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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Bodies

1. What steps his Department is taking to support public bodies in contracting out public services. I announced last Wednesday that the Government are identifying a range of additional commercial models for public bodies wishing to contract out services, such as joint ventures and public sector worker mutuals, alongside traditional outsourcing options. A major barrier to this is the extremely cumbersome procurement process left behind by the previous Government. An average process here typically takes almost twice as long as it does in Germany. This makes tendering less competitive and effectively excludes many smaller suppliers and social and voluntary enterprises. We are taking steps to streamline the process. (25849)

One of the problems with the delivery of public services in the past was the previous Government’s focus on delivery through either private contractors or existing local and central Government bodies. Many public sector workers were thus prevented from suggesting innovative ideas for the more efficient and cost-effective delivery of services. How will they now be encouraged to come forward with their ideas?

We have already encouraged them to come forward with ideas. As part of the spending challenge that we launched in the summer, we invited public sector workers to come up with ideas to save money while protecting front-line services, and 65,000 of them did so, indicating a huge amount of pent-up frustration. We are now encouraging as many of them as possible who are interested not only in having ideas but in putting them into effect to form worker co-operatives to spin out of the public sector while continuing to deliver services.

Given that there are strict procurement rules designed to demonstrate probity and value for money, and to avoid political interference, does the Minister think that it was wise for the Department for Education to hand out a £500,000 contract to the New Schools Network, an organisation led by a former associate of the Secretary of State? Was that contract fully compliant with all the relevant tendering regulations?

I certainly do not know the details of that procurement, but I am confident that it would have followed all the rules to the letter.

Public Sector Mutuals

I announced last week that every Department will put in place “rights to provide” for public sector workers to take over the running of their services. The first wave of 12 pathfinder projects was launched in August this year. Leading organisations in the sector, including Local Partnerships, the Employee Ownership Association and Co-operatives UK, have come together to launch an information and support service for public sector workers interested in mutualisation. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will encourage and support these worker co-operatives.

Many public sector organisations and employees in my constituency are interested in this idea. Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether he sees these policies applying more to local community organisations, or whether he envisages organisations on the scale of, say, NHS trusts being able to take on mutual status?

I do not think that we should be prescriptive about how large or small, or how local or broad, these co-operatives could be. The pathfinders range enormously in size: I think that the smallest has only three potential employees or members, while the largest has 1,100, and it is possible to imagine them being even larger. I hope that groups of public sector workers from right across the sector will consider whether this could be a good route forward for them to take, and we will make it as easy as possible for them to take it.

What action is the Minister taking to protect the interests of innovative public sector workers who come up with exciting ideas for public sector mutuals, but whose senior management do not support them because it might not be in their personal interest to do so?

It is possible that such a situation could come about, which is why we have encouraged the organisations that I mentioned to set up the information and support service for groups of public sector workers. We will also establish a challenge group, into which this service can feed thoughts and suggestions. If there are concerns that middle and senior managers are obstructing the right of public sector workers to form these co-operatives, I hope that people will feed them directly to us, through the challenge group, so that we can take the appropriate steps.

Does the Minister accept that there is a fundamental difference between a worker co-operative and an organisation that is fully mutual? Can he assure me that there will be a democratic process within public sector mutuals and that there will be a membership element to it?

We do not have a dogmatic view about exactly what form these should take. I hope there will be considerable innovation. Some will want to form joint ventures with outside providers; in other entities, the Government or whatever other state agency is the commissioning body might want to retain a stake in the organisation. There will be strong democratic worker involvement in many of them, but the key element is a degree of ownership by the employees themselves.

May I probe the Minister further on what specific advice and support the Government are offering to organisations that wish to become mutuals or co-operatives?

A range of advice is available. The 12 pathfinder projects are supported by organisations that are able to provide support—for example, Co-operatives UK and the John Lewis Partnership, which have enormous experience in this area. The advice and support service that these organisations are putting together will be able directly to channel support and advice from organisations such as the Employee Ownership Association. That should help organisations to find the right advice for the particular circumstances of a particular group of workers.

Government Contracts

3. What steps he is taking to increase the participation of voluntary and charitable bodies in bidding processes for Government contracts. (25851)

The Office for Civil Society will shortly publish a consultation on what changes need to be made to commissioning to make it easier for voluntary and community sector organisations to compete for public contracts. The results will feed into a wider public services reform White Paper, which is due to published early in the new year.

I am grateful to the Minister. On 13 November, I chaired a summit meeting of the chief executives of 14 significant third sector bodies in Suffolk to discuss the big society and Suffolk county council’s radical new strategic direction programme to contract out local public services. The third sector bodies were extremely keen to bid for these contracts, but they were concerned that unscrupulous, large corporate prime contractors and a very crude payment-by-results regime could fatally damage their cash flow—

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman wants to be reassured that that will not be the case. We are grateful to him for so indicating—[Interruption.] Order. That is the end of it.

As my hon. Friend knows, there will be cases where large-scale contracts are more efficient, but we want to make sure that voluntary and community sector organisations do not feel excluded from them and are treated fairly by the prime contractors within any consortiums. The White Paper will address that issue. In addition, the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), which the Government support, will place a firmer requirement on commissioners to consider social value in their buying decisions. That will help. I should be delighted to meet representatives of the local voluntary and community sector organisations in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) and I extend the same offer to all hon. Members.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that bidding processes and the awarding of Government contracts must be transparent and fair—and seen to be so. Does he therefore think it good practice that his Department awarded a huge £4.1 million contract to a charity founded by his policy adviser, Lord Wei? Will the noble Lord consider his position as a result of this matter?

I am not entirely sure to which contract the hon. Lady refers, but if she means the recently announced awarding of contracts to 12 providers of the national citizen service, that process was run in an impeccably transparent way. We are absolutely delighted with the outcome and with the prospects for that programme.

On probity and transparency, what puts off most charitable organisations is the time, the expense and the long drawn-out nature of the process. Is the Minister going to do something about that?

Absolutely. That is a hugely important point. Everything I have learned over the past two years suggests that for many organisations the whole process of applying for and reporting public money is a bureaucratic nightmare—often totally disproportionate to the sums involved. Changing that is fundamental to the reform of commissioning and procurement that we are undertaking.

Voluntary Sector Organisations

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effects of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review on voluntary sector organisations over the spending review period. (25852)

Our programme of structural reform is opening up huge new opportunities for all sorts of voluntary and community sector organisations to take part in the delivery of public services. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, City Health Care Partnerships—which, I understand, is an employee-led spin-out from the health service—is providing health visitors, district nurses, pain clinics and a range of other services. That is an admirable example of what can be done, and we hope that it will be replicated in other parts of the country.

What message would the Minister send to the Hull Families Project, which is based in Orchard Park, given that £160 million of regeneration funds were stripped from that community on Monday, and to the Hull Churches Home from Hospital Service, which fears that the local authority and the NHS will cut its budget? What message does that send about the coalition Government’s real approach to disadvantaged communities?

The hon. Lady knows that the coalition Government have protected the NHS budget, for the very reason that we regard it as a priority. She may also know that the public health White Paper, which is on the way, will announce our proposals—already well foreshadowed—on the health premium. The health premium will specifically benefit those who are improving public health locally, and will organise funding so that it most benefits the most disadvantaged parts of the country, thus dealing with the precise points that the hon. Lady raises.

There are increasing pressures on independent citizens advice bureaux throughout the country. Debt management issues are an ever-present feature of their work. What assurances can the Minister give that expertise and resources will be available to CABs locally so that they can undertake their invaluable work?

The coalition Government certainly agree that citizens advice bureaux form a fantastically important part of the fabric of the big society and support for people locally, and I believe that Members throughout the House recognise the value of their services. We will support them in every possible way, and I should be delighted to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any specific issues in his constituency.

I believe that strengthening civil society is a common cause between us. Labour is certainly very proud that the sector doubled when we were in government. Now, however, charities are saying that they face cuts of a little over £3 billion during the next couple of years. How many jobs does the Minister expect to be lost in charities that do not have Conservative advisers at their helms or on their boards? To the untrained eye it seems that, worryingly, some charities are now more equal than others.

The right hon. Gentleman is well aware that more than three quarters of charities receive no Government money, and therefore will not be affected. He ignores the opportunities presented by the new public service reforms. The Work programme, for example, is creating huge opportunities for the voluntary and community sector, and there will be increased funds from that source. There will be more funds for drug prevention, rehabilitation and recovery, and for the rehabilitation of prisoners. Payment-by-results contracts will be available for a huge range of new voluntary and community sector operators. I expect the right hon. Gentleman to see an expansion, not a reduction, in the sector and its activities.

Government Contracts

5. What plans he has to encourage opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to apply for Government contracts. (25853)

14. What plans he has to encourage opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to apply for Government contracts. (25862)

15. What plans he has to encourage opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to apply for Government contracts. (25863)

On 1 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced a package of measures to help small and medium-sized enterprises to obtain public sector contracts. They include halving the length and breadth of the pre-qualification process for small firms, and creating a single website called Contracts Finder, where small businesses can locate all the contracts that are available from Government.

Given that 95% of people in my constituency are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises and that some companies would relish the opportunity of a fair playing field in bidding for Government contracts, will my right hon. Friend make suitable changes to the bureaucratic burden that they currently bear, thanks to the previous Government, as soon as possible?

The short answer is yes—and abundantly so. The measures I just described are intended to do that. In addition, we are looking at the causes of delay in the procurement process because, as was mentioned earlier, that is often part of the problem. We are also requiring suppliers to pay their subcontractors within 30 days, and encouraging them to pass those payments right down the line to the smallest businesses.

These are great measures for small business, but may I impress upon the ministerial team the need to move forward with them now, because British small business is desperate for access to these contracts? So—please, please, please—get on with it now.

I am happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that that is precisely what we are doing. That is why we are publishing every contract for tender of over £10,000 on a website, enabling people to see the opportunities. It is also why we have put in every Department’s business plan the requirement to report on the percentage by value of contracts they have let to small and medium-sized enterprises. We shall measure the extent to which Departments fulfil that requirement. [Interruption.]

Order. For a start, there is too much noise in the Chamber. Secondly, the Minister is, no doubt because of his natural courtesy, looking back at the person by whom he has been questioned, but he must address the Chamber so we can all hear him.

Will the Minister consider organising an event or exhibition at which small businesses could show what they can offer to Government procurement? Perhaps we could have a street fair in Downing street, and invite people out of their offices to come and see for themselves?

I cannot offer my hon. Friend a street fair in Downing street, but I can certainly promise that we will take up his suggestion of looking into ways of enabling small businesses to bring home to those responsible for procurement just what a valuable contribution they make.

Perhaps we could have a street fair in Colne Valley. SMEs in my constituency will certainly welcome the measures, which will make it easier for them to do business with the Government, but can the Minister assure them that the process will be more accountable and transparent?

Yes, indeed, I can; in fact everything I have been describing tends to that end. We are going to make sure SMEs know what contracts are available; we are going to make sure they get a proper account of what is awarded; and we are going to make sure that Departments are held to account in awarding to SMEs. We want transparency all the way through the process because that is what will drive Government to let contracts to SMEs.

Now that Lord Young has gone, does the Minister agree that SMEs have never had it so good in respect of their share of Government procurements given the scale of cuts announced in the spending review?

Lord Young has resigned. My personal view is that the longest and deepest recession since the war, and the vast fiscal deficits that the Labour party bequeathed to us, have left not only SMEs but the entire country, and, of course, the Government, with an enormous challenge that we are now trying to meet.

Some of the enterprises of relevance in this context are third sector or voluntary sector organisations, for which the operation of the compact is important. How will the Minister respond to the concerns expressed by a number of those organisations that the compact is not working and that the new compact’s accountability mechanisms are not robust enough? The reality is that voluntary sector organisations are first in line for cuts, and this Government are doing nothing to address that.

Let us be clear: the compact is not about the level of expenditure but about the extent to which, in each contract, the Government play fair by those with whom they are contracting. We absolutely accept that the operation of the compact under the previous Government was not adequate. We are introducing new measures to make it more transparent, and the entire structures of our payment by results contracts will be totally transparent and in line with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the compact.

Of course. If the Scottish Government take the correct measures, it will apply in Scotland; and in the UK as a whole, and in England in particular, we will make sure there is transparency and that the compact is totally observed regardless of where the contractors come from.

The cuts in public expenditure will put enormous pressure on construction industry firms, and the smaller and medium-sized firms will be particularly badly hit. What are the Government going to do to protect those companies so that when the economy improves they will still be there to do the construction that is needed?

The greatest protection for small and medium-sized enterprises in the construction sector and elsewhere is, of course, a macro-economic framework that enables them to survive the recession, prosper and grow. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken the steps that have led the world in providing a solid macro-economic framework and low interest rates that enable—


6. What estimate he has made of the change in his Department’s spending on consultancy between 2009-10 and 2010-11. (25854)

The Government have cut the previous Government’s profligate spending on consultancy. In the first six months of this financial year, consulting spend by the Cabinet Office fell by 42% compared with the trajectory for the previous year. In the first six months of this year, consulting spend right across central Government fell by £350 million—or more than 50%, so it has more than halved—compared with the same period last year.

The whole House should welcome that news. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that proper processes were proceeded with on the procurement of the DLA Piper contract?

I can only assume that the proper processes were followed, because this happened under the previous Government, when the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) was Minister for the Cabinet Office. Any suggestions of a conflict of interest arising from the position of the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife are wholly misplaced, because the contract was placed before he was anywhere near government.

I welcome the Minister’s statement on a reduction in consultancy fees, but hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is still being spent with these firms. Why does he not simply say no and get civil servants to do their jobs?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s robust support for this Government’s change in direction from that taken by the Government of whom he was a member. We believe that the incontinent use of consultants is demeaning for civil servants, who would, in many cases, like to be doing this work and are very capable of doing it. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. This is very discourteous and it should end.

Civil Service Compensation Scheme

7. What recent progress he has made on his proposals for reform of the civil service compensation scheme. (25855)

10. What recent progress he has made on his proposals for reform of the civil service compensation scheme. (25858)

The Superannuation Bill, which will impose caps on compensation payments and permit the reform of the civil service compensation scheme, is proceeding through the other place. I remain confident of being able to introduce a new scheme before the House rises.

I thank the Minister for that reply. More than 30% of the work force in my constituency are employed by the public sector, given the heavy proportion of Army personnel and Ministry of Defence civil servants. Many of the MOD civil servants are members of the Public and Commercial Services union. Has it come to the table and joined the negotiations, or does it still stand alone?

Sadly, despite repeated invitations, the PCS has not come forward with concrete proposals. The other five unions engaged constructively and their proposals formed the basis for the new scheme that we have developed. I am sorry that the PCS, which represents so many civil servants, particularly lower-paid civil servants, has not chosen to take part in a constructive spirit.

In my right hon. Friend’s proposals for reforming the scheme, what account is he taking of the protection of the lowest paid staff in the civil service?

That has been our principal concern in fashioning a new scheme. Civil servants’ average pay is lower than that in the private sector and the wider public sector, and it is right that they should be at the forefront of our concerns. The scheme that we have developed, in negotiation and consultation with five of the six unions, gives particular protection for them by deeming that the salary on which their compensation calculation is based is £23,000, so anyone paid less than that will have their compensation calculated on that basis.


The hon. Gentlemen will know from the Budget and previous statements by the Prime Minister that the Government are committed to developing broader measurements of well-being to inform policy development. A conference tomorrow will bring together experts to discuss how we measure and promote robust, independent measurements of subjective well-being.

I am delighted that the Government are taking this issue of well-being seriously. Does the Minister agree that promoting well-being involves a focus on development and understanding in schools, not just exams, on fulfilment and job satisfaction at work, not just salary, and on community and opportunity nationally, not just gross domestic product?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a big interest in this subject as vice-chair of the all-party group. The Government take it seriously. We are taking forward the recommendations in the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi report and the conference tomorrow will be the first step in deciding how we go forward to measure and promote subjective well-being. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s view will be heard.

As part of his efforts to promote well-being, will the Minister consider the abolition of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?

I sense that there might be some consensus on that in the House, but it is a subject well above my pay grade.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Guardsman Christopher Davies of 1st Battalion the Irish Guards, who died on Wednesday 17 November in Afghanistan. He was the 100th British soldier to die this year, a reminder of the high price we are paying for the vital work that is being done. Christopher was an utterly professional and highly respected soldier and we send our deepest condolences to his families and his loved ones.

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

I associate myself and my colleagues with the condolences that the Prime Minister passed on and I also express sympathies to the families of those involved in the New Zealand mining disaster, two of whom come from Scotland.

Does the Prime Minister share my concerns that, although good restaurants pass on 100% of tips to their staff, some are using bogus tronc or kitty schemes to avoid paying national insurance while ripping off up to 14% of their staff’s tips? Will he personally stand up for fair tips and agree to meet me and a delegation of hospitality workers to discuss the need for the promised one-year review of the operation of the law on tips?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to mention the tragic accident at the New Zealand mine. What has happened is immensely sad. I spoke to the New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, this morning and I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with the 29 miners who lost their lives and with their families—particularly Peter Rodger from Perth and Malcolm Campbell from St Andrews. I know that our high commission and the consular officials are in touch with their families and doing everything to help at what must be an impossibly difficult time.

The hon. Gentleman has been a long-standing campaigner on the issue of tips and has done some excellent work on it. It is right that tips should be distributed to staff and should not be used to top up the minimum wage. They should not be diverted in any way. The law is very clear: tips must not be used to back up the minimum wage and enforcement officers should take action to ensure that that does not happen. The hon. Gentleman should meet Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers and they can look at the important code of practice that was produced and ensure that the hospitality industry is meeting it.

Will my right hon. Friend take steps to sort out the mess in Parliament square, particularly ahead of 29 April? Does he think that it is reasonable that visitors to London from home and abroad should be faced with a no-go area surrounded by a campsite?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I will always defend the right to protest and the right to protest peacefully. It seems to me entirely fair that people should protest, but I have never seen why they are able to sleep in Parliament square. I have had many discussions with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I think 29 April is too far a deadline by which to get this problem sorted out.

I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Christopher Davies of 1st Battalion the Irish Guards. He died providing heroic service to our country, like all our other troops. We pay tribute to him and send our deepest condolences to his family.

I also join the Prime Minister in expressing deep sadness about the deaths of the miners who were tragically killed in the underground explosion in New Zealand, including the two miners from Scotland. I know from my constituency the risks that miners take when working underground and our hearts go out to the miners’ families and friends.

I also thank the whole House for the good wishes on the birth of my second son, Samuel. In particular, I thank the Prime Minister and his wife Samantha for their very generous gifts—[[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I shall keep the gifts secret. I also thank the Deputy Prime Minister.

I want to turn to a decision that has been made in advance of the education White Paper, on which there will be a statement at 12.30 pm. Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep concern among schools, families and leading sportsmen and women about the Education Secretary’s decision to take away all the funding from the highly successful school sport partnerships? Will the Prime Minister overrule the Education Secretary and reverse the decision?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back and I congratulate him again on the birth of baby Samuel. I very much know what it is like—the noise, the mess, the chaos and trying to get the children to shut up. I am sure that it was lovely to have two weeks away from it all. He is very welcome.

On the point about sports funding, in the White Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will announce later we are taking a very different approach. We are taking a lot of the specific grants that were spent on specific subjects and putting them into basic school funding. That means that the schools budget is going to go up by £3.6 billion over this Parliament. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that what we experienced over the last decade was a lot of money being put into school sport but without seeing a lot of progress. [Interruption.] We did not see a lot of progress. Let me give him one figure: the number of schools offering rugby, hockey, netball and gymnastics actually fell under the previous Government. That approach did not work and it is time for a new one.

The Prime Minister will come to live to regret that answer, because he should not believe the nonsense that the Education Secretary is telling him about this. Since 2002, we have seen an increase from 25% to 90% in the number of kids doing more than two hours of sport a week. We have seen 1 million more kids doing competitive sport between schools and—I would have thought the Prime Minister would support this—we have a network of 200,000 volunteers from the school sport partnerships. I say to him: that sounds like the big society to me. Why is he undermining it?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have ended up with after 10 years of that approach. Only two in every five pupils play any competitive sport regularly in their school. That is a terrible record. Only one in five children plays regular competitive sport against other schools. The approach that Labour took for all those years did not work. The time for endlessly telling head teachers what to do and how to spend their money is over. It is time to trust head teachers, give them the budget and let them decide how to make sure that we have great competitive sport within school and between schools.

If the Prime Minister will not take it from me, perhaps he will take it from Jo Phillips, the school sports co-ordinator in Chipping Norton school in his constituency. In a letter to me, she said:

“I am devastated to witness the potential demise of this legacy with the sweep of Mr Gove’s pen. I wish that he had spoken to me, the teachers in our partnership, our students, our parents and our local sports clubs and providers”.

I say to the Prime Minister: this is frankly a daft decision that he should U-turn on as soon as possible. I am afraid that it sums up this Education Secretary: high-handed, incompetent and unfair. Why does the Prime Minister not get a grip on it?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that last year the proportion of 11 to 15-year-olds playing sport went down. That was after all the money that Labour spent and all the initiatives. It simply did not work. What we are doing is protecting the playing fields under our planning rules and taking back the vetting and barring scheme that stopped so many people from taking part in school sport. Again, there is a fundamental difference. Labour’s approach was specific grant after specific grant, wrapping teachers and schools in red tape and not making any progress. We take a different approach: putting the money into the schools budget, growing it by £3.6 billion, holding a schools Olympics and promoting school sport. That is the way that will make a real difference.

Q2. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, during the international negotiations regarding the economic situation in Ireland, at any point anyone suggested that countries with large deficits should slow down the rate at which they are reducing them? (25835)

My hon. Friend asks a very good question. In the G20, the G8 and European Councils, there is absolutely nobody who thinks that if they have a big budget deficit they should do nothing about it. The only people who seem to be taking that view are the Opposition, who now have a new approach. They are having a policy review, and the Leader of the Opposition says:

“In terms of policy…we start with a blank page.”

That would be a great help at the G20.

Q3. UK Border Agency funding to support immigration and related work at the ports unit in Stranraer and Cairnryan ceased yesterday, with the commitment that all such work would be dealt with in Northern Ireland. Without additional resources at that location, I believe that that cannot work. If in the coming months the ports unit in my constituency does not see a reduction in immigration-related cases, will the Prime Minister revisit the issue? (25836)

What we do at our borders is incredibly important. I spent some time yesterday with the Home Secretary at Heathrow airport, meeting UK Border Agency staff. They do a fantastic job, and I want to help them go on doing it. I shall look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says—[Interruption.] The answer is that what we are going to do is make sure that immigration work is done in Northern Ireland rather than at Stranraer, but I shall look very carefully at that to make sure that the system is working.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a proper and well planned international rescue plan for the Irish economy would be far less damaging to the wider economy of this country than some of the possible dire alternatives?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Every man, woman and child in Ireland spends more than £3,000 each year on British goods and services. Our economies are very intertwined—very interlinked—and it is right that we take part in helping to ensure stability and growth in the Irish economy.

Q4. In the context of “We are all in this together”, could the Prime Minister explain why he proposes to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which protects some of the poorest workers in the country, while at the same time he is protecting from public scrutiny the salaries and bonuses of major bankers in this country? (25837)

We have looked very carefully at all the quangos and tried to work out which ones need to stay and which ones need to go. That was long overdue. We have a minimum wage and a tax credit system, and there are so many quangos that are not adding value that it makes sense to give taxpayers value and scrap the ones that are not doing anything.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why at every turn—the City of London, the investigation order, economic governance of Europe and the stabilisation mechanism—the coalition Government under his premiership are acquiescing in more European integration, not less? And there is no repatriation of powers.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I think he is wrong. Under the approach of a previous Government, we would have caved in when the European Parliament asked for a 6% budget increase. We have not, and we have fought that increase—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s views about the views of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), and I hope the House does.

Also, we will make sure that future bail-out mechanisms should not involve non-euro countries such as Britain having to make those contributions. That is something we will secure in Europe.

Does the Prime Minister agree that just as it is right to disclose top salaries in the public sector, so too it must be right to require banks to disclose the number of employees paid salary and bonuses of more than £1 million?

Yes, we do agree with that. The last Government commissioned the Walker review. David Walker has carried out that review and made his report. He has made it very clear that he thinks we should make progress with the transparency agenda at the same time as other European countries. That is a view we think should be taken into account.

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the fact is that he was part of the Government who appointed David Walker. I would rather listen to someone who knows something about banking than someone who knows nothing about anything.

The Prime Minister will have to do better than that. He is demanding transparency—rightly—from the public sector, but unless we have transparency in the banking system, shareholders cannot exercise their duty to clamp down on unacceptable bonuses. The Business Secretary issued a statement on Monday, when news of the climbdown was in the offing. He said:

“Transparency is key to creating confidence in any commitment from our banks to behave more responsibly on pay and bonuses.”

Why will the Prime Minister not listen to his Business Secretary?

We agree with the approach of transparency. That is why the Walker review was set up, and that is why we should examine what Walker has to say. I will take lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about lots of things, but not when it comes to the banks. He was in the Treasury when the previous Government did not regulate the banks properly. He was in the Treasury when they set up the tripartite system that failed. He was in the Treasury when they had the biggest boom and the biggest bust. He was in the Treasury when they gave Fred Goodwin—the man who broke the Royal Bank of Scotland—a knighthood. I would go back to the blank sheet of paper, if I were you.

I will compare my record in the Treasury any time to the Prime Minister’s—he was there on Black Wednesday.

Is this not just typical of the Prime Minister? Before the election, he promised “a day of reckoning” for the bankers. We passed the legislation. It is there for him to implement. It is not very much to ask. All that the legislation requires is that the banks publish the number of people—not even their names, as the Chancellor used to call for—getting pay and bonuses above £1 million. It does not make sense to wait for Europe. Why does the Prime Minister not show a lead and just get it done?

The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants to contrast his record in the Treasury. [Interruption.] Yes, let us remind people that when he was in the Treasury the Government built the biggest budget deficit of any G20 country. We had the biggest boom and the biggest bust. It was his Government—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] It was his Government who set up the Walker review, and he should listen to what it has to say. The right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about the deficit. He has nothing to say about regulation. He is just the nowhere man of British politics.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of the Movember campaign, in which men grow moustaches for the month of November to advance awareness of prostate cancer. Will he join me in congratulating the almost half a million people worldwide, many in the UK, who are on track to raise £25 million this year in sponsorship? Given how good we look, will he consider joining us next year?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on such a magnificent specimen—the moustache that he has grown. It is absolutely right to raise awareness of prostate cancer. The campaign is a very good charitable move. I can see that some of his neighbours along the Bench have followed his example, as have some of the people in my protection team. They are all to be commended for raising awareness about a real killer that we need to do more about.

Q5. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Guardsman Christopher Davies who, sadly, lost his life in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister will be aware of problems with post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by many service personnel and veterans across the United Kingdom. Will he now give a commitment to implement in full the report prepared by his hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), which makes key recommendations to help our veterans and service personnel with that dreadful condition? (25838)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We are implementing in full the report of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). He did an excellent report, particularly about mental health issues and how we need to invest in them, both in the forces and in our NHS, and we are carrying out those recommendations.

Can the Prime Minister inform the House how much foreign students contribute to the economy, how many jobs they create by being here, and how much their fees support funding for higher education for domestic students?

Foreign students make a big contribution to British universities and to the British economy, but the Home Secretary and I went to Heathrow yesterday to talk with UK Border Agency staff, and the one thing that they all raised was the problem of bogus students coming to the UK—people arriving at our borders who have a visa and who are claiming to go and do an MA or a BA, but who cannot speak English. The problem is that Border Agency staff cannot stop them, because they already have the visa. I am convinced, as I have said at the Dispatch Box before, that we can control immigration properly by cutting down on bogus students and people coming here without a reason, while helping the UK economy at the same time.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister agree that the £162 million sports budget is a price worth paying for the health and fitness of our schoolchildren? (25839)

Everyone wants to see an expansion of competitive sport in schools, and I feel absolutely passionately about the issue. The fact is the approach we have taken for the last decade has meant that only one in five—one in five; that is pathetic—of our children is playing competitive sport against other schools. There is a choice in politics: to go on with an approach that is failing, or to make a change and do it differently. [Interruption.] They are shouting on the Opposition Front Bench, because they know that their record was one of lots of money spent but complete failure.

Q7. The issue of workplace bullying is highlighted in an article in the New Statesman this week. It states: “Ed Miliband’s team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette. They think they’re going to…kill him…because they”— (25840)

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat immediately. That question has got nothing whatsoever to do with Government policy.

Q8. If the Prime Minister is so keen to put a cap on immigration, why did he earlier state that he gave his 100% backing to Turkey joining the EU? Surely he knows that most immigration to Britain comes from the EU. Does he not think that there is a stench of hypocrisy about the Government’s immigration policy? (25841)

I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong, for a very clear reason. If we look at immigration, we find that migration between European countries and the UK is broadly in balance. The excess immigration all comes from outside the EU. The current figures—under the last Government—are for net migration into the UK of 200,000 a year, and that is 2 million people across a decade. In our view, that is too high, it needs to be cut and a cap is a very important part of that.

Q9. What assessment has the Prime Minister made of Len McCluskey’s statement that “there is no such thing as an irresponsible strike”? (25842)

I think he is completely and utterly wrong, and the world is in a slightly mad place when someone who supports Militant Tendency can be elected to the largest union in the country on 17% of the vote. Indeed, that same union basically picks the leader of the Labour party and pays all his bills. It is completely wrong, and if the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is going to be a reformer he had better do something about it.

Despite being slightly ahead of the curve in the moustache stakes, may I take the Prime Minister back to an exchange that we had in June? Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), much more needs to be done to help our troops who return from conflict. I know the Prime Minister is very concerned about that. I am very concerned about it, and I hope that more will be done. In particular, there are so many people now returning who become homeless, and medical services are necessary, so will he please commit himself to making an urgent statement on the matter before long? Time is running on.

The Government are very closely focused on that issue. It is not just about medical services, as the hon. Gentleman says; it is also about long-term mental health needs. In the US, veterans are contacted every single year to check up on their mental health status. When we look at the mental health problems that came out of the Falklands war, where, tragically, more people killed themselves after the Falklands, it is estimated, than died in the war, we find that we are storing up a huge problem for the future because of the incredibly active service that people have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to prepare for the situation now. The Government are fully aware of that; I am very aware of it myself. I am not sure about a parliamentary statement, but we do want to legislate on the military covenant and then make sure that it goes through everything that the Government do.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister, like the shadow Chancellor, believe that the 50p tax rate should be temporary? (25843)

Yes, I agree with the shadow Chancellor. The interesting question is whether he agrees with the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition has two policies on tax, the graduate tax and the 50p tax, and his shadow Chancellor does not agree with either.

Q11. Before the election, the Prime Minister pledged not to cut education maintenance allowance and the Deputy Prime Minister pledged to vote against tuition fees. Can the Prime Minister now explain to my 17-year-old constituent Lauren Bedford the difference between a pledge and a promise? (25844)

What I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituent is that we inherited a complete mess from the previous Government. We have a choice—we can deal with it or we can end up in a situation like in Ireland and other countries of not just cutting education maintenance allowance but cutting everything. We are going to replace it with something that is more targeted on those who need the money to stay on at school—that is in the best interests of her constituents and everyone else.

Stepping Stones Nigeria is a children’s-based charity in Lancaster. It works with its Nigerian partners to rescue children who are accused of witchcraft and often, if they were left, would be persecuted or killed, and have recently been subject to a great deal of intimidation. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do whatever it can to assist the children’s-based charities in Nigeria?

We have very close relations with Nigeria, and I am sure that the Foreign Office will be interested in what my hon. Friend has to say. The charity to which he refers does an extremely important job.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware that in Four Hills nursing home in Ruchill in my constituency there are some of the 60,000 people across this country whose quality of life will be shattered because of his Government’s decision to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance? How can he possibly justify this cruel cut of either £18.95 per week or £49.85 per week to some of the most decent people who have paid their taxes all their lives? (25845)

It is important that we make sure that disability living allowance is paid consistently to people who are in hospital and to people who are in care homes, and that is what we are doing. As I understand it, the Labour Front Bench supports this change—yes? Nod? On a previous occasion, the leader of the Labour party said that he supported our changes to disability living allowance—or is this another area where it is back to the blank sheet of paper?

Now that the Government have brought forward details of their new homes bonus, will the Prime Minister join me in applauding councils such as Rugby borough council, which is proceeding with proposals for substantial development?

I do think this is important. For years, we were spending lots of money on housing but not building any houses—why? Because there was no incentive for local authorities and few incentives for house builders. We are changing that so that even though the resources are limited, a lot more house building will go ahead.

Q13. I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that education is a powerful agent for social mobility. While I welcome in principle the pupil premium, emerging details seem to suggest that taken together with the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance, it could deter some young people from staying on in education. Will he agree to meet a delegation of experts to address that very specific problem? (25846)

I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes this extremely seriously, as do I. I have seen the letter that he has written to the Education Secretary, who I am sure would be happy to meet him to discuss this. Basically, what is happening is that we are seeing per-pupil funding that is not being cut, and on top of that we are going to see the £2.5 billion of the pupil premium. That will mean overall that the education budget rises by £3.6 billion across this Parliament. That is a substantial funding increase. I am sure that the pupil premium will have the positive effect that the right hon. Gentleman wants and that I want, but I am also sure that he can look at the detail of it with the Education Secretary.

Q14. I have recently been meeting many charities in my constituency, such as Rumbles catering project and Indigo Children, many of which have expressed concern at the reduction of local authority funding and the time lag between the opening of the big society bank. Can the Prime Minister assure me that that big fund will be quick and easy for those charities to access? (25847)

Yes, I can. The point that my hon. Friend raises is exactly why we are introducing a £100 million transition fund to help charities that might be affected by difficult decisions by local authorities to help them through that time. That is exactly why we are doing it, and I expect that we would have the support of the whole House in doing so.

Will the Prime Minister explain to me how the closure of the Identity and Passport Service information office in my constituency will enhance safety and security in this country? It is possibly going to be replaced by a risk-assessment system, which surely cannot be right. It surely cannot be safe and secure.

I am very happy to look into the individual case that the hon. Lady mentions and write to her, but the truth is that we are having to make savings right across the public sector, which means big changes in the way that we do things. In each case, we should be looking at ensuring that the effect that we want is delivered by the money that we spend. We have to do that across the public sector, and any Government would have to do that, but I am happy to take up her individual case.

Q15. The residents of Glossop and Tintwistle in my constituency have suffered for years due to excessive traffic. As we try to get the best we can from the meagre resources left by the Labour party—[Interruption.] What words can the Prime Minister offer as encouragement to those residents of the possibility of a bypass in the future? Will he or a Minister visit Tintwistle with me to see the situation? (25848)

The Opposition do not like to hear about the mess they left this country in. Just in case they are in any doubt, we will be talking about the mess they have made not in five months’ time, but in five years’ time too.

On transport expenditure, we are spending £30 billion on transport investment. That is more than the Labour party planned, and it means that there will be schemes that can go ahead. I wish my hon. Friend well with the work that he will be doing with the Department for Transport.

It is now nearly four years since the collapse of Farepak left hundreds of people in Makerfield and thousands of people throughout the country without a Christmas. They have not yet received one penny in compensation or a satisfactory explanation. Will the Prime Minister meet me to bring this sorry affair to a conclusion as soon as possible?

I well remember the case the hon. Lady mentions, and it happened at a time that brought misery to many families who had saved and who were expecting to have a good Christmas, and did not get it. It was a particularly tragic case. I will sort out for her to have a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to see whether, as she says, we can bring this sorry episode to a close.

Order. First, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that points of order come after the statement, and secondly, I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that we can hear the statement from Mr Secretary Gove.