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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 510: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Departmental Expenditure

We will fundamentally change the way in which we look at the value for money of aid, moving from a focus on inputs to what our money achieves—the outputs and outcomes we secure. We will gain maximum value for money for every pound through greater transparency, rigorous independent evaluation and an unremitting focus on results.

May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and to congratulate him on his new and important role? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House recognise the important work he has done and will wish him well in these very difficult economic times. Will he reassure the House and my constituents that value for money will be at the heart of his Department’s vital work in tackling poverty in the poorest countries in the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. As I look around the House, I see Members on both sides who are passionate and knowledgeable about international development. I look forward to building on the progress made by the previous Government on this important agenda and I pay tribute to my predecessor, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), for his work in particular on international aid effectiveness and co-ordination.

In respect of my hon. Friend’s question, value for money will be at the heart of everything we do. We are examining all expenditure in every single country, starting with our country review shortly.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, let me return the compliment offered to me by the Secretary of State by extending my congratulations to him and his team of Ministers. The Department for International Development is one of Labour’s proudest achievements and I wish him well in his stewardship of that important Ministry. I welcome the answer that he just gave emphasising value for money. May I ask whether he regards educating young girls in Afghanistan as a valuable part of that comprehensive approach or whether he agrees with the Defence Secretary that it is simply

“education policy in a broken 13th-century country”?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his kind remarks. It is a tremendous advantage in the House and outside it that international development is regarded as a British policy and not a policy of any one of the three main political parties. On his point about education in Afghanistan, education is vital to the future of Afghanistan and to building the capacity of that state. He will know that we now have more than 2 million girls in education in Afghanistan.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State may have achieved the forced re-education of the Defence Secretary on the issue of value for money in DFID expenditure. Has he also secured the re-education of the new Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Michael Moore), who, according to correspondence that has now come into my possession, described as recently as 20 April “the very real danger” of Conservative proposals to divert aid to military control? Who has got it wrong—the Secretary of State for International Development or the Scottish Secretary?

I am afraid that I cannot comment on leaked documents that the shadow Secretary of State has got. On his first point about the Secretary of State for Defence, perhaps I could draw his attention to the press conference that was given in Kabul by me and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary. If the right hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the text of that press conference, he will see that one could not get a cigarette paper between my views and those of the Secretary of State for Defence.

May I just say how delighted we all are to see my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Treasury Bench? They are a fantastic team: he did brilliant work in opposition, and I am sure that he will do brilliant work in government.

However much value for money my right hon. Friend manages to get out of his Department, our colleagues in the G8 must also do their bit. The UK has met the targets that we set ourselves at Gleneagles, but does he not find it a matter of concern that France, Germany and Italy are so substantially lagging behind what they promised at Gleneagles that they would do to meet those targets?

My hon. Friend is right that everyone who signed up to those commitments at Gleneagles in 2005, in front of the international cameras of the world, must honour them. We will be at pains to make it clear that the vital development budget, which is so important, should be supported by all the G8 countries. It is difficult to probe and indeed question countries in the developing world that do not live up to their commitments to their people if countries of the G8 do not live up to the solemn commitments that they too have made in front of the world.

Sudan

The British Government are deeply concerned by the humanitarian emergency in Sudan. Recent fighting, particularly in Darfur and southern Sudan, is causing further suffering and displacement. In 2010, we will provide emergency food, medicine, shelter, water and sanitation for up to 5 million people. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan and rebel movements to improve access and security for humanitarian workers.

In congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment, may I ask that he assures the House that, as a priority, this Government will continue to focus on Sudan? Will he bring the House up to date by giving us his assessment of the current situation in east Sudan?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I pay tribute to his consistent work on Sudan over recent years. He will be aware that nearly 300,000 people have died in Darfur as a result of this emergency: 2 million people are displaced, 2.4 million are on food aid, and fighting is still going on in Jebel Mara and Jebel Moon. He will also be aware that this conflict has internationalised itself across the border into Chad, where there are already 250,000 Sudanese refugees, as well as into the Central African Republic.

Tomorrow, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator will brief the UN Security Council on his recent visit. The British Government will look carefully at what he says about the humanitarian situation in Sudan, and consider whether further action is necessary.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment to the Cabinet. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s view on next year’s national referendum? He will no doubt have taken soundings from Ministers throughout Europe. It is absolutely vital that the referendum is undertaken in the correct way, in order to bring stable Government so that we can see that humanitarian relief and aid are put in the right place.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the critical importance of the referendum on the border between southern and northern Sudan, and we are watching the position extremely carefully. He will be aware that the situation in Darfur that I have described is in many ways mirrored by what is going on in the south, where he will know that there has been an acute rise in food shortage and where more than £70 million of British humanitarian relief is going in this year. I can give him the undertaking that we will continue to work hard to ensure that the referendum is conducted freely, fairly and successfully, and that we are prepared for the results.

I add my own congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman, and send best wishes to him and his team—for now. Given that we are still a long way from meeting the millennium development goals, particularly in Sudan, how will he and his colleagues use the remaining four months before the UN’s poverty summit to help rebuild the international momentum needed to achieve the goals? Will not one telling signal of the new Government’s willingness to show leadership on this issue be whether they bring forward legislation to put the UN’s aid target of 0.7% on the statute book before that September summit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm wishes for now. On the second part of his question, he will have seen in the coalition document that we are committed to enshrining in legislation our commitment to an aid target of 0.7 % of gross national income by 2013. If he will bide his time in patience, he will see that that is precisely what we will do. On his first point about the critical importance of taking forward the agenda on the MDGs, which is so off-track at present, he will be interested to hear that the Prime Minister will meet the Prime Minister of Canada tomorrow to discuss the approach of the G8 to the MDGs. In particular, in respect of MDG 5 concerning maternal mortality, which is so off-track, we have specific plans to try and give that a boost.

Russian Federation

3. What his Department's policy is on the provision of aid to the Russian Federation; and if he will make a statement. (443)

DFID’s bilateral project work in Russia totalled £1.5 million in 2009-10 and is estimated to be some £1.4 million in 2010-11. The new Government will wind down bilateral spending in Russia as soon as is practical and responsible.

I thank the Minister for his response and offer my congratulations to him on his position. Those of us who have been involved in our commercial careers in Russia would certainly agree that giving aid to such a prominent G8 country could risk confidence in the aid programme as a whole, but Russia still has a long way to go in developing a full civil society. Will the Minister look at how non-governmental organisations in Russia working towards civil society might be encouraged to do their job?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I am well aware of his work in the past on the know how fund and I appreciate his continuing interest in the matter. As I said, we intend to wind down bilateral aid to Russia in an orderly way. Ministers and officials regularly discuss with Russia both bilaterally and as part of the EU a range of issues, including human rights and freedom of expression. We remain committed to maintaining our dialogue with Russia as a donor colleague in the global effort to provide good quality aid.

Further to that answer, will my hon. Friend also consider moving the aid that has been going to Russia to Russia’s former satellites in central Asia? For example, in Tajikistan more than 1 million people are living on less than $1 a day, and five years on from the Andijan massacre, Uzbekistan is desperately in need of help for rebuilding civil society and democratisation.

As I said, we intend to wind down bilateral aid to Russia in an orderly way, and we are carrying out a review of all bilateral programmes so that we can better prioritise the United Kingdom’s development assistance. At this stage in the review, I cannot make commitments to increase aid in the areas that my hon. Friend proposes, but I am happy to take his comments on board.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. A moment ago he mentioned raising the issue of human rights with the Russians. He will be aware of the disgraceful and homophobic comments of the mayor of Moscow in his various attempts to ban gay rights marches in Moscow. What message can the Minister take to the Russians and to all the recipients of UK aid money that such disgraceful homophobic attacks and oppression will not be tolerated?

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that that is the one homophobic comment of which I had not been fully aware. I am usually well on top of these matters. We take human rights issues in Russia very seriously and they will continue to be an important part of the dialogue between our diplomats and members of the Foreign Office and our Russian counterparts.

Departmental Aid Programmes

4. What steps he is taking to ensure maximum transparency in the distribution of aid under his Department’s programmes. (444)

The public in the UK and in the countries where we work have a right to access information about the aid that we provide. We will introduce full transparency in aid and publish details of all UK aid spending online, increasing the range and extent of the information published.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on the jobs that they are to do, because I know that they are all passionate about the subject. Will the Secretary of State please let the House know that the benefits of the increased transparency will extend not just to UK taxpayers, but to the poor of the countries that the aid is intended to help?

My hon. Friend knows a great deal about these issues from her experience, not least in Uganda, and I thank her for her question. She is quite right about the importance of transparency, enabling people in poor countries to hold their own politicians to account, and it is a very important aspect of both transparency and our development budget that we help build up the capacity of civil society in countries that we are assisting so that they can do just that.

Given the increasing importance of the European Union in aid funding, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be greater harmonisation of aid priorities within the EU?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the EU aid programme, which, as she knows, is conducted in two different ways—through own resources and through the European development fund. I had the opportunity of speaking to the commissioner who is responsible for these matters last week about the importance of aid effectiveness and transparency in the EU. There may be a case in some aspects of the programme for greater harmonisation, and we will always look at that through the prism of greater effectiveness.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the proactive approach that he is taking in ensuring that the UK takes the lead in providing greater transparency, but does he agree that it is equally important that our international partners follow suit, and, if so, could he share with the House how he intends to encourage them to do so?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, this is an important aspect of the work that we intend our newly established, or to be established, independent evaluation programme to champion. An independent evaluation is not only about looking at the money that we spend from DFID, it is also about looking at how British taxpayers’ money is spent through the multilaterals and some of the brilliant non-governmental organisations that we are funding. All of them need to be subject to the same independent audit so that we ensure that we get value for money for the hard-pressed taxpayers who are providing it.

The Minister may be aware of the incredibly good work that many charities and church-based groups are carrying out in east Africa, particularly in regard to transparency and combating corruption there. Will he try to understand and take information from those charitable groups and ensure that that is replicated in the aid that goes to that region?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in the importance that he attaches to the work of some of these brilliant NGOs, not only in the part of Africa that he mentioned, but all around the world, which during the last four years I have had the privilege of seeing in action. We have every intention of introducing a poverty impact fund targeted precisely at enabling such charities to double the output of what they are producing, and I will be able to give the House further details of that in due course.

Malaria

The Government are committed to a significant increase in our support to help reduce the terrible scourge of over 800,000 known deaths from malaria each year—all of which are preventable. Research is essential to develop new drugs and tools and identify the best way to deliver them in a cost-effective way, and will play a part in our meeting this commitment as we increase our focus and activity on malaria.

In welcoming the Minister to his place at the Dispatch Box, may I offer my congratulations to the Secretary of State who got into the Conservative party manifesto a commitment to £500 million spending per year on malaria, which in particular includes research into a malaria vaccine? Does that commitment still stand, because it will gain support on both sides of the House?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and he is aware that we are committed to spending up to £500 million as he notes, in particular in relation to developing an effective malaria vaccine. Theoretically, there is a real hope of such a vaccine in the future, and we believe that vaccine research therefore plays in important part, but at the same time should not detract from the need to get better at delivering what we know works now. Work on a future vaccine will be focused on what will be capable of being safely delivered, accessible to the poor and with sufficient efficacy to be one of the key tools in the armoury that will continue to have to be used in the battle against malaria.

Further to that answer, what commitment can the Minister give to the Government’s approach to the talks on the replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which will take place in September?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that that issue is currently being considered, and we are looking at all the representations received not only to work towards a negotiation of the replenishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but most importantly to build on the very good work that that fund, which is now the world’s largest health fund, has already demonstrated to date.

Pakistan

6. What proportion of his Department’s aid to Pakistan was intended for minority groups in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan in the last 12 months. (446)

Of £140 million in assistance to Pakistan between April 2009 and March 2010, my Department provided £40.2 million in humanitarian aid for people displaced by conflict in federally administered tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The UK’s humanitarian assistance targets those most in need, regardless of population group, following internationally agreed principles of neutrality and impartiality.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, and I add my congratulations to him on his appointment as Secretary of State and to his team. Does he agree that it is not only essential to win hearts and minds among the general populace, but vital to try to assist minority groups in those regions through our aid efforts?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and underline the point that I made in my answer—that our humanitarian assistance targets those most in need, following internationally agreed principles of neutrality and impartiality. I can tell him that I shall shortly be going to Pakistan, and I shall look very specifically at the point that he has made. I can tell him also that since the 2008 conflict, the UK has given humanitarian support, providing shelter, food, health care, clean water and sanitation in order to help people recover their livelihoods when they return to their home. I know that that has been a matter of concern to him.

Female Genital Mutilation

7. What steps he plans to take to ensure that projects to prevent female genital mutilation have access to internet-based funding programmes. (447)

The Government condemn female genital mutilation as an extreme violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. An estimated 140 million women and girls have been subjected to that practice. Internet-based funding, such as GlobalGiving, is increasingly helping civil society organisations to access funding for programmes to prevent female genital mutilation. We will look at that area over the next year as we design the poverty impact fund, which will support innovative ways of working.

Genital mutilation is condemned by most humanitarian organisations, so how does the Minister plan to ensure that his “My Aid” programme will not disadvantage unpopular programmes? As I understand it, his party’s green paper says that if 25% of people vote for Malawi, that country’s programme will get 25% of the funding. But how will he protect vital programmes that do not have the X factor and do not receive an internet vote?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for identifying the key issue of FGM. We will certainly consider carefully what he has said, as we look to roll forward the programmes, in order to ensure that we deal in the most effective way by bearing down not only on the activity, which is clearly intolerable, but on the societal and cultural drivers that lie behind it. That is what will be most influential in driving the funds to help the programmes.

Departmental Aid Programmes

9. What steps he is taking to ensure maximum effectiveness in respect of the aid provided under his Department’s programmes. (449)

It is essential that we spend every pound of aid effectively. We will do that through rigorous independent evaluation, greater transparency and an unremitting focus on results. We will transform the transparency of aid information, ensuring accountability to UK taxpayers and people in developing countries. The UK will review all aid to focus it on results and on outputs.

I am grateful for that reply and welcome my right hon. Friend to his new appointment. He stressed that Afghanistan is our main foreign challenge. How will he ensure that the money that is poured into Ministries in Kabul is able to make its way all the way down to the front line—to those communities that need it most?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about those issues. We have looked very carefully at the mechanism for delivering that aid, which is vital to the development effort in Afghanistan, and independent analysis suggests that the World Bank trust fund, which, as he will appreciate, pays out on the basis of receipts for work carried out by the Government and Government employees, is a highly effective way of getting money through to the front line.

Caucasus

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s work to promote stability and the development of civil society in the Caucasus. (452)

DFID no longer has bilateral aid programmes in the Caucasus region. The UK Government’s conflict prevention pool, including civil society support, remains active in the region. The UK also continues to support development in the Caucasus region through its membership of multilateral institutions, including the EU.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that given the continued progress towards a resolution of conflicts in the region, particularly in respect of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is very important that, at a multilateral and primary level, the Government give support to those sorts of activities?

We will look very closely at the hon. Gentleman’s representations in the context of all the reviews that we are currently making.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the last week: from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor; and from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, Gunner Zak Cusack. These were men of outstanding courage, skill and selflessness. We must never forget their sacrifice.

The House will also be alarmed and shocked by the events unfolding in Cumbria today. Police were called to Whitehaven at 10.35 this morning after shots were fired by a man, and I regret to report that a number of people have been shot and at least five people have died. I can confirm that the body of a gunman has been found by the police. The chief constable of Cumbria is working closely with other forces and other emergency services to ensure a co-ordinated response to these rapidly moving events. The Government will do everything that they possibly can to help the local community and those affected, and to keep the House informed. A full statement will be made to Parliament tomorrow. When lives and communities are suddenly shattered in this way, our thoughts should be with all those caught up in these tragic events, especially the families and friends of those killed or injured.

All parties in this House will welcome the coalition’s proposals to eliminate quangos and shift power away from unelected functionaries to elected representatives. The biggest quango of the lot is, of course—[Hon. Members: “The House of Lords.”] It is the other place, a legislative Chamber largely appointed by the Executive. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will bring forward proposals in the next 12 months to make all our law-makers accountable through the ballot box?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. I do not always give him answers that make him happy, but this time I can. There will be a draft motion, by December, which the House can vote on. I have always supported a predominantly elected House of Lords, and I am delighted that agreement has been reached on the coalition programme. [Interruption.] I can already hear what a challenge around the House it is going to be to achieve the consensus that we need, but I hope that after all the promises of reform, this time we can move towards a predominantly elected second Chamber.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Stephen Curley and Marine Scott Taylor from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and to Gunner Zak Cusack from the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery. As the Prime Minister said, they were brave men who died in the service of our country. We must never forget the sacrifice that they made.

I strongly support what the Prime Minister has said about the dreadful shootings in Cumbria. We offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been killed and our strong support for the police, the emergency services and the local communities in Cumbria.

May I ask the Prime Minister about the Israeli interception of the Gaza flotilla? I am sure that he agrees that there has been a tragic loss of life, which has angered the Palestinians and dismayed friends of Israel, too. Can he tell the House what is the current position of the British nationals who have been detained by the Israelis? Will he tell us how the Government can contribute to international efforts to make the Israelis recognise that the blockade of Gaza is prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians and making peace in the middle east even harder to achieve? This blockade must end.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what she said about our troops, and also for raising the issue of the events off the coast of Gaza. What has happened is completely unacceptable; we should be clear about that. We should also deplore the loss of life. Indeed, I have spoken to the Prime Minister of Turkey to extend our condolences for the Turkish citizens who have been lost. We should do everything we can to make sure this does not happen again; I stressed this point in a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.

In answer to the right hon. and learned Lady’s specific questions about British nationals, 42 British nationals are caught up in this. I believe that around 37 of them have had consular access and that all of them will be coming home, and we need to make sure that they are reunited with their families as fast as possible.

The right hon. and learned Lady also raised the issue of international efforts to get the blockade open. As she knows, and as the shadow Foreign Secretary will know, we should do everything we can through the United Nations, where resolution 1860 is absolutely clear about the need to end the blockade and to open up Gaza. I would say in addition that friends of Israel—and I count myself a friend of Israel—should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas’s grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it is in their own interests to lift it and to allow these vital supplies to get through.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I know that we will be hearing more from the Foreign Secretary in a statement immediately after these questions.

Can the Prime Minister give me an answer on another important issue—one that I raised with him last Tuesday—about prosecuting rape? We know that it is often only after many rapes that a defendant is finally brought to court, and it is often only at that point that previous victims find the courage to come forward. By making rape defendants anonymous, he is going to make it harder to bring rapists to justice.

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady cares very deeply about this issue, as do I. The fact that rape convictions are so low in this country is a scandal, and we need to improve on that. That means working with the police, and also doing more to help rape victims, including backing rape crisis centres.

On the issue of anonymity, I sat on the Home Affairs Committee that examined this issue; it was of course a Committee in a previous Parliament, dominated by Labour Members, and very ably chaired by Chris Mullin. We came to the conclusion that there was a case for saying that between arrest and charge there was a case for anonymity. The coalition agreement mentions the issue of anonymity, and we will of course be bringing forward proposals, which the House can then examine and debate. I think that there is a case for this to happen, but I understand what the right hon. and learned Lady says—that it is important that the publicity around a case can help to bring forward other people who have been raped. I understand her case, but I think that this does represent a good way forward.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the first point. However, does he not also recognise that to single out rape defendants, which is what he is proposing to do, sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed, and sends a devastating message to rape victims that, uniquely of all victims, they are not to be believed?

I do not accept that. The Home Affairs Committee looked at this very carefully and came to conclusion that in this case there was a case for extending anonymity, also because in rape cases, obviously, those who have been raped have anonymity themselves, and that was the case with this limited extension. We will be bringing forward proposals that can be debated and discussed in the House of Commons. We all want the same thing, which is to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and to send more rapists to jail: that is what this is about.

I am sorry, but I think that that is a disappointing answer, because the Prime Minister shows no understanding of the progress that has been made on prosecuting rape, and he does not realise how seriously this will turn the clock back.

May I turn to another subject that I believe the Government should reconsider—the married man’s tax allowance? It would go to only one in three married couples, and would cost half a billion pounds a year. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how that would contribute to cutting the deficit?

I am an unashamed supporter of families and marriage, and I simply do not understand why, when so many other European countries—I remember often being lectured when I was on the other side of the House about how we should follow European examples—recognise marriage in the tax system, we do not. I believe that we should bring forward proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. Those in our happy coalition will have the right to abstain on them, I am happy to say, but I support marriage. We support so many other things in the tax system, including Christmas parties and parking bicycles at work, so why do we not recognise marriage?

The Prime Minister knows that this will not keep couples together; he is just hoping that it will keep his Back Benchers on side. He has not answered the question: how will this planned tax cut help reduce the deficit?

If we are going to get control of public spending in the long term in this country, we should target the causes of higher spending, one of which is family breakdown. We should do far more to recognise the importance of families, commitment and marriage—and let me just say that any recognition of marriage that we put in the tax system will also be recognition of civil partnerships, because commitment is important, whether someone is straight or gay.

So the Prime Minister is seriously saying that he expects us to believe that he thinks a £3 a week tax break, which will cost the Exchequer half a billion pounds a year, will keep families together. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting so quietly by his side—because on this one, Nick agrees with me. We do not need it, it will not work, and they should drop it.

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Lady has a slightly short memory, because when she was sitting over here on the Government Benches, an enormous recognition of marriage in the tax system was introduced by the Labour Government in—wait for it—inheritance tax. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, they massively increased the threshold for inheritance tax that can be transferred between husband and wife. If recognising marriage in the tax system is such a good thing for the better-off, why do we not do it for the less well-off? [Interruption.]

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that the Prime Minister paid to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and in the dreadful events in Cumbria?

What means does the Prime Minister hope to use to achieve his stated and very necessary objective of allowing the private sector to expand in the parts of the country, such as the north-east, that depend heavily on public sector jobs?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue, because we will have to take difficult decisions about public spending; everybody knows that. Let me be clear: no region of the country should be singled out, but he is right to say that some parts of the country have a very high dependence on public sector jobs. In the Budget on 22 June we will need to bring forward ideas that will fire up the private sector—for instance, the idea that any new firm established does not have to pay national insurance for the first 10 employees. I think that will help, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should also think about ways in which, as we get the private sector growing and make difficult decisions in the public sector, we can help regions that could be adversely affected. The Government are looking seriously at that idea, because we want to take the whole country with us as we deal with the £160 billion deficit bequeathed to us by the Opposition.

Q2. I wholeheartedly support what the Prime Minister said earlier about our armed forces, not least because a lot of young men and women from the Rhondda and the other south Wales valleys are serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere at the moment. He will know that one of the most important things for protecting our armed forces is ensuring that they have the best training possible, technically and in military expertise. Will he therefore commit himself and his Government unambiguously today to the new defence training college in St Athan in south Wales, which would save lives in our armed forces and provide 5,000 jobs in south Wales? (427)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Everyone who has spent time in south Wales with the military knows that there is an incredibly strong case for the St Athan defence training establishment. I have heard that case on all the visits that I have made, but he will understand that we must have a proper strategic defence review. We have not had one since 1998, and everything has to be included in that review. I would just say to him, as he feels so strongly about this, that he was in the last Government, and that there was an opportunity to give that project the go-ahead before the election, but they did not do it.

Q3. Now that we know that the last Government spent £1 billion on advertising and “invested” £12,000 in golf balls, is the Prime Minister surprised that there is no money left? (428)

We are not really surprised, not least because of the letter that we got from the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I am glad to see that he has apologised for the letter, although he has not yet apologised for the legacy. My hon. Friend makes a good point. In addition, we have discovered that £320 million was spent on hotels, £1.5 billion on consultants and—this really did amaze me—one Department spent more than £140 per person on cut flowers and pot plants. Perhaps we could have a lottery to find out which one it was.

Q4. Four high schools in my constituency are in the last throes of the Building Schools for the Future programme: Matthew Moss high school in Castleton, Siddal Moor sports college, Holy Family—a new joint-faith school—and Middleton technology college in Middleton. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that that programme will be seen through to its completion, which would also help many of the construction workers in my constituency? (429)

I know that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to see that in making the £6 billion in-year reductions—many warnings were given about what that would mean—we have protected the schools budget, and ensured that schools and Sure Start are protected. In terms of building schools for the future, let me be clear: our plans—and our passion, when it comes to education—are to ensure that new schools are provided so that we have real excellence, in the secondary sector in particular. That is what it is about. Building schools for the future is exactly what our plans involve.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the case of my constituent Mr Edmond Arapi, who is facing extradition to Italy, having been tried in his absence? Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and accelerate the review of extradition cases before Mr Arapi is taken from his family and sent to an Italian jail?

I am happy to look at this case, and I will discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is working on the issue of deportations. Legal processes have to be followed, but I will discuss this with my right hon. Friend, and perhaps then contact my hon. Friend.

Q5. Now that the banks—some of them, anyway—are coming into profit, and the taxpayers are getting a small return on the enormous amount of money that they put in, when does the Prime Minister envisage selling the shares off to his friends in the City? (430)

I would much rather sell the shares in the banks to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I believe in popular capitalism, and there might be an opportunity to do that. Clearly, important decisions will have to be made to ensure that we get the maximum amount of money back for the taxpayer, who has had to put so much money into the banks, and that we have a fully competitive banking system that serves business in this country so that it does not get ripped off by the banks. At the same time, privatising those banks back into the private sector where they belong can help encourage popular capitalism once again.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Denys Shortt of Stratford-on-Avon on his nomination as entrepreneur of the year in the Ernst & Young competition—a well-earned accolade? On the question of earnings, was the Prime Minister surprised to learn that so many people in the public sector earn more than he does? (431)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent. Transparency on pay is an important principle, because it is good for democracy and accountability if we know how much people in the public sector are earning. I also think that it will help us to control public spending. When people see how much people are paid in the public sector, the pressure will be on to keep top pay levels down. It would also be worth while having a maximum multiple of 20 times earnings; we are holding a review to get that done. People at the top of a public sector organisation should not earn more than 20 times what people at the bottom earn. It is that sort of progressive idea that we are looking forward to introducing.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister share the concerns of two schoolteachers from Chesterfield who came to see me this weekend, that children from areas of greater deprivation will suffer disproportionately from his plans to cut 10,000 university places? (432)

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. We can all remember one of his predecessors in that seat, Tony Benn, who left this House saying that he wanted to spend more time doing politics.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we want to help children from less well-off backgrounds by having a pupil premium. We will take money from outside the education budget to ensure that the pupil premium is well funded, so that children from the poorest homes get to go to the best schools and the money follows the pupil into those schools. As for university places, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: we are expanding the number of university places by 10,000, compared with the legacy that we were left.

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on excessive pay? My constituents are outraged at the amount of money that some senior NHS managers are receiving. What can the coalition do to reduce such excessive expenditure?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. By having transparency, we are able to see for the first time who is earning what in the public sector. That will create pressure on top people’s pay in the public sector, to keep that pay down. That is the first thing. In the NHS specifically, as he knows, our plans are all about removing the centralised bureaucracy, partly by removing many of the centralised targets that have caused that bureaucracy to grow. Our ambition is to ensure that the priority is the people on the front line—the nurses, the doctors, the people involved in clinical care—instead of the endless increase in management that we have seen in recent years.

Q8. Many of my constituents are employed by Nissan and in supply chain jobs. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the £20 million grant awarded to Nissan under the previous Government in March will be honoured, in order to develop the next generation of electric cars? (433)

Let me welcome the hon. Lady to her place and say that I, too, have visited the Nissan plant near Sunderland. It is an absolute wonder to see the incredible investment that has gone in there and the many jobs that have been created, not just at that plant but in the supply chain. I want to see electric cars being developed, and when I was at Nissan we discussed that specifically. As for the grant, I do not have a specific answer for her—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It’s a funny old thing: I’m going to give accurate answers, rather than make them up on the spot. I shall be delighted to let the hon. Lady know via a letter as soon as possible.

Q9. Noting the very high standards of professional care in the NHS in Stroud, may I ask the Prime Minister to lend his support to the Stroud maternity unit? (434)

I welcome my hon. Friend, and thank him for that question. I understand that the Stroud maternity unit was under threat under a previous Administration, but I am happy to say that with our plans, under which the money in the NHS will follow the decisions that local people make with their doctors about where to be treated, we will find that community hospitals across our country can once again breathe easily.

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes that were paid earlier to our fallen heroes in Afghanistan? We should always remember them. In that spirit, may I ask the Prime Minister, right at the outset of a new Parliament and a new Administration, to give a categorical assurance to our troops that they will always get the equipment and resources that they need on operational duty, to our servicemen and women returning home that they will always get the help and advice that they need to return to civilian life, and to our maimed and wounded that, despite all the budgetary pressures, they will always get the care and compassion that they need and deserve, for however long it takes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—and the way that he put it—about ensuring that we protect and help those at the front line with everything that they need, looking after their families and helping those who are injured. That is what our focus should be. It is all those things, and it is all through the lifetime of those people. I have visited places such as Headley Court and seen the incredible work now being done. However, what we have to realise as a country is that this is not just about getting the equipment or renewing the military covenant, so that we serve our armed services properly, but about recognising that the people who have been injured so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan will need a lifetime of help. I do not think that the health service has yet fully woken up to the—quite rightly—very high demands that those people will place on the health services. That is why I have a strong defence team and a strong health team, who are going to work together to ensure that we deliver for those people, who have done so much for us.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is my top priority. That is why we have set up the National Security Council and why it met on the first full day of the new Government. In terms of the military strategy, we are six months into the troop surge ordered by President Obama. That surge is to provide a proper counter-insurgency campaign, protecting the people while tackling the insurgents. We back that strategy, and we must give it time to work. There are some signs of progress, such as markets opening up again and better district governance. As I said in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, we have to support that military strategy with a political surge, of which the peace jirga being launched in Kabul today is an example. I spoke to President Karzai about this yesterday, and stressed to him the importance of working towards a political solution in which everyone in Afghanistan feels that the Government of Afghanistan are a Government for them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concept of a sovereign base bridgehead area, which could meet our needs in Afghanistan for a fraction of the cost in life, limb and expenditure? Would he consider taking a briefing on this subject, if possible in the presence of the service chiefs of staff?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question; I know that he has great expertise in this area. I have understood the idea of a bridgehead, but while it is worth examining, there are difficulties with it. The current strategy of counter-insurgency is about trying to protect the public in Afghanistan from the insurgency and enlarge the area of that country in which normal life can continue. What is in our national interest—that is what we should focus on—is an Afghanistan stable and secure enough for us to bring our troops home. That is what we want to achieve. I will listen to my hon. Friend’s ideas, but we have to give the current strategy time to work.

Comrade Premier—[Laughter.] I am surprised by that reaction. I mean, are we not all in this together? Are not the vast majority of us—apart from a small sect—in favour of strengthening the Union of the United Kingdom? And do not the vast majority of us dislike, distrust and despise the Liberal Democrats? On the subject of safe bases, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is no base safer than an aircraft carrier—

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. On this closed question, I was eagerly anticipating an inquiry about Afghanistan, but sadly it was not forthcoming.

Engagements

Q11. What will my right hon. Friend be doing to ensure that foreign nationals engaged in terrorist-related activity in this country will be deported back to their country of origin when their evil plots are detected? (436)

I really am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. When foreign nationals threaten our country but we do not have the evidence necessary to prosecute them, it is essential for us to be able to deport them back to their country of origin. I have asked the Home Secretary to work with the Foreign Secretary to draw up agreements with as many countries as possible, so that we can deport those people and keep our country safe. All diplomatic efforts, including efforts by me, will be made to ensure that we keep our country safe.

Q12. I heard what the Prime Minister said about the military covenant in answer to a previous question, and as chair of the all-party veterans group, I was relieved to see a commitment in the coalition’s document to providing extra support for veterans’ mental health needs. I was alarmed, however, to read that the £2 million set aside by the previous Government to support Combat Stress had been placed under review by the present Government. Is the Prime Minister able to renew that commitment to Combat Stress, or will it fall at the first hurdle? (437)

First of all, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work for veterans, which is extremely important, and I welcome it. It is important, as I have said, that we have a very strong ministerial team at the Department of Health and at the Ministry of Defence, and I understand the huge pressure that will be put on our health services because of the mental health stress of people who have fought in combat. We will do everything we can to help them; the hon. Gentleman has my word that that will happen. It needs to happen not just this year, while our troops are still in Afghanistan, but for all the years into the future. There are figures that suggest that more people committed suicide after the Falklands war than were killed in combat. I take this issue extremely seriously; the hon. Gentleman has my word that those services will be properly looked after.

I was greatly encouraged by the Prime Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about the deportation of terrorist suspects. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the most effective way to get rid of these people is to scrap the Human Rights Act?

My hon. Friend, as so often, is tempting me. He knows that my view is very clear that we would be better off with a British Bill of Rights rather than with the Human Rights Act, and that matter is being examined. Enthusiastic though I am personally for that policy, I have to say that what is really needed for urgent action is individual agreements with countries like Pakistan in order to get a guarantee that people we send back there will not be mistreated. With countries like Pakistan, we should be able to achieve that. We are a major aid donor and a major partner; we should be able to encourage them to give us that guarantee so that we do not have to keep in our country foreign nationals that threaten to do us harm.

Q13. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the progress made in the north-east economy. In the economic context, it is said that when the United States sneezes, the United Kingdom catches cold and the north-east of England gets pneumonia. I was therefore sad to learn at the weekend that the regional development agency One NorthEast is preparing budgets within year for 40% cuts in operational output. Does the Prime Minister think that is good medicine for that sort of pneumonia? (438)

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his election to this place? I well remember taking the Conservative party’s bi-annual conference to Gateshead. It was received all right, given what might have been expected.

How can I refuse an offer like that?

On regional development agencies, what we have said is that in areas of the country where they work well and where local authorities want to keep them as they are, they can. We believe, however, that in many parts of the country, including the part I represent, there is a huge amount of waste in the system and it would be better to have local enterprise partnerships, with councils coming together to support business. Wherever regional assemblies—or rather, regional development agencies— are, we think there is a large amount of waste within them. We think some of the planning and transport functions should be given back to local authorities where they belong. That is what people will see from this Government: yes, we want to generate enterprise and help businesses to get going, but we also want proper local government that controls the things that local government should do.