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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2010

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Transparency

The new UK aid transparency guarantee will deliver a step change in the transparency of British aid. Under the guarantee, we will publish full and detailed information on our projects and policies, strengthen accessibility and feedback, and press international partners to follow our lead.

Hard-pressed British taxpayers will be pleased to have heard what my right hon. Friend has said, but could he tell us how transparency will be assured for the fairly large part of the British aid budget that is spent through the United Nations, the World Bank and international development charities?

My hon. Friend is right about this, because there are some 44 international and multilateral aid agencies through which we spend British taxpayers’ money. All of them are being looked at under the multilateral aid review, which we set up immediately after this Government took office. The review will report by the end of January next year and we will decide upon our spending allocations in accordance with the results that we are achieving, which will be examined by that review.

Given the positive response to the annual report arising from the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006, will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence to ensure that the report goes directly to Parliament and that we have an annual debate on the Floor of this House?

The right hon. Gentleman has some credit for having masterminded and pioneered the Bill that became that Act through the House of Commons. He is right to underline the importance of the transparency that the Act ushered in and the importance of the House of Commons being able to discuss it, with Ministers being accountable to this House for that. So I can assure him that, through the usual channels, I will underline the point that he has made.

The Select Committee on International Development warmly welcomes the Secretary of State’s initiatives to make aid more transparent, and will co-operate with him and with Parliament to ensure that we give effective voice to that. Does he acknowledge that there are some concerns that ensuring that everything is transparent means that we might sacrifice longer-term, less measurable outcomes for shorter-term ones? Can he assure me and the Committee that that compromise will not undermine the effectiveness of British aid?

As the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly says, transparency is about accountability not only to our own taxpayers in Britain, but for the people whom we are trying to help in the poor world; it is about enabling them to hold their own leaders to account. On the nature of evaluation, to which his question also referred, it is important that this should be about not only value for money and the accountancy-driven approach to that, but development expertise. As he says, a lot of development is very long-tailed, so we need to meld both those two streams of expertise together to achieve the right results.

I thank the Secretary of State for yesterday’s written statement on the UN millennium development goals summit, which highlighted the decision to record all the commitments made. Making sure that everyone can see and track the progress towards the MDGs is vital, because international effort is simply not enough right now. Those goals can be met, with the international will to do so. Following the summit, can he tell the House what further steps he and his Government colleagues will be taking to increase momentum?

May I welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new position? I think I hold the record for having shadowed this portfolio for the longest time—five years—and I wish her every success in beating my record. The whole House knows of her passion for gender equality and I am sure that we will work well together on that. We put girls and women at the heart of development, and I look forward to progressing that policy with her. Frankly, we are delighted that someone so senior on the Labour Benches is now shadowing this portfolio.

As she said, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has set in train work to bring together all the commitments that were made by different countries at the summit. ECOSOC—the Economic and Social Council—which is the relevant body of the UN, will be monitoring this on an annual basis and we will ensure that other countries that have made commitments stand up for those commitments and fulfil them, just as Britain must fulfil its commitments.

Value for Money

2. What mechanisms are in place to monitor value for money derived from overseas aid; and if he will make a statement. (16516)

10. What mechanisms are in place to monitor the value for money derived from overseas aid; and if he will make a statement. (16524)

We are moving from a focus on inputs to a focus on outputs and outcomes—the results our money actually achieves. We will gain maximum value for money for every pound we spend through greater transparency, rigorous independent evaluation and an unremitting focus on results.

Will the Secretary of State say what assessment he has made of value for money from the more than £2 billion that the Department has given to the International Development Association over the three years ending June 2011, indicating whether he intends to match past commitments in the next funding period—that is, the 16th replenishment of the IDA?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the next replenishment of the World Bank IDA funds. As I mentioned in answer to the last question, the multilateral aid review will be the body that looks at value for money. At the last replenishment—IDA15—as anyone who follows these things closely knows, Britain was the biggest contributor and that contribution was £2 billion. What I what from the next replenishment is for people to know to what extent we are getting clean water, sanitation, basic education and health care to the people at the end of the track, who do not have them in our world today.

Value for money is, of course, crucial, but there is another issue, which is getting the money to the front line once it has been allocated. Will my right hon. Friend explain what steps he will be taking to ensure that money gets to the front line, unlike in Haiti where, I gather, the vast bulk of aid that has been allocated has yet to reach the areas where it is needed most?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the effectiveness of emergency relief. There are undoubtedly lessons for us all to learn from what happened in Haiti. That is why I have set up an emergency review of the way in which Britain does emergency relief, which is being chaired by Lord Ashdown. That review will focus on all aspects of how Britain does relief and how we co-ordinated with the UN cluster system, and it will focus particularly on the importance of the immediacy of that relief, getting shelter, food and medicine through to people in such desperate circumstances.

Monitoring the effectiveness of British aid in the future will, at least in part, be done by external evaluation in the independent evaluation agency that we have set up. To some extent, evaluation should be built into all projects and into all the work that we are doing, and we are trying to ensure that that happens in the future.

Given the success of the global development engagement fund, what steps will the Secretary of State take to reinstate that fund to ensure that the good work done in schools and communities throughout Britain and Northern Ireland can be continued?

We are reviewing the way in which such development awareness work is done. I am looking specifically at trying to ensure that global citizenship is enshrined in the work that schools do. In general, however, I do not think that British taxpayers’ hard-earned money meant for development should be spent in the UK. It should be spent helping the poorest in the world—those whom it is the intention of the House that we should be assisting.

Effectiveness of Delivery

3. What steps he is taking to improve arrangements for monitoring the effectiveness of the delivery of overseas aid. (16517)

What really matters for the world’s poorest is the development results they see on the ground. It is our duty to spend every pound of aid effectively. We will set out expected results for everything we do and monitor them carefully, working with our partners.

Following the Paris declaration and the subsequent decisions made in Accra in 2008, will the Secretary of State update us on the ability to harmonise the way forward for such donors’ work, rather than being in a position in which that is not complementary, or involves cooking the books?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The commitments in the Paris declaration are based on the lessons learned in relation to improving the impact of aid, including having more focus on results while supporting partner countries’ priorities, not least co-ordinating how various multilateral and bilateral donors come together. When I was in Uganda recently I was heartened to see our DFID office taking a leadership role in bringing multilateral donors together as part of the commitment following the Paris declaration and the Accra agenda thereafter.

Let me strongly endorse what the Secretary of State said at his party conference. He said that we have a

“duty to bring an end to the injustice of millions of children dying every year from drinking dirty water.”

Will he reassure the House that he will reject the recent option presented to him by his Department to drop the vital commitments to help 25 million people to gain access to water and sanitation in Africa over the next five years and to help 30 million people in south Asia by 2011? Will he reassure the House that that commitment still stands?

First, may I take this opportunity warmly to welcome the hon. Lady to her new post and to congratulate her on it? I look forward to the numerous exchanges that we shall have in the House. She will be aware that we are reviewing all programmes, be they bilateral or multilateral. As we are focusing so much more on outcomes rather than inputs, I think that she can look forward positively to the likely result of the review, particularly in relation to water and sanitation. She is right that they are crucial, and I dare say that during the recent conference season, she, as much as I, was engaged with a number of those making representations to ensure that that emphasis is reflected in programmes as they come through the review of bilateral and multilateral aid.

Gaza

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that people in Gaza receive the humanitarian aid allocated by his Department. (16518)

The humanitarian aid we provided to Gaza following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead was disbursed through United Nations agencies and reputable non-governmental organisations with a proven track record of delivery. DFID officials regularly visit Gaza to monitor projects and we will carry out a formal assessment of what those projects have achieved early next year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The whole House is aware of the plight of the people of Gaza, who have effectively been imprisoned in their country by successive Israeli Governments in breach of United Nations resolutions. For that reason, aid is particularly important to the people in Gaza, but at the turn of the year we learned from the head of the United States mission to the United Nations that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will be underfunded this year to the tune of $140 million. We are paying our share and the United States is paying hers; what steps is he taking to ensure that our other partners pay theirs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. UNRWA is facing a serious shortfall in its funding this year: our estimate is that it is currently about $80 million. I met Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA in New York, two weeks ago. We are doing our best to urge people to contribute and we will do our bit as well. We hope also to talk to potential Arab donors to assist in making good the shortfall.

The very welcome increase in aid and economic activity in Gaza is due partly to the co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Is Hamas jeopardising further progress?

The hon. Lady will know that we have no dealings with Hamas, but I am afraid that her interpretation of what is going on in Gaza is not entirely accurate. There are still very severe restrictions in the movement of goods, and we are doing our utmost to urge the Israelis to make more and simpler access possible, especially for products that are necessary for the long overdue reconstruction.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Gaza blockade is currently preventing UNRWA from building eight urgently needed schools in order to teach thousands of children? Money for the schools has already been provided by international donors and the plans are there, but access to cement and steel bars is not. Will he take urgent steps to make sure that those schools can go ahead for the new school year?

My hon. Friend is largely correct. Although it is true that some building materials are getting through to multilateral organisations, they certainly are not getting through to private citizens—for the building of houses for example. Schools must be rebuilt, and we certainly urge the Israelis to ensure that any materials that can be used for the essential reconstruction of schools and the like can be allowed through.

UK-Israeli Co-operation

Israel’s international development agency, Mashav, which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has a small programme focusing on sharing technical knowledge and humanitarian aid. Mashav operates in a number of countries, including, within the region, Jordan and Egypt, but not in the occupied Palestinian territories. The UK currently has no direct co-operation with Israel on international development. We hope that Israel, having recently become a member of the OECD, will consider joining the OECD’s development assistance committee, which verifies the validity of its aid.

Given the Israeli President’s offer at the United Nations to share its scientific innovations to help to tackle global poverty, as well as its recent membership of the OECD, will the Government be sending a delegate to the forthcoming OECD conference in Jerusalem? If not, why not?

We will certainly, in the normal way, consider the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has made, and look at it very seriously indeed.

Poor Countries

6. How much each of the three poorest countries in receipt of aid from his Department received in such aid in the last 12 months for which figures are available. (16520)

In 2009-10, the Department for International Development provided £13 million of bilateral aid to Burundi, £12 million to Liberia and £109 million to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those figures were published in “Statistics on International Development” on 7 October. I will place a copy in the House of Commons Library. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear the question from Mr Philip Hollobone.

Taxpayers in the Kettering constituency would like to know what steps my hon. Friend is taking to ensure that the poorest, most deserving countries receive most British aid, where British aid can make the biggest difference. Will he please tell them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he makes an important point, not least following the recent Institute of Development Studies report, which states that the bottom billion reside as much in middle-income countries as in low-income countries. However, the key for us, as we go through our bilateral and multilateral aid review, is to measure and to design programmes that will carry the highest impact. The poorest countries of the world are where we can make the most impact with well-designed programmes and with great transparency, monitoring and evaluation.

If we are to meet our commitments, not just to the poorest countries but to the developing world as a whole, we must reach the 0.7% aid target by 2013. Will the Minister assure the House that he and the Secretary of State will fight to ensure that the comprehensive spending review means year-on-year progress to the 2013 target? We have asked before, but can he now tell us when the Government will introduce legislation to make the target binding?

First, may I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and congratulate him on his appointment? We are committed to ensuring not only that we get to 0.7%, but that we introduce legislation as and when we have had the opportunity to finalise the work on it. He can be assured that, as we run up to the CSR announcement, he should have, I hope, something to look forward to. However, he will have to wait for the precise details at that time and during the days immediately thereafter.

Is the Minister concerned by how little of the aid that we spend through the EU goes to the poorest countries in the world, given that less than half the EU aid budget goes to lower-income countries and that some of the largest recipients of EU aid are countries that we would not normally consider poor? Could we not get more money to poorer people and poorer countries if we spent through our own Department, rather than through the EU?

I thank my hon. Friend for his important question, because a considerable amount of our aid budget does indeed go through the EU. However, that is as subject to the multilateral aid review as any other part of our programme. The question that he raises will be closely examined during that process. Indeed, I shall be going to meet like-minded European Ministers later today and spending time in Brussels on Friday, so I will be able to take his message directly to those who are engaged in that programme.

Sri Lanka

7. What recent assessment he had made of the effectiveness of his Department’s projects to support internally displaced people in Sri Lanka. (16521)

DFID has no direct bilateral development programmes with Sri Lanka. However, over the past two years we have committed £13.5 million to humanitarian funding, all through the UN, the Red Cross and NGOs, to target conflict-affected civilians and displaced persons. Our humanitarian programme has been effective and made a significant difference to thousands of Sri Lankan families.

As a Member with a large Tamil community in my constituency, I am repeatedly approached by my constituents who are struggling to locate loved ones displaced as a result of the conflict in Sri Lanka. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Sri Lankan Government about these matters, and what reassurance can I give to my constituents that the UK Government are doing all they can to assist members of the Tamil diaspora in their attempts to find their friends and families?

We work closely with the Foreign Office, and Ministers in both Departments are speaking to the Sri Lankans about that matter. Some 270,000 displaced people were released or returned to their homes. There are now only about 30,000 remaining in camps. There is access to most of these, except where the camps contain about 7,500 former combatants.

Millennium Development Goals

8. What assessment he made of the outcomes of the recent UN millennium development goals summit in New York. (16522)

The summit in New York achieved real progress and resulted in global commitments to save 16 million women and children, reverse the spread of malaria and tackle hunger and under-nutrition. The UK’s leadership, and in particular the Government’s commitments on aid and results, was noted by all our international partners.

My right hon. Friend mentioned malaria. I am sure he is aware that today 4,000 people in the world will die from that disease, 75% of them under the age of five. Can he please assure the House that he is putting malaria prevention and treatment at the heart of his Department’s programmes?

The fight against malaria will be included in every bilateral programme where it is relevant as a part of the bilateral aid review, but I can tell my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] My comments on the fight against malaria do not usually get such a warm reaction from the House. Britain is committed to halving the number of malaria deaths in 10 African countries by 2015.

What steps will be put in place to monitor the outcome of the summit and ensure that year on year we try to reach the targets set through the summit?

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is extremely important that people should be held to their commitments. That is why the Secretary-General is pulling together all the commitments that were made at the summit, and why every year ECOSOC will make sure that we have an assessment of the extent to which those commitments have been met.

Yemen

9. What recent assessment he made of the effectiveness of projects funded by his Department in Yemen. (16523)

Order. I understand that the House is in an excitable state. That is perfectly proper, but the mellifluous tones of the Minister of State deserve a better audience.

I saw for myself the challenges faced in Yemen and the impact of DFID’s programmes when I visited in July. I was also encouraged by the outcomes of the recent Friends of Yemen meeting in New York chaired by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Given the strategic importance of Yemen in the fight against terrorism, can my right hon. Friend give me an update on his conversations with his counterparts in other nations to support Yemen?

The Friends of Yemen process to which I referred, chaired jointly by my right hon. Friend and by the Saudis and the Yemenis, took some important steps in confirming that they would implement an International Monetary Fund programme. There is, however, a deteriorating security situation and it is essential that we do our utmost to make sure that Yemen does not become a failed state.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s recent visit to Yemen, continuing the good work that was done by the previous Government. Will he assure us that despite recent events, including the attempted assassination of the deputy ambassador, we will continue to fund projects in that crucial middle eastern country?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Nothing could be more important than spending money now to stop Yemen failing, as the costs and the danger that would follow if it were to fail would be a massive multiple of anything we might do now. It is a serious priority for the Foreign Office, for my Department and for the coalition Government.

Pakistan

11. What discussions he has had with international organisations on relief and reconstruction following the floods in Pakistan. (16525)

The situation in Pakistan remains extremely difficult. In some areas of the country early recovery is beginning, while in other areas emergency relief is still needed, particularly in Sindh province. My Department continues to monitor the situation closely to identify and deliver aid appropriately.

A new report by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank estimates the losses in crops, property and infrastructure caused by the floods to amount to $9.5 billion. Will the Government continue to make representations to the International Monetary Fund and to the World Bank to increase the assistance available for the reconstruction of Pakistan?

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the post of shadow Environment Minister. Secondly, I assure him that we will continue to lead from the front on Pakistan. In particular, in respect of food security, crops and livestock, which he mentioned, we have made a specific intervention with the recent announcement of £70 million of emergency aid for Pakistan.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan in the past few weeks. They were Sergeant Andrew Jones of the Royal Engineers and Trooper Andrew Howarth of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died on 18 September; Corporal Matthew Thomas from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who died on 25 September; Rifleman Suraj Gurung from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died on 2 October; and Sergeant Peter Rayner from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died on 8 October. They were incredibly courageous and selfless individuals who gave their lives in the service of our country and for the safety of the British people, and we should send our deepest condolences to their families and to their loved ones.

In the weeks since the House last met, UK forces have completed the latest stage of restructuring in Helmand province. There are now more than 8,000 UK troops and 20,000 American troops there. We now protect one third of the Helmand population, and in my view that is the right proportion.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Brigadier Richard Felton and the troops of 4 Mechanised Brigade for their commitment and sacrifice over the past six months. They have done an outstanding job, and I am sure that 16 Air Assault Brigade, which took over command on 10 October, will carry on that effort.

The House will also wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to the family of Linda Norgrove, who died late on Friday evening. She was a dedicated professional doing a job that she loved in a country that she loved.

Finally—and I am sorry for the long opening of my remarks—I am sure that everyone would like me, on their behalf, to send our best wishes to the President and people of Chile, as they celebrate the trapped miners coming to the surface. We can see the glorious pictures on our television screens.

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

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of condolence and sympathy.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Opposition Members on their choice of leader—even though he is not on the Front Bench and did not win? Has the outcome of that election changed my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the effectiveness of the alternative vote system?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It was good to see the alternative vote in practice, if I can put it that way, although of course, to be fair to my colleagues on the Government Benches, when it comes to the referendum the trade unions will not have quite such a large involvement.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). It is an important job that he does, calling the Government to account and standing up for Opposition Members. I am sure that there will be many times when we can work together on issues of national interest, such as on Afghanistan, which I was just talking about. I hope that he will not mind me saying that, as well as wishing him well, I hope that he does the job for many, many years to come.

May I start by thanking the Prime Minister for his kind words just then, and for the kind words that he gave to me when I was elected leader of the Labour party? As he said, there will be issues on which we can work constructively, including on Afghanistan.

I join him in paying tribute to our troops who have died in Afghanistan. They were Sergeant Andrew Jones of the Royal Engineers and Trooper Andrew Howarth of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who died on 18 September; Corporal Matthew Thomas from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who died on 25 September, Rifleman Suraj Gurung from 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who died on 2 October and Sergeant Peter Rayner from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, who died on 8 October. Each of them showed the highest dedication, commitment and bravery. We honour their memory and pass deep condolences to their families.

We also honour Linda Norgrove, who died doing a simple job trying to make the lives of people in Afghanistan better—a necessary part of any political settlement. She too showed immense bravery. May I say to the Prime Minister that we fully support the decision the Foreign Secretary took to authorise her rescue? We must always make it clear from all parts of this House that responsibility for her death lies solely and squarely with those who took her hostage. May I ask the Prime Minister to update the House on his phone call with President Obama about the circumstances surrounding Linda Norgrove’s death and the progress on the inquiry into those circumstances?

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says and the way that he says it, both about our troops and about the tragic case of Linda Norgrove. As he knows, I spoke to President Obama to stress the point that we think it is extremely important that this is a joint US and UK investigation. I do not think there are any further details I can give about what happened that night—the picture is still unclear—but it was right, I think, to correct the early information, which most likely was wrong, about how Linda died. This investigation is now under way. When there is new information to bring to the House, we will bring it to the House. Most important of all, though, is to keep the family informed at every stage. I will meet General Petraeus tomorrow to discuss this further. I particularly want to echo what the right hon. Gentleman says about the responsibility for this. It is an impossibly difficult decision to make about whether to launch a raid and try to free a hostage. In the end we must all be clear: the responsibility for Linda’s death lies with those cowardly, ruthless people who took her hostage in the first place.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and for undertaking to keep the House informed. He has our full support on the issue.

Let me turn to the issue of benefits and say to the Prime Minister that we will work with him on his reforms to disability living allowance and to sickness benefits, because they are important reforms and they need to be done. On child benefit, though, I think that those on his own Benches and the country at large do have concerns. May I ask him, first, how many families where one parent stays at home will be affected by the changes that he has proposed to child benefit?

In terms of the number of families who will be affected, higher-rate tax is paid by 15% of taxpayers, and the decision that we have taken is to say that child benefit should not be received by families where there is a higher-rate taxpayer. I accept that this is a difficult choice, but the fact is—

I have answered the question, “How many?” The answer is that 15% of taxpayers are higher-rate taxpayers. This is a difficult choice, because as we deal with the deficit we have to ask better-off people to bear their share of the burden. The fact is that today we spend £1 billion giving money through child benefit to relatively better-off homes. We think that has to change, and I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman why he thinks that that is not the case.

I may be new to this game, but I think that I ask the questions and the Prime Minister should answer them.

I am afraid that that the Prime Minister did not provide an answer to the specific question I asked. By my reckoning, there are hundreds of thousands of families where one parent stays at home, and the question they are asking is this: why should a family on £45,000 where one person stays at home lose their child benefit—£1,000, £2,000, £3,000 a year—but a family on £80,000 where both partners in the couple are working should keep their child benefit? That does not strike people as fair, and it does not strike me as fair: does it strike the Prime Minister as fair?

What I believe is fair is asking better-off people to make a contribution to reducing the deficit. Let me try putting it this way to the right hon. Gentleman—think about it like this: there are thousands of people in his constituency earning one sixth of what he earns. Through their taxes, they will be paying for his child benefit. Is that really fair?

I am afraid it is nought out of two on straight answers. We should try to change the tone of these exchanges, but the Prime Minister must provide straight answers to straight questions that I ask him. I am not defending the rich—[Interruption.]

Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard, and if there are colleagues chuntering away who then hope to catch the eye of the Chair, I am afraid they are deluded.

I am defending the deputy head teacher in her primary school and the police inspector, who are asking a simple question. The Prime Minister used to agree with me. Before the election he went to Bolton, in an event that I gather was called “Cameron Direct”, and he said:

“I’m not going to flannel you. I’m going to give it to you straight. I like child benefit. . . I wouldn’t change child benefit, I wouldn’t means test it, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I agree with the Prime Minister: why doesn’t he?

The problem that the right hon. Gentleman has to face up to is that he left us the biggest budget deficit in the G20, and he has absolutely no proposals to deal with it. He opposes our changes on housing benefit, yes? You oppose those? He opposes our changes on a benefit cap—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Gentleman opposes our changes on a benefit cap, yes? Just nod. And he opposes our changes on child benefit. He quoted something to me; let me quote him something back:

“We have to be frank with people and show our mettle. In times of plenty, giving child benefit to high earners is a luxury the country”

cannot afford. That was Alan Milburn, someone who cared—[Interruption.] Ah, he’s gone. I love this—all the Labour politicians who used to win elections have been thrown out of the window. The right hon. Gentleman has to face up to the truth. We have a big budget deficit, and we have to ask better-off people to make their contribution. We say higher earners should not get child benefit. Their child benefit is being paid for by some of the poorest people in our country, and it is about time he protected them.

I really want the Prime Minister to face up to the scale of the changes he is proposing, and I say to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches that they should face up to the scale of the loss. Take a family on £33,000 after tax. If they have three kids, they will be losing £2,500 as a result of these changes. That is the equivalent of 6p on the basic rate of income tax. That is an enormous loss that the Prime Minister is inflicting on a particular group in the population. If he wants to take people with him on deficit reduction, he has to show that his changes are fair and reasonable. I come back to this point: I do not believe his changes are fair and reasonable—does he?

I do not think it is fair for the poorest constituents in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to contribute to his child benefit. That is what he is asking them to do. Let me remind him of something he said in July, which was that

“whoever is the Labour leader will, by the time of the spending review, have to show that they have an alternative plan”.

Where is the alternative plan? That was a speech he made to an organisation called Left Foot Forward. Could I suggest that he put both his left feet forward and tell us what the plan is?

Order. People should stop shouting. The public hate it, it is bad for politics and it should not happen.

The truth is that the Prime Minister has no defence of that policy. He cannot explain to families up and down the country why they will sustain that loss. I see the Chancellor sitting there. Let us be honest: the policy has been a shambles from day one. The rest of the Cabinet knew nothing about it, and the Local Government Secretary said he found out from the media that it would be announced. The Children’s Minister, whom I cannot see in the Chamber, went on the run because he was too scared to defend the policy. I bet the Prime Minister wishes the BBC blackout had gone ahead, given that his conference was such a shambles.

On child benefit, is it not time that the Prime Minister had the grown-up sense to admit that he has got it wrong and that he has made the wrong decision? He should tell middle-income families up and down Britain that he will think again.

The right hon. Gentleman has suddenly discovered middle-income families. We are now hearing about the squeezed middle, but who squeezed the middle? Who doubled the council tax and put up tax 122 times, and who taxed the pensions, the petrol, the marriages and the mortgages? Suddenly, having done all that to middle-income earners, Labour wants to stand up for them. That is a completely transparent political strategy to cover up the inconvenient truth that he was put where he is by the trade union movement. It is short-term tactics and political positioning: it is not red, it is Brown.

Q2. As vice-chairman of the parliamentary football club and a qualified football referee, I am well aware that there are just 50 days left before FIFA makes its momentous decision on the location of the 2018 World cup. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting the English bid, which is in the interests not only of football, but of the entire country? (16431)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure the whole country, and indeed everyone in the House, will want to get behind our bid for the 2018 World cup. I think we can launch and run an incredible World cup. We have the best fans, the best teams and the best stadiums, but above all this country has the biggest enthusiasm for football. We can make it a success for Britain and for the world.

I should also like to welcome Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, who will be coming to No. 10 Downing street after Prime Minister’s questions. Indeed, he is in the House of Commons today. I would like to reassure him on everyone’s behalf that behaviour in this House is always worse than behaviour either on the pitch or on the terraces.

It is sometimes easy to forget how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years, but there are still immense challenges to stability. In the light of discussions with the Chancellor on the part of the Northern Ireland Executive and the recent visit by the Deputy Prime Minister, can the Prime Minister confirm today that he will stand by the formal guarantees given to the Executive at the time of the restoration of devolution, especially in relation to the financial package and capital investment stretching through to 2018? Those are critical matters if we are to establish and embed devolution in Northern Ireland in a power-sharing Executive.

The right hon. Gentleman makes very good points on how far Northern Ireland has come. Everyone on both sides of the House wants to continue that process, make the institutions work and embed the peace that we have achieved in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my predecessors, who put so much hard work into that.

On the specific issues, the previous Prime Minister made a series of promises, particularly about policing and justice in Northern Ireland, which we discussed when we were the Opposition. We stand by those promises. On the Presbyterian Mutual Society and a group of people who did lose money in the financial crunch—I know how angry it can make people in Northern Ireland when people say, “Nobody lost money”, because they did—we are working very hard to try to find a fair and equitable solution.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree with the previous Government’s policy of part privatisation of Royal Mail? Will he urge those on both sides of the House to work together to help to revitalise that great British institution? (16432)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. The fact is that Royal Mail is a business that has falling volumes of mail and a £10 billion pension fund deficit, and it badly needs investment, modernisation and change right now. The last Labour Secretary of State supported such reform, the Conservative party supports that reform and the Business Secretary supports that reform, and we are publishing the Bill today, which includes a minimum of 10% employee share ownership and participation in this important move. I hope that the Opposition will not turn their backs on the future, but will back this change, rather than stepping back into their comfort zone.

We were all deeply saddened, especially in the Hebridean community, by the death at the weekend of Linda Norgrove, the aid worker from the Isle of Lewis. It was welcome that the Prime Minister took time to speak to her father on Monday. The family have asked me to convey that they are pleased that the US Administration corrected accounts of the events surrounding her attempted rescue and did not attempt to sweep information under the carpet. At a difficult time, the family are grateful for that openness, as they are for the care and support of the wider community in Uig at this time of grief. As Linda’s remains are expected to arrive in the UK this week, may I ask the Prime Minister that if the family need any help, independent or otherwise, in coming to a true understanding of what happened to their daughter in Afghanistan, they will receive it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and the way in which he put it. Linda’s family must have all the help that they need, and I have said that we will do anything that we can to help them and get them any information that they need. Tragically, nothing will bring Linda—that wonderful daughter who led an incredible life—back, but it can help to get all the information about what happened. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, William Patey, has met the family and will meet them again. Along with others, I hope that he can give them information on the background of what happened and why so that they, and the community that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, can try to find some closure to this terrible episode.

Q4. Lord Adonis said that a pure graduate tax would be unworkable and a catastrophe. Will the Prime Minister take the advice of the shadow Chancellor, who said:“Oh, and for goodness’ sake, don't pursue a graduate tax.”? (16433)

I thank my hon. Friend and she is right. We looked at this policy carefully over the summer—I am glad to see that the shadow Chancellor is laughing. I gather that at a lively shadow Cabinet meeting they could not agree on their policy. We looked at this in detail, and a pure graduate tax does not work. I recommend to the Opposition the document “Why not a Pure Graduate Tax?”, published by the Department for Education and Skills under the previous Government. It points out that

“there is no guarantee universities would receive the additional funding raised. There would be no direct relationship between what the student paid and the…value…of their course.”

A graduate tax would put up the deficit as it would not break even until 2041. It is a completely flawed policy, totally unworkable and expensive. As a first choice of policy to go out on, it is a complete disaster.

Q5. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he will retain the winter fuel allowance without any changes to the criteria? (16434)

I am extremely sorry, but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman’s question. I will either write to him—[Interruption.] Short questions are a very good thing, but I am afraid that I missed it. Is it in order for him to have another go?

Will the Prime Minister retain the winter fuel allowance without any changes to the criteria used?

Q6. This year, four British scientists have gained Nobel prizes, confirming their position in the premier league of world science. The comprehensive spending review gives an opportunity to identify areas for investment as well as reducing costs. Does the Prime Minister agree that, with the US, Germany, France and other countries increasing their expenditure on science, it would be prudent for Britain to do likewise? (16435)

It is vital that we retain a good science budget and invest in our science base, but I cannot hide from the hon. Gentleman—or anyone in this House—the fact that we inherited a budget deficit of £155 billion. [Interruption.] I know that the Opposition do not like hearing it, but it is the truth. Those are the facts, and we have to deal with that. We will do what we can to ensure that as we go through this process we help to keep science and scientists in this country. That is what we must do, but it is very difficult to make all areas immune from the spending reductions forced on us by the complete incompetence of the people now sitting on the Opposition Benches.

Q7. In the past two years, Britain’s cold weather payments were increased to £25, but the small print of this year’s legislation does not contain that guarantee. Is the Prime Minister really saying that 4 million of Britain’s poorest families and pensioners will have their payments cut by two thirds and receive just £8.50 this year? (16436)

The hon. Gentleman will know, as he worked closely with the previous Prime Minister, that there was never a guarantee about the scheme. We will look at it carefully and make our announcement in the spending review. [Interruption.] He asked a question; he might wait for the answer. He will have an announcement in the spending review.

Q13. Clare Rayner, the president of the Patients Association, sadly died yesterday. Her final words were a warning to the Prime Minister that if he screws up the NHS she is going to come back and haunt him. With the enormity of the financial crisis becoming ever clearer and the comprehensive spending review getting closer, can the Prime Minister reassure the House that we will honour our commitment to spend more on the NHS and improve outcomes to match the best in Europe? (16442)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. I was brought up listening to Dr Rayner on Capital Radio, and I would never want to do anything to upset her or her memory. The House will know that we have protected the national health service and will invest in it, unlike the Opposition, who proposed to cut it.

Q8. The Prime Minister is aware that many small Presbyterian Mutual Society savers are at wits’ end corner. When do we expect to have a satisfactory conclusion to this whole issue, and will he assure the House that the Government will recognise the danger of a double-dip recession in Northern Ireland when the Chancellor makes his speech next week? (16437)

I know that the hon. Gentleman knows how difficult this issue with the PMS is. Achieving a fair resolution is not easy. I believe that we will have it done by the announcement of the spending review on 20 October. That is our goal. An announcement will be made, and he will be able to explain to his constituents what we are going to do.

Q12. This past summer, my constituents in Bromsgrove have had to endure Travellers trespassing on their land, vandalising it and causing thousands of pounds of damage. Will my right hon. Friend consider bringing forward legislation to create a new offence of intentional trespass, so that people who go on to land without the owner’s permission can be prosecuted without the need for a court order? (16441)

We will certainly look at the issue. The basic point is that this is an issue of fairness. If everyone else in the country has to obey planning laws, that should be the same for the Traveller community as well. We should have one law that everybody obeys. That is what we will aim for, and we will look at the proposal that my hon. Friend makes.

Q9. When the Prime Minister did the deal with the Deputy Prime Minister on the coalition, was it sealed with a traditional gentleman’s handshake or was there some kind of written pledge involved? If a written pledge was involved, why does the Prime Minister think that the Deputy Prime Minister is any more likely to honour his pledge to him than he was to honour the pledge that he gave to students and their families in this country? (16438)

What we fundamentally agreed between us was that it was going to take two parties to dig the country out of the mess that the hon. Gentleman’s party left us in.

Q10. One of the most short-sighted mistakes of the previous Labour Government was the repeal of business rate relief on empty commercial property. What measures can the Prime Minister take to reverse that decision or at least have a moratorium, to give a boost to regeneration, investment and business in the urban west midlands and my constituency of Wolverhampton South West? (16439)

I am afraid that I have to disappoint my hon. Friend a little bit. This was a bad tax. Properties were being left empty not because business people chose to do that; they were being left empty because of the recession. However, we are not in a position, with this massive budget deficit, where we can undo all the bad things done in one go. What we have focused on is getting a lower rate of corporation tax, cutting national insurance on new businesses and giving small business rate relief. Those are all things that will help to get our economy growing. As evidence of that, we can welcome today’s fall in unemployment figures and the growth in employment that we have seen over the past three months.

After years of falling as a result of Labour policies, unemployment in my constituency rose by 80% during the global recession. Will the Prime Minister therefore explain why his Government are going to close the only jobcentre in my constituency?

I want to take the right hon. Lady up on the way in which she put her question. She talked about falling unemployment under Labour, but omitted to point out that it rose under Labour in the past three years. What matters is helping people back into work, and what she will see with the Work programme is the biggest, boldest effort to get people out of benefits and into work that this country has ever seen.

Q11. My constituents very much welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is leading by example in these difficult economic times by taking a 5% reduction in his prime ministerial salary. Is he aware that the chief executive of Suffolk county council is paid a salary of £220,000 a year? Will he join me in calling on her and other senior public sector managers to set an example through leadership by taking a reduction in their salaries, especially given the fact that they are paid 15 or 20 times more than front-line public sector workers? (16440)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is right to have complete transparency in pay levels throughout the public sector. For the first time in a long time, we have been able to find out what all these people are being paid and, as a result, there is downward pressure and better value for money throughout local government. I think that this revolution in transparency should continue.

Bill presented

Postal Services Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Vince Cable, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mrs Secretary May, Mr Secretary Paterson, Secretary Michael Moore, Mrs Secretary Gillan, Mr David Willetts, Mr Edward Davey and Mr Edward Vaizey, presented a Bill to make provision for the restructuring of the Royal Mail group and about the Royal Mail Pension Plan; to make new provision about the regulation of postal services, including provision for a special administration regime; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow; and to be printed (Bill 78) with explanatory notes (Bill 78-EN).