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House of Commons
Wednesday 8 June 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Inverclyde in the room of David Cairns, deceased.—(Ms Winterton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Fraudulent Use of Aid
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell): The Government are committed to spending 30% of UK aid on conflict-affected and fragile states where the millennium development goals are most off track. We have a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and other abuse and all our programmes include safeguards to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent properly.
Mr Mitchell: About a third of that money goes to the European development fund, which scored highly in the multilateral aid review, and that suits Britain’s interests because around 40% of it goes to Commonwealth countries and we contribute only 17%. The money spent through the budget is £800 million, over which we have much less control, and we are seeking to ensure that it is better deployed.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The Secretary of State will of course acknowledge that the Government have committed additional funding to post-conflict states because that is where the greatest poverty and the greatest risk of falling back into conflict lies. Nevertheless, does he accept that, although we must do everything we can to stamp out corruption, it is precisely in those difficult climates that risks must be taken if achievements in poverty reduction and conflict prevention are to be secured?
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Mr Mitchell: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are greater risks when operating in conflict states, but in such states the very poorest in the world lose out twice over, once because they are poor and again because they are living in frightening and conflicted circumstances.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to a zero-tolerance attitude to fraud. Will he encourage the World Bank to continue to have its regular survey of 32,000 small businesses across different developing countries, which shows that although fraud is a problem, it by no means absorbs all the aid entering those countries, as bar-room gossip would have it, and that it is more prevalent in south Asia than in Africa?
Mr Mitchell: My right hon. Friend’s analysis is absolutely right. He will have seen the world development report, produced by the World Bank, on working in conflict states, which focuses on security and development. It is a very good report, produced at Britain’s request, which focuses specifically on the points he has made.
Bilateral and Multilateral Aid
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): We have introduced the UK aid transparency guarantee, under which we have published greater and more detailed information on the Department for International Development’s aid expenditure than ever before, and we have actively encouraged our multilateral and other partners to follow our lead. I welcome the launch today of the Make Aid Transparent website, which is supported by a coalition of more than 50 civil society groups from more than 20 countries.
Jake Berry: I thank the Minister for his answer. Just as the Prime Minister has called on others in the G8 to live up to their promises on their aid budgets, will the Minister assure me that the Government are calling on others to increase the transparency of their spending and will he update the House on the international aid transparency initiative?
Mr Duncan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Prime Minister secured agreement in Deauville that the G8 should begin to lead rather than follow on aid transparency. DFID also leads the international aid transparency initiative, an alliance of 19 major donors. Under our leadership, a new aid transparency standard was agreed in February and is already being implemented by DFID, the World Bank and the Hewlett Foundation, with many more set to follow later this year.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): In view of the lobbying of the House tomorrow by international development enthusiasts, will the Minister encourage as many people as possible to turn up, including hon. Members, to make our contribution to international development awareness?
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Mr Duncan: I fully share the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for international development awareness, and when it comes to transparency there is already much praise for what the UK is doing. For instance, Publish What You Fund recently said:
“As well as focusing on its own breadth and quality of publication, its”—
“commitment to influencing others sets important precedents for aid transparency on a global level.”
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the better we can demonstrate the effectiveness of UK aid, and that it is not all siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts, the sooner we will get the people of this country behind our excellent and worthy notion of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid?
Mr Duncan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is exactly why we have set up the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which can evaluate the impact and value for money of UK aid. Transparency sheds light on all that is done and reduces the sort of corruption that my hon. Friend describes.
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that the welcome continued emphasis on transparency in Government aid must also apply to businesses? Given the OECD estimate that poor countries lose $120 billion each year to tax havens, three times more than the aid that they receive, what is he doing to require companies to publish what they pay to Governments in developing countries?
Mr Duncan: That is exactly why we support the likes of the extractive industry transparency initiative, which will ensure that companies contracting with countries fully reveal what exactly they make out of their contracts.
Official Development Assistance
3. Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): When he plans to bring forward legislation enacting the commitment to spend at least 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance. 
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell): The coalition Government have set out how we will meet our commitment to spend 0.7% of national income as overseas aid from 2013. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we will enshrine that commitment in law as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.
Catherine McKinnell: Tomorrow I will meet several of my constituents as part of the “Tea Time for Change” event to discuss their and my support for the 0.7% commitment. Has the Secretary of State had any recent discussions with the Defence Secretary on that important issue?
Mr Mitchell: I have discussions on those matters with all my colleagues, not least the business managers for the reasons that I set out in my original answer, but the hon. Lady is right to point out the importance of proceeding with the commitment, and that is why we have made it clear that we will.
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Mr Mitchell: My hon. Friend refers to a comment that I made on Monday, when I said that just as America is a military superpower, so Britain is a development superpower. I was referring to the fact that throughout the world brilliant work is being done with Britain in the lead on development, and we do so because it is not only morally right but, as my hon. Friend will understand, absolutely in our national interest.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): The DFID Lesotho programme has helped to reduce the prevalence of HIV in garment factories from 37% to 27%, and we continue to assist 40,000 factory workers. We also provide support to HIV programmes in Lesotho through our contributions to the EU, the World Bank and the Global Fund.
Mark Tami: The Minister will be aware that almost 25% of the population of Lesotho has HIV, and one project that his Department funds is the Apparel Lesotho Alliance to Fight AIDS, which as he says targets almost 40,000 people. Will that funding carry on? If not, who will fund it?
Mr O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman is completely correct that one of the most successful programmes in Lesotho has been the ALAFA programme, which has enabled those 40,000 factory workers to obtain vital services to help with HIV/AIDS. We have just announced that we will continue that programme up to the point when we can secure long-term funding through either the EU or other donor agencies.
Mr O'Brien: My hon. Friend is entirely right to bring to the House’s notice, and to emphasise, that prevention is as important as the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Indeed, that will be one of the major thrusts of what I say in New York tomorrow at the UN meeting on AIDS. In addition to prevention and treatment, however, we want to ensure that care and support, which has often been the neglected area of HIV campaigning, is addressed too.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Dolen Cymru has 26 years’ experience of working from Wales into Lesotho, particularly in the field of health care. What consideration have the Government given to using such a non-governmental organisation to administer some of the aid budgets in Lesotho?
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Mr O’Brien: I pay tribute to and congratulate Dolen Cymru on its tremendous ongoing work with Lesotho. It has not been a recipient of DFID funds; it has been self-supporting. On 30 June, I will be travelling to Wales on a ministerial visit, so I can discuss the most appropriate way, particularly now that Wales has the newer powers, to take forward the fact that development is a national responsibility while equally ensuring that we involve all parts of the United Kingdom in continuing good development work.
5. Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): By what means he proposes to determine the level of funding his Department will allocate to UN Women.  The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell): The Department for International Development recently reviewed the value for money of British taxpayers’ funding to all multilateral agencies through the multilateral aid review. We will apply the same broad criteria to UN Women’s strategic plan by assessing its organisational strengths and the relevance to UK aid objectives. This approach will help to determine the level of core funding for the agency.
Sheila Gilmore: One of the key priority areas for UN Women will be political empowerment of women. What plans does the Secretary of State’s Department have for backing up this work in Governments and legislatures around the world?
Mr Mitchell: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is incredibly important to put girls and women at the centre of everything we do in development, which is what empowerment is. We are watching very carefully how the agency is developing. We have given nearly £660,000 as transitional funding to the agency and offered support staff on secondment. I am confident that once the plan is produced we will be able to fund it. I am sure that she will understand, however, that it is right to commit taxpayers’ money only when we can see what it is being spent on.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Evidence is coming from Egypt that the position of women is not advancing as a result of the Arab spring; indeed, there are concerns that it is going backwards. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is using all the influence that comes with the additional money that we are investing in that part of the world to ensure that women get their fair share of that resource?
Mr Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a feeling that the role of women in the Arab spring in Egypt was very significant, and it is extremely important that their role should now be advanced. We will try to do that in a number of ways, not least through know-how funds and the Arab Partnership money that we are deploying.
Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab):
To follow up the point so ably made by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), while there is no doubt that the Arab spring offers huge possibilities for democracy and human rights in Egypt, it will not be progress if women’s rights are set back. Will the Secretary of State ensure that out of the generous funding that we
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are providing, funds will go to the Alliance for Arab Women in Cairo to make a reality of the demands set out in the Egyptian national women’s statement of 4 June?
Mr Mitchell: I am considering the right hon. Lady’s suggestion. We have exchanged correspondence on this, and I will look very carefully at the proposition that she puts. During my visit to Benghazi at the weekend, I had the opportunity to meet representatives of Arab women’s organisations, who made a similar point. I am sure that we will be able to assist.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O’Brien): The Government’s policy on HIV in developing countries is set out in “Towards zero infections: The UK’s position paper on HIV in the developing world”, published on 31 May. I have placed a copy of this in the House today.
Mark Pawsey: I thank the Minister for his answer. Following the recent good news about a decline in the number of infections, does he recognise the contribution that has been made by UK-based non-governmental organisations, with young volunteers, often in their gap years, working overseas with young people in their communities to get across the message of how a change in their behaviour can reduce their exposure to the risk of AIDS?
Mr O’Brien: My hon. Friend makes a very good observation. Tremendous, and often brilliant, work is done by NGOs in ensuring that work on the ground is delivering results. While this can be a tremendous, life-changing opportunity for gap year students and other young people, they also need to ensure that they observe a duty of care in ensuring that those experiences are benign and deliver results.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects women in developing countries. Why, therefore, have the Government dropped from their new strategy the specific commitment to measure the impact of AIDS programmes on women and girls?
Mr O'Brien: The hon. Lady is right that in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS is primarily a disease that affects women; they are now in the majority compared with men. It is right that in putting women and girls at the heart of all our policies, we measure all the impacts on women, in particular those on the poorest women in the poorest countries. In tomorrow’s meetings at the UN, there will be a keen focus on women, and we hope that something will come of that.
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The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): We rigorously assess costs against benefits in all our programmes. To measure the value for money of our climate programmes, we will look at metrics including the number of poor people protected from extreme weather events, the number of hectares of forest protected, and the number of people with access to energy.
Luciana Berger: The Minister will be aware of the decision at the last climate change summit to establish a green climate fund, and that the UK has a representative on the transnational committee that is designing the fund. Will he update the House on the progress made to date by the transnational committee and on what concrete outcomes the UK Government hope to see by the next summit in Durban later this year?
Mr Duncan: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the fund is not yet up and running. We are on the design committee for the fund and are playing our full part in it. We want to ensure that the fund delivers results for poor people in the best possible way.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The clearest message from the poorest countries at the world climate change talks in Cancun was that they face immediate impacts from climate change. Will the British Government commit to set an example to other countries by putting a high proportion of our climate finance into adaptation, as well as into climate change mitigation?
Mr Duncan: Climate change will hit the poor hardest and first. DFID will support poor people to protect their lives and possessions from the impacts of climate change, for example by raising homes on to plinths to protect poor people from flooding in Bangladesh, supporting drought-resistant crops in Malawi, and preventing coastal erosion in Vietnam. We aim to spend 50% of our climate change finance on adaptation. That will be kept under full review.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will know that if we are to meet the commitments we made at the Copenhagen climate change conference, the UK will have to allocate by next year a further £1 billion in fast-start finance to help developing countries tackle climate change. Will he confirm that the Government still intend to allocate that funding by next year?
Official Development Assistance
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell):
British official development assistance as a proportion of gross national income will be 0.56% in 2011 and 2012. The Government are fully
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committed to delivering 0.7% of GNI as ODA from 2013 and will enshrine that commitment in law, in line with the coalition agreement.
Julie Hilling: The Government have frozen aid for two years and propose to spend money through multinational institutions, which have more expensive bureaucracy. Is it not nonsensical for DFID to cut its admin costs only to spend money through institutions with higher costs?
Mr Mitchell: The hon. Lady is not correct. The way in which we judge multilateral institutions was set out clearly in the multilateral aid review. The whole point of the two big reviews that the coalition Government commissioned on coming to power was to ensure that we deliver best value for money. It is our aim to ensure that for every pound of hard-earned taxpayers’ money that we spend, we get 100p of development results on the ground.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The brave men and women of our armed forces put their lives at risk every day to protect civilians and rebuild societies in far-off lands. That is real overseas aid. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is surprising that his budget is increasing by £4 billion when the defence budget is being cut by billions and billions of pounds?
Mr Mitchell: Having served in the armed forces, I yield to no one in my respect for them. However, I point out to my hon. Friend, who I know takes a close interest in these matters, that Britain’s security is maintained not only by tanks and guns, but by training police in Afghanistan, getting kids into school in the horn of Africa, and building up governance structures in the middle east.
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell): Last weekend I visited Benghazi with the Foreign Secretary to meet the national transitional council and discuss its plans for the future of Libya. I also announced new British support for the clearance of mines in Misrata, Benghazi and other affected areas, to help ensure the safety of 200,000 people.
On Monday, Britain will host the replenishment of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, to secure global pledges to vaccinate a quarter of a billion children and prevent the deaths of millions of children in some of the poorest countries in the world over the next five years.
Jake Berry: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. On behalf of the whole House, may I express a great welcome to those coming to London for the GAVI pledge drive next week? What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage people who are coming to make generous pledges for the vaccination of children in the developing world?
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Mr Mitchell: My hon. Friend is quite right that we are bending every sinew to ensure that we have the biggest possible replenishment. Our ambition is to be able to vaccinate 250 million children and save 4 million lives, and replenishment progress is going well. We are not there yet, but I am reasonably confident that we will get there by Monday. [Interruption.]
T4.  Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I have been contacted by several constituents who believe that the World Bank should be leading the way towards a green economy and a greener future for the world’s poor. Will the Minister outline what discussions he and his colleagues in government have had with the World Bank to ensure that there is investment in clean energy projects in developing countries?
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr Alan Duncan): The crux of this issue is whether the building of coal-fired power stations should be supported. We believe that such power stations should be a last resort, and that every possible action should be taken to explore the scientific and commercial availability of carbon capture and storage.
T2.  Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): During the Secretary of State’s visit to Benghazi this weekend, what discussions did he have with the national transitional council regarding its plans for the immediate and longer-term future?
Mr Andrew Mitchell: The stabilisation response team is working flat out, together with our international allies in Benghazi, to work out what action should be taken when the conflict is over and early recovery is taking place. That work is going well, and I hope that we will have a plan within the next 10 days. It will of course be owned by the Libyan people under the umbrella of the United Nations, and it will involve all the relevant organisations in helping the Libyans to implement it.
T8.  Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): More than 1,000 supporters of international development charities, including some of my constituents, are coming to Westminster tomorrow to show their support for protection of the aid budget and for further action to tackle global poverty. Given that poor countries lose more money to tax-dodging each year than they receive in aid, what action is the Secretary of State taking to address that issue?
Mr Mitchell: I am very glad that the hon. Lady’s constituents are coming tomorrow, and Members of all parties will want to support that important lobby. The issue that she raises, which was discussed in earlier questions, is very important, and I expect that we will make progress on it in the coming years, not least because of the emphasis that has been put on it in the G8 and the European Council.
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T3.  Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Can the Minister assure us that the UK Government will maintain their global leadership role in the response to HIV and AIDS, in both policy and funding?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I am pleased to confirm that the commitment of the UK Government, who are the second largest contributor globally to the effort against HIV and AIDS, is set to continue. The matter will be central to the discussions that I have in New York tomorrow at the United Nations meeting.
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): As the Minister has just alluded to, the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS is taking place this week. Can he assure the House that the UK will raise the issue of homosexuals being prevented from accessing information and health care in relation to HIV/AIDS in countries where homophobia is still prevalent?
Mr O'Brien: The hon. Lady is quite right that if we are to make prevention equal to treatment, it is vital that we tackle what leads to the problem, whether it is men having sex with men or injecting drug users. Both those matters often lead to some difficult discussions and policy take-up in countries that do not wish either to discuss or to accept them—
T5.  David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House what progress is being made on encouraging other Arab nations to provide much-needed humanitarian aid in Libya?
Mr Andrew Mitchell: In the last two weeks, the humanitarian position in Libya has eased, particularly on the border, which some 950,000 migrant workers have left. Today, under 6,000 people are stuck on the border, so a humanitarian crisis has been avoided.
Mr Mitchell: I visited South Sudan and north Sudan recently with troika Ministers from Norway and the US. The position in Abyei is extremely tense at the moment, and we call on all parties to desist from taking aggressive action and to approach the negotiations in a spirit of good will and compromise. That is the way to reach the birth of the new state on 9 July and the full completion of the comprehensive peace agreement.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the following brave servicemen who have died in Afghanistan since we last met: Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna and Rifleman Martin Lamb from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, Marine Samuel Alexander and Lance Corporal Martin Gill from 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Corporal Mike Pike from 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. All of them were dedicated professionals serving our country. Their deaths are a reminder of the very high price that we are paying to stop Afghanistan being a haven for terrorists. We honour their memory and we will support their families, and we will not forget their service and their sacrifice.
We are reminded on a daily basis that not everyone in the world is as fortunate as we are in respect of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. In particular, I should like to highlight the absolute horror of the images of the 13-year-old boy who was tortured by Syrian Government forces in recent weeks. Will the Prime Minister give me his assurance that he will use every influence he has to ensure that the international community condemns the activities of the Syrian Government and demands that their reign of terror ends?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in what she says about those dreadful pictures of that poor boy. There are credible reports of 1,000 dead and as many as 10,000 detained. The violence being meted out to peaceful protesters and demonstrators is completely unacceptable. Of course, we must not stand silent in the face of those outrages, and we will not. The EU has already frozen the assets of, and banned travel by, members of the regime, and we have now added President Assad to that list. However, I believe that we need to go further, and today in New York, Britain and France will table a resolution at the Security Council condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian access. If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience.
Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna and Rifleman Martin Lamb from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Lieutenant Oliver Augustin, Marine Samuel Alexander MC and Lance Corporal Martin Gill from 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Corporal Michael Pike from 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland. They all showed enormous bravery and courage, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. As the Prime Minister said, that number of deaths once again demonstrates the bravery of all our forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.
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The Prime Minister: What we want is tough sentences for serious offenders. This Government produced a consultation paper—there was wide consultation and widespread support for many of the proposals that it made—and in the coming weeks, we will publish our legislation.
Edward Miliband: But we read in the newspapers today that the Prime Minister has torn up the Justice Secretary’s proposals because he felt that he had to step in—and frankly I can see why. There is widespread public concern about the proposal to cut by 50% sentences for those who plead guilty. The consultation ended in March. The Justice Secretary was advocating the policy two weeks ago. Has the Prime Minister torn it up, yes or no?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman should do something more useful than just read the newspapers. One response to the consultation paper came from the shadow Justice Secretary, the man sitting next to him, who said that it is
“a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy, entirely in keeping with the emphasis on punishment and reform that Labour followed in government”.
Edward Miliband: The Prime Minister knows, and the whole country knows, that he is in a total mess on his sentencing policy, just like on all of his other crime policies. I now want to ask about another area where he is in a complete mess. Why has he made such a mess of his health plans?
The Prime Minister: I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to move on because on the first subject he was found guilty. On the issue of discounts, it was the last Government who introduced a 33% discount—a third—on sentences. So there is more than a whiff of jumping on a bandwagon.
Bandwagon No. 1 hit the buffers, so let us turn to bandwagon No. 2. Yes, we are having a review of the plans that we announced on health: we want to get them right. I have to say again that there has been widespread support for the review of our health plans, not least from the man sitting four down from the right hon. Gentleman, the shadow Health Secretary—I know I often quote him—who said that
“looking at the evidence of what works, listening hard to those who know the NHS and learning from the views they get…is not rocket science. It’s simply good government”.
Edward Miliband: I asked the Prime Minister why he had made such a mess of his health proposals. The first reason he made such a mess of his health proposals is the promises he made before the election. We all remember the Prime Minister touring round the country promising no more top-down reorganisations. A year before the election, he told the Royal College of Nursing:
“There will be no more of those pointless top-down reorganisations that aim for change and instead bring chaos”.
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The Prime Minister: What the Royal College of Nursing said yesterday was a welcome for the speech that I made. The reason that we are able to improve the NHS is not only that we are committed to reform, but that we are also committed to more funding. The Labour party is in favour of cutting funding to the NHS. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to look at what is happening in the NHS, Wales is now only one part of the country that is controlled by Labour and there waiting lists are massively up and health spending is being cut. That is what Labour would do to the NHS.
Edward Miliband: I will tell the Prime Minister why he made promises that he then broke—because he is completely shameless and he will say anything. The second reason he has made a mess of the health service is because he did not think the policy through. Last June, he ordered the NHS to stop enforcing Labour’s 18-week waiting time target. As a result, the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks has gone up by 69%. Why did he scrap the instruction to enforce the waiting time target?
The Prime Minister: The best that can be said about this performance is that—quite rightly—the right hon. Gentleman was not thinking about politics on his honeymoon. On waiting times, what actually matters is the time people wait and median waiting times are down. That is what has happened in the NHS, and that is something that he misled the House of Commons about a fortnight ago—
Mr Speaker: Order. I know that the Prime Minister will be a follower of parliamentary protocol, and he will not suggest that the Leader of the Opposition misled the House of Commons. I am sure that he will withdraw that remark.
The Prime Minister: What I meant was that the right hon. Gentleman gave an interesting use of facts on waiting times, which are down in the NHS. What we are seeing today is simply empty opposition and weak leadership. That is what we get from Labour.
Edward Miliband: The whole House will note that the Prime Minister did not withdraw his remark. He is obviously rattled over the health service. It is no wonder he is rattled, because he is making a complete mess of it, and everybody up and down the country knows it. What is the most important reason he is making a mess of the health service? However much he says he loves the NHS, and however many times he says it, the truth is that he has the wrong values. He wanted to put a free market free-for-all at the centre of our health service, and any changes he makes now are not because he wants to make them, but because he has been found out. We know all we need to know about this Prime Minister from what he has done on the NHS: he breaks his promises; he does not think things through; he is reckless; and he has got the wrong values. I will hand it to him though. After one year, he has proved the oldest truth in politics: you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS.
The Prime Minister:
This side of the House will not take lectures from a party that, when in government, gave £250 million to private sector companies for doing nothing. That is what happened. What we have heard
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today is just a series of bandwagons, and anyone who is watching this knows that it is this Government who are boldly making reforms in the public sector; who are dealing with the deficit; and who are reforming welfare, and what do we get from the Labour party? Where is the right hon. Gentleman’s plan for the NHS? There is not one. Where is his plan for reforming welfare? Nothing. Where is his plan for higher education? Nothing. All we get is empty opposition and weak leadership, and the country can see it.
Q2.  Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Following the welcome introduction of the pupil premium, some head teachers in Worcester tell me that owing to long-term underfunding from the previous Government’s flawed formula, the money is needed to make ends meet and cannot be spent on the deprived pupils it was meant for. Can the Prime Minister assure schools in both Worcester and Witney that the Government will not just consult on that formula, but reform it and correct a problem that has been too wrong for too long?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point about a serious problem in our country. He is right to welcome the pupil premium, which will put more money in all our schools, particularly those that have many children from free-school-meals backgrounds. However, the current problem with the discrepancy of funding means that at present there can be a difference of £1,800 per pupil between the best-funded school and the worst-funded school. We want to reform the school funding system, and we want to do it in a fairer and more logical way. I am determined that we will make progress on this.
Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I have come here from meeting the family of my 18-year-old constituent, Nana Darko-Frempong, who was fatally shot outside his block of flats on Monday. I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to his family. I raised a similar case with the Prime Minister this time last year. This senseless loss of life is completely and utterly unacceptable, yet it continues, and rightly or wrongly there is a perception that, on all sides of the House, we are not getting to grips with the root causes of this problem, which is blighting our inner-city streets. What reassurance can he give my constituents and the country that the Government are doing all they can to stop this senseless loss of life.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring this case to the House of Commons, and I join him in sending condolences to his constituent’s family on their appalling loss. He is absolutely right that the level of gun crime and knife crime in our country, particularly in inner-city areas, is unacceptable. I do not think there is one single answer. Of course, we have to ensure that the police do everything they can to search for guns and knives and have a zero-tolerance policy, but we also have to look at where these problems are coming from, including the growth of gangs in our cities and the fact that in too many cases people are looking to gang, rather than to family and community. It is incumbent on us all to try and work out how we can strengthen the fabric of our communities, starting with our families.
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Q3.  Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advise me on whom to listen to on the UK’s economic policy? Should it be the experts in the International Monetary Fund or the letters page of The Guardian? [Interruption.]
“Strong fiscal consolidation is underway and remains essential to achieve a more sustainable budgetary position”—
“This raises the question whether it is time to adjust macroeconomic policies”—
Q4.  Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): What message does the Prime Minister have for the hundreds of women in my constituency in their mid-50s who feel that they have been unjustly thwarted by the extension of their retirement age, contrary to the coalition agreement?
The Prime Minister: What I would say is that the first decision was taken in 1995, when there was all-party agreement that we should equalise men’s and women’s pension ages, and that was done over a long period of time. The second point is that it is right to lift the pension age for men and women to a higher level more rapidly than the last Government decided. However, the key fact is that 85% of the women affected are going to lose one year or less in terms of their pension. The last point that I would make is this. Because we have linked the pension to earnings, people who retire today will be £15,000 better off than they were under the policies of the last Government.
The Prime Minister: The point that I would make to my hon. Friend—I speak as someone whose mother served as a magistrate for over three decades—is that it is important to get turnover in the magistracy so that new people come in. To be fair to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, he has been in his job for only a year. He is doing a superb job, and I can tell the House that there is plenty more fuel in his tank.
Q6.  Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): The Prime Minister has an aspiration of making his Government the greenest ever. Meantime, Proven Energy, a small wind turbine company in my constituency, is making 10% of its staff redundant, not because it does not have a great product, but because planning applications for its product are stuck in town halls and bureaucracy all over the United Kingdom. Will the Prime Minister meet me and members of the Proven Energy team to discuss how we can find a solution?
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The Prime Minister: I am very happy to ensure that someone from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—or, indeed, the Department of Energy and Climate Change—speaks with the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We are reforming the planning system to try to speed up these processes. We want to ensure that local people benefit when turbines are built, so that they have a share in the success of a scheme. Also, the Government are taking action to attract manufacturers of wind turbines to the UK—for instance, by putting £60 million into our ports infrastructure—and I am talking personally to those manufacturers to try to bring them to Britain.
Q7.  Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s previous answer, I would, as a woman not affected by the current pension proposals, like to ask him personally to review this particular proposal, because of the injustice and discrimination against women. The group of women affected, who were born between 1953 and 1954, will be asked to work up to two extra years over and above what they had planned for, whereas men will be asked to work only an extra year. It is the discrimination that concerns me.
The Prime Minister: I do understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, but let me make this point. First, in general, the reason for raising pension ages is twofold: one is that we are seeing a huge increase in life expectancy, but the second point is that we want to ensure that we can fund really good pension provision for the future, and if we do not do this, we will not be able to. Let me repeat the statistic: four fifths of the women affected by the proposals will have their state pension age increase by a year or less. The reason, as she says, that there is this difficulty is that those two things—the equalisation of the pension age and the raising of the pension age—are coming together, but that is enabling us to link the pension with earnings, thus meaning that people will be £15,000 better off than they were under Labour’s plans.
Q8.  Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Given 1,200 job losses at Tata in Scunthorpe and further job losses in the private and public sectors in north Lincolnshire, will the Prime Minister meet with the taskforce chair and local MPs, so that he can understand how his Government can help the local economy face these demands positively and respond positively to future challenges?
The Prime Minister: I shall be happy to do that, because I am extremely disappointed—as I know the hon. Gentleman and others are—by the job losses in Scunthorpe. I spoke personally to Ratan Tata about the decision.
Tata Steel is still hugely committed to the United Kingdom. It is still investing hundreds of millions of pounds in our country, which I think is wholly welcome. Obviously, however, what has happened in Scunthorpe is not welcome, and we must do all that we can to bring the taskforce together—I know that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing that—to ensure that we do everything we can to mitigate the impact on local jobs and local communities.
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Q9.  James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I am sure the Prime Minister agrees that there should be no place for corruption in football. Given that the re-election of Sepp Blatter has brought FIFA even further into disrepute, will he take this opportunity to voice his support for those who are calling for the reforms that we need in order finally to show Mr Blatter the red card?
FIFA’s reputation is now at an all-time low, and obviously the election involving just one candidate was something of a farce. FIFA must become more transparent and more accountable. It must prove that it is capable of doing the job that it is meant to do. Ultimately, however, change must come from within football, and I am sure that the Football Association will want to play a major role in helping to bring that about.
Q10.  Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I love the NHS and I love my local hospital, Ealing hospital. I was delighted to learn that the Prime Minister also thinks highly of Ealing hospital, and that he chose it as the place in which to deliver his speech on the Government’s NHS reforms. Given his personal experience of the high quality of services that Ealing hospital provides, will he assure the House that, faced with budget pressures and merger proposals, it will not close or lose its accident and emergency and other key services?
The Prime Minister: I enjoyed my visit to Ealing hospital, and was impressed by what I saw. There are no plans to close the hospital. Indeed, a new urgent care centre is due to open in July, and the maternity unit has a phased redevelopment programme in process.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, any proposals relating to any hospital must go through a proper process involving public and patient engagement, sound clinical evidence, support by the GP commissioners, and support for patient choice. That is the process that must be followed. As I have said, however, there are no plans to close the hospital.
Q11.  Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that one in seven couples in the United Kingdom suffer from infertility problems, but, notwithstanding that fact, three quarters of primary care trusts do not provide the recommended three cycles of IVF treatment. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on all PCTs to follow the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines and provide sufficient treatment for infertile couples?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend is right to raise an issue that affects a huge number of people in our country. We have all encountered constituency cases in which people are frustrated by local guidelines. The deputy chief executive of the NHS is writing to all primary care trusts reminding them of the NICE guidance and its recommendations, and I think that that is very important. Of course some PCTs have worse deficits than others and have a more difficult process to follow, but we want to ensure that everyone has access to this treatment.
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Q12.  John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): After four years, 15-year-old Alice Pyne, who lives in my constituency, is losing her battle against cancer. She has posted online her “bucket list”, a simple wish list of things that she wants to do before it is too late. She wants to meet Take That, to own a purple iPod and to enter her dog in a labrador show, but at the top of the list is a call for everyone to sign up to be a bone marrow donor. Will the Prime Minister work with the Leader of the Opposition and me to find out why too few people are currently on that life-saving register?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly do that. I am very sorry to hear about the situation facing Alice and what she is going through. Our thoughts go out to her and to her parents. She sounds like a very brave and very admirable person.
We want to get as many people as possible on to the bone marrow register. This year we are investing some £4 million of new money to improve donation processing and services for NHS patients. However, this is partly to do with a cultural and population change that we must help to drive, and I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition and I can discuss that.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware of the terrible explosion at the Chevron refinery in Pembroke last week, as a result of which four people died and one was seriously injured. Will he join me in extending condolences to the families and colleagues of those concerned, and also in commending the safety record of Chevron and its new owner, Valero, in what is a pretty difficult industry?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly do that. This was a tragic incident, and, on behalf of the whole House, may I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his constituents and expressing our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been affected? I am sure there will be lessons to learn, but as my hon. Friend said, the company has had a good safety record, and in an industry in which there are inherent risks. I will be happy to discuss the issue with him.
The Prime Minister: It says that, frankly, we need to do far more to tackle child poverty, not just here in the UK, but around the world. That is one of the reasons why, despite difficult spending decisions, we have maintained the pledge of increasing our aid budget to 0.7% of gross national income by 2013. That is a difficult pledge to make, but I think that, even at times of difficulty, we should not break our promises to the poorest people in the world.
In terms of child poverty here in Britain, the biggest challenge today is not just benefit levels, but mobility: how do we help people get out of poverty and stay out of poverty? That is why this Government are putting so much emphasis on measures such as the pupil premium, which will actually help people build themselves a better future.
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Q14.  Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I have the honour of representing the only town to have given its name to an international sport: rugby football. Under the union code of the game, the home nations are preparing for the world cup later this year. Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing gratitude to the New Zealand authorities for proceeding despite the recent earthquake, and will he also join me in hoping that at the end of the tournament the Webb Ellis trophy will be making its way back home?
The Prime Minister: I certainly endorse what my hon. Friend says, and I will do everything I can to support our rugby team. I very much hope the trophy will be coming home—[Interruption.] Calm down. I very much hope the trophy will be coming home to one of the nations of the United Kingdom. When I met the Prime Minister of New Zealand, he kindly gave me an All Blacks shirt, but his advice was, “Whatever you do, don’t be seen wearing this”, and I think I will take that advice.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): As the Prime Minister has previously said, the hacking inquiry should go where the evidence takes it. The Metropolitan police are in possession of paperwork detailing the dealings of criminal private investigator Jonathan Rees. It strongly suggests that, on behalf of News International, he was illegally targeting members of the royal family, senior politicians and high-level terrorist informers, yet the head of Operation Weeting has recently written to me to explain that this evidence may be outside the inquiry’s terms of reference. Prime Minister, I believe powerful forces are involved in a cover-up; please tell me what you intend to do to make sure that that does not happen.
The Prime Minister: I know the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in this subject, and the point I would make to him is that there is a police inquiry, and a police inquiry does not need terms of reference. The police are free to investigate the evidence and take that wherever it leads them, and then mount a prosecution with the Crown Prosecution Service if the evidence supports that. In the case of phone hacking, which is illegal and wrong, there have been prosecutions and imprisonments, and if that is where the evidence takes them, that is what will happen in the future. There are no terms of reference as far as I am concerned; the police are able to look at any evidence and all evidence they can find.
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): The Prime Minister will recall visiting Nuneaton town centre on several occasions, and he will be glad to hear that it is surviving well, with a comparatively low level of vacant premises, but our town centres are facing a vital and difficult challenge from the out-of-town stores and the internet. Given those challenges, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that this Government will be a keen supporter of our town centres?
The Prime Minister:
I can, and my hon. Friend speaks powerfully not just for Nuneaton, but for all town centres and all Members who represent constituencies with vibrant town centres. We want to keep them, rather than see everything go out of town. There are two steps
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we need to take. One is to make sure local people have a real say in the planning process, so they can decide where future development goes. Secondly, we should continue the steps that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been pioneering in terms of rate relief, to help local shops in our high streets so we do not end up with identikit high streets, but instead have thriving town centres such as Nuneaton, which I so enjoyed visiting with my hon. Friend on a number of occasions.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The chairman of the Georgian Parliament is in London this week, and, indeed, is following our proceedings. Some Members of this House went to Georgia during the recess. When the Prime Minister goes to Moscow later this year, will he remind Russia of the commitment it gave in 2008 to withdraw its troops and stop the occupation in Georgia?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly do that. I well remember myself going to Tbilisi when the Georgians were under so much pressure from the Russians, and standing up with them, recognising that Georgia is a country that wants to be a democracy; it wants to be an economic success story; it wants to join NATO; it wants to be able to look west, as well as east; and it wants to have good relations with its neighbour. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is meeting representatives from the Georgian Parliament. I myself have met Georgia’s President Saakashvili on several occasions, and I will certainly make my views clear on the issue of Georgia, if I visit, and when I visit, Russia later this year.
Mr Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key challenge facing the national health service is how to convert this Government’s welcome commitment to year-on-year growth of real resources into improving productivity and improving quality of care for patients? Did the key to delivering that not lie in my right hon. Friend’s speech yesterday: in his advocacy of more integrated and less fragmented care? Will he continue to—
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend’s support for the reforms is hugely welcome, and I know that he follows these issues very closely. It was not just he who welcomed the speech that I set out yesterday: also, I had express support from the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the NHS Confederation, Macmillan Cancer Support and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I think we are seeing a coming together of people who care about the health service, who use the health service, of professional bodies in the health service, who can see that this Government are listening, getting their changes right and will add the money that is required—and that only we are committed to—with the reforms that are necessary to make sure the NHS can go on and thrive in future.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
The Prime Minister will be aware of the dastardly murders of senior police officers Breen and Buchanan, and the subsequent public inquiry, established in consultation between this nation’s Government and the Irish Republic’s Government. Will
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he make sure that nothing is allowed to impede Anglo-Irish relations by making personal representations to the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, such that they cannot restrict the time, the effort and the money put into that inquiry, so that we can get to the truth and find out how those two brave police officers were murdered in so dastardly a way?
The Prime Minister:
I will certainly look very carefully at the issue the hon. Gentleman raises. There is still, on all sides in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the Republic, huge concern about things that happened in the past. Often, people ask for an inquiry, a public inquiry or a process. I think in most cases, what people really want is the truth. I found with the issue of the Saville inquiry
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that what really mattered, actually, was not the £120 million, the five years and all the rest of it. What people wanted was the unvarnished truth, so then they can come to terms with what happened in the past. I have said that I do not want to see further open-ended inquiries; but I do think there is still more that we can do to uncover and be frank about the truth, and that goes for us on all sides of this debate.
Mr Speaker: I appeal to hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the same courtesy to the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is about to introduce her ten-minute rule Bill, that they would want to be extended to them in such circumstances.
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Education (Special Educational Needs)
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to increase parental involvement in provision of education for children with special educational needs; and for connected purposes.
I am aware that the business following my ten-minute rule Bill is of great interest to the House, and so, knowing that you are ever the friend of innovation, Mr Speaker, I shall endeavour to make this a five-minute Bill.
The Department for Education’s current guidance is clear about what parents of a child with special educational needs should expect from their local education authority once a statement has been drawn up: to have their choice of school respected, provided it is a suitable use of LEA resources. In practice, this guarantee is often not worth the paper it is written on. I have met the evidence, so to speak: parents of children with dyslexia or a language disorder, struggling in the aftermath of short-sighted LEA decisions which undermine the principle of an education for all.
In these cases, perhaps the LEA has accepted that a child’s needs should be assessed, but refuses to make an assessment or maybe the parents have pinned their hopes on an appeal against the LEA at the first-tier tribunal only to find that the tribunal panel is the LEA. Alternatively, the child might actually have a statement but the school does not have the right provision, and no one is prepared to provide the enforcement. Alternatively, the child might have a statement but no school place, because the LEA has refused the only suitable provision as it is in the independent sector, even though it would be cheaper than the total cost of state provision. In what is perhaps the cruellest of ironies, some parents, for want of a school place, try to home educate their child, not through choice, but through necessity, only to find that they are cut adrift by the LEA without any support or guidance, and their child’s name is also removed from all waiting lists. As far as the LEA is concerned, that is one fewer problem to deal with.
These parents, some of whom have learning disabilities themselves, have no cards to play, no stick to wield and no hope of redress to ensure that their child has access to an education. In Portsmouth, Martin is due to take his GCSE options next year, yet he has never been to a secondary school. His disability is undiagnosed, and the remedial action required is unrecognised. Iris’s dyslexia was discovered by good teachers and demonstrated by an independent assessment, but the private school that would meet her needs was refused, even though it would involve the same cost as placing her in an LEA school without any dedicated special educational needs support. Joanne’s disabilities mean that she is unable to use public transport and so she has been awarded a travel grant to get her to school, but she must make her own way home. James, who is also without a school place, has been required to demonstrate his level of need by
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failing at school after school, to the extent that failure is now his state of mind. It is little wonder that when he was asked to describe himself by his last teacher, he said he was “unliked” and “alone”.
Change is needed to strengthen the hands of parents and teachers fighting for these children’s rights and entitlements. Five principal areas must be addressed and although the recent SEN Green Paper has made progress on them, improvements could be made. First, in the manner of the NHS constitution, the rights and entitlements of children must be established in law. We must have a document towards which parents can point stubborn local authorities. It is not acceptable for a child to fall through the cracks, and a clear assertion of children’s rights would help to hold authorities to account.
Secondly, there must be means other than a statement by which a child’s needs can be demonstrated and verified. Statementing needs reform, but it can be the only ammunition that parents have. The Green Paper outlined plans for a single assessment process as a replacement for the statement, but to really strengthen parents’ hands other forms of proof should be accepted as evidence of need, even if this simply guarantees that the child undergoes the new assessment. We must remove an LEA’s power to deny that a child has a special educational need despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The third aspect of necessary change is closely associated with the second; the link between the assessor and the financer must be broken. Currently, local authorities sit in judgment on SEN cases with only one eye on the child’s future—the other is glued to its own bottom line—and that is not a tenable situation.
Fourthly, all providers of appropriate schooling, including independent schools, must be listed by the LEA, as is supposed to happen already. The last area to address is funding. I applaud the Green Paper’s commitment to personalised funding, but for this to work properly funding must truly follow the pupil, as with the pupil premium. But unlike the pupil premium, it must include the per-pupil funding derived from the LEA. I urge the Government to consider, as part of their review, how school funding can become genuinely per pupil, whether on a total or top-up basis.
On hearing about my speech today, Iris, whom I mentioned earlier and who is now being funded to attend an independent mainstream school with a specialist dyslexia unit thanks to the generosity of Portsmouth residents and a livery company, suggested that I should tell hon. Members what she told me, and I can think of no better way to conclude. She said:
“At my old school I felt silly and sad because I didn’t understand. I really love school now. I feel so much happier and I understand everything a lot more. I get lots of help and they make it easy to understand. I have great teachers and lovely friends. Now I want to go to school.”
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Ninetieth Birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty on the ninetieth birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to assure Her Majesty of the great pleasure felt by this House on so joyful an occasion.
That the said Address be presented to Her Majesty by such Members of the House as are of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council or of Her Majesty’s Household.
That a Message be sent to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to offer His Royal Highness the warmest good wishes of the House upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, expressing the gratitude of the nation for his lifetime of service to the country and the Commonwealth and praying that His Royal Highness may long continue in health and happiness.
That Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Sir George Young and Edward Miliband do wait upon His Royal Highness with the said Message.
This week we celebrate the 90th birthday of a remarkable man who has given years of service to our country. Someone who has defended his nation in time of war. A man who has stood alongside Her Majesty the Queen for more than six decades. A man who has given his time, effort and passion to many great causes up and down the country, across the Commonwealth and indeed around the world. I refer, of course, to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Since the time of William the Conqueror there has never been a consort who has served for so long at the side of a monarch and, as such, Prince Philip has seen extraordinary events in life from the end of rationing to man landing on the moon, and from the end of the cold war to the beginning of peace in Northern Ireland. Of course, along the way he has had to put up with listening to the views of no fewer than 12 Prime Ministers. Through it all he has been there for Her Majesty the Queen as a constant companion and source of rock solid strength. Throughout it all he has served us, the British people, with an unshakeable sense of duty. He has conducted more than 300 public engagements a year and delivered more than 5,000 speeches.
Over those years, he has also made more than 600 visits to more than 140 countries. In most of those, he is heralded and much respected as the consort of a monarch, but, of course, there is one—Tanna, part of Vanuatu—where he is treated slightly differently. In fact, no public event in that far off part of the Pacific Islands is complete without the islanders holding aloft pictures of Prince Philip, whom they worship as a god.
Of course, His Royal Highness served this country long before his royal duties began. The Duke of Edinburgh spent 14 years on active service in the Royal Navy. During the second world war he served with the Mediterranean and Pacific fleets. He was awarded the Greek war cross of valour and was mentioned in dispatches when he manned the searchlights during HMS Valiant’s triumph at the battle of Cape Matapan. In a fitting tribute to his outstanding abilities, the late Lord Lewin, the First Sea Lord, said he would most certainly have gone right to the top of the Navy.
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by giving them the confidence to stand on their own two feet. It was this passion that led him to initiate the Duke of Edinburgh awards, recognised around the world as the gold standard in leadership for young people. Since 1956, about 6 million young people in 120 countries have won awards by building skills for work and life and proving that they can take responsibility for themselves and their communities. To all of us in this Chamber who believe in the value of helping to change people’s lives for the better, that is an inspiration. His is a huge achievement for which this country and many others owe the Duke a deserved debt of gratitude.
He also has an extraordinary passion for wildlife, nature and the environment. As president of the World Wildlife Fund, he helped to save many of the world’s most beautiful creatures from extinction, including the snow leopard and the black rhino.
The Duke is also a passionate family man and I know that all of us would like to congratulate him on becoming a great-grandfather for the first time with the birth of Savannah Phillips at the end of last year.
He has done all these things in his own inimitable way, with a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach that I believe the British people find endearing. Of course, many of us who give public speeches would be honoured to have a book published of our most famous sayings. There have been several published of his. My own favourite was when, after a long flight, the umpteenth eager-to-please official asked him, “How was your flight?” He replied, “Have you been on a plane? Well, you know how it goes up in the air and then comes back down again? Well, it was just like that.”
I would like to go on for a great deal longer but I am reminded of His Royal Highness’s remark about sermons that overrun. It is not just sage advice for clergy in the pulpit but, I think, probably for us in this place, too. As the Duke put it, “The mind cannot absorb what the backside cannot endure.” With that in mind, let me give the final say to the person who knows him best of all, Her Majesty the Queen. She said in a speech to mark their golden wedding anniversary that he had been her
“strength and stay all these years”
“his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): May I second the motion in the name of the Prime Minister and associate myself and my party entirely with the sentiments that he has just expressed? As the Duke of Edinburgh approaches his 90th birthday, he is, as the Prime Minister said, the longest-serving consort and the oldest serving spouse of any British monarch. The Duke and Her Majesty have been married for 64 years. As a relatively new spouse, I have particular admiration for that achievement and I realise that it will take me 63 years, 11 months and 20 days to catch up.
The Duke of Edinburgh has been a constant companion to Her Majesty throughout her reign and he has shown a moving love, support and devotion to Her Majesty that has been unfailing. He has also made an enormous
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contribution to public life here in Britain and right across the Commonwealth in his own right. He is the patron of hundreds of organisations that focus on the environment, industry, sport and education but he is perhaps best known, as the Prime Minister said, for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, which he established 55 years ago to give young people a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities. I am sure that every Member of the House will have had the experience of visiting a local school in their constituency and seeing the eyes of young people light up as they talk about the excitement, passion and sense of achievement they have got from doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. For that, we owe the Duke of Edinburgh a huge debt of gratitude.
The Duke is a reminder to us all of the unique spirit of public service that the monarchy discharges to the British people at home and abroad. That affection was evident at the wedding last month of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The Duke of Edinburgh has been a prince among consorts, but is, if I might put it this way, a king among characters. His unique turn of phrase has become a much-loved feature of modern British life. There are two repeatable examples that I want to share with the House. To the matron of a hospital he visited in the Caribbean, he commented:
“You have mosquitoes. I have the Press.”
“Where did you get that hat?”
We owe the Duke a great debt for the personal and professional sacrifices he has made to serve our country. He was, as the Prime Minister said, a distinguished naval officer who, at just 21, became one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy, but he put his professional ambitions aside to be the loyal consort to the Queen. When asked in a recent interview if he had been disappointed to give up his naval career, he said that he had been a little disappointed but that, more importantly, it seemed to him that his duty was to serve the Queen
“in the best way I could.”
The Duke embodies qualities of duty, loyalty, public service and good humour—great British qualities. He came from a generation who were prepared to sacrifice everything they had for this country and their values. As he approaches his 90th birthday, I once again pay great and humble tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh for all he has done for Queen and country.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): May I, with the indulgence of the House, add a few personal words in support of the excellent speeches of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? I have had the great good fortune and the inestimable honour to have known His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for 50 years. I first met him when I was, as the psalmist said, yet
“in the slippery paths of youth”.
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I want to take this brief moment, therefore, to add my own salute to Prince Philip. He is, in my view, one of the most exceptional men of his generation. No one can fail to be struck by the great breadth of his interests, the profound depth of his knowledge of them, and his distinguished and energetic contribution to our national life through the many organisations with which he is closely associated and over which he takes so much time and trouble.
As both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made clear, all of us in our constituency duties will have come across the beaming faces of the young who have taken part at one level or another in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award schemes, an organisation in which millions of young people in more than 60 countries have taken part. That in itself is a remarkable achievement and one of which I hope Prince Philip is properly proud. In his work as the first president of the World Wildlife Fund—in which, incidentally, he was well ahead of his time—and through his profound interest in nature and wildlife conservation, as well as in environmental questions more generally, he has played an important, innovative and highly influential role for many years, both at home and abroad.
On a day like today one cannot hope to do full justice to Prince Philip’s inspirational work in the promotion of science, design and industry, or his work with the armed forces, but I conclude by saying that we in the House feel gratitude, respect and pride for Prince Philip’s exceptional service to his country, and recall that he is part of that remarkable generation that served with distinction during the war, did their duty and just got on with it, and then got on with the rebuilding of Britain afterwards.
Prince Philip certainly is a formidable man and, refreshingly, does not suffer fools gladly, as I know to my cost. He is, above all, to himself true, and a most especially devoted and loving husband, father and grandfather. His many qualities should shine brightly for us today since they march with great good humour, a complete lack of any side or pomposity, and a clear, thoughtful and generous understanding of the world in which we all live. I join my parliamentary colleagues in sending to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh my warmest congratulations and most profound respects on his 90th birthday.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): The supreme achievement of the Duke of Edinburgh is that he is working at the age of 90. This is a magnificent example and one that has been followed by a constituent of mine, Mr Harry Polloway, who is working as a toastmaster at the age of 97. I last saw him in the Jewish cemetery in my constituency, where we were commemorating the death of May Mendleson, who died last year at the age of 108. Continuing work into that period of life is a wonderful example to set, and one that we can look at with some embarrassment and shame in the House, where I believe the oldest Member—a distinguished Member—is just 80 years of age, and we have only five Members over the age of 76.
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shortlists at the next general election. In the light of the heroic examples set by Prince Philip, Harry Polloway and May Mendleson, that fault needs to be corrected.
However, my purpose in speaking today is to make another point. As someone who is not a royalist and is happy to say that I am a republican and always have been, I want to ask why on earth, in this age, the address is to be “humble”. Are members of the royal family superior beings to the rest of us? Are we inferior beings to them? Is Prince Philip superior to Harry Polloway and May Mendleson? That was the feeling of the House seven centuries ago, when we accepted the rules under which we speak now.
We live in an egalitarian time when we recognise the universality of the human condition, in which royals and commoners share the same strengths and frailty. In the House, when we speak of the royals—not just the monarch, but all the family, without any limit—we are denied the chance of making any derogatory comment. That might extend to first cousins who are a long way distant from the monarch. There is no question but that the monarch—the Head of State—should remain above the political fray. We have been well served by this, particularly recently.
However, if these occasions are to be greatly valued, it should be possible for Members to utter the odd syllable that might be critical. I do not have anything to say in this case, but the sycophancy described by the Prime Minister when he referred to someone asking Prince Philip a fairly obvious question when he came off a plane must sicken the royal family. When they have an excess of praise of this kind, it is devalued.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): No one would accuse me of being an ardent royalist, but will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the most terrifying dictatorships—terrorist dictatorships—of the last century, including Germany, Russia and China, have been republics?
Paul Flynn: I was coming to the final sentence of my speech, but I would be happy to discuss that at some length. If my hon. Friend is asking whether the Queen has been a monarch of whom we should be proud, a monarch who has served this country in a way that is probably unparalleled, and whether she has maintained political neutrality throughout those years, I would say yes. We particularly appreciated her work in Ireland recently, where she has done much to restore the link. That is not the point of what I am saying today.
I am saying that the House has allowed itself to be infantilised by our own history into a position in which we are not allowed to make any criticism—not just of the person whom we are talking about today, but of other members of the royal family as well. It stretches to all of them. By accepting today that the address is a humble one, we demean the honour of our elected office. We were elected by the first-past-the-post system, but those with hereditary offices are in their place as a result of what Tony Benn once called the first-past-the-bedpost system. We should be free in this House to tell the whole truth as citizens, not gagged as subservient subjects.
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Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I have no difficulty in supporting the motion proposed by the Prime Minister and seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, sending our very warmest wishes to Prince Philip for his birthday on Friday.
The Prime Minister referred to the fact that Prince Philip is already in the record books as the longest-serving consort. My limited research immediately revealed two other things. He is also in the record books for being the last surviving great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria—and, even more extraordinarily, is apparently currently in the line of succession to 16 thrones. If ever we wanted an example of how interconnected our European continent is, he is probably the living embodiment of that.
Prince Philip was born in the same year as my late mother, so when we were growing up, my parents, my brothers and I often found him featuring in the conversation as a sort of point of comparison in youthfulness and activity on which we were asked to model ourselves.
In addition to his obvious loyal, steadfast and wonderful roles as husband, consort, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, I suggest that the Duke of Edinburgh also plays the role of the most active citizen. He is an active citizen in many countries of the Commonwealth, which he has supported throughout his time in public life. He is wonderfully active in his inspired award scheme, which has already been referred to. I am one of the lucky people who benefited from being a Duke of Edinburgh’s award winner. The prize was going to receive the award from him at Buckingham palace. The punishment—the preparation for the prize—was being nearly frozen to death in Snowdonia on an expedition the previous Easter; it was not an award achieved lightly.
The Duke of Edinburgh has always encouraged participation in sport, which is very important. Reference has rightly been made to his very early commitment to conservation world wide. When he became president of the World Wildlife Fund, he encouraged millions of people, particularly young people, to realise the importance of conservation, not only at home but on the other side of the world.
Lastly, we cannot avoid referring to the fact that the great thing about Prince Philip is his ability to comment, and to do so publicly from time to time, in a no-nonsense, down-to-earth and—thank God—humorous manner. At least two of his children have the same quality, for which we should be grateful. It is typical that he is working on his birthday this week. That should encourage everyone in the country who sees retirement looming to think that they may still have a long time to go. We wish him a very happy birthday on Friday, happy and enjoyable celebrations over the weekend and continuing robust health and much happiness in all his years ahead. We thank him for a lifetime of incomparable public service.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): On behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends, and indeed the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, I heartily endorse the sentiments that have been so eloquently expressed this afternoon on the occasion of His Royal Highness’s 90th birthday. We send him our warmest congratulations.
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His Royal Highness bears many titles. When I looked at them the other day, I found that reading them all out would almost be a speech in itself. Some people today might dismiss such titles as anachronisms, but in my view they are not: they speak to us of the history of our Union, our nation and our Commonwealth. With nearly 60 years as royal consort, Prince Philip has been a living example of the steadfast values that created and sustain to this day our Union, our nation and our Commonwealth. Throughout his life he has exemplified the qualities of duty, sacrifice and service to country and Commonwealth, and all carried with great humanity and humour, as we have noted. In the course of that service, he has visited Northern Ireland on many occasions, and we look forward to further such visits, when he can again be assured of the warmest of welcomes.
Beyond his formal duties, the Duke of Edinburgh has worked with hundreds of different causes and organisations and maintains to this day a schedule that many younger people would baulk at. Of all this work, the crowning glories are undoubtedly the World Wildlife Fund and the award that bear his title, the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. His work with WWF was literally decades ahead of its time, as has been said, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award will this year break the 2 million mark for the number of children and young people who have gained an award. Proudly, Northern Ireland boasts the highest participation levels in the award scheme in the United Kingdom. Few individuals on earth can boast that they have written the rulebook of a sport, but he can—for carriage driving, which he once described as a geriatric sport.
As we approach the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne, we rightly reflect on the tremendous service that the monarch has given to this country, its people and the Commonwealth. When Her Majesty was crowned in Westminster Abbey, Prince Philip pledged to
“become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”
Truly it can be said today that he has fulfilled that pledge in both word and spirit. For any man or woman, there are few better compliments that can be paid than to be recognised and respected for a lifetime of loyalty, steadfastness and truth to their word. For that and so much more, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, deserves our nation’s deepest gratitude, our heartiest congratulations and our sincere prayers for God’s blessing and continued health and happiness.
Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today to the motion for a humble address to be presented to Her Majesty on the 90th birthday of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. I was fortunate enough some time ago to be given a role in the royal household, working for Her Majesty and senior members of the royal family, advising on strategic changes to the monarchy and briefing on key areas of national life. What struck me most when working at the palace was the incredible work load not just of Her Majesty the Queen, but of His Royal Highness. I commend him highly on his commitment to service over the years.
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The Duke of Edinburgh not only attends many engagements on his own, but accompanies the Queen on her Commonwealth tours, state visits overseas and visits to many parts of the United Kingdom. On average, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier, he carries out more than 350 engagements a year. He is also patron or president of some 800 organisations, with special interests in scientific and technological research and development, the encouragement of sport, the welfare of young people and conservation and the environment.
“a sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities”.
That has made a lasting contribution to our society and benefited many thousands of young people. A sense of responsibility to themselves and their communities is exactly what we are trying to create with the big society, so perhaps after all it was His Royal Highness who led the way and helped to inspire the policy.
In my constituency, many young people and schools are involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. Chiswick community school is particularly grateful for the award scheme. In the words of Tony Ryan, the school’s head teacher:
“We value the Duke of Edinburgh award more than I can say. The award helps build social and team building skills and independence. It takes kids out of their comfort zones—many kids have never been to the countryside before and often you see a completely different side to them. It really makes them think differently.”
When I visited Gunnersbury Catholic school recently, people were also talking about the benefits of the award scheme. Kevin Burke, the school’s head teacher, sent me pages of comments from students, a few of which I want to mention. James Phelan said:
“The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme opened my eyes to many new and challenging experiences, from which I learnt many life skills and values”.
“The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme was a fantastic experience which has allowed me to put myself through all of my paces. I have managed to learn new skills that would have been nigh-on impossible. What I liked the most about this epic journey was the choice that was available and that I could complete it with my friends. I believe this experience has changed my life forever and has adjusted my perspective on life.”
“The Duke of Edinburgh bronze award brought many challenges and people could gain many valuable skills such as leadership.”
“The award scheme was an amazing experience”.
“My Duke of Edinburgh experience was an experience of a lifetime”.
I would like to conclude by thanking His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for his contribution to our society, his patronage of more than 800 organisations, his unstinting commitment to public life as the longest-serving royal consort in British history and, in particular, for the truly remarkable legacy for young people today from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, and finally for the personal support he gives Her Majesty on a daily basis.
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His Royal Highness is a real example and inspiration to us all. If more people were encouraging many others to support voluntary organisations and helping young people gain life skills and experience for their future, bringing out the best in them, this country would be a much better place. I support the motion, which is our way of thanking His Royal Highness for his lifetime of service to the country and the Commonwealth.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I wholeheartedly support the motion in the name of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I do not want to repeat all that has been said by other Members, but I will mention one further capacity that His Royal Highness has: the ability to put MPs in their place.
Parmjit Dhanda, when he was the Member for Gloucester, was invited in 2001, as I think was the current Prime Minister and others elected that year—it was our 10th anniversary yesterday—to Buckingham palace, and the Duke of Edinburgh went up to Parmjit and said, “So, what did you do before you got this job?” Parmjit said, “I worked in a trade union.” The Duke immediately replied, “Bugger all, then.” Parmjit, somewhat offended and thinking that he would retaliate with force, asked, “Well, what did you do before you got this job?”, to which the Duke replied, “Fought in the second world war.”
So, notwithstanding the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I think that there are occasions when a little humility from this House towards His Royal Highness is entirely appropriate.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The Duke of Edinburgh is clearly someone who does not take well to compliments, but he will just have to put up with them this week, because quite frankly he deserves those compliments, not just because it is his 90th birthday on Friday, but because for more than 60 years, since their marriage in 1947, he has been the bedrock of support for Her Majesty the Queen—the constant and loyal support and the dutiful and honourable consort, perpetually at her side over the 59 years of her reign so far and, please God, for years to come. He is the longest-living consort in 1,000 years of British history, surpassing, only a couple of years ago, Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III—but I am reliably informed that that is the only thing he has in common with Queen Charlotte.
The Duke may be 90 years old, but he has something to teach the youngest generations, and that is the principle of duty and service, as we have heard from other hon. Members. Nowadays, many people are accustomed to doing something only if they want to do it and only if it suits them. Many have an expectation of what their rights are, but not of what their responsibilities may be.
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Many of the prince’s generation, maturing in the 1940s, understood the importance of doing a thing because it was the right thing to do for someone else, or for the country—but of course that sense of duty is not entirely extinguished today; very far from it. I had the honour of spending two days at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, last week, and I met many young cadets in their 20s and even younger who are very much focused on serving others—a willingness to serve, and certainly not for financial reward. They want to give something back.
The British are a very generous people and give vast sums and amounts of time to charities, and that is reflected in Her Majesty’s Government’s international development policy, but the Duke has done a great deal for this country over generations, as well as supporting the Queen. Not the least of those is the welfare of young children, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago. The Duke established the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme in 1956, and it has seen more than 7 million work to achieve an award. He meets the gold award winners personally.
The Duke is patron of some 800 organisations and has flown almost 6,000 hours in dozens of aircraft, but he was always what would now be called a type A personality—a leader. At Salem, as a pre-teenage boy in the early 1930s, the Nazis started to creep into school life, but Prince Philip used apparently to break into fits of laughter when he saw them and clearly even then considered them contemptible. Perhaps that is not surprising when one considers that his late mother is honoured in Yad Vashem in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”.
The Duke went on to be head boy, or guardian, at school in Gordonstoun. At the Royal Naval college he came top of the class and won the King’s dirk. He captained a warship at an extremely early age during world war two, and he served on battleships and destroyers throughout the second world war, even being mentioned in dispatches. He was involved in the allied invasion of Sicily, and was in Tokyo bay to witness the surrender of the imperial Japanese.
Still carrying out hundreds of public engagements a year at the age of 89, the Duke has given so many speeches that they apparently take up several volumes of shelf space, and he has never done anything that would affect his personal integrity or the integrity of the Crown. It is clear that his grandchildren love and respect him. He has borne the vicious cruelty, at times, of the press in this country with dignity and poise, and he has never once in public life done anything to embarrass Her Majesty the Queen or to weaken the dignity or integrity of the Crown—despite the odd controversial remark.
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Women (Government Policies)
That this House regrets that the Government’s policies are hitting women and families hardest, including direct tax and benefit changes, cuts to childcare support and Sure Start which are making it harder for women to work, reductions in domestic and sexual violence specialist support, and their impact on the provision of social care; opposes plans that will make 300,000 women born between December 1953 and October 1954 wait an additional 18 months or longer to receive their state pension; calls on the Government to maintain the commitment given in the Coalition Agreement that the state pension age for women will not start to rise to 66 sooner than 2020; believes that promoting equality for women is vital to building a fairer society; and calls on the Government to commission independent, robust assessments of the impact of its policies on women and to prevent the implementation of policies that could widen inequality between women and men.
I got an e-mail from a woman called Michelle, who lives in my constituency. Michelle is a single mother with a toddler; she works part-time in a bank to support her family; and she studies part-time at the Open university, because she wants to get on and build a better future for herself and her child. Right now, she is very worried. Her train fares are going up and she is afraid that her course fees will go up, but the really big blow for her is that her child tax credit is being cut from 80% to 70%.
“This is really devastating for me. My nursery fees are £530 a month, and my salary is £600 a month. This is an extra £50 each month out of my already very tight budget. This sadly is going to force me out of work and onto benefits, which I desperately don’t want to do. It is so unfair and I am very angry. I want David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the coalition to acknowledge this is happening to myself and thousands of other single parents, but that will never happen.”
It is because of Michelle and the stories that we have heard from so many women throughout the country that we have called this debate today. We are deeply worried about women who are struggling to work because of the changes that the Government have made; women who are finding it harder to make ends meet; women who are losing their own income and some of the independence that they value; women who are losing thousands of pounds of their pensions; and women such as Michelle who are finding it more difficult to work because of the sheer scale of the assault on families throughout the country—20% cuts to the Sure Start budget, cuts to child care tax credit and cuts to child tax credit.
The Government are taking more money from support for children than they are from the banks as part of their deficit reduction plan, and mothers throughout the country are taking the strain. Time and again, the Government hit women and families hardest, and I fear that for the first time in many generations equality and progress for women is being rolled back.
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past century. When we celebrated the centenary of international women’s day, I met a woman called Hetty Bower, who is already more than 100 years old and has received her telegram from the Queen. When Hetty was born, however, women did not have the vote, and when she had her first child there was no maternity care on the NHS—indeed, there was no NHS. She worked, but she certainly did not get maternity pay, family allowance or child benefit. By the time her daughter started work, it was still legal to pay women less than men to do the same job, and even when her granddaughter started work there was still little child care and little help for women wanting to work part-time or to care for their elderly parents.
When the Secretary of State and I were elected to Parliament, maternity leave was just 14 weeks, compared with 52 weeks today, and there were child care places for only one in eight children, rather than the one in four today. Of course, here in Westminster itself we had no nursery, but we still had a shooting range.
All the progress that we have seen for women over those years has been hard-won, and we should not take it for granted. From the suffragettes to the Dagenham strikers, women have campaigned and worked hard for those changes.
We know that there is still a long way to go, and if we look at the facts we find that, even some 40 years after passing the Equal Pay Act 1970, the pay gap remains at 15%. Women still make up only 12.5% of the boards of the UK’s top 100 companies. One in four women is a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime. Women here still represent only 22% of our Parliament. Some 30,000 women lose their jobs every year because of pregnancy. So yes, we have come a long way, but we have further to travel yet.
I think that the Minister for Women and Equalities and the Minister for Equalities support progress for women and agree that it should go further and faster. The trouble is that their Government are not delivering; instead, they are turning back the clock.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Would the right hon. Lady like to take this opportunity officially to dissociate herself from her previous Government’s disastrous 10p tax policy, which did so much to hit the lowest paid, especially women across the country?
Yvette Cooper: I think that it was right to change the policy on the 10p tax rate, which did cause problems for a lot of women—the hon. Lady is right. However, often the very same women for whom we had to make changes to ensure that they got help because they were being affected by the 10p tax rate are now being affected by what her Government are doing to change the pension age and equalise pensions so quickly. The 10p tax rate did affect women, but not on the scale under this Government of hitting them with more than £10,000 of losses. Yes, she is right to point out the problems with the 10p rate, but she also needs to point out to her Government the serious damage that they are doing not only to women approaching pension age but to many other women across the board.
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In area after area, whether it is income, employment, child care, public services or action on violence against women, we are seeing the clock turned back. Today we want to concentrate on the Government’s reforms to the pension age and what is happening to women as a result. We understand the Government’s concern about rising longevity; of course we are all living longer and that has consequences. However, the nature and timing of the changes they have chosen is hitting women much harder than men. Bringing equalisation down to 2016 from 2018, combined with increasing the age again straight after that, means that women currently in their late 50s are getting a very bad deal. No men will see their state pension age increase by more than a year, but half a million women will do so. Those women, who are already in their mid to late 50s, are suddenly seeing their retirement plans ripped up. A third of a million women will have to wait an extra 18 months, and 33,000 women will have to wait an extra two years.
Let us think about what that really means. These women are already around 57 years old. They have been expecting to get their retirement pension in about seven years’ time. They will already have made financial plans; many will already have made retirement plans. These women are often the rock of their families. They are the ones who stopped work to look after their grandchildren so that their daughters could work, or they are working part-time and looking after elderly relatives. They have worked out how they can manage it, and how they can stretch their savings until the pension kicks in, and suddenly the Government are ripping all that up.
Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): The group of women who, when they started work, would have expected to retire at 60, had already accepted that because of the equalisation of the state pension age they would have to work until they were 64, but it is the two years on top of that which is very difficult for them to swallow.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Those women have already made changes to their retirement plans, but these further changes are very late in the day, when it is extremely difficult for them to rearrange their plans. The consequence is that the equivalent of about £5,000 is being taken from half a million women, £10,000 is being taken from thousands of women, and £15,000 is being taken from those who are hardest hit—and they have less than seven years to work out how to cope. For most of those women it is too late to make changes to their financial plans and their career plans.
Let us take the case of Christine. She was born in July 1954. She is still working as a self-employed bookkeeper, and works about 25 hours a week. Like a lot of women her age, Christine says that she put her career on hold to bring up her children, so she does not have much of a private pension. She does not have extra savings to help her to cope and to make good the gap. Women in their late 50s have average pension savings of £9,100 compared with an average of £52,000 for men of the same age. These are women who took time out to look after their families, who worked part-time, and who started work in the ’70s when the pay gap was bigger. The pension system never properly recognised the contributions that
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they made to their families and to society, and now, as a result of what the Government are doing, it is kicking them in the teeth again.
The Government cannot tell us that this is being done to cut the deficit, because in 2016, when these changes come in, their structural deficit is supposed to have been eliminated. The best that the coalition has been able to come up with in its defence is to say that some of the poorest male pensioners who get pension credit will be quite hard hit too. I do not think that people such as Christine will consider that much consolation. Today, the Prime Minister tried to claim, “Well, it’s all right, it means that pensioners will be £15,000 better off because this is restoring the link with earnings,” but the link with earnings had already been restored as part of the Turner review. Making such a change now does not provide any benefits for women for many years to come. Instead, in the next few years, it hits extremely hard women who have worked hard for their families and for society.
Dame Anne Begg: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was not good enough for the Minister responsible for pensions to say to my Select Committee that it is all right because these women can get jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance instead?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is appalling to suggest that these women can get jobseeker’s allowance, because many of them have claimed very little throughout their lives. They have believed in working hard, doing their bit, and making their contributions to their family and their society, and the state pension was what they had earned—what they had saved for and contributed towards. Saying to them that they should claim jobseeker’s allowance, which is set at a much lower level, or that, having perhaps taken early retirement to look after the grandchildren only now to find that they cannot do so because they cannot make their savings stretch, they must suddenly try to find work after so long out of the labour market, misunderstands the reality of their lives and the pressures they are under. Something needs to change. The Government have done U-turns on issues such as forests; they have paused on the NHS; and they should make a massive change on this policy.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is this change coming in very quickly but thousands of women out there are not aware of it, despite the excellent campaign, because the Government have provided very inadequate information?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. To the extent that women can plan for such change, they need to know what is going on. At the moment, a lot of women do not know what is happening and are worried. They are starting to hear about the change, but do not know what it is going to mean for them and for their personal circumstances.
Unfortunately, I heard one of the men on the Conservative Benches mutter “Deluded” in response to my call for the Government to U-turn. I have to say to him that he is deluded if he thinks that women across
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the country will not feel extremely angry. The more that they realise what the Government are doing, the more they will be knocking on the doors of their constituency MPs and asking why their MP is allowing them to lose up to £10,000 as a result of deeply unfair changes.
Mr Gray: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. As one of the two Conservative men who signed the early-day motion on this subject, the other being my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), I very much sympathise with the point that she is making on behalf of women born in 1953 and 1954—like me; 1954 was a vintage year. Does she not regret that in the motion she has chosen to make a broad sideswipe at the Government that is much less well thought through than her point about that particular cohort of women? Had she focused her attention on that, she might well have found one or two of us joining her in the Lobby.
Yvette Cooper: I apologise for my slightly aggressive reaction to the hon. Gentleman when he stood up; I should have checked the EDM beforehand. I commend him for his defence of his vintage, of all sexes. He is right that this issue is of extreme concern, and I hope that we will have further opportunities to vote on it.
I will turn to the wider points in the motion that the hon. Gentleman criticised, but which I think are important. It is women rather than men who are taking the biggest burden in the Government’s deficit reduction plans. The Government know of our deep concern that they are cutting too far and too fast, and that they are hitting growth and pushing up unemployment, which will cost us more. However, even those who support the scale and pace of the Government’s plans should be worried about the way in which they are carrying them out.
The House of Commons Library has produced detailed analysis of the direct tax and benefit changes in the Government’s emergency Budget and the spending review. A net total of £16 billion is being raised. That takes account of the increase in tax allowances and the cuts to tax credits. It looks at the extra money as well as the cuts. The conclusion is that £5 billion is coming from men and £11 billion is coming from women. Women are paying more than twice as much as men to get the deficit down, yet women still earn less and own less than men. How can that be fair?
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the numbers she is citing include the £3.75 billion from the child benefit cuts for higher rate taxpayers such as me, who obviously are predominantly women?
The figures include everything, so they do include the child benefit changes, as well as the change in tax allowances, the cuts to housing benefit, the cuts to public sector pensions and a series of other things. The point is that the cumulative impact will hit
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women much harder than men. Women who are on higher incomes will be hit much harder than men who are on higher incomes. Women who are on lower incomes in households where the man is on a higher income will also be hard hit, even though they may only be on part-time or low earnings. The hon. Lady is right that the analysis does not separate women on the basis of different levels of earnings, but it does show that at every level of earnings, in every sector of the economy and in every sector of society, women are being hit harder than men.
Yvette Cooper: We have said that we think there is a serious advantage in some universal benefits. I do not think that the hon. Lady should be paid child tax credit, and she is not, because it is right that some things depend on people’s incomes. However, it is important that some things are universal. That is why we have said that there are serious problems with what the Government are doing on child benefit. She needs to take seriously the point that at every level of income and in every sector of society, women rather than men are the hardest hit.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): As someone who has staunchly defended universal child benefit precisely because of the reach that it secures for the poorest families—better than the means-tested benefits that are designed to reach them—I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that I will certainly campaign for the reinstatement of child benefit for all parents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why it is so important to have benefits that are predominantly directed at women is that even in the best-off households, the way in which income is divided between a couple often favours the man? It is important to give women some independent income to protect their financial independence within the household.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right, because who gets the income in the household matters for a lot of women. Child benefit was about giving women an independent income, and it has given women a greater ability to make choices about their own lives.
The Government have dismissed the figures about the impact on women and men. They say that those figures cannot be calculated, but they have calculated no figures of their own. They claim that it cannot be done. That is rubbish, because the House of Commons Library did it, and pretty quickly. They also claim that it is not possible for the Government to come up with such figures, but the Treasury has done it before. When
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the Minister for Women and Equalities and I were new Back Benchers, I asked Treasury Ministers a written question on exactly the same thing. I asked what was the impact on women compared with men of the 1997, 1998 and 1999 Budgets. Treasury Ministers were able to calculate it then and they can calculate it now. The answer was that men benefited by £2.30 per week and that women benefited by £5.30 per week from the changes brought in by the Labour Government. This is the contrast: the Labour Government’s first Budget helped women twice as much as men; the Tory-led Government’s first Budget hit women twice as hard as men.
The Government say that one cannot look at men and women separately, but that one must look at households. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made. The Government’s plans for universal credit have the same kind of flaw. They are talking about a single payment being paid to a single household member, with the risk that it will go predominantly to the man. What the Government say is just not true. Of course people choose to share their money in the household and in the family, but that is the point—they choose to share their money. Who gets the money in the first place matters. Beveridge understood that 60 years ago. That is why he introduced the family allowance, which led to child benefit. I do not understand why Government Members and the Government are so blind to this issue. Women on the Government Benches would be horrified if suddenly their salaries were paid to their husbands on the basis that it does not really matter because they are in the same household. That is the logical consequence of the Government’s arguments about households and for not being able to do such analysis.
Mrs Louise Mensch (Corby) (Con): The right hon. Lady is pretending that child benefit is an income for women that is paid to women, but it is a benefit that is paid for the benefit of the child. It is not and never has been income for women.
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady does not seem to understand that most women do the spending for the children. That is why, originally, Beveridge wanted to ensure that women got some money. Right now—[ Interruption. ] Government Members obviously do not talk to women in their constituencies about the way in which child benefit money matters massively as part of their income. Of course a lot of that money is spent on children, but however women spend it, the fact that it is they who get the income gives them choices about how it is spent.
I suggest that the hon. Member for Corby (Mrs Mensch) listens to the recording of “Woman’s Hour” from soon after the Government’s announcement of their plan to take child benefit from those on the highest earnings. A lot of women called in to describe how they were on a low income, even though their husbands were on a higher income. They spoke about the difference that it made to have some money that came to them and over which they made the decisions, even if it was then spent on the children and their future.