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The Prime Minister: The one pro-European that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention who supported the VAT change was the shadow shadow Chancellor, the shadow Business Secretary. I think it is remarkable—we really need to look at this—that at the point when we most need an injection of resources into the economy, the Conservative party is setting its face against ordinary families in this country who now have £20 more a month in their pockets. The people of this country will
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remember that the Conservatives opposed the VAT cuts; they opposed the rise in pensions; they opposed the rise in child benefit; they opposed the extra billions that we are spending on public investment; and they did so in circumstances where they knew that we have one of the lowest public debts of major countries in the world, not one of the highest.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister cannot get his facts right. The fact is that we have the biggest budget deficit of any country outside Egypt, Pakistan and Hungary—and two of them are already in the International Monetary Fund. Let us deal with a few more of the facts that the Prime Minister just gave us. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) voted against the VAT cut in this House. The Prime Minister never gets his facts right; he told us the other day that he was like Titian aged 90, but the fact is that Titian died at 86. For all we can see in the Government’s response to this recession, they have appointed the wrong people, they have made the wrong decisions, they cannot give us a straight answer about the mess we are in, and they never apologise for anything. Now everyone can see the price that is being paid, as thousands of businesses go bust and people are made unemployed up and down our country. Is it not clear that incompetence plus arrogance equals 2 million unemployed?

The Prime Minister: What did the Leader of the Opposition say to the Conservative party conference? He said:

He went on to say that we had to deregulate the wealth creators. At this point, when the right hon. Gentleman is calling for more regulation, perhaps he would be honest enough to admit that he has been calling for the last few years for total deregulation of many of the businesses in this country. As far as judgment is concerned, let me just say that his judgment on Northern Rock was to let it collapse; his judgment on regulation is to deregulate as much as possible; and his judgment on the fiscal stimulus is doing nothing. The decisions that he has made on the global financial crisis have been wrong, wrong and wrong every single time.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): The Prime Minister will be aware that it is almost 18 months since the Law Lords made a decision denying compensation to people suffering from pleural plaques as a result of negligent exposure to asbestos. Does he agree with me that we can restore justice and fairness only if that Law Lords’ decision is overturned?

The Prime Minister: I met my hon. Friend last week and we talked about this very issue. It is very important that we get a resolution following the court judgment on pleural plaques. The Secretary of State for Justice has been looking at this matter and talking to his colleagues right across Government about the implications of what can be done, and I can assure my hon. Friend that an announcement will be made very soon.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Since the Queen’s Speech a few months ago, the Government have been churning out on average three new announcements each and every day. Will the Prime Minister tell me how many of those initiatives are being put into practice?

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The Prime Minister: As I said a few minutes ago, more than 50,000 companies are benefiting from the measures that we have taken. Those measures include the new enterprise scheme; they include the working capital scheme that is being opened up in the next few days; and they include what we have done with the Inland Revenue and others to help people with the costs that they face at this time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we are not only helping businesses in this country, but we are helping people when they become unemployed. In only the past few weeks, we have put in an extra £500 million to help them. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also see the help that we are giving people with their mortgages, which is designed to keep the problem of mortgage arrears and repossessions down.

Mr. Clegg: Let us look at some of the Prime Minister’s big announcements. He said that he would get the banks lending again; they are not. He said that he would get tough on bankers’ bonuses, yet he is letting them keep millions in bonuses in return for a cynical apology. He said that he would create 100,000 new jobs, yet with unemployment today standing at almost 2 million and rising, our young people of today will be tomorrow’s jobless generation. It is bad enough to be a do-nothing party; is it not even worse to be a say-anything, do-nothing Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: I have tried to explain in recent weeks that the problem with bank lending is actually the loss of foreign banking and non-banking capacity in this country. Half the lending in mortgages and half the lending to businesses came from that source. When that source leaves, as the Irish, American and other banks have left the country or have run down their capacity, the existing banks must do more.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the banks in which we have an interest are lending more than they were. The problem is that we must build out of a gap in capacity that existed because of the loss of foreign lending. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that that is what is happening at the moment. We are trying to sign lending agreements with the banks.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s other allegations, if I had taken his advice we would have made the wrong decisions.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): It is right that there is outrage over the fact that the highly paid bankers who helped to create the current crisis are considering being paid huge bonuses, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the bank workers at the lowest end of the scale should not be penalised for their bosses’ failures?

The Prime Minister: Let me tell the House what we have done since October. I think that this must be made absolutely clear. First of all, on the boards of banks in which we have an interest no cash dividends are being paid, no cash bonuses are being paid and no share options are being paid. We have laid that down as a condition to each of the banks in which we have taken an interest. Meanwhile—I think that the House will want to know this—the four chairmen and chief executives
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of the two banks that we have taken over have all left, the board of HBOS no longer exists and seven people have left the board of the Royal Bank of Scotland in the past few days. Our determination is to make sure that the banking system is built on better fundamentals than in the past.

As for bonuses, while I am aware that there are thousands of poorly paid bank employees in this country who rely on their bonuses, we must ensure that we protect the public interest as we look through what is being proposed by the Royal Bank of Scotland and other banks. I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined not only to make our banks clean of the problems that have existed, but to ensure that they operate on good principles and that the rewards are only for good, sustainable, long-term benefits that accrue to the company and not for short-term deals.

Q2. [255801] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Prime Minister recall that when the Home Office announced 15 months ago that over 7,500 illegal immigrants were working in the security industry—including one who was guarding his car—he and his Ministers announced immediate and tough action? Can he tell the House how many of those people have been deported?

The Prime Minister: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on that very matter, but what I will say is that once the problem was identified, we took action immediately.

Q3. [255802] Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): When I visited Jobcentre Plus in Washington, I saw for myself that the recent loss of 1,200 jobs at Nissan has been a bitter blow for the north-east, especially after 10 years of consistently falling unemployment across the region. May I ask the Prime Minister to echo my appreciation for the sterling work done by the people in Jobcentre Plus, and may I press him further to see what more he and the Government can do to protect jobs and keep people working in the north-east?

The Prime Minister: It is right to say that for every person who is made unemployed there is sadness and sorrow, and we will do what we can to help people back to work as quickly as possible. It is right to say that employment has risen in my hon. Friend’s region over the past 10 years, but it is also right to say that the car makers and other industries are facing very big problems. Our determination is to give people help—help enabling them to stay in jobs where that is possible, help enabling them to get new jobs, and help enabling those who are already unemployed to get work as quickly as possible. When I met the members of the National Employment Panel this morning to discuss exactly these issues, many employers said that as a result of the 500,000 vacancies in the economy, they would be able to help people to get back into work.

Q4. [255803] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), the Prime Minister mentioned housing, but although he announced a mortgage deferral scheme two months ago, it still has not happened. He said that he would protect the low paid, yet council house rents are increasing massively
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this year. He said that he would increase house building, yet only half as many houses were built last year as the year before. Is this a failure of management, or a failure of leadership?

The Prime Minister: On 1 January, we introduced the new scheme that will help people who are unemployed with their mortgages. That is now working; at 13 weeks, people will get help with their mortgages. We also negotiated with a number of building societies and banks that they will enforce a moratorium on those payments that it is necessary to make in situations where we can avoid repossessions. We are now bringing through the Banking Bill, which is in the House of Commons this week, and it contains the measures that will enable us to go further and provide a better insurance scheme for people who have problems with their mortgages. We have taken the action that is necessary, and we will continue to take whatever action is necessary. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting us, not criticising us.

Q5. [255804] Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Extensive gritting took place throughout my Greater Manchester constituency during the recent wintry weather, keeping roads open and services running. We should contrast that with the chaos in our capital city, London, where the tube was closed and bus services did not run. The Mayor blamed that on the divine; does the Prime Minister think that that embarrassment was down to an act of God or the inaction of Boris?

The Prime Minister: The combination of the policy of the Mayor of London with those of the Conservative party to cut public spending now would mean that Londoners would be in a far worse position, if ever we had the misfortune of having a Conservative Government. It should be pointed out to the people of London, and to the people of the country, that if the Conservatives were in government, they would in a few weeks’ time be cutting local council funding plans, cutting police, cutting schools and cutting transport—they would be making cuts to vital services at a time when people need those services most. That is the Conservative party we know.

Q6. [255805] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Will the Prime Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that allegations of war crimes in Gaza are investigated by the International Criminal Court? Have the Government asked the Security Council to refer these allegations to the ICC?

The Prime Minister: The position is, first, that the United Nations Secretary-General has asked for an inquiry into what happened, and particularly into what happened to the UN headquarters in Gaza, and, secondly, the Israeli Government have announced an inquiry into their actions. We must await the results of these inquiries.

Q7. [255806] Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share the pride in Grenadier Guardsman Scott Blaney from my constituency of Nuneaton, who has just returned to duties after having lost a leg while on operations in Afghanistan? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that we should be doing as much as we possibly can to get all our injured Army personnel back to work once they have recovered from their injuries?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have visited Birmingham, where people who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan have been given help to recuperate and get back either into the armed forces or into work. Seeing the progress that people who have been severely injured have made is a very moving experience. I think the whole House will be proud of the 22-year-old Guardsman Scott Blaney, who has been standing guard at the Tower of London this week despite all the injuries that he has suffered. He is a shining example of the bravery, fortitude and determination of our armed services.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): Will the Prime Minister consider providing Government help to enable medium-sized businesses to increase the pay to their workers on short-time working, as that might help stem the flow of redundancies of skilled, and possibly irreplaceable, staff?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are things that can be done in this area. First, I ask him to look at the working capital scheme for medium-sized businesses, which will give them access to working capital—loan capital—over the period of the next year or two. I also remind him of the Inland Revenue scheme that allows a deferral of taxation, but we are also looking at how our training grant system can provide help for half a day or one day a week to allow workers to be kept on in industries that would otherwise be laying people off. In each area where we can take action, we will take action, and I will be very happy to look at any proposal that the hon. Gentleman puts forward.

Q8. [255807] Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that on Teesside the renewables and biofuels industry is both vibrant and growing. The Teesside Ensus plant alone will produce a third of the UK’s bioethanol demand—the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road—while using soy animal feed in a significant form, which will reduce deforestation. What are the Government—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must be fair to other Back Benchers. When a supplementary is too long, it is unfair to them.

The Prime Minister: Because of our ambitious carbon emissions targets—one for 2050 and one for the earlier period—we have a duty to invest, as well as the benefit from investing, in the low-carbon industries of this country. My hon. Friend is right to say that where we can gain advantage from investing in new environmental technologies that will benefit either the car or other vehicles, or businesses in general in our country, it is right to do so. We will shortly be publishing our proposals on how we can contribute to the development of a low-carbon economy for the future.

Q9. [255808] Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Thousands of dairy farmers wake up every morning throughout the United Kingdom wondering whether this will be the day when the herd that they have so lovingly built up over their lifetime will be slaughtered because of a positive reaction to a test for bovine TB. When will this urban-centric Government put in place effective policies to deal with that dreadful disease?

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The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the means of dealing with that disease have been hotly debated over the years. I am happy to look at any proposals that he has for the future, but may I say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has regular discussions with the National Farmers Union on those very issues, and the investment that we have made in rural areas would be cut by the Conservative party?

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend commend the Tarmac cement plant in my constituency for its announcement of 60 new apprenticeships this year? Will he also commend the 100 businesses from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that came together recently to hear about the Train to Gain project? Does he agree that investment in skills now—recession or no recession—is the key to prosperity in the future?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend may have noticed an advertisement from the CBI and other organisations saying that it is time to invest in the future—it is time to invest in the skills of the future. We are increasing apprenticeships this year, as a result of the decisions that we have made, by 35,000, so that there is not a cut in training during a period of downturn. We are also investing more in Train to Gain to enable people not only to continue in work, but to get the skills for the future. I must repeat to the House that if we had followed the advice of the Conservative party, we would be cutting these programmes when they are desperately needed now.

Q10. [255809] Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Why has a former trustee of a secretive overseas bank that specialises in tax evasion been appointed to manage the taxpayers’ stake in our banking industry?

The Prime Minister: He is acting chairman; he has not been appointed as full chairman.

Q11. [255810] Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that we must not let the financial crisis deflect us from tackling climate change. I do not know whether he is aware that companies involved in developing low-carbon technologies are suffering from the credit crunch and that projects are at risk. Will he undertake to ensure that the Government do all that they can to give these companies the support that they need in order to deliver?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is a growing low-carbon environmental sector in this country that we need to support. It is worth about £100 billion and employs about 800,000 people, and we will do what we can to support it, even if the Conservative party seems to have a huge disinterest in the environment now.

Q12. [255811] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): In 2006, as many as one in six prisoners were released before they were halfway through their sentence—in 2007, that had risen to more than one in three prisoners. Can the Prime Minister explain to the House why he thinks it is a good idea to let so many prisoners out of jail early?

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The Prime Minister: The early-release scheme proposals were agreed by the House. We have said that we will look at them as we build new prison places. We are already building new prison places and, if I may say so, far from being soft on prisoners, there are now 20,000 more people in prison now than there were when we came to power.

Mr. Speaker: I call David Chaytor: he is not here. I call John Mann: he is not here. I call Gordon Prentice: you are here.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I have been here for the last five weeks, Mr. Speaker. [ Laughter. ]

Does my friend believe, as I do, that we need a mandatory register of lobbyists, independently managed and enforced? Will he introduce legislation without delay?

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