastic plant that factory is. I spoke to senior management there, but not just that: I got a chance to meet the apprentices and see for myself just what a contribution they are making to Airbus’s success at this time.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op):

The Secretary of State will know that General Dynamics in my constituency recently signed a contract for the Scout specialist vehicle platforms. Will he now pay tribute to the previous Labour Government, who were instrumental in bringing General Dynamics to Oakdale, creating hundreds of high-tech, high-spec jobs?

Stephen Crabb:

General Dynamics is another superb Wales-based company that I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting in recent weeks. I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to whoever was responsible for securing the inward investment.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab):

When Robin Southwell, the chief executive of EADS, which owns Airbus, addressed the Labour party conference this year, he stressed the importance, from Airbus’s point of view, of Britain remaining a member of the European Union. Does the Secretary of State agree on the importance of that, or does he know better?

Stephen Crabb:

Being part of Europe is important for Wales-based manufacturers—there is no question about that—but when I talk to businesses all across Wales, they also tell me that our current membership of the European Union imposes burdens and costs. That is why they support the Prime Minister’s strategy to renegotiate our membership with the European Union to get a better deal for Welsh and UK business.

Rail Network (South Wales)

6.

What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on improvements to the rail network in south Wales.[905493]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Electrification of the great western main line to Swansea and the valley lines is a transformational project that would deliver a much-needed boost to the Wales economy. I am determined to find a way forward for this important scheme, and I am leading discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Government Ministers to secure this vital investment for Wales.

Huw Irranca-Davies:

I thank the Minister for that answer. He might not be aware that the two lines with the greatest passenger growth into Cardiff in the past couple of years have been the Chepstow to Cardiff and the Maesteg to Cardiff lines, which have far outstripped other valley lines. Is he surprised to know that there is no Sunday service on the Maesteg line for people who want to get to work or to get into our capital city? Will he discuss this with Arriva Trains Wales?

Stephen Crabb:

I was aware of that point, and I want to raise that issue with Arriva Trains Wales. The growth in usage of the valley lines is one of the reasons why we need to press ahead and create new capacity and make improvements to all the valley lines.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab):

Will the delay in the delivery of the electrification of the valley lines mean that the final cost will go up?

Stephen Crabb:

I hope that there will be no delay in delivering the electrification project for the Great Western line and the valley lines. We are involved in productive and constructive discussions with Ministers in London and in the Welsh Government to find a way to crack on and deliver that important project for south Wales.

Energy Prices

7.

What discussions he has had with businesses in Wales on the effects of energy prices on their international competitiveness.[905494]

10.

What discussions he has had with businesses in Wales on the effects of energy prices on their international competitiveness.[905500]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

We are a Government who listen to business and take action to support business. We have introduced a package of support to tackle the rising costs of energy. Wales Office Ministers have hosted two round-table discussions with energy-intensive industries in Wales to listen to their views on energy prices.

Paul Flynn:

Yesterday, more electricity was generated by wind turbines than by nuclear power. Instead of putting money into expensive French nukes, why do we not help business by investing in unused Welsh tidal power, which is infinitely available, absolutely predictable, clean, green, British and belongs to us?

Alun Cairns:

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The UK needs a diverse range of energy sources. He mentioned tidal power, and there are some exciting projects around Wales at the moment. That is something I want to be closely involved with.

Mark Tami:

Tata Steel is a much-valued local employer in Shotton, where it produces high-quality coated products. However, it is competing against foreign companies that have much lower energy costs. What talks has the Minister had with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to address that issue and create a more level playing field?

Alun Cairns:

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. In recent Budgets, the Chancellor has set out important measures that will make a difference, such as capping the carbon floor price and dealing with the indirect costs of the EU emissions trading system and the renewables obligation.

Creative Industries

9.

What recent estimate he has made of the contribution of the creative industries to the economy in Wales.[905498]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

I recently visited Cwmni Da in Caernarfon, which is a great example of how the creative industries make a vital contribution to the Welsh economy and the cultural life of Wales.

Kevin Brennan:

I welcome the Minister to his post. He is right that the creative industries are a growing and important part of the Welsh economy. Following the WOMEX conference last year, will he join me in campaigning for the BBC to bring the Radio 2 folk awards to Cardiff next year?

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will look positively at his suggestion and will happily meet him to discuss the matter further. He is right about the importance of the creative industries in Wales. He might be interested in the launch of the Cardiff internet exchange, which took place last week, and the launch of Cardiff local television.

Agriculture

11.

What assessment he has made of difficulties facing the agricultural sector in Wales.[905501]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Agriculture is a key industry in Wales, and I recognise the challenges that many Welsh farmers have faced this year. That is why the Government fought hard to achieve the best deal for Wales in the negotiations on the common agricultural policy, and why I welcome the forecast of an increase in Welsh farm income for 2013-14.

Jonathan Edwards:

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about an action plan to help Welsh farmers, who are being hit by a supermarket price war and Russian sanctions?

Stephen Crabb:

The Government recognise that Welsh agriculture produces some of the best quality products in the UK. That is why we have talked to farming representatives throughout the summer, and why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister became the first ever serving Prime Minister to visit the Royal Welsh show this summer. We stay in close contact with farming organisations. We are clear that supermarkets need to work with the farming industry to deliver better returns for farmers.

Mr Speaker:

There is an opportunity for a free hit on the agricultural sector in Wales. If nobody wishes to seize it, and as we are all present and correct, we will move on to questions to the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1.[905573]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron):

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

Andrew Griffiths:

We must never accept the kind of mistreatment that was suffered by some of my constituents at Stafford hospital. This week we have seen laid bare the extent of the culture of mistreatment in the NHS in Wales. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time not only for a full independent inquiry into the NHS in Wales, but also for an apology from the Leader of the Opposition for his party’s record?

The Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the NHS in Wales, doctors, nurses and hospital staff are working round the clock to deliver good care, but they have been let down by the Welsh politicians in Cardiff who have cut the NHS. That is why the British Medical Association and Labour Members of Parliament have been calling for a public inquiry in Wales. Even before that, the OECD wants to carry out a comparative study looking at the English NHS and the Welsh NHS. I support it doing that—does the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)?

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab):

Last week 16 leading health organisations representing doctors, nurses and patients warned the Prime Minister that health and social care services in England are now

“at breaking point and things cannot go on like this”.

Why is that happening?

The Prime Minister:

Absolutely no answer to the question whether there should be a proper inquiry into the Welsh NHS. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in the English NHS, for which this Government are responsible: 1.3 million more outpatients being treated; 6 million more outpatient appointments; 2,500 more nurses; and 8,000 more doctors. That is a record we can be proud of. Why? It is because we invested in the NHS in England; Labour cut the NHS in Wales.

Edward Miliband:

Everyone can see what the Prime Minister is doing. After nearly five years in office he cannot defend his record on the NHS in England. Every time he mentions Wales, we know that he is running scared on the NHS in England. In England we have the highest waiting lists for six years, the longest waits in A and E for 10 years, the cancer treatment target missed for the first time ever, and millions of people cannot get to see their GP. Will he just admit this: the NHS is going backwards, isn’t it?

The Prime Minister:

Let us have an OECD inquiry. I support it—does the right hon. Gentleman?

Edward Miliband:

In case the Prime Minister has not realised—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker:

Order. At a very early stage there is far too much noise. The public are not impressed. Let us try to operate to a certain standard. If the session has to be run on, it will be run on—it does not bother me.

Edward Miliband:

The Prime Minister obviously does not realise that he is supposed to answer the questions. I ask the questions at Prime Minister’s questions. The whole country will have noticed that he could not defend what is happening in the English national health service for which he is responsible. Why? It is because four years ago he told us that his top-down reorganisation would improve the NHS; we now know that that is £3 billion down the drain. Will he now admit in public what he is saying in private: his top-down reorganisation has been a total disaster for the NHS?

The Prime Minister:

I am not only happy to defend our record in the NHS with the extra spending, extra doctors, extra nurses and all the extra treatments, but I want a comparison with the Labour NHS in Wales, which is being cut and has met no targets for cancer or for A and E since 2008. I will allow the OECD to come in and look at the English health service. Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again: will he let the OECD look at the failures in Wales?

Edward Miliband:

It is extraordinary—there is no attempt even to answer the question. Instead of smearing the NHS in Wales, the Prime Minister should be saving the NHS in England. The question people are asking is: what will the NHS look like in the future? His own Conservative Chair of the Health Committee says that unless he changes course with his funding plan for the NHS, there will be charges. While he has promised nothing more than inflation for the NHS, we have shown how we can raise £2.5 billion a year over and above that. Why does he not admit that all he offers on the NHS is five more years of crisis?

The Prime Minister:

What we have seen is that the right hon. Gentleman is totally terrified of Labour’s failures in Wales on the NHS. He will not answer the simplest of questions. Let me tell him what has been happening over the past five years in the English NHS. The former Labour adviser, who worked with him in No. 10 Downing street and now runs NHS England, says this about the NHS in England:

“Over the past five years…the NHS has been remarkably successful…We’re treating millions more patients than five years ago...the NHS has become some £20 billion more efficient…A world-leading genomes programme is harnessing the best of this country’s medical…expertise”

and the global rankings

“has just ranked us the highest performing health system of 11 industrialised nations.”

This guy was obviously a much more effective Labour adviser than either the right hon. Gentleman or the shadow Chancellor.

The right hon. Gentleman is trading unattributable quotes. He quoted one. Let me quote one from a shadow Minister, who I think sums it up:

“We don’t have a policy problem, we have a massive Ed Miliband problem”.

I think we see that in evidence today.

Edward Miliband:

I have to say that I do not think the right hon. Gentleman is in any position to give a master class in leadership. Two MPs have defected, nine of his 2010 MPs are standing down and every day he changes his policy on Europe.

The Prime Minister did not answer the question. One of the ways he could support the NHS is by funding one-week cancer testing with a levy on the tobacco companies. Why won’t Lynton Crosby let him do it?

The Prime Minister:

What we are doing is treating half a million more cancer patients every year than were treated under Labour. Let us see what the Royal College of General Practitioners said about the right hon. Gentleman’s policy. It said this:

“a promise will only serve to create a false expectation that cannot be met”.

Like all his promises, it is unravelling in one go.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about leadership. He only had one difficult leadership decision to make this week and that was to sack his shadow Chancellor. He completely flunked it. It tells you the two things you need to know about Labour: they do not have an economic plan and they do not have the leadership that can ever deal with an economic plan.

Edward Miliband:

On the right hon. Gentleman’s watch, the deficit is going up by 10%. We have the worst cost of living crisis in a century and he is in total denial on the national health service. The NHS is on the ballot paper in May because it is already at breaking point and all he offers is five more years of crisis. He cannot tax the tobacco companies because his lobbyists will not let him. He will not tax expensive property because his donors will not let him. The British public know they cannot trust this Prime Minister on the NHS, and every day he proves them right.

The Prime Minister:

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the figures that have come out in the past fortnight: a record fall in unemployment; inflation down to a six-year low; the IMF saying that we are the fastest-growing economy of any G7 country. That is what is happening. What we can see from Labour is failure and weakness: no economic plan, nothing to offer this country. They are, as I put it last week, simply not up to the job.

Q2.[905574]

I have founded two small companies and know what it is like to employ people. Will the Prime Minister commend the small businesses in my constituency that have done so much to reduce unemployment by 31% this year and created 720 apprenticeships?

The Prime Minister:

It is certainly true, as my hon. Friend says, that the reduction in unemployment that we are seeing in every region of the country—some very impressive figures, as she says—is coming about because small businesses feel more able to take people on. Part of that is the help we have given to small businesses by cutting the small business rate of tax and, through the national insurance rebate, by making sure that every small business benefits by £2,000. That is helping to give them the confidence to give people work.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):

A few months ago, I raised with the Prime Minister the case of my former constituent Mr Mohammed Asghar, who was in prison in Pakistan. Since then, he has been shot in prison by a security guard. His family would like him returned to this country under a prisoner transfer agreement. What steps will the Prime Minister take to achieve that?

The Prime Minister:

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this case. The way this man has been treated is appalling. It is particularly appalling that, as she said, he was shot while in prison, supposedly being protected by the Pakistani authorities. We have raised this case—and I have raised it personally—with the leaders of Pakistan, and we are obviously considering the case for a prisoner transfer, but those had to be suspended in recent years because Pakistan released prisoners whom we had returned to them. So there is a problem there. However, we take this case very seriously and are raising it at every level in Pakistan.

Q3.[905575]

Young people in my constituency want the security of job opportunities when they leave college. Under Labour, the number of young people who could not get into work rose by a staggering 45%. Will the Prime Minister join me in applauding the companies up and down the country that have taken the opportunity under this Government to create apprenticeships, leading to the steepest fall in youth unemployment since records began?

The Prime Minister:

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In her constituency, the youth claimant count is down by more than 50%, and we are on target to achieve 2 million apprentices during this Parliament, which is far better than anything achieved by the previous Government. For the next Parliament, the Conservative party has said it wants to achieve 3 million apprenticeships, and we have set out how we will pay for it—by continuing to reform welfare and reduce the benefit cap.

Q4.[905576]

Research by the Medical Research Council has found that more than 6,000 babies are born each year with birth defects and irreversible genetic damage caused by alcohol consumed in pregnancy. In Canada, the USA and other countries, all drinks containers must carry warnings about the dangers of birth defects, but our Government have so far refused to apply the same rule in Britain. Will the Prime Minister now change the Government’s policy and show that Britain cares as much about the well-being of children as Canadians and Americans do?

The Prime Minister:

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Like many MPs, I have met the organisation most concerned with fetal alcohol syndrome and the parents of those who have adopted children suffering from defects arising from the excessive intake of alcohol by their birth parents. I am happy to consider all his suggestions, and other suggestions, because this is a growing crisis in our country and we should do everything we can to stop it.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con):

It is 10 and a half months since the tidal surge hit north Lincolnshire and east Yorkshire, and many of my constituents are still out of their homes. Given the importance of the Humber to the UK economy—inward investment from companies such as Siemens, energy generation, petrochemicals and so on—and given that we know another surge will happen in the next 50 years, may I urge the Prime Minister to look favourably on the plan put together by the local authorities and the Environment Agency for massive investment in our defences to ensure we have the one-in-200 years standard we require?

The Prime Minister:

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his leadership on this issue. He brought a group of MPs to brief me on possible proposals. I also know that he has seen the Chancellor of the Exchequer and is working hard for his constituents in Humberside to ensure we do everything we can. The Government have increased spending on flood defences, and many schemes have been tested in the very high winds of the past few days and have stood up extremely well. We will look carefully at what he says.

Q5.[905577]

Before the Scottish referendum, the Prime Minister said:“If Scotland says it does want to stay inside the United Kingdom then all the options of devolution are there and are possible”.Will he unequivocally stand by his promise and confirm that this approach means full fiscal autonomy being on the table and devolving full control of Scottish taxes and spending to the Scottish Parliament to help create jobs and a more just society?

The Prime Minister:

I certainly stand by all the promises I made in the run-up to the referendum. Lord Smith is doing an excellent job looking at all the options for devolution, and I am sure we can find a way forward. On keeping promises, however, I hope that the Scottish National party will keep its promise when it said that the referendum would end this question for a generation, possibly a lifetime. I am not sure that its former leader is sticking to that, but I think he should.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):

I am personally grateful to the Prime Minister for the many visits he made to Somerset during the flooding crisis earlier this year. However, despite a lot of good work, two decisions remain outstanding, so may I invite him to come to Somerset again, before it gets too wet, so that he can announce the sluice on the River Parrett and a sustainable funding mechanism for the Somerset rivers authority?

The Prime Minister:

I would be delighted to return to Somerset, and I am sure that many of my colleagues will be beating a path to Somerset in the coming months, too. I am excited by what has happened with the dredging of the Tone and the Parrett rivers. Multiple teams are out there, and they have made a real difference. They are proving that dredging, particularly on man-made waterways, which is what we are dealing with, can make a real difference. My only disappointment was that I was not allowed to drive the machinery myself—for some antiquated health and safety reasons—but I am sure I will be back.

Q6.[905578]

Scam e-mail and scam mail cost £3.5 billion a year and bring misery to many elderly and vulnerable people right across the country. It is reported, however, by only one in five people. It is the hidden crime of this country. What is the Prime Minister going to do to stamp out scams on the internet, on the telephone and through the post?

The Prime Minister:

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is a matter of concern to many people. This is the sort of issue in respect of which the National Crime Agency is now able to bring together expertise and to combat properly. Technological advances have also been made in the form of spam and other filters that people can put on their computers so that they get fewer of these e-mails in the first place.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con):

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Varian Medical Systems in my constituency on celebrating 30 years of high-quality manufacturing? Will he congratulate Elekta Oncology Systems, too, on its plans to expand significantly in my constituency? Does this not prove that high-quality UK manufacturing is on the rise?

The Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend makes an important point—that we are seeing a recovery in some of the most important high-skill industries in our country, not least pharmaceuticals, medical services and high-end manufacturing. When we look at the jobs created under this Government, we see that some two thirds are higher-skill jobs rather than lower-skill ones. That is all to the good because we want to rebuild the manufacturing base of our country.

Q7.[905579]

My 10-year-old constituent Maddie Snell was disappointed with the response she recently received from the Prime Minister regarding West Cumberland hospital in England, telling the BBC that he did not answer her question. I am sure that Members of all parties can relate to Maddie’s frustration in that respect. Before the last general election, the Prime Minister promised a bare-knuckle fight to protect maternity services, but it has never materialised. Will he confirm today that every maternity service unit in every hospital in England is subject to a national review?

The Prime Minister:

I want to see district general hospitals with maternity services within them. We have contributed £70 million to the redevelopment of West Cumberland hospital, together with £11 million to the community hospital in Cockermouth, which has been opened to provide further services. Unlike in Wales, the amount of money going into the West Cumberland is going up. It should be enough to provide good maternity services.

Q8.[905580]

Today Jim O’Neill completes his final City Growth Commission report. Will the Prime Minister and the Chancellor continue their support for Jim to ensure that a future Conservative Government deliver on a northern powerhouse?

The Prime Minister:

I think Jim O’Neill has done an absolutely first-class job with this report. I shall be seeing him later today, and I want to congratulate him on what he has done. There is a real opportunity here—the Chancellor has spoken about it—to create a northern powerhouse by looking at how we can use high-speed rail and other infrastructure to link up our great northern cities so that we really have a proper rebalancing of our economy. That is what this is all about, and I think that Jim O’Neill’s work is all to the good.

Q9.[905581]

The Prime Minister will be aware that Tata Steel intends to sell its long products division to the Klesch group, which could have an effect on 15,000 jobs. Given the significance of the British steel industry to the UK economy and in view of Klesch’s history of asset stripping and dumping companies across Europe, does the Prime Minister agree with me that Klesch is not a fit and proper company to own such an important part of our economy and that the prospect of such a sale merits a direct intervention by this Government in the interests of those steelworkers and the British public?

The Prime Minister:

I want to see a successful British steel industry as much as the hon. Gentleman does. We have seen some good steps in recent years, with what has happened at Port Talbot and, indeed, at Redcar. I think we should talk to Klesch, judge it by what it says and what it does and give every assistance we can to try to maintain these important businesses and jobs. That is exactly what we are doing. We are looking at all the flexibilities under things such as the emissions directives to see what more we can do. I am sure that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and I will be looking into this personally, and will do everything we can to support this important industry.

Q10.[905582]

When Bluewater shopping centre in my constituency held a job fair recently, there were more jobs on offer than there are jobseekers in Dartford. Will the Prime Minister congratulate Bluewater on its contribution to a 50% fall in unemployment and to what can only be described as a jobs revolution in Dartford?

The Prime Minister:

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Bluewater. The fact is that the claimant count in his constituency has fallen by 47% since the election. It is noticeable how many jobs are being created in Dartford and in retail. Regrettably, I last went to Bluewater in Dartford to make a speech rather than to go shopping, but perhaps I shall be able to do both next time.

Q11.[905583]

Will the Prime Minister rule out any further increases in VAT while he remains in post?

The Prime Minister:

Our plans do not involve raising taxes on ordinary people. What we want to do is ensure that we hold back the growth of public spending so that we can go on cutting people’s taxes. We have taken 3 million people out of income tax. We have given a tax cut to 26 million people. We have cut the tax on every small business in our country. We have set a low rate of corporation tax so that businesses can come and locate in our country. The people who put up taxes are the people who want to put up spending and put up borrowing. That means the Labour party.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con):

Our nuclear test veterans greatly welcomed the Prime Minister’s words of recognition during Question Time on 2 July. Given that one in three of their descendants has been born with a serious medical condition, can he update the House—as he promised to do on that occasion—on progress towards an ex gratia payment of £25 million to a charitable fund to help those veterans and, most important, their descendants who are in need?

The Prime Minister:

I am afraid that there is not a lot more that I can say to my hon. Friend today, but we are looking carefully at what we can do. As he said, we have gone further than pervious Governments in terms of recognition of this issue. What I will say is that if we look across the board at the grievances that are held by those who have served in our armed forces, I think that this Government have done a lot to deal with them, and to deal with them correctly. We are the first Government to say that there should be an Arctic convoy medal and to deliver it, and the first Government to say that there should be a clasp for those who served in Bomber Command.

Yesterday, it was an enormous privilege to welcome to Downing street all those who had served in the south Atlantic in connection with the Falklands war but had not been able to get campaign medals because of the rapid cut-off date for that campaign. Under this Government, another 10,000 people who served in the south Atlantic in difficult conditions are getting the medals that they deserve.

Q12.[905584]

A year ago, the Prime Minister looked a grieving mother in the eye as she begged him to get the British police involved in investigating the murder of her son in Greece. He said no. This week, at the trial, we discovered that the forensic evidence was compromised. Can the Prime Minister tell us why he sent police to Thailand to pursue a murder case on Friday, and what he will do in order to finally live up to his promise to help secure justice for Tyrell Matthews-Burton?

The Prime Minister:

What I remember is meeting the hon. Lady last year, with her constituent, and going through all the things that we could try to do to help. My understanding is that Ms Matthews did secure funding from the homicide service for the cost of a legal representative in Greece, and that that also covered her travel costs to attend the trial, as well as costs for key witnesses to give evidence at the trial. I believe that the Foreign Office is also working hard to provide consular service support for Ms Matthews. Of course, we will go on helping in any way we can, and I give the hon. Lady that guarantee today.

As for the case in Thailand, I think that because of the uncertainties over that case and the fact that two British citizens were murdered, it is right to offer the Thai Government the assistance of British police, and for the police to go out there to look at some of the technical evidence in particular. I was very pleased that the Thai Prime Minister agreed to that while we were at the Europe-Asia summit in Milan last Friday.

On all these cases, I am very happy to help, and I should be very happy to hear from the hon. Lady what more she thinks we can do in regard to the important case that she has raised.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con):

In 2009, under the last Government, the number of young unemployed people in Worcester was more than twice the number of apprenticeship starts, but that situation has now been turned on its head, and the latest figures show that there are almost three times as many apprenticeship starts in the city as there are young unemployed. Does the Prime Minister agree that his plan to create a million further apprenticeships can help us to eliminate youth unemployment?

The Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our ambition is to eliminate youth unemployment by making it clear that it is no longer an option to leave home, claim housing benefit and sign on to jobseeker’s allowance when there could be the chance of a job or apprenticeship or some training, and we are certainly committed to helping in every way we can in Worcester. I note that those on the Labour Front Bench, including the shadow Business Secretary, do not even know where Worcester is—he referred to it in a radio interview as Wichita. I think he has been overdoing the country music and needs to get in touch with his inner Worcester woman.

Q13.[905585]

The Prime Minister will, I am sure, agree that the regulatory structure around hydraulic fracturing needs to be scientifically robust. With that in mind, can he explain why in the other place his party rejected amendments that would ensure just that?

The Prime Minister:

What I want to see is, obviously, a robust regulatory and environmental permissions regime, which I believe we have. I also want us to get on with recovering unconventional gas because I think the greatest proof of how safe this technology is and how good it could be for jobs and energy costs in our country is to demonstrate where it is actually working in some wells. My fear is that many in the other place, and indeed in this place, want to cover this new industry with regulation so that it simply does not go ahead.

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD):

The Prime Minister will recall that film tax relief existed as a legitimate Government tax policy for 10 years from 1997. Is he aware that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now effectively treating all investors from that period as tax dodgers, even those who produced genuine films and created jobs, as intended? Will he instruct Treasury Ministers to review that approach and meet a cross-party delegation of concerned MPs?

The Prime Minister:

I am sure that we have all had constituency and other e-mails and casework about this, but I have to say that every time I ask the Treasury about it, it is very clear that the things that are being investigated are abuses and were known to be abuses at the time when people entered into them. I want low tax rates, but tax rates that people actually pay; and where schemes are being used for avoidance, we should be very swift in closing them down.

Q14.[905586]

The National Audit Office blames a lack of co-ordination across three Departments for the Government’s failure to deport hundreds of foreign criminals, many of them highly dangerous, so where does the buck stop: with the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary, or the Prime Minister himself?

The Prime Minister:

The buck absolutely stops with me; I am very clear about that. I think the NAO has produced a very good report on a difficult issue that we need to get right. We have deported 22,000 foreign national offenders since I became Prime Minister. The report is very clear that since 2013 for the first time we have got a proper cross-Government strategy to deal with this, but it also goes into quite a lot of detail about how there are still too many obstacles in terms of human rights legislation that we need to change. What we have seen from the Government this week is that we are now able to deport people first and they can appeal once they have gone back to their country of origin; and we are reducing the number of appeal routes from 17 routes, which were there under Labour, to just four. We are making progress. The buck stops with me, but I wouldn’t mind a bit of cross-party support for the actions we need to take.

Q15.[905587]

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the fact that the £800 million contract for older people’s services in Cambridgeshire was awarded to the NHS bidder, in stark contrast to the billion-pound privatisation of Hinchingbrooke hospital tendered by the last Government, who did not even have an NHS bidder in the final five?

The Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we want to see an expansion of NHS services. The Labour party claims there is some sort of secret agenda to privatise, but that was the case under the last Labour Government—they fattened up contracts and insisted on only private providers. Under this Government, the NHS is being properly run by those who are clinicians, and they make decisions about the future of our health service.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):

When the Prime Minister was in opposition he always lectured Labour on transparency. May I ask him when he is going to shine a light on the men who were fitted up and jailed in 1973 for the national builders strike? Will he release the papers relating to that case? If he will not, what has the Tory party got to hide?

The Prime Minister:

I have not looked at this case previously, but I am very happy to take away what the hon. Gentleman has said and look at it. Actually, over recent years we have shortened the period during which papers remain secret, and have released more and more papers. I am very happy to look at the case he raises.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):

I have recently been campaigning a lot in East Northamptonshire with the excellent Conservative candidate for Corby, Tom Pursglove. The No. 1 issue on the doorstep is EU migration. Last year, 214,000 people came to this country from the EU. That is not sustainable. What can be done about that?

The Prime Minister:

My hon. Friend, and the candidate to whom he rightly refers, is absolutely right that we need to get a grip on immigration—wherever it is coming from. This Government have made very big steps forward, closing down 700 bogus colleges. For the first time, we have had an economic cap on migration from outside the EU, and a whole series of rules coming in about benefit claimants, abuse and all those issues. [Interruption.] But I am convinced that there is more we need to do. I do not think the British public are being unreasonable about this. They want control over—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor keeps shouting . Let us remember who it was who said we needed to send out search parties to find more immigrants. Let us remember who it was who delivered completely uncontrolled immigration. It was the Labour party and the shadow Chancellor.

On a happier note, I am sure that the whole House will want to unite and congratulate the former Clerk Sir Robert Rogers on his well-deserved peerage.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab):

My constituents, British citizens Mr and Mrs Mahmood, have been living in Sierra Leone for the last five years. Unsurprisingly, when Ebola spread, they spent their savings coming back to Slough. I have been trying since the beginning of this month to get them some financial support here, and I have failed, despite a promise by the Health Secretary to get a response to me, because they have been rejected on the grounds that they are not habitually resident here. I threatened to raise this issue in this Question Time, and as a result, at 11.59 today I got a reply saying that they would get no support from the Department for Work and Pensions. What is the Prime Minister going to do about people who are fleeing Ebola to come back to the country of their nationality, and have no resources?

The Prime Minister:

I am very happy to look at the case the hon. Lady mentions—it must be absolutely terrifying for people who are British citizens, who have a right to come here, who have fled that country because of all the things that are happening. I am very clear that our first responsibility is to help tackle Ebola at source, in west Africa, and I think it fair to say that Britain is doing more than any other country—bar perhaps the United States—in marshalling resources, troops, health care professionals, training facilities and beds. But I will look very carefully at the decision made at 11.59 today in respect of the hon. Lady’s constituents and see what can be done.