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I have to say something about the right hon. Gentlemans point about rules as well. It is true in some cases that rules have not been properly obeyed and action has to
be takenI think that everyone will agree with that. It is also true that there is a looseness sometimes in the interpretation of the rules, or that the rules themselves are too loose. That is what the Committee on Standards in Public Life has to look at, but I hesitate to say that one or two Members of this House can get together and write the new rules on everything. We need independent scrutiny to assure the public that people can have confidence in the system.
Mr. Cameron: Let me ask the Prime Minister, in short order: how does he, in this current recession, when businesses are facing such difficult times and people are having to make such reductions in their own expenditure, justify the £10,000 communications allowance?
The Prime Minister: In this period, all members of the Government have frozen their salaries. I have myself refused to take the pension that may be given to any serving Prime Minister. I have refused the London allowance that is available to me. I think that all Members of the House have to look at what they can do in their own situations. As far as the communications allowance is concerned, it is open to the House to look at all these things, but a vote of the House took place. It is always open to Members to propose changing it.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that it is open to the House. That is so often his answer. What we want is some leadership to cut some of these costs. He seems to have such a tin ear to these issues. In an age where we are going to have to ask the public sector to do more for less, should we not start with ourselves? We have in the House of Commons 646 [Interruption.]
Mr. Cameron: The House of Commons has 646 MPs. We have one of the largest lower Houses in the western worldlarger than in Spain, France, Germany and Italy. In fact, if we take the Lords and Commons together, we have more political representatives than any country other than China. Should we not reduce the cost of politics by asking the next Boundary Commission to reduce the size of the House of Commons?
The Prime Minister: Many of the countries that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about are federal systems that have not only central Parliaments but federal Parliaments. I do not know whether he is proposing that we make an instant judgment now to reduce the number of MPs by 50, 100 or 150. Those are matters that have to go before an independent commission and people have to look at the boundaries. On all these issues, I am trying to build a political consensus on change. I am trying to build a consensus across all [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: I am trying to build a political consensus on change. It is unfortunate that we cannot today highlight those issues on which we agree that action needs to be taken immediately. That is the way forward for this House to restore trust in its affairs. We have got to deal immediately with the issues ahead of us. We have got to take the extreme action that I proposeI hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to support itand, at the same time, we have got to reform the expenses system. I think that today is a time for us all to come together to make the changes that are necessary.
Mr. Cameron: I must say to the Prime Minister that Spain and France are not federal systems, and they have much smaller Parliaments than we do. The Prime Minister says again that he wants to have an independent commission. I sometimes wonder whether [Interruption.]
Mr. Cameron: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the Prime Minister needs an independent commission to work out whether to have tea or coffee in the morning. Whether by putting expenses online, by cutting the cost of politics by abolishing the communications allowance, or by making this place smaller and more efficient, is it not time to wake up and see what is going on in the country? Is it not time for us to see ourselves as the rest of the country sees us? Is it not time to stop the talking and the endless committees, and start showing some real leadership to deliver some real change? How can we bring about the change this country needs if we cannot change ourselves?
The Prime Minister: It is precisely because we have to change that these radical proposals are being put forward. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen today to divide on issues, instead of to concentrate on the issues on which we agree. I think everybody will agree that this is a problem of the political system that has got to be dealt with by all of us. If we are to restore confidence in politics, that means restoring confidence in all of politics, and it means all Members of Parliament being part of that process of restoring confidence. Leadership is about the whole of the political system responding to the changes that need to be made, and leadership is me saying to all the political parties that they have got to act immediately to change the system. I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what is most important for politics today is to move forward with the changes on which we can agree and that are urgently necessary. Of course we should discuss other issues over a period of time, but we must discuss them in a way that is non-partisan so that we can reach proper agreement.
Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Many organisations support the Equality Bill: Age Concern, Carers UK and all the disability organisations. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when opposing the Bill on Monday, the Opposition could cite one organisation on their side: the Campaign Against Political Correctness? Will he assure the House that he will continue to support the views of Age Concern, Carers UK and the disability organisations and reject the views of those who oppose equality?
The Prime Minister: This is another issue on which it would be good to have political consensus. Discrimination on grounds of age or of being a carer is simply not acceptable in modern society. I hope that, despite the debates that have taken place in the last few days, we can reach an agreement on that, and I think we would be speaking for the whole country.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the brave soldiers who lost their lives serving us and the people of Afghanistan in Helmand province: Sergeant Ben Ross, Corporal Sean Binnie, Rifleman Adrian Sheldon, the soldier who died in a hospital in Birmingham yesterday after being shot in Helmand at the weekend, and Corporal Kumar Pun, who it is worth remembering now adds his name to those of the more than 45,000 Gurkha solders who have died serving this country over the years.
I would like to return to the issue of MPs expenses. I suspect that many people are a little baffled by all the different proposed solutions, because none of them seems to deal with the biggest loophole of all: MPs making hundreds of thousands of pounds buying and selling properties funded by the taxpayer. Surely the only long-term solution is to get all us MPs out of the property game altogether.
The Prime Minister: I know that this is an issue on which the right hon. Gentleman feels strongly, and it is exactly the kind of issue that the Kelly committee will be looking at. Let him and others put their proposals to the committee and let us come back with a solution. I say to him that any solution that is put forward for the longer term will have to command more than the confidence of this Houseit will have to command the confidence of the general public.
Mr. Clegg: I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but I still think he is making this a little too complicated. A really simple principle is at stake: we are here to serve our constituents, not to make a fast buck on the property market. That is why I have always thought that we should do what they do in Scotland: simply endstopany taxpayer-funded mortgages altogether. Until the new rules are in place, we Liberal Democrat Members have committed ourselves to handing back to the taxpayer every pound of any gain made from the sale of second homes funded by the taxpayer. Will he commit [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister:
I hope that people will also speak up for decent, hard-working Members of Parliament who are going about their duty in the ordinary way and who are not trying make any money out of being a Member of Parliament, but simply trying to serve the public. It is very important that we get some context in this debate. Where there are abuses, they must be sorted out. Where there are disagreements about future policy, I agree that recommendations should be made to the committee by MPs and by parties but, as I have said
before, I do not believe that we will command the confidence of the public unless people outside this House believe that what we are doing is also right. This cannot be an issue for just Members to make long-term decisions upon.
As for the right hon. Gentlemans proposal about houses, I know that capital gains tax has to be paid on these second homes. That is the first priority, and the other matters can be dealt with in representations to the committee.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will want to know that the people of Teesside were very pleased to receive his instant support following the news that the Corus steelworks could be closing. Will he support the campaign that is being led by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and other Teesside Members to help Corus and enable it to remain a significant part of employment on Teesside?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that the whole House should be concerned about. Corus entered into a contract with four other steel and other manufacturing operators that was supposed to last until 2015. If that contract is broken, a high level of compensation will have to be paid. We are trying urgently to talk to the companies concerned, which range across four different countries, to make the case that it is important to keep the Teesside plant open and that it is counter-productive to close it in the current circumstances, and to see whether, as was previously the case, a buyer, as part of that consortium, is available to take over the plant. These are the issues that we are dealing with. In the meantime, the Minister for the North East of England and Jobcentre Plus are making their services available so that people are in no doubt that if there are to be redundancies, we are there to help people to get new jobs.
Q2.  Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): A recent report by the National Housing Federation suggests that more than 100,000 young people will leave the countryside in the next three years, not because they want to do so, but because of the lack of affordable housing. If they stayed, they would be the leaders of their community in the future and the basis of the local economy. This Government have never really understood rural problems, but will the Prime Minister agree to meet a delegation representing young people in the countryside to set out the problems and share some of the solutions?
The Prime Minister: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to go away with the feeling that we have done nothing on this issue; we are determined to help people to get housing and to give help for jobs in rural areas. Indeed, a member of his party was asked to report to us on policies that could be implemented to help people in this position. We will do what we can to help people to get jobs and we are discussing with housing contractors how we can move forward on housing. Some decisions actually relate to planning decisions made by local authorities. We will need the support of local authorities in these areas, but we are determined to do what we can by the rural population of this country.
Q3.  Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Every year more than 100,000 children go missing in this country. Thankfully, most of them are found safe, but some of them are not. Over the next few days, events will be held all around the country to mark international missing childrens day. Will the Prime Minister meet me and members of the leading childrens charities to find out not only what is being done to protect those children, but what we need to do further?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the number of children who go missing. Last week we talked about lost children who become part of child trafficking near Heathrow. That is completely unacceptable, and I have asked the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to report on that specific instance immediately. In addition, we are working with local authorities to ensure the best care for vulnerable children who are identified by border agencies or at ports, and the immigration and citizenship Bill before Parliament will introduce a new legal duty. The Home Affairs Committee will publish a report tomorrow on some of these issues, and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation after that.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): What is the Prime Ministers response to the further report issued last week by the parliamentary ombudsman as a result of her concern about the Governments failure to action her recommendations on behalf of Equitable Life pensioners?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady knows, we are looking carefully at that report. We have set up an examination by a judge to consider the very matters in the report, and we will report back as soon as he finishes it.
Q4.  Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Amid all the gloom this week are two good news stories. One is the minimum wage, which is 10 years old and still going strong. The second is that economic punditseven the OECDnow concede that the sunny uplands are in sight after the slump. George Soros says that recovery is on its way. He knows all about money and slumps, because he was the man who took £2 billion from underneath the noses of two Tory grandees: Lord Lamont and the Leader of the Opposition.
The Prime Minister: I welcome my hon. Friend back for his first question after his recent illness. Things got really bad while he was away, and we are very pleased that he has come back. He is right about the importance of the minimum wage. We supported it in 1997 and we continue to support it. It has been raised this week and we have made it clear for the first time that tips should not be charged against it. We are determined to keep it, and I hope that all hon. Members will consider voting against the Bill on Friday whose intention is to undermine the minimum wage and kill it off in this country.
The Prime Minister: The House of Commons will debate the issue later this week. I am calling for three urgent actions, and I am making that clear in conversations with the President of Sri Lanka. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government must exercise the utmost restraint and avoid civilian casualties. All civilians must be allowed, as I have already requested, to leave the conflict zones, and the UN must have full access to civilians caught up in the conflict. We will play our part through our aid programme. The Foreign Secretary has been in New York to urge the UN to take further action and our special envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), has been in the region meeting partners and building up pressure for a full ceasefire. What is happening in Sri Lanka is having a devastating humanitarian impact, and we will make continuing efforts to avoid civilian casualties, taking whatever action we can to persuade the Sri Lankan Government of the need for restraint and an end to the violence.
Q5.  Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): In the last 18 months, Erewash credit union has saved local people £170,000 that would otherwise have gone to doorstep lenders in high interest rates. That reduces the misery experienced by people trapped in debt and releases extra money into the local economy. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Department for Work and Pensions growth fund backs credit unions. Will he assure me that that fund will remain the highest Government priority?
The Prime Minister: In the Budget we added an extra £18.5 million to help the credit funds. More than 100 credit unions have already benefited from that fund, and more than 150,000 people are being helped. I know that the credit union in my hon. Friends constituency is a shining example of what is possible, with 700 people obtaining affordable credit. It is making new investment to help people with housing, which is desperately needed in her area. I congratulate her credit union on doing a fantastic job. We want to support credit unions in every part of the country, with both more support and more legislative backing in future.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please will the Prime Minister tell us whether the Government are in a position to support the long-awaited improvements to the heritage site at Stonehenge and to the roads, as well as the visitor centre that has been anticipated for so long?
The Prime Minister: I am pleased to announce that, in partnership with the Stonehenge programme board, we have been able to identify a suitable and affordable solution for a visitor centre. Stonehenge is one of the worlds key heritage sites and the hon. Gentleman is privileged to have it in his constituency. Todays announcement marks the first step towards making the long-held aspirations that he and others have had for Stonehenge a reality. The site will be further enhanced by the closure of the A344, which at present takes traffic very close to the stones. Funding of up to £25 million will be provided through a range of public and private sources. We are determined to help the development of one of the great sites in the world.
Q6.  Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab):
At various times in our history we have had the Long Parliament, the Rump Parliament, the Good
Parliament and the Addled Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are not careful we will finish up as the Moat Parliament or the Manure Parliament? Should we not say now that we will accept whatever the Kelly committee says? Will my right hon. Friend say that on behalf of the Government and invite the other party leaders to say it on behalf of their parties, too?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I have said that I do not think, given what has happened in the past year or two, that the House can proceed on the basis of just Members of the House making a decision without seeking outside support and consulting outside bodies. I hope that we will receive a good report from the Kelly committee and that we and all parties will be able to support it.
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