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The Prime Minister: I have already answered about the Bank of England Governor and what he said. [I nterruption.] This is a very important issue for the country. People must understand—which the Opposition appear not to—the cause of the problems that we are dealing with. [Interruption.] The Opposition like to think that this is a problem created in Britain and in the public sector. Everybody knows apart from the Opposition that this is a global problem that arose in the private sector as a result of irresponsible and undisclosed private
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sector lending. It has to be dealt with by recapitalising the banks and ensuring that they are funding small business and home owners.

If the Opposition really are interested in home owners and small businesses, as they say they are, they should be supporting us as we try to get bank lending moving again and to build confidence in the financial system so that it can do the job that it is supposed to do—that is, give flows of money to households and businesses. If they cannot begin to understand the problem, they are going to be a million miles away from the solution.

Mr. Cameron: Anyone listening to this exchange will know that the Prime Minister claimed the credit in the boom, so why will he not take the responsibility in the bust? Let me ask him one more time—it is a simple yes or no. Have you abolished boom and bust, yes or no?

The Prime Minister: We are not returning to the days of 15 per cent. interest rates. People are going to be tested over the next few days on the judgments that they make, and that applies to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor as well. Unfortunately, on Northern Rock, they took the wrong judgment; on deregulating the mortgage market, they took the wrong judgment; on short selling of shares, they took the wrong judgment. The shadow Chancellor proposed a fuel duty escalator balancing mechanism that would have led to our having to increase today the duty on petrol by 3p. That is the judgment of the shadow Chancellor. With or without the Opposition’s support, we will continue to do what is right for this country.

Mr. Cameron: Does not the Prime Minister understand this: to the millions of people who have seen the value of their homes fall or their pensions decline, to the thousands of people losing their jobs, to the small businesses that are writing to all of us complaining about 15 per cent. interest rates, this is a bust? Let me ask him just one more time: why not admit, just for once in your life, that you have not ended boom and bust?

The Prime Minister: Is that not interesting—not a single policy idea. The right hon. Gentleman makes not one attempt to come together with all the parties in the interests of the nation, or to put forward a constructive solution to the problems. I fear that the reason why the Opposition cannot put forward constructive solutions is that they do not have a clue about the real problems in the economy.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Last week, British Gas told one of my constituents that his gas bill would be going up by over 118 per cent., despite his account being in credit. Can my right hon. Friend commit himself to dealing with these outrageous price increases—especially at a time when the price of oil is down to under $70 a barrel?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that now that the price of oil and the price of gas are coming down, we not only expect that to be reflected in petrol prices coming down, but want to see it reflected over time in consumers’ gas and electricity bills. In the meantime, we have taken action to ensure that the social tariff is available at a lower rate for low-income families,
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and of course we have the winter allowance, which is £250 for over-60s and £400 this year for over-80s. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will monitor the fall in oil and gas prices, so that people facing gas and electricity bills can get the real benefit.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Let me add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Trooper James Munday and aid worker Gayle Williams, who in their very different ways were serving this country and serving the people of Afghanistan.

The public have seen that the Prime Minister delivered his multi-billion pound bail-out package for the bankers only once the banks were on the edge of collapse, so they are now asking themselves how bad it needs to get before he delivers a bail-out package for them. Yesterday we heard the energy companies saying that they will be handing down price cuts next year at the earliest, yet this winter four out of five single pensioners will be living in pensioner poverty, and the measures that he outlined in answer to the earlier question will be too late for them. What will he do now for them, this winter?

The Prime Minister: First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman. We have been putting liquidity into the banking system for months. We have put £100 billion and more into the banking system to ensure that our banks can continue to be in existence. The recapitalisation of the banks was to strengthen them, so that they could face all sorts of difficulties ahead, and at the same time restart lending. So I have to correct him on that; he is wrong on that issue.

On helping pensioners this winter, the right hon. Gentleman knows, of course, that the pension is more than £30 a week, but let me point out to him that we are helping pensioners this winter by the rise in the winter allowance that will come to people very soon, by the help that we are giving with the social tariff, which also helps many pensioners, by encouraging pensioners to use the direct debit system to keep their bills low, and by all the measures that we are taking on insulation and central heating to give pensioners the best chance of saving energy or saving costs from the use of energy. We are trying to do all these things; I hope that we will have all-party support for them.

Mr. Clegg: I asked the Prime Minister about fuel poverty and he gave me a wholly different answer. The answer shows that this Prime Minister— [Interruption.] He is all at sea— [Interruption.]—if not in a luxury yacht, like some prominent members of the Opposition. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please allow the right hon. Gentleman to be heard. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Clegg: Let me make a specific suggestion about something that the Prime Minister could do now. At the moment, we all pay more for the energy that we use first—our early energy units—and less for the rest. That hits families on low and middle incomes, who use less energy, very hard indeed. Will he commit today to reversing that unfair system—turning it on its head so that those who use less energy pay lower prices? It
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makes environmental sense, it makes common sense and it is something that he could do now, to help people this winter. Will he do that—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to look at any constructive suggestion that has been put about how we can help people through these difficult winter months. We have also raised the payment that would be paid to people if there should be severe weather during these months. But I think the right hon. Gentleman’s protestations about what ought to be done would be better heard if he had not committed his party at his conference to £20 billion-worth of cuts in public expenditure.

Q2. [228604] Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): May I return to the issue of high energy prices? Now that the price of oil has halved, can my right hon. Friend offer any comfort to my Leeds, North-East constituents, who are faced with hugely inflated energy costs, as my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) just said? We are told that these prices are linked to the price of oil, but will he take further measures to help pensioners and fuel-poor families, who are faced with these massive increases, when the energy companies were so quick to raise their prices but rather slower to bring them down again?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that as the price of oil and gas comes down there should be the benefit that gas and electricity bills become lower. We took action in September with £1 billion in an energy package. Lower-income households—600,000 people—are benefiting from lower social tariffs, and prices will not rise at all this winter for almost half a million of the most needy households. We will continue to look at what can be done, but what we will not do, whether for petrol or for gas and electricity bills, is to take the advice of the official Opposition, because their fuel duty stabiliser would mean that we would have to increase the tax on petrol by 3p a litre.

Q3. [228605] Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Prime Minister consider the plight of my 70-year-old constituent who invested in commercial offices to help to provide for his retirement but is unable to let or sell them, with the result that he has to pay business rates of £500 a month out of his total pension of £700 a month? Given the property slump, will the Government consider reinstating empty property relief, especially for people on low incomes such as my constituent?

The Prime Minister: We look at everything that we can do to help, but I should point out that no rates are paid for the first three months for office property, and for the first six months for industrial property.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Men and women alike are concerned about the economy, the future and the welfare of their families. Will my right hon. Friend, whatever the situation, promise the women of this country that he will not stoop so low as to hire a public relations firm to get inside our pretty little heads?

The Prime Minister: While the Opposition are interested in public relations, we are interested in getting the policy right, and we would like to have all-party support.

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Q4. [228606] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): If the Prime Minister really plans to build and spend his way out of the looming recession, will he assure the House that he will ensure that those who have sacrificed the most, such as working families who struggle and pay their taxes—some of which are used to bail out those who have accrued the most, yet often avoid paying theirs—like thousands of families in my area who have no housing or very poor housing, receive reward and support as he builds and spends?

The Prime Minister: Twenty-two million people are receiving a tax cut of £120, which is being paid to them over the next few months. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about home owners and housing. We will deliver 50,000 homes a year for social rent and increase housing supply in the social sector.

Q5. [228607] Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to continued investment in public services during these difficult times, as is shown by today’s announcement of the 100th new NHS hospital. May I ask for Northampton to be 101st on that list with a commitment to a new district general hospital, which is much needed?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the chance to welcome the fact that the Government are announcing today the opening of St. Helens hospital, which is the 100th hospital under our 10-year hospital building scheme. We launched the hospital building programme to replace and modernise the NHS. In 1997, half of it dated from before 1948 and was not fit for purpose in a modern NHS. This is the biggest hospital building programme in history, and even if there is opposition from the Conservative party, we are determined to continue to build hospitals and schools.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the Prime Minister assist ex-servicemen in prison? According to the National Association of Probation Officers, there are 8,500 ex-servicemen in prison, which represents about 10 per cent. of the entire prison population. Will he speak to his ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence so that they liaise to determine the extent of the problem and put proper mechanisms in place to deal with returnees from conflict zones before they commit offences?

The Prime Minister: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and we are looking at the matter. A National Audit Office report commissioned last year showed that the majority of those who leave the services make a successful return to civilian life, and 94 per cent. find work in six months, but a small minority can face severe difficulties. The Ministry of Defence provides a wide range of support; our package of specialist mental health care is one example. The MOD’s prison inreach initiative gives veterans in prison access to a range of support services. We are working together with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Justice on the issue to get up-to-date, authoritative data and a survey. We will then see what we can do to help people who have helped and served our country; it is our duty to assist them when they are civilians.

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Q6. [228608] Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): MPs of all parties are calling for a fair and unbiased question in the referendum on the congestion charge in Greater Manchester. What we are getting is a partial, biased question that does not even mention the congestion charge. Given the current economic circumstances, would it not be better if the unnecessary congestion charge and the divisive referendum were cancelled, and we brought forward to an earlier date investment in the tram system in Greater Manchester?

The Prime Minister: I know that there are strong views about the issue, but let me just say that the question in the referendum had to be approved legally, and that is what actually happened.

Q7. [228609] Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Vestas factory just outside Campbeltown that produces towers for wind farms is threatened with closure, which would mean the loss of over 90 jobs. Given that the Government’s 2020 renewables targets require a tenfold increase in renewable energy generation, and given the absolutely devastating effect that the loss of all those jobs would have on a small community such as Campbeltown, will the Prime Minister intervene and do all that he can to save the jobs at the Campbeltown factory?

The Prime Minister: I am aware of the case. The factory announced that it would cease production in Machrihanish, near Campbeltown. It was Scotland’s only wind turbine tower factory. The company is investing in another plant on the Isle of Wight, but the problem is due to the factory losing money. I understand that the Scottish Administration’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise met the company and those who are trying to find other potential occupants of the site. I will endeavour to find out what I can do to help in this instance.

Q8. [228610] Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): While crime has fallen overall, the whole House knows that too many children and young people have fallen victim to gun and knife crime in recent years. Does my right hon. Friend know that evidence indicates that some young people are choosing to carry weapons because the high profile of youth crime leads them to believe that everyone else is doing so? They therefore think that they must carry them for protection. What concrete steps can the Government take to break that spiral of fear in our schools and on our streets?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has taken a very big interest in how we can get knife crime off the streets of London, and away from the major hotspots at which knife crime is concentrated. We have undertaken more stops and searches over the summer months. Since July, there have been 77,000 searches, and 2,192 knives have been seized in those areas. Only 2 to 3 per cent. of young people stopped
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had a weapon, but it is important that we change the culture so that it is wholly unacceptable to carry a knife. We have introduced strong cautions, and we have said that prosecution will result from carrying a knife. We are taking more action on prevention, and are ensuring more education in schools and safer schools. Wands are used and searches are done on young people. We have involved the England football team and others who can influence young people as role models.

I believe that we are talking about not just enforcement, punishment and prevention, but about changing the whole culture, so that it becomes as unacceptable to carry a knife as it is to carry a gun—as unacceptable as bullying now is in schools or as racism is in sport. We should all, on a cross-party basis, support the culture change that so many people who have been affected by knife crime are trying to bring about.

Q9. [228611] Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): For over a decade, the Government have given the people of the south-west warm words about their water charges, which are the highest in the country. Ofwat has just published a prediction of further rises to water and sewerage costs by 2016. Those rises are not only above the inflation rate, but above the average for all water companies. When will the people of the south-west get action, rather than sympathetic words?

The Prime Minister: I have met Members of Parliament from the area to talk about the issues and to see what could be done, but I have to say to them, after 10 years of Labour Government, that the south-west enjoys higher employment, higher standards of living and better public services as a result of a Labour Government.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister give us a rock-solid assurance that whatever he does to clear the debts of the nation’s finances, he will never, ever, meet a Russian billionaire to try and cadge the money? We will leave that to the sleazy Tory party.

The Prime Minister: This is a very serious matter indeed, and I hope that it is investigated by the authorities.

Q10. [228612] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Ten years ago, the Government issued a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Since then, funding has been diverted away from rural areas to urban areas. What action is the Prime Minister going to take to ensure fair funding for rural areas such as Shropshire so that schools such as Lydbury North in my constituency can stay open?

The Prime Minister: I am in favour of more funding for schools around the country and I am in favour of more funding for schools in rural areas, as in urban areas, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman must make a prior decision: does he support extra investment in schools and education, as we do, or does he oppose the extra investment, as his own party has done?

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