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The Prime Minister: If we are going to get control of public spending in the long term in this country, we should target the causes of higher spending, one of which is family breakdown. We should do far more to recognise the importance of families, commitment and marriage-and let me just say that any recognition of marriage that we put in the tax system will also be recognition of civil partnerships, because commitment is important, whether someone is straight or gay.
Ms Harman: So the Prime Minister is seriously saying that he expects us to believe that he thinks a £3 a week tax break, which will cost the Exchequer half a billion pounds a year, will keep families together. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting so quietly by his side-because on this one, Nick agrees with me. We do not need it, it will not work, and they should drop it.
The Prime Minister: I am afraid the right hon. and learned Lady has a slightly short memory, because when she was sitting over here on the Government Benches, an enormous recognition of marriage in the tax system was introduced by the Labour Government in-wait for it-inheritance tax. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Yes, they massively increased the threshold for inheritance tax that can be transferred between husband and wife. If recognising marriage in the tax system is such a good thing for the better-off, why do we not do it for the less well-off? [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: I call Sir Alan Beith.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) rose-[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I know that the House wishes to hear Sir Alan Beith.
Sir Alan Beith: May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that the Prime Minister paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and in the dreadful events in Cumbria?
What means does the Prime Minister hope to use to achieve his stated and very necessary objective of allowing the private sector to expand in the parts of the country, such as the north-east, that depend heavily on public sector jobs?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue, because we will have to take difficult decisions about public spending; everybody knows that. Let me be clear: no region of the country should be singled out, but he is right to say that some parts of the country have a very high dependence on public sector jobs. In the Budget on 22 June we will need to bring forward ideas that will fire up the private sector-for instance, the idea that any new firm established does not have to pay national insurance for the first 10 employees. I think that will help, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should also think about ways in which, as we get the private sector growing and make difficult decisions in the public sector, we can help regions that could be adversely affected. The Government are looking seriously at that idea, because we want to take the whole country with us as we deal with the £160 billion deficit bequeathed to us by the Opposition.
Q2.  Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I wholeheartedly support what the Prime Minister said earlier about our armed forces, not least because a lot of young men and women from the Rhondda and the other south Wales valleys are serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the moment. He will know that one of the most important things for protecting our armed forces is ensuring that they have the best training possible, technically and in military expertise. Will he therefore commit himself and his Government unambiguously today to the new defence training college in St Athan in south Wales, which would save lives in our armed forces and provide 5,000 jobs in south Wales?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's question. Everyone who has spent time in south Wales with the military knows that there is an incredibly strong case for the St Athan defence training establishment. I have heard that case on all the visits that I have made, but he will understand that we must have a proper strategic defence review. We have not had one since 1998, and everything has to be included in that review. I would just say to him, as he feels so strongly about this, that he was in the last Government, and that there was an opportunity to give that project the go-ahead before the election, but they did not do it.
Q3.  Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Now that we know that the last Government spent £1 billion on advertising and "invested" £12,000 in golf balls, is the Prime Minister surprised that there is no money left?
The Prime Minister: We are not really surprised, not least because of the letter that we got from the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am glad to see that he has apologised for the letter, although he has not yet apologised for the legacy. My hon. Friend makes a good point. In addition, we have discovered that £320 million was spent on hotels, £1.5 billion on consultants and-this really did amaze me-one Department spent more than £140 per person on cut flowers and pot plants. Perhaps we could have a lottery to find out which one it was.
Q4.  Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Four high schools in my constituency are in the last throes of the Building Schools for the Future programme: Matthew Moss high school in Castleton, Siddal Moor sports college, Holy Family-a new joint-faith school-and Middleton technology college in Middleton. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that that programme will be seen through to its completion, which would also help many of the construction workers in my constituency?
The Prime Minister: I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to see that in making the £6 billion in-year reductions-many warnings were given about what that would mean-we have protected the schools budget, and ensured that schools and Sure Start are protected. In terms of building schools for the future, let me be clear: our plans-and our passion, when it comes to education-are to ensure that new schools are provided so that we have real excellence, in the secondary sector in particular. That is what it is about. Building schools for the future is exactly what our plans involve.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware of the case of my constituent Mr Edmond Arapi, who is facing extradition to Italy, having been tried in his absence? Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and accelerate the review of extradition cases before Mr Arapi is taken from his family and sent to an Italian jail?
The Prime Minister: I am happy to look at this case, and I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is working on the issue of deportations. Legal processes have to be followed, but I will discuss this with my right hon. Friend, and perhaps then contact my hon. Friend.
Q5.  Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): Now that the banks-some of them, anyway-are coming into profit, and the taxpayers are getting a small return on the enormous amount of money that they put in, when does the Prime Minister envisage selling the shares off to his friends in the City?
The Prime Minister: I would much rather sell the shares in the banks to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I believe in popular capitalism, and there might be an opportunity to do that. Clearly, important decisions will have to be made to ensure that we get the maximum amount of money back for the taxpayer, who has had to put so much money into the banks, and that we have a fully competitive banking system that serves business in this country so that it does not get ripped off by the banks. At the same time, privatising those banks back into the private sector where they belong can help encourage popular capitalism once again.
Q6.  Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Denys Shortt of Stratford-on-Avon on his nomination as entrepreneur of the year in the Ernst & Young competition-a well-earned accolade? On the question of earnings, was the Prime Minister surprised to learn that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does?
The Prime Minister: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent. Transparency on pay is an important principle, because it is good for democracy and accountability if we know how much people in the public sector are earning. I also think that it will help us to control public spending. When people see how much people are paid in the public sector, the pressure will be on to keep top pay levels down. It would also be worth while having a maximum multiple of 20 times earnings; we are holding a review to get that done. People at the top of a public sector organisation should not earn more than 20 times what people at the bottom earn. It is that sort of progressive idea that we are looking forward to introducing.
Q7.  Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister share the concerns of two schoolteachers from Chesterfield who came to see me this weekend, that children from areas of greater deprivation will suffer disproportionately from his plans to cut 10,000 university places?
The Prime Minister:
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. We can all remember one of his predecessors in that
seat, Tony Benn, who left this House saying that he wanted to spend more time doing politics.
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we want to help children from less well-off backgrounds by having a pupil premium. We will take money from outside the education budget to ensure that the pupil premium is well funded, so that children from the poorest homes get to go to the best schools and the money follows the pupil into those schools. As for university places, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: we are expanding the number of university places by 10,000, compared with the legacy that we were left.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): May I press the Prime Minister a little further on excessive pay? My constituents are outraged at the amount of money that some senior NHS managers are receiving. What can the coalition do to reduce such excessive expenditure?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. By having transparency, we are able to see for the first time who is earning what in the public sector. That will create pressure on top people's pay in the public sector, to keep that pay down. That is the first thing. In the NHS specifically, as he knows, our plans are all about removing the centralised bureaucracy, partly by removing many of the centralised targets that have caused that bureaucracy to grow. Our ambition is to ensure that the priority is the people on the front line-the nurses, the doctors, the people involved in clinical care-instead of the endless increase in management that we have seen in recent years.
Q8.  Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): Many of my constituents are employed by Nissan and in supply chain jobs. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the £20 million grant awarded to Nissan under the previous Government in March will be honoured, in order to develop the next generation of electric cars?
The Prime Minister: Let me welcome the hon. Lady to her place and say that I, too, have visited the Nissan plant near Sunderland. It is an absolute wonder to see the incredible investment that has gone in there and the many jobs that have been created, not just at that plant but in the supply chain. I want to see electric cars being developed, and when I was at Nissan we discussed that specifically. As for the grant, I do not have a specific answer for her-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It's a funny old thing: I'm going to give accurate answers, rather than make them up on the spot. I shall be delighted to let the hon. Lady know via a letter as soon as possible.
Q9.  Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Noting the very high standards of professional care in the NHS in Stroud, may I ask the Prime Minister to lend his support to the Stroud maternity unit?
The Prime Minister:
I welcome my hon. Friend, and thank him for that question. I understand that the Stroud maternity unit was under threat under a previous Administration, but I am happy to say that with our plans, under which the money in the NHS will follow the decisions that local people make with their doctors
about where to be treated, we will find that community hospitals across our country can once again breathe easily.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that were paid earlier to our fallen heroes in Afghanistan? We should always remember them. In that spirit, may I ask the Prime Minister, right at the outset of a new Parliament and a new Administration, to give a categorical assurance to our troops that they will always get the equipment and resources that they need on operational duty, to our servicemen and women returning home that they will always get the help and advice that they need to return to civilian life, and to our maimed and wounded that, despite all the budgetary pressures, they will always get the care and compassion that they need and deserve, for however long it takes?
The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question-and the way that he put it-about ensuring that we protect and help those at the front line with everything that they need, looking after their families and helping those who are injured. That is what our focus should be. It is all those things, and it is all through the lifetime of those people. I have visited places such as Headley Court and seen the incredible work now being done. However, what we have to realise as a country is that this is not just about getting the equipment or renewing the military covenant, so that we serve our armed services properly, but about recognising that the people who have been injured so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan will need a lifetime of help. I do not think that the health service has yet fully woken up to the-quite rightly-very high demands that those people will place on the health services. That is why I have a strong defence team and a strong health team, who are going to work together to ensure that we deliver for those people, who have done so much for us.
Q10. Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of NATO's military strategy in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister: Afghanistan is my top priority. That is why we have set up the National Security Council and why it met on the first full day of the new Government. In terms of the military strategy, we are six months into the troop surge ordered by President Obama. That surge is to provide a proper counter-insurgency campaign, protecting the people while tackling the insurgents. We back that strategy, and we must give it time to work. There are some signs of progress, such as markets opening up again and better district governance. As I said in the debate on the Queen's Speech, we have to support that military strategy with a political surge, of which the peace jirga being launched in Kabul today is an example. I spoke to President Karzai about this yesterday, and stressed to him the importance of working towards a political solution in which everyone in Afghanistan feels that the Government of Afghanistan are a Government for them.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concept of a sovereign base bridgehead area, which could meet our needs in Afghanistan for a fraction of
the cost in life, limb and expenditure? Would he consider taking a briefing on this subject, if possible in the presence of the service chiefs of staff?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question; I know that he has great expertise in this area. I have understood the idea of a bridgehead, but while it is worth examining, there are difficulties with it. The current strategy of counter-insurgency is about trying to protect the public in Afghanistan from the insurgency and enlarge the area of that country in which normal life can continue. What is in our national interest-that is what we should focus on-is an Afghanistan stable and secure enough for us to bring our troops home. That is what we want to achieve. I will listen to my hon. Friend's ideas, but we have to give the current strategy time to work.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): Comrade Premier- [ Laughter. ] I am surprised by that reaction. I mean, are we not all in this together? Are not the vast majority of us-apart from a small sect-in favour of strengthening the Union of the United Kingdom? And do not the vast majority of us dislike, distrust and despise the Liberal Democrats? On the subject of safe bases, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is no base safer than an aircraft carrier-
Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. On this closed question, I was eagerly anticipating an inquiry about Afghanistan, but sadly it was not forthcoming.
Q11.  Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What will my right hon. Friend be doing to ensure that foreign nationals engaged in terrorist-related activity in this country will be deported back to their country of origin when their evil plots are detected?
The Prime Minister: I really am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. When foreign nationals threaten our country but we do not have the evidence necessary to prosecute them, it is essential for us to be able to deport them back to their country of origin. I have asked the Home Secretary to work with the Foreign Secretary to draw up agreements with as many countries as possible, so that we can deport those people and keep our country safe. All diplomatic efforts, including efforts by me, will be made to ensure that we keep our country safe.
Q12.  Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): I heard what the Prime Minister said about the military covenant in answer to a previous question, and as chair of the all-party veterans group, I was relieved to see a commitment in the coalition's document to providing extra support for veterans' mental health needs. I was alarmed, however, to read that the £2 million set aside by the previous Government to support Combat Stress had been placed under review by the present Government. Is the Prime Minister able to renew that commitment to Combat Stress, or will it fall at the first hurdle?
The Prime Minister: First of all, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work for veterans, which is extremely important, and I welcome it. It is important, as I have said, that we have a very strong ministerial team at the Department of Health and at the Ministry of Defence, and I understand the huge pressure that will be put on our health services because of the mental health stress of people who have fought in combat. We will do everything we can to help them; the hon. Gentleman has my word that that will happen. It needs to happen not just this year, while our troops are still in Afghanistan, but for all the years into the future. There are figures that suggest that more people committed suicide after the Falklands war than were killed in combat. I take this issue extremely seriously; the hon. Gentleman has my word that those services will be properly looked after.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I was greatly encouraged by the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about the deportation of terrorist suspects. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the most effective way to get rid of these people is to scrap the Human Rights Act?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend, as so often, is tempting me. He knows that my view is very clear that we would be better off with a British Bill of Rights rather than with the Human Rights Act, and that matter is being examined. Enthusiastic though I am personally for that policy, I have to say that what is really needed for urgent action is individual agreements with countries like Pakistan in order to get a guarantee that people we send back there will not be mistreated. With countries like Pakistan, we should be able to achieve that. We are a major aid donor and a major partner; we should be able to encourage them to give us that guarantee so that we do not have to keep in our country foreign nationals that threaten to do us harm.
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