House of Commons
Wednesday 2 March 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
National Citizen Service
The pilots will be based in 190 different locations this summer and have a good geographical spread in regions across England. I am delighted to say that more than 11,000 16-year-olds will have the opportunity to take part.
This year’s pilots involve areas represented by 400 MPs, so there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. I am delighted to say that Catch 22 and the Prince’s Trust are leading the pilots in East Sussex this year, and I very much hope that my hon. Friend will get involved because this provides a fantastic opportunity for young people in her area to participate in a very positive experience.
Anything that taps the idealism of young people in the wider society is clearly to be welcomed; it is a good thing. These pilots, however, seem to be an inadequate response to the needs of 965,000 young people who are now out of work. The scheme itself was criticised, as the Minister will know, by the university of Strathclyde, so will he at least indicate the date by which the scheme will be made universal for all young people, as the Prime Minister promised before the election?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman appears to have such a downer on the scheme, which provides a hugely positive opportunity for young people in this country. We are testing it thoroughly on behalf of the taxpayer—there are 11,000 places this year and 30,000 next year—with a view to rolling it out, as he suggested, to make it more widely available and so compelling for all 16-year-olds that they will want to get involved in the future.
Big Society Bank
2. What steps he plans to take to ensure that the big society bank has a social mission as part of its statutory remit. (42473)
In our social investment strategy, announced on 14 February, we set out that the big society bank will be an independent institution with a locked-in social mission and initial capital provided by the banks. Sir Ronald Cohen and Nick O’Donohoe are working with us and the banks to put forward a proposal on how best and most speedily to achieve that.
As how the big society bank will be set up and the terms on which it will receive capital from UK banks are still unclear, will the Minister explain how he will guarantee the bank’s social mission and ensure that it does not become like other mainstream lenders?
As I said, the social remit will be absolutely built into its mission; it is a crucial part of it, so it will be locked in. I have to say that criticism comes poorly from Labour Members who have talked about creating a social investment bank for many years. Frankly, on taking office last May, I expected to find well-prepared plans, but when I opened the file, I found it pretty much empty.
That will be one of the bank’s priorities. The legislation allowing the money from dormant bank and building society accounts to be put into a social investment bank provides a priority for youth projects. As I say, this will be a serious priority. The bank will be able to provide wholesale funds into the already growing social investment market, for which there is a huge demand. We want to see much more money—including, over time, mainstream finance from the mainstream banks—being made available for this market.
We welcome the progress the Government have made in setting up the big society bank, and we note that it will be launched with £300 million-worth of capital at the end of this year. However, community projects also rely on revenue funding to support capital investment and according to estimates from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the total loss of revenue faced by civil society organisations will be at least £1.14 billion in the next financial year, rising to £3.1 billion a year by 2014-15. Does the Minister accept these figures and, if not, will he undertake to provide the Government’s own estimates of the revenue losses faced by community organisations over that period?
The social investment bank planned by the last Government would have received a meagre £75 million of investment at best, and probably a great deal less than that.
I do not know whether the right hon. Lady noted what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told the conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations yesterday. He said that the Government had “reasonable expectations” that local authorities would not impose greater cuts in their funding for community, social and voluntary organisations than they imposed on their in-house services, and that if authorities did not follow those “reasonable expectations”, he would contemplate making them statutory.
The fact is that we face the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. As a result of the legacy of the Government of whom the right hon. Lady was a prominent member, we are spending £4 for every £3 in revenue, and we cannot carry on like that. The necessity—and it is a necessity—to eradicate the structural deficit is something for which the right hon. Lady should bear her full share of responsibility.
Teleconferencing and video conferencing are a key part of our strategy to minimise travel in the civil service. Officials have been encouraged, indeed instructed, to use alternatives. Telephone calls can be quite helpful in that regard, when possible. So far, Departments have saved £50 million in the current financial year by avoiding travel, but by the better buying of travel services we have saved an additional £50 million. We are also reducing the cost of teleconferencing itself. We have opened up fresh discussions with major suppliers, and as a result of the Crown renegotiations that I have been overseeing, one of our suppliers has already offered a significant reduction in its audio conferencing tariffs.
Teleconferencing provides a key opportunity for digital policy. The head of that policy in the Minister’s Department was appointed without a fair and open competition, as a former party staffer. That was one of 30 appointments revealed by freedom of information releases this week. Can the Minister tell me who those 30 people are and what they do?
Of course I understand why the hon. Gentleman is so outraged by the idea of people with party affiliations fulfilling a public service vocation, because of course none of that ever happened under his party’s Government—a Government who, with the hon. Gentleman as one of the principal operators, distinguished themselves by their approach to cronyism.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that anyone who has been appointed to a civil service role has passed all the appropriate tests, which, as he will know from his experience as a Minister in my Department, are extremely rigorous.
Big Society Bank
Sir Ronald Cohen and Nick O’Donohoe are working with us and with the banks to develop a proposal for the big society bank. As I have said, it will initially be capitalised by an investment from the mainstream banks. We are currently seeking to secure state aid approvals from the European Commission so that money from dormant bank and building society accounts can be directed towards the big society bank. Nothing along those lines had been done when the Government took office. In the meantime, we are working with the Big Lottery Fund to ensure that interim arrangements are in place by April, so that we can make early investments as soon as the first round of dormant bank account money becomes available in the summer.
Youth clubs such as the Metro, Boston Lodge and Colville House play an important role in my constituency. What guidance and financial assistance will be given to them, and to those operating new voluntary sector schemes whose aim is to take over the running of other local services such as crossing patrols and libraries, and when will that guidance and assistance be available?
As my hon. Friend will know, a key part of our approach to public service reform will be encouraging voluntary and social enterprises to bid for the delivery of public services. They are being given a massive opportunity to develop different revenue streams and deliver public services in a responsive and agile way. The big society bank will deliver extra wholesale funding to the social investment market for start-up and development capital for such organisations. In the meantime, for some organisations the transition fund will provide bridging finance until those revenue streams become available.
My question was about representations received, because there is a lot of interest in the big society bank in Thirsk, Malton and Filey, but there is also concern that if match funding is required, it will trigger the 2.5% referendum call on local government spending under the Localism Bill. Will this issue be addressed?
I will look into that. The big society bank will provide private investment to bulk up the important social investment market. We have had numerous representations on this matter, most of them saying, “Please get on with it because we were very disappointed about waiting for so long for the last Government to do anything at all.”
The big society bank will not make grants. It is a bank, so it will make loans and provide investment capital for this important and growing sector. One of the problems in the social investment market has been that Futurebuilders was able to give both grants and loans, which was very distorting for the large and growing number of intermediaries in that market. The bank should be an investment organisation, not a giver of grants.
What steps have been taken to ensure that the big society bank will be relevant and accessible in all regions? Also, is it being impressed upon the banks that the coming arrival of the big society bank will not obviate their duty to show consideration and support for the third sector in the current challenging funding environment?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that relevant question. The introduction of the big society bank certainly does not obviate the broader need to support voluntary and social enterprises, in the interests of local residents. The bank’s remit will be UK-wide. The money put in by the banks will be for UK purposes, but the money coming into the big society bank in due course from dormant bank accounts will be for England only, unless the devolved Administrations decide to put their share of that money into the big society bank, which I hope they will be encouraged to do.
Voluntary Sector (Jobs)
Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from the cuts that are forced upon us, so of course there is concern about short-term job losses, but we firmly believe that there will be opportunities for the sector in the future, not least in delivering public services, and we are working very hard to make those opportunities real.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action estimates that 26,000 charity workers will lose their jobs in the face of the Government’s accelerated cuts to services. Does he agree with that estimate, and if not, will publish his own estimate of the job losses in the sector?
I do not recognise the basis of that estimate, but of course there is a challenge in the short term, and this Government are working very hard to try to help the sector manage through this period of transition. There is a very significant long-term opportunity for the sector to deliver more public services, to help people find more of a voice at the local level, and to benefit from the additional time and money we hope to encourage people to give as well as the social investment we are trying to encourage through the big society bank.
I welcome the progress my hon. Friend is making in promoting and advancing the voluntary sector. [Interruption.] Will he compare that with the lacklustre performance of the last Labour Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and it was interesting to hear the chortles from those on the Opposition Benches. Of course there is absolutely no recognition among Labour Members of the necessity for these cuts after their Government’s absolutely shambolic stewardship of the economy over the past 13 years.
Many in the voluntary and community sector are describing the transition fund, which was heavily over-subscribed and I believe is now closed, as a drop in the ocean compared with the tsunami of cuts facing the sector. Does the Minister not agree that he needs to do more to protect the voluntary sector from job cuts, especially at a time when he is asking it to do more?
I do not think any of my constituents would consider £100 million of taxpayers’ money to be a drop in the ocean. As the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “There is no money,” yet we have found £100 million to try to help the most vulnerable organisations through a very difficult transition period. We wanted to get that assistance up and running as quickly as possible so the money could get out in as unbureaucratic way as possible, and I am very proud of what we have managed to achieve.
Government Procurement (SMEs)
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is right to ask this question. We attach a huge amount—
I do indeed, Mr Speaker; I am very grateful to you.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask this question because we attach a huge amount of importance to trying to open up contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises. We have launched the Contracts Finder website, which is of enormous advantage to them, and we are getting rid of vastly burdensome pre-qualification materials. Opposition Members may be interested to know that a document such as the one I am holding is what small and medium-sized enterprises had to fill out over and over again in pre-qualification. We are now reducing that and eliminating it in many cases.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. A business in my constituency offers a proven low-cost solution to helping individuals back to work, but it is finding it impossible to get access to Government. Can my right hon. Friend advise Gary Roberts of Cavendish Films how he can open a dialogue and ensure that these potential huge savings are given a fair hearing?
I would be delighted to welcome my hon. Friend and his constituents from Cavendish Films to discuss that very issue. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has constructed the Work programme in a way that enables the main contractors to deal with the vast range of subcontractors on a payment-by-results basis, and I am sure there is plenty of opportunity for my hon. Friend’s constituents to be introduced to the participants in that programme.
My constituency of Elmet and Rothwell has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, which is due mainly to a very successful SME base. Is the drive to procure from SMEs intended as a way of subsidising them, or is it the most efficient way for the Government to procure?
My hon. Friend raises another extremely important question. It is emphatically not the Government’s intention to subsidise small and medium-sized enterprises through the contracting process, but rather to enable Government to be more efficient by promoting the kind of innovation that SMEs so frequently bring to the work they do. Our feeling is that if we get locked into contracts merely with very large suppliers, we often lose that innovation, and we are determined to avoid that result.
Again, that is an enormously important question. One of the purposes behind our move to spread contracting to SMEs is precisely to ensure that we do not get such an unbalanced economy. We want to reach out to firms that have the best propositions—often, small and medium-sized firms—in parts of the country where there are not major contractors who do much business with Government. We believe that that is a good way of helping to build the economies, and enterprise and innovation, in those areas of our country.
In a word, yes. We are determined to achieve a change in culture, and the dictum that nobody ever got sacked for hiring IBM is one that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office is putting to the test. We are determined to go for innovation and excellence, and we will do that on a wide scale. Looking at the figures for contracting, I see that we have already achieved an enormously wide spread in the past few months.
What proportion of Government contracts were won by small and medium-sized enterprises in Yorkshire, and what are the Government doing to ensure that small companies in the north of England get a proportionate share of Government contracts?
I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures for Yorkshire. I can tell him that we have set a presumption that all Government Departments will be moving towards 25% of contracts being in the hands of small and medium-sized enterprises, giving a vast range of opportunity not just in one part of the country but all parts of the country. Indeed, we intend to ensure that people throughout the country have ample opportunity to get into this market, which is why we are making it so much easier to participate.
Big Society Ministerial Group
The informal ministerial group on the big society and decentralisation supports progress across government on cross-cutting issues, such as the role of the voluntary community and social enterprise sector in public service delivery, the progress made in vanguard areas and the compact between the voluntary sector and the state.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also thank the Minister for his answer. Given that opinion polls show that the majority of the British people have not even heard of the big society and that the majority of those who have think it is just a cover-up for the cuts, does the Minister believe that the work of the ministerial group has been a resounding success? Does he not believe that Ministers’ time would be better spent doing credible work in their own Departments?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not think that building a bigger, stronger and more cohesive society is worth while, particularly given that the role of the state is having to retrench severely as a result of the financial incontinence of the previous Government of the party that he supports. I am sorry to have to remind him that when the coalition Government took office his Government were spending £4 for every £3 in revenue and had the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. So less money is available and building a bigger, stronger society, which I would have thought he would support, is a very worthwhile exercise for not only the whole Government, but the whole of Parliament.
Will the ministerial group examine the role of the big society bank to see whether it can be run on national credit union lines, so that it can link up with local credit unions and ensure that the money cascades down to community groups at the grass-roots level?
The social investment market has been growing in recent years but it needs additional wholesale funds, both from the big society bank and from freeing up the guidelines on investment by trustees of big philanthropic foundations. That will grow the social investment market significantly, and the credit union movement, which is extraordinarily important and has a very important social mission, can be an important partner in that progress.
Will the Minister or the “Secretary of State for the big society” have a quiet word with Wirral borough council, which has closed important care and respite homes too quickly in order to let the non-government sector fill the gap? That is giving the big society a bad name.
I refer the hon. Lady to the remarks made by the Communities Secretary yesterday. We do believe in localism; we believe in local authorities being accountable, not to Whitehall, but to their own local residents. Each local authority has to justify its decisions but, as my right hon. Friend said yesterday, we have expectations that local authorities will not impose greater cuts on their funding for voluntary organisations than they do on their own costs. We would expect them to have regard to that.
Public Sector Procurement (Fraud)
The National Fraud Authority estimates that £21 billion is lost to fraud in the public sector each year, on top of which there is a so far unquantified loss from error and from uncollected debt. It is estimated that £2.4 billion of that £21 billion is lost to procurement fraud, and that is unacceptable. The Prime Minister has asked me to chair a counter-fraud taskforce comprising members from government and private sector experts to tackle the issue. We are overseeing a series of pilots, including one on procurement, to drive forward ways to tackle public sector fraud, and we will report our findings in due course.
It is actually difficult to know exactly how much is being lost. The numbers are increasing each year, but that is largely because there is a better handle on the data. The quality of much Government data is lamentably poor and it is particularly difficult to obtain accurate figures on some procurement fraud, such as collusion or bid rigging. However, in one of the taskforce pilots, the Department for Transport is using data analytics to detect overpayments from the Department’s accounts payable systems. A similar exercise undertaken by the Home Office detected and recovered no less than £4 million in overpayments as a result of fraud or error.
There were just over 1,700 applications to the transition fund, which are currently being assessed by our delivery partner the BIG Fund. The first transition fund awards, totalling £1.7 million, were made on 15 February to 18 organisations and there will be hundreds more awards over the coming months.
Given the appetite for the transition fund, will the Prime Minister consider a new fund to enable even more civic societies that undertake such valuable work, such as Home-Start in Teignbridge, to continue to operate? Will he consider including smaller organisations in such a new fund?
I understand the question, but unfortunately we have no money to consider such an initiative. We had to take some very tough decisions on eligibility criteria for the first round and we are actively looking at ways to top that up, but we have no current plans for a second round.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Dean Hutchinson from 9 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps and Private Robert Wood from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps. They were killed in a fire at Camp Bastion on Monday 14 February. Their service for the safety of the British people will not be forgotten and we send our deepest condolences to their families, friends and colleagues.
I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the people of New Zealand and to all those who lost loved ones, including, sadly, at least four British citizens, in the earthquake last week. We have sent two teams of experts to provide whatever assistance they can.
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.
I am sure that the whole House will, indeed, wish to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s remarks in relation both to our brave servicemen and to the people of New Zealand.
Despite the urgent need to reduce the deficit, the Government took the right decision not just to protect but to increase the overseas aid budget. What capacity does that give us to respond to the urgent humanitarian situation on the Libyan border?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that in spite of the difficult decisions we have to take, it is right to keep increasing the aid budget. Sadly, what is happening on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with Libya shows how important that decision is. As the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said last night, there are serious implications of a growing humanitarian crisis. The information is that some 162,000 people have crossed the land border so far. We have sent technical Department for International Development teams to both the borders and yesterday we flew in tents for 1,500 people and blankets for 36,000 people. I can tell the House that today we are launching a UK operation to airlift several thousand people back to Egypt from the Libyan-Tunisian border, with the first flight scheduled to leave the UK later today. It is vital to do this; those people should not be kept in transit camps if it is possible to take them back to their home. I am glad that Britain can play such an important part in doing that.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Dean Hutchinson from 9 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps and Private Robert Wood from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps? They both showed enormous heroism and courage in their service in Afghanistan and our thoughts are with their family and friends.
I also join the Prime Minister in passing on condolences and deepest sympathy to the victims of the New Zealand earthquake.
May I ask the Prime Minister about the situation in Libya, starting with the humanitarian crisis? I welcome the bilateral action being taken by the Government, including the steps that he has announced today and the visit of the International Development Secretary. May I ask what support the Prime Minister is also offering to multilateral organisations such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in dealing with what is, as the Prime Minister says, a growing refugee emergency on the Libyan border?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. In addition to the steps I announced about the airlift from the Tunisian border back to Egypt, there is also HMS York, which has now docked in Benghazi carrying a lot of medical and other supplies and will be able to help with the humanitarian mission. He asked specifically about helping the multilateral organisations. Obviously, we are in very close touch with them, particularly with OCHA—the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and Valerie Amos. We are delighted that it is John Ging, whom many in the House will know from the UN and his excellent work in Palestine for UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—who will be co-ordinating that effort. We will remain in close contact with them as one of their lead partners and will do everything we can to help to co-ordinate this effort. We have the forward-basing of a lot of tents and other equipment in Dubai, which means that it is relatively close to the area. We will go on doing everything we can to ease the problems at the border and to make sure that this emergency does not turn into a crisis.
I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. I am sure he will keep the House updated. We both agreed on Monday that the international community must take all practical steps for a democratic outcome in Libya. On Monday, the Prime Minister floated the idea of a no-fly zone. On Tuesday, however, a number of foreign Governments distanced themselves from the idea. Can he clarify where that proposal now stands?
Our first priority as a country should, of course, be to evacuate our fellow countrymen from Libya. That process has gone well and there are very few who want to leave who are still in Libya. The second thing that we should do is put every available pressure on the Libyan regime. We have done that through travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargos, and we should keep on looking for other ways in which we can pressurise the regime.
We have just spoken about the humanitarian crisis, and the next steps that we must take to ease it. What I was saying on Monday and say again today is that I think it is the job of leaders in the western world in particular to prepare for all eventualities and all the things that might happen, particularly if Colonel Gaddafi unleashes more things on his own people. On those grounds, we should be and we are looking at plans for a no-fly zone. I was particularly heartened by what Secretary of State Clinton said—that a
“ no-fly zone is an option we are actively considering.”
These matters are being discussed in the North Atlantic Council this morning, and it is right that they are.
I emphasise to the Prime Minister, as I am sure he will agree, that there was a clear sense of unity in the international community over sanctions. Clearly, that is what we must strive for in any future decisions that we make. He will understand the concern in the country and the armed forces that after he spoke about the no-fly zone, the Government issued redundancy notices to thousands of Royal Air Force personnel. Can he reassure the House and the country that any increase in our military commitments that he is talking about, including in north Africa, can be met at a time when we are reducing capability?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. Let me be clear. Of course, it is never easy to reduce the numbers in our armed forces, but this Government decided, quite rightly, to hold a strategic defence review because we had not had one for 12 years and we inherited a defence budget that was in a state of complete chaos. The background to the defence review is the enormous black hole in our nation’s finances, but the aim of the defence review is to make sure that we have flexible, well-equipped armed forces that are able to serve our national interests around the world. That is exactly what I believe they will be able to do.
Q2. After Romford hospital, next on the waiting list for private finance initiative surgery should be Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra hospital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that massive annual repayments and restrictive procurement practices are preventing best care from being delivered, and that the contract should go under the knife and the savings given to Portsmouth’s health economy, not Treasury coffers? (42574)
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that next to the Ministry of Defence budget, the other shambles that we inherited was the PFI programme. The public sector is going to be spending about £8 billion on PFI contracts just this year, so we must examine all those contracts for savings. Let me give my hon. Friend a couple of examples of the nonsense that we inherited under those contracts—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may not want to hear it: £333 to change a hospital light switch; £963 for a new TV aerial in a hospital. Some of the terms of the contracts are disgraceful and it is right that we look at them.
Q3. On the “Politics Show” of 13 February, Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor with responsibility for policing, Kit Malthouse, boasted that he would ensure that every safer neighbourhood team in every ward in London would keep its two police constables and three police community support officers, and that he had the power to guarantee that. However, police officers in Mitcham have already told my constituents that those teams have been merged and that every safer neighbourhood team has been reduced to one police officer. Who does the Prime Minister believe—the London Mayor or serving police officers? (42575)
It is worth listening to both serving and retired police officers. The hon. Lady might want to listen to Jan Berry, who for years led the Police Federation, who said:
“With unnecessary bureaucracy being added at every tier of policing from the local to the national . . . I estimate one third of effort”—
“is either over-engineered, duplicated or adds no additional value. This is unaffordable in the current climate and”
we need to give consideration to how we can realise savings in time and energy. As in so many areas, we inherited a police service completely inefficient and not properly managed by Labour.
Q4. There is an independent committee that ensures that once they have left office, former Ministers act appropriately in their subsequent employment. It is reported that Lord Mandelson, Baroness Symons and Adam Ingram have worked for the Gaddafi regime. Will the Prime Minister ensure that these reports are thoroughly investigated? (42576)
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are adamant that there is no need for cuts in local authority front-line services. Can he therefore explain why Conservative-run Bromley council is shutting 13 of its 16 children’s centres?
Yes, we have made reductions in local government grant, because frankly we inherited a complete mess in the nation’s finances. What we have done is ask every single local authority to make public every single bit of spending they do so that members of the public can make sure that they are cutting bureaucracy, cutting councillor allowances and cutting pay, rather than cutting services. When the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, perhaps he can tell us why only one authority in the entire country, Labour-run Nottingham, refuses to do so.
You know he is losing the argument when he starts asking me the questions, Mr Speaker. Why are the cuts being made in Sure Start children’s centres? It is because the right hon. Gentleman is cutting the early years budget. The Department for Education’s own figures show an 11% cut between this year and next; and he is not just cutting the budget—he has removed the ring fence that protected it and kept those Sure Start centres open. We are getting used to the Prime Minister’s Question Time U-turn. We have seen it on school sport, housing benefit and, most recently, on forests. He has the capacity to ditch a policy and dump a colleague in it, so when he returns to the Dispatch Box, why does he not dump this policy too and reinstate the Sure Start ring fence?
In a minute, he is going to give me a lesson on family loyalty. Let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman: he comes here every week and says that he opposes the defence cuts, opposes changes in the Home Office and opposes any changes to local government, yet in four weeks’ time his own cuts programme, the Darling programme, comes into place, with £14 billion of cuts, which is only £2 billion less than we propose. It is about time he got off his opportunistic bandwagon and started producing some policies of his own.
This is a guy who has made his career out of opportunism knocks. Remember what he said at the election: he was strongly committed to Sure Start; he would improve Sure Start; and if anyone suggested otherwise, it was an absolute disgrace. As children’s centres face closure, people know that he has got it in his power to stop it happening by reinforcing that Sure Start ring fence. He is the Prime Minister; it might not have looked like it last week, but why does he not get a grip?
What we are doing for children in this country is funding education for two-year-olds for the first time, putting money into the pupil premium—something the right hon. Gentleman did not do for 13 years—and making sure that money is focused on the most disadvantaged. That is what is actually happening. When the party opposite looks at his performance—[Interruption.]
Recently, eight Members from both Houses of Parliament met, in Islamabad, Mr Shahbaz Bhatti. This morning, we learned that Mr Bhatti, on his way to work, was murdered. Mr Bhatti was a man committed to peace and multi-faith reconciliation. Will my right hon. Friend send through the high commission our condolences to the Pakistani Government and to his family, and will he restate our belief that there is no place for that kind of action anywhere in a democratic world?
I think my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House and, I am sure, the whole country. It was absolutely shocking to hear the news this morning about that Minister, who was a Christian minister in Pakistan, being killed in that way—absolutely brutal and unacceptable. It shows what a huge problem we have in our world with intolerance, and what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. I will send not only our condolences, but our clearest possible message to the Government and people of Pakistan that that is simply unacceptable.
Q5. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave the House some figures to criticise the flexible new deal. I thought they sounded a bit odd, so I asked the Library to check, and its response states: “This is a misleading interpretation of the statistics.”The Library points out that the Department for Work and Pensions website warns directly against interpreting the figures in the way the Prime Minister interpreted them. In future, can he get someone to check his figures before he gives them to the House? (42577)
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the figures were properly checked, and I shall write him a letter outlining not only the figures for the flexible new deal, which so many people know was just a revolving door for young people who needed employment, but the figures for the future jobs fund, which cost five times as much as many other programmes.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The British police are incredibly brave and professional, and all of us see how hard they work in our communities, but they are let down by a system that has far too many officers in back-office roles, in HR and in IT, and not on the streets. That is what needs to change, along with some of the working practices that, frankly, are not actually modern and up to date. We need to make sure that that happens so that we keep the maximum number of police on the front line in our communities.
Q7. The armed forces have our total support and admiration, and traditionally they would have looked to a Conservative Government, whether in good economic times or bad, to defend them as they defend us. Given the deplorable treatment that they are currently receiving, whether by e-mail or hard copy, what plans does the Prime Minister have to restore faith in government? (42579)
Everyone in the House appreciates that our armed forces are among the most brave and professional anywhere in the world, and we can be incredibly proud of what they do. In terms of making sure that we look after them, the Government have introduced a doubling of the operational allowance for all those serving in Afghanistan; we are the first Government in history to introduce a pupil premium so that the children of service personnel get extra money when they go to school; we are making sure that rest and recuperation leave is properly formed; and we are writing out the military covenant and properly referencing it in law. The most important thing of all is to have a defence review and to make sure that our forces are fit for the future.
To all those who express concern, I make this point: at the end of that defence review, we will have the fourth largest military budget in the world; some of the most capable weapons that any air force in the world could have; the new Type 45 destroyers; our nuclear deterrent; and a superbly professional Army. That is what we want in this country, and that is what this Government will support.
Q8. Will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging schools in my constituency and right across the country to get involved in the Tenner Tycoon school business competition, which encourages enterprise and is running this month? (42580)
Yes, it sounds like an excellent scheme. There is a lot that we should do to encourage business and enterprise to go into our schools to encourage young people to think about a career in starting up a business, in small business and in enterprise. That is a very important part of a rounded education.
Q9. On Sunday, a woman asked me what politicians were going to do for people like her, as she had been waiting for a disability living allowance appeal for 11 months. Given the roll-out of the employment support allowance and the proposals for more reviews and more assessments in DLA, what plans does the Prime Minister have for expanding the Tribunals Service, and has this been fully costed in his welfare reforms? (42581)
This House will obviously have a lot of opportunity to debate the Welfare Reform Bill, which is one of the most complex and detailed pieces of legislation on reforming our welfare system. On DLA specifically, what we are looking for, in terms of the gateway, is to make sure that people have a proper assessment for DLA, because there are too many cases where people need it and do not get it and, regrettably, some cases where people do not need it and do get it, and we need to put that right.
I very much hope that they do. We should support and say how much we admire those brave people who are standing up in their own country asking for greater freedoms and greater democracy—for things that we take for granted in our own country. What has been striking is that although many said that any sort of rebellion like this would be extremist, or Islamist, or tribal, it is none of those things; it is a revolt by the people, who want to have greater democracy in their country.
Q10. Last week, Save the Children published research showing that 1.6 million children are living in severe poverty in the United Kingdom, yet this week the Government have failed to include low-income families in the warm home discount scheme for rebates on their energy bills. Will the Prime Minister meet Save the Children on this critical issue and ask the Chancellor to publish an emergency plan to tackle severe child poverty in the Budget and the child poverty strategy later this month? (42582)
I do see Save the Children regularly. It is an excellent organisation in terms of the work that it does overseas and the pressure that it rightly brings to bear here in this country. What we have done in trying to help with child poverty is to make sure that we massively increase the child tax credit. That is what we have done in the Budget and in the spending round to make sure that while we are making difficult decisions, child poverty has not increased.
Q11. The Prime Minister will know that for years the welfare state has been too easily abused. Can he therefore assure this House that in future the welfare state will act as a safety net for the unfortunate and not as a way of life for the workshy? (42583)
What this Government are doing—and it is a historic reform—is making sure that the welfare state always means that it is worth while someone being in work and worth while someone working more. That is what universal credit is all about, and it will make a huge difference to welfare in this country.
Q12. Many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in my constituency will not be included in the pupil premium because their parents are still waiting for their immigration status to be settled and therefore have no access to funds and are not eligible for free school meals. Will the Prime Minister ask his Ministers to meet me and other Members in constituencies like mine to discuss a way to capture these children to ensure that our schools are not underfunded? (42584)
The hon. Lady makes an important point. When we established the pupil premium, we had a number of discussions to try to work out the best basis to put it on. In the short term, the free school meals indicator was the best basis. However, I am very happy to arrange a meeting between her and my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to see what we can do to make sure that we really are targeting those most in need. There may be opportunities, perhaps not this year but in the future, to make sure that the pupil premium is helping those who most need it.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport made a most welcome announcement on the electrification of the Great Western main line to Bristol, Cardiff and the south Wales valleys, including the fact that the jobs producing those trains will be in the north-east of England. Does not this show that the coalition Government not only have a strategy for growth but that that vision for growth is both high-tech and green?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In 13 years, the previous Government never electrified the west coast main line out to Cardiff. We have managed to announce it within nine months. He is absolutely right. The good news is not just the electrification of the line to Cardiff, but the new factory in Newton Aycliffe that will build the trains and that we are pressing ahead with High Speed 2.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister think he was right to tell journalists on a plane that the United Kingdom is paying bribes to Libya, and does he agree with the Foreign Office’s assessment that he was “loose-tongued and reckless”? (42585)
I am, of course, very grateful for that question. The point I would make is that in getting people out of Libya, we did have to pay some facilitation payments for the services in the airport. As the hon. Gentleman says, I am sure that those were entirely proper.
Q14. The Royal British Legion has welcomed the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a new military covenant being enshrined in the law of the land, but it has made it clear that it does not accept that the Government’s proposals for an annual armed forces covenant report honour that promise. Will he work constructively with the Royal British Legion to agree a definition of the military covenant that can be enshrined in legislation? (42586)
I am very happy to work with the Royal British Legion. It is one of the most important and hard-working organisations in our country. Not only does it do a great job in lobbying for the armed forces, it does a brilliant job in looking after former service personnel in all our constituencies. I am happy to have that conversation. However, I want to ensure not only that we reference the covenant properly in law, but that we regularly debate, improve and enhance it, partly through debates in this House.
I thank the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for their work in securing an extra £200 million for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to combat the dissident terrorist threat. That will undoubtedly save lives and prevent the creation of further victims. On victims, given our campaign for compensation for the victims of Libyan state-sponsored IRA terrorism, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that before the normalisation of relations with Libya under any new regime, the outstanding matter of compensation will be addressed by the Government, not least through the use of Gaddafi assets seized in Britain?
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the additional funding for the police in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely vital that we work hard with its Administration to ensure that the security situation there is as good as it can be. On what he said about compensation from the Libyans to victims of IRA terror, an FCO-led unit is still working on that issue and it is vital that it continues to go on doing that. It is an ingenious idea to use the frozen assets in that way. Having sought advice, those assets really belong to the Libyan people. The whole problem with Libya is that it is a rich country with poor people. We can see that in the extensive assets that have been frozen. Those assets belong to the Libyan people first and foremost.
Q15. Milton Keynes council has been praised for its commitment to publishing all expenditure of more than £500, ensuring that local residents can see exactly how their council tax money is being spent. What message will the Prime Minister give to other local authorities that seem determined to keep their residents firmly in the dark? (42587)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know that the Labour party is embarrassed about this, because we now have transparency from every single council in the country apart from one that is controlled by the Labour party—Nottingham—which will not tell us where it is spending its money. I want every single person in our country, every single Member of Parliament and all councillors to be able to ensure that the money is going on services and not on salaries, bureaucracy and allowances. That is the pressure at a time of austerity and of difficult national decisions. How typical it is of Labour just to try to cover it all up.
In response to a question from me in December, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government expressed himself as “delighted” with the level of cuts faced by Birmingham. Yesterday, Birmingham city council cut £212 million from its budget, hitting care for the elderly and the disabled, and youth services. Does the Prime Minister share his Communities Secretary’s delight or does he think that Birmingham is going too far, too fast?
Every council in the country is having to make difficult decisions about reducing their spending. When we look at what is actually happening to Government grants, we see that in most cases, they are going back to the levels that we had in 2007, 2006 or, in some cases, even 2009. Everyone has to take part in this, and I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that the reason this is being done is because his party made a complete mess of the economy.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know how difficult it is for motorists, and particularly for small businesses and families, when they are filling up at the pumps and paying more than £1.30 a litre. As we have said, we will look at the fact that extra revenue comes to the Treasury when there is a higher oil price, and will see whether we can share some of the benefit of that with the motorist. That is something that Labour never did in all its time in government, and it ought to be reminded of the fact that it announced four increases in fuel duty last year, three of which were due to come in after the election.
The £90 million of cuts to the budget of Leeds city council means that Bramley baths in my constituency will have its hours cut so that school children will not be able to swim there any more. How does that fit with the Government’s ambition for school sports and for the Olympic legacy for Leeds?
We do want to see a proper legacy come out of the Olympics. That is why we are funding the Olympics properly and why we have made it very clear that the extra money will be made available for school sport. But, if we look at education funding, we can see that funding per pupil is not being reduced. Because of difficult decisions being made elsewhere, which Labour has never supported, we are maintaining per-pupil funding for students throughout our country. That is the right decision, and it is one that the hon. Lady should get behind.
I would advise my hon. Friend to ignore the voices from the Opposition. They are just furious at the fact that he liberated a long-held Labour seat. He makes a very good point. One of the things that we are doing, currently and in the coming days, is making contact with the opposition in Benghazi to ensure that we have good contacts with them so that we can help to bring about a peaceful transition in Libya.
Armed Forces (Redundancies)
On 19 October last year, in the strategic defence and security review, the Government announced reductions in the size of the armed forces, reducing the Army by 7,000, the RAF by 5,000 and the Navy by 5,000. This was to reshape the armed forces for Future Force 2020 and also to respond to the budgetary pressures resulting from the need to reduce the inherited deficit and deal with the black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s finances.
Following the announcement, normal procedure for proceeding with the redundancies was followed. Let me briefly describe this. The armed forces modelled the manpower that they needed for Future Force 2020 and consulted their own people on the best methods and time scales for achieving that. The families federations have been kept fully informed. Yesterday’s announcements were simply part of that process. Following yesterday’s announcement of the RAF programme, the Army and Navy will follow on 4 April with their programmes. The Army and RAF will give individuals notice that they will be made redundant on 1 September, followed by the Navy on 30 September. The exact timing of further tranches has not yet been decided.
Afghanistan is the Government’s defence main effort. Decisions in the SDSR were therefore weighted towards the protection of capability for the mission in Afghanistan, which, as the Prime Minister has said, will see us transition to full Afghan lead in 2014.
Redundancy is never a painless process, whether in the armed forces or elsewhere, and it is sad to see committed and patriotic men and women lose their jobs. But in that process, it is essential that they are made fully aware of the options available and the time scales involved, which means that a timetable needs to be adhered to, for the sake of themselves and their families. It would simply be wrong to alter that timetable for the convenience of the Government. Personnel were expecting the announcement this week, and to delay it for political expediency would have been to betray their trust. Difficult though it may be, under this Government political convenience will not be the final arbiter of our decisions.
I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s condolences regarding Private Dean Hutchinson and Private Robert Wood.
This is the second time in recent weeks that the Secretary of State has had to come to Parliament in this way. Surely it is not too much to ask that when he is making announcements about 11,000 armed forces redundancies he should volunteer to come here, and not have to be summoned to appear.
Yesterday there was a written ministerial statement, which contained a fraction of the information that was briefed to the media. Some will think that that was because, on the day when the Government were discussing a no-fly zone over Libya, they did not want to defend in the Commons the 2,700 redundancies in the RAF—but I think it is more serious than that. In November the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box:
“no one currently serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will face compulsory redundancy.”—[Official Report, 8 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 13.]
I always try to give the Secretary of State the benefit of the doubt, as he knows, so I believed him. More importantly, the armed forces and their families believed him. In making that promise he gave his word, and in breaking his pledge he is playing with words.
Why did the Ministry of Defence brief the media yet keep Parliament in the dark? How many people who have served in Afghanistan will be made redundant, and will the Secretary of State repeat his guarantee that no one currently serving in Afghanistan will be sacked on their return? Unless he can answer those questions and give that guarantee, it is disgraceful that some of our forces taking on the Taliban today will be welcomed home as heroes by the public, and sacked by their Government.
First, as I have just explained to the House, this is not a new announcement but simply procedure following on from the announcements made in the SDSR. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that this is the second time that we have had an urgent question on this subject, and I noticed that when the Opposition last had the opportunity to ask a question, they were not asking for details about these particular schemes but wanted to talk about e-mails and other peripheral issues. For them suddenly to come forward with a new-found interest in this particular issue strikes me as the most sad and cynical opportunism.
I have repeatedly made it clear that we have compulsory redundancy schemes in the armed forces because we need to maintain the rank structure and skills base required. When compulsory redundancies are announced, they will not affect those in receipt of the operational allowance, those within six months of deploying or those on post-operational tour leave, as I made clear in the House.
Sadly, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to refer to the fallen on occasions. As we speak, a military funeral is taking place at St Peter’s church in Colchester, so the statement that we have been given is very important.
The Secretary of State has twice now given the House assurances that members of 16 Air Assault Brigade from my constituency serving in Afghanistan will not be made compulsorily redundant. Does he agree, however, that the manner in which the Ministry of Defence is handling matters causes concern not only to serving personnel in Afghanistan but to their families back home?
The processes being followed are those that the armed forces would normally follow when setting out redundancies. There is never a good time to announce redundancies. It is particularly politically difficult when our armed forces are in combat in Afghanistan. However, if we are to keep faith with our personnel, we must follow the timetables that we have set out for them. It would be easy to delay announcements at the inconvenience of our service personnel simply for the convenience for politicians. That is entirely the wrong way to proceed.
The Secretary of State knows that Moray is the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, that a great many people at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss have just learned that they are to be made redundant, and that 14 Squadron has just returned from Afghanistan, had a homecoming parade, and is now being disbanded early. Does he understand that that bad news is compounded by the delayed decision and announcement about the future of RAF Lossiemouth?
The review of reserves continues, looking at the financial and capability implications and the wider footprint. It is not directly affected by the results, but on implementation, we would of course have to take into account the shape of the armed forces resulting from the SDSR decisions.
The Secretary of State is trying to tell us that all the decisions spring from his strategic defence review—but is that true? He did not tell us about the cuts to the Tornado when he cut the Harrier. When the Prime Minister told us that he would protect the infantry, he did not tell us that he would cut the Royal Marines. The Secretary of State, many other Members and I know that decisions are still being made on further cuts in the Ministry of Defence. He criticised us for not having a strategic defence review, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we still have not had one. He must open up the decision and take some proper, publicly accountable strategic decisions about the shape of our armed forces.
If I may correct one minor inaccuracy, I said that we had decided to cut 17,000 jobs in the armed forces. In fact, the work that the armed forces carried out means that the figure is considerably smaller. Instead of 7,000, it is 5,000 for the Army; instead of 5,000, it is 3,300 for the Navy.
Of course, the budgetary pressures continue. As any Labour politician knows, the previous Government left Ministry of Defence finances in an absolute shambles. The problem will not be tackled overnight.
No one should doubt my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the welfare of our armed services, but there is a concern that the resources devoted to the Ministry of Defence are top-heavy relative to our troops on the ground. Will he remind the House of the measures that he is taking to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is streamlined?
It is worth remembering when we discuss those matters that although we have had reductions of some 11,000 in the armed forces, we are looking at reductions of 25,000 in the civil service to bring the MOD into a much better and more efficient shape and to help control the budget. My hon. Friend is correct that we will also look at rank structure to ensure that we are not making reductions in the more junior ranks while maintaining those at a higher level in the armed forces.
I know how angry the nonsense in the Army a couple of weeks ago, when sergeant-majors and warrant officers were sacked by e-mail, made the Secretary of State. Newark, my constituency, will feel the effect of the RAF redundancies, in particular. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no further such nonsense when the next announcements are made?
What I set out today is the correct procedure that should be followed. What we discussed on a previous occasion is what happens when it is not followed. It would have been easy for the Government to say, “We will not go ahead with this programme this week; we will not have those face-to-face interviews with the personnel concerned because it is politically inconvenient for us at this time.” That would be the wrong way to proceed. We have a duty of care to those who are being made redundant to ensure that processes and timetables are followed, and that they and their families get the maximum certainty in the circumstances.
I am sure that the Secretary of State draws no pleasure from this painful process, but further to the point made by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), I and many others struggle to understand why the redundancies are not included in a single package with the base closure programme in July. Would it not have made more sense to do this in a more joined-up way?
Work will always be ongoing. As well as the basing review, we have the Army returning from Germany and reform of the procurement process, on which I last week set out some additional measures. This is an ongoing process and there will be second and third order changes as a result of the SDSR for some time to come. The Department requires huge downsizing—it has an inherited budgetary deficit of £38 billion—and we cannot expect to do that overnight. Had we done things more quickly, I would no doubt have been accused of rushing the base review as well.
In the past when we have managed headcount through redundancies, we have also turned off the tap on recruitment and training, with disastrous long-standing consequences. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will continue to try to attract the highest-quality young people to our armed forces and to train them properly?
We will continue to recruit the highest calibre possible. Some reductions in redundancies have been achieved by slowing down the number of those coming into the armed forces, but we cannot avoid redundancies through that process, because we need to continue to recruit, not least for the campaign in Afghanistan.
I am not sure that that figure is available, but I will try to find out. It is important that when we are unable to continue training, we will offer those concerned alternative careers inside the RAF where possible. However, it is inevitable that if we reduce the number of aircraft, we will have a reduced requirement for pilots. Those trainees will not continue to the end of their traineeship because there has been a reduction in the size of the aircraft fleet, which, as I said, is a necessary part of the spending reductions required to bring the budget into balance. We did not create that budget; we inherited it.
My constituency is home to most of the Salisbury plain garrison towns. We will wait with eager anticipation to see the final numbers in September, but can the Secretary of State assure the House, first, that those who are injured in the line of duty will not be in the first line for redundancies, and secondly, that we will do all we can to support those who leave the armed forces in moving into other roles, particularly in teaching and in mentoring young children?
My hon. Friend makes two very important points. First, clearly, when those who have been injured are still recovering, there will be no question of redundancy. Secondly, it makes a great deal of sense to encourage such mentoring programmes. We often hear that young people do not have sufficient role models, and getting people from the armed forces into our schools will provide young people with the sort of role models that will be of real value to them.
Can the Secretary of State repeat his previous pledge that no member of the armed forces who is currently serving in Afghanistan will be made redundant?
When we finally get to the point when redundancies are announced—that is some way off yet—nobody who is in pre-deployment training, or deployed and in receipt of the operational allowance, or recovering from injuries sustained on operations, or on post-operational leave, will be made compulsorily redundant.
It is sad news that 13 Squadron at RAF Marham is to be disbanded, although I understand that this will not lead to automatic redundancies. Further to earlier questions about the basing review, which the Secretary of State has said will be announced in the spring or summer, can he confirm that it will not only cover the short term and the Tornado, but look at where the joint strike fighter will be based, to provide long-term security for the armed forces personnel in my constituency?
The basing review, when it is announced, will examine what we require in line with Future Force 2020 and the strategy set out in the SDSR, and it is only appropriate that it should do so. It is much better that we should have a clearly set out aim-point of 2020 and be working towards that. Given the shambolic budget and the deficit that we inherited, we all recognised that we would not be able to make changes overnight. In 10 months we have gone quite far in returning that budgetary imbalance to a more sustainable position, and we intend to do the same with the basing review.
The fact is that there has not been even a hint of an apology from the Opposition about the appalling situation that they left behind. Nobody on the Government Benches came into politics to see cuts in our armed forces; they were forced on us by the utter incompetence of the Government who went before us. I also noticed that in the question asked earlier by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), there was no hint of what Labour policy is, or what the Opposition might do to reverse any of the cuts.
At a time of enormous uncertainty—not just about Libya, but about the middle east and northern Africa—does the Secretary of State agree that making long-term strategic reductions in our capabilities for short-term cost reasons will hearten the Taliban and encourage their resurgence in future years, in the knowledge that we are in disarray over piecemeal successive cuts to our strategic capability?
The idea that these are short-term cuts for short-term reasons beggars belief. Next year we will spend more on debt interest than on defence, the Foreign Office and aid put together. Even if we eliminate the deficit in this Parliament, the debt interest will still go up, so future generations will still be living with the legacy of Labour’s economic incompetence. This is not something short term; this is long-term pain imposed on the British people by the economic incompetence of another socialist Government.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Defence Medical Services have for some time struggled to maintain the correct numbers of certain clinical specialists. Can he assure the House that any potential reduction in size of Defence Medical Services will not jeopardise its ability to grow and retain those key clinical personnel?
It is a key point that we have those appropriate personnel. Indeed, in the review of the reserves, which has already been mentioned, I am particularly concerned to ensure that we retain full access to medical specialties. However, although we may be saturated in terms of secondary care, there is still scope to improve the primary care offered in the armed forces through the reserves.
What assurances can the Secretary of State give senior military personnel who have expressed their opinion on this matter that, following the announcement of the decisions, we will have the capability to deal with the potential threat in the near future?
The hon. Gentleman asks a good question—and as I have explained, that is why we have compulsory redundancies in the armed forces. We cannot simply accept the people who volunteer for redundancy, because we have a duty to maintain the rank structure and the appropriate skills. That is why we will allow people to volunteer for the scheme, but ultimately we may not be able to accept all who volunteer, and may have compulsory redundancies elsewhere instead. It is for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman raises—because we have to maintain the skills and structures involved—that we have a compulsory scheme in statute in this country.
As a former RAF officer who took advantage of a previous redundancy scheme, I was pleased to visit 1466 Air Cadet Squadron in Holmfirth recently. Many of the young people there aspire to serve in the Royal Air Force. They are the potential brave servicemen and women of the future, so will the Secretary of State confirm that we will keep their morale up?
It is always worth pointing out to those who wish to have a career in the armed forces that there is a bright future for them. Under Future Force 2020, not only will Britain have the fourth biggest defence budget in the world, but the RAF will see the number of Typhoons grow and the introduction of the new joint strike fighter, and we will also upgrade our lift capability through the introduction of the A400M. I would certainly encourage anyone who wants to continue with their careers to do so, but I also warn Opposition Members that playing politics with redundancies or other issues that have a clear impact on morale is extremely dangerous.
Yesterday the Secretary of State tabled a statement outlining his plans for members of the armed forces and their redundancies. He told the House that nobody preparing to deploy in Afghanistan, serving in Afghanistan or recently returned from Afghanistan would be made redundant. Within minutes the media were reporting that this was not the case. He seems to be dodging the issue today, so will he now repeat that exact pledge on the Floor of the House?
I will say it for the third time in the House, although I should say to the hon. Gentleman that I can only explain it to him; I cannot understand it for him. At the point where any compulsory redundancies are made—that will be some time later in the year, as I have made clear in the timetable already set out by the armed forces—no one serving in Afghanistan in receipt of the operational allowance, no one preparing to go there, nobody on post-deployment leave and nobody who is recovering will be made compulsorily redundant.
We must not forget that 11,000 of our bravest men and women have lost their jobs because of the Secretary of State’s decision. Many of them, and their families, watching or listening will find his tone rather distasteful and smug at this time. We must remember that they are men and women who risk their lives every day in defence of this great country. They deserve a lot more respect than they are being shown in the Secretary of State’s answers.
Clearly we are going to disagree on our approach, because what the hon. Gentleman calls smug, I would call angry. We are very angry indeed that we were left with a £38 billion hole in the Ministry of Defence and a massive national deficit, the interest payments on which are bigger than our defence budget. We are angry, but we are absolutely determined to get the situation under control, and then we will urge the British people never again to elect such an economically incompetent Government as the previous one.
My right hon. Friend was kind enough to write to me yesterday following his statement, knowing that RAF Cranwell is in my constituency. All serving RAF personnel in my constituency well understand the £38 billion hole that we were left with by the last Government. However, RAF Cranwell is considered the home of the Royal Air Force. Can he give me an assurance today that it will always be considered the home of the Royal Air Force?
That is the tide of history, and nothing I could say or do would change it. However, I reiterate to my hon. and learned Friend that we must go through the proper processes where redundancies are concerned. We must stick to the timetables concerned, because that is part of our duty of care to the men and women who serve in our armed forces. We cannot have arbitrary dates set to suit a political timetable, at the expense of our armed forces. That would be quite wrong.
I understood from yesterday’s statement that 170 RAF trainee pilots would not be retained. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), the Secretary of State seemed to imply that they would be redeployed in the RAF. Can he confirm whether we are talking about cuts, with those pilots leaving the RAF, or whether they will be used for something else?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The reductions are a consequence of reducing the number of aircraft in the RAF, so there is also a reduction in the number of pilots needed, and therefore a reduction in the number of pilots in training. If alternative employment within the RAF can be found for those individuals, we will attempt to provide it.
Because there is such a wide range of individuals who might be leaving the armed forces, it is difficult to say what a typical package would be. It will also range across the three services, as well as depending on seniority. I will attempt to get for my hon. Friend an indication of what the numbers might look like, although I cannot guarantee that will be able to do so with any great accuracy.
The Secretary of State’s commitment to armed services personnel who will be deployed in the future is welcome. However, does that commitment extend to armed service personnel currently deployed in Afghanistan, such as the Royal Irish Regiment, and what consultation will the right hon. Gentleman carry out with the regional representatives of those armed forces personnel?
In looking at their personnel, the armed forces will want to consider a range of issues, not least which personnel they want to retain and which personnel they might accept for compulsory redundancy. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any specific issues with any of the service chiefs, I am sure that they would be happy to listen to his representations.
As I said some time ago in the House, it takes time to transform a civilian into a member of the armed forces, and it takes time to transform a member of the armed forces back into a civilian. It is absolutely necessary to give our full support to all individuals who are leaving. We have set out some particular programmes relating, for example, to those who could move into teaching or mentoring, and we will continue to look at how many programmes we can bring in to ensure that the transition back to civilian life is as smooth and productive as possible.
I am staggered by the short memories of Labour Members about the scale of the economic challenges facing the country and the Department as a result of the incompetence of the last Government. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether other trusted allies are also realigning their military forces in the light of economic challenges and changing strategic priorities?
All countries need to continue to do so. The fact that the United Kingdom, with the world’s fourth biggest defence budget—still above 2% of GDP spend, which is our NATO commitment—has been able to do so, and to announce investment in programmes ranging from our submarine programme, our lift capability and our fast jets while making changes to Army structure, is a testament to the skills in our armed forces. Notwithstanding the horrendous financial situation that we inherited from the previous Government, the skills of our armed forces are contributing hugely to our ability to reach a path in 2020 whereby this country can hold its head high on defence.
Prevention of Terrorism Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr William Cash presented a Bill to make provision about the prevention of terrorism.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June, and to be printed (Bill 158).
Medical Insurance (Pensioner Tax Relief)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for tax relief on medical insurance premiums for people above a certain age; and for connected purposes.
As a very part-time dentist, I must declare a possible interest, although I cannot quite see the link, and I had better also put in for a prospective interest, given that I age day by day and pension age might come upon me.
As in much of the south-east, life expectancy in Surrey is somewhat higher than the England mean. The average male life expectancy in England is about 78 and it is 82 for females. In Surrey, it is about 82 and 86 respectively. Additionally, the proportion of people aged 65 and over in my Mole Valley constituency is about 20% or slightly more—one in five.
Speaking as someone with a professional interest in health and as an MP observing my constituents’ health, it is obvious to me that longevity brings with it a high demand for health care and large demands on the health services, especially cardiac, carcinoma and orthopaedic services. A plane load of Surrey Saga tourists would really set the airport metal detectors buzzing as they passed through with their hip and knee replacements.
The Mole Valley constituency is served by three good NHS hospitals: the East Surrey, the Royal, and the Epsom. These hospitals have expanded in certain health areas to meet the increasing demand for elderly health treatment. The best example is the Epsom hospital special orthopaedic unit that carries out more than 3,000 hip and knee replacements annually—and the number is increasing. Almost all those 3,000-plus are elderly people from surrounding areas, including my constituency. Local medical problems have been looked at, but there has also been a call for an enhanced and enlarged cardiac unit at Epsom as part of the retention and refurbishment of the NHS hospital.
I provide those two examples as they represent a sample of the increased health demands for NHS health care that come predominantly from the over-65s. This is not special or specific to Mole Valley or to Surrey, but to a greater or lesser degree is nationwide for the 65-plus age group. In addition to being served by those three hospitals, my elderly constituents are served by private hospital services. Some are relatively local, but others demand travel to London and beyond.
Approximately 12.5% of the UK population are covered by private health insurance. Approximately 70% of that cover is corporate, leaving about 30% of it individual. At retirement, many people may wish to take over their corporate private health insurance, but the personal cost of course becomes a factor. Additionally, many who have personally funded their health insurance might not feel able to do so when a regular personal income is merely pension or savings. This means that, as the over-65s’ need for health care increases, individuals will increasingly turn to the NHS and absorb the facilities they would not have taken if they had been covered by their health insurance at a private hospital.
Before March 1997 when tax relief was available to the over-60s, it was estimated that tax relief was paid in respect of 400,000 contracts to cover 600,000 individuals. Over a seven-year period from 1990, tax relief for the over-60s cost £560 million. However, that included a period when the relief applied across all taxpayer rates. In 1994, this was reduced to apply to the basic rate tax only. Unlike my proposal, the relief started at 60, not 65, which affected the call on the taxpayer. The Western Provident Association estimated that 40% of pensioners would discontinue their private health insurance when the cut came into force in 1997. Which? reported in 2002 that private health insurance coverage was lowest for the high-demand 65-plus age group.
Those who choose to have personally funded private health insurance pay twice for their health—in premiums and tax. As I have already stated, this applies to 30% of those insured, as corporate payments cover 70%. However, it would be safe to assume that nigh on 100% of those aged 65 or more are personally funding their health insurance. It is their choice and, for many, it might mean sacrificing other things that affect their lifestyle.
My Bill would allow basic rate tax relief for pensioners at 65 and above, with the age rising as and when the pensionable age increases. It would encourage people either to keep their health insurance or to take out health insurance just as they reach the period in their life when demand can be expected to increase. If they did not have or ceased their insurance, they would add to the call on the national health service. The Bill in no way degrades my or their respect for the NHS, but is intended to take some of the load, in numbers and cost, off our tax-paid national health service. As the UK population’s life expectancy increases and as the wonders of medical research improve our pensioners’ life expectancy and well-being, this would provide an incentive for more people to choose not only to pay their taxes to support the NHS, but to use health insurance to take an increasing load off our NHS to the benefit of others.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir Paul Beresford, Gavin Barwell, Mr Christopher Chope, Mr Geoffrey Cox, Mr Oliver Heald and Mr Gary Streeter present the Bill.
Sir Paul Beresford accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 157).
[2nd Allotted Day]
suppmentary estimates 2010-11
department for education
Sure Start Children’s Centres
[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2009-10, Sure Start Children’s Centres, HC 130, and the Government response, Fourth Special Report from the Education Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 768.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, for expenditure by the Department for Education—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £240,806,000, be authorised for use as set out in Spring Supplementary Estimates 2010-11, HC 790,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £66,354,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—(Stephen Crabb.)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to take part in a debate which will, I hope, rise above semantics. I do not know whether “initiation” is a partial word or not; I suppose it depends very much on what ceremonies one has undergone earlier in life.
This debate takes place in the context of a crisis of confidence in our education system and, more broadly—if I may pick a few headings at random—in our society’s ability to raise children so that they achieve, enjoy life, are safe and healthy, make a contribution, and go on to prosper. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables to which the Government frequently refer indicate that, on a comparative basis, this country’s performance has declined.
The first 10 years of the last Government, between 1997 and 2007, preceded the credit crunch. I should it put on record, in my party’s interests, that the period of solid economic growth between those years had begun in 1992. During that period, the number of young people aged 16 to 24—pick your age range—who were not in employment, education or training remained about level, but once the credit crunch arrived it spiralled up, and now as many as 1 million young people may not be in apprenticeships, at college, at school or in a job. That is a pretty tragic situation.
I have always believed that those who seek a crude proxy to measure the effectiveness of an education system should consider not so much the outcomes of those who go to Oxbridge—important though that is—or those who go to universities in general as the number of young people who end up as NEETs. We engage in an annual argument about whether exams are becoming easier, and how we are placed in comparative terms. I used to point out to Labour Ministers in the Select Committee that existed under the last Government that the system of which education forms a part was intended to deliver Every Child Matters outcomes, and to ensure that young people were able to go on to prosper in life. They cannot do that—and, indeed, they are signally failing to do it—if they end up as NEETs.
As I have said, those who seek the best proxy to measure the effectiveness of society’s systems for bringing up children—which, I suppose, include families—should consider the number of NEETs. That number is at a record high, and we need to tackle it. However, we are also concerned about social mobility, and the fact that our record on teenage pregnancy, fatherless households, drug use and other issues connected with social breakdown and social failure is not good in comparison with the records of other European countries.
The intellectual running under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government seems, ironically enough, to be being made largely by current and former Labour Members of Parliament. I am pleased to see that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is present. Whether we cite the Field report, the Allen report on early intervention or Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility, it is clear that a huge amount of work is being done, which indicates a general consensus in the House that we should try to become more effective.
The Select Committee produced its report as the Labour Government moved towards their target for full service delivery, which was at least 3,500 centres. I believe that there are now more than 3,600. Having initially established children’s centres in the most deprived parts of the country, the Government wanted to ensure that they existed in every part of the country. While it is fair to say that they wanted to provide a universal service, their rationale for taking Sure Start everywhere was the need to reach the poorest and most disadvantaged children in areas that were not themselves generally disadvantaged. They recognised that if they focused only on the most disadvantaged areas, many children elsewhere would be missed out.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to think again about what he has said? According to evidence given to the Select Committee, most children from deprived backgrounds lived outside the 500 most challenging wards in the country. That was the point: more young people with deprived backgrounds lived outside than inside the targeted areas.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right, and if I suggested otherwise I did not mean to. I meant to say that the main driver was not the need to provide a universal service, but the need to reach poor children wherever they were. In rural constituencies such as mine, which may in general contain high levels of wealth, there are still many people from poorer families. The aim was to provide a universal service that would reach those people, but the Committee concluded that the policy had not been as effective as we should have liked it to be.
I hope that we shall learn from Ministers today about their vision of the future of children’s centres. We know that the Government agree on the importance of early intervention, and we know that they see an important role for children’s centres within that. We also know that they have rolled funding for children’s centres into the early intervention grant. They say that they are providing enough funds to keep all the existing children’s centres open, but they have not insisted that local authorities do so. Moreover, the larger fund in which they have included the funds for children’s centres has itself been reduced this year from about £2.7 billion to £2.4 billion, and from 1 April it will be 10.9% lower than the 2010-11 notional figure.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate authorities such as Medway, which has 19 Sure Start centres—seven of which are in my constituency—and has agreed to keep all of them open? That clearly demonstrates that it is not inevitable that Sure Start centres will close. I should declare an interest: I am a sitting Medway councillor.
I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on adopting what it considers to be the most effective way of delivering the improvements that we so desperately want for young people. However, the number of NEETs has been rising, and research suggests that the outcomes from children’s centres so far are not what we would wish them to be.
We have heard about the bundling of funds and the relaxation of ring-fencing. Ministers are still saying that every Sure Start or other children’s centre should be able to stay open, but “should be able to stay open” and “will stay open” are two separate concepts. I should like to know from Ministers, and indeed from Opposition spokesmen, whether they are fixated on the importance of maintaining buildings from which services of varying quality emanate. Is that the be-all and end-all, or are we prepared to give local authorities the power to decide how best to provide early intervention, which may well be through a rationalisation of children’s centres? I do not know whether the Front-Bench teams think that the buildings are the be-all and end-all and that any reduction from 3,600 will be a disaster for our young people, or that local authorities should be allowed to think for themselves and tailor local solutions to local needs. I would like a clearer steer from both Front-Bench teams so that we have a better idea of where we are going.
In the last Parliament, the hon. Gentleman and I served together on the Select Committee and I respect his opinion. He has touched on the key question. The Government are cutting the funding to my local authority by about 13% and they say that leaves enough money to keep the network open, but the local authority is cutting by 45%, which clearly will not leave enough, so the majority of centres will close. In such a situation should the Government intervene or should there be localism at its purest, and if the local authority wants to close down most of the centres should it be allowed to do so?
The hon. Gentleman is right to pose this question about the right response, and we need a clearer steer. While making claims about localism, will the Government in fact quietly put pressure on councils and say, “You must keep these centres open”? I recognise why the hon. Gentleman says the last Government put all these things in place and the new Government are threatening to dismantle them while denying doing so, as that is an understandable line to take in opposition, but rationalising these centres could be the right thing to do. It could be that, after sober analysis and assessment of the needs of its local community, a local authority decides that its children’s centre buildings are not working well enough and it cannot get the teams to deliver in the right way but thinks it will be able to find a better way of providing these services. I would like to know how fixated we are going to be on children’s centres per se, rather than on delivering the outcomes for young people.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I too served on the Select Committee with him in the last Parliament, and I think he is doing a sterling job as Chair of the new Select Committee. I am also pleased that we are having this debate today.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition are not fixated on the buildings. Our priority is that the provision should still exist. We still believe it should be a universal provision targeted on those most in need. It is not about the buildings; it is about ensuring that there is a service within them. When the Sure Start children’s centres were first introduced the aim was that everybody would be within a pushchair push of one of them. If a local authority decides to have just one or two such centres, people are not going to be within a pushchair push of their nearest one, and they will therefore not be used by those who need them most.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She makes a fair point, but service delivery is the key and there is enormous variation in that between children’s centres across the country. In the last Parliament, the National Audit Office investigated the cost-effectiveness of centres at our behest, and it concluded that
“it remains very difficult to examine and compare centres’ cost effectiveness.”
It also said:
“Where we have been able to calculate unit costs we found wide variations. Together with other evidence this suggests that there is still scope for improving cost effectiveness.”
That suggests that there could be savings. The Government reasonably say that reductions in budget should not necessarily lead to closures. Children’s centres could, perhaps, be improved and operate on a lower budget.
The NAO also said:
“There is qualitative evidence of improvement; for example, some local authorities and centres are developing and implementing means of managing children’s centres to make more effective use of skills and resources. And most centres and local authorities have made substantial improvements in their monitoring of performance since our 2006 report.”
There is progress, therefore.
I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s vision, and explain to what extent they wish the existing infrastructure to be maintained, or whether, in the spirit of localism and the tailoring of services to meet local needs, they want local authorities to make up their own minds, which might lead to great discrepancies. It could certainly lead to the loss of a national entitlement to children’s centres, but that might be an improvement. A true localist looking at the analysis of the results so far may conclude that a more localised and differentiated approach would be better.
I went on a Select Committee trip to Finland two weeks ago. Learning lessons from Finland is hard, and I know my predecessor as Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), hated any mention of Finland. I do not think he ever explained why, but I guess it was because of the difficulty of applying its experiences and contexts to our experiences and contexts. There was one thing I did learn from Finland, however. Someone in its central department of education said, “We’ve been trying to achieve a particular outcome, but although we’ve been working at it for 10 years, we haven’t really made as much progress as we want, so we’re going to work harder and carry on trying to make it happen.” That is very different from the way things are done in our country, where, typically, 18 months into a new initiative new Ministers arrive and throw it overboard because they decide it does not work, and they stop doing the long, hard, grinding work that leads to the improvement of existing services.
I would hate the groundwork that has been done by children’s centres across the country to be dismantled, not because they are universally successful but because it takes a long, hard slog to improve performance and management, to bring on more leaders, and to learn what certificates they should sit for so that we have higher quality staff who can identify the areas that are brilliant and share that practice, and identify the areas that are poor and need to be challenged. I would rather we did that than what this country seems to do, which is just throw everything up in the air again when a new set of Ministers come into office.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. One of the Select Committee conclusions is:
“Children’s centres are a substantial investment with a sound rationale, and it is vital that this investment is allowed to bear fruit over the long term.”
The hon. Gentleman is reminding us of the necessity to consider the long term. The long term is even longer than 10 years, as he rightly points out, so now is not the time to fiddle with this provision.
It is certainly a time to fiddle with it. There is ample room for improvement, but it would be a shame if these centres were inadvertently dismantled before what they could deliver had been properly thought through. I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.
I also want the Minister to say whether there are any incentives in place for local authorities to ensure that they focus on changing the life chances of young children, because all too often people will pay lip service and say, “Of course we’re on board with this.” I am reminded of another Select Committee trip, this time to the Netherlands in the last Parliament. The Dutch changed the way local authorities were financed in respect of young people’s services. I think they froze the money from central Government so that if there was a spike in youth unemployment and so forth, local authorities would be at serious financial risk, but if they addressed such matters, they would be much better off. As a result, local authorities stopped just processing young people and putting the financial claim for that into the centre. Instead they became locally responsible for the financial consequences of young people remaining as NEETs. I believe—the previous Select Committee Chairman will put me right if I am wrong—that they more than halved the number of NEETs over the years.
If there are incentives for local authorities that are real and that bite and that mean they take this issue incredibly seriously and focus on it, that would give me more confidence than even the maintenance of the centres. If I felt that local authorities were driven by a desire to grasp this agenda and make a difference to their young people’s lives and one of them told me it was closing some of its children’s centres, I would find that more encouraging than watching, in this time of fiscal retrenchment, centres close apparently because they were especially local and apparently because things would then get better.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case, as always. On local authorities and incentives, I wonder whether he shares my concern that some authorities may do what it looks as though my local authority is doing. Westminster city council is trying to keep the children’s centres open so it can avoid the controversy attached to closing a building, but it is slashing outreach and drop-in services and other services that actually work and that are provided from within the bricks and mortar of those buildings. That is likely to have an even worse impact on children’s outcomes.