July 2008: Prime Minister’s Questions E-Consultation

Last month, when I found out I had been lucky in the ballot for Prime Minister’s Questions on 16 July, I held an impromptu E-Consultation. Given the short timescale of just over 24 hours, I was impressed to receive well over 100 emails, some with multiple suggestions – so I was spoiled for choice!

The most popular topic was undoubtedly the rising cost of living, including food prices, fuel tax and the economy more generally. Knife crime was also very commonly mentioned, and I was struck by the wide range of issues raised: from international issues in Afghanistan, Iraq and Zimbabwe, to domestic concerns including student debt, MPs’ expenses (more on my views on this here ), health visitors, immigration, renewable energy and many more.

I therefore decided that my first choice question would be on the cost of living, and drafted (and memorised!) the following question:

“As the public face soaring inflation along with calls for continued wage restraint, shouldn’t the Government do its bit to help by reducing the tax burden on low and middle income workers?”

However, as is so often the case at PMQs, the most popular topics get asked about by the party leaders and MPs who are called early on. My policy at PMQs therefore is always to have another question prepared in case your favourite question has been taken. Ideally, this backup question should be something unlikely to be asked by anyone else.

One email I had received, from a constituent called Sheila, had highlighted the unfairness of VAT being charged on many essential toiletries and health products; it is only supposed to be charged on luxuries. After doing some research I was shocked to find that this definition of “luxuries” included suncream, and that Scotland has the highest rates of skin cancer of anywhere in the UK: Skin Cancer Statistics

As this was the final PMQs before the summer recess, I decided this would be a good and topical backup question. Unique, highlighting a real problem that the Government could and should tackle, and also still fitting in with the most popular theme in the consultation of the cost of living and high taxation.

At number 10 on the order paper, I had to endure a somewhat anxious 25 minutes without knowing whether we would reach my question, but with just five minutes to go, I was called. The food and fuel prices had been well covered by now, so I went with the backup:

“The most rapidly increasing type of cancer in the country is skin cancer, with more than 80,000 new cases each year. As the Prime Minister heads to Suffolk for his bucket and spade holiday, I’m sure he will be stocking up on suncream. How can his Government justify charging VAT on this essential health protection item?”

The Prime Minister responded: “This issue is looked at from time to time, but I say to the hon. Lady that the more important thing that we are doing is investing £15 billion over the next 10 years in trying to find cures to diseases including cancer and skin cancer. The action of the National Health Service in making it possible for people to be seen quickly when they are diagnosed with cancer means that 99 per cent. of people suspected of having cancer are seen within two weeks. Those are the actions that we can take, and they will get rid of skin cancer in the long run.”

While Gordon Brown did say the issue is periodically reviewed, I was not too impressed by his answer effectively saying that curing cancer is more important than preventing it in the first place! That said, perhaps he realised that he clearly couldn’t justify treating suncream as a luxury, and therefore charging VAT.

You can read the full account of the Prime Minister’s Question time on 16 July here:

PMQs – 16 July

Finally, I’d just like to say thank you again to all those who took part; I certainly found it a useful experience to take a straw poll of what issues my constituents are most concerned about.

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