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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2011

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—


We are investing in the national citizen service, which will be very powerful in connecting young people with their own power to make a contribution to the community. In addition, we will invest £40 million over the next two years to support volunteering infrastructure and social action.

I thank the Minister. Grow, the organisation behind Wiltshire’s volunteer centre in Chippenham, is keen to extend the range of support it provides in matching young people with volunteering opportunities as part of Wiltshire council’s volunteer strategy and action plan. Will the new local infrastructure fund be able to support such initiatives, be they in Wiltshire or elsewhere?

I was in Devizes constituency in Wiltshire on Friday, and I recognise that Wiltshire council represents best practice in many ways in supporting local voluntary organisations and local infrastructure. I am delighted about the local infrastructure fund, because it will help existing infrastructure assets become even more efficient and effective in supporting front-line voluntary organisations and encouraging local people to get involved.

We all support efforts to encourage volunteering, but does the Minister share our concern that under proposals in the Protection of Freedoms Bill on the vetting and barring scheme individuals who are barred from working with children will be able to volunteer in schools, and without the school’s knowledge?

The Bill contains very important reforms to vetting and barring, and critically to the Criminal Records Bureau process, which many Members will know from their constituencies is a source of considerable frustration for people who are trying to volunteer. I agree with the reforms that will make that process simpler, more effective and more portable.

Industrial Action (Public Sector)

We are committed to maximum engagement with the public sector unions to seek agreement on essential reforms, and especially to make public sector pensions sustainable and among the very best available, as Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary has recommended. I am sorry that a handful of unions are hellbent on pursuing disruptive industrial action while discussions are continuing. However, we have rigorous contingency plans in place to minimise disruption in the event of industrial action.

I thank my right hon. Friend. Does he have a message for public sector workers who are contemplating strike action on 30 June?

Yes, I do. I strongly recommend that they should not go in for industrial action. If schools close as a result of teachers going on strike, there will be considerable disruption not only to children’s education but to the lives of parents whose livelihoods depend on schools being open. While discussions are still going on about how to keep public sector pensions among the very best that there are, and at a time when taxpayers in the private sector have seen hits to their own pension schemes, I think people will be really fed up if industrial action goes ahead.

Why should the Government be surprised that public sector workers, many of whom are pretty poorly paid, faced with an onslaught on their pensions and frozen pay have decided to fight back? It would be surprising if they had not.

If the coalition Government had not inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, we might not have to be taking these steps. I remind the hon. Gentleman that a civil servant on median pay—about £23,000—who retires after a 40-year career, which is not untypical, will have a pension that would cost £500,000 to buy in the private sector. No one in the private sector now has access to such pensions.

May I commend my right hon. Friend for his determination to engage to the maximum with the public sector unions to try to avoid industrial action? He has made it clear, however, that he does not rule out legislative changes. May I plead with him, on behalf of the Public Administration Committee, that we make changes in an orderly fashion, and that perhaps he should publish a Green Paper to consult on what changes should be made, so that we can have a proper debate about them rather than find ourselves propelled into legislative changes in an emergency?

I do not have responsibility for industrial relations law; that rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have made it clear that we do not rule out changes, and a number of proposals have been made from outside. We think that industrial relations law works reasonably well at the moment, but we keep it under review.

Does the Minister agree that pensions should be regarded as deferred wages, and that therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said, it should come as no surprise that pension scheme members are seeking to protect their future income?

That is why we are engaging in discussions with the TUC at its behest. The discussions continue, and there is much still to be sorted out. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, recommended the reforms to make public sector pension schemes sustainable and affordable for the future. That is what we are determined to achieve. Any union or public servant contemplating strike action is jumping the gun. There is a long way to go yet.


The Government are anxious to encourage more giving. On 23 May, we published a White Paper that set out a range of ways in which we can help to make giving easier and more compelling, and offered better support for charities, community groups and social enterprises.

Although people in the UK are very generous compared with Europeans, the rate of UK charitable giving remains only half that of the rate in America. What further steps will the Minister take to encourage us to give up to the level of our American cousins?

My hon. Friend is right—we are a generous country—but giving has flatlined, despite substantial interventions from previous Governments. We do not accept that as being inevitable, and we want to help people to give more. He will know that the Chancellor announced generous incentives in the last Budget. The White Paper contains many ideas, including a social action fund to support creative, new models that incentivise people to give.

More people would be encouraged to give, especially to health care charities, if the issue of irrecoverable VAT on all non-business supplies was sorted out. Discussions are being held with the Treasury, but will the Minister ensure that they are expedited so that a mutually acceptable solution is reached as quickly as possible?

The issue of irrecoverable VAT continues to rumble on. It is a Treasury matter, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that as Minister with responsibility for civil society I continue to have regular discussions with the relevant Treasury Minister.

I spent 16 years in the fundraising sector. Does the Minister agree that one giving barrier for many people is the abolition of cheques?

I know that causes a lot of debate and anxiety in the sector. As my hon. Friend well knows, the matter is under review by the Government. It has been stated that cheques need to be replaced by some form of paper-based system.

The House will note that the giving White Paper states that the Government aim to support and manage opportunities for giving, but what will the Minister do to monitor what sums are given and to which organisations? Does he intend to plug funding gaps, should they arise, so that poor areas of the country are not disadvantaged? Indeed, if donations continue to fall, is it a sensible strategy to rely on philanthropy to fill gaps in public funding?

The Government see a substantial opportunity to encourage more giving, bearing in mind that 8% of the country do 47% of the giving. The hon. Lady asks about money for more deprived areas. Our “community first and community organiser” programme, which is worth about £80 million, is exclusively targeted on the most deprived communities. The programme incentivises the local giving of time and money to support social action projects led by those communities.

National Citizen Service

4. What steps he is taking to enable young people in (a) England and (b) Northamptonshire to participate in the national citizen service in the summer of 2011. (59572)

6. What steps he is taking to enable young people to participate in the national citizen service in the summer of 2011. (59574)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) knows, we are offering more than 10,000 places to 16-year-olds this summer, including 135 in Northamptonshire. Our 12 providers are working hard to ensure full participation. I hope that he will lend his personal support to Catch22 and the Prince’s Trust in his area.

What steps are being taken to encourage full participation in the scheme, and how can parents get involved to encourage youngsters to take up this challenge?

Our providers are working very hard to ensure full participation in the pilots by engaging schools, working with local media, and using social networking sites, including a dedicated Facebook page. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and I will write to every colleague in the House with details of how they can engage with their local provider, because we would like them fully to support this exciting and positive opportunity for young people in their constituencies.

There are a number of national citizens service pilots in and around my constituency. Does the Minister agree that we need to find ways of increasing and deepening access to this scheme in the most deprived areas by using innovative ways of communicating with youth clubs and other local institutions?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the key benchmarks for success of the scheme is creating the right social mix on residential courses. The aim is to create opportunities for young people to meet people they would never otherwise expect to meet. That is very much part of the obligation on our providers and we are monitoring it very closely.

I welcome this initiative, but does the Minister agree that the Government need to do much more to prevent a repeat of the ‘80s, when so many young people ended up on the scrapheap?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive engagement with the national citizen service concept. I obviously reject his thesis and would point him to the investment in apprenticeships and everything else that we are doing. I urge him not to underestimate the potential of this programme to transform young people’s sense of what they can achieve.

May I ask the Minister again about the barriers to young people from deprived areas getting involved in this scheme, especially in the pilot projects, for which, in half of the cases, young people are being charged up to £99? Does he agree that such charges will be a severe disincentive to young people from those areas, and will he take action?

We have made it clear—I have done so personally—to every provider that money should not be a barrier to participation in the pilots. We are experimenting with a range of models to gauge people’s willingness to pay for the value that the models add, but we have made it very clear to providers that money should not be a barrier to participation.

Benefit Fraud

The National Fraud Authority estimates that £21 billion is lost to fraud in the public sector each year. In recent months, the counter fraud taskforce, which I chair, has overseen a series of small-scale pilots that have made immediate savings of £12 million in benefit and tax credit fraud, and which—when rolled out—will save £1.5 billion a year.

I thank the Minister for his response, which, when compared with the Labour Government’s targets for benefit fraud reduction, signals an unambitious approach to tackling this serious problem. Why is that?

It is one thing to have a target but another to reach it. The £21 billion of public sector fraud that the National Fraud Authority identified arose after his party’s Government had set their ambitious targets. We are getting on and doing things—identifying fraud and error and stopping hard-earned taxpayers’ money going out of the door, to ensure that instead it goes to the vulnerable people and important public services where it is needed.

One and a half billion pounds sounds not like a modest saving, in the words of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), but like a worthwhile saving, given that every penny comes out of people’s pockets. How soon will the Minister be able to take forward savings towards achieving the £21 billion total? We need to stamp this out of the public sector: what can we do about it?

I should make it clear that this is only the beginning. The issue is not only benefit or tax fraud but procurement fraud. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is undertaking a pilot on supplier fraud in his Department, and it is already yielding significant returns. If the previous Government had been as concerned with eradicating fraud as we are, the public finances would not perhaps be in the mess they are in.

Big Society Bank

I am delighted to say that we are making extremely good progress in establishing the big society bank. Sir Ronald Cohen and Nick O’Donohoe, with whom I met recently, have put an outline of the proposals on the website. They are now working with the actuary and the administrators of the dormant accounts. So as not to waste time while we wait for state aid clearance, we have also established a high calibre interim investment committee in the Big Lottery Fund to begin work immediately.

I thank the Minister for that response. What safeguards will be in place so that when small charities seek to access funds from intermediaries they will be making worthwhile investments and not causing themselves to fall into significant debt?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is tremendously important that the voluntary and charitable sector does not get into a debt spiral, and for that reason the big society bank’s plans involve trying to promote patient capital and risk capital that will allow the voluntary and community sector to expand without becoming over-geared and being put in financial peril.

Does the Minister agree that the big society bank will provide the vital backing required by investors in our social sector organisations, so that they can continue to support local groups dedicated to making communities better places to work and live?

Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important to point out that the purpose of the big society bank, under Sir Ronald Cohen’s direction, is to go beyond the traditional sources of finance and persuade, for example, large charities that have considerable investments to start to reinvest in the voluntary and community sector so that they can get good returns on, for example, social impact bonds.

That very much depends, of course, on the state aid process, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience, we cannot totally determine. In order not to waste time, however, the investment committee that has been set up within the Big Lottery Fund will begin to disburse funds from dormant accounts as soon as they are made available and released. I hope that that will happen within a few months.

At a recent meeting of the Public Administration Committee, Sir Ronald Cohen said that the big society bank might have to change its name because it is not a bank. Will the Minister enlighten us? If it is not a bank, what is it?

The hon. Gentleman’s question reminds me of Maynard Keynes’s dictum when asked about the IMF and the World Bank. I think he said that the World Bank was a kind of fund, and the IMF was a kind of bank. There are often these oddities in the naming of things. Shall we just call it the BSB and know what it does, rather than worry about the name?

Public Bodies Bill

As my hon. Friend knows, the Bill has completed a tortuous but constructive passage through the other place, and we hope for a Second Reading in this place soon. In the meantime, the Cabinet Office and other relevant Departments are holding information sessions for colleagues who want to discuss this important Bill.

I thank the Minister for his reply, his hard work and the excellent job he is doing on the Bill. Under the Bill, public statutory corporations such as British Waterways will be reformed and become mutuals. Have Ministers considered other similar public bodies, such as trust ports, for inclusion in the Bill?

I understand that my hon. Friend is frustrated by the pace of progress in his committed and spirited attempt to allow the people of Dover to take over the port. He will know that the Transport Secretary, who is sitting alongside me, has announced a consultation on the criteria for assessing the sale of trust ports in England and Wales, largely to reflect the Government’s localism and big society agendas. It is right for that consultation to conclude before further decisions are taken.

In March, the Minister for the Cabinet Office claimed that he would make £30 billion of savings from his quango reform programme embodied in the Public Bodies Bill, so that he could

“protect jobs and front-line services.”

My freedom of information requests show, however, that nearly £25 billion of this £30 billion comes from front-line cuts to housing and our universities, including teaching and research. Will he apologise for these misleading statements about protecting front-line services?

No—and I am surprised by the line of questioning, because this programme of very overdue reform to the complex landscape of quangos and non-departmental public bodies goes exactly with the grain of the reforms proposed by the previous Government. We are going further in trying to deliver much greater accountability in government, and, on the way, delivering what we believe will be about £2.6 billion in communicative and administrative savings over the spending review period.

Topical Questions

As the Minister for the Cabinet Office, I am responsible for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s progress on public sector reform. Does he know why public sector unions have decided to ballot their members on strike action now, when talks on pension reform are still ongoing?

Only three of the unions have done that. The majority of unions are continuing to engage in good faith with the discussions that are still taking place. It is our determination that at the end of the reforms proposed by Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, public sector pensions will continue to be among the best available, but we will ask people to work longer because they are living longer and to pay a bit more, to achieve a better balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers pay.

How can the Minister possibly justify the announcement on the No. 10 transparency website that since November the Government have spent more than £5 million on tarting up offices in Whitehall, including £680,000 on No. 10 Downing street? How can he justify that when he is laying off nurses, policemen, servicemen and so on? Will he now publish a line-by-line account of how the money was spent?

Point one: if we had not gone in for full transparency in what the Government are spending, the hon. Gentleman would not know anything about this. Point two: we inherited a massive programme of wasteful refurbishment of Government offices from the previous Government, including some unbelievably badly negotiated PFI contracts. If they had taken the same care as we are taking with taxpayers’ money, we would not have the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, which we inherited from his Government.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend think that responsible Members of this House, in all parts of the Chamber, should condemn irresponsible strike action that puts children’s education at risk and diminishes public services? Does the silence— (59585)

It would be good to hear Opposition Front Benchers joining us in urging the trade unions to stay with the discussions, which still have a great distance to go, to secure what will still be among the very best pension schemes available. If schools close down, it is not just children’s education that will be disrupted, but the livelihoods of millions of parents who depend on schools being open so that they can go to work to earn the money to pay the taxes to support public sector pensions. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber and too many private conversations taking place. I want to hear the questions and the Minister’s answers.

T5. By 2014, civil society will be losing £2.9 billion a year in revenue—the same as the amount forgone in corporation tax by big companies in the United Kingdom. Why are the Government being so soft on big business and so tough on charities and the voluntary sector? (59588)

I reject that statement absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is pulling numbers for lost income to the charity sector out of the air and completely ignoring the volume of public sector contracts going in, not least through the recent Work programme, which is worth at least £100 million a year. As for big business, I would simply refer him to a speech made by the Prime Minister last year called “Every Business Commits”.

T4. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that my constituency will hold a national sporting event in the next fortnight, the enjoyment of which could be undermined by strikes proposed by the unions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these strikes are unnecessary, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to talks to ensure that they do not have to happen? (59587)

As I say, we are committed to continuing those discussions. We had further discussions yesterday, and there will be more next week and the week after. There is much still to be resolved. It was Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, who recommended the changes, and in order to make public sector pensions sustainable for the future we need to drive these reforms through.

T6. On what date did the Government instruct parliamentary counsel to draft amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill, following the consequences of the NHS Future Forum? (59589)

I would recommend that the hon. Gentleman ask that question of the Secretary of State for Health.

During 2011, I will be launching a new social enterprise, the Northamptonshire parent infant project. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that commissioners will be encouraged to provide medium-term contracts to charities that provide essential support services?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work she is doing with that organisation, which is tackling natal depression and perinatal problems. The central Government compact already provides for multi-year funding whenever that is appropriate. Local compacts are a matter for local decision, but I strongly encourage her county council to offer a multi-year contract, if that is at all possible.

T7. How many mutuals does the Minister expect to support through his Department next year, and will he be making a further statement on the mutual pathfinder? (59590)

We know that there is growing enthusiasm for public sector workers to come together to form employee-led co-operatives or mutuals to carry out and deliver public services. All the evidence shows that they deliver huge increases in productivity and better public services at lower cost, and I hope that the hon. Lady will give her full support—

T9. To what extent does the Minister expect any PCS strike action to have an impact on our vital public services? (59592)

We are waiting to see the result of the ballot this afternoon, but I hope that civil servants, who are imbued with a strong public service ethos, will recognise that we are seeking to achieve public sector pensions that continue to be among the very best available. However, because people are living longer, they will be asked to work for longer. Furthermore, because there is not a fair balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers—who have seen their own pensions take a hit—pay, we are expecting them to pay a bit more towards them.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Thousands of people in my constituency work hard for less than £26,000 a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone who believes in the necessity of capping benefits must vote for the Welfare Reform Bill tonight?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are right to reform welfare. Welfare costs have got out of control in our country. We want to ensure that work always pays, and that if people do the right thing we will be on their side. It cannot be right for some families to get more than £26,000 a year in benefits that are paid for by people who are working hard and paying their taxes. I would say that everyone in the House should support the Welfare Reform Bill tonight, and it is a disappointment that Labour talks about welfare reform but will not vote for it.

When the Prime Minister signed off his welfare Bill, did he know that it would make 7,000 cancer patients worse off by as much as £94 a week?

That is simply not the case. We are using exactly the same definition of people who are suffering and who are terminally ill as the last Government. We want to ensure that those people are helped and protected. The point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that if you are in favour of welfare reform, and if you want to encourage people to do the right thing, it is no good talking about it: you have got to vote for it.

As usual, the right hon. Gentleman does not know what is in his own Bill. Listen to Macmillan Cancer Support, which announced on 13 June: “Cancer patients to lose up to £94 a week”. Those are people who have worked hard all their lives and who have done the right thing and paid their taxes, yet when they are in need, the Prime Minister is taking money away from them. I ask him again: how can it be right that 7,000 people with cancer are losing £94 a week?

We are using precisely the same test as the last Government supported. All we see here is a Labour party desperate not to support welfare reform, and trying to find an excuse to get off supporting welfare reform. Anyone who is terminally ill gets immediate access to the higher level of support, and we will provide that to all people who are unable to work. That is the guarantee we make, but the right hon. Gentleman has to stop wriggling off his responsibilities and back the welfare reform he talks about.

The Prime Minister does not know the detail of his own Bill. Let me explain it to him. Because the Government are stopping contributory employment and support allowance after one year for those in work-related activity, cancer patients—7,000 of them—are losing £94 a week. I ask him again: how can that be right?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the specific point. First of all, as I have said, our definition of “terminally ill” is exactly the same as the one used by the last Government. Crucially, anyone out of work who has longer to live will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. Irrespective of a person’s income or assets, that will last for 12 months. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong, and he should admit that he is wrong. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. That is the truth; he should check his facts before he comes to the House and chickens out of welfare reform.

So let us be clear about this: in his first answer the Prime Minister said that his policy was the same as the last Government’s; now he has admitted that the Government are ending contributory-based employment and support allowance after one year. Let me tell him what Macmillan Cancer Support says—[Interruption.] I think that Conservative Members should listen to what Macmillan Cancer Support has to say. Let me tell them; this is what it says—[Interruption.] I think it is a disgrace that Conservative Members are shouting when we are talking about issues affecting people with cancer. This is what Macmillan Cancer Support says—that many people

“will lose this…benefit simply because they have not recovered quickly enough.”

I ask the Prime Minister the question again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?

Let me try to explain it to the right hon. Gentleman again, as I do not think he has got the point—[Interruption.]

Order. I think it is a disgrace that Members on both sides of the House are shouting their heads off when matters of the most serious concern are being debated. I repeat what I have said before: the public despise this sort of behaviour. Let us have a bit of order.

I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker. This is important, and I want to try to explain to the right hon. Gentleman why I think he has got it wrong, and why I think what we are proposing is right. Let me explain the definition of who is terminally ill; these are horrible things to have to discuss, but let me explain. It is—[Interruption.] Hold on a second. The definition is the same one—as I say, it is six months. Anyone out of work who lives longer than that will be given the extra support that comes from employment and support allowance. That is irrespective of a person’s income or their assets and it will last for 12 months, not the six months that the Leader of the Opposition claimed. On a means-tested basis, this additional support can last indefinitely. So as I say, it is the same test as under the last Government. It has been put in place fairly, we have listened very carefully to Macmillan Cancer Support, and we have also made sure that someone is reviewing all the medical tests that take place under this system. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to try to create a distraction from the fact that he will not support welfare reform, but I have answered his question, so he should now answer mine: why won’t you back the Bill?

In case the Prime Minister has forgotten, I ask the questions and he fails to answer them.

Let me try to explain it to him. He should listen to Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, who said:

“In my experience one year is simply not long enough for many people to recover from cancer. The serious physical and psychological side-effects can last for many months, even years, after treatment has finished. It is crucial that patients are not forced to return to work before they are ready.”

Macmillan Cancer Support and Britain’s cancer charities have been making this argument for months. I am amazed that the Prime Minister does not know about these arguments. Why does he not know about them? The House of Commons is voting on this Bill tonight. He should know about these arguments. I ask him again: will he now admit that 7,000 cancer patients are losing up to £94 a week?

I have answered the question three times with a full explanation. The whole point of our benefit reforms is that there are proper medical tests so that we support those who cannot work, as a generous, tolerant and compassionate country should, but we will make sure that those who can work have to go out to work, so that we do not reward bad behaviour. That is what the Bill is about. The Leader of the Opposition is attempting to put up a smokescreen because he has been found out. He made a speech this week about the importance of welfare reform, but he cannot take his divided party with him. That is what this is about: weak leadership of a divided party.

What an absolute disgrace, to describe talking about cancer patients in this country as a smokescreen! This is about people out in the country and cancer charities that are concerned on their behalf—and the Prime Minister does not know his own policy. It is not about people who are terminally ill; it is about people recovering from cancer who are losing support as a result of this Government. We know he does not think his policies through, but is this not one occasion on which we could say that if ever there was a case to “pause, listen and reflect”, this is it? Why does he not do so?

What we have seen this week is the right hon. Gentleman getting on the wrong side of every issue. On cutting the deficit, we now have the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the International Monetary Fund, his brother, and Tony Blair, on our side, and he is on his own. On welfare reform, we have everyone recognising that welfare needs to be reformed, apart from the right hon. Gentleman. On the health service—yes—we now have the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians, the former Labour Health Minister and Tony Blair all on the side of reform and, on his own, the right hon. Gentleman: a weak leader of a divided party. That is what we have learned this week.

On a recent visit to India, my constituent Baljinder Singh’s mother, Surjit Kaur, a British national, was kidnapped and then beheaded in a horrendous murder. May I ask the British Government to urge the Indian authorities to carry out a full, transparent and thorough investigation and bring to account those responsible for that horrendous murder so that my constituent and his family can get some justice for their mother?

I understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise this case, and on behalf of the whole House let me send our condolences to Mrs Kaur’s family. I fully understand and support their wish for justice to be brought to bear on the perpetrators. The Foreign Office has been providing the family with consular support, as my hon. Friend knows, and they will arrange to meet him and the family to see what further assistance we can give. However, responsibility for investigating crime committed overseas must rest with the police and judicial authorities in that country. We cannot interfere in the processes, but I take his point to heart.

Q2. We know that the deficit was the price paid to avoid a depression caused by the bankers, but in March the forecast for the budget deficit was increased by £46 billion—£1,000 per person. Will the Prime Minister now at last accept that cuts are choking growth, that VAT is stoking inflation and that both are increasing the deficit? He is going too far, too fast, and he is hindering, not helping, the recovery. Yes or no? (59595)

The deficit is the price paid for Labour’s profligacy in office. In his memoirs, Tony Blair said—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not want to hear about Tony Blair any more, and that is funny, really. He was a Labour leader who used to win elections, so they might want to listen to him. He said that by 2007, spending was out of control. That is the point. We need to get on top of spending, on top of debt and on top of the deficit. I understand that the Labour leader is trying to persuade the shadow Chancellor of that—well, good luck to him!

The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands by the forces of the Crown. Will he remind President Obama when he next sees the United States President that negotiations over the Falkland Islands with Argentina will never be acceptable to Her Majesty’s Government, and that if the special relationship means anything, it means that they defend British sovereignty over our own territories?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I am sure that everyone right across the House will want to remember the anniversary of the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands and the superb bravery, skill and courage of all our armed forces who took part in that action. We should also remember those who fell in taking back the Falklands. I would say this: as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory—full stop, end of story.

Q3. This week we have seen the Government change their mind on the NHS, on sentencing, on student visas and on bin collections, so will the Prime Minister tell us now whether he will change his mind over Government plans to force more than 300,000 women to wait up to two years longer before they qualify for their state pension? (59596)

All parties supported the equalisation of the pension age between men and women. That needed to happen. We also need to raise pension ages to make sure that our pension system is affordable. The point I would make is that because we have done that, we have been able to re-link the pension back to earnings, and as a result pensioners are £15,000 better off in their retirement than they would have been under Labour. I think that is a good deal and the right thing to do. If anyone in the Labour party wants to be serious about pension reform and dealing with the deficit, they should back these changes.

Q14. I agree with the Government’s timetable for increasing the men’s state pension age to 66, because it happens gradually. However, I ask the Prime Minister to think again about the women’s state pension age, because the planned timetable has it going up far too quickly and leaves women of my age—those born in 1954—without enough time to plan for what could be two years’ extra work. Will the Government please look at this again? (59607)

I understand the concern, but the point I would make is that, as I said in the House last week, more than 80% of those affected will see their pension age come in only a year later, so a relatively small number are affected. The key thing is making sure that our pension system is sustainable so that we can pay out higher pensions. The House had a similar argument in Cabinet Office questions, about the sustainability of public sector pensions. We have to take these difficult decisions; they are right for the long term and they actually mean a better pension system for those who are retiring.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies that with inflation at 4.5%—more than twice his Government’s target—it is hitting pensioners and low-income families the hardest? (59597)

The point about pensions is that there is the triple guarantee that they will go up by earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is higher, so it is not going to affect them in that way. Clearly, we want to see inflation come down. I think there is a shared agreement across the House, and it is right for the Bank of England to have that responsibility. I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not raise today the very welcome news that we have seen the biggest fall in unemployment in one month’s figures than we have seen at any time in a decade. I think it is time the Labour party started welcoming good news.

Q5. There is increasing concern within the House and across the country about the hidden suffering of trafficked children—and, indeed, retrafficked children. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential for a co-ordinated multi-agency approach right across the country—from borders to local authorities and local police forces, and including the excellent charitable organisations involved in this work—to be promoted urgently? (59598)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I know how hard the all-party group works on this issue and I listen very carefully to what it has to say. One thing that is changing, which I hope will make a difference, is the formation of the National Crime Agency, which I think will bring greater co-ordination to such vital issues.

The Scottish National party won a landslide in the recent elections and a mandate to improve the powers of the Scottish Parliament, so will the Prime Minister respect the Scottish electorate and accept the Scottish Government’s six proposals for improvement in the Scotland Bill?

We listen very carefully to what people have to say, and of course we respect the fact that the SNP won a mandate in Scotland; we are responding extremely positively. The first point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the Scotland Bill, currently before the House, is a massive extension of devolution. He shakes his head, but it is an extra £12 billion of spending power. We will be going ahead with that and we will look at all the proposals that First Minister Salmond has made. I take the Respect agenda very seriously, but it is a two-way street: I respect the views and wishes of the Scottish people, but they have to respect that we are still part, and I believe will always remain part, of a United Kingdom.

Q6. Last Friday was the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion, next Monday is armed forces day, and on Tuesday 120 soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade will march through the Carriage Gates into Parliament to welcome them back from Afghanistan. Can we tell them, or will the Prime Minister repeat his assurance, that the armed forces covenant will now be written into law, for the first time in history? (59599)

Yes, I can give that assurance, and I am delighted that the Government and the Royal British Legion have agreed the approach we will take in the Armed Forces Bill, which is passing through the House. I am very glad that the House of Commons will be welcoming those soldiers from 16th Air Assault Brigade. Like the rest of our armed forces, they are the bravest of the brave and the best of the best. We cannot do too much for those people; that is why the armed forces covenant matters, and that is also why we kept our promise to double the operational allowance to soldiers serving in Afghanistan and other theatres.

Q7. Millions of our constituents are once more facing big increases in their gas and electricity bills. Many will find it very difficult to make ends meet. What action will the Government take to help them? (59600)

We are taking a range of actions. Obviously, the fact that oil now costs $115 a barrel and gas prices have gone up by 50% over the last year has an impact, but we are putting £250 million into the warm home discount. We are funding a more targeted Warm Front scheme that will help 47,000 families this year. We are legislating so that social tariffs have to offer the best prices available. We are keeping a promise we made that Post Office card account holders should get a discount. We are keeping the winter fuel payment, and of course we permanently increased the cold weather payments. We did not just allow them to be increased in an election year; we are keeping those higher payments, which are very valuable to many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Q8. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and I visited Walton Hall special school near Stafford. In our meetings, parents expressed their gratitude for the excellent teaching, but also their anxiety over provision for their children after the age of 19. I know of my right hon. Friend’s deep concern about this subject, so what encouragement can he give them? (59601)

First of all, we must support special schools. The pendulum swung too far against special education and in favour of inclusion. It is important that we give parents and carers proper choices between mainstream and special education. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is that when disabled children become young adults, many parents want them to go on studying in further education colleges and elsewhere, yet currently the rules seem to suggest that once they have finished a course, that is it. Parents say to me, “What are we going to do now?” We have to find a better answer for parents whose much-loved children are living for much longer; they want them to have a purposeful and full life.

Q9. In the face of crippling energy price rises that are driving pensioners and vulnerable families into fuel poverty by the thousand every day under this coalition, is the Prime Minister struggling with his energy bill—or are any of the 21 other millionaires in his Cabinet struggling with their energy bills? When will he personally take a grip of the situation? (59602)

From reading the papers this week, the people who seem to be coining it are the ones who worked for the previous Government—but there we are. Clearly, fuel prices have gone up because of what has happened to world oil and gas prices, but this Government take seriously their responsibilities to try to help families. That is why we have frozen council tax, that is why we are lifting 1 million people out of tax, and that is why we have introduced the set of measures that I have described to try to help with energy bills. We have also managed to cut petrol tax this year, paid for by the additional tax on the North sea oil industry. I notice that although the Opposition want to support the petrol price tax, they do not support the increase in North sea oil tax. That is absolutely typical of a totally opportunistic Opposition.

The Prime Minister will be aware that this is national diabetes week. This year’s theme is “Let’s talk diabetes”, to encourage people with the condition to speak out and not to feel stigmatised or worried about being discriminated against or joked about in school or in the workplace. Will the Prime Minister please support this campaign?

I will certainly support the campaign. My hon. Friend makes the extremely good point that many people with diabetes find the illness embarrassing and something that they do not want to talk about, yet it affects more and more people. We have to find a way to encourage people to come forward and say that there is nothing abnormal or wrong about it. We need to help people to manage their diabetes, especially because we want them to have control over their health care and to spend less time in hospital, if at all possible. I fully support the campaign, and I think that we need to look at the long-term costs of people getting diabetes and recognise that there is a big public health agenda, particularly around things such as exercise, that we need to get hold of.

Q10. The Prime Minister will know that this is my first opportunity to ask him a question. I stand here fresh and full of hope, so I shall give him one more chance to answer this question. People in my constituency and throughout the country face the enormous increases in their energy bills announced by Scottish Power. They need help now. When will the Prime Minister keep the promise that he made in opposition to take tough action on excessive energy prices? (59603)

As I said some moments ago, we are taking action. There is only a certain amount that can be done when fuel prices have gone up by as much as they have over the past year—a 50% increase in oil and gas. We do have the warm home discount and the Warm Front scheme. We are making sure that when there are special tariffs, companies must offer them to users; that makes a difference. There is also the point about Post Office card account holders. At present they do not get all the discounts available to people who pay by direct debit, but we are ensuring that they will get those discounts. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is a lot more done in one year than the previous Government did in 13.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Cluny Lace in Ilkeston, which made part of the lace on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress? It is the last traditional lace factory in Erewash, and our town centres have declined in recent years as a result of the loss of such factories. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the review by Mary Portas aimed at revitalising our town centres has come at a perfect time? May I invite the Prime Minister and Ms Portas to visit Erewash as part of the review?

I shall be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I did not know that her constituents were responsible for the lace on the Duchess’s incredible dress, so I shall leave today’s session enriched by that knowledge. We want a growth in manufacturing and production in Britain. What we are seeing in our economy—difficult as the months ahead inevitably will be—is a growth of things made in Britain, whether that means cars, vans, or indeed lace for people’s dresses.

Q11. The United States Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, has said that the NATO operation in Libya has exposed serious capability gaps. The First Sea Lord, Admiral—[Interruption.] The First Sea Lord, Admiral Mark Stanhope, has said that the operations in Libya cannot be sustained for longer than three months without serious cuts elsewhere. Given those problems—[Interruption.] (59604)

Order. No help from Government Back Benchers is required. A quick sentence from the hon. Gentleman.

Is it not time that the Prime Minister reopened the defence review and did yet another U-turn on his failed policies?

He is called Mark Stanhope, if that helps.

I had a meeting with the First Sea Lord yesterday at which he agreed that we can sustain the mission for as long as we need to, and those were exactly the words that the Chief of the Defence Staff used yesterday, because we are doing the right thing. I want one simple message to go out from every part of the Government, and indeed from every part of the House of Commons: time is on our side. We have NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League. We have right on our side. The pressure is building militarily, diplomatically and politically, and time is running out for Gaddafi.

On the defence review, I would simply say that for 10 years the Labour party did not have a defence review, but now it wants two in a row. At the end of the review we have the fourth highest defence budget of any country in the world. We have superb armed forces who are superbly equipped, and they are doing a great job in the skies above Libya.

By the time Prime Minister’s questions finishes, 450 children will have died from preventable disease and famine. Is it not the case that increasing Britain’s aid budget is very much the right thing to do, and will save millions of lives across the world?

I very much welcome the support from my hon. Friend for the policy of increasing our aid budget and meeting the target of 0.7% of gross national income. There are good reasons for doing this. First, we are keeping a promise to the poorest people of the poorest countries of the world, and we are saving lives. Yes, of course things are difficult at home, but we should keep that promise even in the midst of difficulties. Secondly, we are making sure that our aid budget is spent very specifically on things like vaccinations for children that will save lives, so the money that we announced this week will mean a child vaccinated every two seconds and a life saved every two minutes. The last point that I would make to anyone who has doubts about this issue is that as well as saving lives, it is also about Britain standing for something in the world and standing up for something in the world—the importance of having a strong aid budget, saving lives and mending broken countries, as well as having—

Q12. In this carers week, when we celebrate the contribution of Birmingham’s care assistants and the loving families who look after their loved ones, will the Prime Minister join me in condemning Birmingham city council for cutting care for 4,100 of the most vulnerable in our city, branded unlawful by the High Court? What does he intend to do to ensure that never again will Birmingham city council fail the elderly and the disabled? (59605)

Everyone in the House should welcome the fact that it is carers week. I will be having a reception in No. 10 tonight to celebrate carers week with many people who take part and who are carers. This Government are putting in £400 million to give carers more breaks and £800 million specifically to make sure that those looking after disabled children get regular breaks. What we have in Birmingham is an excellent Conservative and Liberal Democrat alliance doing a very good job recovering from the complete mess that Labour made of that city for decade after decade.

Last night on Channel 4 there was a documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, showing the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people, which resulted in about 40,000 people being killed. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for justice for the Tamil people, and for the people who lost their lives?

I did not see the documentary, but I understand it was an extremely powerful programme. It refers to some very worrying events that are alleged to have taken place towards the end of that campaign. The Government, along with other Governments, have said that the Sri Lankan Government needs that to be investigated, and the UN needs it to be investigated. We need to make sure that we get to the bottom of what happened, and that lessons are learned.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of the shambles of corporate governance that is the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. I would not expect him to comment specifically on that, but does he agree, on behalf of millions of pensionholders and small shareholders across the country, that high standards of corporate governance in the City of London are critical, as is the role of the Financial Reporting Council? (59606)

I am aware of the problem. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that of course we want companies to come to London to access capital and float on the main market or the AIM market. It is one of the attractions of Britain that we are an open global economy, but when those companies come, they must understand that we have rules of corporate governance that are there for a reason, and they need to obey those rules. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will address that not only in his speech tonight, but in the papers that we will be publishing in subsequent days.

Does the Prime Minister agree that if the coalition Government had not adopted the economic policy that they did, but listened to the advice of the shadow Chancellor instead, mortgage interest rates could be 5% higher than they are now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is that in this country today, tragically, we still have Greek levels of Government debt but German levels of interest rates. That is an enormous monetary boost to our economy, and we should all welcome the cut in unemployment today. If we had not taken action on the deficit and proved to the markets that we had a way of paying back the debt and the deficit, we would be straight back in the mess that that lot left us in.