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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

Duchy of Lancaster

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

Social Enterprises

1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential for social enterprises to deliver a greater range of public services in the next five years; and if he will make a statement. (276393)

I believe that social enterprise does have a bigger role to play in delivering public services. Therefore, in addition to the several hundred millions of pounds of investment that the Government are providing, we have also established a ministerial group to look at how we can fast-track public service contracts to third sector organisations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating Emma Wilson, the dynamic chief executive of Local Care Direct, which has 14 health centres across west Yorkshire and is opening a 15th centre in my constituency of Wakefield on 1 June? May I invite the Minister to come and see the fantastic work that Emma is doing in our area and look at how we can roll it out across the board? Dynamic individuals such as her have a real part to play in helping us to deliver our public services.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right to say that Local Care Direct and its management team are an inspiring example of what can be done as a result of the innovation and energy of the social enterprise sector. That is why the Department of Health has established £100 million of funding to help to back social enterprises such as Local Care Direct, why the Department for Children, Schools and Families is providing £100 million to a youth sector development fund, and why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million for social enterprises that want to create 15,000 jobs during this recession.

In the past year, unemployment has risen by 182 per cent. in my constituency. Biggleswade Baptist church is now operating a debt advice centre, and I suspect that there will be many more of those. Does the Minister believe that social enterprise has an important role to play in providing debt advice and counselling during what would appear to be a protracted period of recession, and how are the Government planning to help it provide that?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that social enterprises have an extraordinarily important role to play in providing debt advice, not least because they are often able to provide services in communities in a manner that it is difficult for Government to match. In February, the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), announced £42 million of extra help to support charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises that are seeking to do more, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided for £20 million on top of that in the Budget. If there is anything more that we can do to help social enterprises in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to get their hands on some of that money, I would of course be more than delighted to help.

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to assist charities and social enterprises in bidding for contracts from the future jobs fund set up by the Department for Work and Pensions—organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and the Groundwork trusts, and, at a local level, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers Cymru, which is based at Forest Farm in my constituency?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work to champion the causes of those organisations. As a Government, we are absolutely clear that we will not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when too little help was provided to those losing their work, particularly the young—those under 25. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside £1 billion in the Budget to ensure that extra help is available to those under the age of 25 who have been out of work for more than 12 months to ensure that none of them needs to stay out of work, out of training or miss out on a volunteering opportunity. We think that social enterprises have a critical role to play in delivering that programme; that is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced £100 million of funding for social enterprises to set about the job of giving people new opportunities during this downturn.

Would the Minister like to put on record his thanks to the faith-based organisations throughout the country that are doing such a great job? That is further to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about the Baptist church, but it applies across the denominations, with Catholic and Anglican churches advising on drug rehabilitation and other social programmes, and indeed entrepreneurship programmes. Will he give a commitment to the House that where there is clear evidence of discrimination against churches, his Department will investigate and ensure that it is dealt with, whether that discrimination comes from local authorities or other public sector bodies?

I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking. If we want to come through this recession as quickly as possible and in a way that best protects families and businesses, we have to ensure that we are not only delivering help to families and businesses but doing everything in our power to ensure that communities are strong, because it is on the foundation of strong communities that we will build a different kind of future for this country. Faith-based organisations have an enormously important role to play, so it is important that they are eligible for the extra assistance that we are providing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in arguing that the funding that we are providing through the Cabinet Office should not be cut back, and never should be in future.

The Minister has referred to the fact that the Chancellor is trying to boost the economy, and therefore demand. He knows, surely, that the voluntary sector prospers best when demand is increasing, and that it plays a significant and progressive part in providing services. However, may I remind him that until we have a serious council house building programme to fire up that part of the economy, it will be very difficult for the voluntary sector to make real contributions to the housing market generally?

My hon. Friend has championed this cause, certainly for the short time that I have been in the House. He is absolutely right that the renewal and regeneration of housing is critical to the future that we want to see in this country. However, there cannot be traditional housing projects as they might have looked 20 or 30 years ago. We know now from pioneering housing associations that there is far more that associations themselves can do not just to build houses and give people homes that are safe and secure but to equip people with skills and connect them with jobs.

Is not the biggest barrier to the expansion of the role of social enterprises in providing public services the lack of appropriate finance for expansion? Would not the quickest way to fill that gap be the rapid establishment of the social investment bank? Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? She said yesterday at an all-party group:

“I’d like to say we have a plan for a social investment bank but we don’t.”

I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was referring to the fact that the consultation on how the social investment bank is to be set up has just been launched. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, legislation enabling that bank came into force only in November 2008. Because the Financial Services Authority will regulate the fund, it is of course vital that it oversees how the regulations are drawn up.

The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill was published way back in 2007, so the social investment bank has been a long time in gestation. There is an urgent need for it to progress. Why is it taking until this summer for there to be even a consultation paper on it? Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster undertake that when it is established, it will be an institution that is genuinely independent both of the Government and of Government non-departmental public bodies, so that it really commands confidence in the sectors that it is set up to support?

May I simply underline that the necessary legislation came into force only in November 2008? The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not prejudging the results of the consultation, although the issues that he raises are useful input. I believe that he would agree, however, that a social investment bank is not some kind of silver bullet in securing a more effective social enterprise sector in future. We know also that local authorities’ contribution will be critical, which is why it is so important that we now ask the third sector’s opinion about local authorities and their support for social enterprises. He will be as interested as I am to see the results. When we looked at how the sector rates local authorities, we found that of the bottom 25 rated councils in terms of commitment to the sector, I am afraid to say that 17 were Conservative.

Social Enterprises

Funding for charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises has doubled over the past decade to £11 billion, and therefore social enterprises face the downturn with unprecedented strength. We do believe that extra help should be available, which is why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million, why we set aside £42 million in February and why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside an extra £20 million in the Budget.

The west Lancashire furniture recycling organisation helps people in my constituency by offering recycled goods and also provides employment and volunteering opportunities to those who face barriers to employment. In the past 18 months it has recruited 11 employees, five of whom were long-term unemployed or on incapacity benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such social enterprises are integral to the social and economic strength of our local communities?

The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights has been an inspiration to many in the social enterprise sector and beyond, and we have been very keen to learn some lessons from its experience. It is part of a growing pattern of success, and indeed the sector as a whole grew its work force by some 20,000 in the last year for which figures are available. We are determined to help the sector do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions set out £100 million of support to help the social enterprise sector, including enterprises such as she highlights, create 15,000 jobs in the year or two to come.

Does the Minister agree that, although many charities, citizens advice bureaux and faith-based organisations do excellent work in trying to get information to tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK about the benefits to which they are entitled, there is still a hard core of people whom the information appears not to reach? Does he also agree that we need to be much more innovative and dynamic in trying to reach those communities to ensure that they get what they are entitled to?

My view is that social enterprises can reach much further than many public services; they can reach communities to which public services have traditionally found it hard to connect. They can also often innovate in finding new ways of bringing public services together. That is one of the most important prizes that the groups to which the hon. Gentleman referred bring to the table. That is why cutting back the Cabinet Office budget by £100 million, as is proposed in some quarters, would be a grave error. It would diminish our impact on getting on with that sort of job.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments. Crazy Hats, a charity in my constituency, which deals with breast cancer and helps those who are recovering from it, wants to create a drop-in centre in my constituency for the whole of north Northamptonshire. Is that the sort of thing that the Minister would encourage? Could he point us in the direction of any funding?

That is precisely the sort of thing that the Government would like to flourish. For that reason, the Department of Health has set aside £100 million to invest in social enterprises. It sounds as though the organisation that the hon. Gentleman highlights is exactly the sort of enterprise about which the Department of Health would like to hear more. The fund is administered by Futurebuilders, and that would, therefore, be the first port of call for the hon. Gentleman.

Would my right hon. Friend consider having a discussion with the devolved Parliaments? We should consider best practice, and not reinvent the wheel throughout the UK. Will he consider holding a meeting with the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland so that we can talk about how best to take social enterprise forward?

The Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), is having such conversations. Pioneering examples of what social enterprises can do differently are to be found in every part of the country, and it is vital that we ruthlessly exploit good ideas rather than constantly try to reinvent them.

The Minister’s predecessor launched the £70 million community builders fund in July 2008 with great fanfare. It is there to help our social entrepreneurs and people who want to show leadership in keeping our communities strong. They need support at this time more than ever. Will the Minister confirm that, almost a year later, not one penny has been invested from the fund? Will he explain why not and tell us when the fund will deliver something more than a press release?

When those funds are announced, it is important to appreciate that not only Ministers like me are in charge of writing the cheques. It is important to give an arm’s length organisation the task of running the fund and understanding how the money is best deployed. Sometimes going through the process of contracting for that delivery partner can take time. We make no excuses for getting the right partner in place to get the money flowing, but we will not subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s view that we should somehow wean social enterprises, charities or voluntary groups off public funding, because we know that it is vital to their success.

Open Source Software

3. What guidance his Department provides to other Departments on the use of open source software. (276396)

The Government’s policy is to use open source when it gives the best value for money. We are taking positive action to ensure that Departments and our IT suppliers do that. We published our new action plan on 24 February, including guidance on specific actions for Departments. The Chief Information Officer Council is driving the implementation.

The Government have talked a good game for some time about open source software, but have done very little. What more can the Parliamentary Secretary do to encourage Departments to implement real change and reduce the horrific cost and genuine inconvenience of software licensing?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Indeed, I read the transcript of his Westminster Hall debate last year, and I know that he proposes some positive ideas, which the Government should take up. The Government are taking up open source solutions—50 per cent. of Government websites use open source software and we are about to deploy Linux-based platforms, which will go to 300,000 NHS workers. In the spirit of open source, I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is a renowned expert in the field, to come and meet our officials, share some of his ideas with us and help us improve what we do.

Would my hon. Friend put this debate into perspective? Does he agree that most of the chief information officers would agree that open source has its place, but that open standards are a much more important part of the debate?

They are a very important part of the debate. There is no doubt that open standards and interoperability are the means by which we will improve our IT sourcing. When we talk about open source, we should remember that it is only free to acquire and that we also must invest to maintain and sustain our systems.

Open source and open standards are important, but I have noticed that BT offers a free laptop, a free website and free help to all our charities. The open source and all the things for charities are available for free, so is there a way that we can round it all up in one place, on the site?

I am sure that we could do that. In fact, why don’t I talk to the chief executive of and put that question to her?

Social Enterprises

I have already mentioned the strength with which the social enterprise sector faces this downturn. I should add, of course, that social enterprises can also benefit from the measures that we have put in place to help all businesses, including the £10 billion working capital fund and the £75 million capital enterprise fund.

That is good news. Phoenix is a social enterprise in Swindon that works with people recovering from mental health problems by offering them work in a mailing and assembly service. I should declare an interest, because I have used the service, paying for it through my office costs allowance, and excellent value for money it was. What can my right hon. Friend do in a recession to help secure longer-term funding for social enterprises, so that they can help more people?

The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights is part of a sector of some 55,000 social enterprises that creates a turnover of around £27 billion. That enterprise, flair and innovation will be especially valuable in helping to get Britain through this downturn faster and in a way that protects families and businesses. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has set aside £100 million to help social enterprises get people back to work. It is also why the Cabinet Office is managing a clear set of ambitions to help ensure that those with learning disabilities or mental health issues are part of social enterprises’ work, because we know that those people, too, have a right to help and a contribution to make, and we are determined to unlock it.

Given that much financial support for social enterprises comes from local authorities, as we have heard, and given that most local authorities are tightening their belts in this recession, as they should, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that they do not take the easy option and slash their budgets for social enterprises, thus leaving a lot of disadvantaged and vulnerable people in this country without proper assistance?

It is important that we do a couple of things. It is important that we continue to invest in training those in charge of procurement and commissioning in local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that the budget for that would, I am afraid, be cut if we sliced £100 million off the Cabinet Office budget. It is also important for us to introduce a bit of transparency, which is why we have asked the social enterprise sector to rate local authorities. We published those statistics earlier this month. I am pleased to say that eight councils in the top 25 were Labour councils. I am afraid that only one was Conservative, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will be anxious to turn that situation around.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fine work that social enterprises and charities do across all our constituencies, such as The Hinge, in Goole, which works with young, vulnerable and homeless people. That is a client group that, sadly, is likely to grow through this recession. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that there will be fast-track funding to help social enterprises deal with that difficult and growing client group?

First, may I praise my hon. Friend for the charitable work that he does? Organisations such as The Hinge will have an enormous contribution to make over the coming months, and the strength that they could acquire in that time could serve them well in regard to their long-term contribution to the sector and to the communities that they work in. That is exactly why different Departments right across Government are putting in place significant amounts of funding to help the sector over the next two or three years. That funding would be cut if we took the advice of some in the House. Once the money is in place, it is vital that we get rid of any impediments to getting deals done, which is why I am bringing Ministers together to clear those road blocks out of the way much faster.

Would the Minister accept that the country and the Government cannot do without charities, churches and volunteers? We have a deprived estate in Macclesfield, the Moss estate. The local churches—with the support of my own livery company, the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which has invested a great deal in the project—are putting a great many volunteers and community workers into that estate to help to reduce the deprivation and exclusion and the other problems that often go with exclusion.

I am very grateful for that example, because I was not aware of the contribution that the livery companies were making to this agenda. The hon. Gentleman underlines my point that we will get through this recession faster, and in a way that protects families and businesses better, if we build our work on strong communities. It is the faith-based organisations, charities, voluntary groups and, I now know, livery companies that are knitting those communities together.

Real Help for Communities Programme

5. What progress his Department has made in the implementation of the Real Help for Communities Programme. (276399)

I am pleased to tell the House that the £16.5 million modernisation fund and the £15.5 million targeted support fund are both up and running, and have received more than 500 applications and expressions of interest to date. The volunteer brokerage scheme for unemployed people went live on 6 April, and nine regional roadshows have been fully subscribed. Last month, the Prime Minister appointed Dame Stephanie Shirley as the Government’s first giving and philanthropy ambassador. [Interruption.]

I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that Bradford’s allocation is about £411,000. Can he tell me when that money will come through and how it will be distributed?

Yes. Of the £15.5 million targeted support fund, which opened to applications on 29 April, Bradford will get £410,892, which will be delivered by the Bradford and district community empowerment network. If my hon. Friend has any organisations that he wants to steer in the network’s direction, I recommend that he do so.

The Real Help website and documentation should be—and, indeed, are—really helpful, but I cannot help but think that MPs and the Government have perhaps not done enough to promote awareness of these services to the sectors that could really benefit from them. What can the Minister and Back Benchers do to make them more accessible?

I am writing to all Members affected by the funds, which will be all Members of the House in England affected by the Real Help Now action plan. In addition, the Office of the Third Sector has already held nine regional roadshows, which have been fully subscribed. Business Link is a free business advice and support service, and it is also available to the third sector. In Scotland, Business Gateway Scotland provides a similar service, giving advice on what help is available to businesses and the third sector.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration

7. If he will bring forward proposals to enable members of the public to bring matters directly to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. (276401)

The Government value the role and work of the parliamentary ombudsman. They also believe that Members of Parliament have an important role to play in assisting constituents with concerns about their dealings with Government Departments and public bodies.

One of the great achievements of a previous Labour Government was to introduce the parliamentary ombudsman system, against the resistance of elements of the Conservative party. Is it not now time to give citizens direct access to the ombudsman, as has been recommended by successive occupants of the office?

I have known my hon. Friend for longer than nearly any other MP, and his former agent, Jack Fleming, from the time of the former Labour Government of the 1970s, would have been proud of my hon. Friend’s work to improve the machinery of government. Sometimes, I have to say that it seems that we have been discussing the ombudsman for that long as well. We know that 134 MPs said that they wanted to remove the MP filter, but I cannot honestly say to my hon. Friend that that is the settled will of the House. To be honest with him, I would also have to say that there is no settled view in Government either, but I undertake to take soundings from Members again to ensure that their views are properly reflected when we come to make our decision.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Royal Marine Jason Mackie, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He and others who have lost their lives have served our country with distinction for the good of the Afghan people and for the good of democracy around the world. They deserve our profound gratitude for their service, which should not ever be forgotten.

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

Mr. Speaker, there will be a further opportunity to acknowledge your contribution and achievements in this House, but let me say briefly on behalf of all Members that your record of service to this House and this country has been outstanding over 30 years, and you have shown unfailing personal kindness to all Members on all sides of the House.

May I also personally express my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, and associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks and expressions of condolence to the serviceman who lost his life?

There is widespread concern throughout the country and on all sides of the House about the Government’s plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. In that light, will the Prime Minister now reconsider those proposals?

We have put before the House—and our proposals are now in the other place—the problems that Royal Mail has to face up to. It is losing 5 million letters a year—[Laughter.] I mean it is losing 5 million letters in comparison with the number that were delivered in previous years. There is an £8 billion pensions deficit. I want to reassert to the House the need for new investment in Royal Mail—[Interruption.]

Order. I will not allow anyone to barrack the Prime Minister. It will not be allowed—and that goes for the Leader of the Opposition as well.

Many measures in the Bill are supported unanimously on both sides of the House, and the fact is that we have to get new investment into Royal Mail. That is why we have invited outside parties to express their interest.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks about those brave servicemen and women who have died in the cause of Afghanistan? A few weeks ago, the House debated the issue of the Gurkhas. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to give us any indication of what progress has been made on it?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we have a great deal of sympathy and support for those Gurkhas who wish to come into this country. Many of them have served our country and our Army with huge distinction over the years. We were the first Government to say that those after 1997 should be able to have residence and settlement in this country, and 6,000 have done so. We have also equalised pay and pensions, while at the same time raising the Gurkhas’ pensions back in their own country. We said that we would listen to the voice of the House after the debate held a few weeks ago, and we are also listening to the views of the Home Affairs Committee, which has had hearings. The Home Secretary will make a statement tomorrow. I believe it is possible for us to honour our commitments to the Gurkhas, and to do so in a way that protects the public finances. That will be part of the announcement to be made tomorrow.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Jason Mackie of Armoured Support Group The Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday? Some of his family live in Bampton in my constituency, and I know that the whole country will join in their sorrow.

I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the Gurkhas and the statement that will be made tomorrow.

May I too join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker? I will never forget the kindness that you showed me and the advice that you gave me when I was a new Back Bencher in 2001. I know that everyone wants to thank you for the public service that you have given to the House and the country.

This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause “chaos”. What on earth did he mean?

What would cause chaos would be the election of a Conservative Government, and public spending cuts.

So there we have it: the first admission that the Prime Minister thinks he is going to lose!

I know that the Prime Minister is frightened of elections, but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a Parliament, in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election could somehow bring chaos? Have another go at a better answer.

I am not going to support a programme of Conservative public spending cuts. But look here: the House has got to have some humility about what has happened in the last few days. We have got to recognise—all of us, in all parts of the House—that mistakes have been made by Members of Parliament in all parties. Having had the humility to recognise that, we also have a duty to sort the problem out. The only way to sort out the system is to go ahead and sort out the system, and that is what we are proposing to do.

Yesterday we had good all-party talks involving the House of Commons Commission and all parties, and we made a great deal of progress. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I should have thought that what the public want us to do first of all, as this Parliament, is to sort out the problems and deal with them. And secondly, what they want is a Government who will deal with the economic recession.

Does the Prime Minister not understand that the best way to show some humility is to ask the people who put us here? The Prime Minister is so hopelessly out of touch. How can the answer to a crisis of democracy be an unelected Prime Minister? In past months, during this economic crisis, there have been elections in India, South Africa and New Zealand. They all have new Governments with a new mandate. The United States had an election in the middle of a banking crisis. Was that chaos? Is President Obama the agent of chaos?

I notice that at no point does the right hon. Gentleman enter into the policy issues that are at stake here. At no point does he want to talk about what would be the effect of a Conservative Government in this country cutting public spending in schools, hospitals and public services generally, or about what they would do in leaving people on their own in this recession. Our duty is not only to clean up the system in the House of Commons—and every Member has a responsibility to work on that now—but to take this country through the difficulties of the recession, and not say to people that unemployment is a price worth paying.

The Prime Minister says that he wants to talk about the issues. How better to address the issues than in a general election? The Prime Minister rightly says that the economy is the big issue. One of the biggest issues in our economy is the lack of confidence. Why is there so little confidence? Because there is no confidence in the Government.

The Prime Minister says that he wants to get on with the work. The fact is that the Government are not doing any work. They cannot even organise a car scrappage scheme. We will not end the paralysis just by electing a new Speaker, or even by setting new rules; we must give the public their voice, and the country the chance of a fresh start. Is it not the case that the only way that can happen is through a general election?

I repeat: what would cause paralysis is Conservative spending cuts that would make it impossible for our economy to move forward. Look at what we are doing to help the unemployed at the moment: 100,000 people who are unemployed are being helped back to work, and every month 200,000 and more are getting back into work. The Conservatives have refused to support the money that is necessary for the unemployed. Look at our housing scheme, helping people to avoid mortgage repossessions—and again, the Conservatives have refused to support that scheme. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the country would be longer in recession, with more debt and deficit, with more businesses going under and with more unemployment, if ever we had the misfortune of him ever being in power.

People will just hear the arrogance of a Prime Minister who will not let the people decide. The Prime Minister talks about paralysis—but this is what one of his own Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), has said about Government paralysis:

“Week after week MPs have been turning up but with…no serious work to do…there is no legislative programme to speak of. Even the debates are put on to fill in time…The whole exercise is vacuous.”

Can the Prime Minister not see how badly we need a fresh start? Two years ago he promised us a fresh start. Remember what he said outside Downing street, talking about a Government of “integrity and decency”? Well, that died with Damian McBride. He promised to renew trust in Parliament. Where is that promise today? He promised prudence; he promised economic stability; he promised a big house building programme. None of these things are happening. The Prime Minister calls elections “chaos”; I call them change. Why can’t we have one?

One hundred and twenty thousand businesses are now getting help as a result of decisions we have made that the Conservative party would not make. Hundreds of people are getting help to get into jobs as a result of what we are doing, whereas the Conservatives would abolish the new deal. We have opened the 3,000th Sure Start children’s centre—something that would be at risk under the Conservatives. We have a vast educational investment programme in our schools; the Conservatives propose to cut it. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, there would be chaos with public spending cuts under the Conservatives, and yes, it is an unacceptable way of going forward if a party is trying to have an election without even having a sensible manifesto, other than proposing public spending cuts.

A business woman who owns and runs a small manufacturing company in my constituency came to see me last week to complain about the attitude of banks in lending to businesses such as hers. Does the Prime Minister understand that public support for the banking bail-out will entirely evaporate unless banks are seen once more to be lending to the small and medium-sized companies on which this economy depends?

I would ask my hon. Friend’s constituent to go back to that bank and ask it to reconsider the situation, and to write to him and then to me. The banks have agreed in the last few weeks that they will sign up to quantitative agreements. That means that £70 billion of additional lending will go into the economy this year—£25 billion from the Royal Bank of Scotland, £14 billion from Lloyds bank, and money voluntary promoted by HSBC. There will be £70 billion of total additional lending. We are the only country in the world that has such a programme, where the banks have signed up legally to supporting additional lending. I believe that in the next few weeks, the flow of money will be increased as a result of that.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Marine Jason Mackie, who, tragically, died in Helmand province last week serving us, our country and the people of Afghanistan.

Mr. Speaker, despite our differences in recent days, I would like to thank you for the immensely dignified way in which you made your statement yesterday—[Interruption.] We can now move forward to reform this place from top to toe. I am also pleased to hear from the Prime Minister that there will be a statement tomorrow on the Gurkhas, and I hope that they will receive the unqualified and full justice that they deserve—[Interruption.]

We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to change politics for good, but we will betray people’s hopes and fail to offer a really different way of doing politics if all we do is remove a medieval expenses system, without fixing everything else. The expenses are just the tip of the iceberg. Does the Prime Minister see that, from party funding through to Whitehall secrecy, the whole way in which we do politics must now be transformed?

As for Whitehall secrecy, it was this Government who brought in the Freedom of Information Bill—and as for party funding, the Justice Secretary has brought forward measures to deal with that. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, however, that, as part of the wider debate about the relationship between Parliament and the people and the accountability of Parliament to the people, we must listen to the views of people throughout the country. We must consult and hear what they have to say, and, as I said yesterday, we will put forward proposals on that in the next few weeks.

Touché, Mr. Speaker.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but is it not now time to get to the heart of the matter, which is that his Government are in power even though less than a quarter of the people voted for them? [Hon. Members: “Have an election!”] Of course we should have an election, but people do not want an election where all they will get is a few new faces but the same old rotten rules. Is it not true that any system in which so few votes give a Government so much power will always breed arrogance and secrecy?

Mr. Speaker, I was right to say that your generosity was unfailing to all Members of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the wider reforms and democracy is absolutely right: we must consider not only how Parliament can be more accountable to the people, but how the Executive themselves can be more accountable. We want to do that in the context of enhancing the individual and collective rights of citizens in their own communities to manage more of their own affairs. I am happy to enter that debate, and we will publish proposals in the next few weeks. We have also previously published proposals on the electoral system, which is also a matter for debate—but I must say to the Liberal Democrats that the debate about the reform of the constitution is about more than simply that one thing.

In view of the recent elections in India, the victory of the Congress party under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his continuation as Prime Minister, and the recent developments in Sri Lanka, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to involve India in bringing peace to that region?

I have sent a message of congratulation—I believe it will be on behalf of the whole House—to Prime Minister Singh, who is very respected not only in the region but throughout the world. I believe that we can make progress in a number of areas now that the Government in India are re-established after the election. First of all, we will be talking to them about Pakistan and about security on the border between India and Pakistan. Secondly, we will be talking to them about the world trade deal, which is essential. Thirdly, we will be talking to them about the contribution that they can make to the whole of the peace and security of the region, and about helping us and working with us, particularly after the Mumbai bombings, to deal with the problems of terrorism that exist there.

Q2. As a member of your panel of Chairmen, Mr. Speaker, may I say that you have been a kind and caring Speaker, and that that will never be forgotten? Does the Prime Minister accept that manufacturing industry is one of the only sources of sustainable non-inflationary economic growth? Sadly, the number employed in manufacturing has dropped from 4.5 million in 1997 to 2.73 million today. Will he and his Government ensure that they do not place any additional burdens, such as the increase in national insurance, fuel tax and regulation, on manufacturing industry? We want to be competitive. Please will he encourage, and not de-incentivise, industry and manufacturing in this country? (276336)

The future of this country will be built on modern manufacturing strength. In advanced manufacturing we are one of the great leaders of the world; we have some of the greatest companies in the world—they operate from Britain but are global players with huge strengths in new technology and in innovation. Our manufacturing strategy is to support our large companies and to encourage innovation so that we have small and medium-sized companies coming forward. We gave additional investment allowances for manufacturing in the Budget, our corporation tax is the lowest that it has been for many, many years, and we continue to support small businesses with enterprise grants; 128,000 businesses have now received some help from the Government during this downturn to get through these difficult times. As 50 per cent. of our manufacturing is exported, it is so important that the European economy moves forward as well; it is very important to us that we work with Europe so that we achieve growth and jobs for the future.

Q3. On his earlier comments about political reforms, does the Prime Minister not agree that it is time to redeem an undertaking in our 1997 manifesto by calling, on the day of next year’s local elections, a referendum on the establishment of a citizen’s convention, which would come back to the voters within two years with proposals to complete the reform of party funding, to elect the House of Lords and to make every vote make a difference by allowing voters to vote for the candidate, the party and the Government they choose? (276337)

We have had some experience of constitutional conventions. One was the European constitutional Convention, another was the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and talks are also taking place in Wales between all the parties. If my hon. Friend will wait, in the next few weeks we will publish our document about greater consultation between the public and Parliament, and about enhancing the rights of the people in relation to the accountability of Parliament itself.

Can the Prime Minister explain why, at a time when youth unemployment is rising, training providers in my constituency are being told by his Government’s Learning and Skills Council that their apprenticeship budgets for the next academic year will be cut?

We have invested more in apprenticeships for the coming year, and we have announced that we will fund 35,000 extra apprentices. I am happy to look at the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but our determination is to support apprenticeships through this downturn—to invest in them and not to cut them.

Q4. Can my right hon. Friend tell me which is the best way to help people through these difficult economic times? Is it to cut tax for 22 million basic rate taxpayers, increase child benefit and provide extra help for 12 million pensioners, or is it to give tax cuts of £200,000 each to 3,000 millionaires, of which there are 19 in the shadow Cabinet? (276338)

To look at a proposal that, at this time in our history, would give just 3,000 millionaires £200,000 each would be completely scandalous—and to do that for 3,000 of the top estates in this country, whether they have a moat or not, is something that the public would be unable to accept.

Q5. The 80 Traveller families on the unauthorised Dale Farm site in my constituency have now exhausted all their planning and legal options following the Law Lords’ decision earlier this week. To avoid the misery of a forced eviction, the Travellers must now move on peacefully, but the situation could be greatly helped if the Government helped to identify transit sites outside the district—particularly as the Government have some responsibility for this issue because they stopped the council dealing with it in 2003. Will the Prime Minister have a word with his Secretary of State to try to resolve this sad situation? (276339)

This is, first, a matter for the council, but the Secretary of State will look at the matter and talk to the hon. Gentleman.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Durham county council on its excellent and successful bid to be one of only two authorities to host the universal free school meals pilot for primary school children? Does he agree that such measures are necessary if we are to tackle childhood inequality effectively?

Proper nutrition for young children is absolutely crucial, and that is why the pilot project to give primary school children free school meals—something that worked when it was tried by individual councils throughout the country—is being supported by the Government. Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton will be the pilots, and they will test whether free healthy school meals improve children’s health and well-being. Some £20 million in funding will come from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and that money is being matched by the local authorities. We believe that it will show that good nutrition at an early age makes a difference not only to health but to educational performance.

Q6. The country has lost touch with the political system and with this Parliament. On the doorstep, it is clear that there is no confidence left in the Prime Minister’s Government. Why does he not have the courage to trust the people and go to them and let them have a say on how this country should be run? (276340)

Mr. Speaker, we have work to do. The first work we have to do is to clean up the system in the House of Commons. It is for this Parliament to face up to its responsibilities, to change and to clean up the system. I believe that we have made progress, and the way to clean up the system is to take the action to do so. Secondly, we have a recession that we are trying to manage and come through. It is in the interests of the people of this country that we help people who are unemployed, help mortgage holders and help people with small businesses. I have not heard policies from people on the other side of the House that would actually do that.

Q7. Twenty-five years ago, those on the other side of the House told us, “Get on your bike and find a job.” After the miners strike, I was unemployed for two and a half years. During that period of time, I could not find a job because I was being blacklisted—and blacklisting is now rearing its ugly head again in the construction industry. Will this Government give us an assurance that blacklisting is not acceptable in the 21st century? It might have been for that lot, but it is not for this lot. (276341)

The blacklisting of workers or trade unionists has no place in the modern workplace. I said that only a few weeks ago, and I said that we would look at the matter. The Employment Minister has now announced that the Government will bring forward revised regulations to outlaw the practice of discrimination and blacklisting. We plan to move quickly on this. There will be a short consultation over the summer and legislation will then be brought to the House.

The conviction rate for cases of rape has fallen from 19 per cent. to 6.5 per cent. in England and Wales, and to 2.9 per cent. in Scotland. Will the Prime Minister please explain why?

One of the reasons why convictions for rape have gone up in many places is the use of DNA. [Interruption.] I think that Members of the House have to accept that DNA is an important means by which we have found and detected persons involved in rape—but I will look at the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given me and I will write to him.

Q8. Prime Minister, about five years ago Westfield started to develop a shopping centre in Bradford city centre. It should have been completed next year. The company now says that it does not know when it will be completed, and Bradford is left with a huge hole in the heart of its city centre. Will the Prime Minister urge Westfield to keep its commitment to the people of Bradford, and will he also let the House know what extra help he can give to regenerate cities such as Bradford? (276342)

Regeneration projects should be going ahead, and we will do what we can to help make that possible. When Government money is involved, it is usually being advanced so that the public works programmes can move forward. When it is a matter of private sector support, we are happy to bring together all the agencies to see whether there is a way forward whereby private sector money can be brought more fruitfully into the scheme. I am very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the project.

I was privileged earlier this week to chair a seminar held by the Family Matters Institute, the Grandparents Association and Families Need Fathers on the launch of the report, “Do Grandparents Matter?” When will the Prime Minister’s Government make good the pledge made to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), in January 2006 that grandparents should be treated with fairness and equity in the legal system in their heroic and unsung efforts to take care of their own flesh and blood?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the decision in the Budget whereby grandparents of working age who are helping children with childcare can get tax credits as a result. That is one way in which we can help grandparents to help their families hold together and to work with other relatives who want to get to work. That was a big change that was announced in the Budget, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.

Q9. May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to pay personal tribute to you for your great kindness, generosity and understanding, which you showed me when I entered this House four years ago?May I ask the Prime Minister what reassurance he might give those of my constituents who are struggling to keep businesses afloat? Is he aware that the banks are ruthlessly pushing many otherwise viable businesses over the edge by refusing reasonable loans to keep liquidity and cash flowing? They are also beginning to charge outrageous interest rates, far above what is reasonable or understandable. Can his Government do anything to pressurise these ruthless banks to free up lending in order to provide better liquidity until the better times come? Otherwise, good businesses are being pushed out of existence. (276343)

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is clearly concern in all sections of the House about how banks can better serve the public during this economic recession to help us through it. I shall look at what he says about the bank if he will give me the names of the companies and the bank. The important thing is that in the past few weeks there has been a change of policy, and I hope that that change of policy will have an impact in every region and every part of this country. The change of policy is that for the first time—because we have given the banks an insurance policy that they pay for—they are now willing to lend extra money and are committed to doing so. The increase of £70 billion for the economy is very substantial indeed, and companies should now be getting the benefit of offers from banks. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to those banks and remind them of the quantitative targets that have been agreed, and of the other means by which the Government have offered to help small business, including through the Inland Revenue. I shall certainly look at the case that he has raised, but the important thing is that the banks are now under an obligation to lend.

With unemployment at over 2 million, does the Prime Minister agree that one way to create many more jobs and stimulate the economy would be to push forward with the high-speed rail network?

Q10. I thank the Prime Minister for his comments about the Gurkhas, and we look forward to hearing the statement tomorrow. Another recommendation from the Home Affairs Committee is on human trafficking, which I know is a concern of his. Will he look at that recommendation, which asks the Government not to cut the funding for the Metropolitan police human trafficking unit? It is very important that we deal with the perpetrators of this very difficult and important crime. (276344)

I can say to the Chairman of the Select Committee that the unit will have an increased budget; it is not being cut. We are doing whatever we can to support it. We recognise the need for it in difficult times.