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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax Benefit

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government on proposals to transfer responsibility for council tax benefit to local authorities. (54352)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including welfare reform.

As the Minister may know, there is a great deal of concern that people in Wales will struggle to get council tax benefit if the Welsh Assembly refuses to devolve the benefit to local authorities in Wales, as the Government are doing in England. Will he work with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that council tax benefit is devolved to either all local authorities across the UK or none?

Localisation of council tax benefit is part of the wider package of reform set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will ensure that work always pays. We are indeed committed to full consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the devolved implications of the reforms. The Assembly Government will no doubt wish to consult when they have developed their own policy options, but ultimately it is for them to decide how the delivery arrangements are put in place in Wales.

Devolution Funding

2. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54353)

4. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54355)

12. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54363)

Following the yes vote in the referendum on further powers, we have started to consider the scope and form of such a process. Now that the elections to the National Assembly have taken place I intend to discuss the process with other stakeholders and the First Minister. May I also take this opportunity while I am at the Dispatch Box to offer our congratulations to Carwyn Jones, who is currently considering forming the Welsh Assembly Government and has the largest party in the Welsh Assembly?

Our priority in Wales and elsewhere right now is to ensure that the deficit is under control. However, now that Ministers in the Welsh Assembly have more power, is it not right that they should be financially accountable for those powers as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There is indeed a body of thought that believes that with the power to spend public money should come accountability, and this is certainly a matter that we will be looking at. However, this is not something that should be entered into in haste, and I intend to engage fully with the Welsh Assembly Government on the matter.

The national border between north-east Wales and Chester is almost unique in that it passes through an urban area, with large numbers of people travelling in both directions every day for health care, education and employment. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the remit of the review specifically includes looking at the impact of devolution on such cross-border services?

I thank my hon. Friend that question too, because he knows that we in the Wales Office have been concerned about cross-border issues and their impact on health in particular. I cannot guarantee that that will fall within the scope of the Calman-like process, but I assure him that I will take into consideration any representations that he or any other Member wishes to make to the Wales Office.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming the thoroughly discredited Barnett formula to take a fair and transparent needs-based approach for the whole of the United Kingdom would help Wales and England?

The Government’s commitment to a wider review of the Barnett formula is clear, but stabilisation of the public finances comes first. I think we all recognise that the Barnett formula is coming to the end of its life, but we will consider a change to the system only once we have put the public finances in order. There was a good reason why the predecessor Government to this one made no changes to the Barnett formula in 13 years. It is not something that can be achieved in haste, only to be regretted at leisure.

May I ask the Secretary of State to take great care when she deals with these issues? As she knows, there is really no appetite in Wales for tax-varying or tax-raising powers—the resource base is not there—and even if there were, we would have to have a referendum in Wales for such powers, as happened in Scotland.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I always remember sitting and listening to him give evidence to, I believe, a House of Lords Committee looking at the Barnett formula. He said that there was no case for reviewing it because it had served well. The fact that the last Government repeatedly ruled out reforming the Barnett formula means that any reforms must be looked at carefully. He is quite right that giving tax-raising powers would involve another referendum, which is something that this Government would look at carefully, because I am not sure whether Wales has an appetite at the moment for another referendum.

The Calman process in Scotland had a wider remit than merely to consider funding arrangements. Given the Labour party’s opposition to decoupling Westminster and National Assembly constituency boundaries, would it not make sense to base the make-up of the fifth National Assembly on 30 regional and 30 constituency Assembly Members?

That is a very interesting thought. Hon. Members are well aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 broke the link between Assembly constituencies and parliamentary constituencies. I have agreed that we need to look carefully at the implications of having constituency boundaries relating to different areas and regions for UK and Assembly elections in Wales. I am taking the hon. Gentleman’s question as a recommendation that we have 30 first-past-the-post seats and 30 elected on a list system, and I will look seriously at that suggestion.

Does the Secretary of State think that the Calman process will be as beneficial for the Tories in Wales as it was in Scotland last Thursday? Will she also congratulate Carwyn Jones on polling Labour’s highest ever Welsh Assembly vote, which included taking Cardiff North—about the safest Conservative seat in Wales—and beating the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central and Plaid Cymru in Llanelli? Will she ensure that if any financial concessions or flexibilities are offered to Scotland by her Government, as is now being suggested, Wales will receive equivalent benefits to compensate for the horrendous cuts that the Government are imposing on Welsh citizens?

The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground here. I do not want to engage in any sort of triumphalism or tribalism, to use the words of Carwyn Jones. The right hon. Gentleman will note that I came to the Dispatch Box to congratulate Carwyn, because I have worked well with him over the past 12 months. May I just remind him that the Conservative vote went up to 25% in Wales and the number of our seats went up to 14? We are now the second largest party in the Assembly, and the right hon. Gentleman had better think again before he starts taking us on.

I know that the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will disagree with the Secretary of State on that, because Labour won the Assembly seats in their constituencies with thumping majorities. If, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested yesterday, Alex Salmond is to get the borrowing powers that he is demanding, as well as the ability to reduce corporation tax, how will increasing borrowing fit with her Government’s preoccupation with reducing the deficit at all costs? Furthermore, is not her Conservative-led Government playing into the hands of separatists by promoting separate economies?

I would never play into the hands of separatists; I am a devoted Unionist, as I hope the right hon. Gentleman is. Before the Assembly elections, he and his party consistently boasted that they would win a majority in Wales, and I consider failing to do so a significant failure for him and his leader. On the question of separatism, however, he will know that my door is always open, and I would hope that we could join in common cause on this matter. He and I, and his party, support the United Kingdom and I want to ensure that all steps taken by the Wales Office will reinforce the United Kingdom. I see him nodding, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement that he would join me in that cause. I am sure that we can work well together on that.

Departmental Efficiency Savings

Since taking office, we have explored a number of ways to find efficiency savings and we have achieved significant savings, particularly on rail travel and hotel accommodation.

Is it the Minister’s intention that the Wales Office should be the most efficient Department in Whitehall? If so, how confident is he that that can be achieved?

We are certainly moving in that direction. Since taking office, we have introduced a rule that no Minister or official should travel first class. That has saved us nearly £92,000 and more than halved our rail costs this year. We have achieved 36% savings under a new Government contract for booking hotel accommodation, and we have halved the number of ministerial cars. From this month, we will no longer have the Jaguar in Wales that the Secretary of State’s predecessor ordered.

Big Society Initiatives

5. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on big society initiatives in Wales. (54356)

I have discussed a range of issues concerning the big society in Wales with the Minister for civil society, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) and the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for social justice. I am due to have a further discussion concerning the big society bank with my hon. Friend next week.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Will he share with us his anticipation of when the big society bank will be up and running in Wales?

We are certainly moving in that direction. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for civil society announced this week that the big society bank is being established; £200 million of moneys in that bank will be available on a wholesale basis for charities in Wales.

Many women in Wales who are approaching state pension age are presumably part of the Government’s big society in that they have reduced their hours to undertake caring responsibility for elderly parents and grandchildren. They now find themselves having to work up to two years longer with little time to prepare. Does the Minister understand how betrayed these women feel by this dereliction of public duty?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will also recognise that the economic legacy we inherited from Labour means that it is absolutely necessary that everybody should play their part in contributing to economic recovery. That means, sadly, that there will have to be an extension of the retirement age. I hope that she will explain that to her constituents.

Broadband Infrastructure

6. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on improving broadband infrastructure in rural Wales. (54357)

I have discussed improving broadband infrastructure across Wales with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers. Indeed, I arranged and hosted a meeting between the broadband Minister and the former Deputy First Minister to discuss joint working.

I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the important work she is doing in this vital area. Many studies, including those by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the OECD and the World Bank, have highlighted how broadband immeasurably enhances economic growth. In my own local authority of Cheshire East, faster broadband is a key element in the economic development of rural communities. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment has been made of the economic benefit of enhanced broadband access in rural Wales?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area. An independent estimate in 2009 projected that superfast broadband in the UK could create up to 600,000 jobs and add £18 billion to GDP. We are working closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that Wales benefits fully. Based on the population share, we estimate up to 30,000 new jobs being created and a possible £900 million of additional wealth being generated in Wales.

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating Virgin Media on rolling out in Swansea this week the fastest broadband speeds in the UK. It is not just a rural problem. We have heard about the economic case. How quickly can we roll out these speeds to other parts the Principality?

I was particularly pleased that we were able to announce on 10 February £10 million of funding to support the extension of superfast broadband to Pwllheli. I know from working with colleagues in the DCMS and the Welsh Assembly Government that more announcements on this front will be made later this year. The hon. Lady is quite right on this issue, and I am particularly keen because broadband take-up in Wales is at 64% in comparison with 71% in the rest of the UK. Broadband take-up in rural Wales, however, is in excess of that in urban Wales, so I am very pleased to welcome Virgin Media’s announcement.

The Secretary of State will be aware not only that rural areas have slower and less reliable broadband, but that our constituents in those areas have to pay a lot more for it. Ofcom is currently investigating lowering the price that BT can charge internet service providers for wholesale broadband because it feels that prices are too high in rural areas. Will she make representations to Ofcom on behalf of people in rural areas to ensure that they, as well those in urban areas, secure a fair deal?

I had some difficulty in hearing the whole of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I should be happy to meet him to discuss the problems of rural broadband. He has always been a well-known champion of rural areas, and I am sure that if anyone can help me to make a case for bringing down costs in those areas, it will be him.

Order. I remind the Secretary of State that she must face the Chair. However, she was not alone in her difficulty. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber in which I have no interest whatsoever. I must tell the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) that I want to hear Mr Hywel Williams.

Health and Social Care Bill

7. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on cross-border implications of the provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill. (54358)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the Health and Social Care Bill with ministerial colleagues and with Welsh Assembly Ministers.

We do not impose competition on the health service in Wales. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that patients in north Wales are protected from the potential chaos caused by competition in the health service in England?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the problem has existed for some time. I remember sharing a platform with him to discuss the issue of the Walton centre. Decisions affecting the NHS in Wales are rightly a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but this Government are committed to working with Ministers in Cardiff and Whitehall when health care provision for Welsh patients is under discussion.

Many of my constituents depend on services commissioned from Hereford hospital for the meeting of their medical needs. Will the Minister meet me, and a representative of the Department of Health, to establish how that commissioning will proceed in future?

I think that that would be premature at this stage, but I am pleased about the decision to refresh the existing cross-border health services protocol for a further year, until 31 March 2012.

The Minister will be aware that one of the other destabilising effects of the Health and Social Care Bill is the abolition of the National Patient Safety Agency, whose job was to monitor patient safety in England and Wales. In England its job will be taken over by the national commissioning board, but what provision has been made for transferring its responsibilities in Wales to ensure patient safety? If the job is given to the National Assembly, will extra funds be made available for the purpose?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the existing cross-border protocol is supported by an annual transfer of funds—currently £5.9 million—to the Assembly Government, and an additional payment of some £12 million was made in the last two financial years. These matters will have to be discussed with Welsh Ministers once the new Assembly Government has been established.

Great Western Main Line

8. What estimate she has made of the number of jobs to be created in Wales as a result of electrification of the Great Western main line to Cardiff. (54359)

The electrification of the Great Western main line will create thousands of job opportunities in the UK manufacturing and service supply chains, and Welsh companies will be well placed to take advantage of those opportunities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the project will be good for jobs, not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom? Will she make contracts available to the many first-class English construction and engineering firms, such as those in Harlow, many of which are small businesses?

I was very pleased when we were able to announce the electrification, which will indeed help to provide jobs not only in Wales but in other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be many opportunities for businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as well as throughout Wales, to be involved in the process. Certainly the Wales Office will do all that it can to facilitate that.

Good transport links are vital to economic success. Will the Secretary of State undertake to deliver electrification of all the valley lines, including the line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we identified electrification of the valley lines as a key priority as part of the development of the business case for electrification. As he will also know, I have said that I stand ready to work with the new Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Transport to facilitate the electrification of those lines. I shall certainly examine the case for electrification of the Ebbw Vale line, which he has made to me before.

Tourism Promotion

9. What recent representations she has received from tourism operators in Wales on Government financing for tourism promotion. (54360)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met representatives of the Welsh Tourism Alliance and North Wales Tourism to discuss a range of issues affecting the tourism industry, and we have both visited a number of tourism-related businesses across Wales in the last year.

As the Minister will know, the tourism sector in Wales is extremely important for the economy of Wales. He will also know that a large part of the sector comprises small and medium-sized enterprises—such firms employ about 90% of the people of Wales. What initiatives is he pursuing to expand this all-important sector?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Welsh tourism industry is worth some £3.5 billion to the Welsh economy. Responsibility for promoting tourism in Wales resides with the Welsh Assembly Government, of course, but VisitBritain has established a new £100 million overseas tourism marketing fund, with £50 million being provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That marketing programme is due to launch to consumers this month and aims to deliver an extra 4 million visitors to the UK, many of whom will, of course, visit Wales.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I press him on one point? He and the Secretary of State were lobbied on the need for a cut in value added tax on tourism services so that we can compete fairly with our friends in Ireland and France, for example. Please will they engage with the Treasury on this matter?

Nuclear Industry

Nuclear energy is an important component of our future energy security and carbon reduction plans. It will therefore continue to have a future in the UK’s energy policy, and I hope that a new build at Wylfa will play a key role in creating new jobs in Wales.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in lamenting the record of the Labour party, which failed to promote the latest generation of nuclear technologies and thereby put our energy security at risk?

As my hon. Friend knows, this Government have said that nuclear could be part of the future energy mix, and he will know personally of my attitude towards Wylfa continuing as a nuclear power station, with new generation at the site.

Does the Secretary of State agree that new power plants in Wales are good news for energy security, industry and job creation?

That is an easy question for me to answer. I welcome the work that has been done to enable Wylfa to continue generating low-carbon electricity for a further two years, and I am delighted that the site has been chosen as a future new site for generation. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us have a bit of hush in the Chamber for the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, Mr David T. C. Davies.

In light of the comments of the Committee on Climate Change, which has said that nuclear represents the most cost-effective way of delivering carbon-free electricity, will the Secretary of State support the plant in Anglesey as a means of protecting future generations of homo sapiens?

Once again, this is a very easy question to answer, but I nevertheless thank my hon. Friend for asking it. There is now a growing consensus of opinion right across the board in Wales that Wylfa in Anglesey would be an excellent site for future nuclear generation.

Given that an enormous amount of time and money has been put into studying tidal energy in the Severn estuary, what efforts is the Secretary of State making to take forward the plans for that and ensure they do not get lost?

The hon. Lady knows that throughout the years when I have been both shadow Secretary of State and now Secretary of State for Wales, I have been very supportive of all the work that has been done, particularly on tidal lagoons, as well as in examining the case for the Severn barrage, which has, of course, been put to one side for the time being. I can assure her, businesses in her constituency and our research institutes that we will always consider that option for future generation in and around the Welsh coast.

In addition to the fear of a Welsh Fukushima, the cost of new nuclear is such that the only new nuclear power station in the world is already three years late and £2 billion over budget. Why does the Secretary of State not concentrate on the immense power of the tides in Wales, including the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world, and give us energy that is clean, safe and eternal?

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent, but he has asked questions on this matter of the Minister with responsibility for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and he knows very well that the Government’s view is that tidal energy has a part to play in our energy programmes of the future, but so, too, has nuclear.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure that everyone across the House of Commons will want to join me in paying tribute to David Cairns, the Member of Parliament for Inverclyde, who, very sadly, died on Monday, aged just 44. I will always remember him as someone who was very quick-witted and sharply intelligent, and as someone who was an extremely kind and compassionate man. Not many people can claim to have come to this House only because legislation was passed to allow them to come here, but as a former Catholic priest that had to happen in his case, and the House was better off for that happening. I am sure that everyone will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his partner, his family and his many friends, and I know that his constituents, like many others, will miss his tireless work very much indeed.

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

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks? David Cairns was a great parliamentarian and a good friend.

On 10 February, this House voted overwhelmingly, by a majority of 10:1, to continue the ban on giving prisoners the vote, since which time the European Court of Human Rights has effectively ignored the will of this House. It still insists that the law be changed and has given the Government until October to bring forward proposals. Will Her Majesty’s Government bend their knee to the European Court or will they stand up and insist that on this issue Britain will not budge?

My hon. Friend is absolutely clear that the House of Commons has given a very clear view that prisoners should not have the vote and my own view is that prisoners should not have the vote. I think that we should do two things. First, we should be trying to reform the European Court, as we are doing; my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is leading this charge to make sure that it does pay more attention to national judgments and national Parliaments. But at the same time we will have to consider our response to this issue, and I want it to be as close as possible to the clearly expressed will of the House of Commons.

I want to start by paying tribute to our much-loved colleague David Cairns. His death is a tragedy at such a young age, and we send our deepest condolences to his partner, Dermot, and to the whole of his family. He was what any Member of Parliament would aspire to be in this House: he was warm, principled and independent-minded, even if that was not always comfortable for the leadership of our party. He fought for the causes that he believed in, he was Labour through and through, he will be missed throughout the labour movement, and I know that he will be missed throughout this House as well.

A year into his Government, how would the Prime Minister rate his handling of the NHS?

I think that the most important thing we have done is increase spending on the NHS, which is something that has happened only because of the commitment we made at the last election. So an extra £11.6 billion will be going into the NHS because of the decisions we have taken. In addition, there is a £200 million cancer drugs fund, so that people get the drugs they need and, for the first time in a long time, the number of doctors is growing very quickly and the number of bureaucrats is actually falling.

In case the Prime Minister did not realise, it takes seven years to train a doctor, so I would like to thank him for his congratulations on our record on the NHS. I have to say to him, if it is all going so well, why have we seen the number of people waiting for diagnosis rising again this morning? More than 10,000 people are waiting to get their tests, three times the number it was a year ago. I also noticed that he did not mention his top-down reorganisation when he talked about his handling of the NHS. Let me remind him of what he said just a month ago. He said:

“I’ve been involved in designing these changes way back into opposition with Andrew Lansley”.

Will he therefore confirm that the failing NHS plans are not the Health Secretary’s fault, but his?

The Leader of the Opposition himself has said that no change is not an option. We are seeing the usual empty opposition. I am glad that he mentioned waiting times, because, two weeks ago, at that Dispatch Box, he said that waiting times

“have risen month on month under this Government”.—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 169.]

That is not true. The figures, which he had at the time, show that in-patient waiting times fell from 9.1 to 9 weeks. For out-patients, they went down from 4.8 weeks to 3.5 weeks, the lowest for a year. It is important when we come to this House and make statements that are inaccurate that we correct the record at the first available opportunity.

No, waiting times are rising. I notice that the Prime Minister did not even take the opportunity to take responsibility for the health policy. Where is the Health Secretary, after all? Where is he? It is becoming a pattern with this Prime Minister. This morning, in the papers, we saw the Universities Minister being dumped on for his tuition fees policy; we see the Schools Secretary being dumped on for his free schools policy; and the poor Deputy Prime Minister just gets dumped on every day of the week. The Prime Minister must believe that something has gone wrong with his health policy, because he has launched his so-called listening exercise. Can he reassure doctors, nurses and patients that it is a genuine exercise?

Of course it is a genuine exercise. Let me be clear: the right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the waiting times. The figures are clear and I shall place them in the Library of the House of Commons. Waiting times went down last month and he ought to have the guts and the courage to correct the record when he gets it wrong. He asks about my Health Secretary, and perhaps I can remind him of what his health spokesman has said. He said it this week. He said the general aims of the reform are sound. That is what he said. He said earlier, “I have no problem with the broad aim of the changes,” and went on to praise them. When I look at this, it all reminds me of Labour 30 years ago. They had a leader with the ratings of Michael Foot and he was being undermined by someone called Healey, as well.

We read in the papers about a PMQs makeover, but I have to say that it did not last very long. Flashman is back. Of course, the thing is that Flashman does not answer the questions, so let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again. Can he explain why the chief executive of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, wrote to NHS staff on 13 April, after the Prime Minister’s so-called pause had begun, and said that they should “press on with implementation” of the plans? That does not sound like a pause to me.

I can absolutely guarantee that there will be significant and substantial changes to the reforms because we want to get them right and because we want to guarantee an NHS that is free at the point of use and available based on need rather than the ability to pay. Unlike the Labour party, which is now cutting the NHS in Wales, this Government will put more money into the NHS.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about what is in the newspapers today, but he ought to be looking at the GPs representing 7 million patients who wrote to the papers today to say that this is evolution, not revolution, that it is good for patients, and that it will help some of the “most vulnerable” people in our community. I have to accept that some of the recent cultural references—Michael Winner, Benny Hill—are all a little out of date, but I must say that when I look at the right hon. Gentleman, who told us that the fight back would start in Scotland before going down to a massive defeat, he rather reminds me of Eddie the Eagle.

Let me congratulate the Prime Minister on getting 42 GPs to write to The Daily Telegraph supporting his plans. The Royal College of General Practitioners represents 42,000 GPs and it says—the Prime Minister said that he would protect the NHS, so I would have thought he would be embarrassed by this—that his plans will cause “irreparable damage” to the core values of the NHS. I do not know whether he even knows about the letter that David Nicholson sent, but the truth is that the Prime Minister’s pause is nothing more than a sham.

Why does not the right hon. Gentleman for once in his life actually deal with the substance of the reform? The truth of the matter is that he has said, quite rightly, that no change is not an option. We believe that no change is not an option and that is what the overwhelming amount of people in the NHS feel. Let us look at the elements of the reform: GP fundholding started under Labour and is now being improved under this coalition; foundation hospitals started under Labour and are now being taken forward by this coalition; payment by results—so that we make sure that we get good value for money in the NHS—started under Labour and is now being carried forward under this coalition. That is the point. He should be seriously engaging in how we make sure we have a strong NHS for all our people for the future. Instead, we have empty opposition, which got him absolutely nowhere last week.

In a phrase that the Prime Minister is familiar with, “Calm down, dear.” Calm down. Does not his mess on the NHS tell us all we need to know about this Prime Minister? He breaks his promises, he does not think things through and when the going gets tough, he dumps on his colleagues. On a day when waiting lists are rising, this confirms what we always knew about the Tories—you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS.

What we have seen is just the product of empty opposition and weak leadership. It is this Government who are putting more money into the NHS; it is this Government who are putting money into the cancer drugs fund; it is this Government who are seeing the number of doctors and nurses grow while the number of bureaucrats shrinks. It is this party that is defending the NHS and it is Labour in Wales that is cutting the NHS. That is the truth. There is only one party you can trust on the NHS and it is the one that I lead.

Order. There is far too much shouting in the Chamber and the Secretary of State for Education should not be shouting his head off—it is a very bad example to set to the nation’s schoolchildren.

Q2. I have a slightly calmer question, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware that the fatal and incurable human brain disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is transferred through prions, blood products and surgical instruments. Recently, Professor Collinge and others at the Medical Research Council prion unit have produced an effective prion-deactivation instrument soak and a blood test for variant CJD, both of which could and should protect the public. Unfortunately, there has been a small financial hiccup in progressing those breakthroughs. Does the Prime Minister accept the importance of preventing this despicable disease, particularly for future generations, and will he meet me and Professor Collinge to discuss potential progress? (54957)

My hon. Friend raises an important point about a very dangerous disease and I would certainly be happy to arrange a meeting, probably between him and Professor Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, to discuss this. He will know that there have been various research studies into the impact of variant CJD on the population. We do not yet have all the answers that we need. Since 1990, there has been funding of the national CJD research and surveillance unit to the tune of £18 million, and through the Medical Research Council we have committed to providing £32 million to the national prion unit between 2010 and 2014. That should be the money that gets the answers that he so badly wants.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has served its purpose well over the years, but recently there has been a huge increase in incidents of cyber-stalking, sometimes with devastating consequences. Will the Prime Minister, in due course, meet me and a small delegation of Members from across the House who are concerned about the issue?

I am happy to hold that meeting with the right hon. Gentleman. We are trying to make sure that right across the board we take cybercrime seriously because there is a huge growth in it. Often it is about trying to take people’s money or about espionage, but the point that he makes about harassment is also important. We need to make sure that the strategy dealing with cyber takes full account of what he says.

Q3. The Labour Government took Britain to the brink of bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor widened, and nearly 4 million children were left living below the poverty line. Last month, the coalition Government cut income tax, liberally helping millions of people, but I have to ask the Prime Minister this: if we are all in this together, what is he going to do about the obscenity of 1,000 multimillionaires boosting their personal wealth by 18% in the past year? (54958)

One of the things we absolutely will do—and we have put in the money to make sure it happens—is crack down on the tax evasion that takes place so widely in our country. The Treasury has put money into that campaign to make sure it happens. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Because of our coalition Government, we have lifted 1 million people out of income tax and, at the same time over the past year, we see exports up, private sector jobs up, the economy growing and borrowing down—all radically different from what would have happened if we had listened to the recipe from the Labour party.

On the subject of empty opposition, the Prime Minister castigated his predecessor for not proscribing the radical Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, when the previous Prime Minister had been in post for a week. The right hon. Gentleman has now been in post for a year. I would like to give him the opportunity to castigate himself.

It is very kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give me that opportunity. We are clear that we must target groups that promote extremism, not just violent extremism. We have proscribed one or two groups. I would like to see action taken against Hizb ut-Tahrir, and that review is under way.

Q4. What estimate has my right hon. Friend made of the comments this week by the director general of the CBI on the Government’s deficit reduction plan? (54959)

In its history the CBI has not always supported action to tackle deficits and to get on top of bad public finances, but on this occasion it is four-square behind the action that the Government have taken. When asked what would have happened if we had followed the ideas of the Labour party, the CBI said:

“The economy would be weaker because of the impact of a loss of confidence in the markets.

If we did not have a clear programme to reduce the deficit over this parliament we would have seen a significant rise in our interest rates, and growth would have been eroded rather more than it has been”.

That is the view of the CBI—the experts at the heart of British industry, who say that one cannot trust Labour with the economy.

Last week we had an excellent result in Wales for the Labour party. Given the Prime Minister’s general election manifesto commitment, and the commitment of the Liberal Democrats, what progress has he made so far on reforming the Barnett formula as it applies to Wales?

We will look closely at a Calman-like approach for Wales. If those results are the hon. Gentleman’s definition of success, I suppose he will be a happy man. He should spend a little time studying what his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), said about Labour’s performance in Scotland:

“Labour deserved to lose. We insulted the intelligence of our voters by peddling a myth”.

That is what happened. I know the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) does not want to hear about Scotland, but he ought to think about it.

Q5. Conservative-controlled Shropshire council has managed to make savings of £30 million while protecting front-line services. That has been achieved partly by a reduction in salaries for councillors and senior managers. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Shropshire council on this achievement, and is it not a shining example for other councils up and down the country to follow? (54960)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is that up and down the country councils have been able to reduce back-office costs, bureaucracy and the pay of chief executives and crack down on council allowances and all those things in order to protect front-line services. It has happened in Shropshire and many other parts of the country and it is an example that should be followed.

The Prime Minister told me that the hacking inquiry should go where the evidence leads. It leads to the parents of the Soham children and to rogue intelligence officers. He knows of more sinister forms of cybercrime. Lord Fowler is calling for a judicial inquiry. Will the Prime Minister please order one now, before the avalanche of new evidence forces him to do so?

I think there is a real problem with interfering, which that would effectively do, with the criminal investigations that are taking place. The most important thing is to allow the criminal investigation to take place and, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, make sure that the police and the prosecuting authorities can follow the evidence wherever it leads. That is the most important thing that needs to happen.

Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the story of Robin Hood has parallels with a Government who are taxing bankers to build the big society, City fat cats to fund tax cuts for lower earners and oil barons to cut fuel prices? Will he invite disaffected Opposition Members to join a Government who help the poor and take away from the rich? (54961)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It was this Government who introduced a bank levy and used the money to help some of the poorest in our country. It is this Government who have taxed the oil companies at a time when the oil price is so high in order to cut petrol duties and help millions of people in our country. What a contrast with the Labour party; the action it took against the banks was to give Fred Goodwin a knighthood.

The Prime Minister knows about the real pressures faced by London’s emergency services, including those they will face in the run-up to the Olympics next year. What risk assessment has he made of the London ambulance service’s decision to cut 20% of its work force, including 560 front-line NHS staff?

I have discussed with London’s emergency services some of the challenges they face, not least the Olympics and the terrorist threat. All organisations in this country are having to make savings and efficiencies and try to concentrate on the front line. That is what is happening in the police and elsewhere. The point about ambulance services and the NHS is that we are protecting spending on the NHS. There was, frankly, only one party that proposed that at the last election. If we had not proposed that, it would not be happening. We listened to the Labour party, including the former health spokesman, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who spoke earlier, and they were going to cut the NHS. That would have affected the London ambulance service like everything else.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister share the shadow Chancellor’s view that the Government should adopt the Obama Administration’s pace of deficit reduction? (54962)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. For months the Opposition have been telling us that we should follow the American approach. It now emerges that the Obama deficit reduction programme will go exactly as fast, as quick and as deep as the proposals in the UK, so one of the planks of the good ship Balls has been completely holed below the waterline.

Q8. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to David Cairns? David served with distinction as a Minister in Northern Ireland during the period of direct rule, and many people there have great respect for the work he did in Northern Ireland.The UK’s contribution to the bail-out for eurozone countries that find themselves in financial difficulties amounts to half the savings made in the deficit reduction plan in the UK this year, a fact that will stagger and appal many people in this country. Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that the UK will make no further contributions to the bail-out of those countries that have got into financial difficulties— (54963)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election last week to the Northern Irish Assembly. The point that I would make is this: the only money that Britain has lent directly is to the Republic of Ireland, and I think it is actually in our national interest and, I would say, in the interests of Northern Ireland that we do not see a collapse in the economy in the Republic. That was a difficult decision but the right decision to make.

The other contingent liabilities on Britain flow through the finance mechanism in Europe, which we did not support the establishment of and have negotiated to get rid of when the new arrangements come in in 2013, and we will do everything that we can to safeguard Britain’s finances.

Q9. Can the Prime Minister confirm that, if any part of the United Kingdom decided to leave the Union, although part of the national debt would follow them, a continuation of subsidy from the remaining British taxpayers would not? (54964)

Of course I can confirm that, but I believe that everyone in this House who believes in the United Kingdom and the future of the United Kingdom should join together and make sure that we fight off the threat of the idea of breaking up our United Kingdom. I do not believe that we will achieve that by threats, or by saying that small countries cannot make it; I believe that the way we will make that argument is by saying that being part of the United Kingdom is good for Scotland, and that Scotland being part of the United Kingdom is good for the rest of the United Kingdom. I want us to make an uplifting and optimistic case for why we are better off together. That is what all of us who support our Union should do, and I for one will certainly play my part.

Q10. Now that the referendum is out the way—incidentally, nobody asked for it and nobody wanted it, except for the Liberals, or Bob, Rag and Ragtail here—[Interruption.] I did not want it—[Interruption.] I did not want it. Yet, Prime Minister, a survey done a few weeks ago said that 70% of the British people wanted a referendum on Europe. It is in the Liberal manifesto, although that does not mean much, and more than half your Back Benchers want a referendum as well. When are the people going to get the referendum on Europe? (54965)

The hon. Gentleman says that the referendum on the alternative vote was something nobody wanted, but I have to remind him that it was in his manifesto. I know that it was a pretty turgid document, and he might want to have a word with the author about how to improve things next time, but I would recommend reading the manifesto before you stand for the party.

Q15. Given the high demand from the public to attend the consultation events on the future of children’s cardiac services in Southampton, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in calling for additional events so that the maximum number of people in the wider Southampton area can participate? (54970)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and in the review of child cardiac services—this affects my constituency as well as hers, and people are talking about how Southampton and Oxford should work together—I think that there should be as many events as people want to go to, as much transparency as possible and, if specialisation is necessary, as much explanation as possible about why it is necessary and why it is good for patients. In the end that must be the test of everything we do in the NHS.

Q11. We know what a number of the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministers think about the adoption of the fourth budget proposed by the Committee on Climate Change, but what does he think about it? Will he press for the adoption of that budget when the Cabinet meets to discuss it, as we are reliably informed it will? (54966)

We will respond in full to the House on the fourth carbon budget. It is very important that we get that right. We have strict timetables and targets laid out in terms of our carbon reduction, and this Government are committed to making sure that we meet those.

Computer Sciences Corporation

Q12. What discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Secretary of State for Health on the performance of Computer Sciences Corporation in installing Lorenzo software within the national programme for IT in the NHS. (54967)

We are very concerned that the NHS IT projects that we inherited were of poor value for money, an issue we raised repeatedly in opposition. According to the National Audit Office, even in 2008, delivery of the care records system was likely to take four years more than planned. Since coming into government, we have reviewed the projects with the intention of making the best of what we have inherited. In part, as a result of our work, the Government have cut £1.3 billion from the cost of the national programme for IT in the NHS, including planned savings of at least £500 million from Computer Sciences Corporation.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the NHS IT programme will never deliver its early promise, that in particular CSC has failed with Lorenzo and that, rather than squandering £4.7 billion that is still unspent, the solution is to negotiate a way forward that frees up billions of pounds for the benefit of patients?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are absolutely determined to achieve better value for money. Let me reassure him that there are no plans to sign any new contract with Computer Sciences Corporation until the National Audit Office report has been reviewed and until the Public Accounts Committee meetings and the Major Projects Authority reviews have taken place. The Department of Health and the Cabinet Office will examine all the available options under the current contract, including the option of terminating some of, or indeed all of, the contract.

Engagements

Q13. Will the Prime Minister investigate why his much-trumpeted Work programme will be delivered in Scotland by private companies with only an 8% voluntary sector component—or does his big society not apply in Scotland? (54968)

While I accept that the figure the hon. Lady gives for the lead number of voluntary bodies is right, if she looks at the details of who in Scotland is going to be providing the voluntary sector projects—the subcontracting arrangements—I think she will see bigger and better opportunities for the voluntary sector. If she is saying that we should be doing even more to open up public services to voluntary and other providers, then absolutely yes—and perhaps she can persuade her Front Benchers to make it Labour policy too.

One year on after the coalition was formed, would the Prime Minister like to update the House on the progress that has been made in tackling the economic and financial wasteland that was left to us by the previous Government?

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that not only are exports growing and manufacturing growing, but we have 400,000 more people in work than there were a year ago—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise to the Prime Minister. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I heard the question; I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

The fact is, Mr Speaker, that Labour Members do not want to hear what this Government have achieved over the last year, because it is this Government who have cut the deficit, who capped immigration, who froze the council tax, who have linked the pension back to earnings, who have taken a million people out of income tax, who have reformed welfare, and who have created more academy schools in 12 months than that lot managed in 12 years. That is a record, with much more to do, that I think the coalition can be proud of.

Q14. Last week the widow of Captain Mark Hale, who died serving in Afghanistan, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as a member of the strengthened Democratic Unionist party team. Brenda is a leading campaigner to have the military covenant enshrined in law. Will the Prime Minister recognise the public support for the campaign by Brenda and other folks, and will he give our heroes the support that they deserve? (54969)

First, I congratulate Brenda Hale on her election. It is excellent that someone who is going to speak up for the military and for their families is going to have a seat in the Northern Irish Assembly, particularly when Ireland, both north and south, has given so much to Britain’s armed forces over so many years. I do want to see a very strong armed forces covenant set out clearly, debated in this House, and clearly referenced in law. I want to see us make bigger steps forward on the things we do to help our armed forces’ families. We have made some steps over this last year, doubling the operational allowance, giving more money to schools where forces children go, and helping in ways including health and scholarships for those whose parents have sadly fallen in battle. But I believe there is more we can do, and this Government will not let up in making sure that we have an armed forces covenant we can be proud of.

Order. We now have a statement from the Foreign Secretary. I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that we can hear the statement from Mr Secretary Hague.