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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 516: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Volunteering (Young People)

In the current financial year, the Department has provided £39 million in grants to the v organisation. On 22 July, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of the national citizen service to give young people an opportunity to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds and start getting involved in their communities.

I thank the Minister for his response. At a fringe event at the Conservative party conference, I understand that the Minister for the Cabinet Office was quoted as saying that in his opinion the big society would be “chaotic and disorderly”. That being the case, I feel that his heart is perhaps not in it. How can he go on to encourage young people to volunteer so that they can pick up the right skills and be employed fruitfully in the future?

We are absolutely committed to that, and the national citizen service will be an extremely important opportunity to connect young people with their own power to make a difference in their communities. I know that the hon. Lady took a strong interest in that through her work on the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. If she had had the opportunity to talk to some of the young people who had taken part in this year’s pilot, she would have been as impressed as I was by the transformative effect that it had on them and on how they view their community and their own power to make a difference. We are very excited about it.

Voluntary organisations in my constituency rely on the great efforts of many people who are retired, and they are crying out for younger volunteers. Those volunteers need not just be teenagers, however. What plans do the Government have to facilitate opportunities for volunteering by people of working age?

We have planned a series of initiatives for the forthcoming years to promote wider volunteering and to connect people again with their own power to make a difference locally—that is the heart of the big society. I cannot be drawn on the detail of those plans, because they are subject to the spending review.

If voluntary service for young people is to work, the third sector has to still be alive. This afternoon the Chancellor is going to try to drive a steamroller over the big society. Can the Minister explain why, in answer to parliamentary questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), three quarters of Whitehall could not say what contracts they had in place with the third sector? How can the Department protect the third sector from cuts this afternoon if it does not know what contracts are in place? Is the Minister not, in effect, flying blind?

I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will eat his words later when he hears the Chancellor. I do not see any steamroller in evidence in relation to the big society, which is absolutely central to the Government’s mission. A central strand of that mission is to open up the public services to a more diverse set of providers, including and specifically contributions from the voluntary and community sectors. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, they are in a position to add a huge amount of value. That is a specific commitment of this Government, and we are going to deliver on it.

Government Procurement

2. What steps he has taken to increase the efficiency of his Department’s mechanisms for Government procurement. (18049)

8. What steps he has taken to increase the efficiency of his Department’s mechanisms for Government procurement. (18055)

Procurements of major projects by the British Government have typically taken 77 weeks. They have frequently involved the extensive use of external consultants. That process is costly and wasteful, excluding small businesses, social enterprises, and voluntary and charitable organisations. That results in procurements that are too often uncompetitive, delayed, expensive and ineffective. We are taking steps to streamline the process. In the meantime, we are renegotiating contracts with the bigger suppliers to the Government on a single-customer basis, thus leveraging the Government’s buying power. That will deliver some £800 million-worth of savings in this financial year alone.

Sir Philip Green’s report showed just how little time the previous Government afforded to the basic principles of cost-effective commissioning and procurement. Does the Minister feel that that attitude is embodied in the ill-considered note left by the ex-Chief Secretary to the Treasury as he left his old job?

If the last Government, including the right hon. Gentleman, had bothered to spend the time that we are spending getting into the unglamorous parts of Government spending to find out just how much money can be saved, he might not have felt it necessary to leave a note in quite the stark terms that he did, true though it was. The fact is that there is a huge amount of wasteful spending. Sir Philip Green has done a sterling service in picking up some stones and providing the evidence for that, and we will be acting on his recommendations to see how we can take costs out of the overheads of Government. That is the best way to protect front-line services and to protect the jobs of dedicated public servants, which the right hon. Gentleman claims to care about.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that small business has been locked out of the procurement process for far too long? Will he start to give small businesses, particularly those in Yorkshire, a fairer crack of the whip?

A big benefit arising from the changes that we are proposing to make to the way in which services are procured is that they will open the door to smaller businesses. Over-prescriptive procurements make it very expensive for small businesses to take the risk of committing to tendering, and they tend to be excluded on a self-selecting basis. We want to change that. It is our aspiration that 25% of contracts should be let with small and medium-sized enterprises. That is the direction in which we hope to go, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents in Yorkshire will take full advantage of it.

Will the Minister be able to publish information in future to show that his aspiration to help small business is not just an aspiration but a reality?

One of the stark conclusions of Sir Philip Green’s review was that the quality of Government data is lamentably poor. It is not easy to know exactly what the position is. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) referred to the lack of centrally held data about contracts with the voluntary and charitable sector; that merely begins to illustrate the problem.

The Minister talks about small and medium-sized enterprises gaining more from Government contracts, but can he indicate what he is doing to ensure that there is a good spread of that throughout all regions of the United Kingdom?

All regions and nations across the United Kingdom should be able to benefit from that aspiration. We are going to expose much more widely the tender documents that are available so that small businesses will find it much easier to take part in these sometimes quite intimidating processes that have excluded many of them in the past. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand that the House is eagerly anticipating later business, but when there is a constant hubbub it is very discourteous and most unfair both on the person wanting to ask the question and on the Minister deputed to answer it.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

3. What recent progress has been made on his Department’s review of non-departmental public bodies. (18050)

13. What recent progress has been made on his Department’s review of non-departmental public bodies. (18060)

Last week I announced the first results of the Government’s review of quangos. This is a work in progress; the principal aim is to increase accountability. We believe that where the state carries out a function it should be accountable to a Minister or to a local council unless one of three rigorous tests is met. To pass, the function must be purely technical, tasked with measuring facts or figures, or plainly required to be politically impartial. We reviewed 901 bodies and intend that nearly 200 will cease to be NDPBs, and we will merge a further 118 and substantially reform a further 171.

Does the Minister agree that the review should include the misuse of public funds by quangos and public sector balance sheet organisations in paying lobbyists to brief against the Government or elected Members in the execution of their mandates?

Guidelines already limit the use of external consultants for those purposes, and we intend to tighten them further, because the public find it quite offensive that a quango should be spending taxpayers’ money on hiring external consultants to lobby the Government to encourage them to spend more taxpayers’ money.

Will the Minister tell the House how many quangos were created by the previous Government and, of those, how many will remain as a result of the changes that he is introducing?

As I said, we will reduce significantly the number of NDPBs. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) was bragging the other day about how many quangos he was planning to get rid of, but sadly the last Labour Government failed to act on their intentions.

Last week the Minister announced that many quangos would be done away with and their responsibilities transferred to third sector organisations. Will he assure the House and myself that those organisations, such as citizens advice bureaux, will be properly resourced so that they can provide people with specialised advice? Will he dispel the myth that this is being done on the cheap?

The aim of the quango review is not particularly to save costs or money—although it will—but principally to increase accountability. When functions are transferred, such as consumer advocacy functions to CABs, there will be a transfer of resources. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait a little longer to hear the extent of those resources.

Why does the Minister intend to disembowel the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Does he not believe that its responsibility to promote equality on behalf of women and ethnic minorities is important? Why is he reducing it to a purely regulatory body?

Many people felt that that body was not spending taxpayers’ money well. Its function is important and we concluded that it justified the EHRC continuing to exist as an independent body, but given that we are facing a situation in which, as the former Chief Secretary helpfully pointed out, there is no money left, significant savings have to be made. The EHRC will have to play its part in that.

National Citizen Service

In July, the Prime Minister announced the start of the bidding process for providers of national citizen service pilots. We have been really pleased with the response, and in the next few weeks we expect to announce the successful bidders. We expect to provide places for about 10,000 young people, with a good geographical spread.

The national citizen service is a great example of how young people can make a difference in their local communities. What can I do to persuade people in Brentford and Isleworth to get more involved in the project?

I thank my hon. Friend for her interest. As I said, the successful bidders will be announced shortly. They will be responsible for recruiting local young people and communicating the opportunities in their area. If a pilot is run in her area, I urge her to support its provider, as I would urge all MPs to do. The experience of young people in the pilots that have already taken place just down the road from her in Hammersmith has been extremely positive.

In my constituency, some of the richest wards exist side by side with some of the poorest wards in the country. Can the Minister reassure me that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds will also be encouraged to get involved in the national citizen service?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and those children will be more than encouraged. Involving people from all kinds of backgrounds is a central aim of the programme and a key part of its value. As part of the commissioning process, organisations bidding to deliver a pilot next summer have been asked to set out their specific plans to support the broadest range of young people to participate. [Interruption.]

Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear, and I hope the House wants to hear, Steve Rotheram.

As a former employee of a quango, I am following the Minister’s much-vaunted “bonfire of the quangos”, as he called it. Now that the comprehensive spending review is upon us, can he tell the House what the total savings will be?

Order. Unfortunately, that question suffers from the disadvantage that it bears absolutely no relation to the question on the Order Paper. We must have another go, so I call Stella Creasy.

The tender document for the national citizen service pilot sets out the Government’s refusal to meet the total costs of the programme. Just how much of the bill does the Minister expect the voluntary sector and young people themselves to meet?

The cost of the pilots will be revealed as a result of the spending review. We are committed to two years of pilots to test a range of approaches to delivering the service, which will help us to identify the most cost-effective way forward. We will have a clear idea of the likely costs of a wider roll-out of the national citizen service once we have evaluated the two-year pilot phase.

Social Enterprises

5. What assessment he has made of the likely effect on social enterprises of reductions in Government expenditure. (18052)

Of course, social enterprises will be affected by the spending review. However, as part of our structural reform programme, we are bringing forward huge new opportunities for the social enterprises of this country—indeed, for the voluntary and community sector as a whole—to participate in the delivery of public services.

I am heartened by my right hon. Friend’s response. He may be aware of the current uncertainty surrounding Foxgloves residential home, which provides respite care for families of children with epilepsy and autism. It is working well with the council to find a solution, but other solutions should come from the community. Are there are any plans to bring forward the use of unclaimed assets so that social enterprises can draw on them to provide alternatives, and the parents at Foxgloves can continue to use it and secure its future?

The sort of case that my hon. Friend raises is relevant to our concerns, and we are very focused on that. It is one reason for our introducing the big society bank, which will be partly funded in just the way that he describes, and can, in turn, fund social enterprises and voluntary and community service organisations that require funding in the interim.

According to research by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, third sector organisations that provide education and training opportunities could be the most imperilled by public spending cuts. What is the Minister doing to ensure that training opportunities in the third sector remain? Has he pressed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury on that?

I think that the reverse will turn out to be the case, in the sense that the Government are planning a huge and terribly important Work programme, which will focus heavily on not only getting people into jobs, but training them for jobs. We are also greatly enlarging the programme of apprenticeships, and there are various other elements, about which hon. Members will hear in the spending review announcement. Consequently, we anticipate more, not fewer opportunities for voluntary and community organisations to participate in training and employment.

Commissioning and Procurement

6. What recent progress has been made in delivering his Department’s policies on Government commissioning and procurement. (18053)

Commissioning is currently too prescriptive; tender documents can be immensely lengthy, specifying every detail of every step in every process. That stifles innovation, excludes new entrants to the market and adds wholly unnecessary cost. We intend that commissioning should be outcome-based, leaving much more scope for innovative providers from the social enterprise, voluntary, charitable and small business sectors to bid. Whenever possible, commissioning should be based on a payment-by-results model.

On procurement, I refer my hon. Friend to my reply to Question 2. [Interruption.]

Order. Once again, I understand the excitement and anticipation, but the House must come to order. Such conduct makes a bad impression on the electorate, whose support we so recently sought.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his answer. Following his earlier comments, I seek assurance that small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency can access Government contracts. Can he give me any examples of practical help now or in future that would make that easier to achieve?

We certainly hope that that will be the case. It is our aspiration that 25% of Government contracts should end up in the small and medium-sized sector. We are committed to publishing online, in an easily accessible form, all Government tender documents. That will make it much easier for small businesses, which can otherwise be put off the process, to take part.

In terms of commissioning and procurement, the public sector procures £13 billion-worth of services from the charitable sector. On Monday, a think-tank suggested that the Government’s statement today will wipe out about £5 billion of that procurement—the whole of the increase that was achieved in the past 10 years. What are the Minister’s intentions for funding the voluntary sector? How does he reconcile cuts in that sector with the Prime Minister’s aspiration for the big society?

We are very aware of concerns in the sector. The Chancellor is very aware of them, and will have something to say about the matter a little later. However, there must be reductions in public spending for the simple reason that the former Chief Secretary set out with such uncharacteristic lucidity in his valedictory note.

Public Services (Third Sector)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the use of third sector organisations by local authorities in delivering public services. (18056)

As I mentioned in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), the Government believe that the voluntary and community sector has a huge role to play in providing public services. Indeed, our intention is vastly to enlarge the potential for that to occur.

Newcastle city council has reassured me of its commitment to using the voluntary sector, but what will the Minister do to ensure that the severe cuts to local authority funding do not mean that the big society is just an underfunded big con?

We are extremely conscious of the fact that there may be a gap between when we introduce the new reforms that I described and when the effect of the expenditure cuts is felt. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have very much to say on that when he makes his statement, and I would not want to pre-empt what he will say on how we will handle that situation.

Suffolk county council was recently part of the body that commissioned drug and alcohol treatment services in Suffolk. Unfortunately, a very small, excellent charity in my constituency—the Iceni Project—was excluded from that process because of its size. What can the Minister do to ensure that the Iceni Project will be included, and will he agree to meet it and me?

I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the charity in question. As we restructure contracts in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office mentioned—away from hugely prescriptive tender contracts and into payment by results—I hope we will find that there are huge opportunities for charities such as the small one in my hon. Friend’s constituency to participate and deliver excellent results. We should not have the huge bureaucratic burdens that prevent the smaller voluntary and community organisations from participating.

I am sorry to say that the Minister sounds rather naive. I went to visit Crisis in Sunderland. Three quarters of its money comes from a combination of housing benefit and local government grant. When both those are cut, how can it maintain its services?

I think the hon. Lady is ignoring the extent to which our programme of structural reform will enlarge opportunities for people to participate in services from the voluntary and community sector—[Laughter.] Opposition Members may not believe that, but that is because they did not try to find ways to deliver services on the basis of payment by results, or to find ways that actually work. We know that voluntary and community organisations are capable of that. When they do it, they will find that there is access to a large amount of revenue that is currently denied to them.

Departmental Procurement

10. What steps his Department is taking to share best practice in procurement among Departments. (18057)

Procurement of basic commodities was carried out without any effort to leverage the scale and buying power of the whole Government—[Interruption.]

Order. I understand the excitement, but I hope that that practice, which was discontinued some time ago, will be discontinued in future. The Minister must be heard.

That led to one part of the Government buying basic office supplies at seven and a half times the cost that other parts incurred. Allowing wasteful spending of that type to remain unreformed would mean that front-line services and the jobs of dedicated public servants would be more at risk. We are mandating that all Departments and public bodies should in future buy through supplier contracts negotiated on behalf of the whole of central Government. That will cut the costs of Government overheads by some—[Interruption]

Order—[Interruption.] Order. In so far as we could hear the Minister, I think we have got the drift of it.

I thank the Minister for his reply in as much as I heard it. It is sound commercial practice to maximise buying power by adding together the purchases of all bodies within an organisation and to use that to drive down prices from suppliers, yet Sir Philip Green found waste arising from huge variation in the prices paid by different Departments. What steps will the Minister take to co-ordinate Government procurement in future?

We will be mandating that all of central Government should buy through centrally negotiated contracts. That will save £500 million in the current year alone, and will drive savings running into billions of pounds in the years that lie ahead.

Will the Minister ensure that best practice in sustainable and green procurement is part of his briefing in ensuring best practice in Departments, and does he consider that the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission will help or hinder him in that process?

We are committed to procuring in a way that is sustainable, but I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that maintaining a quango is a guaranteed way to achieve that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

During this Parliament, our contributions to the European Union will increase by £17.5 billion, so yesterday’s cuts to the defence budget will not go to reduce the deficit, but to subsidise our European partners. This is obscene. What would the Prime Minister like to say to the European Union?

First, the point is that the previous Government gave away some £8 billion of rebate and got nothing in return. I am clear that we will not accept any increases in the EU budget in the next seven-year financial perspective. We have called for a cash freeze in the size of the EU budget for 2011 and we are working hard to make this case across Europe. Just yesterday, I spoke to the new Dutch Prime Minister as he is another ally in trying to ensure that, as we make difficult decisions at home, we do not spend extra money on the EU budget.

I want to start by asking the Prime Minister about something that the Justice Secretary said. Unfortunately, he has become part of the “squeezed middle” due to the logjam on the Tory Front Bench. Three weeks ago, the Justice Secretary—a former Chancellor—said:

“I do not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession”.

On the same day, the Prime Minister said that the UK economy was out of the danger zone. Which of them is right?

First, let me compliment the Justice Secretary because he has something that I am not sure the Leader of the Opposition has yet acquired, which is bottom.

If the Leader of the Opposition read out the full quotation from the Lord Chancellor he would find that it referred to western Europe as a whole. That is the point. Perhaps he would like to read out the whole quote now.

The—[Interruption.] Let me be very clear about this. The Justice Secretary said:

“I do not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession”

because of global fear and crisis. He was talking about the United Kingdom. It is a very simple question for the Prime Minister. Who is right? Is it the Justice Secretary when he does not rule out the risk of a double-dip recession? Or is the Prime Minister saying that the Justice Secretary has put his foot—or his Hush Puppy—in it? Is he saying that the Justice Secretary was wrong to say that there was a risk of double-dip recession in the UK?

Of course, the Leader of the Opposition must ask the questions and I must answer them, but he must—if I may say so—ask a complete question which should include the complete quotation. Have another go.

Order. I want time for Back Benchers, especially those on the Order Paper. Let us make some progress.

Look, the Prime Minister knows as well as I do that there are risks in the global economy, including to the United Kingdom. The Chief Secretary revealed yesterday that half a million jobs will be lost as the result of the Chancellor’s announcements today. What people who are in fear of losing their jobs will want to know is what the consequences of the spending review will be for them. They will think that this spending review will be a failure if it leads to rising unemployment next year. Will the Prime Minister say that he agrees with them that the spending review will be a failure if unemployment were to rise next year—yes or no?

That is a much better question; I think we are making some progress. The whole point of the Government’s approach is to take the British economy out of the danger zone, which is where it was left by the last Government. This is very important: the choice that we were left with when we came into power was to accept what the last Government had set out, but this is what was said about that. The Governor of the Bank of England said that it was “not a credible plan”, the CBI said that it was not a “credible path”, the OECD said that it was a “weak fiscal position”, and the IMF said that it was not good enough. We had a choice: should we keep what we were left with or should we take bold action to get Britain out of the danger zone? That is what we have done. That is what today is all about, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman asked something relevant to that.

The Prime Minister began by saying that it was a good question, then he said that it was irrelevant. Which is it? Let me give him another—[Interruption.] I know that he is getting advice from the Chancellor; he can answer the questions himself. Let me try the Prime Minister on another question, because he did not answer that one.

The Energy Secretary, who does not seem to be around—[Hon. Members: “He is here!”] Oh, he is there. Excellent. I am glad that he is here. The Energy Secretary says that the Government should not be “lashed to the mast” of the Government’s tax and spending numbers were economic circumstances to change. Does the Prime Minister agree? In particular, if at the end of November the Office for Budget Responsibility were to forecast a rise in unemployment next year, does the Prime Minister think that the tax and spending judgments of the Government should change? Yes or no?

First, to respond to what the right hon. Gentleman said about me and the Chancellor, I know that it is a novel concept, but in this Government the Prime Minister and the Chancellor speak to each other.

On unemployment, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility—which we have established and which is fully independent—is forecasting that unemployment will fall next year, the year after and the year after that. It is forecasting that employment—[Interruption.] One question at a time, please. The right hon. Gentleman is very eager. The Office for Budget Responsibility also forecasts that employment will rise next year, the year after and the year after that. That is the independent forecast, and one of the reasons for that is that we have taken the economy out of the danger zone. He asks about the Energy Secretary, but what is interesting about this Government is that two parties have come together in the national interest to sort out the economic mess that was left by the other. That is what has happened, and that is why there is real unity in this Government in dealing with the mess that we inherited.

Let me give the Prime Minister another chance, because the truth is that the global economic outlook is uncertain, as the former Chancellor admits—the Prime Minister does not really want to admit it—and it could affect the UK. The question that people will be asking as they watch these exchanges is this: if things change, and if unemployment were to rise next year, will the Government revise their tax and spending plans? It is a simple question; the Prime Minister can just say yes or no.

Where the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right is that we live in a dangerous world economy, and the outlook for the world economy is choppy and difficult. That is what the Justice Secretary was talking about and what the Chancellor has been talking about. The question for the Government is this: in an uncertain world economy, are we taking the British economy out of the danger zone? Are we doing the right thing to protect the long-term interests of people’s jobs and livelihoods? That is what we are doing. What the right hon. Gentleman is doing is thoroughly irresponsible, and I think he probably knows it.

This is very interesting, because the Prime Minister used to say that he was a different type of Conservative, but I have given him the chance to say that he will change his plans if unemployment rises, and he has ducked the chance to do so. We all remember the catchphrases: “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”; “Unemployment is a price worth paying.” He sounds exactly like that. What we have is a Prime Minister lashed to the mast of the tax and spending plans. Should he not admit it? He is taking the biggest gamble in a generation—with growth, with people’s jobs and with people’s livelihoods.

We all remember some catch phrases: “No more boom and bust”—remember that one?—and “Prudence with a purpose”, which left us with the biggest budget deficit in the G20. We remember that, and who was the economic adviser at the Treasury at the time? He is sitting right there—[Interruption.]

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one simple piece of advice that I learned sitting in his seat for five years: if you have not got a plan, you cannot attack a plan. He has not got a plan, so he has got nothing to say—[Interruption.]

Charnwood borough council has completed the online publication, three months early, of all its expenses over £500. In the light of today’s announcements, is it not right that taxpayers want to know exactly how much is spent in their name and what the money is spent on?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one of the ways that we will try to save money while not losing too many jobs in the public sector is by making sure that we are more efficient. One of the best tools for efficiency is transparency: putting online what is spent and how it is spent, and what people’s salaries are can help to drive down costs in a way that makes public services better while saving money at the same time.

Q2. Many of my constituents fear for their jobs. Will the Prime Minister reassure them by explaining how cutting science funding is part of a strategy for growth? Germany is increasing its science funding by 7%. On jobs, is the Prime Minister’s message to Newcastle: “Auf wiedersehen, pet”? (18064)

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, which is that, in making spending reductions—whoever had won the last election would have had to make spending reductions—it is vitally important that we try to protect economic growth. The last Government were committed to 20% departmental spending reductions, and I can say—without, I hope, pre-empting all of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement—that I hope she and the whole House will find that we have struggled hard but we have been able to freeze the science budget in cash terms, which is a good outcome for science.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of Save the Children and other charities that deal with development work in some of the most difficult places in the world? Does he share my delight in today’s news of the release of Frans Barnard in Somalia?

I do, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this case. We have been in close contact with Save the Children over the kidnap of Frans Barnard, who is doing vitally important work on its behalf in Somalia, and we are delighted by the news that he has been freed by his kidnappers. Let me praise the professionalism of Save the Children and thank the Somali clan members who were involved in his release. I am sure that it will be good for him to be back with his family after what must have been a very frightening and difficult few days.

Q3. On the day when more than 2,000 supporters of Christian Aid, including some from my own constituency, have come to Parliament in support of a cross-party consensus on protecting the aid budget, does the Prime Minister agree that we should be leading a global crackdown on the tax-dodging that costs poor countries more each year than they actually receive in aid? (18065)

I do; on a day when I am sure that there will not be cross-party agreement on everything that is discussed, we should just take one moment to celebrate the fact that this country, almost alone among other countries, is going to meet the United Nations target of 0.7% of gross national income for overseas aid by 2013. We have made difficult choices under this Government in order to deliver that, and to keep our international promise to some of the poorest people in the world. Every party in the House can be proud of the role that it will play in ensuring that Britain stands up for aid in our modern world, and we can put pressure on other countries to do the same thing.

Will the Prime Minister join me in backing the supporters of Ilkeston Town football club in my constituency who are working hard to put together a bid to save the club? If they are successful, it will be the first supporter-owned football club under the new coalition Government, and a real asset to us in Erewash.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many hon. Members will have football clubs in their constituencies that sometimes struggle financially, and seeing one owned by its supporters is a very positive move. I hope she will not mind if I spend more of my time on another football bid, which is the very important bid to make sure that England hosts the World cup in 2018.

Q4. I have already briefed the Prime Minister on the likely impact of the interim cap on migrant workers on a leading-edge company in my constituency. The one graduate sponsorship licence issued has suddenly been withdrawn. Can the Prime Minister assure me that he will review this case urgently, as this expert is pivotal to growth and jobs in our community? (18066)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. I will arrange for the Minister for Immigration to look urgently at this case. The point is that we have consulted business and other interested parties on how the limit should work. We have also asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consult on what the actual limit should be. The consultations are closed and we will announce the findings in due course. The reason for an interim cap is that it was important to have a temporary limit to ensure that there was no closing-down sale, as it were, before the final limit was introduced. I will make sure that the Minister for Immigration gets in touch with the hon. Gentleman about this case.

Q5. May I ask my right hon. Friend a question of which I have given him prior notice? Will he tell the House why he believes that the first-past-the-post system for election is far fairer than the alternative vote system? (18067)

My hon. Friend tempts me into answers that will not delight everyone on this side of the House. I am clear that I have always supported the first-past-the-post system. I like to have the individual link between constituency and MP. In some cases, the alternative vote would have led to even more disproportional outcomes in national elections. Let me thank my hon. Friends who I know have misgivings about this referendum for allowing the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to go through. I think we should make this argument in the country rather than try to wreck the Bill in the House.

Q6. Now that the final day of the Chancellor’s judgment has arrived, can the Prime Minister assure me by confirming that the decision taken on the 50,000 savers of the Presbyterian Mutual Society will be both fair and equitable? Will he assure us that no sleight of hand will be used in delivering the full financial package promised by the previous Administration to the Northern Ireland Executive? (18068)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Having already announced one of the Chancellor’s nuggets from his speech, it would be testing our friendship if I announced another. I gave my word about finding a settlement for the PMS. I know how important this is in Northern Ireland. I know that people lost money and that there was frustration that Ministers would stand at the Dispatch Box and say that no one had lost money during the financial crash—they did in the PMS. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied by what the Chancellor has to say in a moment.

Last week, I joined a parliamentary delegation to China, where I was able to pick up a copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Is the Prime Minister interested to learn that Chairman Mao said:

“Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure.”?

If Mao Tse-tung supports coalition policy, does that not mean that the Labour party is in a minority of one?

I am glad that my hon. Friend is travelling the world and learning so much. We learned a few weeks ago that even Cuba is making reductions in public spending, so I think this puts the modern Labour party somewhere between China and Cuba—but I am not quite sure where.

Q7. Following a meeting with the Northern Ireland human rights commissioners yesterday, it is clear that this Government intend to breach the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday and the St Andrews agreements by refusing to bring in a Human Rights Act specifically for Northern Ireland, as recommended by the commission and supported recently by more than 80% of the Protestant and Catholic communities. How can the Prime Minister possibly excuse this betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland? (18069)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will look at that carefully; I know that it has been discussed. It is a difficult issue and there are some problems that we need to resolve, but I will look at it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable that the European Union is expanding its bureaucracy while here in the UK we are cutting ours?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This is a point that I have made at the European Council in the past and that I will make again at the next one. There are allies for these views in Europe. I talked about the Dutch Prime Minister; the Germans are also unwilling to see increases in the budget in future. We need to work with these allies to try to explain that it is just unacceptable. When we are making difficult decisions at home, Europe should be doing the same with its own budget.

I think that that issue was fully raised by Channel 4, and fully answered by the Government. Everyone should obey the law; everyone should pay their taxes.

Q9. Despite the Prime Minister’s earlier answers, can I tell him that at a time when we are cutting budgets in this country, it is absolutely unacceptable that the Government rubber-stamped an increase in the budget of the European Union? Given that he pledged at the general election that only two budgets would be ring-fenced—those for the health service and overseas aid—will the Government go to the European Union and say that we are not only talking about freezing the budget, but want it to take the pain and cut its budget? (18071)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but the fact is that we opposed the increase in the budget that he voted against the other night, and will go on opposing increases in the budget. The key is the next financial perspective: that is the best way in which to control the budget. We need to build allies for that, we need to build our argument for that, and we need to make sure that Europe starts to live within its means.

Q10. The North East chamber of commerce has reported that 17,000 construction jobs are at risk as a direct result of proposed cuts in local councils. For some of us in the House, unemployment is not just a subject for theoretical discussion. Some of us have lived through and experienced the real desolation that unemployment means. Will the Prime Minister now tell us clearly whether he believes today what he believed in 1992—that unemployment is a price worth paying? (18072)

I do not take that view at all. I take the view that we must do everything we can to get our people into good and well-paid jobs. I have to say, however, that if we do not tackle the deficit, every job in the country will be under threat. That is the point. We are not doing this because we want to; there is no ideological zeal in doing this. We are doing this because we have to.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the British Chambers of Commerce. What the British Chambers of Commerce said at the time of the Budget was that this

“will have positive effects on business and investor confidence”


“will be welcomed by companies the length and breadth of the country—and across the globe.”

That is what the chambers of commerce think. They think that we are right to take this action, and they think that the Labour party is wrong.

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that you do not need a basic economics primer to know that when there is a £44 billion black hole in the public finances, you should not propose additional commitments of £10 billion in speeches made outside the House around the country? (18073)

And in speeches after which they will not answer any questions, which is a novel approach.

My hon. Friend is right. We have a problem with the deficit in this country, and we have got to deal with it. We have set out the ways in which we are going to do that, and we have set out a plan. The Opposition do not have a plan, and you cannot attack a plan unless you have one yourself. If all you can do is come up with extra taxes for extra spending, you are completely irrelevant to the debate in the country today about how we pay down our debts. That is the question, and we have the answer.

Q12. Given the Prime Minister’s repeated assurances that the north-east has nothing to fear from him, his Government, and public sector job cuts because he believes that the private sector will thrive in the vacuum, can he name just three businesses in the north-east that he believes will be expanding their work forces in the next 12 months? (18074)

This week 38 businesses wrote to the papers backing the action. Those businesses were spread right across the country, but let me give the hon. Lady some satisfaction in terms of the north-east. I believe that the north-east has a great future in renewable energy, and she is about to hear that we are protecting capital spending so that the carbon capture and storage projects will go ahead and the investment in wind power will go ahead. As for the green investment bank, which lots of people have talked about, we will be putting proper money into it so that it can invest in the north-east and elsewhere in the country.

Q13. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents who rely on the excellent hospitals in Grantham and Stamford that he has rejected the advice of the shadow Chancellor, and will protect spending on our NHS? (18075)

I can absolutely give that guarantee. That is something on which we fought the election, something that is in the coalition agreement, and something that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be delivering.

We will have to make difficult decisions, including difficult decisions about the NHS, but what I can say is that we will fulfil our promise that national health spending will not be cut in real terms under this Government. That is a big contrast with what we hear from the Labour party, which has said in terms—particularly the shadow Chancellor—that protecting the national health service is wrong. We do not agree: we think that it is right.

When the Prime Minister accused Labour Members of scaremongering during the general election for highlighting the Conservative threat to take security of tenure from council tenants and impose massive rent increases on them, was he goading us to use unparliamentary language or was he simply being economical with the truth?

The right hon. Gentleman will hear in a minute what our plans are for bold housing reform that will lead to more social homes being built, but it does not actually involve changes to tenure. I do think that we have to look at new ways to get houses built. The fact is that under the last Government we had housing targets and vast amounts of investment in social housing, but house building was lower in every year of the last Government than it was under the previous Conservative Government. That is a common story: vast amounts of money spent, with very poor results.

Q14. Last week, a special day was allocated to raising awareness of secondary breast cancer. There is an urgent need to collect good data on people living with secondary breast cancer in order to improve the outcomes for people living with that incurable disease. Would the Prime Minister be prepared to meet a delegation from the all-party group on breast cancer and a few people from the relevant charities? (18076)

I will be very happy to do that, and the hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We do have a good record on cancer in this country, but it needs to be a lot better if we are to get it up to the best level in Europe. Part of that is about early diagnosis, which I have spoken about and on which I know the Health Secretary is taking action. However, as she says, all of us will have met in our own constituencies people with secondary breast cancer and we need to give the issue more attention. I will be happy to have the meeting she suggests.

Q15. Four years ago, Gary Dunne, from my constituency, was murdered in Spain. His parents, Lesley and Steve, have fought a long and ultimately successful campaign to have his body returned for burial in this country. Would the Prime Minister agree to meet Mr and Mrs Dunne to discuss proposals for changes in the law, so that no other family has to go through the ordeal that they went through? (18077)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important case. Anyone who has lost a relative who has died overseas knows the enormous worry about how to deal with these issues and how to get things sorted out. On behalf of the whole Government and the House, I send my condolences to Mr and Mrs Dunne. I know that they have dealt with this case with great dignity and courage. I hope that the fact that they have now been able to bury their son in the UK will help them to start to come to terms with their terrible loss. I am very happy to meet them and try to work out what we can do to deal with sad situations such as this. There is a problem when different countries have different rules, particularly where the death has occurred some time before, but we should try to work it through and I am happy to meet them.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, if graduates are to be asked to make a greater contribution to the cost of their education, in order to be fair those with the greatest ability to pay should make the greatest contribution?

Yes, I completely agree. In the end, I think that almost everyone in this House wants the same thing: we want well-funded universities; we want universities that are able to exercise some independence; we want a growing higher education sector; we want people from low-income backgrounds to be able to go to the best universities in the country; and we want a proper element of progressivity. That is what Lord Browne proposes, and we are going to amend that to make it even more progressive. In particular, I think that moving the salary before you start to pay back from £15,000, which we had for many years, to £21,000 is a really big step forward. I hope that we can get all-party agreement for what would be a good and proper reform of higher education for the long term in our country.

I am sorry for not giving the prior notice to the Prime Minister, but I am confident that, given his reassurance on the NHS, he will be able to answer my question this afternoon. Does he agree with me and the Secretary of State for Health that it makes no sense to close Ealing hospital’s accident and emergency department, given that 100,000 patients use this service each year? Will the Prime Minister also take this opportunity to end rumours of coalition plans to close the entire Ealing hospital?

I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the detail of his question, but we believe that those top-down reorganisations that took place in the NHS, in which many accident and emergency units were closed without taking into account what local people wanted, were wrong. The whole point of the reform of the NHS is to put power in the hands of patients and doctors, so decisions about hospitals will be made on the basis of what local people want and not on the whim of Ministers.

Many of my constituents are gravely concerned that when young people are found guilty of serious crimes and offences and get off with a caution no action is taken against their parents. Will the Prime Minister agree to consider that matter and perhaps to have words with the Justice Secretary about what could be done?

I am very happy to look into that issue. As we seek efficiencies and savings in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, we are going to have to be reformers. We are going to have to be more thoughtful and creative about how we have a criminal justice system that carries out punishment in which the public are confident, but that is not so wasteful of public money as what we have now. It is a challenge for us and it is a challenge that we will have to rise and meet.

It looks as if there is a possible end to the current industrial dispute at British Airways. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a clear message to senior management at British Airways that should the cabin crew decide to return to normal working, there should be no harassment, no bullying and, most importantly, no recriminations?

I think the most important thing is that this strike ends—that this action ends—and that British Airways gets back to working properly. The fact is that there is a hugely competitive airlines sector out there and those of us who love our national carrier and want it to be a success want to see people go back to work and work out how to make it compete with others that are striving ahead in the world. That is what we need, and the last Government did not really say that.

Order. Before the Chancellor comes to the Dispatch Box to make his statement, let me say to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that points of order come after statements.