Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service Reform

I have not received any specific representations on civil service reform, but this House knows that we remain committed to ensuring that the civil service is transparent and accountable and delivers the maximum value for every public pound of investment.

For civil service reforms to have an impact outside Whitehall, we need fuller information about the activities of senior civil servants. The delayed publication of the 2007 hospitality lists was just a start. Should we not, for example, place in the public domain permanent secretaries’ diaries? Would that not help to create the sort of transparency that the public expect nowadays from unelected officials, and help to refresh the machinery of government as part of real constitutional renewal?

I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue, and he will know about the commitment to transparency in publishing all details of senior civil service hospitality and expenses. He will also know that the Cabinet Secretary yesterday took the first step in publishing his own expenses, a move that was warmly welcomed by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Does the Minister believe that it is proper that when the civil service code is drafted it should be scrutinised by Parliament as part of a Bill, rather than as secondary legislation?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to placing the civil service code on a statutory basis. That forms part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that will come before the House. As with all these things, the challenge is to find legislative time, but the important point is that the civil service has taken very substantial steps to improve and to enhance accountability without legislation, and that is to be welcomed.

Should we not warmly congratulate the Cabinet Secretary on publishing his own expenses, and also those of all top senior civil servants, and is that not an example to the wider public sector?

It is a pleasure to congratulate the Paymaster General and the Minister of State on their appointments. We look forward to having many fruitful discussions both across the Dispatch Box and elsewhere.

A report in May by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that finance directors in central Government Departments do not “have a pivotal place” at the public sector “top table” and

“their boards have a mixed appetite for transparency in financial decisions”.

In light of the crying need for greater efficiency in the face of Britain’s worsening public finances, does the Minister agree that the status and authority of such finance directors need to be raised to the same level as that which they enjoy in the private sector?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I entirely agree with his sentiment. The value-for-money discipline that the finance director ultimately oversees needs to be a cultural discipline in Government Departments, promoted in every possible way with maximum transparency. I would also draw to his attention and underline, however, the success of the savings made by central Government through the civil service as a result of the Gershon review: £26 billion worth of savings have been made, with plans for a further £35 billion worth of savings, in order that we can continue to invest in public services as we believe the public wish.

We are familiar with the numbers that the Paymaster General has just read out, but we are slightly less convinced about their relationship with the reality of efficiencies actually delivered. Will she confirm that the now much delayed Constitutional Renewal Bill will include provisions that were in the draft Civil Service Bill, which was promised for more than a decade but still has not seen the light of day in Parliament? Will the Constitutional Renewal Bill contain provisions on special advisers? Given the corrosive effect of some special advisers on the quality and integrity of government, should not the Bill place a cap on their number and reassert in law that their role is to advise Ministers and not to direct the civil service—or does the fact that Damian McBride is apparently still in contact with Ministers just go to show that a change of culture within Whitehall will not happen without a change of Government?

If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make assertions such as the one he made in relation to Damian McBride, he needs to provide some evidence. The important step the Government have taken has been to publish—the Prime Minister has been absolutely unequivocal about this—a code for special advisers, which was very recently updated to underline with absolute clarity special advisers’ responsibilities. I would just add that it is very easy to abuse special advisers as a category on the basis of the bad behaviour of a tiny minority, but in my view they greatly enhance the effective working of government, and that should be welcomed.

Business Disruption Plans

2. What steps her Department is taking as part of its civil contingencies responsibilities to increase the proportion of small businesses which have a business disruption plan. (283135)

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice, which ensures that advice reflects local conditions at times of emergency and meets local needs. To support that work, the Government have set up a business continuity advice line and in 2008 we published a national risk register to encourage organisations to prepare for the impact of business disruption. In addition, we are supporting the quality of that advice by the adoption of a British standard for business continuity.

In March, a Cabinet Office survey found that the proportion of small businesses that had a business continuity plan fell from 25 per cent. to only 14 per cent. The possibility of allowing a premium discount with insurers was being considered to see whether that would reverse the trend in respect of companies that had a business disruption plan. Will the Minister say whether she agrees with that strategy and how far the Cabinet Office has got with that investigation?

It is clearly the responsibility of local authorities to pursue that policy with their small businesses and through their local organisations. However, the figures to which the hon. Lady refers rightly give cause for concern, and I am happy to write to her further about that matter.

Voluntary Sector

3. What assessment she has made of the effects of the economic downturn on the financial viability of the voluntary sector; and if she will make a statement. (283137)

We recognise that there is a double challenge for the sector during the economic downturn: not only is there an increased demand for services, but there are concerns about financial viability. In response, we have devised a significant package of support for the third sector comprising up to £42.5 million of targeted supported, which is delivering real help now, when it is needed, and the £16.7 million hardship fund announced in the Budget in April. In addition, the sector will have a share in the £1.2 billion future jobs fund. That is a comprehensive package of measures. It includes support for volunteers, grants for small organisations and social enterprises, support for jobs and loans to assist partnership working.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her extensive answer and I welcome her to her post. Does she realise that some people, particularly those with economic problems and the charities that deal with such problems, are encountering more difficulties than others? As money is being filtered into the Olympics as well, such people are finding it very hard to make ends meet these days. What additional help can be given to those people, particularly those who are having problems balancing their house budgets?

It was an extensive answer because it is an extensive package of support. The two key things that I should point out to my hon. Friend are the £42 million-plus package, which will support in various ways those organisations facing difficulties because of the recession, and the hardship fund. That will apply in a number of different ways, and charities and voluntary organisations will find it very useful. In addition, £515 million of support is available generally from the Office of the Third Sector. All those things coming together will provide significant help through these difficult times.

Please will the Minister make an assessment of the impact, during the economic downturn, on charities and others of the area charging regime used by water companies? The rain tax is having a substantial impact across the country. There is not a charitable organisation in my constituency, be it a charity shop, a scout group, a church or any other voluntary group, that is not being adversely affected by the tax.

I certainly understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because all of us, as individual Members of Parliament, receive correspondence from a wide range of organisations in our constituencies. I understand that this matter is being examined by the regulators and that Ministers have been talking to them in order to look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to examine the proposal made only a few months ago—I understand that it is still subject to detailed evaluation in her Department—for lifetime legacies to be brought into the field of charitable giving? That would make a big difference at a time of great difficulty for charities.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I know that other countries, in particular the United States, have taken on board lifetime legacies in a significant way. I shall look into the matter, because we want to ensure that charities, the voluntary sector and the third sector as a whole can access support when they need it. That is one area that we can consider.

May I press the new Minister for a better answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key)? Church groups, scout groups and sports clubs face crippling hikes in their water bills as a result of the proposed changes. Three months ago, I asked the previous Minister whether he would consider a moratorium, at least until an impact assessment was carried out. He said that he would speak to colleagues across Government, but we have heard nothing and time is running out. In welcoming the members of the new team, may I ask them what their view is? Will they consider a moratorium or the idea of a special social tariff, or will they continue the policy of doing nothing?

That is an interesting question from the party that privatised the water industry, which has had a direct impact on the bills that are being seen today. After three weeks in office, I do not have a final answer for the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will understand that I want to look into the matter. We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are talking to colleagues in Government and the regulators about the issue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the hardest hit by the recession are young people. How will the hardship fund in particular, and the voluntary sector in general, help young people to obtain the necessary skills that they need to get through the recession and find much needed jobs at the end of it?

My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. By volunteering or becoming involved in the third sector, people gain skills that help them into employment. For young people specifically, I would point her to the charity v, which has significant funding from the Government and is building a database of volunteering opportunities for young people. Many of those enable young people to gain skills that will lead them into work. V also provides support to ensure that volunteering is an activity that builds new skills.

Democratic Renewal

4. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy on democratic renewal. (283139)

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been extensive ministerial discussions about democratic renewal. The Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new democratic renewal council to drive forward the Government’s commitment to further reform. We have already introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill and published our draft legislative programme, which includes the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister. Is she aware that he wrote two letters in March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking the committee to look into the whole question of Members’ remuneration, allowances and outside interests, covering what the Prime Minister called “the full picture”? Why then are the Government rushing through the House a Bill on the constitution that deals with precisely those matters before Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations? Is not this all about bad government and saving the Prime Minister’s political skin?

No, the Prime Minister’s sole concern is to restore public confidence in politics and the way in which this House and Members conduct their business. That is why he took the initiative, in the light of all the expenses revelations, to bring forward specific proposals. He has made it clear that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry is independent and that we will accept its recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, it was clear that the public wanted action now, and the Prime Minister and the Government have acted on that.

Does the Paymaster General agree that it is most unfortunate that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry, ranging as it does across all aspects of the House, has chosen today to be in Northern Ireland, when it is Prime Minister’s questions and the majority of Members from Northern Ireland are likely to be here? I hope that it is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of Members’ access to the inquiry.

As Sir Christopher Kelly is the independent chairman of that independent inquiry, he is free to make the arrangements that he needs to make to take the views of the public in every area of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we all welcome that. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the feedback of the people of Northern Ireland today.

Will my right hon. Friend, as part of this discussion about democratic renewal, include the abolition of the Act of Settlement, which is simply legalised sectarianism and has no role in the 21st century?

I do not think that I would be being candid with my hon. Friend were I not to say that that is not part of the provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

While I welcome the Government’s new-found desire for democratic reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council—a closed Cabinet Sub-Committee made up solely of Labour Members and therefore neither national nor democratic—is possibly the worst way to do that. Will the new ministerial team reconsider that secrecy and, instead, set up a citizens convention to ensure the widest possible public involvement and support?

The National Democratic Renewal Council is part of the machinery of government, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State sit on it. However, it is associated with a wider, more extensive and deeper commitment to engagement with the public in debating these issues than has ever been the case before. I am quite sure that proper consideration will be given to the arguments not just for a citizens commission—an argument with which I am familiar—but for other forms of sustained public engagement that will shape the conclusions of the consultation.

Charities (Economic Downturn)

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effects of the economic situation on the charitable sector. (283142)

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). The recession affects different organisations in many different ways, and that is why we have provided a significant package of support that has different elements to it—support for volunteers, grants for small organisations, social enterprises and support for jobs, as well as loans to assist partnership working.

I thank the Minister for her reply. On Monday, Cancer Care Cymru, which is a local charity based in my constituency and which funds specialist cancer nurses to work closely with people who are suffering from cancer and receiving treatment in the NHS, announced that it was closing because of a slump in fundraising. That is a terrible loss for people suffering from cancer in the Cardiff area. What can we do on a general level to help to stop such closures?

My hon. Friend has raised a very serious issue, which could be happening in different places, but I recommend that she looks at the different funding that is available. First, I recommend the hardship fund that will be in place at the end of this month. I also suggest that she looks at the package of £42 million that is available to provide real help now, and she might find that there is a way there to help the local community. Support is also being given through the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to help organisations with things such as fundraising, because that is key for things such as cancer care. She might find that there is some support there that she can talk to the NCVO about, so that her charity can get some extra support with fundraising, too.

Is the Minister aware that the very hardest hit in the charitable sector are the small charities that provide services that are much valued locally and that will not be provided by any of the statutory or larger organisations? I am referring to small charities such as the young mental health charity in my constituency. What advice can she give Members of Parliament and others to try to help these small charities to survive the present recession?

The hon. Lady makes a significant point. It is often the smallest charities that make a real difference to people’s lives on the ground. May I direct her to the funding that is available through the grassroots grants? About £130 million is available that is issued locally. In her area, there will be a department of a third sector organisation issuing those funds in sums of anything from £5,000 to a few hundred pounds. On the ground, that can make a real difference. If she has any problems, I ask her please to come to me, and we can direct her to the funding in her area.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution relies totally on donations from the public. I declare an interest as a member of its national council. One of the burdens that it faces in this recession, and has faced throughout its existence, is the VAT that it has to pay on equipment and fittings. Will the Minister take that matter up with colleagues in other Departments to try to get some sort of exemption so that the RNLI can carry out its work on behalf of us all?

I pay tribute to the RNLI for its work. In a previous life, I met its representatives on many occasions. This is a matter for the Treasury, but we will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of Treasury Ministers—[Interruption.]

Order. There is quite a hubbub of private conversations taking place, and I note that some of the people busily chattering away have already had the good fortune to ask a question. I hope that they will extend a similar courtesy to others.

Community Asset Transfers

The stronger and more sustainable third sector organisations are, the better they can help to build stronger and more resilient communities. To that end, my Department is funding a £30 million community assets programme and we are working with the Big Lottery Fund to refurbish underused buildings in 38 communities across England. We are also working across Government to invest in community assets: for example, the Department for Communities and Local Government has invested in the £70 million Communitybuilders programme.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but will she say what assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Big Lottery Fund in administering the scheme?

The scheme got off to a slow start because the work had to be put in place, but we now have 38 different organisations receiving significant grants from the Big Lottery Fund. Those grants will make a real difference on the ground, and I am pleased with how matters are now progressing.

In my constituency, the local council wants to transfer the assets of community centres to the local community. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the people running centres such as the Norton community centre do not want the responsibility of taking on contractual and employment liabilities?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that concerns many people. When we talk about community asset transfers, we are talking about the Government putting in money to support organisations and communities. The will to do that has come from the communities themselves. With community asset transfers, the liability is transferred not to the community but to an asset. Local councils must realise that the scheme is funded by the Government for local communities. It must not be forced on local communities, but should be carried out with their co-operation and direction.

Third Sector Funding

7. How much funding her Department has allocated to charities and the voluntary sector from the (a) Capacitybuilders and (b) Communitybuilders fund in the last 12 months. (283144)

In the last financial year, Capacitybuilders allocated over £24 million to charities and voluntary sector organisations. Communitybuilders was announced in the Department for Communities and Local Government White Paper “Communities in Control” in July 2008. As planned, the programme will be open for applications this summer, and its national partner will be the Adventure Capital Fund.

The gift aid programme is making good progress, and it gives charities a significant amount of additional money. A recent specific reform is that the profits generated when goods given to charity shops are sold can be donated as gift aid to the organisations involved. There is further work to be done with gift aid, and I understand that the Treasury is looking at it at the moment, in consultation with Ministers.

Grassroots Grants

8. What criteria her Department uses to allocate Grassroots grants to local community organisations. (283145)

The grassroots grants scheme is worth £130 million and provides small grants and endowments for local community groups. The beauty of the programme is that local communities make the funding decisions, based on local priorities. So far, almost 10,000 grants have been awarded, to the benefit of many organisations that had not benefited before. The criteria set by the Government are that the recipients are bona fide third sector organisations with an income below £30,000, that they meet the needs of the local community and that they are driven by committed local volunteers.

The number of children trafficked into Britain is increasing. The police cannot cope, and local authorities are finding that the children abscond from their homes. Why will the Government support local, voluntary and community groups more, as they can provide guardianship, legal advice and support for children in distress? I hope that the Minister does not mention the POPPY project, as that deals only with adults. Why are the Government not supporting voluntary and community effort more, when the public sector is failing?

I am not aware of any applications under the grassroots fund for the sort of organisations that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. However, the money in the grassroots fund has been well received, and we will be happy to look at applications from any organisation.

Charities (Economic Downturn)

9. What steps the Government have taken to assist charities that have been affected by the failure of Icelandic banks; and if she will make a statement. (283146)

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to help third sector organisations affected by all aspects of the international economic crisis. We have listened to the sector, including those organisations affected by the Icelandic banking collapse. The packages announced in the real help for communities fund and the more recently announced hardship fund total £59 million. That clearly demonstrates our commitment to supporting the sector through difficult times.

A large number of charities have had their assets frozen as a result of the Icelandic banking collapse. Why have the Government ignored the Treasury Committee’s recommendation for compensation, and will the Government consider establishing a short-term Treasury loan fund to help out sound charities facing genuine hardship? [Interruption.]

The Government are doing an enormous, unprecedented amount to help charities and voluntary sector organisations that are facing difficulties in the recession. The hon. Gentleman outlined the situation facing one group of organisations. I have to say to him that it would be difficult to single out one particular organisation or reason. The hardship fund that is in place, which is real help now, is a greater package than has ever been in place to help charities through difficult times. It has never been matched by any previous Government.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the beloved Christie cancer hospital in Manchester on its successful campaign to obtain a refund of charity money lost following the collapse of an Icelandic bank? Will she thank the Government for arranging that refund, and will she congratulate Lord Bradley on heading that successful campaign?

Everyone is always pleased—indeed, the Prime Minister has said so himself—when organisations that are in difficulties gain support. The refund was a local decision, taken by NHS North West, responding to a local need. We are all very pleased to see Christie getting the support that it deserves.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


With your permission, Mr. Speaker, the whole House will wish to join me in welcoming today Her Majesty the Queen’s approval for a new form of recognition for the families of those members of the armed forces killed on operations and as a result of terrorism. Her Majesty will be making an announcement today, directly to the families of armed forces personnel, in which she will make clear her personal attachment to the new recognition. I am confident that that will be a very special and fitting tribute indeed to the great debt that we owe to all those who die on operations, and to the enduring loss shouldered by their families.

This morning I met ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further such meetings later today.

Our armed forces are the bravest and the best in the world, and in the armed forces day celebrations on Saturday the people showed how much they love and respect them.

May I ask the Prime Minister about swine flu? A number of people in Castle Point—adults and children—have tested positive, and the local campaigning newspaper, the Echo, is keen to reassure people that progress is being made. What will he do next to tackle the problem?

I share with the hon. Gentleman the respect that he has stated for our armed forces, and for the armed forces day on Saturday, when thousands of people in all parts of the country wanted to give recognition—deserved recognition—to the work that our armed forces do every day.

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of swine flu. He may know that we have had an emergency meeting of the Cobra group—the civil contingencies secretariat—today to look at the incidence of the disease. I have to report to the House that the total number of confirmed cases for the UK now stands at 6,538. That compares with just 2,236 last week. That large rise in numbers of confirmed cases means that a more flexible and local approach will be used in areas where there are higher numbers of cases reported. The Health Protection Agency, in conjunction with the NHS, is doing excellent work to limit the spread of the virus. We continue to monitor the situation closely, making sure that arrangements are in place so that the UK remains well placed to deal with the pandemic. We will adapt those arrangements as the situation changes, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will make a statement to this House tomorrow on the outcome of our deliberations.

I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the armed forces. My grandfather, Hugh MacDonald, served in the Black Watch during the second world war. He is buried in the Black Watch section of the military cemetery in Gibraltar. The House will excuse me for using Scottish vernacular, but I fear that he might be birling in his grave at the thought that the famous red hackle of the Black Watch may be no more. What assurances can the Prime Minister give, not only to me but to serving personnel and veterans, whom I met on Saturday, that the Black Watch red hackle will remain the symbol of the Black Watch?

I, too, met Black Watch servicemen on Saturday and people who have contributed greatly to our armed forces. I can assure my hon. Friend that the tradition that he talks about will be maintained as long as the Army exists.

I welcome what the Prime Minister said, and I agree with him about the Queen’s new recognition for our armed forces—we should all be incredibly proud of what they do on our behalf.

Last week, it was demonstrated for everyone to see that capital spending under Labour will be cut. Now I want to turn to total spending. Does the Prime Minister accept that his own figures show that once the Treasury’s forecast for inflation is taken into account, total spending will be cut after 2011?

No, total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013-14. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, it will continue to rise—[Interruption.]

I think that that answer gets zero per cent. The Prime Minister said very clearly no, it will rise, so can he explain a copy of a Treasury presentation that was given to us? On page 7, there are headings for current spending and capital spending, and the headline says very clearly: “Reduction in medium-term spending”. May I ask the Prime Minister, if even the Treasury is giving presentations around the country saying that public spending as a total is being cut, why cannot he admit to the truth?

I have told the right hon. Gentleman previously that current spending is going to rise, and that capital spending, as I explained last week, will fall after 2011. These are the public spending projections for the future, but I have to tell him that the debate about public spending is about how we return to growth and jobs in the economy. The reason we have advanced spending to 2009-10 is so that we can spend to get out of recession. We put forward proposals for homes and jobs, and for more money in 2009-10. The Opposition have rejected this expenditure. We have put forward proposals for expenditure in 2010-11—increasing expenditure, and the Opposition have rejected that.

The capital spending that we have advanced to 2009-10 and 2010-11 is therefore not available after 2011. This is precisely the way in which a Government will act to take the country out of recession, and I must therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman why—[Interruption.] Oh yes. His shadow Chancellor should explain why he was going into television studios yesterday saying that he was going to cut schools now, cut Sure Start now, cut the September guarantee for school leavers now, and do nothing about unemployment. That is surely the issue: we cannot get out of recession unless we spend now on the services that we need.

Today we see a Prime Minister in full retreat. In the first answer, he says that we are going to get a zero per cent. increase in public spending—that is a new one. In the second answer, he finally admits that he is going to cut, and cut deeply, capital spending. He talks about the debate about public spending: the debate is about whether the Prime Minister can be straight with the British public. Let me ask him again. He stood at the Dispatch Box and talked about total spending year after year—that is the figure that people are interested in. As the Treasury itself says, when it comes to total spending, there is a reduction, not a freeze, in medium-term spending—I am glad that the Prime Minister is talking to the Chancellor for the first time in weeks—and given that it is talking about a cut, will the Prime Minister stand there, give a straight answer and say that once we allow for inflation, total spending is being cut?

I have already said that current expenditure will rise, and continue to rise. Capital spending will rise until 2011, then it will fall. I have already made it clear that for health, education and for all these public services current spending will continue to rise. The issue is surely this: in 2009-10, we are raising spending substantially. We are doing so in 2010-11, and we are doing it to take us out of recession. There is only one serious party in the world that is trying to tell us that we should cut spending now—the Conservative party. The right hon. Gentleman must therefore admit that under his proposals, schools would lose money now, teachers would be made unemployed, Sure Start services would go, child care services would be at risk, and no teenager would get a guarantee for jobs. That is the future if the Conservatives were ever to implement it.

Complete nonsense. Nobody—[Interruption.] It is interesting that not even the Prime Minister’s own Cabinet now backs the ludicrous line that he is taking about public spending. He keeps talking about this 10 per cent. I do not know whether he realises how much damage it is doing to him. It is not doing any damage to us. Let us explain where the deceit about the 10 per cent. comes from. Let me explain to the House—[Interruption.]

If we take the Government’s own spending plans, take off debt interest and take off the increase for unemployment, which, sadly, will go up, we are left with a 7 per cent. cut in every Department—the Government’s own figures. If we exempt the NHS, we get a 10 per cent. cut—the Government’s own figures. If we take out—[Interruption.] Thank you, Schools Secretary. If we listen to the Schools Secretary and take out health and schools, we get a 13½ per cent. cut. That is the Prime Minister: Mr. 13½ per cent.—his own figures. Let us see if he can answer the simplest of questions. Is he going to have a full departmental spending review before the election—yes or no?

The first thing that the right hon. Gentleman said was that unemployment is going to continue to go up. That is the Conservative policy. It is a prediction. That is when they say that unemployment is a price worth paying. Is he basing his assumptions on unemployment rising to 2014? No wonder he wants to cut public services. He is basing his assumptions on unemployment continuing to rise, because he will do absolutely nothing about it. We have taken action that is preserving 500,000 jobs. A quarter of a million people are leaving the unemployment register every month. We put in extra money on Monday so that there is more for young people who are unemployed and for summer school leavers. We will not forecast our spending plans on unemployment being higher in 2014 and rising every year, but if that is what the right hon. Gentleman wants to do, he cannot afford public services. Therefore the truth is that he will be cutting public services by 10 per cent.

I have to say that this is one of the most feeble performances that I have ever seen from the Prime Minister. If Peter Mandelson had not been so busy wandering round the television studios this morning, he could have given him a bit of tuition. There is only one person who we want to add to the unemployment register, and that is this Prime Minister. I asked a simple and straightforward question. Perhaps he could now answer it. Peter Mandelson has said that there will not be a spending review before the election. Can the Prime Minister tell us—will there be one or not?

It would be wrong to have a spending review now, at this stage—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because we are in the midst of a recession and it is not possible to say what unemployment, growth and all the characteristics that the right hon. Gentleman has been referring to are likely to be in 2012, 2013 and 2014. We have got to the heart of the Conservative position today. They are the party of unemployment. They are premising all their spending plans on unemployment continuing to rise. He said himself that unemployment will keep on rising. If that is the basis of their spending plans, people can look forward, under a Conservative Government, not just to 10 per cent. cuts, but to rising unemployment. Why do they want these public spending cuts? To pay for inheritance tax cuts for the very rich. We see once again that they are the party of the few, and we are the party of the many.

I know the walls of the bunker are thick, but the Prime Minister seems completely unaware that unemployment is rising across the country because of the policies of his Government. We have seen hundreds of people lose their jobs at Diageo in Scotland—another tragic case—yet the Prime Minister seems blissfully unaware of what is going on in the country that he is meant to be governing. Everyone will conclude that the Government will not have a spending review because they do not want to own up to the cuts that they are planning in Department after Department. The truth is that this Government are planning to cut capital spending: fact. They are planning to cut total spending: fact. The most important fact of all is that they are incapable of being straight with the British people.

This Opposition would cut public spending this year and deprive people of help with unemployment and housing. This Opposition party would cut public spending next year, and cut it savagely in schools, in education and even in the Sure Start programme. We now know the truth about the Conservatives’ assumptions about the future: they assume that unemployment will continue to rise, as the right hon. Gentleman said, until 2014. That is not the policy of this Government; we want to get people back into work.

Does the second franchise fiasco on the east coast main line in two years not tell us that the Tory rail privatisation experiment has finally hit the buffers? Now that we are taking the east coast main line back into public ownership, can we keep it that way?

Our first and overriding obligation is to ensure continuity of service to the passengers, and that there is no disruption of services, so the Secretary of State for Transport is establishing a publicly owned company, the East Coast Main Line company. It will take over all franchised rail services at the point that National Express East Coast ceases to operate, and existing staff and assets will transfer to the new company. We are making sure that the service continues to run, that passengers continue to be served and that jobs continue to exist.

I first join in welcoming the announcement from Her Majesty today for such a fitting tribute to recognise the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces.

This afternoon we have seen the bogus debate about public spending hit new lows. I am almost tempted to suggest that Lord Mandelson and the Conservative economic spokesman go on another cruise together to make up. The real failing is that the Conservative party leader wants to cut spending when the economy is still on its knees, which is economic madness, and he will not tell us how; and the Prime Minister is still living in complete denial about the long-term savings that will be needed when the economy starts to recover. Are they not both deliberately choosing to trade insults so that they can both avoid telling the truth?

The right hon. Gentleman does not tell us what his policy is at all. The fact of the matter is that if spending were cut this year, jobs would be lost and services would be put at risk; and if spending were cut next year, jobs would be lost and services would be at risk. We are determined to ensure that spending remains in order to increase job opportunities and to protect home owners, and to make sure that our public services are in place. I hope that he will join our side of the debate in protecting public services for the future.

What the Prime Minister is avoiding once again is the fact that difficult choices on long-term spending need to be made now if we are going to get any grip on the country’s finances. That is why we should admit that we neither need nor can afford to replace Trident. He is planning to sign the first contracts for the new Trident submarines this summer, during the recess when we are all away. Is it not obvious that he should not do that?

We have already announced a deficit-reduction plan for the next five years. We have taken difficult decisions about efficiency savings and asset sales, and about raising the top rate of tax: about measures that ensure that people who are in a position to pay more do pay more in the tax system—that is, at the top rate of tax. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support those measures, which are designed both to reduce the deficit and to ensure that there are sufficient resources for public services. I have already made my position on Trident clear—in the debate on Monday.

Last week Corus announced 379 job losses in the steelworking town of Stocksbridge in my constituency—job losses that will have a devastating impact on the economy of a town with a population of only 13,500. Will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to do whatever he can to ensure that Corus can secure a long-term future for steelworking in places such as Stocksbridge?

Corus employs more than 20,000 people in this country, and wherever there are redundancies it is a matter of sadness and regret. We are dealing with a fall in demand in the steel industry throughout the world, and it is affecting Britain and every other country. We are in talks with Corus, we have provided extra money in the past week for help to secure jobs and we will continue to talk with it about what more we can do. We are also in negotiations with Corus about its relationship with a conglomerate of steel producers. That contract has broken down; it puts jobs in Britain at risk; and we are trying to do what we can to ensure the agreement of a new arrangement that can protect more jobs in Britain.

Q2. The Prime Minister has twice told the House today that capital spending will continue to rise until 2011. The Red Book shows that capital spending is at £44 billion this year and will be at £36 billion next year. I am sure that the Prime Minister understands that that means a cut, starting next year. Will he correct the record now? (283120)

As I have already explained to the House, we are bringing forward investment, previously allocated for later years, to 2009-10 and 2010-11. The reason why we are doing so is that we can help get the economy out of the recession. The capital investment would not be supported by the Conservative party. As a result, projects such as housing, in which we are investing from this Monday, as we have announced, could not go ahead. I have already explained to the House that while the previous Budget announced that there was a rise in capital expenditure over a period of time, more money has been reallocated to the first years so that we can help ourselves out of recession.

There has been a great deal of talk about the modernisation of the House, but I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether we could go back in time—to when we had Prime Minister’s Question Time twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There would be much more accountability to Back Benchers, the questions would be more topical and the Chamber would be much better attended on Thursdays.

Q3. As more than 1 million of our young people leave education this summer, the Government’s rediscovered commitment to training and apprenticeships is very welcome. However, it appears that many of the training schemes on offer cannot be completed in the time that the Government have announced. Will the Prime Minister meet a group of us to make sure that we do not consign our young people to unemployment or to a failure to gain the qualifications that they need? (283121)

As the hon. Gentleman should know, in 1997 there were 70,000 apprenticeships in Britain; this year, there are 225,000—three times as many. To say that we have reduced the number of apprenticeships, or that we are not taking the issue seriously, is wrong. As far as training programmes are concerned, on Monday we announced how we would do more for summer school leavers and for young people under 25. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the new investment that we have made into those measures. They cost money; I hope that his party is prepared to support them, even if the Conservative party is not.

Q4. This Labour Government have made a lot of progress in tackling disadvantaged communities, such as Pemberton, Scholes and Beech Hill in my constituency, through the neighbourhood renewal fund. However, local authorities and primary care trusts are hampered from building on that success because they do not get the money that the Government formula tells them they are entitled to. Will my right hon. Friend meet me, and other colleagues with similar constituencies, to see whether we can find ways to tackle the problem? (283122)

I understand that Wigan will receive more than £21 million between 2008-09 and 2010-11 as an additional resource to help tackle problems faced by local people. Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about both the neighbourhood renewal fund and some other aspects of central funding to local authorities, but I do say that in the past few years we have increased those resources substantially. Where there is unemployment, we will be increasing resources to help people get back to work.

Q5. In the light of recent cuts of £3.9 billion in Department of Health funding, as announced in the Budget, will the Prime Minister confirm what further reductions in health expenditure his Government are planning for between 2011 and 2014? (283123)

We are raising expenditure on the health service this year and next year. The hon. Gentleman should know perfectly well that we have done so against the advice of the Conservative party, which would prefer to see—[Interruption.] If we had not taken the decision to raise national insurance to put investment in the national health service, we could not have had the 90,000 extra nurses, the 20,000 extra doctors and the new hospitals. That decision was opposed by the Conservative party.

In a few days’ time, the newly elected European Parliament sits for the first time. Can the Prime Minister assure me that Labour MEPs will not sit with Polish MEPs who are homophobic and of an anti-Semitic orientation, with Czech MEPs who believe that global warming is a myth, or with Dutch MEPs who think that abortion should be abolished and that Sunday shopping should stop? Which party does support those loonies and weirdos?

It took the Leader of the Opposition almost a year to admit that there was a recession all over Europe. Now that he has had to admit it, perhaps he should also admit that there is a need for co-operation all over Europe to deal with these issues. What I think people will find very sad is a Conservative party now on the fringes of Europe with some of the extreme parties on the right wing of the European political family.

Q6. News of tomorrow’s statement is welcome, but if the swine flu pandemic worsens sufficiently to trigger changes in the Government’s approach during the 82-day summer recess, would the Prime Minister recall Parliament so that there could be proper scrutiny of the Government’s actions? (283124)

The hon. Lady will know that the Health Secretary will make a statement tomorrow on the issue of swine flu. We will make sure that at all points we are vigilant in ensuring that the treatment of that disease in every part of the country is right and proper.

My right hon. Friend may have seen today’s announcement by Diageo on the restructuring of jobs in Scotland, to which the Leader of the Opposition referred. It was mixed news, with 500 job losses over two years but also £100 million of investment, including in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to negate the loss of these jobs, and will he agree to meet the company to discuss its continued plans for investment in Scotland?

Where there is unemployment, we are ready to help. The measures that we announced on Monday will move in to help young people, but also adults who are losing their jobs. It is possible for firms making capital investment to get new capital allowances which were introduced in the Budget to stimulate new investment. We are seeking an investment-led recovery. The capital spending that we have reallocated to 2008-09 and 2009-10, while it falls in 2010-11, is vital to doing that. We will continue to back private investment in our country, and these are the figures that I want to make clear to the House.

Q7. As chair of the all-party Baha’i group, I have become deeply concerned about the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran facing trial by the revolutionary court on 11 July on serious but unsubstantiated charges, with no evidence being offered against them. Will the Prime Minister be willing to meet me and representatives of the Baha’i faith in Britain to underline his and, I hope, our collective support for the fundamental principles of fairness and tolerance in the treatment of these and all Baha’i in Iran? (283125)

The hon. Gentleman raises very difficult issues. I am sure that the whole House will share my deep disappointment at the recent behaviour of the Iranian regime: disappointment at the manner in which legitimate demonstrations have been suppressed; disappointment at the restrictions that he has mentioned on the freedoms of the Iranian people, with people due to stand before a closed court on 11 July; and disappointment that the Iranian Government have expelled two of our diplomats and detained several of our embassy staff. This action is unjustified and unacceptable. Some people in Iran are seeking to use Britain as an explanation for the legitimate Iranian voices calling for greater openness and democracy. However, we will continue, with our international partners, to raise our concerns with Iran, including on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Following job cuts announced by Lloyds, will the Prime Minister assure banking staff in my constituency that he will do all he can to protect their jobs? Will he join me in sending a clear message to Lloyds Banking Group that further job losses would be totally unacceptable?

I have visited the area and talked to staff, and I understand their frustrations at what is happening. They have served the bank well, and they are the victims of what has happened to HBOS in its worldwide activities, particularly its failures in other countries. We will do what we can to help the staff of HBOS and Lloyds TSB. We are also making it possible for people to have new facilities to find jobs in the area. We will do what we can to reduce unemployment in these difficult circumstances; that is why we have set aside £5 billion to help the unemployed, which is only possible because we have made these additional allocations.

Q8. Another opportunity for the Prime Minister to be straight with the British people: in which Departments does he expect to see spending fall between 2011 and 2014? (283126)

Being straight with the British people means talking about how we get out of recession and how we build for growth. It is not much good the Opposition’s talking about 2011 when they are cutting spending in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Throughout this debate, they have refused to support the action we are taking on jobs. They have no plan to come out of recession, they have no plan for jobs, and they have no plan for growth in the economy: they have nothing to offer the British electorate but cheap gibes and no policy.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend believe that to build Britain’s future we need to invest now in helping people through the downturn, and especially in young people’s training and skills? [Interruption.] Will he reaffirm his September guarantee of a place in education and training for all 16 and 17-year-olds? (283128)

I do not know why the Opposition mock this. Giving a guarantee for school leavers to get a school place, a college place, an apprenticeship or work experience—some form of activity that prevents them from being unemployed—has never been done before. That costs money, and we are prepared to spend that money. The Opposition party would refuse that money. In other words, thousands would be unemployed as a result of the Opposition’s policy.

Is the Prime Minister aware that some of the finest residential training for severely disabled people has been put in jeopardy by the decision this week of the Learning and Skills Council not to fund the expansion of the National Star college in my constituency? Would he agree to meet a delegation of some of the disabled students, some of the principals of the college and myself, to discuss the unique situation of that college and see whether there is a solution to this problem?

We have set aside £2.3 billion for investment in further education colleges over this spending review period. We put an additional £300 million into that in the Budget. I will ask—[Interruption.] This comes under expenditure on colleges, and it needs money that would have to be provided by the Government. I am saying to the hon. Gentleman that I shall get the further education colleges Minister to meet him about this, but we have put £300 million extra into the investment in capital buildings as a result of the Budget.