I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to Del Singh and to Simon Chase who were tragically killed in Kabul on Sunday in a cowardly terrorist attack. Both were there to support the Afghan Government and to improve the lives of the Afghan people. Del Singh was a friend to many in the House and had given so much time and dedication to troubled regions across the world. Our thoughts should be with their families and friends at this very difficult time.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I would like to associate myself with the condolences that the Prime Minister expressed on behalf of the whole House.
The Trussell Trust co-ordinates the fast-growing network, now numbering some 400, of church-based food banks, which between them provided food for half a million people, just between April and December last year. Will the Prime Minister be willing to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust to discuss the big challenges with which they are grappling?
I would be happy to meet them. We have listened carefully to the Trussell Trust. One thing that it wanted to see done by this Government and the previous Government was to allow food banks to be promoted in jobcentres. We have allowed that to happen. That has increased the use of food banks, but it is important to do the right thing rather than something that might just seem politically convenient.
The Prime Minister is aware of the tragic case of a two-year-old boy taken to Chase Farm urgent care centre at 3 am for the emergency care he needed. But despite the best efforts of a senior nurse and the paramedics who took him to North Middlesex hospital he was tragically pronounced dead at 4 am. I know that we cannot comment on the case until a full report is published, but does he agree that the effect of reconfigurations, often put through despite local opposition, including from myself, is that we are asking people to decide where to go for help at moments of great personal stress? Does he further agree that we must do more to explain the choices to help them decide? On publication of the report, will he meet me to see whether lessons can be learned and changes made?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. This is an absolutely tragic case. I offer my deepest sympathies to Hashir’s family. Anyone who has taken a desperately ill child to hospital in the middle of the night when the child is at risk knows what an incredibly desperate time it can be. I understand that the hospital is carrying out a full and comprehensive investigation into the circumstances around that poor child’s death. I have asked the Health Secretary to discuss the findings of the investigation with my hon. Friend once it is completed. We must ensure that everything is done to avoid these terrible incidents happening in future.
I want to start by paying tribute to the two British nationals, Simon Chase and Del Singh, who were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. Simon Chase had served Britain in the Army, and my condolences go to all his family and friends. Del Singh was one of Labour’s European candidates, and one of the most decent people one could ever hope to meet. He was an international development worker who dedicated his life to helping people across the world, and we all grieve with his family.
Recent reports of the murder of thousands of innocent civilians by the regime in Syria are a reminder of the horror unfolding there. We all hope for significant progress from today’s talks. Last month the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and I made a joint statement about the plight of Syrian refugees, which welcomed the Government’s leadership in the aid programme. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also called on Britain to be part of a programme to help resettle a small number of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. Eighteen countries are part of that programme, but so far Britain is not among them. Does the Prime Minister not agree that we should be?
First, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman on just how dreadful the news is that has come out of Syria in recent days, with allegations of torture and worse. I think that we are fulfilling our moral obligations to the people of Syria. We are the second largest bilateral aid donor. The money that British taxpayers are providing is providing food, shelter, water and medicine for literally hundreds of thousands of people.
We are also fulfilling all our obligations in terms of asylum seekers. We have taken over 1,000 asylum seekers from Syria in recent months. We are also making sure that when we can help very vulnerable children who are ill, including a child who is in a British hospital today, we take action as well. I do not believe that we can solve a refugee crisis of this scale, with almost half of Syria’s population of 9 million either displaced or at risk of displacement, with a quota system by which countries are taking a few hundreds refugees. But I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if there are very difficult cases of people who do not belong in refugee camps who either have been disabled by the dreadful attacks or are in very difficult circumstances, I am happy for us to look at that argument. Britain always plays the right role in these desperate humanitarian crises.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Let me make just a few points in reply, because this is an important issue. First, we all agree on the leadership that this Government have shown in relation to Syrian aid, and I pay tribute to him, the International Development Secretary and others. On the point about asylum seekers, they are of course the people who have been able to get here, but we are talking about the people who are in the refugee camps at the moment. On his point about whether this can solve the problem, of course it cannot, but the UN is talking about a small number of the most vulnerable people, including children who have lost their parents and victims of torture. I was somewhat encouraged by the end of the Prime Minister’s answer. We are all proud of Britain’s tradition of taking refugees. Why does he not look at it again, say that Britain will participate in the programme, take just a few hundred refugees and, indeed, set an example?
I do not think that there is a disagreement between us. The problem I see—[Interruption.] Let me explain. The problem I see is that some countries are using the quota system as a way of saying, “Therefore, I have fulfilled my obligations.” When almost half of the population of 9 million is at risk of displacement, the fact that the Finns, the French or the Swedes will take a few hundred people is not fulfilling their obligations, whereas the massive amount of aid that Britain is putting forward—the second largest in the world—is playing the most important role. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, I think that there are individual cases that we should be looking at, and I am happy to look at those arguments and issues, but let us not pretend that a small quota system can solve the problem of Syrian refugees.
I do feel we are gradually inching forward on this issue. Let me be clear about this. It must not be an excuse for failing to provide aid—of course it must not—but we are not talking about either providing aid or taking vulnerable refugees; we are talking about doing both. Given the Prime Minister’s reasonable tone, will he now open discussions with the United Nations about Britain making its contribution to this programme? I think colleagues in all parts of the House want this to happen; will he now say he will do so?
I have made this very clear. We are prepared to listen to the arguments about how we can help the most vulnerable people in those refugee camps. Just to correct the right hon. Gentleman, some of the countries that are participating include in their quotas both asylum numbers and refugee numbers, which is not the argument we should be making. Let me be absolutely clear: Britain is leading the world in terms of humanitarian aid in Syria; we should be proud of that. We are fulfilling our obligations on asylum claims, and we should be proud that we give a home to those who flee torture and persecution. Where there are extreme hardship cases, we should look at those again. That is the approach that we should take. I think there should be all-party support for it, and I think Britain can be proud of the role that we are playing.
I hope that the Prime Minister will take this away and, as I say, open discussions with the United Nations—[Interruption.] I do not think hon. Members should groan on this issue; I really do not. We know that Britain can make more of a contribution on this specific issue and I hope he will open discussions.
I want to move on to another subject. Today’s welcome fall in unemployment is good for the people concerned—[Interruption.] We welcome the fall in unemployment because whenever an individual gets back into work it is good for them and good for their family. [Interruption.] I have to say to hon. Members that just braying like that does not do anybody any good. Can the Prime Minister confirm that today’s figures also show that average wages are down by £1,600 a year since the election, meaning that for many ordinary families life is getting harder?
It is worth pausing for a moment over what these statistics show today. They show youth unemployment coming down, long-term unemployment coming down, the claimant count coming down, and unemployment overall coming down—but above all, what we see today is the biggest ever quarterly increase in the number of people in work in our country. There should not be one ounce of complacency—there is still a huge amount of work to do to get Britain back to work—but there are 280,000 more people in work: that is 280,000 more people with the security of a regular pay packet coming in for themselves and their family. Now of course we are seeing a slow growth in wages—why? Because we are recovering from the longest and deepest recession in living memory. Because the Leader of the Opposition keeps quoting the figure without the tax cuts that we have put in place, he is not recognising that actually this year people are better off because we have controlled spending and cut taxes.
All the Prime Minister has done is show that he is absolutely complacent about the situation, because he is trying to tell millions of families around this country that they are better off when they know they are worse off, and it does not help for him to tell them the opposite. Let me take this figure: in Britain today, there are 13 million people living in poverty—that is a shocking figure. What is scandalous is that for the first time ever the majority of those people are living not in jobless families but in working families. What is his explanation for that?
The explanation is what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, which is that wages have increased much less quickly than inflation. As I say, that is not surprising. We have had the biggest recession in 100 years. It would be astonishing if household incomes had not fallen and earnings had not fallen. The fact is that we are recovering from the mess that Labour left us. Every week the Leader of the Opposition comes here and raises a new problem that he created. We had the betting problem, then we had the banking problem, then we had the deficit problem, and now we have the cost of living problem. He is like an arsonist who goes round setting fire after fire and then complains when the fire brigade are not putting out the fires fast enough. Why does he not start with an apology for the mess that he left us?
The Prime Minister comes here every week and does his Bullingdon club routine, and all he shows is that he has absolutely no understanding of the lives of people up and down this country. That is the reality: ordinary families are working harder for longer for less; he is cutting taxes for millionaires and not helping those families; and the minimum wage is falling in value. He cannot be the solution to the cost of living crisis, because he just does not understand the problem.
We are cutting taxes for everyone in our country, and we are able to do that only because we have controlled spending. What the right hon. Gentleman cannot face is the fact that the economy is improving. For months, the Opposition told us to listen to the IMF. Remember that? We had five tweets in one month from the shadow Chancellor: “Listen to the IMF”. Now the IMF is telling us, “The economy is growing. Stick to the plan. Unemployment is going down”—not a word.
We should remember that the Leader of the Opposition predicted 1 million more unemployed; we got 1 million more in work. He predicted the deficit would go up; the deficit is coming down. The fact is today our plan is working. There are 1.3 million more people in work in our country, which is 1.3 million more people with the security of a regular pay packet. We are securing Britain’s future, and it would be put at risk by Labour.
The systematic torture and killing of 11,000 people detained by the Syrian state is surely a war crime. As there can be no lasting peace without justice, will the Prime Minister resist conceding any immunity from prosecution for war crimes at the Geneva II talks that start today, so that the next time a tyrant turns on his own people the deterrent of international law is not muffled?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Britain is actually going further than that by making sure that we play our role not just in the humanitarian crisis that we have discussed, but in collecting evidence about war crimes so that people can be held to account for the dreadful things that they have done.
Stop-and-search does need reform. The report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary shows that in 27% of cases the police have not followed their own guidance on stop-and-search, so we do need to reform stop-and-search. If it is necessary to legislate, we will legislate; if it is not, we will not. What is really important is that stop-and-search is used properly, and that we do not add to the burdens of the police.
The Government’s roll-out of rural broadband will double the number of homes and businesses that receive broadband from 40% to 80%, but 17% of people will still be left without full fast broadband. Will the Government work with me to deliver that extra 20%, because it is very much part of our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those of us who represent rural communities, broadband is not just part of the economic plan but an absolutely vital part, because without that connectivity small businesses and entrepreneurs in our constituencies will not be able to benefit. We have seen massive investment go into broadband; we will shortly set out our plans for the £250 million announced in June to extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by 2017; and we are now connecting up tens of thousands of homes and businesses every week—all progress that was not made under the Labour Government.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the remarks of the Irish Foreign Minister about the Haass talks and the possibility of some kind of intervention by his Government are deeply unhelpful, that the vast majority of the issues at stake in the Haass talks are internal to Northern Ireland and are matters for the parties in Northern Ireland to engage and agree on, that there can be no question of an imposed solution and that the most helpful thing the Irish Government could do about the past is to be more forthcoming about the role of the state authorities in collusion with the IRA?
Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no question of an imposed solution. The proposal for the Haass discussions was a proposal of the Northern Ireland parties themselves. I obviously wish this process well. I think Haass did a good job in providing the architecture of a future solution on parades, flags and the past. I hope the parties can come together and continue the work. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary will do what she can to help to facilitate that work. I think it is important to go on discussing this with the Government of the Republic of Ireland. They have taken steps themselves to come to terms with some of the things that happened in their past. If the parties work together, and if the British and Irish Governments are there to help, I hope we can make some progress.
My hon. Friend is quite right that Brighton has a superb microclimate that people should be encouraged to take advantage of. He stands up for all his constituents with great vim and vigour. In reward, it would only be fair if Brighton, Kemptown was put in the shipping forecast somewhere between Dover and Wight, so that we had a reflection of that every morning.
Hitachi Rail Europe and Gestamp are working with Sunderland university to establish a university technical college in my constituency. That has the support of the Department for Transport. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he will support the college and ensure that the decision on the bid is taken quickly, so that employers and young people can acquire the skills that they need?
I am a great supporter of university technical colleges. They are providing a really good new set of schools for our country that focus on vocational training and education. The announcement of the new college last week was welcome news. It will open its doors in 2017. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that issue.
Voyage Care and Igloo are just two of the companies that have set up shop recently in my constituency, bringing hundreds of new jobs to an area where long-term unemployment has fallen by 35% and youth unemployment by 40%. Will my right hon. Friend commend the good sense of those companies for coming to Tamworth, encourage more to do the same and consider visiting Tamworth so that he can see for himself how our long-term economic plan is delivering results?
I am always happy to visit Tamworth and spend time in the shadow of Sir Robert Peel. I have enjoyed visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency in the past. We are seeing a recovery, particularly in jobs and getting people off the unemployment register. It is worth noting that today’s figures also show that full-time employment is up by 220,000, compared with just a 60,000 increase in part-time employment. That shows that people are getting the full-time jobs that they want. I am happy to commend the businesses he is welcoming to Tamworth.
We of course want to secure a recovery in every region of our county and in every nation of our United Kingdom. Employment in Scotland went up by 10,000 in the last quarter and there are 90,000 more people in work than there were a year ago, so progress is being made and the Scottish economy is performing. We should do everything we can to make that happen. Whether we keep interest rates down is a matter for the Bank of England. Our role must be to continue the work that we are doing to get the deficit down. In doing that, we have to make difficult decisions on spending. We are not helped by the fact that, of all the difficult decisions we have made, not one has been supported by the Labour party.
The Leader of the Opposition has suggested that we learn lessons from the Labour Welsh Assembly Government on how to run public services. Given that Wales has seen cuts to the NHS budget and has the worst education system in the UK, does my right hon. Friend agree that the only lesson that we can learn from it is that those who care about public services should vote Conservative?
It is possible to look closely at the decisions that the Labour Government have taken in Wales and at the effect of those decisions. They have not followed our approach of protecting spending on the NHS. There has been an 8% cut to the NHS budget in Wales. As a result, they have not met an A and E target since 2009. Like my hon. Friend, I also worry about some of the changes that have been made to education in Wales, because we want all children in our country to get the benefits that come from good basics in education, proper tests and proper league tables.
This weekend, Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General, one of our biggest financial companies, urged the Government to abandon their Help to Buy scheme in London to prevent house prices from spiralling out of control. Does the Prime Minister agree with Mr Wilson that we should instead use the money to build new homes across the United Kingdom?
We are building homes across the United Kingdom, but one better than what she suggests is what we have done, which is to give the power to the Bank of England to advise specifically on any potential problems in the housing market, or, indeed, in any other market. We have cleared up the mess of the regulatory system we were left by the Labour party, so that proper warnings can be given in proper time.
Under the Labour Government, manufacturing was neglected and the sector halved in size. With this Government investing in manufacturing excellence at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in my constituency, and with the success of companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls-Royce in important export markets, does the Prime Minister agree that a resurgent manufacturing sector is part of this Government’s long-term plan for the economy?
Rebalancing our economy is absolutely part of our long-term economic plan. We want to see a balanced recovery—balanced between manufacturing and services, and properly balanced between north and south—and make sure that we win back jobs and orders from overseas. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls-Royce have the full backing and support of the Government: they have investment going into apprenticeship schemes, which are helping them; we have reformed UK Trade & Investment, so we can help them sell around the world; we are doing everything we can to encourage them to bring jobs back into the UK; and manufacturing exports and investment are responding well.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The White Paper, which we were told would answer all questions, has actually left all the most important questions—on the future of the currency, on Scotland’s place in the European Union, on the future of defence jobs and on the future financial services—unanswered. I think that that is why Mr Salmond is struggling to get his argument across.
We can currently celebrate record investment in North sea oil and gas production and all the jobs that they support but we have to recognise the growing concern at the lack of exploration. Will the Prime Minister therefore recommit the Government to their tax stability policy to encourage as much exploration as possible and ensure future investment?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is very important that we make the most out of the asset that is the North sea. That is what the Wood report is all about, and we are putting those proposals in place. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen very carefully to what he says about ensuring that the tax system encourages maximum recovery in the long term.
Del Singh was an extraordinary person: a warm and generous friend, and a passionate campaigner for peace and justice. He dedicated his life to working for those in need in areas of conflict, including in Afghanistan. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that, after the drawdown of troops this year, the work of people such as Del Singh will continue to be supported by this Government?
I very much share what the hon. Lady said about Del Singh. It reminds us of the risks that aid workers take on our behalf to deliver vital assistance around the world. I can give her the assurance she seeks. It is very important for everyone to recognise that, while our troops are coming home at the end of
2014, our commitment to Afghanistan will continue: not just our commitment to its armed forces but, with more than $100 million a year, out commitment to its aid and future development. We will need many more brave people such as Del Singh to go on working with the Afghan Government to deliver for the Afghan people.
Formula 1 team McLaren is the largest employer in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating it on the hundreds of new jobs it is creating locally, on the global sell-out of its P1 sports car and on the £50 million of exports it will achieve this year in China? Surely these are yet more examples of the success of British business and of our long-term economic plan.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for McLaren and the work of Ron Dennis, who helpfully brought one of his cars to our great meeting in China on encouraging investment into the UK. Of course, this is the very highest end of British motor manufacturing, but it is worth recognising that a vehicle rolls off a British production line every 20 seconds. The British motor industry is doing well, this Government are backing it and long may that continue.
May I also thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their kind words about my friend Del Singh, who devoted his too-short life to working for peace and justice, not least in Palestine and Afghanistan?
The number of new affordable home starts has fallen by a third since 2010. Why is that? Is it in part because Tory councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, are demolishing council homes—the most affordable type of housing—and selling the land for exclusively private development?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman has got his figures wrong. The number of housing starts is 89% higher than the trough Labour left us in 2009. We have already delivered more than 100,000 affordable homes and will deliver 170,000 in total by 2015, and the rate of affordable house building will soon be the highest it has been for two decades, which is a massive contrast with Labour, under which housing waiting lists almost doubled. If he does not believe me, he might want to listen to this quotation—and guess who it is from:
“We refused to prioritise the building of new social housing”.
Who said that? Anyone? It was the Leader of the Opposition. Thank you very much.
May I commend the Prime Minister for his firm action against unscrupulous payday lenders and for driving the credit union expansion project? Will he now urge more employers to consider partnering with their local credit union so that many more people can access affordable credit and convenient savings direct through the payroll?
I commend my hon. Friend for his consistent campaigning and speaking out on this issue. We are taking the tough action needed on payday lending, but, as he says, the positive side of this is that we need to expand credit unions faster, and we should be looking at all the ways that can be done, including through other organisations partnering with credit unions and encouraging their work.
What the Government are publishing today is the fact that hundreds of thousands more people are getting into work and able to provide for their families and get the peace of mind and security that people in this country want. That is what we are publishing today, and that is real progress for our nation.
Some 45% of people do not pay their utility bills by direct debit, and 1 million of them do not have bank accounts, yet energy companies charge, on average, £115 extra for people who do not pay by direct debit, hitting pensioners and the poorest the most. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, given that the Government are doing everything possible by cutting energy bills by £50?
I am certainly happy to look into this issue. We have taken steps to compel the energy companies to put people on the lowest tariffs, and we want to ensure that everyone can take advantage of that. As my hon. Friend said, we have also cut energy bills by £50 by rolling back the cost of some of the green measures, and we should continue to make this market more competitive, to give more choice to consumers and to encourage switching, which happened a huge amount towards the end of last year and has saved many people many hundreds of pounds.