I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Rifleman Sheldon Steel from 5th Battalion The Rifles. He was a highly respected soldier who had achieved a great deal and shown much potential during his time with the Army. At this very sad time, our thoughts should be with his family, his friends and his colleagues. His courage and his dedication will never be forgotten by our nation.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to that brave serviceman, who gave his life for our country. Our thoughts are with his family at this very difficult time.
Blaenau Gwent, my constituency, has high unemployment but great potential, and it would benefit greatly from £200 million of private-sector-led investment in motor sport. Will the Prime Minister provide support for enhanced capital allowances for enterprise zones in Wales, including Blaenau Gwent, as well as in England?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. First, may I congratulate him and the other 37 Members who have opted to grow additional facial hair in this month of November? It is a very good way—[ Interruption. ] For those who are capable of doing so, it is a very good way of raising the profile of that important illness, prostate cancer.
We are committed to providing enhanced capital allowances, and discussions are ongoing with devolved Administrations about enhanced capital allowances in their enterprise zones. We will do what we can in Blaenau Gwent, as elsewhere, and I should add that we are electrifying the line to Cardiff and looking for improvements on the M4. All the announcements that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday will have consequentials for additional spending on infrastructure in Wales.
I am confident that the Prime Minister, like me, will praise the courage and professionalism of the Portland search and rescue helicopter. I am confident also that he will share with me the alarm, anger and disbelief of my constituents and many colleagues with coastal constituencies that it is to be axed. Will he meet me and a small delegation from South Dorset to discuss that urgent matter before a disastrous mistake is made?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know how important it is that we have effective search and rescue facilities off our coast, and I know about the incredibly good work that they do. What the Government are looking at is the best way to deliver those services, including how they should be paid for, and it is important that that work goes ahead.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Rifleman Sheldon Steel, from 5th Battalion The Rifles? He served with huge commitment and courage, and our deepest condolences are with his family and friends.
In June at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister praised the head teacher of Vaynor First school in Redditch for refusing to strike. Today, she has closed her school. She says:
“This has been the most difficult decision of my professional life… The difference in the summer was that I had faith in the Government… I have not seen any progress so I have decided…to strike.”
Why does the Prime Minister think that so many decent, hard-working public sector workers, many of whom have never been on strike before, feel that the Government simply are not listening?
The reason why people are going on strike is that they object to the reforms that we are making to public sector pensions, but I believe that those reforms are absolutely essential. The Labour former Work and Pensions Secretary, Lord Hutton, said that
“it is hard to imagine a better deal than this.”
What I would say, above all, to people who are on strike today is that they are going on strike at a time when negotiations are still under way. The right hon. Gentleman refers to what was said in June. Let me remind him what he said on
“These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are…going on”.
Why has he changed his mind?
The reason public sector workers do not think the Prime Minister is listening is that the Government declared negotiations at an end four weeks ago. They said that they had made their final offer. They have not even met the unions for four weeks, since
I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s entire party is paid for by the unions, but I must say that what he has just told the House is extraordinary and completely and utterly untrue. The fact is there were meetings with the trade unions yesterday, there will be meetings with them tomorrow and there will be meetings on Friday. The negotiations are underway. Let me repeat what he said in June. He said that it is wrong to strike
“at a time when negotiations are…going on”.
Yet today he backs the strikes. Why? Because he is irresponsible, left-wing and weak.
Order. Members on both sides of the House need to calm down. If senior Members of the House think that it is a laughing matter, let me tell them that it is not. The public would like to see some decent behaviour and a bit of leadership on these matters, and so would I.
The Prime Minister is the one—he did not deny it—who went around saying that he is privately delighted because the unions have walked into his trap. That is the reality. The truth is that it is not only public sector workers who are paying for the failure of his plan, but private sector workers. Will he confirm that, as a result of the cuts to tax credits announced yesterday, a family on the minimum wage, taking home £200 a week, will lose a week and a half’s wages?
Let me be clear that I do not welcome these strikes one bit. I think that we have made a very reasonable and very fair offer to public sector workers, and that is why the former Labour Pensions Secretary said:
“It is hard to imagine a better deal.”
I do not want to see any strikes. I do not want to see schools close. I do not want to see problems at our borders, but this Government have to make responsible decisions.
Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House of the facts about public sector pensions. Anyone earning less than £15,000 on a full-time equivalent salary will not see any increase in the contributions they have to make. In terms of the reforms we are making, a nurse retiring on a salary of just over £34,000 today would get a pension of £17,000, but in future she would get over £22,000. A teacher retiring on a salary of £37,000 would have got £19,000, but will now get £25,000. These are fair changes. I will tell the House why they are fair. We rejected the idea that we should level down public sector pensions. We think that public sector pensions should be generous, but as people live longer it is only right and fair that they should make greater contributions. What we see today on the Opposition Benches is a party that is in the pocket of the trade union leaders, that has to ask their permission before crossing a picket line and that take the irresponsible side of trade union leaders who have called their people out on strike when negotiations are underway.
Now let me answer his question about the low-paid—[ Interruption. ]
I am proud that millions of hard-working people in this country support the Labour party—better that than millions from Lord Ashcroft.
The problem is that the Prime Minister does not understand his own policy. He does not understand that there are part-time workers earning less than £21,000 who will be hit—800,000 low-paid, part-time workers, 90% of whom are women, will pay more. He denies that, but it is true. That is the reality.
The Prime Minister sits there shaking his head. He does not understand his own policy, and of course, he could not explain or justify what he did to everyone on low pay with the miserable deal cooked up with the Deputy Prime Minister to cut £1 billion from tax credits in the autumn statement yesterday. They have no explanation for why they are doing that—[ Interruption. ]
If we compare the end of this Parliament with the start of this Parliament, the Office for Budget Responsibility figures—let us remember that the OBR is independent, but when the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in the Treasury, the figures were fiddled by Ministers and advisers, and that no longer happens—show that 500,000 more people will be in jobs, 90,000 fewer people will be on the claimant count, and the unemployment rate will be 7.2% instead of 8.1%. That is the OBR’s forecast; it is not fiddled. The OBR is independent; and that is what the figures show.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, as I was not able to do so earlier, about helping the poorest people in our country. It is his party that got rid of the 10p tax—the biggest attack on the working poor. It is this Government who have taken 1.1 million people out of tax, who froze the council tax, cut the petrol tax, introduced free nursery care for two, three and four-year-olds, and are putting up the child tax credit by £390 this year and next. That is a record to be proud of, instead of the right hon. Gentleman’s appalling record of attacking the working poor.
With child poverty going up as a result of the autumn statement yesterday, the truth is that the Prime Minister could not answer the question because he is too embarrassed by the truth—[ Interruption. ] The Education Secretary should calm down. He tells children to behave; why does he not behave himself?
The Prime Minister is too embarrassed. There are 2.8 million people out of work according to the forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility. He is another Conservative Prime Minister for whom unemployment is a price worth paying. Because he is failing on unemployment and growth, he is failing on borrowing. He told the CBI conference last year that, no ifs or buts, by 2015
“we will have balanced the books.”
Will he now admit that on the central test he set himself, he has failed?
The right hon. Gentleman complains about the level of borrowing, but his answer is to borrow even more. That is the utter illiteracy. Let me tell him what we are doing. Because we have a plan to meet the mandate and to meet the test set out by the Chancellor in his emergency Budget, we have some of the lowest interest rates in Europe. That is right; for every percentage point they went up under Labour, that would be another £1,000 on a family mortgage, another £7 billion out of business and another £21 billion on our national debt. That is what we would get under Labour and that is why it is this Government who will take the country through this storm.
The Prime Minister is borrowing an extra £158 billion to pay for his economic failure. The truth is that his plan has failed. He refuses to change course and he is making working families pay the price. At the very least, we now know that he will never, ever be able to say again, “We’re all in this together.”
The leader of the Labour party has taken sides today: he is on the side of the trade union leader who wants strikes and not negotiations and he is on the side of people who want to disrupt our schools, disrupt our borders and disrupt our country. And when it comes to borrowing, he cannot even bring himself to welcome the fact that there are low interest rates.
Let me tell him this. The shadow Chancellor—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, they are all shouting in unison—[Interruption.] Or should that have been they are all shouting on behalf of Unison? I am not quite clear. Let me remind the House of what the shadow Chancellor said about low interest rates. He said that long-term interest rates are
“the simplest measure of monetary and fiscal policy credibility”.
That is what he said, and that is what this Government are delivering.
We are being tested by these difficult economic times. We will meet that test by getting on top of our debt and getting on top of our deficit. The Leader of the Opposition is being tested too, and he is showing that he is weak, left-wing and irresponsible.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to associate myself with the words of condolence from the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Ten years on from the military intervention, more than 3 million girls in Afghanistan are now in school. With the Bonn conference on Monday, will the Prime Minister send a clear message that the rights of those girls should not be traded away in a false choice between women’s rights and security? The evidence shows that women’s involvement in post-conflict resolution is essential for stability.
First of all, may I wish my hon. Friend and everyone in Scotland or who is Scottish a very happy St Andrew’s day? She is absolutely right to talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan. All too often, we talk about security without talking about some of the things that that security is making possible. It is the case that whereas in 2001 there were fewer than 1 million children in school in Afghanistan, none of them girls, today there are 6 million children regularly in school, 2 million of whom are girls. All those of us who have been to Afghanistan and met women MPs and other leaders in that country who want to stand up for women’s rights know what an incredible job those people are doing, and we are on their side.
What the OBR shows is that by 2015 we are going to have half a million more people in jobs, fewer people on the claimant count and a lower unemployment rate. But there is a serious point here, because the figures do show a sharp decline in public sector employment. That is shown by the figures. There is a much bigger increase in private sector employment.
What I would say to the Opposition—in fact, to everyone in the House—is that if we want to reduce the amount of unemployment from the public sector, we have to reform welfare, which they oppose, we have to freeze public sector pay, which they oppose, and we have to reform public sector pensions, where they are on the side of the irresponsible trade union leaders.
Is the Prime Minister aware that in the last financial year, taxpayers paid more than £113 million to trade unions by way of paid staff time and direct grants? In the light of today’s disruption to hospitals and schools, is it not time to review that situation?
I think it is time. I do not think full-time trade unionists working in the public sector on trade union business rather than serving the public is right, and we will put that to an end. That is absolutely the case, and the evidence today makes that case even stronger.
Why are the Government freezing working tax credit, which helps the lowest paid workers, including those whose wages are too low for them even to pay tax, to make work pay?
As the hon. Lady knows, what we are doing with tax credits is that there will be a £255 increase this year, which is the largest ever increase in child tax credit, and there will be a further £135 increase next year—a 5.2% increase. I think that is the right increase in child tax credit. Helping those families, genuinely helping people to get out and stay out of poverty, helping on nursery education and helping to get low paid people out of tax is even more valuable.
I thank all those people, including a number from No. 10 Downing street, who are helping to keep our borders open and to make sure that Heathrow and Gatwick are working properly. Let me report to the House that the evidence so far suggests that about 40% of schools are open; less than a third of the civil service is striking; on our borders, the early signs are that the contingency measures are minimising the impact; we have full cover in terms of ambulance services; and only 18 out of 900 jobcentres have closed. Despite the disappointment of the Labour party, which supports irresponsible and damaging strikes, it looks like something of a damp squib.
I came into politics to try to improve the welfare of people in our country. The fact is that, at the end of this public sector pension reform, those people working in the public sector will have far better pensions than most people in the private sector, who are contributing that money to them. [ Interruption. ] I know the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are paid to ask questions; they do not have to wave as well. [ Interruption. ] If they give the money back to the unions, I will calm down.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the outrageous attack on our embassy in Tehran yesterday and in paying tribute to our diplomatic staff serving in such difficult environments with such distinction?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that, and I am sure the whole House will join me in praising the incredible devotion of our staff in the foreign and diplomatic service, who often face great dangers, as they did yesterday in Tehran. I chaired a meeting of Cobra yesterday and another one this morning and spoke to our ambassador about the safety of his staff. That should be our No. 1 concern—their safety, their security and making sure those are maintained. After that, we will consider taking some very tough action in response to that completely appalling and disgraceful behaviour by the Iranians.
Order. The next question is a closed question.