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Interest rates still look low historically.
We have kept interest rates low.
Mr. Cameron: Not only has the Prime Minister not read the report from the Financial Services Authority, it is pretty clear that he has not read his own Budget. Pages 111 and 112 of the Red Book show taxes going up in the Budget. Everybody knows that taxes have just gone up. Every time you fill up the car, taxes have gone up; every time you buy a car, taxes have gone up; every time the family goes shopping, and so on. No wonder every pub in Britain is trying to ban the Chancellor from having a pint. The Prime Minister has not answered a single question so let us just try this once again. Can he name one other major country that is responding to the downturn by putting up taxes? Name one.
The Prime Minister: We are injecting more money into the economythe right hon. Gentleman simply does not understand basic arithmetic. The basic rate of income tax is going down to 20p. Let us look at our record. Inflation in Britain is 2.5 per cent, in America it is 4 per cent. and in the euro area it is over 3 per cent. So which country has the lowest rate of inflation of the major countries? It is Britain. We have kept interest rates low, and whereas unemployment is 8 per cent. in Germany, 8 per cent. in France and rising in America, it is at its lowest in Britain since 1975, at half the rate of our European partners. That is a Government who are better prepared for a world downturn. The problem is that the Conservatives want £10 billion of tax cuts, they want to say that they will raise public expenditure, they want to say that borrowing should fall and they say that they want tax cuts at the moment to boost the economy. That is the same recipe that they followed in 1992, and it led to the worst recession since the war. And who was the economic adviser to the Treasury at the time? None other than the Leader of the Opposition.
The Prime Minister has not answered the question. He cannot name one other major country that is putting up taxes in a downturn. He asked for some basic arithmetic; I will give him some. One Prime Minister plus one Chancellor equals economic
incompetence. Every other Government have put aside money in the good years to build up their surpluses. Instead, this Government, at the end of a period of worldwide economic growth, have achieved a unique double: the highest tax burden in our history and the biggest budget deficit in western Europe. Does he feel any responsibility for any of this, or is he totally incapable of admitting his mistakes?
The Prime Minister: The highest tax burden in our country happened under a Conservative Government in the 1980s. The rising deficit in the world is a rising deficit in America, which will be higher than ours. I just wish the right hon. Gentleman had known something about economics when he came to this House and started to tell us what to do. The truth is that we have cut corporation tax from 30p to 28p, and we will cut income tax from the beginning of April from 22p to 20p. All he can give us is slogans and not substance; the Conservatives have learned nothing from their experience of the 1990s.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Are the Government on course to deliver the Prime Ministers commitment to take all vulnerable households out of fuel poverty by 2010?
The Prime Minister: In the Budget, we put in more money to help low-income households deal with their fuel bills. We have done more to deal with the problems of homelessness and fuel poverty in the last 10 years than the Conservatives ever did in 18 years. In the Budget, we raised the winter fuel allowance, we raised the amount of money available for insulation and we will continue to do more to meet our social housing targets.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Home repossession orders now stand at 100,000the same as in 1990and house prices are falling faster than they were even then. Does the Prime Minister still deny that the crisis facing British home owners today looks at least as bad as the Tory recession of the early 1990s?
The Prime Minister: I do not know when the Liberal party will ever learn. Interest rates were 18 per cent. at one point in the early 1990s; they are 5.25 per cent. today. The number of repossessions in the last year was 27,000; in the first two years of the 1990s, it was 200,000. We are dealing with a quite different situation and the reason is that we did not take the advice of the Liberal party, but pursued policies for economic stability.
Mr. Clegg: Is complacency the only thing that the right hon. Gentleman has to offer the thousands of British families who are frightened of losing their homes? Will he now instruct the Bank of England to take house prices into account when setting interest rates, to stop the boom and bust in the housing market? Will he also stop banks from repossessing homes at will and force them to explore all other options to keep British families in their homes?
The Prime Minister:
But the way to deal with the economic problems is to keep inflation low and to keep interest rates low, and that is exactly what we have done. Inflation is lower than in the rest of Europe and lower than in America. That is why interest rates have
managed to come down twice in the past few months, whereas that has not been possible in the euro area. I tell the right hon. Gentleman this: we take seriously our responsibility to home owners in this country. That is why there are 1.5 million more home owners now than there were in 1997, why interest rates are on average half what they were in the Conservative years and why mortgage rates are lower than they were on average in those 18 years. We will continue to ensure that inflation and interest rates are low, to the benefit of home owners. One way we will do that is by not taking the advice of the Liberal party.
Q2.  Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): After cancer and heart disease, the fear of falling victim to stroke is one of the greatest anxieties felt by elderly people. In Greater Manchester, the decision will be taken shortly to establish three new specialist stroke centres. The Prime Minister will know of the outstanding work done by the stroke service at Fairfield hospital in my constituency. Does he agree that Fairfield will be an ideal location for one of the new specialist stroke centres?
The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend will push the case hard for Fairfield general hospital, which I understand does a very good job. There is a Manchester-wide integrated stroke service strategy to be published. We have already put in £105 million of Government funding to support the general stroke strategy. Up to 6,000 deaths could be avoided as a result, and 15,000 strokes could be averted through preventive work. That is why we will take seriously not only what my hon. Friend says about his hospital, but the need to improve stroke services throughout the country. That is possible only because we are increasing the money available to the national health service.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Would the Prime Minister give to the people of Northern Ireland the assurance today that the Government will not countenance supporting any attempt to use the embryo Bill to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland through back-door legislation, keeping in mind that all parties in Northern Ireland are opposed to this? Surely that decision should be made by Stormont, and Stormont alone.
The Prime Minister: First, this is the first time that the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House since he announced that he was giving up his job as First Minister, and I want to thank him for everything that he has done as First Minister. The whole Houseindeed, the whole of the United Kingdomowes him a huge debt of gratitude for the way he has brought together the parties in Northern Ireland and been a very successful First Minister over the past few months.
The matter of an amendment on abortion to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is a matter for this House. I do not believe that the House will wish to change its mind on these issues, but that is a matter of a free vote of the House of Commons.
Q3.  Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
Does the Prime Minister think that energy companies should do more to help vulnerable groups deal with the cost of their fuel? Does he think that they
should all introduce standard social tariffs to assist such people, and if they do not, is he prepared to legislate?
The Prime Minister: This is exactly the area where we are working with the energy companies at the moment. We are talking to them, and we have said that they need to deliver a package of social assistance to vulnerable households that will increase their spending from £56 million a year to £150 million a year. We want the energy companies that have benefited from the windfall as a result of the European licence trading in relation to climate change to put an extra £100 million a year into helping the very households that my hon. Friend is talking about. That is on top of the winter allowance, which we have just increased, and on top of the help with insulation that we are giving. I understand how difficult it is for people at the moment. Oil, gas and coal prices have risen by between 60 and 80 per cent. around the world. That is why, with the winter allowance and the extra £100 million that the energy companies will be expected to put in, we will do our best by those people who face, or are threatened by, fuel poverty in this country.
Q4.  Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I have an interest to declare on this question. If the media were to be believed a few months ago, the ravages of dental decay were becoming widespread. The Prime Minister will be aware that fluoridation is generally considered to be the best way to prevent that disease. The Water Act 2003 promised to bring in fluoridation, but not a single water supply has been fluoridated since then. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he agrees with the need for fluoridation, and will he meet a small delegation to discuss the changes needed to implement it?
The Prime Minister: I am personally very sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says. I have seen the benefits of fluoridation myself. One reason for us putting extra money from the health budget into fluoridation is to encourage that to happen around the country. I would be very happy to meet a delegation, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Also, the Health Secretary has just told me that £14 million of extra money is being put in to help with this, and that is one way in which we can encourage local authorities and others to take up fluoridation. It is a good thing for the teeth of the people of this country.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Did the Prime Minister hear the very warm wordsalmost a love letterthat President Sarkozy sent to Britain via the Today programme this morning? When he meets the President, can we reciprocate? Does he agree that the default setting for our political class, for Whitehall and, above all, for the media is often to express contempt and derision for France? Can we not try to turn the entente cordiale of the last century into an entente amicale, or even an entente fraternelle, for this century?
The Prime Minister:
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. President Sarkozy and his French Government and our Government have a great deal in common and a shared agenda for the future. We will be discussing
co-operation on matters relating to energy and security. We will also be discussing how we can work together on the environment and the economy. I believe that, coming out of these talks, we will find a shared agreement to move things further. I believe in the international institutions when it comes to the reform of the economy, and we will now vote together on crucial areas in which we must reform the international economy. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the entente cordiale is moving into a new era, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that, but it does require Britain to be at the centre of Europe and not isolated from it.
Q5.  Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): If he will visit Castle Point to review its infrastructure.
The Prime Minister: I have no current plans to do so.
Bob Spink: Such a shame. Canvey Island will soon have 50,000 residents, and we need a new access road from a different point on the island for environmental and regeneration reasons, and particularly for safety reasons, in case we ever needed to evacuate the island again. The Prime Minister will remember that 58 people lost their lives on Canvey Island in the last great flood because they could not be evacuated. Will he join me in pressing Essex county council, which is Conservative controlled, to make that its top priority? If it does, we will get the access road that we need. If it does not, the people will know who to blame.
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it allows me to point out that we have increased spending on roads by 80 per cent. in real terms since we came to power, and that that spending will have more than doubled in real terms in the years up to the next decade. However, it is the responsibility of Essex county council to bring forward a scheme that provides value for money and meets environmental objectives. I know that Essex county council is neither of the hon. Gentlemans party nor of ours, but I hope that it will listen to his representations.
Q6.  Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity over the next few days to talk to President Sarkozy about working closely and helpfully with the Chinese Government in order to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the Tibet question? Will he do that?
The Prime Minister:
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as this issue concerns not just France and Britain, but the whole world. As I said last week, I have talked to Premier Wen about it. My hon. Friend may know that a human rights dialogue took place with the Chinese Government at the beginning of the year, and officials from Britain visited Tibet and reported on it. We are determined to draw to the Chinese Governments attention changes that need to be made. We urge restraint where there has been violence and we urge reconciliation where there is a lack of dialogue. I repeat
that the authorities in China and the Dalai Lama should, subject to the conditions laid down, get into talks. We are determined to help and facilitate a process of dialogue and reconciliation.
Q7.  Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Given reports that embassy staff in Washington have been forbidden from using the expression the special relationship, will the Prime Ministerfor the benefit of the people of this country and perhaps of President Sarkozydefine his understanding of the meaning of the special relationship between the United Kingdom and our closest ally, the United States?
The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman says, it is our closest ally and our single most important partner, so I use the term special relationship with pride.
Q8.  Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, the Foreign Secretary launched the Governments annual human rights report at the Foreign Office last night. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the many volunteer organisations that contribute so much to fostering human rights across the worldincluding my fellow members of Soroptimists International in north Wales, who, through their project Sierra, aim to transform the lives of orphan children following the war in Sierra Leone?
The Prime Minister: I believe that the House should congratulate the Soroptimists and all those who work for human rights in every part of the world, particularly those who work for the achievement of the Geneva convention, but who do so under dangerous and risky conditions that can sometimes threaten their lives. The human rights report published by the Foreign Secretary yesterday draws attention to areas in the world where human rights abuses have to be addressed. One important area that will be in the eye of the world this weekend is Zimbabwe. It is important that we draw attention to the abuses there and call for a restorationa full restorationof democracy in that country.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Does the Prime Minister think it right that the west coast main line should have to wait until 2012 for new carriages? Will he intervene in the dispute between the Department for Transport and Virgin Trains in order to secure a resolution to the problem?
The Prime Minister: I just have to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have spent £7 billion modernising the west coast main line and that no Government could have done more to make it possible for more people to travel on that particular line and on railways more generally. Indeed, the number of passengers using the railways is now more than 1 billion for the first time since the second world war.
Q9.  Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What would my right hon. Friend say about a local authority that has slashed services to disabled people in such a cavalier fashion that they are threatening to take the council to court for its failure to comply with its equality duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005?
The Prime Minister: It used to be the Conservative councils that were the only ones making huge cuts, but it is now Scottish National party and Liberal Democrat councils, which explains what has happened in Aberdeen. I think that people will be particularly sad to hear that members of the disabled community in Aberdeen are the biggest victims of the cuts being brought in by that administration. I hope that public opinion will express itself and say that disabled people should not suffer in that way.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): In the spirit of the entente amicale as well as that of our special relationship with our American allies, may I draw the Prime Ministers attention to the state of relations between the EU and NATO, which the Defence Committee has urged should be a priority matter for next weeks NATO summit? May I urge him to address what the American ambassador to NATO has called the senseless and frozen conflict between the two institutions and to secure the agreement of President Sarkozy, whom we welcome in London today, to resolve the problem so that neither the EU undermines NATO, nor NATO the EU?
The Prime Minister: I believe that both NATO and the European Union have important jobs to do. In my discussions with President Sarkozy, I believe that we will see him being amenable to changes in NATO that will bring its European members closer to the heart of NATO in the near future. I also believe that a relationship between the EU and NATO in which the EU does more of the civilian reconstruction work, matching the military work of NATO, as is happening in Kosovo, is one of the ways in which we can cement a better relationship between the two organisations. We are proud to be a member of both NATO and the European Union.
Q10.  Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): As science is so important to the north-west and to the UK economy, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the science research council retains key scientific skills at Daresbury laboratory so that we can continue to produce world-leading science there?
The Prime Minister: I can tell my hon. Friend, who has fought hard for all the investments made at Daresbury science park, that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is committed to creating a science and innovation campus at Daresbury. That was announced in the Budget of 2006 and confirmed in December 2007. The next step is that Sir Tom McKillop, the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has been asked to include Daresbury in his north-west review. We are committed to additional investment in science and technology in my hon. Friends region, and to all the jobs that flow from that, making it possible for the north-west to continue to increase employment during a difficult period for the world economy.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In his article in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, on why we must stand up for the Union, with which I heartily agree, the Prime Minister mentioned Scotland, Wales and England. Will he now tell the House what his predecessor once said: that he values the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister: Not only do I value the Union but I will work to make that Union strong. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Daily Telegraph website, he will see that Northern Ireland was included in that article, not excluded.
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