Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Dec 2008 : Column 32

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may be prepared to prejudge everything. The House has consented without demur to Mr. Speaker’s proposal to set up an inquiry into these events. The House has agreed to set up its own inquiry, and the police have set up their inquiry. Surely it is right for us to wait for the results of that inquiry before drawing our conclusions.

Mr. Howard: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear from the Prime Minister’s recent answers, or non-answers, that he is in effect criticising what you told us earlier this afternoon?

Mr. Speaker: The House has a long tradition of not drawing the Speaker into the argument; I would not want that. [Interruption.] Order. The Prime Minister is perfectly in order; he gives a reply that he wishes to give. It is up to him.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I assure the hon. Gentleman that he does not have a point of order for me; he definitely has not, but I will try him.

Mr. Cash: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister has just said that the House has decided on the inquiry. That is not the case. This was a statement made by you and not by the House. Do you agree?

Mr. Speaker: Once again, it is a debate. It is not always the case that exact accuracy is called for. [Interruption.] Order. It is a debate. Sometimes the hon. Gentleman has not been too accurate, and I have had to put him right.

The Prime Minister rose—

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): On the question of child poverty, does the Prime Minister remember that as a member of the Opposition back in 1993, he leaked information about the potential taxation of invalidity benefit? What would he advise other Members who had been given similar information to do?

The Prime Minister: I just repeat, in defending the rights of Members to pursue their duties, that what the Metropolitan police acting commissioner has said is that he is investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office, potentially involving national security. That, in my view, is very different.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am grateful to the Prime Minister, particularly as I have reason to be aware that it is important to preserve the difference between leaks that are about national security and those that are not.

What I wanted to put to the Prime Minister was that earlier this afternoon, in the statement, arrangements were announced that involved the Serjeant at Arms being given instructions not to grant the police the ability to search in these premises without a warrant. Does the Prime Minister support those arrangements?

The Prime Minister: We are waiting for the results of the inquiry— [Interruption.]

3 Dec 2008 : Column 33

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Prime Minister answer in the way he wants to answer.

The Prime Minister: To correct the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), I should say that I said that the House did not demur when Mr. Speaker proposed due changes for the future.

Several hon. Members rose

The Prime Minister: I am going to make progress. In the last—

Several hon. Members rose

The Prime Minister: I am going to make progress. In the last 10 years— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. Does he believe that national security was damaged when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) found out that the Home Office was seeking to cover up the fact that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working in the security industry in this country? Was that an issue of national security or not?

The Prime Minister: I am not going to comment on a police inquiry that is ongoing, and I would caution Opposition Members against doing so as well. This is an ongoing police inquiry, and it is right to defend the operational independence of the police. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not going to tolerate the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) shouting at the Prime Minister. If he does so again, he will be defying the Chair. He has to be careful.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Does the Prime Minister accept that there is no dispute about the operational independence of the police being very important and that— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.

Mr. Clarke: Furthermore, there is no dispute that any breach of national security is an important matter. However, does the Prime Minister also accept that the police are themselves accountable, and will be accountable for their statements? Would he not express an opinion that, if it turns out that the leaks were merely matters of confidence—the kind of leaks with which he and I are only too familiar—it would be an abuse of police power to use the police to intervene to try to intimidate either a civil servant or Opposition spokesman who was getting access to confidential leaks embarrassing for the Minister concerned?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a senior member of the Bar, and he knows perfectly well that we cannot prejudice an investigation that is ongoing by making comments in this way. I would repeat the statement that has been made by the Metropolitan police saying what they are investigating.
3 Dec 2008 : Column 34
I have to go on what they say—it is they who are investigating. Of course the police are accountable, but we also have to recognise that they are operationally independent. Opposition Members cannot pick and choose whether they support operational independence on one occasion or another—they have to support operational independence. I am now going to make progress with my speech.

The Chancellor set out the most comprehensive programme of real help for businesses and families, and now we want to go further. In the past 10 years, 1 million more people have become home owners and there are more owner-occupiers than ever in the history of our country. People who have saved up for a house are proud of what they have achieved, and we are proud of what they have achieved. For many, their biggest fear is that they might face repossession in this world downturn. Today the Government can go further than we were able to go last week, with a new charter for mortgage holders. We want to do what no country has done before in providing new protections for home owners. We will do everything in our power to ensure that no hard-working family who demonstrate to their bank a willingness to pay can or should face the fear of repossession of their family home.

We want to build three protections and put them in place for home owners—three pillars for people worried about their homes. [ Interruption. ] I know that Opposition Members think that it is funny when we talk about mortgages, home owners and repossession, but this is exactly what the country wants us to be able to do for them. First, having agreed with the lenders that no repossession should be initiated in the first three months after the borrower has moved into arrears, I can announce that Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley have joined the Royal Bank of Scotland in agreeing that it will not repossess homes for a full six months. I urge all responsible banks to follow their example. Secondly, our new pre-action protocol makes it clear that repossession should be a last resort. Judges now expect lenders to consider what steps and what flexibilities might help to keep hard-working families in their homes. We are backing that up with free debt advice in every court, and we will work to ensure that the protocol is minimising the number of repossessions ever brought to court.

Today I want to offer to families worrying about their mortgages a third protection, which will be an additional guarantee of fairness for all home owners facing difficult economic times. Hard-working households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income as a result of the downturn will be able to defer a proportion of their interest payments for up to two years while they get their family finances back on track. This measure is in addition to our protection for the unemployed, who, after 13 weeks, can claim help with their mortgage. It will extend protection for those in work as well as those out of work and will be available at a higher level of income. We will make this possible by guaranteeing lenders against the risk of loss from those deferred interest payments. I am pleased that I can announce today that the country’s eight largest lenders have already agreed to sign up and work this new scheme, the detail of which will be published in the next few days. The lenders include HBOS, Nationwide, Abbey, Lloyds TSB, Northern Rock, Barclays and HSBC—already 70 per cent. of the mortgages that are held in this country.
3 Dec 2008 : Column 35
The result will be more affordable monthly payments for home owners who need a bridge through difficult times.

We will also—this is in line with the legislation for the savings gateway—consult on how we can create a savings incentive targeted at first-time buyers to help them to save money to get their first step into the housing market. We will continue to take action to improve social housing, with new investment brought forward—an extra £100 million this year and £450 million the year after. That is new public investment that the Conservative party would not fund but we are prepared to fund.

We are, uniquely, buying up surplus stock from house builders—again, a fiscal stimulus that is necessary to meet the needs of our times that we are prepared to do but the Opposition would refuse to do. We are supporting housing authorities and local authorities in building more homes themselves—again, new investment brought forward by this scheme that the Opposition would not support. For 10,000 more first-time buyers, the £1 billion home owner’s support package will mean additional money for housing, which the Opposition would refuse to provide. We are not only providing real help for businesses and families now, but meeting our country’s need for future housing. [Interruption.]

We will also help the construction industry and give communities real help, with new investment in reformed public services. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I stop the Prime Minister? This is a debate on the Loyal Address, but many private conversations are going on in the Chamber. That is unfair to hon. Members who want to follow the debate.

The Prime Minister: It is absolutely clear that the Opposition have no interest in listening to what we are doing about the economy. It is also absolutely clear that they are obsessed with only one thing today, but we have got to get on with the business of helping move from the downturn to higher prosperity.

Let me deal with small businesses. I can announce that we will ensure that the banking codes are put on a statutory footing, and we will give local authorities a greater role in economic regeneration.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I am reassured to hear the Prime Minister speak about housing, because it was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. Why did he not take the opportunity of today’s Gracious Speech to update the mortgage law, for which Shelter has argued for some time?

The Prime Minister: We are taking measures to protect exactly the people about whom Shelter is talking. We are providing a new scheme that not only allows mortgage repossessions to be postponed for six months but lets people recapitalise their mortgage, supported by a Government guarantee, if they are in difficulty. That is exactly what Shelter and other organisations want us to do. The hon. Lady should applaud, not criticise us, for our actions.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): One of the big problems is that small businesses are unable to obtain credit guarantees. Will the Prime Minister
3 Dec 2008 : Column 36
consider a Government-backed credit guarantee scheme for the small and medium-sized sector? That would free up a lot of industry throughout the UK.

The Prime Minister: Let me explain that we are doing exactly that. The special liquidity scheme that gives money to the banks is on condition that those that we own put the same amount of lending into small businesses as they did in 2007. At the same time, we have introduced a £1 billion scheme for export credits for small businesses. We have also pushed another £1 billion for the small business loan guarantee scheme. All that is on top of a deferment of the rate of small firms corporation tax, £4 billion of loan capital for small and medium-sized enterprises and a pledge that every bill that the Government owe will be paid in 10 days. We have taken all those steps to help small businesses and we are now in discussions with the banks about how they can move them forward. We will meet representatives of the banks later this week, and I tell the hon. Gentleman that we are making available the necessary money, and he should support exactly what we are doing.

Let me deal with jobs. The first step is to help keep people in jobs and that means more funding for training in work. We will invest more to allow small businesses and others to keep on employees to give them skills they need so that training can be done for the upturn, and vital employees can be kept on instead of losing their jobs. The second step is immediate access to advice and training. People who face redundancy will get immediate practical support. That is possible only because we have a new deal in which we are investing more than £1 billion—investment that the Opposition would always oppose. The third step is guaranteeing a start to securing new skills and help within a month for people who are unemployed. That is possible only because we have a properly financed Jobcentre Plus and a new deal that can do that job.

We are also introducing a Bill in this Session to enhance the rights of people who are looking for work—and their responsibilities. It will include a requirement that those out of work undertake work-related activity so that we help them enhance their skills and increase their confidence, thus giving them the tools they need to invest in the future and make a contribution, instead of languishing on the dole. All that is in stark contrast to the Opposition’s flagship policy on unemployment, launched in the morning and sunk in an afternoon, which the Federation of Small Businesses called a disincentive, not an incentive, to work.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Will the Prime Minister give way on that point?

The Prime Minister: I have already made it clear that I am making progress with the measures in the Queen’s Speech that will help businesses and families in this country. Clearly, the Opposition have no interest in measures that give people jobs, help people with businesses and help people stay in their homes.

Building on our plan to raise education— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister has indicated that he is not giving way. Hon. Members should be calm.

3 Dec 2008 : Column 37

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) is so excited that I will take his intervention.

Mr. Binley: Does the Prime Minister recognise that, for all his fine words about small business, the money is not getting through? That is the point and he needs to take it into account.

The Prime Minister: We have just announced measures that get the money through. The difference between us and the Opposition is that we are prepared to put the fiscal stimulus in, whereas they are not prepared to support it. There is no point in talking about extra support for small businesses if one is not prepared to give the fiscal stimulus that is absolutely necessary.

Building on our plan to raise the educational leaving age to 18, the Queen’s Speech brings forward legislation so that every young person has a path to a fulfilling career, by guaranteeing every qualified young person in this country an apprenticeship place, if that is what they want. That means that we will raise the number of apprentices in this country—the Leader of the Opposition said that we had not done anything—from 65,000 in 1997 to 237,000 in 2010. That comes on top of the 40,000 additional teachers in our schools, further action to raise school standards and further legislation in this Queen’s Speech to give more rights to parents and children in our economy.

The Leader of the Opposition’s speech proves that there is no economic problem that this country faces to which the solution is the Conservative party. However much he tries to hide it, he cannot get round the critical mistakes and misjudgments that his party has made and continues to make, including: its refusal to support our rescue of Northern Rock; the shadow Chancellor’s refusal to condemn share speculation a day before we took the action to deal with it; the dogma that monetary policy should act alone and not be supported by real help for families—not even the Governor of the Bank of England, who is in charge of monetary policy, believes that monetary policy can succeed on its own—and finally, the old dogma that any action to be taken has to be paid for by public spending cuts.

Let us be absolutely clear: the real difference between the Leader of the Opposition’s party and ours is that we will invest to take the action necessary for the economy, whereas his party refuses to make the necessary investment. It has no policy for the downturn and no policy for the upturn, either. That is the problem of today’s Conservative party.

Several hon. Members rose

The Prime Minister: They are so enthusiastic to talk about the economy that I shall allow them to do so.

Mr. Robathan: The Prime Minister accused the Opposition of not being interested in his speech. Could he explain why the Benches behind him are empty, whereas ours are full?

Next Section Index Home Page