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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 490: debated on Wednesday 1 April 2009

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Charities

1. What assessment the Charity Commission has made of the effect of the economic downturn on charities. (267958)

The Charity Commission recently published its second economic survey of charities, which showed that just over half of the charities surveyed are feeling the impact of the downturn. While 30 per cent. of those surveyed have seen their incomes decrease, 32 per cent. say that they have already taken steps to combat the impact of the downturn. The full results of the survey are available in the Library of the House.

As the Minister has indicated, the economic survey revealed that charities were feeling the impact of the downturn, but 20 per cent. of them reported that they were experiencing increasing demand for the services that they offer. Given the increasing importance of the third sector in delivering what are often core services, can he say what the Government are doing to help ensure that those services are maintained in the downturn?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. Although the survey showed that 5 per cent. of charities reported that they had had to cut services or were holding off new services as a result of the downturn, only 2 per cent. reported that they had had to reduce staff during the recession. We have introduced our “Real Help Now” recession action plan to meet the demands of organisations in the third sector, as they have made it clear that they are worried about the increase in demand at a time when it is possible that their income will fall. The package includes a modernisation fund to help charities meet the challenges of the recession and a fund to help charities in the front line that are working in the most deprived areas, as well as schemes to increase social enterprise and volunteering.

Although the recession is having an impact on potential funding streams for charities, does my hon. Friend agree that they may also be affected by a rise in the demands made on them by people who become unemployed? Another effect of the recession may be that people leaving jobs might want to contribute their skills to the charitable sector. It is most important that the sector is geared up to maximise the benefit and the potential that it can deliver to both groups. Will he say what is being done about that?

As part of our recession action plan, we have made available, together with the Department for Work and Pensions, up to £10 million to broker volunteering opportunities for people who become redundant during the recession. That will enable them to learn new skills and offer some of the skills that they have already to the charitable sector. That is extremely important, as is the fact that charities must consider how best to modernise themselves as they respond to the downturn. That is why, at their request, we introduced the £16.5 million modernisation fund that will help them to work together more closely, for instance by occasionally sharing back-office functions or possibly, where appropriate, merging operations.

The Prime Minister promised in his Romanes lecture in Oxford that science would somehow be exempt from the recession’s effects. Can the Minister say how that is likely to play out for charities that provide scientific research?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is one of those hon. Members—they come from all parties—who agree that charities make a huge contribution to scientific research in this country. The Government have been extremely progressive in creating an environment in which the third sector has been able to develop research, especially in medicine and genetics. The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to ensuring that this country is one of the best countries in the world for scientific research.

I have more than 200 charities in my constituency. Given the success of directgov.uk in corralling websites across Parliament and Government, would it be possible to do the same for charities? Could some of the software used in directgov.uk be made available for charities on a portal?

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given me an opportunity to tell the House that we are introducing a new funding portal. As a single gateway for third sector organisations, it will direct them to appropriate funding. I am working with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), to ensure that it will fit in with the digital programme that the Government already have in place. My hon. Friend’s question also gives me an opportunity to announce that measures being put in place today will enable smaller charities to cut up to £5 million of red tape.

It is clear that many charities are having a really tough time because of the recession. It has now been admitted that the Financial Services Authority knew of the risks with Icelandic banks as long ago as the beginning of last year, at which stage it informed both the Treasury and the Bank of England. Why were charities and the public not warned of the risks of investing in those banks? Will the Minister apologise for that failure, which has accentuated the financial woes that charities now face?

I have had the opportunity to meet representatives of the charities involved in the “Save Our Savings” campaign, and I have also met MPs who have charities in their constituencies that have been affected by the Icelandic bank problems of recent months. The Government are continuing to listen to the concerns of third sector organisations whose investments are tied up in the administrative process. I know that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury met representatives of some of the affected charities just last week, and that he is considering the outcome of that meeting.

Listening is all very well, but sorry still seems to be the hardest word. Charities face a really tough time, so is it not doubly important that the Charity Commission monitors effectively the links between charities and violent extremists? Charities rightly have special status, which we all support, but at a time when funds for them are limited, it is important that they are bona fide. Will the Minister ensure that action is taken against charities such as Green Crescent, which seems to have been supporting terrorism in Bangladesh?

Links between charities and terrorism are, of course, completely unacceptable, although extremely rare, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree. The Charity Commission takes any such allegations seriously. It published a counter-terrorism strategy that was updated last year, and it works closely with police and other agencies. Green Crescent, which he mentioned, is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Charity Commission, which has already taken action to freeze the charity’s bank accounts and has suspended a trustee. It is important to maintain investment in the third sector during this downturn. The £100 million cuts to the Cabinet Office budget, which would have come in today, certainly would not be the way to help the third sector at this time.

Women’s Voluntary Organisations

2. What discussions he has had with women’s voluntary organisations on the effect of local authority procurement practices on them; and if he will make a statement. (267959)

I meet a wide range of third sector organisations, including women’s groups, through the Government’s national programme for third sector commissioning. We are engaging with local authority and other public sector commissioners on how to improve practice towards the third sector. That includes recent work with the Women’s National Commission on embedding key messages and sharing good practice on equalities in commissioning and procurement.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but at a recent meeting that I had with a number of women’s voluntary organisations, including Women’s Aid, I heard that the shift from grant-funded services to procurement has actually damaged the sector by requiring a one-size-fits-all response. That has led to a cut from 35 to 15 in black and minority ethnic specialist organisations, and a requirement that Women’s Aid provides for male victims of domestic violence, as well as women victims. Will he, and Department for Communities and Local Government representatives, agree to meet people from that sector to discuss whether we could have a better framework for commissioning those important services?

We already have in place a national programme for improving commissioning, which has had the opportunity to train more than 1,000 commissioners across the country, including on the matters that my hon. Friend mentioned. However, I understand the issue that she raises, and I would be happy to meet her and any representatives that she would like to bring in from Women’s Aid or other organisations to discuss her concerns, possibly on a cross-Government basis, to make sure that the other Departments concerned are represented, and to talk further about the issues that she raised.

Is the Minister aware of the problems facing many women’s voluntary organisations, such as the excellent Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, as a result of the reorganisation of local government in Cheshire? That adds extra expense, and means extra effort, for that organisation and many other voluntary organisations, because whereas they previously had one set of contacts at Cheshire county council, they now have to duplicate all efforts with Cheshire East and Cheshire West councils. Why did the Government go down that path?

I hesitate to revisit the issue of the local government reorganisation that is coming into force today, just as I would hesitate to take on the Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes in any way, shape or form, but I note the hon. Lady’s remarks, and I am sure that the House does, too.

Third Sector Organisations

3. What recent discussions he has had with third sector organisations on the effects of the economic downturn on their funding streams; and if he will make a statement. (267960)

My Department is in constant contact with the sector to monitor the effects of the downturn. That is why we are determined to invest £500 million to support the sector over this comprehensive spending review period, and why we committed £42 million in extra targeted help in January.

Does the Minister accept that the double whammy of the economic recession will mean not just reduced charitable donations, but the possibility of reduced lottery moneys for charities as a result of reduced ticket sales? Does he accept that children’s hospices in particular and smaller charities in general will be particularly affected? Will he ensure that appropriate practical advice is given to both children’s hospices and smaller charities so that they can weather the period of the recession?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does representing and speaking up for hospices in his constituency. The third sector and charities such as those that he alludes to go into the downturn in stronger health than ever before, because we have doubled public income to the third sector from £5.5 billion to £11 billion. We are determined to do more. That is why we are spending £500 million over the comprehensive spending review period, and why we are determined to bring forward reviews and reform of Gift Aid.[Official Report, 2 April 2009, Vol. 490, c. 10MC.] The tax system is now worth £4 billion to charities. Where there are opportunities for us to bring public services, charities and voluntary groups closer together, and to use that strategy to strengthen charities, we will do that. That is why the Department of Health has asked Futurebuilders to manage £100 million-worth of investment in social enterprises over the next couple of years.

While endorsing what the right hon. Gentleman has said, may I ask him, as he is well known for his memos to his colleagues and his officers—

They may be excellent, but could one go out today outlawing that ridiculous term, “third sector”? I have had a go at him about it before. It causes confusion. Let us have some plain English for once. Let us get rid of downturns and third sectors, and talk the English language.

As ever, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice. I will put immediate thought into how such a memo could be drafted and propagated—perhaps through The Mail on Sunday.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in South Ribble, the Tory council has cut funding to a number of voluntary organisations, including the citizens advice bureau, the women’s refuge, Victim Support and a charity helping young homeless people? Will he agree to look into the problem of cuts in local authority support for the voluntary sector just at the time when extra rather than less support is needed?

I am sad to hear about the lack of support that my hon. Friend’s local authority is showing to the third sector. Local authorities are vital partners in ensuring that the civic strength of this country becomes greater still over the years to come. We are collecting information right the way across the country about how well local councils are supporting, or in my hon. Friend’s case not supporting, their local charities and voluntary groups, and we will publish those data over the next couple of months.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for setting up the modernisation fund, which we have already heard about. In his discussions with the third sector—a perfectly sensible name, by the way—will he make it clear that in these straitened financial times he will give greater weight to organisations that show that they will collaborate and co-operate with other similar third sector organisations in their locality, so that some of the duplication and waste that we see in the third sector can be cut out?

I will do my best.[Official Report, 2 April 2009, Vol. 490, c. 10MC.] The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is right. Very often it is smaller organisations that make the biggest difference to their communities. That is why we wanted to step up the amount of funding that goes through grassroots grants. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I understand that there are about nine organisations which receive about £27,000-worth of grassroots grants. Often those small amounts of money will make the world of difference, as he knows. When the Charity Commission recently asked the question of the sector—however we choose to define the sector—84 per cent. of respondents said that they were more interested in collaboration in the months to come. That is why the modernisation fund, which I am glad to be able to tell the House opens for business today, will provide £16.5 million not just to organisations seeking to merge and grow stronger, but to those that seek advice on how to collaborate more effectively in order to do the job that they are so passionate about.

What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to help voluntary organisations that work with the unemployed?

Volunteering organisations in particular have enormous potential to help people get back to work. We are absolutely determined that long-term unemployment, which so scarred this country during the 1980s, will not be an outcome of this recession. That is why the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have set out clear plans to make sure that, after six months, people are given extra training, the opportunity to get extra help to get back to work, or the opportunity to start volunteering in their local communities. That is why the third sector action plan, which we published in January, provided for about £10 million to create about 40,000 volunteering opportunities, to make sure that there is no return to long-term unemployment in this country.

State funding now outstrips donations as the largest source of charities’ funds, especially in health and human services; in some cases, more than 80 per cent. of such charities’ total income is made up of Government funding. Those charities in particular are at real risk at the moment as Government Departments come under increased pressure to save money and cut costs. We have already heard this morning that there is increased demand for those services in particular. Will the Minister commit to talking to other Departments to make sure that vital funds are not cut from charities at this time and that they can carry on providing fundamental public services?

Absolutely. We are trying to strengthen the sector over the years to come; that is why we have provided for such a unique and unprecedented amount of money to go to the sector in the months to come. It is important that we strengthen the role of charities and voluntary groups in delivering public services and helping to deliver public services. That is why Futurebuilders is providing so much money to help exactly with that task, why the Department of Health is investing £100 million to help social enterprises step up to provide public services and why the Department for Children, Schools and Families is also providing £100 million to help. This is already a cross-Government effort.

Charities that work abroad, such as Oxfam and International Service, face the same pressures on fundraising as charities that work in the UK. However, they have an additional pressure because the money that they spend abroad has fallen in value by 20 or 25 per cent. as a result of the change in the value of the pound. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Department for International Development, and other British Departments of State that fund international charities, to see what additional help can be provided to ensure that those charities’ Government-funded programmes of work continue at the same level as was originally anticipated?

I will, of course, have those conversations on my hon. Friend’s behalf. It is important that we do not just talk about how we can strengthen the role of charities and other groups in delivering international aid, but that we back that with concrete plans to increase funding. That is why so many on the Labour Benches are proud of our commitment to increase overseas aid, despite the difficulties that our economy faces.

It is hard enough to run a voluntary organisation, but now really important community organisations such as churches and sports clubs are facing huge increases in their water bills as a result of new surface water drainage charges. Some clubs are reporting tenfold increases in their bills. It is extraordinary that those changes should have been made without any impact assessment. Surely the one thing that the Government must do in these times is avoid making things even harder for people trying to help their communities. Will they step in now and impose a moratorium on the changes, at least until an impact assessment is done? That would be real help now.

I am grateful for that advice. I understand that Brian Moore in The Daily Telegraph has been leading a campaign on that exact issue, for which I commend him. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are determined to make sure that there is specific, targeted, focused help for organisations that are facing new pressures, such as a decline in income and a step up in demand for their services. That is why we put £42 million of help on the table in January. Where there are additional pressures and Government action could help, we will, of course, have those conversations with my colleagues across Government.

Public Services

4. What steps he plans to take to maintain the public services for which his Department is responsible during the recession. (267961)

6. What steps he plans to take to maintain the public services for which his Department is responsible during the recession. (267963)

The Government do not believe in cutting back during a downturn. That is why public net investment will rise from £30 billion in 2007 to £40 billion in 2009-10. It is why, in the Cabinet Office, we are providing extra funding to support charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises and the communities that they help.

Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that the public sector needs to be more creative, more ingenious and, most importantly, greener to help us to fight our way out of the recession? If he does agree, would he consider working with Smith Electric Vehicles in my constituency in order to achieve that?

My hon. Friend will also know that my constituency, Birmingham, Hodge Hill, is home to LDV, which is pioneering new products in the electric vehicles market. She can rest assured that that is a mission to which I am also passionately committed.

As my right hon. Friend knows, during the 1980s I worked as part of a primary care psychiatric team. I watched doctors prescribing antidepressants and Valium when they could have prescribed a job—if there had been jobs, people would not have been near the health service. Will he assure me that we do not believe that high unemployment is a price worth paying and that we will invest to ensure that we will not abandon a generation to Valium, videos and vodka?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why, in contrast to the early 1980s, when public net investment fell in real terms from about £16 billion to just £11 billion, we will take precisely the opposite course of action. One cannot cut one’s way out of a recession; one can only grow one’s way out of a recession. That is why this Government are committed to increasing investment, strengthening public services and doing everything possible to help those coming out of work. We do not believe that unemployment is a price worth paying, unlike the Conservative party.

As my right hon. Friend rightly defends the importance of public service, does he agree that the new guiding principle should be that no one employed from the public purse should earn more than the salary of the Prime Minister?

It is vital that public sector pay is constrained. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has pioneered three-year pay deals, and why it is particularly important that those leaders at the top of public life show an example. The Prime Minister announced yesterday that for the senior civil service and the judiciary we will not accept the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body and we will abate increases this year to 1.5 per cent. It is important for Ministers, in particular, to show restraint, which is why Ministers will not be taking a pay rise either in their ministerial pay or in their pay as Members of this House.

Civil Service

5. What plans the Government have to create additional jobs in the civil service during the recession. (267962)

The Government are committed to helping people and businesses as we fight through the economic downturn. Our priority is to support people back into work. In the hon. Gentleman’s own area of interest, the civil service is playing its part. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions is recruiting 6,000 more front-line staff in Jobcentre Plus.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. When he is looking at civil service recruitment, will he consider the fact that every Government Department pays its disabled employees less than its non-disabled employees? The Home Office, which is the worst offender, pays disabled employees a third less than their non-disabled counterparts. Will he take action to stamp out that discrimination?

As I say, I know that the hon. Gentleman has a personal interest in this area. The record on recruitment for civil servants with disabilities is a good one. We have doubled the number of civil servants claiming to be disabled since 2001. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I will take a look at it.

My hon. Friend will be aware that civil and public service workers are just as concerned about their jobs as those in the private sector. Can he assure the House that he will continue to invest in the public services of this country and will not pander to the millionaires’ club who would cut inheritance tax?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not pursue policies that benefit the few, not the many. Indeed, this month the Conservatives committed to removing the equivalent of 3,400 police officers from the Home Office budget, taking away £3 billion-worth of critical infrastructure investment that supports our workers through difficult times, and slashing the budget of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which would threaten apprenticeships. There is only one minute to go until the end of April fools’ day, but the real tragedy is that the Conservatives are serious about that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning, on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom, I welcomed President Obama and the First Lady to Downing street.

This afternoon I will be meeting President Medvedev of Russia, Prime Minister Singh, Prime Minister Aso of Japan, and the President of China. Tonight, the G20 leaders will meet in the first session of the G20 summit. I am proud that our country is hosting the G20 meeting.

The Prime Minister and his noble Friend Lord Myners have now had 24 hours to consider whether they can confirm what Lord Myners said to the Treasury Committee about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangements. Does the Prime Minister understand that his Ministers are now held in public ridicule and contempt, and is it not time that at least one of them resigned?

I see that the hon. and learned Gentleman has risen to the occasion today. Lord Myners has made it very clear that he was told of something that he was led to believe was a contractual obligation but was a discretionary matter. That is the issue that UK Financial Investments Ltd is taking up with the Royal Bank of Scotland; that is the basis on which we are considering legal action; and that is the basis on which UKFI will use its votes in the annual general meeting to promote legal action.

Q2. The Prime Minister knows that many unfortunate people in this country have been negligently poisoned in the workplace through exposure to asbestos. Every time that their right to compensation has been challenged in the courts by employers, it has been this Labour Government who have stood by them and helped them. What does he intend to do about the thousands of predominantly working-class pleural plaques sufferers who have been robbed of their compensation by unjust decisions in the law courts? (267917)

Asbestosis is a terrible disease, and all those who suffer from it deserve the best of help from the public authorities. It is right that we look again at this as a result of legal actions that have been taken about the obligations of insurance companies. The Justice Secretary will make a statement on this when we return after Easter.

On behalf of all Conservative Members, I join the Prime Minister in welcoming President Obama and the First Lady, and all the other Presidents and Prime Ministers, to our country this week.

Before turning to the G20, may I ask the Prime Minister about the issue of MPs’ expenses? [Interruption.] MPs may groan, but frankly I am fed up with our politics being dragged through the mud. We need a solution that is transparent, costs less than the current arrangements, and restores faith in the political process. Is it not the case that we cannot wait for another review, and that this needs to be agreed now? So instead of another review, will the Prime Minister agree to an urgent meeting between the main party leaders so that we can sort this out once and for all?

I agree and have said on many occasions that this whole system has to be reformed and improved. I think that there is common ground in this House that it brings no repute to MPs if we are continually having to deal with these issues. We have made some changes, by the will of the House, to the way that expenses are documented, to the way that the Green Book is organised, and to the way that people are obliged to account for their expenditures of money. Both the parties agreed that the Committee on Standards in Public Life could do a good job in looking at these issues. Of course I am happy to meet the leaders of the Opposition parties to discuss this, but to restore public confidence in the matter the Committee will have to complete its review as well, and I have asked it to speed up that review so that it is completed as quickly as possible.

Frankly, the problem is that we do not need another review. Let us be clear: this is exactly what happened last time. The Prime Minister supported a review, he sent it a letter and when it came up with conclusions, he did not vote for them. [Hon. Members: “Nor did you.”] I did vote for them. The public are sick and tired of this situation, and it requires political leadership. That means political leaders making decisions, which means the Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberals and me. I ask the Prime Minister again: will he have that meeting of party leaders so that we can sort this out? May we have it, instead of a review, not in six months’ time, not in a year’s time, but right now?

The right hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he heard my first answer. I said I was quite happy to meet him and the leader of the Liberal party to discuss these issues, but he has to remember that if we in this House are to command public confidence for what we do, we need to satisfy the Committee on Standards in Public Life as well as ourselves. The whole purpose of the discussions we have had in recent years is to take MPs’ pay out of politics, so that it is not MPs who are held responsible for the original recommendations on pay, or for voting for them. I believe that we have to satisfy more than ourselves on the standards we apply in public life. Yes, I am prepared to talk to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should agree to what was agreed before: that the Committee on Standards in Public Life should continue to review this issue and report as quickly as possible.

The problem is that we can all hear the rustling of the long grass.

Let me turn to the G20. At the last meeting of the G20 in Washington, the leaders signed up to an important pledge on free trade, but as the CBI said, there were

“airy promises about completing the Doha world trade deal and rejecting protectionism”,

but that

“Since then, the world has moved backwards, with the majority of G20 countries pushing up barriers”.

What assurances can the Prime Minister give us that this time it really will be different?

The significance of the G20 meeting is that the world is coming together to discuss detailed proposals on trade and other issues to deal with the problems of the day. I do not think we have had a situation before where Russia, China, India, Argentina, Brazil, all the European countries, Japan and America have come together to see whether we can agree shared policies. In 1929 we had the Wall street crash, and in 1945 we had the first meeting of world leaders that was successful in discussing the issues. We are not going to wait for 16 years; we are taking action now.

On the specifics of trade, the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we have pushed hard in the last few months to get a trade deal round the world. We were pushing before Christmas, under President Bush, so that an agreement could be reached. The problem that is still outstanding—it will help the discussion if I explain it—is that India wanted assurances about a special safeguard mechanism if there were to be a surge of imports. America wanted an assurance that sectoral agreements would be in line with the general agreement that was to be signed on world trade. The American Administration asked us, as they are a new Administration, for some time in the next few weeks to review their position. Given that they are a new Administration, we have to understand that they will want to look at their position, but I am hopeful about that. I am pressing them on this matter, as I did when I talked to President Obama on the phone yesterday before I met him today. The World Trade Organisation needs an answer, and we need to move forward.

What we will achieve at the summit is this: first of all, we will name and shame countries—[Interruption.] Well, Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Prime Minister speak. [Interruption.] Order. It is always the case that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get leeway. Let the Prime Minister speak.

First, we will name and shame countries that are not prepared to abide by the standards that we are setting. Secondly, we will want to provide trade credits for the future so that we can see world trade expanding by supporting it with at least £100 billion of credit, and thirdly, we will push very hard so that the differences that exist, which other countries have resolved, can also be resolved in America and India.

I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer, but the fact is that the naming and shaming process was actually agreed in Washington in November at the G20 meeting. Since then, the World Bank has produced a paper stating that 17 of the 20 countries involved have actually implemented measures that have restricted trade. Everyone understands that the new American Administration need time, but clearly the biggest boost for the world economy would be the completion of the Doha trade round, so does the Prime Minister agree with me that the greatest success for the G20 would be to set a credible pathway and a credible timetable to a full Doha agreement?

That is one of the things we are trying to achieve, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he cannot avoid the difficult questions about this G20. We are in the midst of the biggest fiscal stimulus that the world has ever seen, and only the Conservative party seems to be opposing it. We are in the midst of the biggest cuts in interest rates that the world has seen and we are restructuring our banking system. Yes, I agree that trade is important, and that is why I have pushed for it very hard, but I think he understood that when I said that America wanted some time to consider the position that was a barrier to getting an agreement immediately. We will push forward on trade, but we will also push forward on the other measures that are necessary for an economic recovery. I just repeat that nobody coming to London has a policy of doing nothing.

There is someone right here in London who said that we cannot afford another fiscal stimulus, and that is the Governor of the Bank of England. I do not know whether the Prime Minister fully understands what happened last week. While he was wandering around the rest of the world telling them how to run their economies, the Governor of the Bank of England was saying right here that the Prime Minister did not know how to run ours. The fact is that the Governor of the Bank of England very publicly snipped up his credit card. That is what happened last week.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the real test of the G20 is whether confidence returns? So here in Britain, will he agree that with the budget deficit at more than 10 per cent. of GDP, a big, big part of restoring confidence is going to be restoring those public finances?

Once again, the Conservative party is misinterpreting what is happening in the world and getting everything wrong. The stimulus that has been proposed in Germany is £75 billion. In France it is £24 billion, in China £400 billion and in Japan £42 billion. There is not one country in the world following the advice of the Conservative party. The real issue at this summit is that some people are prepared to take the action to get people through what is a global problem that needs global solutions. The Conservative party reveals in its questions that it is still the do nothing party of the past.

I have to say that this “do nothing” attack has done absolutely nothing for the Prime Minister. Ever since he started making it, he has been going down and we have been going up. It says nothing about us, but so much about him and his approach to the dividing-line politics of the past. Of course other countries that did fix the roof while the sun was shining can afford a fiscal stimulus, but the Governor of the Bank of England said, quite rightly, that we cannot afford one here.

On the G20, everyone wants a global agreement on issues such as trade, the IMF and tax havens, but is it not important to understand that once the talks are over, Britain will still be left with the most appalling public finances? We are spending £4 for every £3 that we raise. This is a domestic problem, and no international agreement is going to resolve it. Do not these difficult circumstances teach us one very important lesson? We should never leave Britain this exposed again.

The rehearsals will make no difference, because this is not about the party games that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. This is about lives, jobs, homes and businesses. I have not heard him once today talk about the problems of the unemployed and the people whom we are trying help. He said that we cannot afford a fiscal stimulus. That is his position, so he would cut the pension, cut child benefit, not go ahead with the help to small businesses or to home owners, not go ahead with advancing public investment—everything that we are doing to take this country through the downturn, he opposes. I hope that people in every constituency know that Conservative party policy is to cut the pension, cut child benefit and cut public works. That is the policy of the Conservative party.

I fully appreciate that the G20 is mainly about economic issues, but should the Prime Minister or any of his colleagues get a chance to talk to our Russian colleagues, will he remind them that human rights remain extremely important, and that action such as raiding the Memorial offices in St. Petersburg or threatening to destroy the Stalin archives is not worthy of a great country?

Every time I meet President Medvedev, I remind him of our differences with Russia over some of those very issues, and I will continue to do so when I meet him this afternoon. There have been difficulties in the relationship between Britain and Russia, but it is important to recognise that we want Russia to work with us on a middle east peace settlement and in dealing with the problems of Iran, and we want to work together with Russia to achieve multilateral disarmament and ensure that the non-proliferation treaty works. Those are all issues on which I believe we can work with Russia.

We all want this G20 summit to succeed. The Prime Minister is right to say that we will not get out of this mess unless world leaders work together. However, the summit will not help anybody here unless he practises at home what he preaches abroad. On his world tour, he railed against tax avoidance, yet he presided over industrial-scale tax avoidance in British banks and British businesses. He now talks about green-collar jobs, yet his fiscal stimulus has less green stimulus than any other fiscal stimulus in the G20. Does he not see that leadership starts at home?

Let me tell the leader of the Liberal party that for the first time we are on the verge of an agreement, which means that every country that was previously a tax haven will have to exchange tax information on request. So with Switzerland, Andorra, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore—all the countries with which we have been trying to get agreement for 20 years; I do not know whether the Conservative party wants those agreements, but we have been trying to get them for 20 years—we will get agreements at this summit. The issue of tax havens has moved to a new level, where we are dealing with the problem.

On a green stimulus, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman finds that the communiqué reflects the desire in all countries of the world that we do not return to business as usual on the environment, that the recovery is low carbon, and that we will do whatever we can, now and in the Budget, to move that forward.

The words sound good—they always do—but now the Prime Minister has to do what he says. He is the only G20 leader who has blown billions of pounds of borrowed money on a wasteful VAT cut that has not created a single job. Why should any other leader listen to his lessons? Is it not time for him to admit his mistake, announce at the summit tomorrow that he will stop the wasteful VAT cut, and invest the billions of pounds in creating the jobs and homes that this country desperately needs now?

On the environment, we are the first Government in the world to sign climate change legislation that will commit us to statutory cuts in carbon over the next few years. I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s party does not seem to think it important, but we are leading the world, as we should, in the environmental debate.

On VAT and other changes, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that one has to use all the weapons at one’s disposal to deal with a global financial crisis. We have cut interest rates, the Bank of England is now putting money into the economy, we have advanced public works in the economy, and we have raised the pension and child benefit beyond the level that was expected in January. At the same time, we are giving income tax cuts, starting this week, by raising personal allowances. We are also helping the unemployed and home owners who find themselves in difficulty. That is the way to deal with the downturn: to take all measures necessary to get through it as quickly as possible.

Arising from what was said earlier, is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us fought against a Conservative private Member’s Bill that would have exempted the House of Commons from the Freedom of Information Act? That being said, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential to have a system of allowances that MPs claim—most of them, of course, are for our staff—so that the public can have confidence that they are legitimate, above board and simply make sense? The sooner we have such a system, the better it will be for the reputation of the House of Commons.

I think I speak for all Members when I say that we want a better system that has proper audit and deals with the outstanding issues that have caused so much controversy. However, I have to say to all Members of the House that for that to command public confidence, it is not enough that one or two of us get together in a room; we have to ensure that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which we set up to deal with such issues, is also satisfied and can tell the public that the system is working better.

Q3. The Christie hospital, which is a world leader in the treatment of cancer, has recently lost £6.5 million owing to the Icelandic banking crisis—money that was earmarked for new radiography centres in Oldham and Salford. Given the Government’s support for financial institutions, what is the Prime Minister doing to help the Christie to recover that money? (267918)

I have met nurses from the Christie hospital, who do a wonderful job in treating people with cancer. The Christie hospital is a world-class hospital and I praise it for what it does. I have said that I will meet its officials to look at the issues that they raise. Essentially, the issue relates to an Icelandic bank that was regulated not in Britain, but outside. For all banks that are regulated in Britain, we have guaranteed the deposits of savers. We will see what we can do, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the central issue is that the Christie hospital is not a charity with funds in a bank that is regulated in Britain. However, we will look at what we can do, and I once again praise the Christie hospital for what it achieves.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Rio Tinto Alcan on the excellent work it is doing in my constituency on carbon capture and storage? The method that it has developed will protect both the environment and valuable local jobs. It is also a world first. Will he share that good news with his G20 colleagues and, more importantly, will he come to Lynemouth at his earliest convenience to see first hand the excellent work that is being done there? (267919)

Yes, I shall be happy to visit to see the progress that is being made in carbon capture and storage and in clean coal. That is an area where we can lead the world. I have been talking to the Norwegian Prime Minister, who has a carbon capture and storage plant under way. We want to work to move the technology forward quickly, and I know that the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Rio Tinto Alcan, is doing a great job. I look forward to meeting the company and talking about how we can expand the technology.

Does the Prime Minister recall when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer selling 400 tonnes of gold from the reserves, even though he was warned at the time that gold is a very good store of value when boom turns to bust? Given that today the price of gold is nearly four times higher than it was when he made those sales, what does that tell us about his ability to run any other aspect of the British economy, and will he apologise to the British people for making those enormous losses on their behalf?

I hesitate to say this, but it was a sale agreed with banks round the world, which all wanted to diversify out of gold. The right hon. Gentleman may know that many other countries were doing exactly what we were doing at that time. He loves Europe so much that he will hate me for saying this, but we bought euros and they have gone up in value.

Q5. There are not many traumas worse than being thrown out of one’s home. The Government have rightly concentrated on trying to help the people facing repossession because of mortgage arrears. Yet a constituent of mine who is gravely ill with cancer has been told by Conservative-controlled Westminster council’s housing arm that she is being taken to court, and faces eviction and court costs, for owing just £390. Does my right hon. Friend share my shock at that behaviour? Is it not right that councils and other landlords should concentrate on cracking down on such behaviour and supporting vulnerable people through these difficult times? (267920)

Our duty in these difficult times is to help people who are in difficulty and in need. That is why we have made greater provision available for housing at this difficult time. I do not know the details of the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, but it seems to me that someone who is suffering from cancer and who is aged should not be evicted, and I shall look into the matter.

The Metropolitan police in London now have dedicated community policing teams consisting of six officers in every local government ward. They have a sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers. Could the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Could the Prime Minister please tell me when my constituents in Cheadle and residents across the rest of the country will enjoy the same level of community policing?

I hesitate to say this, because the hon. Gentleman knows what is happening in his constituency, but there is neighbourhood policing in every part of England as a result of the decisions that we have made. I shall certainly look into what he has said, but we have been very keen to set up these neighbourhood policing arrangements so that people can see local police on the beat and consult them. They are informed by the local police about what is happening, and they can text, e-mail or telephone the local police to get information. Our aim is to have neighbourhood policing in every community in the country, and that is possible only because we are ready to invest in the police.

Q6. My right hon. Friend will vividly remember the damage that was done by unemployment as a result of the failed economic policies of previous Tory Governments, when we were told that unemployment was a price worth paying. Will he give my constituents a guarantee that, in his conversations with the G20 and in the Budget, keeping people in work and getting those who are unemployed back into work will be the absolute priority for this Government, even if it is not for the Opposition? (267922)

Like my hon. Friend, I came into politics because I was concerned about unemployment, and unemployment is what we want to address. That is why, in the next few days, we are introducing our programme to help those who have been unemployed for six months to get new chances of training and new chances of getting into work. We are investing substantial sums of money in helping people at the time they become unemployed, to prevent them from becoming unemployed and to help them if they are unemployed. I believe that that is possible only because we are prepared to make the choice and say that it is right not to do nothing, and that it is right to take action and to invest in helping employment in this country.

Q7. But the Government’s working capital scheme, which was supposed to start on 1 March, has so far not produced anything. Unemployment in my constituency has increased by 152 per cent. in a year. Why has no company in my constituency received any money from the working capital scheme set up by the Government? (267923)

First, £1 billion has been agreed for that scheme already. Secondly, 100,000 companies across the country, and many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, will be receiving help from the Inland Revenue and from Customs and Excise. That help is now worth about £1.8 billion as a result of the decisions that we made to put public money into these programmes. I cannot see how he can come here and ask us to do more, when the whole policy of his party is to do less.

Q8. Cancer is a devastating diagnosis to receive, but today is a significant day because cancer-related prescriptions will now be free for everyone. This will give comfort to people in that situation. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in order to provide excellent services in Crawley and the surrounding area, West Sussex primary care trust delivers on its plan to have a linear accelerator in the community, which will add to those fantastic services? (267924)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to help to review and improve radiotherapy capacity in her constituency, and we will be developing a comprehensive business plan that will cover the current and projected needs of her constituency. Let me also say that we have made a decision that is right for patients who are suffering from cancer—that is, to provide free prescriptions. That has been introduced today, and I believe it is a substantial step forward in recognising the pain and suffering that cancer patients have to go through. I hope that it will have support in all parts of the House.

It is not brain surgery to keep a hospital clean or to assist a patient to eat or to drink out of something other than a vase. Will the Prime admit and agree with me that Government targets, while providing substance for spin, have actually damaged nursing priorities and patient care?

If we removed the obligations, cancer patients would not be given the right to be seen by a clinician within two weeks of going to a doctor. If we removed the target, there would not be an 18-week period between the point at which people go to a doctor and the point at which they have an operation. Patients in the national health service have the right to expect the best of treatments, and I think it important to say that if the Opposition will not provide these guarantees, we will provide them to the patients of this country.

Q9. It is 10 years since the introduction of the minimum wage in the UK. It is not in the history syllabus yet, as far as I am aware, but I recollect that not everybody in this place agreed with it. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating something that has helped millions of British working people? (267925)

More than 2 million people benefit from the fact that, for the first time, there is a national minimum wage in this country. I believe that the rises in the minimum wage are an important element of giving people decent wages in the workplace. I hope that, despite the disagreements of the past, there is now all-party agreement that a civilised society needs a minimum wage for people who are in work; we are determined to retain it.