European Council

– in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 21 March 2016.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 4:15, 21 March 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council, which focused on the migration crisis affecting continental Europe.

The single biggest cause has of course been the war in Syria and the brutality of the Assad regime, but we have also seen a huge growth in the numbers of people coming to southern Europe from Afghanistan, Pakistan and north Africa, all facilitated by the rapid growth of criminal networks of people smugglers. There are over 8,000 migrants still arriving in Greece every week, and there are signs that the numbers using the central Mediterranean route are on the rise again. So far, 10,000 have come this year.

Of course, because of our special status in the European Union, Britain is not part of the Schengen open border arrangements—and we are not going to be joining. We have our own border controls, and they apply to everyone trying to enter our country, including EU citizens. So people cannot travel through Greece or Italy onward to continental Europe and into Britain, and that will not change. It is in our national interest, however, to help our European partners deal effectively with this enormous and destabilising challenge.

We have argued for a consistent and clear approach right from the start: ending the conflict in Syria; supporting the refugees in the region; securing Europe’s borders; taking refugees directly from the camps and neighbouring countries but not from Europe; and cracking down on people smuggling gangs. This approach, of focusing on the problem upstream, has now been universally accepted in Europe, and at this Council it was taken forwards with a comprehensive plan for the first time.

As part of the plan, the Council agreed to prevent migrants from leaving Turkey in the first place; to intercept those who do leave, while they are at sea, and to turn back their boats; and to return to Turkey those who make it to Greece. There can be no guarantees of success, but if this plan is properly and fully implemented, it will, in my view, be the best chance to make a difference. For the first time, we have a plan that breaks the business model of the people smugglers by breaking the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.

I want to be clear about what Britain is doing, and what we are not doing, as a result of this plan. We are contributing our expertise and our skilled officials to help with the large-scale operation now under way. Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Mounts Bay and Border Force vessels are already patrolling the Aegean, British asylum experts and interpreters are already working in Greece to help them process individual cases, and at the Council I said that Britain stood ready to do even more to support these efforts. Above all, what is needed, and what we are pushing for, is a detailed plan to implement this agreement and to ensure that all the offers of support from around Europe are properly co-ordinated. Our share of the additional money, which will go to helping refugees in Turkey under this agreement, will come from our existing aid budget.

Let me also be clear about what we are not doing. First, we are not giving visa-free access for Turks coming to the UK. Schengen countries are planning to give visa-free access to Turks, but because we are not part of Schengen we are not bound by their decision. We have made our own decision, which is to maintain our own borders, and we will not be giving that visa-free access.

Secondly, visa-free access to Schengen countries will not mean a back-door route to Britain. As the House knows, visa-free access only means the right to visit; it does not mean a right to work or to settle. For instance, just because British citizens can enjoy visa-free travel for holidays to America, it does not mean they can work, let alone settle there. Neither will this give Turkish citizens those rights in the EU.

Thirdly, we will not be taking more refugees as a result of this deal. A number of Syrians who are in camps in Turkey will be resettled into the Schengen countries of the EU, but again that does not apply to Britain. We have already got our resettlement programme and we are delivering on it. We said we would resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over this Parliament, taking them directly from the camps, and that is what we are doing. We promised 1,000 resettled here in time for last Christmas, and that is what we delivered. The other 27 EU countries agreed to two schemes, one of which was to relocate 160,000 within the EU, but by the time of last December’s Council only 208 had been relocated. The second scheme was to have a voluntary resettlement scheme for 22,500 from outside the EU, but by the end of last year just 483 refugees had been resettled throughout the 27 countries.

We said what we would do and we are doing it. Britain has given more money to support Syrians fleeing the war, and the countries hosting them, than any other European country. Indeed, we are doing more than any country in the world other than the United States, spending over £l billion so far, with another £1.3 billion pledged. We are fulfilling our moral responsibility as a nation.

Turning to the central Mediterranean, the EU naval operation we established last summer has had some success, with over 90 vessels destroyed and more than 50 smugglers arrested. HMS Enterprise is taking part and we will continue her deployment throughout the summer. What is desperately needed is a Government in Libya with whom we can work, so that we can co-operate with the Libyan coastguard in Libyan waters to turn back the boats and stop the smugglers there, too. There is now a new Prime Minister and a Government we have recognised as the sole legitimate authority in Libya. These are very early days, but we must do what we can to try and make this work. That is why at this Council I brought together leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Malta to ensure that we are all ready to provide as much support as possible.

Turning to other matters at the Council, I took the opportunity to deal with a long-standing issue we have had about the VAT rate on sanitary products. We have had some EU-wide VAT rules in order to make the single market work, but the system has been far too inflexible, and this causes understandable frustration. We said we would get this changed and that is exactly what we have done. The Council conclusions confirm that the European Commission will produce a proposal in the next few days to allow countries to extend the number of zero rates for VAT, including on sanitary products. This is an important breakthrough. Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products, meaning the end of the tampon tax. On this basis, the Government will accept both the amendments tabled to the Finance Bill tomorrow night.

My right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith spent almost a decade campaigning for welfare reform and improving people’s life chances, and he has spent the last six years implementing those policies in Government. In that time, we have seen nearly half a million fewer children living in workless households, over a million fewer people on out-of-work benefits and nearly 2.4 million more people in work. In spite of having to take difficult decisions on the deficit, child poverty, inequality and pensioner poverty are all down. My right hon. Friend contributed an enormous amount to the work of this Government and he can be proud of what he achieved.

This Government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country. We will continue to reform our schools. We will continue to fund childcare and create jobs. We will carry on cutting taxes for the lowest-paid. In the last Parliament, we took 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax altogether and our further rises will take many, many more out, too. Combined with this, we will go on with our plans to rebuild sink estates, to help those with mental health conditions, to extend our troubled families programme, to reform our prisons and to tackle discrimination for those whose life chances suffer because of the colour of their skin. And, in two weeks’ time we will introduce the first ever national living wage, giving a pay rise to the poorest people in our country. All of this is driven by a deeply held conviction that everyone in Britain should have the chance to make the most of their lives.

Mr Speaker, let me add this. None of this would be possible if it was not for the actions of this Government and the work of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in turning our economy around. We can only improve life chances if our economy is secure and strong. Without sound public finances, you end up having to raise taxes or make even deeper cuts in spending. You do not get more opportunity that way; you get less opportunity that way, and we know that, when that happens, it is working people who suffer, as we saw in Labour’s recession. So we must continue to cut the deficit, control the cost of welfare, and live within our means. We must not burden our children and grandchildren with debts that we did not have the courage to pay off ourselves. Securing our economy and extending opportunity, we will continue our approach in full, because we are a modern, compassionate, one-nation Conservative Government. I commend the statement to the House.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 4:25, 21 March 2016

I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of about half his statement. Let me deal with the points that he made in order.

The refugee crisis that Europe currently faces is the largest since the end of the second world war. There are more displaced people in the world now than there have been at any time in recorded history. Thousands of people have died making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and in other places around the world.

As an advanced, democratic, civilised nation, we have a duty to reach out the hand of humanity, support and friendship to people who are going through the most disastrous time of their lives.

We should also recognise that a disproportionate burden has been placed on Syria’s neighbours. Jordan and Lebanon have accepted a very large number of refugees, as has Turkey. Among the European countries, Italy and Greece, as border countries, have done far more than anyone else, but Germany and Sweden have taken a very large number of asylum seekers. There has not been a balanced response throughout Europe.

Has the Prime Minister had a chance to read the statement made by Amnesty International at the weekend, after the agreement was reached? Amnesty is normally noted for its cautious use of words and the careful way in which it describes things; it is, after all, an organisation dedicated to human rights and the rule of law. The statement reads as follows:

“Guarantees to scrupulously respect international law are incompatible with the touted return to Turkey of all irregular migrants arriving on the Greek islands as of Sunday. Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal”,

and it goes on to register further concerns. I ask the Prime Minister to respond carefully to the very reasonable points put by Amnesty International.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that when Greece receives asylum seekers from Turkey, they will all be interviewed individually? Will he confirm that they will all have access to interpreters, a right to a hearing and a right of appeal, even if the interviewing is done by officials who have come from other countries on behalf of the European Union? Will he confirm that those who are returned to Turkey will have similar rights there, and that they will, in turn, be properly treated? He must be well aware of the deep concern that many people feel about the recent events in Turkey, particularly the imprisonment of journalists who have attempted to speak out about a number of matters.

It is clear that the issue of the number of people seeking asylum in Europe is heavily bound up with the wars that have taken place, or continue to take place. The Prime Minister rightly spoke of the need for a political settlement in Syria and in Libya. Can he give us some information on progress that may have been made towards bringing about a political settlement in Syria that will enable people to return to their own homes, and to lead safe and secure lives? The situation in Libya is equally perilous for many people, especially those in insecure refugee camps.

The Prime Minister will be well aware that many of those who seek asylum in other countries make the perilous journeys to which I have referred. They also end up in refugee camps with very limited facilities, despite the great work done by volunteers. I have visited the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, which are in an appalling state. Those people are in a very perilous situation. They are all humans, to whom we must reach out the hand of friendship and support.

I recognise that the British Government have paid a great deal of money through the Department for International Development to support refugees in camps around the world. I recognise the work of the Royal Navy in plucking people from the sea and saving them from drowning. However, the Prime Minister still seems to be stuck in the narrative of saying that Britain will accept only 20,000 refugees over the next four years and that they will be taken from camps in the region, not from those facing problems as they get stuck while travelling across Europe. Can we not for once, please, Prime Minister, co-operate with every other European country on a European-wide response to the crisis engulfing the lives of so many people, rather than avoid our responsibilities?

In the advance copy I received of about half of the Prime Minister’s statement, he went on to talk about the VAT on sanitary products and one or two other issues, but he then delivered a much longer speech on many other things. The House should pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff for her work on trying to eliminate this unfair tax.

The Prime Minister is here today, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is here today, and practically every other Cabinet Minister is here today, but what has happened to the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Where is he? Instead of covering for his friend, could the Prime Minister not have asked him whether he would be kind enough to come along to the House to explain why, for the first time in Parliament in my memory, a Government’s Budget has fallen apart within two days of its delivery? There is an enormous hole in the Budget which has been brought about through a possible temporary retreat on changes to personal independence payments. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts to the Department for Work and Pensions budget and that more people with disabilities will not face more cuts as the years go on? Can he tell us why he is still defending a Budget that not only has inequality and a tax on the disabled and the poorest in our country at its core, but provides tax relief to the richest and the biggest corporations? The Budget has a big hole in it and it is up to the Prime Minister to persuade his great friend the Chancellor to come here to explain how he will fill that hole. Perhaps the Chancellor should consider his position and look for something else to do, because he clearly has not been successful at producing a balanced Budget that is in the interests of everyone in the country, particularly those with disabilities.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. First, on refugees, he says that we have a duty to help, and he is right and we have helped. We have spent billions of pounds—more than any other European country—supporting refugees in refugee camps, and the Royal Navy has helped in huge measure, as he said, picking people out of the sea and saving countless lives. We are taking 20,000 refugees from the neighbouring countries. Looking at the figures and what other European countries have done, we have put in place a plan and have delivered it far faster than many other, indeed most other, European countries.

The right hon. Gentleman’s second point was about Amnesty International. He is absolutely right that we must respect international law and the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Council conclusions and the agreement with Turkey make that clear, but it is not right to say that Turkey is an unsafe country for Syrian refugees. That is slightly insulting to the Turks, who are currently hosting 2.6 million people who have fled Syria. What is going to happen is that those who do not apply for asylum will be immediately returned to Turkey. Those who do apply will go through a rapid process with all the proper procedures in place. As the agreement says, all irregular migrants will be returned to Turkey because it is a safe country for refugees. It is, of course, different for anyone that it is not safe for. The right hon. Gentleman is missing the point, which is, of course, that it sounds very compassionate to say to refugees, “Keep coming, you can come in”, but by doing so you are encouraging people to make a perilous journey, where so many have lost their lives. It is actually a more compassionate thing to do to make sure you have firm borders and proper processes, and that you support the refugees in the countries they are in. We should not be encouraging more people to travel.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Syrian peace process, and I can tell him that the ceasefire is holding better than people expected, so, as a result, the talks are still under way. We are hopeful of progress but it will be slow and difficult. In Libya, there is a new Prime Minister, as I have said. The Foreign Secretary spoke to him over the weekend and, for the reasons the right hon. Gentleman gives, we are going to give him every support we can.

The right hon. Gentleman asked questions about Calais, so let me say this to him. Of course everyone is disturbed by the pictures of what happens in Calais and in those camps, but there is a very simple answer for those people: France is a safe country and if they want asylum, they should apply for it in France. If there are children in those camps who have direct family in Britain, they can apply for asylum in France and, under the Dublin convention, join their family here in Britain. We should not be doing anything to discourage people from taking that correct step.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we will take people from inside Europe, but I do not think that is the right answer. I would argue that the approach the Home Secretary and I set out almost a year ago of tackling this problem upstream, concentrating on borders, and taking asylum seekers from the refugee camps rather than from inside Europe is a better approach, which more and more countries in Europe can now see the merits of. He asked whether this is a European plan. Yes, it is, and we are part of it. We were one of the important countries at this Council arguing to get this deal done and to implement it properly, because although it has many imperfections, it is our best hope of trying to stem this tide of people coming towards Europe, and all the misery that is causing and bringing.

On the issue of the tampon tax, I am sorry, as I should have paid tribute to Paula Sherriff for the very hard work she has done. I am delighted that we have now got this proposal coming forward.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be in the House tomorrow, winding up the Budget debate; you have the First Lord of the Treasury today and you are going to have the Second Lord of the Treasury tomorrow. When it comes to holes in the Budget, we could perhaps hear from the timelords who sit on the Opposition Benches, because they left us the biggest black hole there ever was. When I became Prime Minister, we had an 11% budget deficit forecast—that was the biggest budget deficit anywhere.

As for the Budget, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman: this Budget increased funding for our schools; this Budget took more low-paid people out of income tax; this Budget froze fuel duty to help hard-working people; this Budget helped the poorest in our country to save; and this Budget backed small business, which is why it is going to strengthen the economy and make sure we have a fairer society.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

The fifth point of the Council conclusions says:

“The EU reiterates that it expects Turkey to respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law, respect of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.”

Any reference to that was absent from the accompanying EU-Turkey statement. How many Kurds have to be killed by the Turkish security forces before we no longer regard Turkey as a first country of asylum or safer third country, not least for Syrian Kurds?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

First, my hon. Friend is right to say that the conclusions mentioned the importance of commitment to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to a free press. At the earlier EU-Turkey Council that was spelt out in even more detail, with the mention even of the name of the newspaper that has faced difficulties. All European countries, including this one, raise this issue at every available opportunity. The point I would make is that for Syrians seeking refuge Turkey has been a safe place, and we should pay tribute to Turkey for looking after 2.6 million of those people. But we should also make the point that anyone who does genuinely face a fear of persecution in Turkey will be able to take that claim through their asylum claim.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

May I, too, thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of the first half of his statement? As this is a statement on the European Union summit, may I begin by discussing the EU-Turkey joint action plan? The statement had much to say about Turkey, Greece, refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and the impact and management of migration to the Schengen zone countries. In the Prime Minister’s statement, I counted a record 12 things the UK is not going to do, so given the projection of refugee numbers for this year, what will it take for the UK to review its 20,000 limit on accepting refugees? With the attempts to close the West Balkan route for refugees, will the Prime Minister update us on what that will mean for attempted crossings from Libya? Last week, in Prime Minister’s questions, I asked about UK plans to send troops to Libya. The Prime Minister chose his words very carefully. He said that he had no plans to send “conventional” forces to Libya. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that he has a policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of special forces? Will he also confirm that operations conducted by special forces are not subject to parliamentary oversight by either the Intelligence and Security Committee or the Defence Committee?

We very much welcome the agreement on VAT on sanitary products. It would be gracious of the Prime Minister to thank my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss who was the first Member of this House to table amendments to the Finance Bill, and tributes should be paid to Members across all parties who campaigned for that welcome change.

In the second half of the Prime Minister’s statement on the civil war within the Government, will he confirm that he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Scotland and his whole Cabinet agreed last week to cut support for the disabled by £4.3 billion while at the same time handing a tax cut to the very wealthy? I have repeatedly asked the Prime Minister about the devastating impact of benefit cuts to the most vulnerable, including the disabled and ill, many of whom will go on, sadly and tragically, to take their own lives. Does the Prime Minister understand that people watching the ongoing fall-out in the Conservative party are totally horrified that more time is spent talking about the jobs of Tory Ministers than about the impact of his damaging policies on the weakest in society?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

First, on the 20,000, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that what we have said—I will repeat this again—is that we are looking at the issue of child migrants and those whom we can help more of. We took in 3,000 last year. Of the 20,000, we expect many to be children. We have said that we are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on that, but again we are looking at children in the region, and we have talked about potentially taking in hundreds rather than thousands, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is examining that.

On the West Balkan route, I am not surprised that countries have decided to erect borders, as they have been very concerned about the huge flow of people through that route, but, obviously, everything that the Schengen countries and Europe as a whole can do to secure the external borders of Europe the better, and that is what we are helping with. I do not think that it has particular implications for Libya. Most of those migrants have been coming through Malta and Italy, and we do need to address that.

On special forces, let me confirm the long-standing policy, which is that all Governments have exactly the same approach, and we have not changed that at all. On sanitary products, I am very happy to pay tribute to Alison Thewliss and apologise for missing her out.

On disability, we are not going ahead with the changes that were put forward, but let me say what we are going ahead with. When I became Prime Minister we were spending £42 billion on disability benefits, and by the end of this Parliament, we are forecast to be spending more than £46 billion, which is a real-terms increase of more than £4 billion. What we did in that Budget was help to take low paid people out of tax and assist in many, many ways, which is why it was a good Budget and we have taken the right decisions.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Conservative, Rushcliffe

In addition to the refugees whom we are taking from the camps, each year thousands of people enter this country irregularly and by other means from North Africa and the middle east seeking asylum, and many of those requests are granted. Those numbers are increasing. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is a complete mistake to regard the current grave crisis over migration as something that is apart from the United Kingdom if only we were not in the European Union? Does he agree that it is in the British interest that he continues to play an active and leading role in these European Council discussions to try to achieve a solution to the external European border and how we will deal with genuine migrants in civilised conditions and return those who have no claim to be here? Will he continue to commit to the European effort the Navy, the aid money, and the resources that we are giving, together with his diplomatic and political efforts?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his remarks. He is right that whether we are in the European Union or out of the European Union, there is still a migration crisis affecting the continent of Europe, and that does have knock-on effects on us. The more people who come, the more people who end up at Calais and the greater the problem we have. I would argue that we have the best of both worlds because we are sat round the table trying to solve this problem, and good progress has been made, but because we are not in Schengen and not in these resettlement schemes, we keep our own decisions about borders and about visas and all the rest of it. Clearly, it does benefit us to co-operate, so we should continue to do that and continue to recognise that Britain can bring its experience to bear in helping our friends in Greece, who now face a real crisis in their country and deserve our help.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for his somewhat revised and lengthy assessment of the merits of Mr Duncan Smith. Let us be clear, though: the Turkey-EU deal is the result of failure by European leaders, including our own Prime Minister, to develop safe, sustainable and humane routes for refugees who are fleeing for their lives. It is inoperable, may well be illegal, and puts politics and public image above protecting human lives. Given that the Prime Minister is today at pains to stress that he is a compassionate Conservative, will he show some compassion to the 43,000 people currently stuck in Greece, including 20,000 children, and offer sanctuary to some of them, particularly the incredibly vulnerable unaccompanied children and families with babies?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I have to say that I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The idea that if we had found safe routes for people to come to Europe then somehow all the people-smuggling, the criminal gangs and the mass movement of people would have come to an end is complete and utter nonsense. We have to have some hard borders. A country is responsible for its borders, and if it is an external country to the European Union, it is particularly responsible for its border. The combination of harder border controls but compassion in helping refugees in the region is the right answer. We play our part by putting in the money and by taking the 20,000 refugees, but the idea that if we open up safe routes the whole problem will be solved is complete nonsense.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Given the extraordinary difficulties that occurred with regard to the charter of fundamental rights, and the human rights and the asylum laws, how does my right hon. Friend propose that the Turkey deal will be legally, let alone politically, enforceable?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

It is the view of the legal adviser to the European Council that what is being proposed is legal. Is it difficult to achieve? Yes, absolutely it is, because we have to consider each case individually. Is it possible, if we designate Turkey as a safe country for Syrian refugees, to return people there? Yes, it is possible. Looking at the problems we have had with mass movements of people over the years, we have to have a set of measures that break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement. Until we do that, we are basically unable to deal with the crisis. That is what Europe has now set out to do, and we should encourage it in that goal.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I agree with the Prime Minister that progress has been made, but it has come at a cost. Turkey will be getting €3 billion, and it has asked for another €3 billion by the end of 2018. Greece, on the other hand, which has to process, house and return these migrants, has not been pledged any additional resources. Does he agree that next we need to take preventive action through Frontex to stop the criminal gangs exploiting those migrants, who now come through different routes?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says. I would argue, first, that the money that is going to Turkey is not money for Turkey—it is money for Syrian refugees in Turkey and for it to make sure they are properly looked after. We have given support to Greece; there is a European programme to help. But above all Greece needs support from experts—translators and those with asylum expertise—which all the main countries in Europe are now offering to provide. What is required is a plan to make sure that it gets what it needs. I think that help in kind will probably be more useful for firming up the Greek system than just giving it money.

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the obvious difficulty in unifying the very varied economies and societies of the current EU, why is now a good time to accelerate possible Turkish membership?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

It is not remotely on the cards that that will happen for many, many years to come. Every country—including this country—has a veto at every stage. For example, the French have said that they will hold a referendum on Turkish membership of the EU, and 75% of the French public do not want Turkey to join. For many countries looking towards Europe, the process of applying, opening these chapters and going through things like press freedom, human rights, the independence of the judiciary and so on, has been a good and useful process, and that is how we should see it.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

Since the Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister’s whole European strategy has been governed by trying to manage the divisions in his own party on that issue. Given the events of recent days, will he update the House on how that effort is going?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, who in my view speaks a lot of sense about this issue, is that this country has to make a decision—it is not just one political party or another that has people on both sides of the argument. It is time for us as a country to have this debate, look at the advantages of staying in the EU, look at the risks on both sides, and make a decision. I am clear about what that decision should be, but we cannot hold a country inside an organisation against its will, and it is time again to put this question to the British people. I will campaign enthusiastically for remaining in the EU, not least after the agreements that I have achieved, and it is for others to set out their arguments. As democrats in this House of Commons, we should not be frightened of the will of the people.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the £3.5 billion savings on benefits for disabled people that the Chancellor needed to find is exactly equal to the planned increase since his previous Budget in our EU contributions over this Parliament? Given his success in persuading our partners—most of whom are not seeing any increase in their contributions—to be flexible over VAT, will he challenge them to forgo our increase? The British people will not take kindly to the idea that we must cut benefits for vulnerable people in order to hand over every penny to the EU.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I respectfully disagree with my right hon. Friend about this fundamental European issue. The £46 billion that we spend on disability benefits is many, many times more than anything we give to the European Union. Indeed, if we think about it, for every £1 paid in tax, a little over 1p goes to the EU for our net contribution. My right hon. Friend and I will be on different sides of the arguments, but I believe that 1p out of every £1 in tax gets us the trade, investment and co-operation that we need. He takes a different view, but I am sure that we will have a civilised argument about it. Because of the budget agreement that I reached in the last Parliament, our contributions are much lower than they otherwise would have been. We have a falling EU budget, rather than a rising EU budget, and that is because of this Government and this House of Commons.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Labour, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford

The EU-Turkey deal will do nothing to help the 26,000 child refugees who are already alone in Europe. I met 12-year-olds who were alone in Calais this morning with no one to look after them. If the House of Lords votes this evening to support the Alf Dubs amendment to help 3,000 child refugees, will the Prime Minister drop his opposition and support children, as we did with the Kindertransport which many decades ago helped to save the life of Alf Dubs?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

We do not support the Dubs amendment because, as I said previously, we think it is right to take additional children over and above the 20,000 refugees, but to take them from the region and to do so by working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I think that the unfairness, if I might say that, of comparing child migrants in Europe with the Kindertransport is that countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain are safe countries, where anyone who claims asylum and has family in Britain is able to come to Britain. I do not believe that it is a fair comparison.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

All Conservative Members were delighted to hear the Prime Minister reaffirm with vigour and confidence his determination to continue as a great reforming Government with the successful central themes of his Administration. Will he review whether there is a need to add to the deployment of HMS Enterprise in Libyan waters, and perhaps add other vessels in support?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

There may well be a need to do more. There are two operations under way. There is a NATO operation in the Aegean, and, frankly, we want that operation to do more. At the moment, it is not sufficiently able to work with the Turkish coastguard in Turkish waters to send back boats to Turkey, and we want that to happen. There is also Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, where we have HMS Enterprise. Frankly, as the weather improves, I am concerned that the central Mediterranean route will open up again. That is why I held a meeting with the other Prime Ministers and Presidents to say that we have all got to put in more resources, recognising that we cannot let this route open up just as we sort out—or hope to sort out—the Aegean route.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Lithuanian President has described the EU Turkish deal as

“on the edge of international law”.

Does the Prime Minister agree with that assessment? Does he accept that from June this year—from the English channel to the Syrian border—there will be a visa-free zone across the whole of Europe? What security questions does that pose for the United Kingdom on its borders?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

First, on what President Grybauskaite has said, we are very clear that this deal must be compliant with international law and with international norms. That is exactly what the European Commission, the European Council and all the countries that are helping Greece will make sure is going to happen. The key thing is that if Turkey is a safe country for Syrian refugees, it should be possible to return Syrian refugees to Turkey, because they should be applying for asylum there rather than going on with their journey.

On the second issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, as I explained in my statement, if the rest of the EU gives visa-free access to Schengen for Turks, that is a right to travel and it is a right to visit; it is not a right to work and it is not a right to settle, and it does not in any way change their rights to come to the UK. I think there is quite a lot of scaremongering going on about this issue, because we are not changing our borders or our visa proposals one bit.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the steady Islamisation of Turkish society by its Government? Does he share my surprise that Turkey is now so confident that it can stop the boats coming, when it has not been able to or has not wished to do so in the past? Finally, does he share my fear that mass migration to Europe will fuel the rise of far-right, neo-Nazi parties in EU countries that were foolish enough to get rid of their national borders?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am in the happy position of being able to agree with my right hon. Friend on all those things. As someone who spent time in Turkey as a student, I think its secularism and its belief in wanting to become more like a western democracy is one of its strengths, and we should encourage it. I also agree with him that countries that do not properly control their borders risk the rise of unsavoury elements, and that is why it is so important we maintain our borders. Obviously, when it comes to the issue of wanting to return migrants to Turkey, it is very important that Turkey is and remains a safe country, but that is what it is today.

Photo of Liz Kendall Liz Kendall Labour, Leicester West

The Prime Minister says he is a compassionate Conservative leading a one nation Government, so how does he feel when a former leader of his party and a member of his Cabinet for six years says this simply is not true?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Obviously, we have worked very closely together for the last six years, and I am very proud of the things that we have done together. It is this Government that have lifted almost 4 million people out of income tax. It is this Government that have seen an increase in disability benefit. Above all, it is this Government—a lot of this is thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith—that, because of the growing economy and the changes to welfare, have seen 2.4 million people get work in our country. Behind those statistics are human beings who are able to put food on the table and have a better life for their families because of the work that we have done together. I am sad that my right hon. Friend has left the Government, but I guarantee that the work of being a compassionate Conservative Government will continue.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Broadland

Given the nature of the terrorist threat, does my right hon. Friend agree with me about how important it is that European countries’ intelligence and security agencies co-operate fully with ours in defeating terrorism, and that it is absurd to suggest that membership of the EU is likely to result in terrorist attacks on the United Kingdom?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

It is important that our agencies work together. On the whole, that will be on a bilateral basis, but it is worth understanding that in the modern European Union, there are a series of mechanisms to do with criminal records, border information, watch lists and passenger name records, all of which help to keep us safer than we would otherwise be. To be completely fair, if we left the EU we could try to negotiate our way back into some of those things, but it would take time, and this prompts the question: if you want to get back into them, why are you getting out of them?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham East

Will the Prime Minister now justify the nearly £3 billion giveaway in capital gains tax for the wealthy?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I think it is right to cut capital gains tax, because we want to have an enterprising economy in which entrepreneurs want to get out there, set up businesses, and create wealth and jobs to generate the tax revenues that pay for the health service and the schools that we want for our country. I note that the capital gains tax rate, at 20%, will be a little bit higher than it was when the hon. Gentleman was last in government. Because we are not cutting it for carried interest, we will not have to face the absurd situation we had when he was in government in which people working in the City were paying less tax than the people who cleaned their offices.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

The Prime Minister just sought to reassure my right hon. Friend John Redwood that the accession of Turkey was a very long way off. Is this uncertainty what staying in looks like?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I have described the situation as best I can. For any new accession, there is veto by every country at every stage. As I see it, if we look at certain countries such as France, we find that there is no prospect of the French allowing full Turkish membership of the EU. In this debate that we are having about Europe—my hon. Friend and I will unfortunately be on opposite sides of the debate, but I promise that it will be a civilised one—I want to get rid of any of the potential scares on either side of the argument. Let us argue about what is actually going to happen rather than things that are not going to happen.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

There is merit in selecting the asylum seekers in greatest need, because those people will have the most serious health problems—for some of them, lifelong health problems. Will the Prime Minister agree to compensate those authorities that fully take asylum seekers in, and, in the interests of the asylum seekers and the local community, will he help to spread these asylum seekers fairly throughout the country? Will he tell us how many asylum seekers his constituency helped last year and how many he expects to welcome this year?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

First, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that by selecting the 20,000 from the refugee camps, with the help of organisations such as the UNHCR we can try to choose the most vulnerable people who might have disabilities or other issues with which we in a civilised country like the United Kingdom can help. On the issue of helping local authorities, there is DFID money in year one, and we are coming forward with this package for subsequent years.

As for my own constituency, a number of families have been resettled, although I do not have the number off the top of my head. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to encourage more local authorities to come forward, which is where the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend Richard Harrington, is working so hard.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

Many of us were delighted to hear the Prime Minister recommit himself to running a one nation Conservative Government, which is what the country voted for only last May. On the issue of refugees, does he agree that it is increasingly clear that this terrible crisis can be solved only through collective action at a European level? Will he commit the British Government to continue to play a leading and constructive role in facing this crisis?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said. It does require collective action, because the scale of the challenge is so great that it needs the Greek border to be harder and more efficiently run, which requires assistance from other countries. In my view, it also requires the presence of military assets, including NATO assets in the eastern Mediterranean and other assets in the central Mediterranean, to help the civilian authorities with the work they do. Where Britain can bring a lot of experience and heft to this is as Europe’s leading military power and as a great expert in how to deal with asylum applications and processes and all the complicated legalities. We are well placed to help on every front.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Labour, Dewsbury

I would like to thank the Prime Minister for what he said about the so-called tampon tax. This is a great victory for all who have campaigned on this issue, and I am sure that the whole House will congratulate Laura Coryton, whose petition did so much to raise awareness. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will accept our cross-party amendment tomorrow to provide for a zero rate of VAT in this year’s Finance Bill, and that the Bill will pass through this House before the referendum in June? Will he pledge that this vital funding for women’s services that was provided from the receipts of this VAT will continue? I hope that today is the day on which we can consign the vagina-added tax to history.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

May I once again pay tribute to the hon. Lady, not least for that new epithet? I think that that one will live on in Hansard for many years to come. I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan for the work that she has done. We will be accepting the amendment, and I am sure that the timing will be discussed further. For my part, all I can say is that getting over the language barriers to explain the arguments on sanitary products in a 28-person European Council is something that will stay with me for a while.

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The Prime Minister has reiterated his Government’s support for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. In doing so, he helpfully pointed out that there would be no status quo option in the forthcoming referendum. What assessment has he made of the long-term effect on migration from Turkey, and of any additional costs to the UK taxpayer in increased contributions to the EU, if it were to join? Or is he in favour of Turkey’s accession to the EU at any price to the UK taxpayer?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I think I said earlier that there was not a remote prospect of that happening, so I do not think that my hon. Friend has to worry about that. In terms of future accessions to the EU, we set out in our manifesto that we were going to take a much tougher approach. We believe that countries that join the EU should get much closer to the current level of

GDP per capita, because the big migrations have been caused when some EU countries are much poorer than others. No country can get into the EU without unanimity among the existing members, so this is something over which we and other countries have a veto. We can absolutely insist on these different accession arrangements.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

When I first raised the issue of the tampon tax last year, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was quite dismissive, so I would like to commend the Government for this U-turn. I should also like to thank the women of this country who have put such pressure on the Government to take action on this important issue. Given that this was in the Scottish National party’s manifesto, are there any other aspects of that manifesto that the Prime Minister would like to help us to implement?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s work on this, and I am glad to have helped. I think she will find that this will have an impact on other European countries, because there is now huge pressure on some of those countries to explain their own level of tax on sanitary products. The Irish are of course leading the way with a 0% rate. On the matter of the rest of the SNP manifesto, I have to say that if we implemented it in full and had an independent Scotland, we would basically be bankrupt and have to tax everything.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s generous comments about my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, who is so widely respected on these Benches? Does the Prime Minister agree that two of the three greatest reforms of the Government he leads are restoring fiscal rectitude and welfare reform? May I therefore encourage him to continue with both equally?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. This goes to the point about the importance of the welfare cap. We have controlled departmental spending carefully for years in our country, but welfare spending has often run ahead. It was up by 60% under the last Labour Government. That money cannot then be spent on hospitals, schools and vital public services. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: fiscal rectitude, welfare reform and making sure we keep welfare spending under control are vital components of a one nation Government.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

Last week, a cross-party group of MPs heard powerful testimony from an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who had been kidnapped by Daesh and subsequently escaped. John Kerry has now described Daesh’s action against the Yazidis and other minorities as genocide. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to do more to help the Yazidis, and will he raise this matter with the Governments of Iraq and Turkey?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do more to help the Yazidis, which is why we are taking action in support of the Iraqi Government, and it is the reason for the work we are doing in Syria. On what Secretary of State Kerry said, I listened very carefully to that. The Government’s policy—I think this was the case under previous Governments—that genocide is declared as a matter of legal opinion, rather than political opinion, but it has to be said that there is a growing body of evidence that m’learned friends need to look at.

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

I welcome the fact that at the end of the Prime Minister’s remarks he reminded the House of his commitment to estate regeneration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a classic example of one nation Conservatism, given that it is proven to deliver not only better homes and communities for those who live in our inner cities, but the supply of new homes for first-time buyers?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is right. The aim should be to remove all the barriers in the way of people progressing and making the most of their lives. That is why regenerating estates can play a huge part, as can addressing the shortage of childcare places, improving our schools and dealing with mental health issues. All these things are about unblocking barriers to success for people.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Labour, Bolsover

Will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that, in view of the financial mess that has been created with this Budget, this will be the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s last Budget? He has had eight already; only cats have nine lives.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is right. There is a series of difficult decisions that we have to take when facing an 11% budget deficit, as we were in 2010, and we still need to get this country back to surplus. I would argue that this is not some artificial target. We have to make sure that in the good years we are putting aside money for a rainy day. That is what this is all about. It does involve difficult decisions. We do not always get those decisions right—I am the first to say that—but it is very important that we stick to the long-term economic plan of getting this country back into the black.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

In his statement the Prime Minister mentioned the work of both his former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his current Chancellor, so is he ruling out, as he suggested to Mr Lilley, further negotiation with the EU on benefits and spending? How does he intend to fix the big hole in his Budget that appeared this weekend?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Budget contains a very good package of measures that will help small businesses, get the country back to work and support our schools. The Chancellor will be here tomorrow winding up the

Budget debate, and in the autumn statement a new forecast will be produced and all these issues will be addressed.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The Prime Minister is a consummate performer at the Dispatch Box and normally I understand everything he says. I do not always agree with it, but I understand it. I am now confused by the answers given to my hon. Friend Philip Davies, my right hon. Friend John Redwood and my hon. Friend Mrs Main. The Government say that they enthusiastically back Turkey’s accession to the EU, yet apparently they announce something but wish for something else. May we get these facts right: we do want Turkey to join the EU; we do believe in free movement of people; we do want to stay in the EU; and therefore we welcome 77 million Turks living and working here?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

The answer to that is no, because Turkey is not part of the EU. Look, I know that in this debate, which I know is going to get very passionate, people want to raise potential concerns and worries to support their argument, but I have say that when it comes to Turkey being a member of the EU, this is not remotely in prospect. Every country has a veto at every stage. The French have said that they are going to hold a referendum. So in this debate let us talk about the things that are going to happen, not the things that are not going to happen. If we stay in a reformed European Union, we keep our borders, we keep our right to set our own visa policy, we keep our own asylum and immigration policy, and we can stop anyone we want to at our borders. Yes, we do believe in the free movement of people to go and live and work in other European countries, as many people in our own country do, but it is not an unqualified right. That is why, if people come here and they cannot find a job, they do not get unemployment benefit, they get sent home after six months and they do not get access to our welfare system in full for four years. Ironically, if we were to leave the EU and take up a Norway-style position or something like that, we would not have those welfare restrictions. So let us set out what can happen, rather than what is not going to happen.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

Lebanon took more refugees in two days last year than the UK has taken in the five years of the Syrian civil war, so when the Prime Minister says it is better to keep refugees in the region, countries there look at us and close their borders, because they have taken 4 million refugees. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what monitoring we are conducting with our European and NATO allies of the ceasefire in Syria? How will violations be reported? What is the timetable for moving towards peace and democratic elections in Syria to allow those refugees to return home?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

There are lots of questions there. On the question about how we monitor the ceasefire, we are involved in the cell in Geneva that looks at that. I cannot paint an entirely rosy picture, but I think that the ceasefire is better than people expected. As a result, the peace talks are under way.

On Lebanon, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: it has taken a huge number of refugees. It is, of course, the neighbouring country, and neighbouring countries are under an obligation to do so, and Lebanon is fulfilling its obligations. We are helping with a massive aid programme, but we are also helping the Lebanese armed forces, who are now hugely capable because of all the work the United Kingdom has done. They are having considerable success in making sure they keep Daesh out of their own country.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

The Home Affairs Committee visited Europol recently to see the work done by police forces co-operating across the EU. We were told that 90% of asylum seekers in the hotspots are thought to have reached Europe with the help of human traffickers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to break these criminal gangs to stop them profiting from human tragedy?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Already, because of the action we are starting to take, the people traffickers are seeing some of their markets more difficult to operate, and some of the costs are going up. We need to finish the job. Europol can play an important role in that, as can the National Crime Agency and co-operating with other European partners. We have to put these people out of business.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

On the domestic aspect of the Prime Minister’s statement, not once today has he shown understanding of why there was such a public outcry throughout the country over the Government’s intention to penalise the most vulnerable. He is becoming increasingly out of touch.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Having spent £42 billion on disability benefits when I became Prime Minister, that figure is going to go up to over £46 billion by the end of this Parliament. We will spend more on disability benefits. If we measure compassion by the scale of the benefits paid, there have been more in every year under this Government than ever under a Labour Government. Instead of coming here and castigating me, the hon. Gentleman should be castigating his own party.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

What recent discussions have been had with other NATO members on bearing down on and stopping the vile people-trafficking trade from Syria?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

We are having good discussions, but, frankly, we still need NATO to be able to do more. I would like NATO ships to be able to spend more time in Turkish territorial waters, working with the Turkish coastguard on turning back boats, because it is stopping that trade that will actually undermine the people-smuggling gangs.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Labour, Birmingham, Hodge Hill

May I bring the Prime Minister back to the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Calais? He is right to say that those children can apply to join parents here, but I understand that, of the 150 take charge requests issued by the French Government, not one has been agreed yet by the British Government. Will the Prime Minister undertake to look at that and bring forward proposals to get the process working before any more children suffer any longer?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am happy to look at this. I discussed it with the French President. The rules are clear: if someone has direct family here, they apply for asylum and they will come here, but we need to make sure that happens.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

In congratulating the ship’s company of RFA Mounts Bay, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention particularly to the embarked medical team, whose work under the most professionally challenging, extraordinary circumstances is surely in the best traditions of the naval service?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. I had the huge privilege of going aboard one of Her Majesty’s ships when it is was in Malta. It had recently been taking part in combating the people-smuggling operations and picking people up. It had saved literally thousands of lives, and we could see—whether it was the medical teams, the Royal Marines or the royal naval personnel—that there was huge pride in what they had done.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Prime Minister’s tagging on of the events of recent days to a statement on international affairs reminds me of when one of his predecessors, Harold Macmillan, unsuccessfully tried to explain chaos in his own Treasury as “a little local difficulty”. Does the Prime Minister accept that, with the revelation that the Chancellor does not care about vulnerable people because there are not enough Tory voters among them, his own little local difficulty means that compassionate conservatism is completely dead?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

If I had come to the House and not mentioned these issues, which has enabled colleagues on both sides of the House to question me about them, I think there would have been justifiable outcry, so I wanted to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to do so. When it comes to people casting their vote, we won the last election because we won the support of working people, and we did so because we were creating jobs, cutting taxes, reforming welfare, improving schools, investing in our country and making the economy stronger and our society fairer.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

Is it not right to acknowledge that the British policy of taking refugees from the camps supports those who are in no position to take the journey—the poor, the sick, the weak and the vulnerable—and is absolutely the right thing to do?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I think that more and more countries can now see that that is the right approach.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Our plan is to continue with the long-term patient work of combating Daesh militarily, which, of course, continues, and, in terms of building the future of Syria, supporting moderate opposition elements that can support a transitional Government in Syria. In the end, a Government in Syria without moderate Sunni opinion in them will never be able to unite that country, so we have to continue with that plan.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

Does the Prime Minister agree that the weakness in the position of those who criticised the agreement between the EU and Turkey in the run-up to it—that also appeared to be the position of the Leader of the Opposition today—is that they have signally failed to advance any credible alternative to those arrangements? Surely, it is in the British national interest to support our partners in making a sensible arrangement with Turkey to prevent migrants from making a perilous journey overseas, while maintaining our own borders.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I think we get the best of both worlds. It is worth asking what difference it would make if we were not there. I suppose my answer is that I think the European Union would have continued for longer with the rather borderless approach of relocating migrants around different European countries. That approach failed. What was required was an approach that was more about looking upstream, supporting people in the camps, finding the funding for that, hardening the external border and breaking the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement. I think that Britain, including my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has been to Council meeting after Council meeting, has done a huge amount to drive that agenda forward.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Angela Maher, the proud mother of two disabled sons, rang me to say, “I could cry,” and then she did, saying, “Why is it always people like us?” Can the Prime Minister rule out, as Robert Meadowcroft, the chief executive of Muscular Dystrophy UK, has said today, any further cuts to support for disabled people during this Parliament?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

We are increasing the amount of money going to disabled people, as I have explained many times. My right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will set out our approach in a moment, but we set out in our manifesto the changes we needed to make to get the welfare budget under control. We have made those changes and those are the changes we are pursuing.

Photo of Alberto Costa Alberto Costa Conservative, South Leicestershire

I thank my right hon. Friend for the fair and sensible way in which he has negotiated with our EU partners on the refugee crisis. Will he ensure that UK local authorities such as Blaby District Council, Harborough District Council and, indeed, Leicestershire County Council are properly resourced and financed if they are going to welcome some of the Syrian refugees?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I believe that they are properly resourced because of the Department for International Development money that is available, particularly in the first year, and the ongoing support that is being given.

I encourage local councils to make the most of this opportunity. Families are going to come here who want to make a home and who will be hard working and contribute to our communities, and I encourage local councils to come forward with their plans.

Photo of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Trade and Investment)

Other European countries are revising the number of refugees that they are taking in. Just what will it take for the Government to revise upwards the figure of 20,000 refugees that we have agreed to take, particularly since there are thousands of unaccompanied children stranded abroad who have disappeared? We have a moral obligation, surely, to look after the most vulnerable in society.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

If we look at the charts that the European Union is now publishing, it is perfectly apparent that Britain is doing more than the vast majority of other countries. Some countries that made pledges to resettle Syrian refugees have taken one, two, or, in some cases, none. We are doing far more than other countries. Our system is working.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

In my constituency, Boston has seen the highest level of immigration from eastern Europe of anywhere in the country. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that it would be perfectly reasonable for this country, or indeed any other in Europe, to veto the accession of Turkey?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Of course that is the case. Every country has a veto at every stage, so the agreement to open one additional chapter in Turkish accession was something that had to be agreed by every country, including Cyprus and Greece. There is a veto at every stage, and other countries have made their position perfectly clear.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

May I ask the Prime Minister when Mr Duncan Smith first spoke to him about his concerns about pressure being put on people with disabilities to fill the gap created by the deficit?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Obviously, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend on Friday afternoon on my return from the European Council. There had been prolonged discussions at the heart of Government about disability benefit reform, but, as I have said, we are not going ahead with those proposals.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

I believe the real test of compassion is not Opposition words but Government action. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government that he leads are taking 3.8 million people out of tax, ensuring that the richest are paying a large amount, creating 2.4 million jobs and spending more than £50 billion on support for the sick and the disabled?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Look at the figures and at what is happening to some of the poorest families in our country, who are able now to get jobs, to get work and to pay less tax, and who will be getting a £900-a-year pay rise through the national living wage. That is what is happening for those families. In terms of people at the top, the top 1% are paying a higher percentage of income tax than they ever did under Labour—some 27% of the total. With a growing economy, that means that we can also build a fairer society.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

Amazingly, a few moments ago I heard the Prime Minister praise an independent Ireland and in the same breath slag off the idea of Scotland matching the possibilities that Ireland has today.

Now to the matter at hand. It is claimed that the Government took aim at the poor because they do not vote Tory. A wee while ago, the Government tried to mug Scotland for £7 billion, presumably for the very same reason. Who else in this society does the Prime Minister have in his sights?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I do not think that the Irish based their entire case on oil revenues that disappeared. [Interruption.] Oh, that was not the plan. I seem to remember that the plan was referring to $100-a-barrel oil as a modest, mid-market—[Interruption.] You can tell they do not like it. When you are shouting, you are losing.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer Conservative, South East Cambridgeshire

It is often said that the EU is undemocratic and that laws are imposed on us. Is not the decision that the Prime Minister reports today on VAT an example of how Britain can mould and shape those rules and regulations?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I agree with my hon. Friend. This supports the argument that if we get stuck in, we can change these things. It is frustrating, and those of us on either side of the argument should accept the frustrations referred to by the other side. VAT has been frustrating—frustrating for the last Government, and frustrating for us. Restrictions were put there, so that we could have reasonable trade and so that we would not have cross-border shopping issues and tax competition issues, but they are too inflexible and this change is worth while.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the Prime Minister agree that world populations are moving and changing in a way that we will not wish away? Does he agree that we need a strong and united European Union to manage those great challenges and that, without it, we will be alone and unable to help those people?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

Obviously, co-operation among the EU nations helps, but, as well as that co-operation, it is important that we have the right ideas. The hon. Gentleman is right to say there is a lot of movement of people around the world. The scale of movement from Africa has been so much greater in recent years not because of growing African poverty, but the weakness of north African states and the lack of adequate border arrangements. If we have the right thinking, plus co-operation, we can get the right answer.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to show compassion and to provide support for those in need, whether at home, Syria or elsewhere in the world, is to build a strong economy and generate the resources needed to look after them?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot show compassion unless we have a strong economy generating the revenues that our health service, our schools and our welfare system need. Conservative Members understand that compassion is a combination of getting the economy right and then making the right choices.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

Despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts to forge ever closer union within his own party, there is a real risk that the UK will become decoupled from its biggest market and most strategic ally. What impact does he think Russian bombing on Syria and tactical resignation by his Cabinet have had on the appetite for Brexit in Britain?

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

There is a strong argument to say that, at a time of international danger and difficulty, there is strength in numbers and that we should stick with our allies and friends, as we confront Putin in the east of our continent and ISIL in the south. As for ever closer union among my colleagues, we believe in co-operation rather than uniformity.

Several hon. Members rose