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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Operation Miser

1. What assessment she has made of the findings of Sir Ian Johnston’s review of the investigation of leaks from the Home Department under Operation Miser which relate to the actions of her Department. (295973)

I welcome Ian Johnston’s report and the wider report published on the same day by Chief Inspector Dennis O’Connor. We have looked very carefully at both reports, and my Department will shortly send new guidance on managing information to Departments and adopt the chief inspector’s protocol for future consideration of police involvement in leak investigations, which recognises the high threshold required for police involvement.

The police inspectorate’s report has savaged the role of the Cabinet Office in calling the Metropolitan police to arrest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Will the Minister place the current guidelines and protocol in the Library so that we can review the failings of the existing rules?

Both reports reflect very fairly the state of events that led to the police involvement—a series of leaks, some of which gave rise to concern about national security. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to reach a different judgment. I have made it clear in my answer that the lessons of the O’Connor and Johnston reports will be applied in full, and I will certainly consult the Cabinet Secretary about the release of the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

The Minister says that there was some concern about national security, but Sir Ian Johnston’s report makes it absolutely clear that these leaks were only matters of “embarrassment” that were

“not…likely to undermine government’s effectiveness.”

So why did a Cabinet Office director write to counter-terrorism asserting that there was

“considerable damage to national security”

from these stories and that

“the potential for future damage is significant”?

Did the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister or Ministers know about this letter before it was sent, and was there any political pressure on civil servants to shut down those embarrassing stories?

Neither report from Chief Inspector O’Connor nor from Sir Ian Johnston makes any claim that the Cabinet Office exaggerated national security claims; the right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear about that. He will also know that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.

But the report says explicitly that these were only matters of embarrassment that were not likely to undermine Government effectiveness. On 31 October, the Cabinet Office demanded a scoping exercise that then went into detail about the involvement of “members of the Conservative party”. Does the Minister think it right that counter-terrorism officers were misled and used, in effect, to try to intimidate and suppress parliamentary opposition? Given that the Prime Minister himself made his political career as a conduit for a flood of civil service leaks, should he have been arrested when he was a shadow Minister?

Let me deal with the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I reiterate that neither report drew the conclusion that the Cabinet Office had over-reacted. His judgment is made with the benefit of retrospection and of the two reports having been carried out, as well as with the benefit of hindsight. The important step now is that the recommendations of the report are implemented, as they will be.

Third Sector (Recession)

2. What her most recent assessment is of the effect of the recession on the third sector; and if she will make a statement. (295975)

We recognise that this is a very difficult time for the sector, with some parts experiencing increased demand for their services at the same time as having concerns about their financial situation. That is why the Government have provided a comprehensive package of support for the third sector worth up to £42.5 million. The money is getting out there right now to groups who need it. Thousands of grants have been made, and that is supporting the communities that need it most and providing jobs.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer; that will be very welcome news to the voluntary sector. However, many funders of not-for-profit voluntary organisations do not recognise the need to cover their core funding in order to make them sustainable for the future. Those organisations want to create income that provides for that. I come across this problem frequently in organisations that I work with in my constituency. Will she encourage funders to bear this in mind in future?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend has a reputation in his constituency for his involvement in the third sector, and the points that he makes are entirely valid. Let me mention some of the things that the Government are doing; I hope that other funders will consider them. Grass-root grants are going directly to smaller organisations—an initiative that has never been taken before, coupled with an endowment process—and that is providing £130 million. That can address the issue of core funding. We also have the community assets programme, providing £30 million across the country for projects involving buildings that are sustainable for the long term. May I direct him also to Communitybuilders, a £70 million programme that was recently opened for applications and has received 1,500 already? That is the kind of programme that the organisations he mentions will benefit from.

We should be concerned that more than 10,000 charities have ceased operating in the past six months, according to the Charity Commission. After two years of consultation, we are still no clearer about Government plans to make gift aid easier and more effective for charities. Instead, we are now getting signals from private meetings that the Treasury actually wants to scrap tax reliefs for higher rate payers who give to charity. This must be the wrong time to be hiding things from the sector. When will the Government come clean on their plans for the reform of gift aid?

The number of charities has reduced, but from talking to the Charity Commission we find that that is about the cleaning up of the charities list. There are charities that have been on the list for some time but have not been functional, or there may have been mergers.

This Government have a proud record on gift aid, and several changes have been brought in.

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but it is absolutely true. A number of changes have been brought in to simplify and improve the system and get more money out to charities. I understand the frustration of some charities that want to see change more quickly, particularly on the issue of higher rates, but the problem is that there is not agreement among the charities themselves about the best way forward. We are in talks with the Treasury about how best to address the matter, but the improvements that this Government have made have increased the amount of gift aid going to charities. The number of donations has more than doubled since 2001, when we first started making changes. I understand the frustrations, but we are working with the Treasury to ensure that there are improvements.

Can my right hon. Friend give us any indication of whether voluntary organisations are responding to the Government’s initiatives to get more people into work by increasing the work that they do, so as to benefit from the programmes that have recently been put in place?

The response to the Government programmes put in place during the recession has been remarkable. I am pleased to say that the anecdotal response that we are getting, particularly on grass-roots grants, is that the forms and application process are easier and simpler than they have ever been before. There is an increased number of volunteers, and we are supporting them through a variety of programmes. The evidence is clear that people who volunteer often find a route into work by gaining skills, confidence and connections with employers.

Charities (Regulatory Burden)

The changes that we have made to charity law and to accounting and reporting thresholds have resulted in savings of thousands of pounds for charities. Departments are cutting red tape for third sector organisations, and further progress will be reported before the end of the year. The Government and the National Audit Office have produced guidance to reduce red tape associated with the £12 billion a year that the sector gets from the Government.

Does the Minister understand that in my constituency, charities are worried about the detailed applications for gift aid, which she has just discussed, the ending of the ring-fencing of Supporting People and particularly the vagueness of the extension of Criminal Records Bureau checks, especially for volunteers dealing with children. The problem is not that the regulations are wrong, it is the application of them that is causing concern.

We have to get the balance right between protection of the public and the regulatory burden that we place on charities. I am very conscious of that, and I have outlined some of the measures that we are undertaking to address the matter. Sir Roger Singleton is currently examining the new vetting and barring system for criminal records checks to ensure that we get the right balance between protection and regulatory burden. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be better for charities and volunteers, and that checks for volunteers will be free. I hope that that reassures him that we are getting the balance right and addressing the concerns that he has raised.

I welcome the news that CRB checks will be free for volunteers, but I recognise the importance of removing regulation. Any money that is donated that actually goes to charities rather than being spent on costs is welcome. Can my right hon. Friend give us some suggestion of what the savings to charities will be?

It is difficult to ascertain the exact amount that we are saving for charities, because to do so we would have to examine every single volunteer. One problem has been that some charities have paid for the same volunteer to be checked twice. We will examine the matter, but it is difficult to give my hon. Friend an exact figure.

But can the Minister be very clear on what particular steps the Government are taking to allow charities that receive from generous donors financial aid at this time of recession to use it on good causes, rather than spend the money on the increasing burden of fulfilling administrative and compliance demands?

We are very conscious of the administrative burden on charities. One thing that we have been doing is supplying grants through the modernisation programme so that charities can look at working with other charities and organisations, perhaps by sharing back-room functions, collaborating or merging. That frees up more money to be spent on the objectives of the charity itself. That is one way that we are able to help. I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman further information and to look at the particular charities in which he is interested.

Bogus Charitable Collections

I am absolutely appalled that any organisation would try and con people into thinking that it is a charity in order to collect goods from the public that are intended to be sold to raise funds for a charity’s important work. I can tell my hon. Friend that in 2007, the Government, through the Office of the Third Sector, co-ordinated a Give with Care campaign to increase awareness of bogus clothing collections, and we are planning further such public campaigns in the coming months. We will also continue to encourage enforcement of the legislation.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but two of my constituents, Mr. Dale Rutter and Mr. Mike Hyde, from Sprotbrough in Doncaster my constituency, who do charity collections on behalf of Cancer Research UK, informed me at a recent surgery that the number of bogus charity clothes collection operators working in south Yorkshire is very much on the increase because of the credit crunch. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituents to discuss this very important issue in greater detail?

Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who has a record of campaigning on this issue. I would direct his constituents to look at the campaign that we have been running and the small print on the sacks that are delivered to people’s homes to encourage them to donate, because sometimes there is more helpful information there. I would also suggest that if people want to donate, they might want to go to the charity shop directly. That may be a better way of ensuring that bogus collectors do not get the gifts that are intended for charities.

Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Salvation Army, which is one of the leading clothes collectors and recyclers in the country, and whose depot in Kettering is one of the largest clothes recycling depots in the United Kingdom?

I am always pleased to congratulate a charity that is doing good work. The public can be assured that if a sack comes through their door to collect clothes for the Salvation Army, it is totally genuine.

I think I am right in saying that a case of that sort was taken to court by the local authority in Cardiff recently, resulting in a fine of £750. Perhaps that ought to have been higher, but will my right hon. Friend encourage local authorities and magistrates to use their existing powers to the full to drive these cancerous companies out of business, and to allow the public confidence that what they give goes where it is intended?

My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I congratulate Cardiff council on taking that prosecution. A £750 fine is significant for those who are involved in such illegal activities, and I will certainly talk to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how we can work together to encourage local authorities to enforce their current powers.

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

5. What the cost to her Department was of the (a) production and (b) distribution of the most recent list of ministerial responsibilities. (295978)

The list of ministerial responsibilities is produced in-house in the Cabinet Office, the costs of which are met from within the existing Cabinet Office budget. They are not, I am afraid, separately identifiable.

The Cabinet Office booklet helpfully ranks Cabinet Ministers in order of importance—No. 1 being the Prime Minister, No. 2 being the Leader—[Interruption.]

Order. One would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues would want to listen to his question and that it would be courteous to do so.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Back to the ranking of the Cabinet: No. 1 is the Prime Minister, No. 2 is the Leader of the Commons and No. 3 is the Lord Mandelson, who is more important than the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary and the Defence Secretary. In fact, the Defence Secretary is listed as the third least important—[Interruption.]

I was waiting for the punch line. The ranking of ministerial offices reflects the significance and importance of the responsibilities carried by the post-holders within the Government. No one is in doubt about the significance of the contribution made, and the responsibility carried, by Lord Mandelson.

Ministerial lists have to be reprinted frequently because of the Government’s obsession with changing the machinery of government. Since 2005, the Department for Trade and Industry has had four incarnations, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been split up and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills abolished—the list goes on. Does the Minister agree that those reorganisations are unnecessary and expensive, and staff time would be better spent working on policy and problems than on changing the headed paper?

If it were only as trivial as changing the headed paper, yes, but modern government has to be flexible, with the capacity to respond to new and changing demands. That is what the machinery of government changes are designed to do.

Social Enterprise

I am very pleased to answer this question in the run-up to social enterprise day on 19 November, which is a celebration of the 62,000 social enterprises in the UK. Last week, I met 13 social enterprise ambassadors at the restaurant Fifteen, itself a thriving social enterprise, and they are some of the most inspiring social entrepreneurs in the country, together employing more than 1,400 people. Social enterprises contribute about £24 billion to the economy each year and employ 800,000 people. It is clear that at their best social enterprises contribute to a stronger economy and a fairer society.

Would the Government consider introducing a community reinvestment Bill to further support social enterprise?

One of things that the Government need to look at—and are doing so—is how to get more capital investment into social enterprises. My hon. Friend may be aware that we have recently concluded our consultation on the creation of a social investment wholesale bank. Consultation closed on 7 October and we are looking at the responses to see how we can best ensure that we get more capital investment into social enterprise, to the benefit of the economy and the community as a whole.

Will the Minister do her best to encourage Departments, and especially the Government offices for the regions, to participate in social enterprise organisations locally, some of which are working very hard to find practical answers to problems such as transport in rural areas? Will they also work with organisations such as Policy Connect, which is based in this House?

It is very good when the Government offices for the regions can co-operate with social enterprises. Indeed, I recently visited Hackney transport social enterprise, which is doing tremendous work for the local community. The public are now looking for something different from their business enterprises—social and environmental concern instead of just the financial bottom line. It is important for government at all levels to co-operate and work with social enterprise—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) have been conducting an animated conversation for several minutes. I feel sure that that conversation has now been concluded.

My hon. Friend will know that Community Ventures is a social enterprise that serves my constituency very well. Is her Department considering advising social enterprises to put social clauses into public contracting, so that training opportunities and employment regeneration are added to social contracts?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is similar to the point that I made a moment ago about there being more to a social enterprise than the financial bottom line. There is a social return on the investment. I can tell her that yesterday the second phase of the Government’s national programme for third sector commissioners began, and it is specifically looking at how to address social issues and how to provide benefit to the public through public service procurement. The short answer is yes.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer a moment ago, but I can also assure him that the Government—

Charities (Recession)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the difficulties facing the sector. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), an increased amount of services are being provided, but at the same time there are concerns about financial support for the sector. The Government’s package of support during the recession of up to £42 million will help to address that.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Many charities in my constituency are already facing difficulties as a result of the economic climate and are now facing a further threat as a consequence of the dispute between the Lloyds TSB Foundation and the Lloyds TSB banking group. Will the Minister do what she can to intervene in that dispute and to broker some sort of settlement, so that the contribution that the foundation makes to many charities in Scotland can continue?

I would love to be able to do so, but I think that it might be beyond my powers. Obviously, if the Government can give any support or advice, we will be happy to do so. I understand that the Scottish Executive have looked at this matter as well. It is time to place on the record—perhaps this message can go back—how much we greatly value the foundation and the support given by such organisations. We hope that efforts can be made to ensure that it continues.

Is the Minister aware that the number of main reporting charities registered with the Charity Commission has fallen by more than 12,000 over the past year? Although some of that can be attributed to administrative changes in the commission, is it not really a sign that the Government’s third sector recession action plan is not working? How can she make it more effective?

I have to challenge the hon. Lady when she says that the £42.5 million put into the third sector is not working. Charitable organisations on the ground will tell us the difference that it makes. I can also say that she needs to talk to the Charity Commission about the reasons for the figure. Plucking out headline figures does not tell the true picture. More than 1,000 charities have chosen to merge, and the commission has said that it had to clear up the list. A number of those charities have been active for some years. Obviously, we want the number of third sector organisations to increase and those organisations to develop. That is why the Government have a plan to do that.

Has the Minister been able to form any assessment of how banks are treating charities in the current context, in terms of loans, operating charges and other pressures, including on the assets that charities hold?

There is no formal assessment, but anecdotally there is a mixed picture. Some report favourable responses and support from their banks, but in other areas we are finding that banks are perhaps not as sympathetic as they could be. That is one of the reasons that the Government have a programme in place to help charities, and that includes loans being made available.

Charities have suffered as a result of the recession. Charities such as Age Concern and the hospice movement make a huge contribution to the well-being of certain groups of people in this country because of the large number of volunteers who give their services free. Can the Government not do more at this time to help charities that are so well regarded in this country?

It is a pleasure—albeit an unusual one—to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, recognise the value of volunteers, and I can assure him that a number of programmes are in place to train volunteers, to help them to broker the arrangements for volunteers that enable them to volunteer in the right way and to use the right skills of volunteers. Not only do charities benefit; the economy as a whole benefits. It is often a route into work. I entirely agree, therefore, with his proposition that volunteers are essential to civic society.

Contingency Planning (Floods)

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the work of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat natural hazards team in relation to contingency planning for floods. (295985)

I know that the hon. Lady has a great interest in this matter and is concerned, as we all are, that the recommendations of the Pitt review that followed the 2007 floods be implemented swiftly. To this end, the natural hazards team in the Cabinet Office has been established and is developing a programme to reduce the disruption to critical infrastructure and essential services that caused so much suffering during those floods. A statement of policy is being developed with local authorities, regulators and the relevant industries. A wider consultation on this will follow in November and no doubt Members on both sides of the House will wish to engage in this. The—

Order. We have got the drift. Let us have the supplementary question. I call Miss Anne McIntosh.

The Government promised to have undertaken a national assessment of all the critical infrastructure at risk by the beginning of this year. Why have they failed to do so and why have they let down those households that were flooded in 2007?

The hon. Lady is not correct; a lot of work has already been undertaken in establishing the basis for the wider consultation, including discussions with the regulators, local authorities and other relevant industries. Wider consultation with the public will take place in November, after which the policy statement setting out how such humanitarian crises will be avoided in the future will be published.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the members of our armed forces who have given their lives on behalf of our country in Afghanistan. Today we mourn the loss of Corporal Thomas Mason from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland and Corporal James Oakland from the Royal Military Police. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with the families and friends of those brave men. They will not be forgotten for the service that they gave. On behalf of the British people, this morning I have also sent a message to the UN Secretary-General offering our condolences and support, following the Taliban attack on the United Nations in Kabul this morning.

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.

First, may I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the people he mentioned?

Will the Prime Minister ensure that any announcement by the Justice Secretary on pleural plaques will ensure a commitment to compensating pleural plaques victims from the past, the present and the future?

I know the anxieties that people who are diagnosed with pleural plaques have. I know also that there have been a huge amount of medical inquiries into this big issue. I know too that those who end up suffering from asbestosis suffer from one of the worst and most painful diseases imaginable, and it is right that we have the proper compensation in place for them. I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend and a group of MPs tomorrow to discuss this very issue with the Justice Secretary. It is important, after the legislation that has come before the House, that we get a resolution soon.

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal James Oakland and Corporal Thomas Mason? They died serving our country and our thoughts should be with their families and friends. As the Prime Minister said, we should also think of those six UN aid workers who were killed in that dreadful attack in Kabul.

Before I get on to other questions, may I welcome the Government’s complete U-turn on cutting £20 million from training in the Territorial Army? That was brought about after questions by Conservative MPs and Labour MPs, and from this Dispatch Box. Can the Prime Minister tell us what on earth he was thinking of when he was thinking of cutting Army training at a time when the country is at war?

First of all, let me repeat my condolences, as the right hon. Gentleman has, to those people who have died, one of whom was injured in the summer and subsequently died in Birmingham. Our thoughts must also be with the United Nations and the relatives of those staff today. I will be speaking to the UN Secretary-General to tell him that no terrorism should deter us from our actions in Afghanistan.

As far as the training for Afghanistan is concerned, there are three stages to it and all are important. First, we have to ensure that our regular Army has the numbers that are necessary. That is why an additional 9,300 people have been recruited to the Army over the past year. That means that Army numbers are now at 101,000, which of course means more money. The second thing was to ensure that the Territorial Army, which was sending people to Afghanistan, had them going to Afghanistan properly trained and equipped. I was sure when I reported to the House two weeks ago that that is what we would do.

The third thing is that, having spent an additional £1 billion on Afghanistan this year and spending £1 billion extra on defence for costs associated with Afghanistan and other things, we could or would be able to spend on the Territorial Army. Having looked at all the issues, including the extra £1 billion that we are spending on Afghanistan, and having talked to the Chief of the Defence Staff, I decided that that was the right thing to do. However, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are spending £1 billion more on Afghanistan and £1 billion more on defence. It is wrong for him to say that we are not spending sufficiently on defence; we are.

Honestly, this Prime Minister cannot even be straight and straightforward when he is performing a U-turn. He cannot get away from the fact that he was proposing cuts in basic training that would have meant cuts in the TA, and if you cut by that amount, you cannot fight a war. He says that there were three stages to this, and there were: the wrong policy, informed by the wrong values, followed by weeks of dithering in Downing street and, finally, the Government forced by the Opposition to do the right thing in a humiliating climbdown. And it all ends, once again, with a complete loss of the Prime Minister’s authority. Why does this Prime Minister keep getting it wrong?

What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the economy. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on the health service. What is wrong are the Opposition’s policies on education. Right throughout the recession, we have got things right, and the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong.

The Prime Minister turns to the economy, so let us turn to the economy. We learned last Friday that Britain is in the longest and deepest recession since records began. Presumably, one very simple thing has to follow from that: this Prime Minister has got to say something that, up to now, he has completely refused to say. Will he finally admit that he did not end boom and bust?

We always said that we would come out of recession by the end of this year. That has been the position that the Chancellor took in his Budget, and the position that we consistently took. It would have been wrong, and made things a lot worse, if we had taken the advice of the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition. Today, in Brussels, we have got permission to enable Northern Rock to be sustained as a company. We agreed to nationalise it, and we saved 3,000 jobs in Northern Rock. If we had taken his advice, there would be no Northern Rock and 3,000 jobs would have been lost.

The Prime Minister tells us that he has been consistent in saying that we would be out of recession by the end of the year. I am not going to let him get away with that. In September, he said:

“We are now coming out of a recession, as a result of the actions we have taken”.

He also said in September:

“I think you will see figures pretty soon that show the action that Britain is taking yielding effect”.

In June, he claimed that Britain was

“leading the rest of the world…out of recession”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 268.]

The fact is that France, Germany and Japan have been growing for six months. Does he now accept that he got it comprehensively wrong?

If I have to explain to him, Germany and Japan have had a far deeper recession that we have. Equally, at the same time, unemployment in this country is far lower than it is in America or in the euro area, and that is a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman can read every statement that he likes, but this is absolutely consistent with my view, and the Chancellor’s view, that we would come out of the recession by the end of the year. The problem is that the right hon. Gentleman has policies that would keep us in recession. His policies would mean more unemployment, because he will not support the new deal, more small businesses going under—we have supported 200,000 small businesses—and more home owners losing their homes. That is the policy of the Conservative party. He cannot deny that he got every aspect of this recession wrong.

Even when you read the Prime Minister one of his own quotes from September about the recession ending, he cannot be straight about it. France, Germany and Japan have all come out of recession. So have Sweden, Brazil, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and New Zealand. Does not this list demonstrate something else? When the Prime Minister said, as he did over and over again, that we were the best prepared country in the world for this recession, he was plain wrong.

No, we have been better placed because we have 3 million more people in work than in 1997. We are better placed because we have the new deal in place to help the unemployed, and we have been better placed because we had lower debt starting the recession as a result of the actions that we have taken. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the fact that every single country in the International Monetary Fund is against the policies of the Conservative party. Every single country in Europe is against the policies of the Conservative party. The CBI, the chambers of commerce and other institutes in Britain representing business do not like the idea of withdrawing the fiscal stimulus. What sense does it make to withdraw the fiscal stimulus now, which is the policy of the Opposition?

How can this Prime Minister possibly claim that we are the best placed when we have had the longest and deepest recession since records began, when we have 2.5 million people unemployed, when one in five young people cannot find a job and when his recent triumph is that our economy is now smaller than Italy’s? That is what he has given us. Even before this recession, our budget deficit was the biggest in the developed world; we had a regulatory system designed by him that did not work; and we had 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. What he said about the recession was wrong; what he said about the recovery was wrong; what he said about being well prepared was wrong; what he said about boom and bust was wrong. Does he not understand that unless he is straight with people about how we got into this mess, no one will trust him to get us out of it?

Not one policy from the Opposition today; not one idea about growth in the economy. They were wrong on Northern Rock; they were wrong on helping the unemployed; they were wrong on helping home owners; they were wrong on helping small businesses; they were wrong on the restructuring of the banking system; they have been wrong on the new deal; they are wrong on just about every economic policy. No wonder every policy announced by the shadow Chancellor collapses just after the morning headlines. They have got no ideas on how to get us out and into growth. Had we taken their advice, we would be in an even deeper and even longer recession with more unemployment than there is now. They are not fit even to be the Opposition, when it comes to promulgating economic policies.

In view of this week’s state visit by her excellency the President of India, will my right hon. Friend say what more he can do further to strengthen the trading relationship between Britain and India?

I welcome, as I think everybody should, the President of India on her state visit to Britain. This is a sign of the strategic partnership that is growing between India and the United Kingdom, and I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for her chairmanship of the British-India association that brings forward proposals for even stronger relationships in the future. More than a million people travel between the UK and India each year; there are about 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK; there are 30,000 Indian students in Britain: relations will grow stronger as we develop closer educational, cultural and economic links between these two great countries.

I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Corporal Thomas Mason and Corporal James Oakland, who served so bravely in Afghanistan—and, of course, to the family and friends of the six UN aid workers who were so brutally murdered in Kabul.

The international climate change summit is now only a few weeks away, and what happens in Copenhagen will shape our world for generations to come. I welcome a lot of the Prime Minister’s pre-summit rhetoric; if words could do the trick, we would be halfway to a deal already. When it comes to the environment, however, it is actions that really count, so how would the Prime Minister characterise his Government’s green record over the last decade?

We have met the Kyoto targets. We have got the first climate change Act of any country in the world. We have committed ourselves to very radical cuts in emissions not only in the long term, but in the short term. We are fighting hardest to get an agreement in Copenhagen. I have said that I will go to Copenhagen; I want there to be an agreement in Copenhagen. It is based first on us agreeing a political understanding about how the treaty will be developed. We then need to agree on the intermediate targets. I think all countries will have to accept that they have got to make commitments, and we need to have a financial proposal such as the one that we have put forward. This will be discussed at the European Council this week, and I believe that the European Council will want to make progress. I believe Europe will have a position, which can then be put to Copenhagen.

As far as the Prime Minister’s own record is concerned, the sad truth is that he has done far too little, far too late. Total emissions are up, and air travel is up. The Prime Minister wants a new runway at Heathrow, he wants more dirty coal power stations and more nuclear energy plants, our housing stock is the most poorly insulated in Europe—and last week the Prime Minister got all his MPs to vote against the 10:10 environment campaign. Does he not realise that unless he acts fast to fix things here at home, he will have no chance and no authority to fix things in Copenhagen?

I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman wrote his second question before he had heard my answer to the first. I set out very clearly the actions that we have taken on the environment. I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s party’s position would be a lot better if Liberal councillors across the country did not vote against planning consent, so that we could have renewable energy, and I think that his own position would be a lot stronger if he could say that he would support nuclear energy, which is one of the means by which we can reduce carbon emissions.

We will continue to fight for a deal at Copenhagen. I believe that all parties should be interested in that being achieved, and I think that we should all campaign together to secure that deal at Copenhagen.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 2,000 grandparents in this country have taken custody of grandchildren, usually following tragic circumstances affecting the children’s natural parents? Is it not time that we gave real financial and practical support to those grandparents and recognised the magnificent work that they do, instead of punishing them as the system does at present?

I thank my hon. Friend for his efforts to raise the profile of how we can do more to help grandparents. He may know—because I think he has been part of this—that we are holding a cross-government summit in November to listen to the experience of grandparents and their organisations. From 2011 grandparents who look after grandchildren will receive national insurance credit, and we will publish a Green Paper on that in the next few months. The role of grandparents is absolutely vital to every family in the country, and we should do everything that we can to strengthen the role that they can play.

Q2. Even those of us who believed that the Government fundamentally underestimated the task when they first became involved in Afghanistan felt that the recent fraud-ridden presidential election was a worrying development. Given that the Prime Minister is aware that troops provide time and space but not a political solution—which will be an essential part of the jigsaw if we are now to succeed—what lessons has he learned from this period when it comes to any election run-off? (295959)

First, as the elections take place—and the date has already been set—we must ensure that there are sufficient monitors as well as sufficient security. One of the problems during the last election was that there were insufficient monitors, which allowed corrupt ballots to take place. Secondly, we must work towards a political solution. It is not simply a military solution that we are looking for. We want to strengthen local government so that people in Afghanistan feel that they have a stake in the future of the country, and we want to have a corruption-free central Government. That is one of the problems with which we have been dealing for many years.

We—the Americans, NATO and others—will have to sign a contract with the new President, whoever he is, so that early action can be taken to deal with those abuses. In the longer term, of course, we want to split the Taliban ideologues from the others, and to reconcile where that is possible, so that we can build a stronger democratic centre to ensure the future of Afghanistan. Our role is to be there to build up the Afghan military and police so that they are able to take more responsibility for their own affairs and, as a result, the number of our troops can fall.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that during his period as Chancellor and Prime Minister, British canals have been turned around from being a drain on our nation’s resources to being a national asset. Will he ensure that British Waterways is seen not as an asset to be sold off, but as an asset to be treasured—like our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and used for public benefit as well as local regeneration?

I think my right hon. Friend will agree that new investment in British Waterways has been very important to guaranteeing its future. We must consider how we can get further new investment into British Waterways for the future: that is our principal aim.

Q3. As we approach Remembrance Sunday, Canvey Island Royal British Legion proudly reaches its 75th anniversary. It also has its first Gurkha member, Laxmi Ghising. Will the Prime Minister continue his honourable support of the Gurkhas by granting them equal pension rights, and will he congratulate the British Legion? (295960)

We will look at the case the hon. Gentleman has put forward on the Gurkhas, but I have to tell him on this matter that a High Court case has been taking place over the last period of time. On the Royal British Legion, I commend the work that it does. Particularly as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we remember the way in which it represents all the families and all the ex-servicemen and women of our country, and its organisation of the festival of remembrance and so many events around the countries is something of which our nation is very proud. I think the whole House will want to join me in thanking the Royal British Legion for everything it does.

The African Caribbean community has made an immense contribution to this country, particularly in the field of public services. Many in that community are deeply distressed by the increase in air passenger duty, which appears to be arbitrary and illogical. Will the Prime Minister be prepared to meet myself and a few colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), to see how best we can resolve this problem?

As my hon. Friend knows, the taxation of environmental goods, and particularly air fuel, has been a vexed matter for many years. On air passenger duty, the Chancellor tells me that he will be meeting a group including my hon. Friend to discuss these matters in the next few days.

Q4. Sections 32 to 34 of the Inquiries Act 2005 specifically give the Prime Minister and his Government the power to co-instigate an inquiry into the Lockerbie disaster. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to take these powers, and thereby yet again outsourcing responsibility to the Scottish Parliament? (295961)

First of all, let me say to the House that this terrible crime in Lockerbie will never be forgotten and, even many years on, we must remember the hurt that has been caused to the relatives of those people who lost their lives in Lockerbie as a result of what happened over the summer. I want to emphasise that Megrahi is still in the eyes of the law a convicted terrorist for the criminal act he was engaged in. It is for the Scottish authorities to pursue any new leads that exist. They are the authority with whom jurisdiction on this lies, and it is for them to take the action that is necessary.

We live in dangerous times. There are a number of threats and issues of global importance, such as global terrorism, global warming and the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Is Britain’s interest best served by a strong European alliance of sensible, mainstream parties, or an alliance of Islamophobes and climate and holocaust deniers like the one that lot over there on the official Opposition Benches have got?

When I go to the European Council tomorrow, I will meet not only leaders of socialist groups in Europe, but leaders of the Christian Democrat groups and centre-right parties in Europe. It is amazing that the Conservative party has broken its links with the centre-right in Europe to join a group that can only be described as extremist. The Conservative party will regret isolating itself from the centre of Europe. It is out on a limb; it is putting British jobs at risk; it is angering British business; and it is out of touch with what people know is necessary for the future.

Q5. Could the Prime Minister tell me why we need a President of the European Union and who he is supporting for the job? (295962)

We have made it very clear that if this position is to be created—the European treaty is not yet through—and if the former Prime Minister Tony Blair comes forward as a candidate, we will be very happy to support him.

Q6. Some 250 Members from both sides of the House today joined 100,000 petition signers to Ofcom. Phone companies BT and 3UK have joined unions Unite and Amicus and the Royal College of Nursing in support of early-day motion 1531. Consumers are being ripped off. Does my right hon. Friend think that phone companies that have hidden charges for connecting from one network to another should cut their rates? (295963)

Ofcom is looking at this very matter. There is an unfairness to consumers who change company; the cut-off rates are very high indeed. It is right that Ofcom investigates it, and it is right that the consumer gets a better deal.

Q7. The company Green Energy Supplies of Leominster faces extra costs from the Government’s microgeneration certification scheme. To show that the Prime Minister is serious about Copenhagen and renewable energy, will he agree to meet my constituents and get rid of some of this gold-plating? (295964)

No, the Government are doing more to promote low-carbon industries in this country. We are investing in the new technologies, and we are supporting a range of small, medium-sized and large businesses. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about these issues, but I am convinced that we are doing as much as we can now—we will do more in the future—to help the development of low-carbon industries in his constituency and throughout the country.

Q8. Sir Jeffrey Sterling famously said that the Labour Government did more for the British merchant navy in their first 18 months than the Tories did in 18 years. Given the news that Maersk Line is starting to ship out of the British register and lay off British seafarers, will the Prime Minister tell us when Ministers will act on the employment and training package put forward in 2007 by the unions and the industry? It will expand the fleet and create new jobs for British seafarers. (295965)

Shipping is a very competitive global industry, but what we did in 1997 so that ships were flagged from the United Kingdom was a very important act of government to help defend, safeguard and expand jobs and opportunities for seafarers. The proposals put forward by unions and the industry together are ones that we are now looking at in order to create more training and employment opportunities in the industry, and I am very happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Q9. Last weekend, Members from all three of the main political parties and both Houses were among 100 legislators from the major economies who came together at the GLOBE legislators forum, which was attended by the Prime Minister of Denmark, on the subject of climate change. The GLOBE forum resulted in a consensus of the 100 legislators on a set of legislative principles that were jointly put forward by United States Congressman Ed Markey and Chairman Wang Guangtao of China. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet the UK’s delegation to that GLOBE meeting ahead of the conference of the parties—COP—meeting in December? (295966)

I will meet delegations to look at this issue of climate change, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that what we need is progress from both China and America, so that we can have a climate change deal. The principles that will underlie the deal must include intermediate targets that are agreed by countries around the world. I hope that as part of the decisions that were made by his group last weekend, there was recognition that we will need intermediate as well as long-term targets and we will need to solve the problem of climate financing. That is crucial and our proposal, which is not to affect international development aid, but to raise additional money for tackling climate change for the poorest countries, is one that I hope will commend itself to all parties.

Following the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and given the fact that Sir Thomas Legg is reviewing five years of our allowances, with the publication next week by Christopher Kelly of the overall review of MPs’ allowances, can the Prime Minister tell the House what the next steps will be?

I think that all Members of Parliament want to bring the old, discredited system of expenses to an end and to bring in as quickly as possible a new system for expenses. Sir Christopher Kelly will report next Wednesday, and that report will form the basis of a statement to the House. I then expect that IPSA will be given the power to implement it in detail, but that is a matter for the House and there will be a report to the House next Wednesday.

Q10. Bristol’s economy and environment suffers from poor public transport; we have high bus fares from a monopoly provider and far too few passenger trains on our local rail network. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Secretary of State for Transport to expedite plans for the Greater Bristol area to be given an integrated transport authority, so that service improvements can be brought about? (295967)

We are investing more in transport than we have ever done. We have not only increased investment in rail transport and moved to the electrification of some lines, but we are investing in bus transport, particularly with the help we are giving to pensioners on concessionary fares. I have not seen the Bristol proposal for an integrated transport system, but obviously I shall examine what the hon. Gentleman says.

Q11. We run the risk of being a generation of politicians that did not make the right decisions to tackle one of the biggest issues confronting us, which is climate change, and to minimise its impact on future generations. May I commend my right hon. Friend for the action that he has taken? He has been the first Head of State to recognise the need for leaders of Governments to attend the Copenhagen summit and to take part in those debates. Do not listen to the nay-sayers over there—[Interruption.] (295968)

The Opposition get very anxious. They have come out against wind turbines and wind renewables; the shadow Business Secretary said that Britain should not be used for that. They are against nuclear power, which is one of the keys to our having lower carbon in this country. The Conservatives should think again. If they want a consensus on climate change, they will have to change their policy.

Q12. As the Prime Minister knows, this is the international year of astronomy. Does he therefore support the campaign for dark skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing street, where all the lights are on very late into the night? (295969)

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.