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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the global economic downturn on Ukraine’s need for development aid from his Department. (281790)

On a personal note, Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to those of others on your election as Speaker?

The World Bank expects Ukraine to experience a significant recession in 2009. To counter the impact of the recession, the International Monetary Fund has agreed a package with the Ukrainian Government worth $16.4 billion. Other international institutions are standing by if needed.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. He will be aware that western Ukraine has often been referred to as the bread basket of the country, yet it appears to lack the basic storage and transport infrastructure needed to improve efficiency, eliminate poverty and even out some of the inequalities between itself and other regions. Given Ukraine’s ambition to join or draw closer to the EU, does my hon. Friend not agree that there remains a need for the UK to give assistance, principally through his Department?

I commend my right hon. Friend’s interest in Ukraine and I recognise her description of the regional needs of the part of the country to which she refers. She will recognise that there are significant costs involved in the infrastructure for which she has rightly made the case. I hope she will understand when I point her to the work of the World Bank and other international financial institutions on infrastructure in Ukraine and other countries. We will continue to watch the regional economic needs of Ukraine through our involvement with those institutions.

Given the strategic significance of Ukraine as a political buffer zone between the EU and Russia, does the Minister not think that it was perhaps an error of judgment to close the DFID programme in Ukraine last year? It would be an utter tragedy if Ukraine’s democracy should fail, so should we not at the very least be running significant capacity-building programmes to support it?

We are running capacity-building programmes on democracy and good governance through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, the European Commission is also running such programmes. As I indicated in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), we continue to make the case for further involvement from donors to Ukraine. Substantial donor programmes are available through international financial institutions, and we are closely involved in the decisions that they take. Given our need to focus on the poorest countries, I believe that that is the right way forward.

Last weekend the World Bank published its global economic outlook, the development finance report, which predicted that developing countries will lose $1 trillion as a result of the economic downturn. What is the Minister’s Department doing to identify the countries that will be most badly hit and to ensure that development aid is provided to enable them to deal with the downturn?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in economic growth through his work on the Select Committee on International Development. He will know from the leadership of the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we led work at April’s G20 summit to secure additional resources for the IMF and the World Bank to focus on the needs of the poorest people in countries that have been most devastated by the impact of the global recession. We will look to ensure that that support, having been committed, is delivered to those international financial institutions.


2. What steps he is taking to assess the effectiveness of his Department’s programmes in Afghanistan. (281791)

DFID’s work in Afghanistan from 2001 to date was independently evaluated in 2008. All DFID projects have clear, measurable benchmarks to ensure accurate and reliable monitoring in accordance with DFID procedures. The office in Kabul has established a dedicated results team to monitor the effectiveness of our work. We are also planning an independent assessment of DFID’s ongoing work in Helmand province.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. NATO’s Secretary-General said that the problem in Afghanistan was not too much Taliban, but too little good governance. Over the next four years, nearly half the Department’s funding to Afghanistan will be channelled through that country’s Government. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that corruption in that country is tackled effectively?

There are two dimensions to the hon. Gentleman’s question. First, he is right to recognise the significance of governance, which is one of the four identified priorities for the approximately £510 million that we will spend between 2009 and 2013. I concur with the view that it is not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the Government that poses one of the significant challenges—along with others—that NATO and the Afghan people face in the years ahead.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about corruption, which we are approaching in a number of ways. First, in relation to UK funds, we are working through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is independently audited by recognised accountants from outside the country. We have a degree of confidence in those systems. We are also supporting efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Government, because corruption is a consequence and a cause of the poverty affecting Afghanistan.

As my right hon. Friend knows, abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad caused untold damage to the coalition at the time. Now, allegations have been made by the BBC about the abuse of detainees at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Will he tell me what action he proposes to take?

Not least because I heard the allegations on the radio only this morning, I am not in a position to give my right hon. Friend the detailed answer her question deserves, but I will endeavour to speak to my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ensure that an answer is forthcoming.

Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations to you on your election on Monday, and may I wish you many happy years occupying the Chair?

Following the Secretary of State’s previous answer, may I ask him, in the context of the United States’ major reassessment of its strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of the tragic loss of life following the recent drone attack, how we are going to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and to what extent he is reconfiguring his country plan to recognise those problems?

The hon. Gentleman’s question has a number of aspects. We recognise that there is a powerful connection between the interests of the people of Afghanistan and those of the people of Pakistan. In the statement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made to the House on 29 April, it was made clear that we are taking a joined-up approach in what is colloquially called the “AfPak” strategy, because there is a strong strategic interest in having a stable and secure state on both sides of the border. It is of course necessary for the forces of extremism that threaten Afghanistan and Pakistan to be tackled not solely by military means. That is why, along with the development partnership agreement that we have for Pakistan, there has been a significant rebalancing of our programme in recent months towards the needs of education, in particular, in Pakistan. I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on this matter.

Congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker. Your interest in international development is well known, and is very welcome.

At the last DFID questions, the Secretary of State claimed that his Department withdrew funding to the United Nations Development Programme—UNDP—Afghanistan counter-narcotics trust fund as soon as serious weaknesses became apparent. However, I have obtained an internal DFID memo that reveals that the Secretary of State’s predecessor was clearly warned about anticipated problems with the fund before Ministers signed off £20 million for it. Will the Secretary of State explain why Ministers ignored those warnings?

It will not come as a surprise to the House that I am unfamiliar with the memo the hon. Gentleman describes. I can assure hon. Members that the UNDP’s internal evaluation unit recently evaluated operations in Afghanistan, and it was on that basis that ministerial decisions were reached.

Let me read to the Secretary of State from the memo, which Ministers received before signing off that money. It warned that, in Afghanistan, the UNDP’s reporting is “poor”, and that it suffers from a “lack of experienced people” who

“only do the minimum in terms of their contractual obligations”.

Yet, so far this year, the Secretary of State has signed off another £14 million for the UNDP in Afghanistan. Will he pledge today to launch an urgent investigation into whether UK funds have been misused, and to instigate a full review of the taxpayers’ money given to the UNDP in Afghanistan?

We are always seeking to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is used effectively and properly, whether through the UNDP or other parts of our aid programme. It is right to recognise that the review that was published identified weaknesses within the UNDP’s approach regarding co-ordination, a focus on short-term rather than long-term priorities, and the need to simplify and strengthen financial rules. It is on that basis that we have acted. The review is not a secret document; it is available on the UNDP’s internet site, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it informs the decisions that my Department is reaching.

Humanitarian Assistance (Pakistan)

3. What assistance his Department has provided to improve the humanitarian situation in north-west Pakistan in the last 12 months. (281794)

7. What steps his Department is taking with international partners to ensure the direct delivery of aid to internally displaced persons in the autonomous tribal areas of northern Pakistan. (281798)

My Department has made available £22 million for humanitarian assistance in Pakistan, which is helping those displaced by conflict in the federally administered tribal areas as well as those displaced in North West Frontier province. With our international partners, we are ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it most through established co-ordination mechanisms for allocating finance, clear funding criteria and careful monitoring.

For months, the international community has been urging Pakistan to act against the Taliban in the north-west territories. Millions of people have paid the price with death, destruction and internal displacement. Given the number of people living with host communities, what support can DFID provide in the circumstances?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the fact that an estimated 2.4 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict, the vast majority of whom are living in host communities. To ensure that aid gets to those living in host communities, we have helped to establish 34 separate aid stations to enable the fair distribution of aid.

In view of the importance of security in northern Pakistan to NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, does the Minister share my concern that the aid agencies and NGOs are clearly underfunded? Can we give some thought to ensuring that proper resources are made available?

My right hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of interest in development. The Pakistan humanitarian response plan is 35 per cent. funded and the International Committee of the Red Cross appeal is 59 per cent. funded, but it is clear that more could and should be done. We are actively lobbying with other countries, including the Government of Pakistan, to do more.

A group of international aid agencies reckons it has a deficit of about £22.5 million in dealing with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in the Swat valley. Within that, World Vision—a charity with which you, Mr. Speaker, and I have a particular connection—reports a deficit of about £7.5 million. Is there anything that the Minister and the Department can do directly to be involved with that group of charities and the problems it faces in the Swat valley?

The UK’s bilateral contribution of £22 million is the second largest made by any nation to deal with the humanitarian crisis. On the specific lobbying on behalf of World Vision, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and to talk to my officials to see what we can do to help him.

Aid to this region is enormously important not only from a humanitarian perspective, but politically, considering the circumstances. How is the Department dealing with the difficult challenge of the tribal regions and the fact that a lot of the region is still controlled by the Taliban, particularly the Swat valley?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the difficulties in providing aid, especially in the front-line areas. To be honest, we have no real assessment of the number of people who have been displaced and are still beyond the front line. Our difficulty is enabling safe access to those areas for our aid workers.

Pakistan is different: the humanitarian situation requires help in its own right, but that country is also a vital strategic ally of this country. Will the Government put pressure on the rest of the EU to take on its own share of funding the humanitarian assistance? Frankly, our European allies are not doing enough.

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that just last week—at the Europe-Pakistan summit, on 17 June—the European Commission made an additional pledge of some €65 million to deal with the issue he raises.

A few moments ago, the Minister acknowledged that British NGOs face a serious funding shortfall in Pakistan, but, with the monsoon season approaching, 45 per cent. of the money that his Department has announced remains unallocated to specific projects. Can he simply reassure the House that there is a plan and explain exactly where that money will be spent?

I can indeed give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I can also tell him that where concerns have been expressed about the speed at which aid through the UN has been allocated, we have taken the exceptional decision to fund NGOs directly to speed up the process of getting aid to those people in need.

Development Agenda

4. What progress has been made on implementing the development agenda from the G20 London communiqué. (281795)

The London summit achieved important development outcomes, including a commitment to provide additional funds—mainly through the international financial institutions—for many of the poorest countries. We are working closely with partners to ensure that summit agreements are now fully implemented.

In welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, may I say, as Chairman of the International Development Committee, that while the House has gained a great deal, I am afraid that our Committee has lost a great deal? We very much appreciate your contribution.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he not acknowledge that the economic downturn and climate change have mostly been caused by the G20, yet the impact is felt mostly by poor and developing countries? What steps will he take to ensure that the Copenhagen summit delivers for the poor, that there is a Doha development round, and that the pledges made at Gleneagles will be not only maintained but supplemented?

As befits the Chair of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Gentleman asked three questions rather than one. On trade, I assure him that we are continuing to work with our colleagues in the European Union in endeavouring to reach the conclusion to the Doha development round that eluded us last year. As we look ahead to the G8 meeting in L’Aquila and other international gatherings, we will continue to press the countries that made agreements at Gleneagles to meet the commitments that were made back in 2005.

In relation to climate change, I assure the House that we recognise the importance of Europe’s assuming a leadership role, as it did at the time of the Kyoto agreement. We also recognise, in the context of common but differentiated responsibilities, that many of the countries that have been worst affected by climate change bear the least responsibility for generating the emissions that have caused it.

Education (Pakistan)

5. What recent steps his Department has taken to support projects to increase literacy amongst girls in Pakistan. (281796)

My Department has set aside a total of £250 million over five years to improve education in Pakistan. We are designing programmes in North West Frontier province, Punjab and Balochistan that will increase girls’ access to school and improve both their literacy and their numeracy. We are already financing stipends so that 300,000 girls in North West Frontier province can attend school, and the same programme is providing text books for 4.3 million girls and boys.

That is marvellous, and we applaud the Government for their action, but does it not make you weep, Mr. Speaker, that Pakistan spends 60 per cent. of its budget on defence and 11 per cent. on education, and that 42 per cent. of women and girls are illiterate? What can we do to persuade Pakistan to change its warped sense of priorities whereby more money is spent on guns than on education?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that Pakistan’s education spending of just 2.4 per cent. of GDP is among the lowest in the world. He is also right to point out that if we are serious about tackling poverty and social exclusion and dealing with the grievances that lead to insecurity, education must play a central role. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many private conversations are taking place. Members asking questions should be heard, and so should Ministers answering them.

After the earthquake in Kashmir, we raised enough money in Banbury to build a whole new girls’ school in the Pakistan-occupied part of Kashmir. However, like the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I weep, because, notwithstanding assurances from the Ministry, the problems caused by the machinery of government in Islamabad with the adoption of the school were very depressing. Whatever development aid we give Pakistan, we must make it clear to its Government that unless they sort out some fundamental machinery of government issues and make basic joined-up government work, none of that aid will be of any real long-term benefit.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of governance, or about the role of Government in helping donors such as the United Kingdom to get their support on to the ground to meet the needs of the people whom both he and I want to help.

Middle East

6. What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Gaza; and if he will make a statement. (281797)

The conflict earlier this year intensified an already difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza. The pace of deterioration has slowed since the ceasefire in January, but the humanitarian situation remains extremely serious. Around 90 per cent. of Gazans still partly depend on food aid.

Success of the response effort continues to depend on opening the crossings from Israel to allow movement of materials and personnel into Gaza. The UK presses the Israeli Government regularly on this issue.

To say that the situation is serious is masterful understatement; it verges on the desperate. There can, however, be no improvement until the borders are opened. What are the Government doing to impress on the Israeli Government the need to let the basic foodstuffs and essentials of everyday life through the border crossing points and into Gaza?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: access through the border crossings from Israel into Gaza is essential to deal with development aid and to help complement the long-term peaceful political solution that is needed in that part of the world.

A number of British charities are active in Gaza, one of which is Interpal. Its ability to deliver development aid is being seriously constrained by its inability to access international clearing banking facilities. Will the Minister meet the charity to see—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I am not sure whether she can be heard, and there are still far too many private conversations taking place.

Will the Minister meet representatives of Interpal to discuss the difficulties it is having, and to see what help the British Government can offer?

I understand that Interpal has had difficulties in accessing finance, and I am perfectly happy to meet my hon. Friend and the organisation to see what can be done to resolve them.

Part of the problem in Gaza is the rivalry between Fatah and Hezbollah. Does the Minister have any engagement in the discussions to try to keep the peace, and has Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu given any assurances in respect of Gaza in his comments about a two-state solution?

I have had no direct discussions with those two parties representing the Palestinian people, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recently announced support for a two-state solution, which we think will deal with this situation once and for all.


8. What funding his Department has provided to Fairtrade initiatives in the latest period for which figures are available. (281799)

Between 1999 and 2009, the Department for International Development committed just over £3 million-worth of support to Fairtrade, of which £2.6 million has so far been released. The majority of current funding is through the global Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International. We also continue to work in developing countries and internationally to improve countries’ and producers’ access to markets and capacity to trade.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that Plymouth has been at the forefront of promoting Fairtrade, and I am sure we will want to sell the new cosmetic line. However, there are still concerns, including those raised with me by the ladies of the Inner Wheel in Roborough. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, in the current global downturn, his Department will continue to scrutinise the way in which payments are made and ensure that wages are not being cut as markets and trade fall?

I know from a previous visit I made to Plymouth of the importance that Fairtrade is given in the town, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am delighted that she continues to be lobbied by supporters of Fairtrade in Plymouth for further DFID work on this issue. I can assure her that we will continue to fund Fairtrade and to work with the Fairtrade Foundation and with a series of similar initiatives to promote the cause of poor producers getting access to our markets.

Does the Minister agree that we should congratulate Letchworth garden city, the world’s first garden city, on obtaining Fairtrade status two weeks ago, and that this is a fine initiative that helps to market products and assists some of the most vulnerable people in the world?

I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am also delighted that his constituents—and, no doubt, others nearby—have worked so hard to ensure that Letchworth garden city is now a Fairtrade garden city. I look forward to his continuing to raise these issues at DFID questions.

Middle East

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Israeli blockade is causing extreme problems for people in Gaza. Cement supplies have been held up in the blockade, but how can people reconstruct and build their houses if they cannot get those materials?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The United Nations believes that only 25 types of relief out of the some 4,000 that are needed in Gaza are actually getting through the crossings, and construction materials are essential if we are to rebuild Gaza city.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 June. May I also welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to your first Prime Minister’s questions as Speaker of this House? (281805)

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He died serving our country and the people of Afghanistan. His death reminds us how difficult it is for men serving in Afghanistan at the moment. He, and others who have lost their lives, will never be forgotten.

I am sure that the House will wish to send our sincerest condolences also to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell following the tragic news of their death in captivity in Iraq. The taking of hostages is a cruel and barbaric act and can never be justified. I can assure the House that the Government are doing all that we can, and our thoughts and those of everyone in this House will be with the families and friends who wait for news.

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

I wish to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend regarding our troops, the hostages and their families.

One of the key issues raised with me by my constituents is that of housing, and specifically access to affordable housing and the need for mortgage finance. My constituents are aware that despite the urgent need for more house building, Conservatives generally campaign against it, as well as oppose the measures needed to fix the financial system—[Interruption.]

We are investing billions of pounds more in new affordable housing. We are helping more households into home ownership through shared ownership. We have secured commitments from the major banks that they will invest a large amount of the £70 billion extra that they are investing over the course of the next year in housing. Of course, that would not be possible if we were to implement a programme of 10 per cent. cuts in our spending.

The Prime Minister had a bit more than the gist of the question: he had a prepared answer to it as well.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Major Sean Birchall from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who was killed in Afghanistan, and I very much agree with the Prime Minister about expressing our heartfelt sympathy to the families of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell at their loss. The Prime Minister knows that he has our full support in all the efforts being made to free the remaining hostages in Iraq.

Last week, the Prime Minister told the House:

“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”

The Government’s own figures show that that is just not the case. Will he take this opportunity to correct what he told the House last week?

Well obviously yes, in the building of the Olympics capital investment will rise very substantially. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that capital investment is rising from £29 billion to £37.7 billion, and then to £44 billion in 2009-10, and that is to help complete the building of the Olympics. Thereafter it will fall as a result of decisions that we have made, but the comparison is between £44 billion of investment now and—even in real terms—the figure for 1999-2002, when he was in charge of advising at the Treasury. We are investing £44 billion: he was investing only £16 billion.

I am afraid that that is just not good enough. Last week the Prime Minister made a very clear statement to the House of Commons. He said:

“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]

Here are the figures: capital expenditure this year, 2009, is £44 billion; next year, 2010, it is £36 billion; in 2011 it is £29 billion; and in the year of the Olympics, 2012, it is £26 billion. That is a cut of almost half from £44 billion to £26 billion. Will the Prime Minister now apologise, correct his statement and admit that he is cutting capital expenditure?

I was just explaining how we had brought forward capital investment to last year and this year. The figure for capital investment in 2006-07 was £36 billion. That has risen to £38 billion in 2008-09 and to £44 billion in 2009-10. That is so that we can advance capital expenditure to deal with the downturn. The problem for the right hon. Gentleman is that he wants to cut capital investment now. He wants to cut it whereas we are increasing it. We are increasing it to complete the building of the Olympics and other projects, whereas his party would be cutting capital investment now. He has got to face up to the fact that he is going to spend less than us in every year.

The Prime Minister has been caught absolutely red-handed. He made a statement to the House about capital expenditure growing every year and the fact is that it is being cut. If he believed in transparency, honesty and truth in public life, he would get up at that Dispatch Box and say, “I’m sorry, I got it wrong. I gave the wrong figures; here are the right ones.” Now do it.

I have explained to the House that money has been brought forward to 2008-09 and 2009-10. Instead of having expenditure of just £30 billion in 2008-09, it is £38 billion. Instead of expenditure of less in 2009-10, it will be £44 billion. We took the decision to advance public expenditure to deal with the recession. Let him come clean: he would cut public expenditure this year, next year and every year after. He is trying to evade his responsibility for wanting 10 per cent. cuts.

In the answer before last, the Prime Minister talked about the year 2007-08. In the last answer, he talked about the year 2008-09. Those years have already happened. He said at the Dispatch Box last week that capital expenditure would grow between now and the Olympics. The figures are in the Red Book, on page 226. Capital expenditure will be £44 billion in 2009, falling to £36 billion, then to £29 billion and then, in the year of the Olympics, to £26 billion. There is no other way to cut it. There is nowhere else he can hide. He must stand up, explain that he got it wrong and say that what he told the House last week was wrong. Why not do it for once?

We brought forward spending to deal with the recession. I know that he is against our bringing forward the spending, but we brought forward current and capital spending to deal with the recession. Let me tell him that spending is £44 billion in the year 2009-10. That is the highest capital expenditure ever in our country. It compares with the recession years under the Tories, when capital spending was only £12 billion or £16 billion. We are taking the action to invest in our public services—they would cut our public services now. Why does he not admit that there would be 10 per cent. cuts in public services under the Conservatives?

Let us first of all be clear about the Prime Minister’s claims about Conservative policy. Even his own colleagues do not believe him. This is the report that we had from last week’s Cabinet:

“Darling pointed out that Brown’s Tory cut figures did not represent the”—


“party’s policy but were merely extrapolations”—

[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It gets more interesting:

“Cooper, previously the Treasury minister responsible for public spending, echoed his concerns”,


“According to one source who was present, Brown was visibly irritated at the way he had been undermined, and brought the meeting to an early close”.

He says that he wants to be a teacher, but it sounds like he has lost control of the classroom. Last week, at that Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister did not talk about bringing forward capital expenditure. He said, very clearly:

“Capital expenditure will grow until the year of the Olympics.”— [Official Report, 17 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 295.]

Let me give him one more chance to show that the talk of transparency, truth and honesty means something. He should find that moral compass, stand up there and tell us that he got it wrong.

I read out the figures to the House. We are spending £38 billion in that year 2008-09—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending £44 billion in the coming year—more than the Tories would ever do. We are spending more money on capital investment than at any time in our history—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister, but there is simply far too much noise. The public do not like it, and neither do I.

We have to face up to the fact that a sensible debate in this country means that the Conservatives are going to cut spending on housing, education, policing and all the vital public services. The right hon. Gentleman cannot evade the fact that his figures are lower than any of ours in any year. That is the truth about public spending in our country.

The entire country will have heard one very important thing—that this Prime Minister cannot give a straight answer, and that he is not a big enough man to say that he got it wrong.

His is the party of 10 per cent. cuts in public expenditure, and the party that would cut the vital public services at a time of recession. We have brought forward public expenditure to help people stay in their homes and get into jobs and to help build schools and hospitals. Those are exactly the public services that the Conservatives would cut savagely, by 10 per cent. That is not going to be allowed to happen. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Fabricant, you must calm yourself. It is not good for your health. I call Paul Farrelly.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I also welcome you to your new role? Many of us here will welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has rowed back from holding an inquiry into Iraq in private. It would have been a misjudgment to do so. That said, the Opposition motion and the amendment before us this afternoon contain two points of difference—whether the terms of reference are discussed and published, and whether the committee should have a wider composition. What can the Prime Minister say to the House to address those two points of difference?

I can say that Sir John Chilcot, the chair of the inquiry—and it is an independent inquiry—has written to me to make it absolutely clear that the inquiry will need expert assessors at the highest level including in military, legal, international development and reconstruction matters. He has already begun to identify people who may be willing to serve in that capacity. As for the terms of reference, I cannot think of an inquiry with wider terms of reference. It covers nearly eight years, from 2001 to 2009. It covers all issues that refer to the conflict itself, the causes of the conflict, and the reconstruction after the conflict. The inquiry will be set up on the basis that it will be allowed to have all the evidence and materials, whether classified or not, that it needs to look into the matter. The terms of reference of this inquiry are very wide indeed.

I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Major Sean Birchall, who tragically lost his life in Helmand this week. I of course also join in the expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell. We all hope that the remaining hostages will be released safely as soon as possible.

On the Gurkhas, the Prime Minister was wrong and was forced to back down. On MPs’ expenses, he was wrong and forced to back down. On the Iraq inquiry, he was wrong and is now being forced to back down. The only gear left for this Government seems to be reverse, so when will we hear from him that he is wrong too on public spending?

I am not wrong on public spending. We want to increase public spending. I am not wrong on wanting to help people in difficulty in the recession by helping the unemployed and home owners. It is the Liberal party that wants to cut public expenditure, not the Cons—not the Labour party. [Interruption.]

Order. I know it is the third time, but perhaps third time will be lucky. We must have some order in this House.

The Prime Minister cannot keep avoiding the questions. Today, new figures from the EU have been published that show that we have the largest underlying deficit anywhere in Europe. Why does he not admit that balancing the nation’s books will take big, difficult, long-term decisions? Nobody is fooled by his trick of dressing up cuts as investment. We are setting out what needs to happen—unlike him, and unlike the Leader of the Opposition—on Trident, on baby bonds, and on tax credits for high-income families. There are some ideas, now where are his?

Given that there is no problem of inflation at the moment in our country, and given that interest rates are low, it is right for us to take action to help people get into work. It is right for us to take action to help 150,000 businesses, as we are doing. It is right for us to move forward the housing programme and our programme of capital investment. These are the right things to do. I do not think that the Liberals, with their proposals to cut public spending, are doing the right thing at the moment at all.

Q2. Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, and congratulations on your election. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spell out the implications for the public services, pensioners and the less well off of the 10 per cent. cut proposed by the Opposition? (281806)

Increasingly, the choice within our country will become one between us wanting to preserve our public services and wanting to expand them and a Conservative party that is determined to cut them by 10 per cent. Once the public knows that that is the choice, Conservative Members will have to explain in every constituency how many police, nurses and teachers are going to be cut as a result of their restrictions on spending.

Can the Prime Minister confirm whether he has had any correspondence, e-mail, telephone calls or texts from Damian McBride since the day he resigned, and just to clear up the confusion that there seems to be around this issue, will he write to the Parliamentary Standards Authority confirming the answer to this question?

The answer is no, but is it not amazing when we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other major issues that a Back Bencher can reduce himself to re-asking a question that was asked last week?

Q3. Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1552 regarding steel making on Teesside? What help and support is he willing to give so that we can keep the Redcar steel complex open and protect 22,000 direct and indirect jobs as well as a strong manufacturing base? (281808)

I have talked to the company and also met the trades unions, as has the Business Secretary. The future of steel making in this region is absolutely crucial, so we are trying to do everything we can to make that happen. Clearly, there is a dispute between Tata and the partners involved in the consortium that has now withdrawn its order for steel making in the area. We want to support a reconciliation between the two groups, which is what we are trying to do. In the meantime, One North East is trying to help people in search of jobs.

The Prime Minister’s insult to the Law and Justice party of Poland in his European statement yesterday is a great insult to the President of Poland, who is a member of that party and to the Polish people who elected that party into office. No matter what he may think of the Law and Justice party, he must understand that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom he has a duty to implement basic diplomatic procedures.

I have very good relationships with the person the hon. Gentleman is talking about. As for the Polish Law and Justice party, the Conservatives should look at the policies of the parties they are having dealings with.

Q4. Can the Prime Minister tell the House of his reaction to recent events in Burma? Does he agree that the imprisonment, illegal as it is, of pro-democracy campaigners and the shameful, farcical and sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi does nothing for Burma’s standing in the international community? (281809)

First, let me congratulate my right hon. Friend on the 27th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons; he has given great service, particularly in terms of our relations with other countries. In Burma a sham trial of Aung San Suu Kyi is taking place, and it is completely unacceptable not just to us, but to all members of the international community. At the last meeting of the European Council, we sent out a powerful message that unless action is taken in Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi, we will be prepared to take further sanctions against the regime. I have also talked to the UN Secretary-General and encouraged him to visit Burma—Mr. Gambari, his representative, is there at the moment. I hope that the Secretary-General will visit Burma to send a message to the regime as soon as possible.

In May 1997, there were 1,826 people unemployed in Wellingborough; at the end of last month, that figure had risen to 3,366—an increase of 84 per cent. Whose fault is that: is it (a) the last Conservative Government; (b) the previous US President; or (c) the Prime Minister who claimed he had ended boom and bust?

The figures are all the more reason to support our policies to get people back to work. Were it not for the policies we are adopting, 500,000 more people would be out of work—that is what official estimates say. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the public expenditure we are engaged in to help people get back into work.

Q5. Mr. Speaker, it gives me particular pleasure to welcome you to the Chair as our new reforming Speaker. May I say how much I endorse the wise words of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who called for the whole House now to get behind you? That should be the whole House.The Prime Minister deserves great credit for bringing forward proposals to establish the Parliamentary Standards Bill and to set up a Select Committee on reform of the House of Commons, but may I draw his attention to the unnecessarily tight terms of reference on today’s Order Paper, and to the cross-party amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? Surely, it cannot be right for the Committee to be constrained to discuss only non-governmental business. (281810)

We have proposed measures to modernise the House of Commons, in particular the election of Select Committee Chairs, the scheduling of non-Government business and the raising of public issues for debate. All those other matters can be considered in due course, and the Leader of the House will lead a debate on them.

Mr. Speaker, the university of Essex is proud of you.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives were humiliated in the local elections in Colchester. Will the Prime Minister discuss with his Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families why Essex county council is ignoring what the Secretary of State promised in the House in May last year, and is proceeding to close two secondary schools, against the democratic wish of the people of my constituency?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, investment in schools is rising, as is investment in new school buildings generally. The hon. Gentleman has specific questions he wishes to address to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I hope that he will be able to meet my right hon. Friend soon.

Q6. This morning, Superintendent Simon Corkill from Wembley police station telephoned me—[Interruption.]—to say that there had been a drop in gun crime of 45 per cent., a drop in knife crime of 19 per cent. and a drop in youth offending of 19 per cent. in the past year. I know the Prime Minister will want to congratulate Wembley police force on those statistics, but will he join me in asking for a 10 per cent. cut next year? I mean, of course, a further cut in the statistics. (281811)

Since 1997, the investment we have made in neighbourhood policing and in policing generally has led to a reduction in crime. As a result of that investment, people can feel safer in their homes, but it is equally important that we maintain investment in policing—a 10 per cent. cut in policing budgets would be totally disastrous for police forces and communities.

Q7. One in four people will suffer at some point in their life from a mental health problem, and there is a great deal of stigma about that. Will the Prime Minister take some advice from Alastair Campbell, whose advice seemed to work very well for his predecessor? When giving evidence to the Speaker’s Conference on improving diversity, Mr. Campbell suggested that we get rid of the provision in the Mental Health Act 1983 that Members of Parliament who are sectioned for a mental health problem lose their seat. Will the Prime Minister take steps on that measure and end stigma against people with mental health problems? (281812)

Mental health is a serious problem and we should look at it with great care before we make any decisions, but of course I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says. I think he will understand that it needs the greatest of care.

Q8. Hopwood Hall college in my constituency delivers vocational programmes to learners throughout Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale—all areas of high deprivation. The college capital programme has had to be put on the back burner because of the funding crisis at the Learning and Skills Council. Will the Prime Minister have a look at the specific problem for me, and perhaps designate the appropriate Minister to meet the college principal, the local authority and me to see if we can get ourselves out of this mess? (281813)

The Learning and Skills Council has written to the principals of all colleges about capital investment for the future. It hopes to announce projects to go through to the next stage of the process as soon as possible. As my hon. Friend will know, we made available an extra £300 million in the Budget for further education colleges. I am sure that the Minister will be happy to meet him.

Q9. May I say to the Prime Minister that this year’s 10 per cent. increase in applications to higher education is a massive cause for celebration? The fact that the major increases are particularly among young black males, students over 40 and people in lower socio-economic groups is a double cause for celebration. Will the Prime Minister therefore say why the planned 15,000 extra higher education places were cut to 10,000 last year and are now being cut to 3,000? Is it not better to invest in people in higher education than to invest in them on the dole queues? (281814)

We want more people to be able to go to university. If there are more applications this year, we must look at that very carefully. I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman says about the numbers, and I know that the Business Secretary is looking at what can be done. We want to give this year’s school leavers a guarantee that they will also have opportunities, and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is taking action to ensure that opportunities are available to every school leaver this summer.

Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware of the pain caused by very high water bills to my constituents in the far south-west, especially those on low and modest incomes. We eagerly look forward to the publication of the interim findings of the Walker review on water metering and charging. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a group of colleagues who have been working on finding solutions for many years to see how far the review will be able to help to address the problems? (281815)

My hon. Friend has campaigned on water charges in her region for many years. I believe that the interim report is scheduled for publication next week, with a final report expected in the autumn. We will provide a full response following the publication of the final report and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about it.

A considerable number of my constituents are Equitable Life victims and the quality of the retirement that they paid for has been crippled. The Government’s response to the two ombudsman’s reports added insult to that injury. Will the Prime Minister look again at the delays in paying compensation and the partiality of the Government’s compensation scheme?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the ombudsman made certain recommendations, which we are looking at. We have set up a separate inquiry to look at the implication of what was said and we will report in due course.

Q11. Despite all the point scoring on cuts in public expenditure, will my right hon. Friend assure me that no money will be cut from protecting our armed forces on active service? Will he say that, in any circumstances, the priority will be to spend whatever money is available on the front line, unlike the situation under the Tories, who made redundancies while— (281816)

We have shown our commitment to our armed forces by increasing expenditure on them every year. We have made extra money available for all the additional responsibilities that they have had to discharge in Iraq and Afghanistan. We want a spending path for the armed forces that is completely consistent with their responsibilities. It would not make sense—regardless of need and what has happened to the economy—to announce 10 per cent. cuts in the defence budget now.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he has received advice from the Chief of the Defence Staff calling for sustained and substantial reinforcement for our hard-pressed armed forces in Afghanistan?

If the hon. Gentleman was here yesterday, he would know that I answered exactly that question. I said that we had raised the number of forces in Afghanistan for the period of the election campaign from 8,100 to 9,000. For that period, which takes us right through to the autumn, we are meeting additional responsibilities to ensure that the democracy of Afghanistan is maintained and that elections can happen with greater security and safety. Of course, we maintain our ongoing campaign against the Afghanistan Taliban.

Q12. Does my right hon. Friend believe that it is the role of mainstream UK political parties to associate with Latvia’s For Fatherland and Freedom party, which honours veterans of the Waffen-SS, or does he believe that that should be left to the British National party? (281817)

Is it not remarkable that the Conservatives have formed an alliance in Europe that excludes the German Christian Democrats, excludes the French party of President Sarkozy, excludes the Italian party of Prime Minister Berlusconi—[Interruption.] —excludes all reputable political parties in Europe—[Interruption.]

Would the Prime Minister agree with me that both the Tamil and Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka deserve an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka? Given the cowardly decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council to resist any such inquiry, what steps can he take to make sure that the issue is not abandoned and forgotten?

As the hon. Lady may know, I have spoken to the President of Sri Lanka, and I have urged him to ensure reconciliation with the Tamil community. It is very important, after the events that we have seen happen, that those people who have been displaced are given urgent humanitarian help, that the regime itself recognises that it has to make peace with the Tamil members of the community, and that action is taken as quickly as possible for that purpose. What we need is not violence in Sri Lanka but reconciliation.