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Claimant Count

5. John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the projected claimant count in Scotland in 2009-10. [253063]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about how to support those people who lose their jobs in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

John Mason: Is the Secretary of State concerned that a further £1 billion of cuts in the coming two years will mean a huge number of job losses in Scotland?

Mr. Murphy: I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, as part of the pre-Budget report, an extra £2 billion is going into the pockets and purses of Scots to support them through these difficult times. Scotland being in the United Kingdom makes Scotland more prosperous in good times and help us to insure against the most difficult times when we face crisis, such as the world faces now. Most Scots appreciate that we are stronger together and would be much weaker apart.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): From his discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the support that is now embedded to help the long-term unemployed into work. When he meets the First Minister, will he raise my concern that nothing has been done in Scotland to match the skills and training element of that support, which is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

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Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend is right. We need to make sure that today’s newly unemployed do not become the long-term unemployed of tomorrow. We will discuss those issues with the First Minister and others when we meet in Glasgow next month. We are putting in place welfare reform proposals and increasing the investment in Jobcentre Plus because we will not walk away from our responsibility to the newly unemployed in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Secretary of State is right to say that preparations need to be made to deal with the inevitable rise in unemployment as a result of the economic crisis. Will he also recognise that the best thing to do is to minimise the number of job losses? To that end, what are the Government doing to try to ensure maximum investment in the North sea during the current credit crisis? The traditional lending markets are drying up.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of North sea oil and gas. I met representatives of the industry last week and, along with the Secretaries of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for Energy and Climate Change, I will do so again in the next couple of weeks. It is crucial that we continue investment in the North sea, to access oilfields and gasfields that we have not got to in past decades; I am thinking in particular of the enormous untapped resource west of Shetland. We need to do all that we can to support the industry to exploit that.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): As people begin to get worried about the rising claimant count, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are concerns in the oil and gas industry and energy companies such as INEOS, which he visited recently with me? However, those concerns are covered in Scotland by the national agreement for the engineering construction industry, or NAECI—made by the companies and Unite—under which the companies draw from within a 40-mile zone in Scotland. The concern in Scotland is that if workers were denied the right to work outwith Scotland, many with high skills would be unemployed. We need more high skills in Scotland to allow people to get the jobs available in the oil and energy industry.

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. I recently met representatives of INEOS and at the weekend I met shop stewards from Longannet and Grangemouth—both places out on strike. It was a helpful and constructive conversation. It is clear that the workers are concerned because of the economic climate and are worried that European law is preventing them from having a level playing field when it comes to employment opportunities. It is essential that those workers are able to compete on a level playing field, that European law is applied equally and that British workers are able to compete for jobs in Britain. We make it absolutely clear, along with the companies, that that is exactly the situation that should and must apply in the UK—and, in most cases, we believe that it does.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Will the Secretary of State admit that on the basis of the warnings from the International Monetary Fund and the Fraser of Allander Institute, his Labour Government have led Scotland not just into recession but to the brink of becoming the worst hit
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part of the worst hit country in the developed world? Does he agree that at such a time, Scotland does not need a do nothing Secretary of State? It needs him to bring the UK and Scottish Governments together to combat this recession. Can he tell Parliament how many times the Prime Minister has met the First Minister to discuss the recession? How many times has he himself done so?

Mr. Murphy: I do not keep the Prime Minister’s diary, but I have announced that the First Minister, the CBI, the STUC and I will be coming together. We will look at what happened during previous recessions in the United Kingdom. We will look at the position of the Government in power at those times, who said that unemployment was a price worth paying. We will do the opposite. Unemployment is never a price worth paying, and we will do everything that we can to prevent the long-term generational unemployment that typified the Tory approach to previous recessions. [Interruption.]

David Mundell rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to hon. Members that it is far too noisy in the Chamber. That is unfair to those who are here for Scottish questions.

David Mundell: I think we can take it that the answer to the question about the number of meetings between the Prime Minister and the First Minister to discuss the recession is none. The people of Scotland will find it deeply disappointing that there has been so little, and such acrimonious, dialogue between their Prime Minister, Secretary of State and First Minister in the face of such a serious crisis. I say to the Secretary of State that under a Conservative Government things would be very different, because Scotland’s interests would be put first. Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us: is it that the Prime Minister has been so busy saving the world that he has not had time to save Scotland, or that he simply puts partisan political interests ahead of Scottish business interests?

Mr. Murphy: There we have it. The Conservatives’ approach would be entirely different. We know that from their history: long-term generational unemployment; incapacity benefit numbers trebling; a poll tax in Scotland first; no investment whatever in public services; and child poverty higher in the United Kingdom than in any industrialised nation in the world. Yes, there are enormous differences between the two parties. We believe in investing in these economically difficult times; the Conservatives are out of touch with the mainstream across the world, including new President Obama. On that basis, they are economically illiterate and politically isolated.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [253828] Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 February.

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The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Danny Nield of 1st Battalion The Rifles, who was killed in Afghanistan last Friday. We owe him, and all who have lost their lives, our gratitude for their service. Our armed forces show us week in and week out their courage and commitment, and we will never forget those who have shown such dedication.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings later today.

Ms Buck: The whole House will wish to send our deepest sympathy to the family of Corporal Nield.

We are experiencing the worst winter weather for 20 years, but new evidence shows that fuel companies are not cutting fuel bills as their costs reduce. Meanwhile, energy giant BP has just posted £14 billion in profits. What urgent further steps can my right hon. Friend take to reassure pensioners and families who are worried about their fuel bills this winter?

The Prime Minister: First, I pay tribute to the emergency services for the way that they have dealt with all the troubles and difficulties that have arisen from the cold weather. We are determined to provide real help to people who are facing difficulties with their fuel bills, including pensioners who are worried about their ability to turn on their heating at a time when the weather is really cold. So in addition to the money that we have provided through the winter allowance, with 12 million pensioners who benefit by £250 or £400 this year, and at the same time as the £60 that we are giving to every pensioner now—it has been paid out in the past few days—I can also confirm that this Monday half a million vulnerable families became eligible for payments of £25 on the basis of future weather forecasts. Let me also say that 5 million people will get cold weather payments this week, and we will continue to make payments whenever the weather is so poor.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Danny Nield, killed in Afghanistan on Friday. We should offer our deepest sympathy to his family and his friends at this time.

Does the Prime Minister share my concern at the decision by the US House of Representatives to pass “Buy America” legislation, and does he agree that a retreat into protectionism is the last thing that the world needs? Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman refused to confirm that he would specifically condemn these moves. Will the Prime Minister make clear his position today?

The Prime Minister: I have made it clear throughout the past few months that the biggest danger that the world faces is a retreat into protectionism. I have also made it clear that, as a result of the withdrawal of foreign banking capacity in large numbers of countries, we face a downward spiral whereby these countries cannot borrow from anybody because foreign banks have left. That is all the more reason why, first, we should sign the Doha agreement—that will feature on
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the G20 agenda—and secondly, we should ensure that every country is analysed by the World Trade Organisation on what it is doing to prevent protectionism. It is also absolutely clear that we should agree, as a world, on a monetary and fiscal stimulus that will take the world out of depression.

Mr. Cameron: The two countries that most need to give ground to achieve action on the Doha round—India and the US—will both be present at the G20. As the Prime Minister said, the aims of the G20 refer to advancing the Doha trade round. Should we not be clear that anything less than removing the barriers to agreement would represent a failure?

The Prime Minister: I tried very hard before Christmas to talk to both President Bush and the Indian Prime Minister so that we could make progress on this. There are actually only two issues that are left to be decided. The first is a safeguard clause for when there is a surge in imports in any poor country, and the second concerns negotiations on sectorals—different sectors of industry—and how those could be concluded. By the time President Bush had left office, he had made it clear that he would be able to accept the wording on the sectoral agreements, and the Indian Prime Minister has said to me that he wants to make progress on the safeguard clause.

It is now up to President Obama and the Indian Prime Minister to say that they can accept the terms of this agreement. If that were so, we would have a conclusion of the first round of the Doha negotiations. That is in the interests not just of our country, but of the poorest countries in the world, which are now facing poverty as a result of the industrial downturn. Those two issues can be resolved, and I will work very hard to resolve them in the next few weeks.

Mr. Cameron: The point is that if we do not get a conclusion to the Doha round, the existing policy space allows countries to double the level of tariffs. Everyone can hear that the Prime Minister says that it is important to avoid protectionism, but is he not himself guilty of encouraging protectionist sentiment? Does he agree that use of the slogan “British jobs for British workers”— [Interruption.] Does he agree that using that slogan showed a lack of judgment, and does he now regret it?

The Prime Minister: First, on the trade negotiations, let us be clear that we have done everything in our power. The Brazilians have come on board; the Argentinians have come on board; the South Africans have come on board; the rest of Europe has come on board. It is important that we make all the efforts we can with other countries to get this trade agreement. Pascal Lamy, the head of the WTO, has just published a report on the protectionist tariffs that are being imposed by different countries during the present downturn. At the moment, those tariffs are limited and it is important that we continue to see that they are limited.

On the second question, can anybody here say that they do not want British workers to get jobs in our country? Can anyone here say— [ Interruption. ] Can anyone here say that they do not want us to help British workers get the skills necessary to get jobs? Let me also say that in an open environment and a global economy where there is competition for jobs, it is crucial that we
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do everything in our power to help people get the jobs that are available. That is why we are investing in apprenticeships; that is why we are investing in helping the unemployed get back to work; that is why we have a new deal; that is why we are increasing public investment. The pity is that the Opposition do not support us, because they want to do nothing.

Mr. Cameron: Does the Prime Minister not understand that when he spouted his slogan, what he was doing was opportunistic, protectionist— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Cameron: He was pandering to people’s fears and he knows it. This is what the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, his former Europe Minister, had to say. He said that the slogan


He was asked to repeat the slogan, and because he has got some judgment he refused. Let me ask the Prime Minister again: is not the use of this slogan an error of judgment and a huge mistake, and should he not apologise instead of twisting?

The Prime Minister: I have already shown that we are far from protectionist as a Government. We are trying to get a world trade agreement. I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman—he does not want to listen—that in an open, global environment where there is competition for jobs, it is our duty to help British workers get the skills necessary for jobs. As far as opportunism is concerned, I have to tell him that there is nothing more opportunistic than his saying in the autumn that he wanted to give all-party support to this Government’s efforts to take us out of a global financial crisis and then, the next moment, withdrawing all that support. That is opportunism.

Mr. Cameron: Does the Prime Minister not understand that he is taking people for fools again? At international summits, he lectures the world on the evils of protectionism, but back at home, with his slogan “British jobs for British workers”, he is pandering to protectionist fears. Does he not understand that he has been found out?

The Prime Minister: Let me just bring the right hon. Gentleman up to date with what is happening in the industrial dispute, so that he realises what is going on. An ACAS proposal has been put to the work force, and I hope that they will now accept it despite their initial reservations. I can also tell him that the construction and engineering association has issued new guiding principles for companies to consider when using non-UK contractors and labour on engineering construction sites. I hope that the whole House will welcome the fact that it now states in the new advice:

That is the common-sense way of dealing in practical terms with the difficulties that we face.

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Mr. Cameron: Does the Prime Minister not realise that one of his problems is that he refuses to admit mistakes, even when those mistakes stare him and the whole country in the face? He says “British jobs for British workers” when he knows that it is not deliverable. He says that he ended boom and bust when we are in the deepest recession for a generation. He says that our economy is well prepared when the IMF says that we are going to have the deepest recession of all. I have to tell him that he should just look behind him—they are so ashamed of what he has said about British jobs for British workers. [Interruption.] Let me ask him one final time— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. MacShane, behave yourself.

Mr. Cameron: I do not know why the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is shouting—it was he who specifically criticised the Prime Minister for using that phrase. He said that


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