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House of Commons

Wednesday 30 November 2011

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Historical Enquiries Team

1. Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): What progress has been made by the Historical Enquiries Team; and if he will make a statement. [82804]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Owen Paterson): Following the devolution of policing and justice in April 2010, matters relating to the Historical Enquiries Team are the responsibility of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland and the Minister of Justice.

Michael Ellis: I much appreciate the Minister’s response and the content of it. I welcome the progress made by the Historical Enquiries Team. May I be reassured that its case work will be completed by 2014?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I spoke to the Chief Constable this morning, who confirmed that the team is investigating 3,268 deaths and that it is on target to finish as planned.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The HET investigated the murder of my cousin, Kenneth Smyth, on 10 December 1971—those on the street knew who committed the murder—and Lexie Cummings was murdered on 15 June 1982. HET investigations into both cases concluded that no action should be taken. The concern is that the investigations might not have been thorough, so does the Secretary of State accept that confidence needs to be instilled in the Unionist community and that the HET therefore has considerable work to do?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful for that question. I do not entirely agree. The HET is impartial, and the latest polling commissioned on the reaction of the families is extraordinarily high: 90.5% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with the performance of the HET.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): The former Northern Ireland Secretary, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), rightly set up the Historical Enquiries Team, but disturbing allegations were made yesterday that his

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computer might have been hacked. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns, and will he assure the House that the Northern Ireland Office—

Mr Speaker: Order. The difficulty with that question, notwithstanding its notable ingenuity, is that it does not relate to the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, so we had better leave it there.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Historical inquiries into police officers are conducted by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Given that that is a Crown appointment, what recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the Minister of Justice, David Ford, on the appointment of a successor to the current ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, who has made it clear that he intends to leave his post at the end of January?

Mr Paterson: The appointment of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. I spoke to the Minister of Justice, David Ford, this morning, and we agreed to meet shortly to discuss Al Hutchinson’s replacement.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not for Westminster to set the agenda but that the people of Northern Ireland should decide how and when they look back, and what they look at?

Mr Paterson: Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government and Westminster do not own the past. Contentious, difficult and fraught issues must be handled with the consensus of local people in Northern Ireland.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Notwithstanding some of the limitations and differentials that attach to the task of the HET, it has done much good work. In the context of dealing with the past more widely, does the Secretary of State believe that more could be done to draw out the issues, patterns and lessons that can be learned from the HET’s work, which at present has gone only to the families and not to the wider public?

Mr Paterson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The HET is building up an extraordinary archive of knowledge. As he knows, I am interested in opening up Government archives so that they may be assessed by professionals. Down the road, this might be a matter that is well worth discussing with the devolved Executive to see whether the HET can form the basis of an archive for historians.

Economic Development

2. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. [82806]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Owen Paterson): I meet regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to discuss matters including the Northern Ireland economy, and the Minister of State

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met last week with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to consider a range of issues related to economic development.

Eric Ollerenshaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that improved transport links between Northern Ireland and the mainland will be vital for economic development, and that the completion of the M6-Heysham port motorway link will be vital?

Mr Paterson: I admire the skill of that question, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on working for his constituents. I am glad to say that there is a sailing twice daily to Northern Ireland, and I hope the new link will boost trade between Northern Ireland and his constituents.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Given the nature of our local economy, does the Secretary of State agree that the economic development of Northern Ireland will depend on stable industrial relations? Does he further agree that the Government must do more to deal with the genuine concerns of public sector workers with their pensions under siege, while those who have caused the economic crisis, particularly bankers, are getting away scot-free?

Mr Paterson: I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I do not entirely agree with her. The strikes today are most regrettable. They will not help a single business in Northern Ireland. They will not bring a single job to Northern Ireland. The Government are in talks with the unions and a very fair offer has been made, considering that the cost of public pensions increased by a third over the past 10 years to £32 billion. We are all in this together, and the unions should work with the Government.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): In those discussions with Northern Ireland Ministers about economic development, has my right hon. Friend heard appreciation for the fact that the UK has remained outside the euro and has retained its triple A rating?

Mr Paterson: My hon. Friend is spot on. We came to power with interest rates higher than Italy’s. Thanks to the very disciplined and determined manner in which the coalition has addressed the deficit, we now have interest rates level-pegging with Germany’s. That is of benefit to every single person in Northern Ireland.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The Secretary of State will be aware of the pay-as-you-go heating oil tank developed by Kingspan Environmental in my constituency. Could the Secretary of State give us an update on the development of the enterprise zone that he piloted and tell us what benefits that will bring companies such as Kingspan in my area?

Mr Paterson: I am extremely interested in that project. In opposition, I talked about turning the whole of Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone. That resulted in the consultation earlier this year looking at ways in which we could help develop the private economy. Quite separately, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has proposed enterprise zones throughout the UK. Establishing those enterprise zones is entirely in devolved hands and I very much hope the Executive will take up the offer made in the Budget a few months ago.

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3. Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): What assessment he has made of the state of the economy in Northern Ireland. [82807]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Owen Paterson): The Northern Ireland economy is over-dependent on public spending. The Government share a commitment with the Northern Ireland Executive to rebalance it over time by promoting investment and growing the private sector. There are many world-class Northern Ireland businesses. We need more of them.

Karen Lumley: Will the Minister confirm that last week the annual survey of hours and earnings showed that Northern Ireland earnings increased by 3.5%, compared with less than 1% on the mainland? Does he agree that rebalancing the economy and the creation of private sector jobs is the key to Northern Ireland’s recovery?

Mr Paterson: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One survey showed that public spending represents 77.6% of GDP in Northern Ireland. We know that that is wholly unsustainable, and we are committed to rebalancing the economy over time, working closely with the Executive.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): One of the ways of rebalancing the economy towards the private sector is to ensure that there is a flow of funds from the banking sector to private firms. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the credit easing measures announced yesterday will apply effectively in Northern Ireland, given the lack of market penetration by UK mainland banks and the high dependence on Irish banks?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that the national loan guarantee scheme, which the Chancellor announced yesterday, applies to Northern Ireland. That will be of great benefit to small businesses right across Northern Ireland.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I understand that the average private sector wage in Northern Ireland is £20,000 a year, compared with the average public sector wage of £29,000. What impact does my right hon. Friend believe that yesterday’s announcement from the Chancellor about the ability to set public sector wages locally will have on Northern Ireland?

Mr Paterson: My hon. Friend is right. There was a survey which showed a 41.5% difference between a public sector wage and a private sector wage. It shows the task we have in helping to revive the private sector and making it an attractive place for bright, enterprising young people in Northern Ireland to go into. That is very much what we would like to do.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State accept that the proposed changes to public sector pension contributions will have an even more severe impact in Northern Ireland because of the shape and balance of our economy?

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Mr Paterson: First, I congratulate the hon. Member on having won the election for the leadership of his party. I look forward to working with him, as the leader, as I worked with him while in opposition, and in recent months since I have been Secretary of State.

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s question. This is basically a good news story. People are living 10 years longer, and that has put huge pressure on the cost of pensions, which is up to £32 billion across the United Kingdom—an increase of a third over 10 years. Lord Hutton, who used to sit on the Government Benches here, came up with a sensible report, and I appeal to all those in Northern Ireland who are in trade unions to continue discussions with the Government because our offer is extremely fair.

Mr Speaker: We have a lot of questions to get through and we must get on.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given the importance of the Republic of Ireland to the Northern Irish economy, and the likelihood of a break-up of the eurozone, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Northern Ireland Executive about how the Northern Ireland economy could best cope with such a crisis?

Mr Paterson: I thank my hon. Friend. As he knows, the Chancellor and the Treasury are looking at all contingencies, because reports yesterday showed that the crisis in the eurozone is having a real impact on our economy. I am in regular contact with the Government in Dublin and will continue discussions.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): When thousands of public sector workers in Northern Ireland are worried about their pensions, with cuts to public services, and when growth figures have been so significantly downgraded, does the Secretary of State remember that, when commenting on the Budget of March 2011, he said:

“This is a Budget for growth across the whole UK in which Northern Ireland will share”?

Where did it all go wrong?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows perfectly well where it went wrong. It went wrong when his colleagues landed us with the biggest deficit in Europe, and we are digging this country out.

Vernon Coaker: There we go—the complacent answer of someone who has no answers at all.

What little faith the Secretary of State has in the ability of the people of Northern Ireland to do their sums. I may not have taught maths, but even I know that if you take away £4 billion and return £142 million, it definitely does not add up to a fair deal for Northern Ireland. Is it not time that this Secretary of State stood up for Northern Ireland and told the Chancellor to get a proper plan for jobs and growth?

Mr Paterson: What we have done for Northern Ireland, as one of my colleagues said earlier, is keep interest rates low. That is the biggest service we could deliver to Northern Ireland, and thanks to the disciplined and determined manner in which we are addressing the

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deficit, we now have the lowest interest rates in western Europe. That benefits every family with a mortgage, and every business with an overdraft, in Northern Ireland.

Bill of Rights

4. Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): What his policy is on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [82808]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Hugo Swire): Our policy is that any legislation arising from the work of the Commission examining the case for a UK Bill of Rights would provide a vehicle through which to implement any rights specific to Northern Ireland if these can be agreed by the political parties there.

Graeme Morrice: What discussion has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the impact that a UK Bill of Rights will have on a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights?

Mr Swire: We have regular discussions. We need to be absolutely clear that any discussion about a UK-wide Bill of Rights is distinct from a discussion about rights specific to Northern Ireland. We believe that the proper vehicle for rights specific to Northern Ireland would be a new UK Bill of Rights, if there is to be one.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Good Friday agreement certainly calls for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, but does my right hon. Friend agree that while people in Northern Ireland understandably accept the right of freedom of religious expression, for example, those rights also belong in the United Kingdom?

Mr Swire: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People in Northern Ireland enjoy the same protection as anyone in the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, Northern Ireland has, for instance, anti-discrimination legislation that is the strongest in Europe. We need a consensus from the Executive—from the Assembly—to make sure that this matter is finally resolved to the satisfaction of all.

Political Developments

5. Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [82809]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Owen Paterson): The political situation in Northern Ireland is now more stable than for a generation, but stability is not an end in itself. It is time for the Assembly and Executive to work towards building a prosperous Northern Ireland in which everyone has a genuinely shared future.

Glyn Davies: The Northern Ireland Executive have published a draft programme for government. Will my right hon. Friend comment on this development, and does he welcome what is happening in Northern Ireland?

Mr Paterson: I am delighted that after six months the draft programme has come forward, and I very much

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hope that the Executive will crack on in working with the Assembly to deliver its main elements as soon as possible.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): One recent political development was that the Assembly agreed unanimously that the Secretary of State should convene talks to discuss how to deal with the issue of the past. Why, in the face of that consensus, does the Secretary of State refuse to do so?

Mr Paterson: That is a little unfair. Within a couple of days, I went to talk to the Speaker of the Assembly to discuss with him how best to address this issue, and I am now going to write to the leaders of all the main parties to discuss with their representatives how to take it forward. The sad problem regarding the past is that there is no consensus that we have detected. My right hon. Friend the Minister and I have been right round Northern Ireland talking to all sorts of groups involved with the past. Sadly, there is no consensus, but I will write to the parties and we will keep talking. This is very much an issue that has to be sorted out with local parties as well.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): One thing on which the Secretary of State did take action in relation to the past was the Finucane issue. There was a widespread welcome in Northern Ireland for his decision to draw a line under that in the way that the Government did. Does he agree, therefore, that the decision of the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, to come to Northern Ireland last week and seek to reopen this issue and launch an international campaign is deeply unhelpful to north-south relations and invites comparisons with his attitude towards neutering the Smithwick inquiry, which is investigating the deaths of Royal Ulster Constabulary officers?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The review into the Finucane case is going ahead. That is the decision of this Government, and we believe that it is the right one, as we inherited an impasse from the previous Government and called for an inquiry. We know that there are strong feelings in Dublin on this issue, and I have said privately and publicly that we recognise that they will state those differences publicly. I assure the right hon. Gentleman, however, that we will not let this issue in any way damage the excellent relations we have with the Government in Dublin.

Mr Dodds: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. On another issue, does he recognise that the decision by the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast this week to refuse to hand out a Duke of Edinburgh award to a young man because he was an Army cadet is deeply unhelpful in terms of community relations; that it stands in stark contrast to the First Minister’s vision, set out on Saturday, of an inclusive, forward-looking Northern Ireland; and that Sinn Fein’s action has deeply disturbed people right across the community?

Mr Paterson: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The armed forces are a wonderful example of people from right across the community working together. I have on the wristband of the Royal

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Irish Regiment, which has representatives from right across Northern Ireland and the Republic and from 11 different nations. They set an example to us all of how we can work together.




Mr Speaker: Order. A lot of noise has been taking place in the Chamber. That is very unfair on the Secretary of State, who is trying to give his answers in terms that can be heard and appreciated.

Fuel Poverty

6. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What representations he has received on fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. [82810]

7. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What representations he has received on fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. [82811]

8. Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What representations he has received on fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. [82812]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I attended the Opposition day debate on pensioners and winter fuel payments on 22 November. The matter was also discussed on 31 August, when I met the Minister for Welfare Reform and Northern Ireland Ministers to discuss this and other matters. Measures to tackle fuel poverty in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of Executive Ministers.

Alex Cunningham: I understand that the proportion of homes in Northern Ireland that are in fuel poverty is higher than in Scotland, England and Wales. The Housing Executive said that almost 50% of households cannot afford to heat their homes this winter. What are the Government going to do to help the people of Northern Ireland, and do they really think that it is enough?

Mr Swire: The figures are startling for Northern Ireland. These are devolved matters, and I understand that the Executive are tackling energy efficiency, maximising incomes through benefit uptake campaigns, and achieving affordable energy prices. They are also doing a lot. The Housing Executive is doing a lot about housing and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased by the announcement of £142 million over three years for Northern Ireland. Perhaps some of that could be spent on improving the housing stock.

Nick Smith: Like Northern Ireland, Wales has higher than average fuel poverty. Are the Government promoting dialogue between the devolved Administrations so that best practice and solutions that work can be shared?

Mr Swire: I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in 2004, his colleague the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) had a target to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010. The current Department for Social Development strategy states bluntly that this target will not be achieved. In fact, fuel poverty increased in Northern Ireland from 146,000 in 2004 to 302,000 in 2009.

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Nic Dakin: How will the Minister ensure that nobody in Northern Ireland has to choose between heating and eating this winter, given that fuel prices have risen by 18.6% this autumn?

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman will know that there are several schemes in Northern Ireland, such as warm homes, warm homes plus, the pilot boiler replacement scheme, the introduction of oil stamps, and the Housing Executive itself. Contrary to what Opposition Members say, the Government have maintained the winter fuel allowance and chosen to keep the higher cold weather payment allowances, which is more than the Labour Government would have done, had they won the last general election, which, mercifully, they did not.

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday stopping the inexorable rise of fuel costs will be most welcome to people suffering from fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, and in Hastings and Rye?

Mr Swire: My hon. Friend is right. The Chancellor’s announcement deferring the increase from 1 January to 1 August is very welcome, as indeed is the further increase. She will also want to welcome the increases in pensions, which I believe represent the biggest increase in pensions since 1908. That will also help the most vulnerable in society.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Minister share my concern about the Opposition Whips’ effort to flood the Order Paper, with a third of the questions on it being identical, so that Members––

Mr Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but that has nothing to do with fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. I call Charlie Elphicke.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Does the Minister share my concern that some 70% of homes in Northern Ireland are heated with heating oil? Is not the priority to get them connected so that people can access a wider, more competitive market to bring prices down?

Mr Swire: My hon. Friend is right. That is the vulnerability of the market in Northern Ireland, which is why we welcome discussions such as those being undertaken on the undersea energy grid by the Minister, Arlene Foster, on the isles project, and on fracking, which could have a serious effect, in a beneficial way, on energy provision in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Eighty-two per cent. of homes across rural Ulster rely on the most expensive form of heating oil to heat their homes. The councils in Northern Ireland, the Assembly and the Northern Ireland parties represented in this House are united in their support for the higher form of winter fuel allowance in Northern Ireland. How is the Secretary of State representing that united political will to the Cabinet?

Mr Swire: I do not want to be cynical about the previous Government––not unless I have to be––but I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that they raised these allowances two years running up to

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the election but that their plans, had they won the election, were to reduce them. We could have stuck with those figures. We did not. We chose to increase the high level of the cold weather payment to the benefit of all who are most vulnerable.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): In wishing the Minister of State the very happiest of birthdays today, may I remind him that politicians are often accused of giving warm words and cold comfort? Bearing in mind the uniquely disadvantaged position of the fuel poor in Northern Ireland, will he at least approach his colleagues in the Treasury for an uprating of the winter fuel allowance this year in view of the extremely inclement weather forecast?

Mr Swire: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I just explained to the previous questioner that we have chosen to increase allowances in a way that the previous Government were simply not going to. The cold facts are there in the spending commitment. We have nothing to apologise for; indeed, we have plenty to be proud of.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [83649] Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Rifleman Sheldon Steel from 5th Battalion The Rifles. He was a highly respected soldier who had achieved a great deal and shown much potential during his time with the Army. At this very sad time, our thoughts should be with his family, his friends and his colleagues. His courage and his dedication will never be forgotten by our nation.

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

Nick Smith: I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to that brave serviceman, who gave his life for our country. Our thoughts are with his family at this very difficult time.

Blaenau Gwent, my constituency, has high unemployment but great potential, and it would benefit greatly from £200 million of private sector-led investment in motor sport. Will the Prime Minister provide support for enhanced capital allowances for enterprise zones in Wales, including Blaenau Gwent, as well as in England?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. First, may I congratulate him and the other 37 Members who have opted to grow additional facial hair in this month of November? It is a very good way—[ Interruption. ] For those who are capable of doing so, it is a very good way of raising the profile of that important illness, prostate cancer.

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We are committed to providing enhanced capital allowances, and discussions are ongoing with devolved Administrations about enhanced capital allowances in their enterprise zones. We will do what we can in Blaenau Gwent, as elsewhere, and I should add that we are electrifying the line to Cardiff and looking for improvements on the M4. All the announcements that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday will have consequentials for additional spending on infrastructure in Wales.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I am confident that the Prime Minister, like me, will praise the courage and professionalism of the Portland search and rescue helicopter. I am confident also that he will share with me the alarm, anger and disbelief of my constituents and many colleagues with coastal constituencies that it is to be axed. Will he meet me and a small delegation from South Dorset to discuss that urgent matter before a disastrous mistake is made?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know how important it is that we have effective search and rescue facilities off our coast, and I know about the incredibly good work that they do. What the Government are looking at is the best way to deliver those services, including how they should be paid for, and it is important that that work goes ahead.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Rifleman Sheldon Steel, from 5th Battalion The Rifles? He served with huge commitment and courage, and our deepest condolences are with his family and friends.

In June at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister praised the head teacher of Vaynor First school in Redditch for refusing to strike. Today, she has closed her school. She says:

“This has been the most difficult decision of my professional life… The difference in the summer was that I had faith in the Government… I have not seen any progress so I have decided…to strike.”

Why does the Prime Minister think that so many decent, hard-working public sector workers, many of whom have never been on strike before, feel that the Government simply are not listening?

The Prime Minister: The reason why people are going on strike is that they object to the reforms that we are making to public sector pensions, but I believe that those reforms are absolutely essential. The Labour former Work and Pensions Secretary, Lord Hutton, said that

“it is hard to imagine a better deal than this.”

What I would say, above all, to people who are on strike today is that they are going on strike at a time when negotiations are still under way. The right hon. Gentleman refers to what was said in June. Let me remind him what he said on 30 June:

“These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are…going on”.

Why has he changed his mind?

Edward Miliband: Mr Speaker, the reason—[Hon. Members: “Answer.”]

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Mr Speaker: Order. I say to Members engaged in orchestrated barracking that it is very tedious and very juvenile, from whichever side it comes. The public do not want to hear it, and nor do I. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard, as will the Prime Minister, and that is all there is to it.

Edward Miliband: The reason public sector workers do not think the Prime Minister is listening is that the Government declared negotiations at an end four weeks ago. They said that they had made their final offer. They have not even met the unions for four weeks, since 2 November. What has he gone around saying to people? He has gone around saying that he is privately delighted that the unions have walked into his trap. That is the reality. He has been spoiling for this fight. The reason people have lost faith is that he is not being straight with them. Will he admit that 800,000 low-paid workers on £15,000 a year or less are facing an immediate tax rise of 3% on his pension plan?

The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s entire party is paid for by the unions, but I must say that what he has just told the House is extraordinary and completely and utterly untrue. The fact is there were meetings with the trade unions yesterday, there will be meetings with them tomorrow and there will be meetings on Friday. The negotiations are under way. Let me repeat what he said in June. He said that it is wrong to strike

“at a time when negotiations are…going on”.

Yet today he backs the strikes. Why? Because he is irresponsible, left-wing and weak.

Edward Miliband: The difference is that, unlike the Prime Minister, I am not going to demonise the dinner lady, the cleaner or the nurse, people who earn in a week what the Chancellor pays for his annual skiing holiday—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. Members on both sides of the House need to calm down. If senior Members of the House think that it is a laughing matter, let me tell them that it is not. The public would like to see some decent behaviour and a bit of leadership on these matters, and so would I.

Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister is the one—he did not deny it—who went around saying that he is privately delighted because the unions have walked into his trap. That is the reality. The truth is that it is not only public sector workers who are paying for the failure of his plan, but private sector workers. Will he confirm that, as a result of the cuts to tax credits announced yesterday, a family on the minimum wage, taking home £200 a week, will lose a week and a half’s wages?

The Prime Minister: First, let me be absolutely clear—[Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I will answer the question—

Mr Speaker: Order. Let me say again that the Prime Minister’s answer, however long it takes, will be heard. That is the principle of democracy. The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister must be heard.

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The Prime Minister: Let me be clear that I do not welcome these strikes one bit. I think that we have made a very reasonable and very fair offer to public sector workers, and that is why the former Labour Pensions Secretary said that

“it is hard to imagine a better deal.”

I do not want to see any strikes. I do not want to see schools close. I do not want to see problems at our borders, but this Government have to make responsible decisions.

Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House of the facts about public sector pensions. Anyone earning less than £15,000 on a full-time equivalent salary will not see any increase in the contributions they have to make. In terms of the reforms we are making, a nurse retiring on a salary of just over £34,000 today would get a pension of £17,000, but in future she would get over £22,000. A teacher retiring on a salary of £37,000 would have got £19,000, but will now get £25,000. These are fair changes. I will tell the House why they are fair. We rejected the idea that we should level down public sector pensions. We think that public sector pensions should be generous, but as people live longer it is only right and fair that they should make greater contributions. What we see today on the Opposition Benches is a party that is in the pocket of the trade union leaders, that has to ask their permission before crossing a picket line and that take the irresponsible side of trade union leaders who have called their people out on strike when negotiations are under way.

Now let me answer his question about the low-paid—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I remind the Prime Minister gently that a large number of Members are listed on the Order Paper—Back Benchers, whom I want to hear and he wants to hear. A brief sentence will suffice.

The Prime Minister: I will wait for his next trade union-sponsored question, and then give my answer.

Edward Miliband: I am proud that millions of hard-working people in this country support the Labour party—better that than millions from Lord Ashcroft.

The problem is that the Prime Minister does not understand his own policy. He does not understand that there are part-time workers earning less than £21,000 who will be hit—800,000 low-paid, part-time workers, 90% of whom are women, will pay more. He denies that, but it is true. That is the reality.

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister sits there shaking his head. He does not understand his own policy, and of course, he could not explain or justify what he did to everyone on low pay with the miserable deal cooked up with the Deputy Prime Minister to cut £1 billion from tax credits in the autumn statement yesterday. They have no explanation for why they are doing that—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) that I do not require any assistance from him. The Leader of the Opposition will come to a question.

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Edward Miliband: Let me try the Prime Minister on another matter. What will unemployment be at the time of the next autumn statement on the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast?

The Prime Minister: If we compare the end of this Parliament with the start of this Parliament, the Office for Budget Responsibility figures—let us remember that the OBR is independent, but when the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in the Treasury, the figures were fiddled by Ministers and advisers, and that no longer happens—show that 500,000 more people will be in jobs, 90,000 fewer people will be on the claimant count, and the unemployment rate will be 7.2% instead of 8.1%. That is the OBR’s forecast; it is not fiddled. The OBR is independent; and that is what the figures show.

Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, as I was not able to do so earlier, about helping the poorest people in our country. It is his party that got rid of the 10p tax—the biggest attack on the working poor. It is this Government who have taken 1.1 million people out of tax, who froze the council tax, cut the petrol tax, introduced free nursery care for two, three and four-year-olds, and are putting up the child tax credit by £390 this year and next. That is a record to be proud of, instead of the right hon. Gentleman’s appalling record of attacking the working poor.

Edward Miliband: With child poverty going up as a result of the autumn statement yesterday, the truth is that the Prime Minister could not answer the question because he is too embarrassed by the truth—[ Interruption. ] The Education Secretary should calm down. He tells children to behave; why does he not behave himself?

The Prime Minister is too embarrassed. There are 2.8 million people out of work according to the forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility. He is another Conservative Prime Minister for whom unemployment is a price worth paying. Because he is failing on unemployment and growth, he is failing on borrowing. He told the CBI conference last year that, no ifs or buts, by 2015

“we will have balanced the books.”

Will he now admit that on the central test he set himself, he has failed?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman complains about the level of borrowing, but his answer is to borrow even more. That is the utter illiteracy. Let me tell him what we are doing. Because we have a plan to meet the mandate and to meet the test set out by the Chancellor in his emergency Budget, we have some of the lowest interest rates in Europe. That is right; for every percentage point they went up under Labour, that would be another £1,000 on a family mortgage, another £7 billion out of business and another £21 billion on our national debt. That is what we would get under Labour and that is why it is this Government who will take the country through this storm.

Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister is borrowing an extra £158 billion to pay for his economic failure. The truth is that his plan has failed. He refuses to change course and he is making working families pay

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the price. At the very least, we now know that he will never, ever be able to say again, “We’re all in this together.”

The Prime Minister: The leader of the Labour party has taken sides today: he is on the side of the trade union leader who wants strikes and not negotiations and he is on the side of people who want to disrupt our schools, disrupt our borders and disrupt our country. And when it comes to borrowing, he cannot even bring himself to welcome the fact that there are low interest rates.

Let me tell him this. The shadow Chancellor—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, they are all shouting in unison—[Interruption.] Or should that have been they are all shouting on behalf of Unison? I am not quite clear. Let me remind the House of what the shadow Chancellor said about low interest rates. He said that long-term interest rates are

“the simplest measure of monetary and fiscal policy credibility”.

That is what he said, and that is what this Government are delivering.

We are being tested by these difficult economic times. We will meet that test by getting on top of our debt and getting on top of our deficit. The Leader of the Opposition is being tested too, and he is showing that he is weak, left-wing and irresponsible.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I assume that Government Back Benchers have some interest in listening to Jo Swinson.

Q2. [83650] Jo Swinson: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to associate myself with the words of condolence from the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Ten years on from the military intervention, more than 3 million girls in Afghanistan are now in school. With the Bonn conference on Monday, will the Prime Minister send a clear message that the rights of those girls should not be traded away in a false choice between women’s rights and security? The evidence shows that women’s involvement in post-conflict resolution is essential for stability.

The Prime Minister: First of all, may I wish my hon. Friend and everyone in Scotland or who is Scottish a very happy St Andrew’s day? She is absolutely right to talk about women’s rights in Afghanistan. All too often, we talk about security without talking about some of the things that that security is making possible. It is the case that whereas in 2001 there were fewer than 1 million children in school in Afghanistan, none of them girls, today there are 6 million children regularly in school, 2 million of whom are girls. All those of us who have been to Afghanistan and met women MPs and other leaders in that country who want to stand up for women’s rights know what an incredible job those people are doing, and we are on their side.

Q13. [83661] Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, half a million more people will be on the dole in 2013 than previously thought. That is a terrible human cost, but how much more will be lost in tax and paid out in benefits as a result of his Chancellor’s economic failure?

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The Prime Minister: What the OBR shows is that by 2015 we are going to have half a million more people in jobs, fewer people on the claimant count and a lower unemployment rate. But there is a serious point here, because the figures do show a sharp decline in public sector employment. That is shown by the figures. There is a much bigger increase in private sector employment.

What I would say to the Opposition—in fact, to everyone in the House—is that if we want to reduce the amount of unemployment from the public sector, we have to reform welfare, which they oppose, we have to freeze public sector pay, which they oppose, and we have to reform public sector pensions, where they are on the side of the irresponsible trade union leaders.

Q3. [83651] Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that in the last financial year, taxpayers paid more than £113 million to trade unions by way of paid staff time and direct grants? In the light of today’s disruption to hospitals and schools, is it not time to review that situation?

The Prime Minister: I think it is time. I do not think full-time trade unionists working in the public sector on trade union business rather than serving the public is right, and we will put that to an end. That is absolutely the case, and the evidence today makes that case even stronger.

Q4. [83652] Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Why are the Government freezing working tax credit, which helps the lowest paid workers, including those whose wages are too low for them even to pay tax, to make work pay?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady knows, what we are doing with tax credits is that there will be a £255 increase this year, which is the largest ever increase in child tax credit, and there will be a further £135 increase next year—a 5.2% increase. I think that is the right increase in child tax credit. Helping those families, genuinely helping people to get out and stay out of poverty, helping on nursery education and helping to get low paid people out of tax is even more valuable.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): As the United Kingdom’s borders are being kept open today by patriotic volunteers, will the Prime Minister consider imitating the robust action of the late US President Ronald Reagan in relation to recalcitrant air traffic controllers?

The Prime Minister: I thank all those people, including a number from No. 10 Downing street, who are helping to keep our borders open and to make sure that Heathrow and Gatwick are working properly. Let me report to the House that the evidence so far suggests that about 40% of schools are open; less than a third of the civil service is striking; on our borders, the early signs are that the contingency measures are minimising the impact; we have full cover in terms of ambulance services; and only 18 out of 900 jobcentres have closed. Despite the disappointment of the Labour party, which supports irresponsible and damaging strikes, it looks like something of a damp squib.

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Q5. [83653] Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): May I ask the Prime Minister if he came into politics to sack three quarters of a million civil servants and public sector workers, most of whom are women and most of whom have families?

The Prime Minister: I came into politics to try to improve the welfare of people in our country. The fact is that, at the end of this public sector pension reform, those people working in the public sector will have far better pensions than most people in the private sector, who are contributing that money to them. [ Interruption. ] I know the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor are paid to ask questions; they do not have to wave as well. [ Interruption. ] If they give the money back to the unions, I will calm down.

Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the outrageous attack on our embassy in Tehran yesterday and in paying tribute to our diplomatic staff serving in such difficult environments with such distinction?

The Prime Minister: I certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that, and I am sure the whole House will join me in praising the incredible devotion of our staff in the foreign and diplomatic service, who often face great dangers, as they did yesterday in Tehran. I chaired a meeting of Cobra yesterday and another one this morning and spoke to our ambassador about the safety of his staff. That should be our No. 1 concern—their safety, their security and making sure those are maintained. After that, we will consider taking some very tough action in response to that completely appalling and disgraceful behaviour by the Iranians.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. The next question is a closed question.

Early Intervention

Q6. [83654] Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): What plans he has to change the machinery of Government to facilitate the implementation of early intervention policies; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister: I lead a Committee of Cabinet Ministers that looks specifically at family issues, including the importance of early intervention, which is central to what the Government are trying to achieve. We believe that if we change the life chances of the least well off, we have a much better chance of genuinely lifting young people out of poverty and keeping them out of poverty. I take a close interest—as do my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—in the hon. Gentleman’s work, and in the real difference that he has made in prioritising early intervention in our country.

Mr Allen: I thank all three party leaders for their consistent support for early intervention and their generous welcome for my two reports. May I ask the Prime Minister to make early intervention in the lives of babies, children and young people a theme for all Departments in the next comprehensive spending review,

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so that not only will all children be able to make the best of their life chances, but Government and the taxpayer will be able to reduce the massive costs of failure—including educational underachievement, 120,000 dysfunctional families, summers of discontent, and many, many lifetimes wasted on benefits?

The Prime Minister: That is a very sensible suggestion. I think that we can look at it in the context of the next spending round, but I do not even want to wait for the next spending round. That is why the family Committee that I lead, and of which the Deputy Prime Minister is a member, is considering how we can make effective action such as intervention in the lives of the 120,000 neediest and most broken families. Government—all the different Departments—spend a huge amount of money on those families, but we are not satisfied that that money has been spent on actually intervening in the lives of those families, and trying to turn them around in order to solve their very real problems. We have a programme for doing that now, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue with his very positive work.


Q7. [83655] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that there remain 16 British overseas territories around the world where the Union flag still flies proudly. Will he pledge that Her Majesty’s Government will protect, defend and cherish the loyal subjects of all those territories?

The Prime Minister: I can happily give my hon. Friend that guarantee. Let me add that the overseas territories will remain British for as long as the people of those territories want to maintain their special relationship with us, and that the Union flag will continue to fly over the Governors’ residences. We are increasing our assistance to overseas territories—my hon. Friend will be familiar with what we are doing in St Helena with the airport—and, of course, next year is the anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands, which will be a moment for genuine celebration in all overseas territories.

Q8. [83656] Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): My constituent Jackie contacted me to ask how she is to manage with a 3% tax on her pension, no pay increase until 2013, and rocketing fuel and food bills. How is she to feed her family? Why is the Prime Minister making people like Jackie pay for his Government’s failure?

The Prime Minister: The fact is, I am afraid, that the whole country is having to pay for the failure of the last Government to get on top of debt and deficit, but what I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituent is that we are trying to help. That is why we are freezing council tax, cutting petrol tax, taking 1.1 million of the poorest people out of tax altogether, and increasing child tax credit in the way that I described earlier. We will continue to take all those steps, but I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituent—as I would say to all others—that the most dangerous thing that we could do now is lose control of our debts and see interest rates go up. When this Government came to power, our interest rates were at the same level as Italy’s. Today, Italy’s interest rates are 5% higher. If ours were at the same level, we would see higher mortgage costs and businesses going bust, and we would have a real problem in our country. That, however, is the policy of the Labour party.

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Q9. [83657] Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What message has the Prime Minister today for the thousands of people who run and work in small businesses in my constituency, who work tremendously hard to keep those businesses and the local economy going, and who, in some cases, can barely afford to make provision for their own pensions?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is entirely right. This Government are squarely on the side of people who work hard, play by the rules, and want to do the right things for their families. Today I would say to all those people “Thank you for what you do to contribute to public sector pensions that are far more generous than anything that you are able to afford. For our part, we promise to ensure that public sector pensions remain strong but are affordable.” What is so notable about today is that the Labour party has taken the side of trade union leaders who want to disrupt our country.

Q10. [83658] Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): With taxpayers set to pay up to £100 million to BAE Systems to make workers redundant, is the Prime Minister aware that £100 million would pay for five new Hawk planes to be built at Brough for our Red Arrows? Is that not a better use of £100 million?

The Prime Minister: I strongly support British Aerospace and all that it does. It is an extraordinarily strong British company. It has the full backing of the British Government and an enormous order book from us in terms of the strategic defence review. It also has massive backing from us in selling Hawk aircraft, Typhoons and Eurofighters all over the world to countries that need them. Clearly at Brough there have been issues and difficulties. That is why we have put in an enterprise zone, and we will do everything we can to help those people and help that company.

Q11. [83659] Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does the Prime Minister share my belief, and until recently the belief of the Leader of the Opposition, that now is not the time to strike, before negotiations have been completed?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Just in case anyone did not get it the first time, let me say it again:

“These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are…going on”.

Negotiations are going on, so the Leader of the Opposition should think the strikes are wrong. He does not think that they are wrong, because he is in the pocket of the trade union leaders.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): In every city and village in the country, home helps, carers, nurses and teachers are on strike for the very first time in their lives. These hard-working people—

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): You are not on strike.

Mr Roy: Well, we hear laughter from the Government Benches, but this is no laughing matter to hard-working families. Are these hard-working people out-of-touch left-wing trade union militants, as demonised by the

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two parties on the Government Benches, or are they men and women who have said to the Government, “Enough is enough”?

The Prime Minister: I know that people feel strongly about this, but we have a responsibility to deliver an affordable public sector pension system. We have rejected the idea of levelling down public sector pensions. What we will deliver on public sector pensions is a generous and fair offer that will give public sector pensioners, unlike others in our country, a defined benefit system. That is why Lord Hutton says that this is an incredibly generous offer. What a pity it is that the Labour party has left reality and will not back that view.

Q12. [83660] Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): The Prime Minister will know that I recently held a small businesses event in my constituency, and many of the businesses that attended complained bitterly about the red tape and bureaucracy that they have to jump through to deal with public bodies. What message can he send to these businesses, as we look to them to help rebuild the economy, about getting rid of some of this obstructive bureaucratic nonsense?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this subject. It is why we have introduced the red tape challenge, so that all these rules are published on line and businesses and individuals can tell us which ones can be scrapped without harming public safety. At the same time, we have the one-in, one-out rule so that Ministers cannot introduce a new regulation until they have scrapped an existing one. This Government are determined to scrap unnecessary regulation and to help small businesses to employ more people in our country.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): At the last spending review, the Prime Minister said that the £110 rise in child tax credits would have an impact on child poverty. Now that he has taken away that rise and is freezing working tax credit, can he say how many more children will be in poverty in the coming year?

The Prime Minister: What we are doing in terms of child tax credit is that it is going to be £390 higher than at the time of the last election. That is a £255 increase this year, which is the largest ever increase in child tax credit. We are adding a further £135 next year—an increase of 5.2%. That is what is happening on child tax credit. Let me make this additional point. If the pension is increased, we see child poverty figures go up, under the definition used by the Labour party. I think that it is right that we increase the pension; I do not think that we harm the life chances of children by giving pensioners what we have given, which is a record cash increase in pensions next year.

Q14. [83662] Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): May I ask the Prime Minister to ensure that this House remains a free and democratic institution, accountable only to voters? Does he share my indignation that some Members had to ask permission from the GMB to be here today? [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. There is a matter of basic courtesy here. The question from the hon. Lady should be heard. I think that she has completed her question, but it really is a lesson for the future. When questions are being

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asked, they should be heard with courtesy, and when the answers are given, whatever Members think of them, they should be heard with courtesy.

The Prime Minister: It is genuinely baffling to people that somebody who said that they would not back strike action while negotiations were under way has come to the House today to speak on behalf of trade union leaders. I want to say that it is a flashback to Neil Kinnock, but even Kinnock was not as bad as that.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister think it fair that the Chancellor yesterday decided to take just £300 million extra from the banks, and £1.3 billion from working families in this country? Is that a fair distribution?

The Prime Minister: What the Chancellor announced yesterday was that we will take £2.5 billion off the banks, not through a one-off bonus tax one year, but every year. It is this Government who are properly putting a tax on the banks, whereas the Labour party, year after year, gave knighthoods to Fred Goodwin, did not regulate the banks or tax them properly, and gave us the biggest boom and the biggest bust, from which we are having to recover.

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Q15. [83663] Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): While I welcome the reduction in corporation tax, which will encourage the businesses affected to expand, 90% of the businesses in my constituency are not incorporated and will not benefit from the tax reduction. Will the Prime Minister ensure that in the spring Budget those businesses are given similar tax incentives to ensure that they grow to their full potential, in the economy and the communities they serve?

The Prime Minister: May I again praise the hon. Gentleman for the magnificent specimen lurking underneath his nose? We will not wait until the Budget to help those small businesses: we have already extended the rate relief freeze for small businesses, and the national loan guarantee scheme, which will help small businesses to access credit, will be up and running soon.

Mr Speaker: Order. We now come to the statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that the Minister can deliver his statement and the House can listen to and hear it.

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Industrial Action

12.37 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): With permission, I would like to update the House on today's public sector strike action, which is about long overdue reforms to public sector pensions.

I start by thanking the large majority of public servants who have turned up for work today as normal. The low response to the call for strike action reflects their dedication to their public service calling. It also reflects the recognition that taking strike action while negotiations continue on an almost daily basis is nothing short of irresponsible, inappropriate and untimely. It is plain wrong.

This strike is about long-overdue reforms to public sector pensions. I repeat that we want public sector workers to continue to have access to pension schemes that are among the very best available. They will continue to be defined benefit schemes, delivering a guaranteed pension, index-linked and inflation-proofed. Such schemes have all but disappeared from the rest of the work force.

Reform, however, is urgently needed. The cost of public service pensions has increased by a third in the past 10 years to £32 billion a year, and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that, without reform, spending on public sector pensions will rise by nearly £7 billion over the next five years. Life expectancy is rising, and people are living longer, so in future people will work longer, for a better balance between life spent in work and life in retirement. Most public sector staff, except the lowest-paid, will pay more for a fairer balance between what they pay towards their pensions and what other taxpayers pay.

During the discussions, we have been willing to listen to the concerns of staff, and we have responded. On 2 November, after months of negotiations, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary set out in Parliament a revised offer that was more generous by 8%. In addition, we have made sure that any public sector workers within 10 years of retirement will be able to retire on their current terms. We are also protecting the lower paid. Public sector staff earning less than a full-time equivalent of £15,000 will not have to pay anything extra at all, and there will be limited increases and contributions for those earning, on a full-time basis, between £15,000 and £21,000. We think that that is fair.

The offer on the table is, by any standards, a generous one. It is a deal that most people in the private sector could only dream of being offered. Most staff on low and middle incomes will retire on a pension as good as what they expect today, and for many it will be even better.

The changes to the pension schemes will particularly protect women, who form the majority of the public sector work force, many of whom are on lower pay. A move from final salary schemes to career average will secure fairer outcomes for lower-paid workers, most of whom are women. The new schemes will also protect future generations from an unsustainable burden placed on them by unaffordable public sector pensions.

It is simply not true that the Government are not negotiating. I was surprised to hear the Leader of the Opposition repeating that claim today. Only yesterday there were discussions with the civil service unions on

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the civil service pension scheme; tomorrow there will be discussions with the teaching unions, and on Friday with the health unions. After the new offer was made on 2 November, it was agreed, at the request of the TUC, that discussions would continue on the schemes—so it is within the sectoral schemes that the discussions are taking place, at the specific request of the TUC. In addition, there are frequent—


The shadow Chancellor asks from a sedentary position whether we have met the TUC. The answer is yes. [Hon. Members: “You!”] So, contrary to—[Hon. Members: “You! You!”] I will say to—

Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. The Minister has, perhaps understandably, been provoked into a response, but questions, of whatever kind, relating to his statement must follow the statement. We cannot have constant sedentary interjections. I appeal to Members to stop doing that, and if it happens, I suggest that the Minister blithely ignore it.

Mr Maude: As always, Mr Speaker, I will do as you encourage me to.

Contrary to claims being made this morning by trade union leaders—and by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—talks are very much alive. They are intensive and they are making good progress. I deeply regret the misleading claims to the contrary.

All this underlines how indefensible today’s strike is while talks at scheme level are moving forward. It is inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible. The ballots for strike action, particularly in the bigger unions, had a turnout of between a quarter and a third—a very low turnout indeed. Our latest data suggest that, as of 11 am today, 135,000 civil servants—well below a third, indeed not much more than a quarter, of civil servants—were on strike. Most civil servants are going to work today as normal.

We have put in place rigorous contingency plans to ensure that, as far as possible, essential public services are maintained during such periods of industrial action. I have an update on what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago: only 16 of the 930 jobcentres are now closed to the public, and UK borders are open and operating with only very minor delays in some seaports. In the airports services are being maintained. I pay tribute to all the dedicated people who are keeping those borders both secure and open.

Across the other sectors the impact has been varied. According to estimates early this morning, across all state-funded schools in England, some 60% are closed but a great many are open or partially open. I am very grateful to those who have worked hard to keep their schools open across the country—head teachers, governors, support staff and teachers, all of whom may have concerns about their own pensions but have chosen to put the needs of pupils and parents above their own to minimise the impact of this strike. I deeply regret the fact that there will have been disruption to the lives of so many hard-working parents across the country, and to hard-working pupils, many of whom are facing mock exams in the near future; they need a closed school like they need a hole in the head.

Overall, the national health service is coping well with industrial action. Early indications are that the

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strike is having only a minor impact on patient services, and that has largely been mitigated by robust contingency planning. Several trusts have been forced to make cancellations of elective surgery, which is deeply unfortunate and I deeply regret it, but many organisations in the health service are reporting that they are operating at near normal levels. There is some disruption taking place in the local government sector, but councils have worked hard to secure essential services in areas such as dementia care and homelessness, to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the public from the most serious potential impacts of strikes.

Let me finish by saying this: I have huge respect for the dedicated women and men who keep our public services running. Their work is demanding, essential and highly valued. They deserve to be able to retire on decent pensions. Our reforms will ensure that their pension schemes will be decent, and that they can be sustained for the future. They deserve no less.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his courtesy in letting me have advance sight of the statement, which I received 20 minutes ago.

Clearly, the whole House regrets that industrial action is taking place today and that millions of families now face disruption to the services on which they rely and depend. Strikes are always a sign that negotiations have broken down, and if a deal is to be reached it is essential that both sides—let us be clear that that includes the unions, but the bulk of the responsibility lies with the Government—get around the negotiating table and show willingness to give ground.

Is it not true that the Government bear the greatest burden of responsibility for what is happening today? We accept that there is a need to continue the reform of public service pensions, which we in fact began when we were in office. We found the unions to be tough but ultimately reasonable negotiators. and we achieved a settlement without any industrial action.

The Government refer to Lord Hutton. He provided rigorous analysis of the current situation, laid out the ground rules for the negotiations, and persuasively argued that there was a need for further change. For example, he was right when he suggested we should look again at career average schemes, which might be fairer in many cases.

The unions need to show they accept the need for change, and indeed they have said they accept the continued need for negotiation and further change. The Government arbitrarily announced a 3p in the pound levy on the incomes of public sector workers, but this imposition has nothing whatever to do with Hutton. Is it not the case that the money that will be garnered from that 3p is not going to the pension schemes but is instead going into the pockets of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? The Minister says negotiations are ongoing, but will he tell us whether or not the 3p imposition, which is a form of tax on public sector workers, is negotiable? It clearly is not in the Government’s mind. Will he also respond to the question about when he last met the unions as part of the negotiation, and when Treasury Ministers last met them, as the leader of Unison said today he had not met them at all since

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2 November? It is remarkable that the Government can say negotiations are ongoing when the key Departments have never met the trade unions.

At the core of today’s industrial action are 750,000 low-paid workers. These people provide daily services to all of us and to all the people we serve in our constituencies. They are mainly women, they are almost exclusively low paid, and they provide the essential services on which our whole country depends: they are school dinner ladies, teachers, nurses and others. The House must not underestimate the difficult decisions each of those people must make in deciding whether to take action. Many of them never thought, when they entered the service of the public, that they would have to go on strike. It is a difficult personal decision for each of them, and I assure the House that they take it only with the greatest reluctance. They feel a burning sense of injustice that, low paid though they are, an additional burden is now being imposed on them. Equally, they face a significant deterioration in their pensions, which is why 750,000 low-paid workers—mainly women—have taken that difficult personal decision.

There is a risk that many of those people will opt out of their pensions.

Mr Speaker: Order. May I gently say that I know that in pretty short order the shadow Minister will want to come to his questions on the statement?

Jon Trickett: I thought I was asking questions as I was going along.

What estimate have the Government made of the number of people who might opt out of their pension schemes, and what damage might the schemes incur?

It has been suggested that the Prime Minister thinks he can gain political advantage from the strike. He told The Daily Telegraph that he was delighted that a strike would take place. What is the Minister’s strategy? Will he and the Treasury again meet the trade unions to begin negotiations? We have consistently argued that negotiations should be ongoing. Will he call the unions today to ask for meetings tomorrow?

Let me turn to the disruption that has been caused today. How many people are staffing the borders? Will the Minister confirm that there has been no relaxation of border checks?

This is a strike that did not need to happen—nobody wants strikes. The Government must show that they are willing to negotiate sensibly.

Mr Maude: It is easy to tell from the tone of that response who pays for the hon. Gentleman’s party. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I gently say to Whips, wherever they are in the House, that the House is best served when they go about their Protean tasks quietly. On the whole, the House is greatly nourished if they are seen and not heard.

Mr Maude: May I deal with the point about the negotiations? I thought I had made it as clear as possible that, at the TUC’s request, the negotiations are continuing in the scheme sector talks. [Hon. Members: “Are you going to meet them?] I have met them—[Hon. Members:

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“When?] Since 2 November. We conduct many of the negotiations in private—at the request of the TUC.




If Labour Members want to know when the meetings took place, I shall give them the TUC’s telephone number. Let me be absolutely clear: I shall not disclose what the contacts are—at the express request of the TUC. Okay? If they want me to be explicit about the contacts, rather than attacking me they should talk to the TUC. I think they probably know the number.

The shadow Minister asked whether I would call the unions today to suggest a meeting. He is a bit slow on the uptake: I called them yesterday to make that suggestion. I make it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and I are ready at any stage to meet the TUC. We have done so consistently over the whole period, but at the request of the TUC the discussions are continuing in the four sector schemes and are making good progress. That is why this strike is so indefensible, so unjustifiable, so irresponsible. Luckily, not that much damage will have been inflicted on the economy, because most public servants have chosen to work today as normal. But that has nothing to do with the attitude of the Labour party or of some trade union leaders.

I was asked about the Labour Government’s public sector pension reforms. The shadow Minister made a point about full-time equivalence—the basis on which the previous Government put in place their public sector pension reforms. We have simply followed what they did. I can tell the House that 750,00 low-paid workers will not lose at all—they will not pay a penny more in contributions, because they are below the threshold we have set—and 85% of them are women. It would be useful if the hon. Gentleman confirmed those figures.

The other thing to say about the Labour Government’s pension reforms is that, at the behest of their paymasters in the trade unions, they bottled out of putting in place the long-term reform that makes these changes sustainable. That is why Lord Hutton, Labour’s former Work and Pensions Secretary, recommends all these proposals and reforms, which will make the arrangements we arrive at in the discussions sustainable for a generation. No Government over the next 25 years should have to revisit pension schemes, which we have had to do because the previous Government bottled it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye. There is another statement to follow, and I remind the House that we have an Opposition day debate too. There is therefore a premium on brevity, the exemplar of which will be Mr David Ruffley.

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): Three out of four of my constituents work in the private sector for middling incomes, and they tell me that they would have to put one third of their earnings into their pension to get the benefits that people on strike today enjoy on retirement. Does the Minister agree that the public sector pensions settlement is not only incredibly affordable but incredibly fair?

Mr Maude: I think it is fair to the general taxpayer, who has carried all the additional cost of public sector pensions over the past 10 years, and to public sector workers and staff, who are dedicated, hard working and

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perform essential work. We want pension schemes to be available, without their having to be revisited every few years, because this Government are determined to get this right for the long term.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Despite the sickening trade union bashing of Tory MPs, a number of whose campaigns were financed by Lord Ashcroft, so we do not need any lectures from them, is the Minister aware that many decent, dedicated, law-abiding public servants have gone on strike—in many instances for the first time in their life—because they feel cheated and insecure about their pensions and do not accept what the Minister and other Ministers have said? Is there not at least an opportunity to try to understand the deep, strong feelings of people, many of whom will retire with pensions worth a tiny fraction of those that most Tory MPs will receive?

Mr Maude: I do understand the concerns of public sector staff and I want to commend the 75% to 80% of public sector workers who have gone to work today as normal. No one had to go on strike. Discussions are continuing and, as I said, making progress on a daily basis. The hon. Gentleman mentions pensions for Members of Parliament. We are public sector workers. We have a very generous pension scheme. It needs to be reformed and I hope it will be.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I declare an interest as a paid-up member of the NASUWT who is not supportive of the action taken today. The critical thing is the timing. Can the Minister reiterate and continue to reiterate the fact that negotiations went on yesterday, will go on tomorrow and, tragically, would have happened today had it not been for the action that has been taken?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is completely right on that. His own union will be in discussions with the education employers tomorrow. There is disruption caused by today’s action, but despite that there were discussions yesterday with civil service unions and there will be discussions tomorrow and on Friday with health unions. This process is still going ahead, which is why it is so hard to defend the action being taken today. I am just sorry that the Labour party cannot bring itself—does not have the guts—to say it is wrong.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Does not the Minister understand that there are thousands of part-time workers, the vast majority of whom are women, who are being asked to pay an extra 3%? I would not call it pension contribution, because it is not even going to boost their pension fund. How many of them will opt out as a result of the Government’s changes?

Mr Maude: For most public sector workers there is no fund. Contributions made today go to pay pensions today. The local government scheme is funded. Most of them are not funded. They are pay-as-you-go schemes. Lower paid people will not be asked to pay more. As I say, 750,000 low paid public sector workers will have to pay nothing extra at all as a result of these changes.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in a substantial number of local authorities, local government pensions are paid for by the equivalent of 25% of council tax? Is it fair to those council tax payers who are paying such a large sum of their hard-earned cash?

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Mr Maude: Over recent years the balance between what is paid by public sector staff towards their pensions and what is paid by the general taxpayer and, in the case that my hon. Friend refers to, the council tax payer, has got out of balance. What we are doing is putting it into a fairer balance. In every case the employer, which is the taxpayer, will be paying more towards the cost of those pensions than staff. I think that is fair, as well. But there will be a fairer balance, and so there should be.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): A good St Andrew’s day to you, Mr Speaker. The Scottish National party fully supports the public sector unions and we deplore this Government’s pension fund raid. The Scottish Government tried to protect public sector workers in Scotland by not imposing the pension levy, but the Chief Secretary promised to deprive us of £100 million if we did that. Why did he do that? Surely that is a great example of why pension policy should be under the democratic control of the Scottish people in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Maude: The Scottish Government have benefited from the results of the reforms, and if they choose not to implement them they will have to make savings from elsewhere. That just follows. It comes with devolution.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Can the Minister tell my constituents who work hard and have no chance of achieving a £20,000 index-linked guaranteed pension what level of contributions they would have to pay to their own scheme to get that level of pension?

Mr Maude: As has been said, to achieve the same pension as many public sector workers will continue to enjoy after these reforms are put in place, many people working in the private sector would end up having to pay no less than a third of their salary in pension contributions. These are good pension schemes. They will continue to be good pension schemes. We want them to be so.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I know that those on the Government Benches want to denigrate trade unions, but I am proud of being a trade unionist. I first joined a trade union when I was a vicar, though it was always a bit difficult to strike, because nobody noticed and it was difficult to identify who one’s employer was. What angers many public sector workers is that, even where there are pension funds, as the Minister admitted today, the extra 3% that is being asked for is not going into those funds. It is going straight to the Government. That is what makes it feel like a raid on public sector workers.

Mr Maude: I feel confident that if the hon. Gentleman was on strike today, we would definitely miss him. I commend him, as a member of a trade union, for having crossed the picket line today to come to work. The issue he raises is where the extra contribution is going. He fails to understand that these schemes, for the most part, are not funded schemes. What is not paid by staff towards the cost of their pensions is picked up by the general taxpayer. And I say again—I assume this is the basis on which the shadow Chancellor said this morning that further reform of public sector pensions is needed—that whatever is not paid by staff is picked up

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the taxpayer, and that all the extra cost in the past 10 years, which has risen by a third—an extra £10 billion a year—has fallen on the general taxpayer. That is why we need a fairer balance.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): With only a third of union members voting for today’s strike action, does my right hon. Friend believe that today’s action is justified?

Mr Maude: I do not think that on any basis today’s action is justified. First of all, there are negotiations going on almost on a daily basis, as I said. Secondly, certainly in the biggest trade unions, a very low proportion of the members who were balloted voted. In Unison, for example, only a little over a quarter of the members balloted voted. In all the large unions, it was somewhere between a quarter and a third. That does not amount to very much of a mandate for strike action. I think it was irresponsible and I wish it had not happened.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Some on the Government Benches, when they are baying against the unions, should understand the history. It was the Thatcher Government who gave us the political levy, and that decision allows individual trade unionists to pay the levy to the Labour party. I want to try to be helpful. The reason that we are having the dispute today, apart from all the obvious arguments about the cut taking place by the Government, is that when a union holds a ballot, it has a finite amount of time before it has to take industrial action. If the Government did away with that stupid rule, which was brought in by the Thatcher Government, we would have been able to continue negotiations. Is that not correct?

Mr Maude: I start by saying that we are in continuing negotiations. There will be negotiations tomorrow, the day after, next week and the week after, so negotiations are continuing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way the law works at present creates a perverse incentive for unions to take action. We suggested a number of ways in which the mandate could be kept open. For example, in order to keep a mandate open but not inconvenience the public, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has called a two-hour strike in the middle of the night. In the Royal Mail, the Communication Workers Union has occasionally called five-minute strikes in order to keep a mandate open. It was not necessary, in order to keep this mandate open, for the unions to call a full strike. I am happy to say that most of their members have ignored the call.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Mr Speaker, I hope you will not think it unparliamentary language if I say that I am gobsmacked by today’s strike action. If anybody is responsible for the biggest attack on our pensions ever, it was the previous Government, who raided our private sector pensions. There were no strikes then. That has left the private sector with very little in their pensions. Does my right hon. Friend think the time is right to look again at the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) suggesting that a minimum level of turnout should be required for any ballots on future strikes, particularly under the circumstances, which are so unbalanced towards the private sector?

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Mr Maude: I am aware of the motion, and I am aware of the case having been made by the CBI, among others, for such a change in the law. We think that the law can work well and we do not see any priority for making changes along those lines, but every time a strike is called on the basis of a very low turnout in a ballot, those advocates for change will feel that their hand is strengthened.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The House will understand why the Minister has wriggled so consistently on this question of part-time workers on below £15,000, who will be paying the 3%. Can he explain to the people who will be paying that why they have to pay 3% income tax while the bankers’ bonuses are left untouched?

Mr Maude: I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the scheme put in place by the Labour Government, there would have been an increase of £1 billion in the contribution paid by public sector staff towards their pensions in April next year in any event. The proposal we are making is only slightly ahead of that, and we are exempting large numbers of low-paid workers from the effects of it. I repeat that 750,000 low-paid public sector workers will have no increase in their contributions as a result of the specific protections that the coalition Government have put in place.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Given that only one in 10 low-paid private sector workers could afford anything like the pension arrangements for comparably paid people in the public sector, does my right hon. Friend agree that urgent reform is necessary if we are to have anything like fairness for all?

Mr Maude: In his report, Lord Hutton made it clear that he did not want public sector pension reform to be a race to the bottom, and we totally agree with that. We want as many people as possible to have access to a decent pension in retirement, but we want the public sector pensions that persist after reforms have been put in place to continue to be decent pensions that are sustainable for the long-term future. That is what we are aiming at, and that is what we will achieve.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): In relation to turnout, could the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that only 39% of his constituents voted for him and only 27% of the constituents of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury voted for him? We do not need any lectures about turnout. Notwithstanding the confidentiality of some of the negotiations, will the Minister put in the Library a document showing exactly where we are with the negotiations and, in particular, where we are with the local government negotiations, where, as far as I am aware, no offer has been made?

Mr Maude: My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary came and stood at the Dispatch Box on 2 November and made an offer. What is going on in the discussions on the four schemes is that the elements that he announced are being worked over, in conjunction with the unions, to work out what the best configuration is for the future. All these work forces are different—they have different salary profiles, different demographics, different age profiles—and the right arrangement of those moving

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parts within each scheme will also differ. That is where the negotiations are taking place, in order to arrive at the right agreed outcome. That is happening at the moment, so the idea that no offer has been made is completely irrelevant and immaterial.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): If we fail to make sustainable reform, to what extent will future generations be liable?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend makes the right point. If the reform goes through, as it will, this will be a settlement for a generation and future Governments will not have to come back, as we have had to do to clear up the mess left by the last Government, who bottled it. If there is no sustainable reform, the burden on future generations will be significant. We cannot have a position where an ever smaller working population continues to pay for the pensions of an ever larger retired population. People are living longer. Life expectancy is rising every year. A 60-year-old today can expect to live for 10 years longer than could a 60-year-old in the 1970s. It is absurd to suppose that we can have the same retirement age today as we had then.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. It is also absurd to suppose that we can accommodate everyone unless questions and answers are significantly shorter.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has consistently refused to address the issue of low-paid part-time workers and the extra contribution they will have to make on a pro rata basis. Does he deny that those people—many of them the lowest-paid women working in the public sector—will be more affected than others?

Mr Maude: I have to remind the hon. Lady that the basis on which we have made these arrangements is precisely the same as the basis on which the Government of whom she was a member was planning to reform, and indeed reforming, public sector pensions.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): In view of the fact that a private sector worker would have to contribute, on average, a third of their salary in order to get a similar pension to a public sector worker, and that without reform the public pensions bill would cost an additional £7 billion in borrowing, may I urge my right hon. Friend not to compromise any further on the generous offer that he has already made?

Mr Maude: We have made a generous offer. It means that many people in the public sector, especially those on lower and middle incomes, will be able to retire on a pension at least as good as they can expect at the moment. But we have said that that offer was conditional on there being agreement, so we want the discussions in the schemes to continue even more intensively than they have been already so that we can give effect to that offer.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Public sector workers will have to work longer and get less out of their pension schemes while, this year alone, bankers walked away with £7 billion in bonuses. I know that the Minister will say that he cannot do anything about that, but does he think that it is fair?

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Mr Maude: As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made clear yesterday, more will be got out of the banks than was the case under the Labour Government, who made such an enormous fuss about this. Public sector pensions will continue to be extremely generous, and that is what we want.

Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): I commend the immigration contingency plan. My husband came through Heathrow very smoothly at 6 o’clock this morning. There was a lack of enthusiasm for the mandate for this strike. Will my right hon. Friend update us on exactly how many people are taking industrial action, as enthusiasm for being on strike today seems not to reflect the unions’ enthusiasm for this event?

Mr Maude: I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s husband had an easy ride. There are reports that, at some airports, the service is better than it usually is. I commend all those immigration staff who have come to work as normal and all of those who have, in a public-spirited way, volunteered to help to ensure that the borders are secure and that disruption is kept to an absolute minimum.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that a community nurse working two days a week on an extremely low salary of £10,000 a year will have to pay the 3% surcharge? If that is the case, does he think that it is fair?

Mr Maude: Unlike the Labour Government, we are tiering the increases in contributions in a progressive way so that people on the lowest pay are protected and those on highest pay will pay most. We think that that is a fair way of doing it. Someone who is working part-time, on a full-time equivalent salary of between £15,000 and £21,000, will have their increase in contributions capped at 1.5%. If it is below £15,000, they pay nothing more. We think that is fair. The full-time equivalent basis about which she is complaining is what her own Government put in place.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): As a former private sector worker, I know how many people will be wondering, given the irresponsible nature of these strikes, why £113 million of Government money is paid to the unions. Would it not be better used on body armour for our troops in the field, or on looking after sick babies in our hospitals by improving intensive care?

Mr Maude: It is entirely correct that a large amount of taxpayers’ money is effectively used to pay for full and part-time union officials. There can be perfectly good justification for some of that, in order to sort out local disputes quickly and effectively, but that there should now be 260 full-time union officials on the civil service payroll is really hard to justify, and we are reviewing it.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I regret the trade union action while negotiations are going on, and the Northern Ireland economy can ill afford the cost of this. Will the Minister confirm that the offer on the table is not a final offer and that, in ongoing negotiations, he will consider the impact on low-paid part-time workers

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and the appropriateness of raising the pension age for people who are engaged in physical activity, such as firemen?

Mr Maude: We absolutely take those points on board. I, too, regret the additional disruption that there is today in Northern Ireland, where the whole public transport system has come to a halt. As the hon. Gentleman says, the Northern Ireland economy can ill afford that kind of disruption. There is a great deal of flexibility within the negotiations. There are a lot of moving parts and they will be put together in different combinations in different schemes. We are very much aware of concerns of the sort that he raises.

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): The move to basing pensions on a career average is good news for very many women. Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration that Labour Members seem so determined constantly to portray women as victims rather than take pride in this important move?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is completely right. The move from final salary to career average schemes is of particular benefit to a lot of women, who, as has been said, form the majority of the public sector work force. Many women will have taken a career break and so their final salary will provide a less good basis for a good pension than the career average, which is what we seek to put in place.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): The Minister has repeated an assertion made by the Prime Minister that workers on low and middle incomes would get a larger pension at retirement than they do now. Does he accept, as has been widely reported, that that is contradicted by the Government’s own pensions calculator and that, for example, a worker on an average wage of £26,000 retiring with accrued service of 10 years at this point, whether at 60 or 67, would have a substantially worse pension despite the additional contributions?

Mr Maude: I do not believe that that is the case. Public sector workers on middle and lower incomes will be able to retire—albeit many of them later than they currently expect and having paid more towards it; we are perfectly open about that—on a pension that is at least as good, and many of them will be able to retire on a better pension than they currently expect.

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that very many of those who are engaged in industrial action, including many of my constituents—half my constituents work in the public sector—are completely unaware of the offer that he has made in relation to defending accrued rights of all pensioners up to the date of change, and of the significant improvement in accrual rates announced by the Chief Secretary, which gives the lie to the claim that we have just heard from the Labour Benches?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is completely right. We have done our best to get the details of the offer through to members of the public sector staff directly and to correct the misleading indications given by some trade union leaders, which I deeply regret. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the commitment we have

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made that all accrued rights are protected. What has been paid for up until now will be honoured in full.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The Minister said recently that the north-east is heavily dependent on the public sector, and the loss of a day’s pay means less spending power in the north-east economy. That will impact on the economy, for sure. What does he believe will happen after he has sacked 700,000 public sector workers? Is it not the case that, whether someone took strike action today or not, they will probably not have a job?

Mr Maude: I am really sorry that the north-east economy is going to take a bigger hit than other parts of the economy because the Tyne and Wear metro has been closed down, completely unnecessarily. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in strongly condemning that irresponsible strike action, which will have inflicted damage on the economy of the north-east and inevitably led to there being more job losses than would otherwise be the case.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): Does the Minister agree that unions are important organisations that have to get the right and fair deal? This morning I was on Radio Merseyside with Frank Hont from Unison, and we both agreed that it had to be a fair deal, but a fair deal for private sector workers, for public sector workers, for the taxpayer and for future generations, putting pensions on a fair and sustainable footing for the future.

Mr Maude: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I can confirm that for most of the time we have been conducting these negotiations, the union leaders and the TUC have been behaving in the way that trade unions should in representing their members in a tough and effective way. Where they have gone wrong is in holding ballots and calling a strike at a time when negotiations are still continuing and we are making progress towards a settlement that is fair for taxpayers generally and very fair for public sector workers.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I respect the right of workers in the private or public sector to take legal strike action; that used to be the position of the Conservatives and, indeed, the Liberals. As the Minister will know, some teachers are taking strike action for the first time. On Friday I met a delegation who said that the teachers’ pension scheme has not been valued, that there is a surplus in it, and that the Government are refusing to review the scheme. Will he publish the valuation of that scheme, which they say is in surplus and is not costing the taxpayer money?

Mr Maude: That is wrong in so many ways that it is hard to know where to start. The hon. Gentleman talks as though there is a surplus in a fund. I am sorry to break this to him, but there is no fund. Teachers’ pensions are being paid for by contributions paid predominantly by the taxpayer. There is not a surplus; there is no fund whatsoever. We have to get a better balance between what teachers themselves pay towards their pensions and what the wider taxpayer pays, and

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that is what we will do. However, there will still be more paid by the wider taxpayer than by teachers, and we support that too.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I join my right hon. Friend in thanking public sector workers who, despite being angry about pay freezes and pension changes, are serving the public today.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), a Labour councillor in my home town today told public sector workers that the money saved is going to be used to bail out the banks. What more can the Government do to make sure that people get told the truth about why these changes are being made and the detailed nature of the offer?

Mr Maude: We will do everything we can. We have communicated directly with civil servants because the Government are their employer and we can do that very directly. It is much more difficult to communicate directly with all teachers and people working in the NHS, because they are employed by a wide range of different, dispersed employers. However, the fact is that most public sector workers—more than three quarters—have ignored the call to take part in this irresponsible strike, and I warmly commend them for doing so.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I put it to the Minister that the willingness to negotiate has got to be a bit more than the willingness to attend meetings. A while ago, Ministers said that the offer was “final”. Is it a final offer or not; and, specifically, will the Minister negotiate around the 3%?

Mr Maude: We have made it clear that if, in the discussions within the sectors, there can be alternative ways of delivering the savings that are needed in the comprehensive spending review period, we will consider those suggestions. However, no such suggestions have been made. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least conceding for the first time from the Labour Benches that negotiations are continuing and making progress. There are still a lot of moving parts, and we need to discuss how they are put together to achieve a fair and sustainable result. I hope that we can continue to intensify that process and make further progress after today’s irresponsible strike action.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that in return for paying a little bit more and working a little bit longer, many public sector workers will still be able to retire at 55, and that many low-income and middle-income earners will receive higher pensions under the Government’s proposals than they do currently?

Mr Maude: That is the case. We are absolutely clear that people who, in April next year, will be within 10 years of their expected retirement date will see no change to their retirement age. There are some who are currently looking to retire at 55, and if they are within 10 years of that retirement date, that will be honoured and their pension will be paid in exactly the same way that is envisaged at the moment.

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Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The Minister says that he has huge respect for public sector workers, but at the same time his Government are sacking tens of thousands of them. Regarding lower-paid part-time women workers, will he put in the Library some examples of the impact that the change from RPI to CPI has had on their pensions?

Mr Maude: We have made available a huge range of information about the effects of the changes to public sector pensions, and there will continue to be more as the negotiations make further progress in the weeks ahead.

I just want to make this point about the job losses. I very much regret that there will continue to be job losses in the public sector. If we had not inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world from the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member, those jobs would not be at risk today.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): The Minister knows that I, as one who has worked in the civil service and as the brother and son of teachers, have huge respect for people who work in public service. However, I also believe that many teachers and nurses in my constituency have been woefully misinformed about the details of a complex pension proposal by their unions and by statements from the Labour party. Will he clarify, once and for all, for all hon. Members and for my constituents in Gloucester, that the lowest paid 15% of the work force who are on less than £15,000 a year––about 750,000 people, of whom 85% are women––will pay no extra contributions and will receive a better pension than the one they now receive, inherited from the previous Government?

Mr Maude: I can confirm that and add that many of the lowest paid in the public sector will pay no more towards their pension. When the basic state pension is added on top of the occupational pension, they will be able to retire on a bigger income than they were earning while they were employed.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): What discussions has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive about building stable industrial relations, which would contribute to the local economy, rather than allowing them to undermine low-paid public sector workers who have higher costs to pay for everyday essentials?

Mr Maude: It is the responsibility of all the devolved Administrations to make their own arrangements and conduct their own industrial relations. We conduct our own approach to industrial relations, which involves very intensive discussions with the trade unions that are continuing on an almost daily basis.

Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): Further to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), does he agree that it is disingenuous of militant trade union leaders to claim that there have been no recent negotiations when he has explicitly confirmed in his most illuminating statement that talks continued until only yesterday?

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Mr Maude: I confirm talks yesterday, talks tomorrow, talks the day after. These will continue and they need to intensify so that we can reach a conclusion.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Why do the Government so despise public sector workers such as nurses, doctors, teachers and street care cleaners as to impose a swingeing tax increase when the contributions to pension funds exceed their liabilities? The local government pension fund has an annual surplus of £4 billion to £5 billion. How is that fair and how can he justify it?

Richard Graham: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must calm himself. There will be an opportunity for points of order, but it does not arise in the middle of a statement.

Mr Maude: Far from having the views about public sector workers that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) wrongly attributes to me, all of us in this House have dedicated ourselves to public service. We know that this is an honourable calling and we know how dedicated are the 6 million public sector workers. I commend the 75% to 80% of public sector workers who have ignored the irresponsible call for strike action and gone to work today as usual.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise those ordinary, hard-working trade unionists in Kettering who have crossed picket lines today to go work to serve members of the public and refused to believe the misleading advice they get from their overpaid, hot-headed trade union bosses, who are itching for a fight with the Government?

Mr Maude: I am afraid that there are some trade union leaders who seem to be absolutely hellbent on confrontation and industrial action. We absolutely did not want that and I join my hon. Friend in commending those of his constituents who are trade union members but who have ignored the call to strike, crossed the picket lines and gone to work to serve the public, as is their vocation.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): As a trade union member, I place on record that I am here this afternoon specifically to represent in Parliament the concerns of my constituents who are trade union members, as they wish me to do. In the light of the news yesterday of a further restriction on pay increases in the public sector, they are particularly concerned about how they are to meet the additional 3% cost. Will the Minister say if there is an opportunity for meaningful negotiation around the timing as well as the rate of any increase in contribution?

Mr Maude: As I said earlier, we have made it clear that the savings that have been baked into the spending settlement for the comprehensive spending review period need to be delivered. If the discussions produce alternative ways of delivering those savings, we have said that we are open to hearing them. We have not heard any yet. Of course the hon. Lady is entitled to represent the interests of her trade union member constituents. I

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hope that she will also represent the interests of all those in the private sector who pay their taxes, which pay for the lion’s share of the public sector pensions that public sector workers will continue to enjoy.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): On the questions that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and others asked about part-time public sector workers, does the Minister agree that the responsible conversation to have with them is to say, “Don’t protest. Do pay an extra 3%, because you are getting in return for that a pension that would cost you 38% to buy in the real world”?

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is right. The public sector is as much the real world as any other, but in the private sector, staff would have to pay a very significant part of their salary––more than a third––in contributions to buy pensions as good as these. We want these to continue to be among the very best pension schemes available. That is why we are pushing forward these reforms, with a settlement for a generation, so that future Governments will not have to clear up the mess the last Government left behind.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that it is fair and legitimate for the wider British public to know when he personally took part in negotiations with unions? I heard what he said earlier, but in the interests of transparency, should he not publish this information?

Mr Maude: I say again to the hon. Lady that there are formal negotiations on a continuing basis within the schemes. There are many informal contacts that happen on a continuing basis. Those are kept confidential, not at my request but at that of the TUC, and I will continue to honour that.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister seems to have given my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) an answer on the 3% different from that given by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Can he confirm that he is willing to negotiate on the 3%?

Mr Maude: What I said, and what my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said as well, was that the savings that are represented by the average increase of 3.2% must be delivered. If there are other ways of delivering it, we are willing to listen to them, but no suggestions have been made. In the absence of suggestions about how those savings can be delivered by other means within the pension schemes, we are requiring that those contribution increases will be made, but with protection for lower-paid workers.

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Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am dismayed by the Minister’s statement today that the low response to the call for strike action reflects the dedication of those who did not vote for it to their public service calling. That clearly implies that those who voted in favour do not have the same dedication. Does that apply to the 57% of the health care physios’ union, the near 50% of the Royal Society of Radiographers and other health professional organisations that voted in the same proportions? Those figures relate to the total work force, not the turnout in the vote. Does he feel that they are in any way at all not as dedicated?

Mr Maude: I did not make the distinction that the hon. Gentleman suggests. All I am saying is that in the public sector work force of nearly 6 million people, over three quarters have gone to work today and ignored the irresponsible call to strike action. If I am going to discriminate between those who have gone to work to follow their public service calling and those who followed the irresponsible call to strike action, then I commend those who have gone to work over those who have gone on strike while negotiations are continuing.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): The Minister knows that he is accountable to Parliament—full stop. He is treating Parliament with contempt by not telling Parliament when he—when he—last met trade union organisations. Will he now set the record straight?

Mr Maude: I urge the hon. Gentleman, if his enthusiasm to know the details of confidential discussions is so intense, to call Brendan Barber and ask him.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Does the Paymaster General not recognise that many public sector workers taking industrial action today do so reluctantly, with a heavy heart and because they feel that what is on offer is simply not fair? May I press him a little further on his answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle)? Is he now saying that he is definitely prepared to countenance meaningful negotiations on the 3% increase?

Mr Maude: I have made it as clear as I possibly can, but I will say it again: the savings represented within the pension schemes and within the comprehensive spending review period by an average 3.2% increase in contributions must be delivered. We have made that clear.

We have made it clear also that we are willing to entertain suggestions on how those savings can be delivered in other ways. We have heard no such suggestions, so those contribution increases—the first of which will go through in April, and which are actually of the same order of magnitude as those that would have gone through under the previous Government’s reforms in any event—will go ahead.