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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 16 February 2011

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


Although the number of people in camps in Haiti has fallen by half to 800,000 since last July, Haiti continues to face serious humanitarian challenges.

The President of Haiti famously said that it would take a thousand trucks a thousand days to clear the devastation, but the people do not have a thousand days, because they are suffering disease and crime, and they do not have a thousand trucks. What more can the international community do to tackle the problem?

My hon. Friend is right to identify the scale of the damage and of what is required to put it right. We are working directly on tackling the threat of cholera, and working through the UN and the World Bank on some of the more serious aspects of what needs to happen to bring the relief that is required .

I advise you, Mr Speaker, and the House, that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the shadow Secretary of State, cannot be here today because she is on jury service.

As well as direct assistance to Haiti, which we support, Britain has contributed more than $100 million through multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the European Union, as the Secretary of State said. Does he agree that it is important for the UK to continue to make substantial contributions to such organisations if the world community is to provide the scale of long-term support for reconstruction that Haiti requires?

The hon. Gentleman is right to put it that way. Britain was a key part of the immediate, emergency relief in the aftermath of those dreadful events in Haiti. There was generous support from across Britain through the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and we made a number of specific surgical interventions towards the end of last year, including the one to which I referred. Britain is not in the lead on Haiti—this is very much an American, French and Canadian lead—but we are, as he explained, giving strong support through international and multilateral agencies, including the UN and the World Bank.

We certainly welcome the fact that British aid is helping the poor and most vulnerable in Haiti. We support that, but unfortunately, it is a different story just 100 miles north of Haiti in the Turks and Caicos Islands, to which the Department for International Development has just agreed to write an unprecedented loan of £160 million, which is much greater than any previous support for a British overseas territory. Surely the priority for DFID in the Caribbean should be meeting the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in places such as Haiti, so may I ask the Secretary of State—

The hon. Gentleman refers to problems some miles away from Haiti. However, if I may say so, he has a bit of a brass neck. We inherited a terrible mess in the area not far from Haiti to which he refers, and it is thanks to the brilliant work conducted by the Minister of State that the British taxpayer has now given a guarantee, which hopefully will allow the place not far from Haiti to sort out its problems without further cost to the British taxpayer.


2. What his Department’s policy is on providing aid to India; and if he will make a statement. (40972)

From now on in India, we will focus our support on three of the poorest states. Our programme will change to reflect the importance of the role of the private sector and private enterprise.

India spends $36 billion a year on defence and $750 million on a space programme. It has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and is developing its own overseas aid programme. Given that we must cut public expenditure in this country, will the Secretary of State accept that many of my constituents will think that such aid to India is now unjustifiable?

That is why our programme in India is in transition, why we will focus on three of the poorest states in the country and why, over the next four years, up to half the programme will transition into pro-poor private sector investment. That is the right way for us to position our development work in the partnership with India, which is of course much wider than development, and which the Prime Minister very significantly re-energised in his major visit last year.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on continuing with the £280 million each year to India. That is vital given that India has a quarter of the world’s poorest people living within its borders. How does he intend to focus the aid in those three states, particularly with regard to the health of young women?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are more poor people in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. He is right, too, that we should focus on the poorest areas, and particularly on the role of girls and women. Over future years, we expect to be able to assist in ensuring that up to 4 million women have access to income through micro-finance and through focusing particularly on livelihoods. We will also support, of course, the strong programme on education in India. About 60 million children have been got into school over the last four or five years, which is a tremendous tribute to the work of the Indian Government, but it would not have been possible without the intervention of aid and support from Britain and elsewhere.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is worth recording that to lift the poorest people in India out of poverty by $1 a day would cost $166 billion a year, so it is appropriate to continue our transitional arrangements with India? The International Development Committee will visit India next month and we will want to see how DFID’s relationship with the country, albeit with a relatively small amount in comparison with the challenge of the problem, can deliver an accelerated reduction of poverty there.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for that comment and also to the Select Committee itself for going to look with care at development in India and the operation of our programme there. He accurately identifies the scale of need. It is worth noting that the number of the Indian population living on less than 80p a day is 7.5 times the total population of Britain. That puts in context the basic nature of this need and shows why Britain’s partnership is so important.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the claims made by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and Jubilee Scotland that the work of the UK’s Export Credits Guarantee Department has been funding work in India that is undermining development and human rights? I declare an interest in that I was until recently a board member of Jubilee Scotland. I ask the Secretary of State to investigate and report back to the House on that matter.

The hon. Lady will have heard what has been said about the Export Credits Guarantee Department—that it is at the moment being looked at carefully to ensure that it supports our development aims. She might also like to look at the trade White Paper published last week, which specifically addresses the role of the ECGD in development and in supporting British exports overseas.

Friends of Yemen

3. On what date he expects the next Friends of Yemen meeting to take place; and if he will make a statement. (40973)

5. On what date he expects the next Friends of Yemen meeting to take place; and if he will make a statement. (40975)

We expect the next Friends of Yemen meeting to take place in Riyadh at the end of March. I visited Saudi Arabia last weekend and was afterwards with the Foreign Secretary in Yemen. We are continuing to work with both countries to agree a firm date for the next meeting.

Given the turmoil in the region, what is the Minister’s assessment of the situation in Yemen and of the Friends of Yemen process? How will it stop the state failing and assist in an orderly succession and economic progress following the commitment by the President not to stand at the next election?

Recent events demonstrate more than ever the importance of the Friends of Yemen process to prevent state failure in that country. I welcome President Saleh’s speech on 2 February, committing to follow the constitution of Yemen and not to seek re-election after 2013. Through the Friends of Yemen process, we will work to support political reform and the right of all Yemenis to participate legitimately and democratically in their political future.

Is it not the case that a secure and prosperous Yemen is very much in the UK national security interest? Will my right hon. Friend inform the House what new measures have been put in place to ensure that those objectives are delivered?

We have seen substantial progress on many fronts since the New York Friends of Yemen meeting, and I particularly highlight the Yemeni Government’s adherence to an International Monetary Fund financial reform programme and progress made towards completing their five-year development plan for poverty reduction. We are close to establishing a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen. The Riyadh Friends of Yemen meeting will continue the support of Yemen’s friends for political and economic reform in the pursuit of democracy, stability and prosperity.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s visit to Yemen last week. I ask him to put one item on the agenda of the Friends of Yemen meeting—namely, the redevelopment and refurbishment of the Aden hospital, which has been ongoing for a number of years. Good health facilities would be of huge benefit to local people in what is one of the poorest countries on earth.

We do not tend to get involved in large infrastructure projects, but health in Yemen is at the top of our agenda. I well appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s close personal association with Aden, and I undertake to give the matter a special personal look.

Although I acknowledge the link between poverty and security, not least in Yemen, may I invite the Minister of State to confirm that DFID sees addressing poverty among the poorest people in the poorest countries as its supreme challenge and as being at its heart?

Yes, poverty reduction is at the core of everything that the Department does, but I urge the right hon. Gentleman to appreciate that no fragile country has ever achieved a single millennium development goal. Preventing state failure is much less costly than dealing with a failed state afterwards.


4. What development support his Department provides to the Palestinian Authority and to Israeli non-governmental organisations working in the west bank. (40974)

We provide financial and technical assistance to the Palestinian Authority. In this financial year, our support will total £31.1 million. DFID also co-funds the UK conflict pool, which supports five Israeli human rights NGOs operating in the west bank.

I recently took part in a delegation to Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories of the west bank, and I refer the House to my related entry in the register. During the visit, we met many Israeli human rights organisations and NGOs involved in the peace process, some of which receive financial support from the UK Government. All of them were concerned at moves by elements of the nationalist right to crack down on and embarrass organisations in receipt of overseas funding, no matter how legitimate—

My hon. Friend refers to a proposed panel of inquiry on the Israeli side, to look into the funding of its NGOs. Our ambassador to Tel Aviv discussed the issue with the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, shortly after the Knesset vote on the issue. Officials raised the matter with one of the two members of the Knesset who had pressed for such funding investigation. We do not want such investigations to impede the legitimate work of NGOs in the west bank and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories.

In light of the Minister’s reply, does he share the concern expressed by Norwegian Foreign Minister Støre about the Israeli Foreign Minister’s comments, which appear to delegitimise the work of brave NGOs such as B’Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights? It is important that the voices of those organisations, which are Israeli Jewish but express a different view from the Israeli Government, should continue to be heard.

I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. We are watching closely the treatment of the five NGOs concerned and we will do our utmost to ensure that they remain free to do their good work, even though some of their conclusions might disagree with the those of the Israeli Government.

Is the Minister aware that an increasing amount of aid to the Palestinian territories ends up in the hands of extremists and is used for extremist purposes? Will he take steps to stop that and ensure that aid gets to the Palestinians who need it most?

I do not share my hon. Friend’s conclusion. We are very careful how we spend our money in the occupied Palestinian territories and have done our utmost to support the legitimate government of Salam Fayyad with, I think, great success. We would abhor any money falling into the hands of extremists, and we do everything possible to ensure that such an accusation can never be verified or proved valid.

The Minister will know that many in the House and beyond continue to be deeply concerned about the desperate situation in Gaza. What efforts are the Government making to ensure that Israel lifts the blockade of Gaza, which leaves many dependent on UN aid? Given the situation in Egypt, will the Minister update us on the position at the Rafah crossing, and on what action will be taken to ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered to those who need it most?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and all Ministers make our views clear on this matter. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Tony Blair announced a package covering the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem on 4 February. Gaza measures included new reconstruction project approvals and a timetable for exports. We have welcomed that, but implementation in practice will be the key.

The Department’s work on conflict prevention and resolution is much appreciated. Can the Minister assure the House that this work in the middle east—Palestine, Israel and elsewhere—will be continued in the forthcoming years, and that the budget for it will be protected, and perhaps grown, even given the wider budget obligations?

I absolutely share the views of my right hon. Friend. This is a crucial part of DFID’s agenda, and essential to all the work we are doing in such a sensitive part of the world, so the answer is an unequivocal yes.

UN Women Agency

9. What plans he has to provide support for the new UN Women agency; and if he will make a statement. (40979)

The coalition Government strongly support the new UN Women agency, which has the chance to make a hugely positive impact on the lives of millions of girls and women in the developing world. I look forward to receiving its strategic results plan, which will allow us to decide on funding by the British taxpayer for future years.

I thank the Secretary of State for that encouraging response, and for the part he and his colleagues have played in the establishment of UN Women so far. When does he anticipate he will come to a decision on funding for UN Women?

We expect to see a strategic plan from UN Women probably in June this year, and as soon as we see it, we will be able to make decisions about British support for the agency. I am sure the hon. Lady and other Members will understand that I want to see the plan first, before committing hard-earned British taxpayers’ money to it.

From the experience of the many visits my right hon. Friend has made across the world, does he agree that very often it is women who are the agents for change in development? Just as UNICEF has helped to support the focus on children, so it is to be hoped that UN Women can help support women as agents for change and development.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot even begin to address development without realising the centrality of girls and women in every aspect of what we do, and we share his aspirations for the role of UN Women within the international structures.

Sri Lanka

7. What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (40977)

The number of internally displaced people in camps in Sri Lanka has declined from 300,000 in 2009 to 18,000 today. DFID has provided £13.5 million in humanitarian assistance since 2008, but our bilateral aid to Sri Lanka will cease in March, except for a new demining programme valued at £3 million.

Among those affected by the floods are many people who were earlier displaced by the conflict and who had recently returned to their homes only to be displaced again. Even before the floods, these people had been struggling to access much-needed protection and assistance because of Government restrictions on humanitarian organisations’ access to the return areas. What pressure is the Minister putting on the Government to allow humanitarian organisations to have access to the former conflict areas, so that the suffering people there can be given the full help they desperately need?

We will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government to grant access to such areas for humanitarian purposes. More than 1 million people have been affected by the flooding. We looked very closely into the sort of support we should give, but the most immediate needs are covered by Sri Lankan authorities and other donors, so we are working principally through multilateral organisations to give the help that is needed.

The United Nations estimates that some 90% of Sri Lanka’s rice crop will be destroyed by the recent flooding. That makes the Government’s decision to stop all aid with effect from March quite worrying, because on top of all the troubles in that unfortunate country there is a very real risk of food security problems or starvation in the years to come. What is the Department prepared to do about that?

I urge my hon. Friend to appreciate the distinction between a continuing bilateral programme and humanitarian aid, which can be given as needs must. We will continue to review the humanitarian needs of Sri Lanka and work through multilateral organisations as required.

Sub-Saharan Africa (Midwives)

8. What support his Department is providing for the training of midwives and maternal health specialists in sub-Saharan Africa. (40978)

With more than half of maternal deaths globally occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, DFID funds the training of midwives and other health care workers through various channels—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the Minister. Far too many private conversations are taking place. It is the height of discourtesy for Members to witter away, including from the Government Back Benches, when the Minister is trying to be heard.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

DFID bilateral programmes directly support national health sector plans of partner countries and non-government organisation-implemented projects, and give support through multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

I am sure the Minister is aware of data collected for the World Health Organisation that show disparity between the provision of maternal health services in more rural areas and in the slightly better-funded urban areas in many countries in Africa? Will he outline what the Department will do to help to address that problem?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that important disparity. The UK Government recently announced the framework for results on reproductive, maternal and neonatal health, which directly seeks to address how that disparity can be narrowed. I have seen for myself in northern Nigeria how DFID supports midwifery services, with a scheme to train 200 midwives who are then posted to rural facilities, which is vital to ensure that the disparity is addressed.

I am proud to support Save the Children’s “No child born to die” campaign, which seeks to make more life-saving vaccines available to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation summit is to take place in the UK later this year, and Save the Children is lobbying for the Prime Minister to represent the UK at that summit. What steps will the Minister to take to make sure that the Government are represented at the highest level?

The hon. Gentleman is right; the Save the Children campaign is one that we follow closely. The GAVI conference will be hosted in London and we can confirm that it will have the full support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to show our commitment.

Official Development Assistance

10. When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals in respect of the 0.7 per cent. target for official development assistance. (40980)

The coalition Government have set out how we will meet our commitment to spend 0.7% of national income as aid from 2013, and will enshrine that commitment in law as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.

Some may be reassured by the Secretary of State’s answer and some may even be convinced by it, but I can tell him about a group of people who are not: his own loyal staff at DFID in East Kilbride who in August 2010 were told that there would be no mass loss of jobs from the Department, but last Thursday were told that a third of their jobs would be cut. Is it not the case that when this Government meet commitments, the truth and their commitments are strangers?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that all Departments across Whitehall are having to make economies because of the coalition Government’s dreadful economic inheritance from his party. DFID is not immune from the cuts and will see reductions of some 33% in its administrative spend. I had the opportunity of speaking to all the staff at Abercrombie house just a few days ago to make sure that that was understood.

I applaud the Government’s commitment to aid, but can the Secretary of State confirm that climate change adaptation funding, beyond the fast-start finance up to 2012, will be additional to the overseas development assistance pledge?

As part of the Government’s fulfilment of our historic pledge, we have set out specifically how climate change funding will rise as part of the overall budget.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Government of Kenya, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and all its funding partners, which include the United Kingdom, on the roll-out of their programme of pneumococcal vaccine on Monday? It will save thousands of children in Kenya and across Africa. We hope that it will be a rolling programme across the developing world.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to underline the tremendous success of the vaccination programme. When we announce the results of the multilateral aid review, we shall show how Britain will give a real impetus to vaccination. As the Under-Secretary has just said, we shall host the GAVI conference in London in June and it will be opened by the Prime Minister.

Aid Transfers

11. What progress his Department is making on transferring aid from middle-income states to developing countries in greatest need. (40981)

We have a clear responsibility to ensure that we target our aid where it is most needed and where it will have the greatest impact. I will shortly announce to the House the outcome of our major root and branch review of bilateral aid, which looked in detail at each country.

Although I strongly support the Government’s decision to stop aid to China, can my right hon. Friend explain what impact that will have on his ability to engage with China on development issues?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the coalition made it clear on day one that we would end all aid to China and Russia, but we need to have a powerful and reinvigorated partnership with China on development issues, not only in the areas where we share deep concerns, such as on freeing up the trading system and on climate, but in working in third countries. For example, Britain is working with China now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a major infrastructure roads programme. We are doing that work together and it is extremely effective and successful.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the following servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan: Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment and Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died last Wednesday; and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who died on Monday. They were all brave and dedicated soldiers who were serving in Afghanistan for the safety and security of the British people. Our thoughts and deepest condolences should be with their families, their loved ones and their colleagues. They will never be forgotten.

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.

Like other Members, I associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s tribute to our fallen heroes.

One man who also served his country is my constituent Doug Hunt who, with his wife Gladys, lives in Westwood care home, which is currently being fattened for privatisation by increasing its fees by £400—not £400 a year, not £400 a month, but an increase of £400 a week. Would the Prime Minister like to answer Mr and Mrs Hunt, who are listening now, show some leadership and have these Tory cuts removed, or would he like to justify these increases to Mr and Mrs Hunt?

I will certainly look at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raises, but far from cutting the money that is going into social care, we have increased by £2 billion the money going into adult social care because we know how important it is. It is not right to draw a false distinction between care homes run by local authorities and those run by the private sector. There is good practice and bad practice in both, but as we have seen in our hospitals in recent days, we need a change of culture in caring for our elderly to make sure they have the dignity that they deserve in old age.

My six-year-old constituent, Millie d’Cruz, is one of just 17 people in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with the rare genetic disorder, MLD—metachromatic leukodystrophy. Unfortunately, the family must try to raise £200,000 to send her for treatment in Holland, even though the treatment may be available here in the UK. Can the Prime Minister look into the case and ensure that the family get the support that they deserve?

I am happy to do as my hon. Friend asks. A big change is taking place in medicine, where far more interest needs to be directed at genetic data and genetically inherited diseases, as this is how we will reduce disease and illness in the future. We are looking, for instance, at value-based pricing, whereby we try to share between companies developing new treatments and the taxpayer the cost of developing them, which could be a good way forward to make sure we get more treatments to more people more quickly.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. All these men showed extraordinary bravery and dedication. Our thoughts are with them and their families and friends as they grieve for them.

We now know that inflation is rising, growth has stalled and an extra 66,000 young people are out of work. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks his strategy is working?

Of course today’s unemployment figures are a matter of great regret, particularly in terms of higher youth unemployment, but I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that youth unemployment has been a problem in this country for well over a decade, in good years and in bad. The level of youth unemployment actually went up by 40% under the last Government—an extra 270,000 young people unemployed. What we have to do is sort out all the things that help young people get back into work. There is a welfare system that does not help you get work, an education system that does not prepare you for work and back-to-work programmes that, under the last Government, simply did not work.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me what is happening in our economy. We are no longer linked with Greece and Ireland and those countries in the danger zone. We have a situation where market interest rates have fallen. Our credit rating is secured. There are 218,000 more people in work than there were a year ago. Above all, what I would say to him is what the Governor of the Bank of England said this morning:

“There has to be a plan A… This country needs fiscal consolidation to deal with the biggest budget deficit in peacetime”.

The right hon. Gentleman says that we are doing so well compared with the rest of Europe, but we were the only major European economy in the last quarter of 2010 that had no economic growth and where growth went into reverse. Let me ask him specifically about youth unemployment. His own former chief economist said this morning that he thought that they were wrong to scrap the education maintenance allowance, wrong to scrap the future jobs fund and that they should have been building on it. I know that he likes to make an industry out of saying that the future jobs fund was the wrong thing to do, but what did he say before the election? He went to Liverpool and said that it was “a good scheme” and that he had been “inspired” by what he saw. Why does he not listen to young people and their families up and down the country and take real action to help them?

First, the economist from the Cabinet Office whom the right hon. Gentleman has just quoted also said this:

“I would not excuse the previous Government on this; they failed to wake up to the problem early enough.”

What matters is whether work programmes are effective. I now have the figures for the flexible new deal, which was the absolute centrepiece of the last Government’s approach to this matter. Let me give the House of Commons the figures, because I think that they show what has been going wrong. Of the 279,000 people who took part in the flexible new deal, how many got a long-term job? The answer is 3,800. It is not good enough. What we have been doing on welfare, education and back-to-work programmes is not good enough. All those things need to change.

What we actually discovered today is that the right hon. Gentleman’s great new Work programme, which he is trumpeting as the answer to all the nation’s problems, will have 250,000 fewer opportunities than were provided under the last Labour Government. We know that his view of social mobility is auctioning off a few City internships at the Conservative party ball, but frankly he is going to have to do better than that. The truth is that he is betraying a whole generation of young people. He is trebling tuition fees, abolishing the education maintenance allowance and abolishing the future jobs fund. Why does he not change course and help those young people who need help up and down this country?

First, let me answer the right hon. Gentleman on the Work programme, because this is important. For the last 20 years, in this House and elsewhere, people have been arguing that we should use the savings from future benefits and invest them now in helping people to get a job, and for 20 years the Treasury has said no, including the time when he and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) were sitting in the Treasury advising. Now, for the first time, under this coalition Government, we will be spending the future benefits in order to get people training and into work. That will include, in some cases, spending up to £14,000 to get people, particularly those on incapacity benefit, a job.

The figures the Leader of the Opposition gives are wrong. The Work programme is the biggest back-to-work scheme this country has seen since the 1930s. Instead of being cash-limited and patchy, like his schemes, it has no limit and can help as many people as possible from all of those different categories. He mentions internships. I did a little research into his: he did one for Tony Benn and one for the deputy leader of the Labour party. No wonder he is so left-wing, so politically correct and so completely ineffective.

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that deregulation is an extremely powerful weapon in economic reform? Is he aware that the programme is not proceeding fast enough, and will he take personal charge to see that the whole process is hurried up?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the problems is the huge amount of regulations—particularly coming out of Europe—that we need to put a stop to before they are introduced. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is doing an excellent job with his one in, one out scheme, so that another regulation cannot be introduced until one has been scrapped, but I think we probably have to go further and faster and be more ambitious in scrapping the regulation that is holding back job creation in our country.

Q2. Can I invite the Prime Minister to look ahead to the summer of 2012, when we will welcome millions of overseas visitors to this country? What does he think will be the abiding images that they take home with them? Will they be images of a brilliantly, successfully staged Olympic games? Will it be a fond memory of the warm welcome to London extended by the newly elected Mayor Livingstone? Or will it be a memory of the shocking images of homeless people all over the streets of London because of his Government’s economic failure and harsh housing benefit cuts? (40933)

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman could not keep a straight face when backing Labour’s candidate for Mayor, but I have to say that, if the Member who represents Greenwich cannot speak up for the Olympics, there really is a problem. This is going to be a great festival, and something that everyone who comes to our country is going to enjoy—and I look forward to welcoming them alongside Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q3. This weekend, hundreds of people will arrive in Ripon to celebrate winning the Government’s pilot for super-fast broadband in North Yorkshire, and to work out how we can connect the rest of the county in the years ahead. What message would my right hon. Friend give to delegates about the Government’s commitment to rural broadband? (40934)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have made a big commitment to that, with £530 million going into broadband investment, and that is absolutely vital, particularly for rural parts of the country, because we do not want them to be cut off from the information superhighway. I hope my hon. Friend will advise them about the opportunities of super-fast broadband—the business creation and job creation that it can mean right across this country.

The short answer to that is no. As I have said before in this House, it is a consultation that has been put forward, and we have had a range of interesting responses to it, but what is important is that we should be making sure that, whatever happens, we increase access to our forests, we increase biodiversity and we do not make the mistake that was made under the last Government, where they sold forests with no access rights at all.

Even the right hon. Gentleman must appreciate the irony: he, the guy who made the tree the symbol of the Conservative party, flogging them off up and down this country. He says that they are consulting on the policy; they are actually consulting on how to flog off the forests, not on whether to flog off the forests. Is the Prime Minister now saying that he might drop the policy completely?

I would have thought that the whole point of a consultation is that you put forward some proposals, you listen to the answer and then you make a decision. I know it is a totally alien concept, but what is so complicated about that?

Everybody knows that the right hon. Gentleman is going to have to drop this ludicrous policy. Let me give him the chance to do so. Nobody voted for the policy; 500,000 people have signed a petition against it. When he gets up at the Dispatch Box, why does he say not that he is postponing the sale, but that he is cancelling it?

I think, once again, that the right hon. Gentleman wrote the questions before he listened to the answers, and I think the bandwagon has just hit a bit of a tree.

May I take this opportunity to inform my right hon. Friend and, indeed, the House that the Public Administration Committee is today launching an inquiry into the big society? Does he share my hope that as we consider things such as volunteering, promoting charitable giving and decentralising public services, we will receive positive evidence from all parts of the House?

I do, and I am sure that, like everything that my hon. Friend does, it will be wholly supportive of the Government’s position. He makes a very good point, which is that the big society is about more than just volunteering or support for charitable groups; it is about opening up public services, devolving power to the lowest level, and giving people the opportunity to play a greater part in the lives of their communities. I would have thought that people from across the House would recognise that the big state approach has failed and that it is time for something different.

Q4. Is the Prime Minister’s upheaval of the health service resulting in longer or shorter waiting times? (40935)

We want to see waiting times come down; that is the whole point of the reforms. I think that anyone who has watched what has been happening over the past few days, where we have seen the standards of care that some elderly people—[Interruption.] Well, I think that the country is also interested in the standards of care that old people are getting in our hospitals. This idea that everything is right and rosy in the health service after what happened under the former Government opposite has just been shown to be completely untrue. Do we need to change the system and make it more related to what GPs and patients want? Yes, we absolutely do.

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the work of the Conservative administration in my constituency, which has saved £1 million a year by cutting senior management and bureaucracy and protecting front-line services—measures unfortunately opposed by the local Labour group on the council?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we have made available all this information. Now, local councils have to set out their expenditure on every item over £500, so people can see how much money is being spent on salaries, how much is being spent on bureaucracy, and how much could be put into voluntary sector and other organisations. We have given local people the tools to hold their local politicians to account, and that is a thoroughly progressive step.

Q5. Can I first put on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for meeting a small delegation from my constituency on the whole question of unemployment in the Ayrshire area? Does he really think, however, that being part of the big society that he talks about means throwing youngsters on to the streets of the UK as a result of the cuts in housing benefit? (40936)

What we are doing in terms of housing benefit is what was set out in the manifesto that the hon. Gentleman stood on, which is to say that we should not be subsidising housing benefit for people to live in houses that taxpayers themselves cannot afford. That is the principle behind the welfare Bill, which will be coming before this House shortly, and I look forward to it getting wide-ranging support.

The Prime Minister has drawn comparisons between care homes and hospitals when discussing changes to disability allowance, which are out for consultation until Friday. Yet for those who, for reasons of disability, spend not just their latter years but their whole lives in care homes, this comparison simply is not valid. Will he ask his Ministers to look again at this?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. This is exactly what we have been looking at. The whole intention of the change that was announced in the Budget and the spending review was to make sure that there was not an overlap in the way that we were judging people in care homes and people in hospitals. I think that when he sees what is proposed in the welfare Bill, he will see that it meets his concerns.

Q6. Sadly, since I first asked the Prime Minister about human trafficking in September, he has collapsed every Government initiative on the issue, including the excellent POPPY project, which rescues women from prostitution. Tomorrow, when I meet my colleagues from the Portuguese Parliament who are signing up to the human trafficking directive, where will I tell them that our Prime Minister has lost his moral compass on the issue of human trafficking? (40937)

What the hon. Gentleman says is completely wrong. The Government are supporting organisations that are helping on the issue of human trafficking. We are committed to ensuring that we have the best and toughest laws on human trafficking. I know that he works on this issue, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), as have Members in previous Parliaments. It is not necessary to opt in to the human trafficking directive to give ourselves the strongest laws here in the UK. It is that that we should be doing, and that that I am committed to making sure we are doing.

Q7. Labour-led Kirklees council is still obsessed with top-down housing targets, leaving my constituents worried that the beautiful green fields of the Colne and Holme valleys will be bulldozed—quite a few trees could be chopped down too. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Localism Bill will give my constituents a real say in what developments go on in their area? (40938)

I can give that assurance, but I also make the point that under the top-down targets of the Labour party, house building in this country fell to its lowest level since 1923. The top-down, big-state solutions did not work. Through the new homes bonus and by rewarding local authorities that build houses, we are benefiting local communities that opt to have more homes and businesses, because that is part of the economic development that we badly need.

Q8. The overwhelming majority of my constituents believe that the cuts to local government spending are not only too fast and too deep, but cruel and politically motivated. Will the Prime Minister tell the House why my constituents are wrong? (40939)

I tell the hon. Gentleman directly that I think the cuts being made by Manchester city council are politically driven and too deep. Manchester city council is having its grant cut by 15%—less than my council, for instance, which is being cut by 23%—and yet it is cutting services by 25%. I notice that it still has £100 million in bank balances, and that its chief executive is paid more than £200,000 a year. I think that people in Manchester will look at their council and say, “Cut out the waste, cut out the bureaucracy, start to cut the chief executive’s salary, and only then should you look at services.”

Q9. After votes for prisoners, we now have the potential for human rights legislation to give sex offenders the opportunity to come off the sex offenders register. Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents are sick to the back teeth of the human rights of criminals and prisoners being put before the rights of law-abiding citizens in this country? Is it not time that we scrapped the Human Rights Act and, if necessary, withdrew from the European convention on human rights? (40940)

My hon. Friend speaks for many people in saying how completely offensive it is, once again, to have a ruling by a court that flies in the face of common sense. Requiring serious sexual offenders to sign the register for life, as they now do, has broad support across this House and across the country. I am appalled by the Supreme Court ruling. We will take the minimum possible approach to this ruling and use the opportunity to close some loopholes in the sex offenders register. For instance, we will make it compulsory for sex offenders to report to the authorities before any travel and will not allow them to change their name by deed poll to avoid having their name on the register. I can also tell my hon. Friend that a commission will be established imminently to look at a British Bill of Rights, because it is about time we ensured that decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts.

Q10. Given the difference in tone between “Drink Responsibly” and “Smoking Kills”, what action will the Prime Minister take in response to the heartfelt pleas of my constituent Rachel Jones, who wants to see much harder-hitting labels on alcoholic drinks following the tragic death of her boyfriend, Stuart Cable, the former Stereophonics drummer? (40941)

I think we should be looking at what action we can take through the tax system to deal with problem drinks, which we are looking at, and at tougher minimum pricing for alcohol. That is where we should be putting our attention, rather than necessarily looking at labelling. Many of the problems that we have, such as people—particularly young people—pre-loading before they go for a night out, are related to deeply discounted drinks in supermarkets and elsewhere. That is what we should deal with first.

Q11. Thousands of younger women drivers in the UK face the prospect of massive hikes in their motor insurance premiums as the result of a perverse reinterpretation of the EU gender equality directive, carried forward by those on the Opposition Benches. What will my right hon. Friend say to encourage better risk assessment to avoid such unintended consequences? (40942)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that because of how this issue has been handled, many people who face lower insurance premiums because of their risk profiles will have to pay more. I am afraid that it falls to me to speak an eternal truth to the House of Commons: on the whole, women have better safety driving records than men, but as a result of that judgment, they will not benefit from lower insurance payments. What that says to me is that we have to work much better at risk-assessing and then stopping so much of the damaging regulation coming out of Brussels.

The importance of internships in helping young people to get on in life has been much in the news lately. Will the Prime Minister therefore take this opportunity to express his support for the Speaker’s new parliamentary placements scheme? It is a cross-party initiative backed by the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that will give people from working-class backgrounds the chance to come to Parliament, get vital experience of political life and be paid a living wage; and—who knows?—they may well be the politicians of the future.

I fully support what the right hon. Lady says. This is a very important scheme. As shadow Cabinet members in opposition we worked with the Social Mobility Foundation to give internships, and we will be doing it again as Cabinet members. It is a very important initiative and I very much welcome what the Speaker is doing.

Q12. What investigation has the Prime Minister made into the allegation that the IMF was bullied into toning down its assessment of the dangers facing the UK economy? (40943)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which is that the IMF was reporting on the state of the British economy, and was arguing that we did have a structural deficit and that it was a problem. However, Labour attempted to gag the IMF when it was in power, because the previous Government did not want to own up to the mess that they had got this country into. Even now, the Opposition are still denying the fact that they left us with a dangerous fiscal deficit that is the cause of many of the problems that we face today.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of people’s concerns about the coastguard. This week a cross-party deputation from Northern Ireland consisting of four MPs from this House met coastguard officials. Is the Prime Minister aware that the figures from Bangor coastguard station show 654 responses over this past year? Does he think that one station could satisfactorily handle almost 10 times the current number of calls, should Bangor coastguard station be closed or the service be reduced from 19 coastguard stations UK-wide to an inadequate two stations? (40944)

I am very aware of this issue, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be speaking to the Secretary of State for Transport about it. The point is this: the coastguard agency has to prove in the consultation that it wants to co-ordinate the number of offices that receive calls, in order to put more money and resources into the front-line service—the number of boats, rescue facilities and helpers. That is the aim of the policy, but I fully accept that that has to be proved to people in order to go ahead with the proposals being made.

Q14. At my surgery on Saturday, a constituent explained to me that, with an ill husband and a young family, she had been told that she would be better off giving up her part-time job and relying on benefits. Will the Prime Minister assure this House that we will give people the incentive and the support to go into work and end the culture of welfare dependency left by the Opposition? (40945)

My hon. Friend speaks about this issue in an absolutely correct way. The fact is that for too long we have had a welfare system that pays people—it gives them an incentive—not to go out and work. The universal credit, which will be introduced through the welfare Bill, will mean that in every case, no matter how few hours someone works, they will always be better off in work and working more. That is absolutely right and long overdue, and I hope that it will have support from right across the House of Commons.

In a week in which we have had revelations about the appalling level of health care for our pensioners, what is the Prime Minister saying to the elderly population of this country by proposing to change the inflation link for the uprating of benefits and pensions from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, which will cost present and future pensioners millions of pounds in lost income? How is that fair? How does it protect the vulnerable?

The first point that I would make is that the state pension, under the triple lock, will be linked with whichever is highest, but we are also taking the step, which the last Government did not for 10 years, of re-linking the state pension with earnings. That is an absolutely vital step in giving people the dignity and security that they deserve in old age.

Q15. The Government are planning to ask the House to extend the control orders regime until it is replaced by terrorism prevention and investigation measures. I am sure that the Prime Minister would not want the House to act without having all the necessary information, so will he assure all hon. Members that we will have sight of the TPIMs legislation before being asked to vote on the extension? (40946)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, this is a very big change that we are making from control orders to the new system, and I am sure that the House will be consulted properly, and that proper prior sight of what is being proposed will be made. But he can get involved right now if he wants to, as the policy is being developed.

Mr Speaker, in 2008, your review into communication needs described speech therapy services as a “postcode lottery”, and, sadly, in 2010, a national survey of primary special educational needs co-ordinators showed that 57% had never heard of the Bercow review, and that services remain as inequitable now as they were then. In the national year of communication, and with “The King’s Speech” having done so much to raise awareness of this issue, will the Prime Minister clarify whether the Government are planning to implement the recommendations of your review, and how they are planning to do that when local authorities are facing such huge cuts?

The hon. Lady will shortly see the Green Paper on special educational needs, in which we are giving priority to this area because, as I know from my own experience, getting hold of a speech and language therapist is often extremely difficult. Of course, as in every other area, there will be constraints in terms of resources, but I think we can do better by having a less confrontational system and making sure that more resources actually get to the parents who need them and who want to do the right thing for their children.