Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society Bank

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we are making excellent progress in establishing the big society bank. I am equally delighted to be able to tell him that it will be called the Big Society Capital group.

Big Society Capital announced appointments to the management and board in July. It is now securing Financial Services Authority and state-aid approval, and we expect it to be open for business in the spring.

Does the Minister agree that the most important thing about the initiative is that it gets funding to organisations in some of the most deprived communities in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is a noted, effective and passionate advocate of his constituency. It is of course for Big Society Capital itself to decide exactly where it places its investment funds, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will want to prioritise social intermediaries who focus on those families who are most vulnerable, and on those individuals and families who are most in need of help.

Community groups, including not-for-profit organisations, have difficulty establishing community projects because of the complexity of the system to secure funding. Will the big society bank have a dedicated officer to help and assist them, so that small projects in deprived communities have a level playing field?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very real problem, which Big Society Capital has recognised. Right from the beginning of the scheme’s design, Sir Ronald Cohen has insisted, and Ministers have agreed, that it should not directly invest in social enterprises but act as a provider of finance to social intermediaries—whether they are lending banks such as Triodos or other more exotic and interesting new social intermediaries—that already have a retail function and can deal, and know how to deal, with the small groups that need to deal with them.

Government Contracts

2. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are aware of opportunities to gain Government contracts. (69981)

5. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are aware of opportunities to gain Government contracts. (69985)

We have established Contracts Finder as a one-stop shop, which enables suppliers to find procurement opportunities, tender documents and contracts online and free of charge. We are also piloting a simple method, which I think is called a dynamic market, for suppliers to register online for public sector contracts below £100,000. That will enable small and medium-sized enterprises to compete at minimal cost alongside large suppliers.

Does the Minister agree that, although large companies often find it easy to tender competitively for those contracts, there is a real benefit economically from spending time and effort on encouraging small and medium-sized businesses to bid for such tenders?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. There is a temptation to think that it does not matter who provides a public service contract, big or small, but we all have an enormous interest in encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to engage in the process, because we all have a huge incentive and reason for believing that innovation in public service can lead to more productivity. It is very often the small, innovative companies that engage in innovation, and therefore we need to ensure that we encourage their participation right the way through the process.

SME information technology companies are reporting back from the Government tendering process that project aims and budgets remain unspecified and that forms are still the size of telephone directories. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that those concerns will be taken on board, so that this Government can deliver real value from IT projects—something that the previous Government failed to do?

My hon. Friend has actively and aggressively pursued several Government Departments about these issues and I hope that he will continue to do so. He is absolutely right that too much of this still goes on. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who has taken the lead on the issue and deserves great credit for that, has not tried to keep the issue secret—on the contrary, he has tried to open it up.

We have introduced a “mystery shopper” scheme, which allows suppliers to challenge Government procurers when they see overly bureaucratic processes. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that during the first three months of the scheme, 23 cases of things such as huge telephone-book-sized contracts were investigated and 11 have led to immediate reductions in tedious bureaucracy. All the information about the scheme has been published on the Cabinet Office website.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the Public Administration Committee report “Government and IT—‘A Recipe For Rip-Offs’ ”? It points out that we cannot rely on the large systems integrators to involve small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government themselves have to employ people from that sector so that the Government can engage with it directly. That is the only way in which we will get SMEs involved in Government procurement.

As with every product of the Select Committee in which my hon. Friend is so notably involved, we do indeed pay enormous attention to that report. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has already taken that set of steps and is already intending to ensure that we have the expertise to do exactly as my hon. Friend recommends. It is absolutely crucial that we get to grips with every large project, and some of them are central to the Government’s policy agenda—in welfare, for example.

Public Bodies Bill

3. What steps he plans to take to put in place a system of regular review of remaining public bodies following the implementation of the provisions of the Public Bodies Bill. (69982)

The Government are committed to reviewing non-departmental public bodies every three years. The reviews will provide a much needed, robust challenge for the continuing need of individual bodies and ensure that the body is complying with recognised principles of good corporate governance.

Will the Minister remind the House how much money he anticipates will be saved as a result of the Bill? Given the spending on so many quangos, much of which is so wasteful, are we not being slightly modest in our ambitions? Is there not even greater scope in future years to save yet more money?

My hon. Friend is entirely right—he should be nudging us to be more ambitious. We have placed on record what we think is a conservative estimate of cumulative administrative savings from reforms already identified of at least £2.6 billion over the spending review period, but we expect that to be a start rather than a finish.

Is the Minister concerned that some of the public bodies may be being abolished with a little too much haste, particularly given the riots in the summer? The Youth Justice Board was very successful in reducing youth offending by around 34%. Does the Minister not worry that we will get rid of some of the bodies in too much of a hurry?

The Youth Justice Board still exists. What we have set up with the Public Bodies Bill is a framework and mechanism for enabling reform. Each Department has to come to the House with a case for reform, which needs to be debated and processed through secondary legislation. That is what we have set up, so Parliament will have plenty of opportunity to scrutinise and debate.

In 2009, it was agreed that the office of the chief coroner would be established to improve support for bereaved families. The decision was taken with support from both sides of the House. In the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, the Government have signalled that they intend to abolish the office of the chief coroner before it has even been established. Which organisations are in favour of its abolition?

The right hon. Lady knows from our Second Reading debates that there are strong opinions on this subject. I refer her to what I said before; the mechanism that we have set out is for a genuine debate on the proposed reforms. That is what the Bill enables, and she and I, or appropriate colleagues, will have that debate in Committee in forthcoming weeks and months.

Efficiency and Reform Group

4. What estimate he has made of the savings to the public purse arising from the work of the Efficiency and Reform Group in 2010-11. (69984)

The Government saved £3.75 billion in their first 10 months after taking office by stopping unnecessary and wasteful spending. We saved £800 million by renegotiating with the biggest suppliers to Government. We cut spending on consultants by 70% and on advertising by 80%. This is just the beginning; there is much more to be done.

I thank the Minister and welcome the initial savings of the Efficiency and Reform Group. He will be aware, however, of the £1 billion of additional savings that my own research has identified. Will he agree that I could meet the chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group to discuss these savings further?

The chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group is me, so I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who, when he was leader of Barnet council, showed how much can be done. We do, absolutely, have a huge amount to learn from what is being done best in local government, particularly the sort of savings that can be made by much better use of office accommodation. It is such a pity that when the current Leader of the Opposition was Minister for the Cabinet Office he did not do this stuff himself. The country would be in less of a mess and the public finances would be in better shape if he had done his job properly.

Of course everybody welcomes cuts to wasteful expenditure. However, will the Minister explain why the Cabinet Office website indicates that in January a contractor charged the taxpayer £5,867.66 for flying flags? Will he explain why the Government paid a single taxi fare of £324.14, which would almost get me from here to Yorkshire and back again? Finally, will he explain why the taxpayer paid £181 for a single individual’s eye test? What a waste of money.

I shall be absolutely delighted to provide the hon. Gentleman with full and detailed replies. I just point out to him, however, that if we had not opened up public spending to public scrutiny, he would not have a prayer of even asking the question.

Proxima, a small software company in my constituency, has the potential to offer real efficiency savings in the use of Government software. Its initial discussions with the Department have been positive, but they have now stalled. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my constituents to see how we can save the Government millions by better use of their resources?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and I will be very glad to meet him to discuss it. There is a huge amount we can do to use IT resources much, much better. Far too often in the past, the Government were reinventing the wheel by buying new systems and not reusing what they had already spent money on. That will now cease.

Civil Service (Voluntary Severance)

6. What estimate he has made of the number of civil servants who will leave the civil service on voluntary severance terms in 2010-11. (69986)

We aim to minimise compulsory redundancy. We reformed the civil service compensation scheme so that, for the first time, voluntary redundancy was more attractive than compulsory redundancy, which was impossibly expensive under the scheme left in place by the previous Government. We estimate that in early 2010-11 11,200 civil servants left the civil service on the new terms.[Official Report, 8 September 2011, Vol. 532, c. 3MC.]

I thank the Minister for that answer. Let me place on record the fact that he will share the objective that all severance packages are voluntary. Nevertheless, I am receiving from civil servants who work in my constituency evidence that they have been dissuaded from volunteering for a redundancy package because parts of their accrued service do not count for the final compensation package. Will the Minister ensure that maximum flexibility is deployed in order to allow us to reach the goal of all departures being voluntary?

I can confirm that staff in the Crown Agents have always been outside the civil service compensation scheme. In April, I used the powers available to me under the scheme rules to allow service in the Crown Agents to count for compensation purposes for the voluntary schemes currently being run by the Department for International Development. I am aware that there are a few cases in which questions have arisen around service before joining the Crown Agents. My officials are actively engaged in clarifying what commitments were made at that time to these staff.

Public Disorder (Financial Cost)

7. What estimate he has made of the financial cost to the voluntary and community sector organisations of recent public disorder in England. (69987)

Since the riots, we have remained in close contact with our strategic partners, who are feeding in information about the impact of the riots on community groups. I have a meeting next week with community groups and sector representatives to discuss that impact and the way forward.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. At the height of the disturbances that hit Leicester, the Age Concern ambulance bus was torched. Despite what the Prime Minister indicated to me in his statement of 11 August, Age Concern is not eligible for the compensation schemes. Will the Minister look urgently at setting up a compensation scheme for charities so that Age Concern in my constituency can replace its ambulance bus as quickly as possible?

I was as shocked as anyone by the torching of the Age Concern ambulance. My understanding is that under these circumstances, damages are recoverable from the high street support scheme. I have been informed that officials have sent that information through. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of Age Concern if there are continued problems with this issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that voluntary organisations are the backbone of our local communities and that any damage to their property or organisation diminishes their opportunity to assist the individuals and groups that are most in need?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, which is why I am meeting many sector representatives and community groups next week to discuss the impact and the way forward. He knows as well as I do that we are doing a huge amount to support community organisations through deregulation and by making it easier for them to access finance.

How much money does the Minister think he will have to put into the national citizen service to prevent future riots? How will he ensure that that is not done at the cost of general voluntary and community services that support young people, especially given that they are incurring additional costs in helping communities to rebuild after the riots and are subject to Government cuts?

We are hugely enthusiastic about the national citizen service; much more, apparently, than the Opposition Front Bench. The experience from this summer is that it has been a fantastic experience for young people, connecting them with a chance to do something really positive in their communities. We are piloting it, but have to proceed cautiously because a lot of taxpayers’ money is involved. As the Prime Minister has made quite clear, we are keen to expand it as fast as we can.

National Citizen Service

We are absolutely delighted with the progress of the national citizen service. About 8,500 young people enjoyed an extremely positive experience this summer. The feedback has been fantastically positive and we will publish an evaluation report shortly on this year’s pilots.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he confirm that he will look to involve organisations such as the YMCA, which has a fantastically strong track record of providing constructive activities for young people, in the delivery of the scheme?

I share my hon. Friend’s high regard for the YMCA and lots of other youth organisations across the country. As I said, we are ambitious to expand the national citizen service and are looking to commission up to 30,000 places next year. We are actively reviewing a list of applications and bids from a great diversity of suppliers. We will announce the results of that shortly.

I know that the Minister is still working out the fine details of the scheme, but may I urge him not to reinvent the wheel, but to make the best use of the Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, of which I am a gold member? As well as not reinventing the wheel, I urge him not to break the spokes in the wheel by shattering youth service provision throughout the country as very good schemes go to the wall under this Administration.

I should make it clear that we are deliberately offering 16-year-olds in this country something new and distinctive. If the hon. Gentleman listens to the kids on the programme this year, he will hear that they see it as being very different from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award and the Prince’s Trust. It is set up to be different, and that is why we are piloting it. As I said, we are extremely enthusiastic about the feedback.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order and hear Mr Mel Stride.

Topical Questions

As 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, the civil society and cyber-security.

Okehampton, in my constituency, has recently seen unemployment treble virtually overnight, although the figure has now decreased dramatically due to local action. It is holding a very important event this week, “Okehampton Works”, bringing together public, private and voluntary organisations to focus on employment, which is an important step towards the big society locally. Will my right hon. Friend join me in visiting Okehampton to meet, and learn from, those who have pioneered that important initiative?

I should be delighted for either myself or the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), to join my hon. Friend in Okehampton to discuss those very issues. There is a huge amount that can be done.

One quango that has done a really good job since it was brought in by the Labour Government is the Security Industry Authority, which licenses bouncers outside pubs. One role that it has not yet been given is the licensing of private investigators. We have seen over the past year that some private investigators are very good people, but some of them are the scum of the earth. Should we not be licensing them and giving that power to the authority?

Whatever the merits of the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is one that he should make to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has responsibility for these matters.

T2. In the light of the excellent work in Lincoln this summer of the pilot national citizen service managed by the Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership, can my hon. Friend assure me that careful consideration has been given to the EBP’s bid for next year, which I wholeheartedly support, so that it can be the deliverer of the NCS for the whole of Lincolnshire in 2012? (69955)

I am grateful to Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership for the excellent work that it has done this summer, which is a really good example of communities working together to support the NCS. As I have said before, we are giving careful consideration to all bids received to run the 2012 pilots and will be making an announcement very shortly. [Interruption.]

Order. There really is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is very discourteous to the Member asking the question and the Minister whose answer we want to hear. I hope the House will show some respect for Mr Sammy Wilson.

What arrangements does the Minister intend to put in place to ensure that places such as Northern Ireland benefit from the opportunities presented by the big society bank?

I was in Belfast just a few weeks ago, at Hillsborough castle, talking about just that to a section of community organisations and social enterprises that were fascinated by the big society bank. We made it very clear that it was open for business in Northern Ireland.

T4. I enjoyed a very rewarding week of volunteering in my constituency during the summer with Mencap, the National Trust, Kirkwood hospice, the Forget Me Not Trust and many more. Does the Minister agree that volunteering should be a key component of the national citizen service? (69957)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the sterling example that he has set others. Of course, one of the purposes of the national citizen service is to connect young people with their power to make a positive difference in their communities. If he had visited some of the pilots that I did, he would have been absolutely inspired by the enthusiasm with which they undertook that task.

In opening access to public data on the performance of our publicly subsidised railways, does the Minister recognise that real-time running information would be even more powerful in driving innovation that would aid the travelling public? Will he get train operators to be more open with such public data?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. These are services that rely on public subsidy, and that information is incredibly valuable and capable of providing enormous benefit to the users of public transport. It can drive more passengers on to public transport, which we all want, so it is in not only the public interest but the operators’ interest to make such data available.

T5. Further to our meeting in May, may I ask my right hon. Friend what progress has been made with the relocation of part of the central Government estate from central London? (69958)

At this stage we are concentrating on simply reducing the footprint of the Government’s property estate, which was allowed to grow massively out of control under the last Government because there were no controls whatever. Rather than looking to relocate, at this stage we are simply looking to reduce what the Government occupy. I know that Croydon, which my hon. Friend represents vigorously, is a very good location out of central London for Government services to operate from.

T7. Small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency warmly welcome the steps that the Government are taking to make it easier for them to win Government contracts, but they also need better access to finance to win such contracts. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help with that? (69960)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the finance, SMEs cannot take part. I am delighted to be able to tell him that in the first half of the year, SME lending has almost lived up to the target set in the Merlin agreement for SMEs—it is within £1 billion—which is a major achievement.

T8. Does my hon. Friend agree that the promotion of youth organisations such as the Passion youth centre in Shepshed, which are often set up by churches, should be a cornerstone of the Government’s response to the riots over the summer? (69961)

I should certainly like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Passion youth centre and the local churches that support it. That seems to be an excellent example of the community pulling together to make better use of an old facility, which is exactly the type of thing that we are trying to encourage through the Localism Bill, Big Society Capital and the Community First grant programme.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have fallen in Afghanistan since we last met for Prime Minister’s questions: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers; Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; and Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines. We should also remember Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering, who died in a road traffic accident in Italy on 20 July while supporting operations in Libya. I pay tribute to their outstanding courage and selflessness. They have each given their lives serving our country and making our world more safe and secure. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies should be with their families, their friends and their colleagues.

This week, we also reach the 10th anniversary of the terrible atrocities of 11 September 2001, so we should remember all those who lost their lives that day, and all those who have died in pursuit of a safer future throughout the last decade.

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.

The whole House will agree with the tributes that the Prime Minister has just made to members of the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country.

Earlier this week, the Government pushed through legislation that says that terror suspects must be given access to mobile phones and the internet and that ends relocation orders, so that such suspects cannot be kept out of London in the run-up to the Olympics or the Queen’s jubilee without emergency legislation. Will not decent, law-abiding people out there be shocked to discover that the Prime Minister is weakening protection for them while pushing through what many people will think is a charter of rights for would-be terrorists?

I do not agree with that. We consulted very carefully with the police and the security services in order to try to get to a better position, because frankly, control orders did not have the confidence of the public and did not work in far too many cases. The arrangements that we have put in place will keep this country safe and have greater public confidence.

May I thank the House and all my Hexham constituents for their messages of support while I was temporarily in hospital? I am now fully recovered, thanks to the outstanding care of the NHS and its hard-working doctors and nurses. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, as many doctors and nurses did, that it must be our mission to improve and reform the NHS, so that the service that we so cherish will improve with the challenges ahead?

May I say how good it is to see my hon. Friend back in his place and fully recovered? He is right: the point of our health reforms is to put doctors in charge, give patients greater choice, and heal the divide between health and social care. I believe that they will lead to a stronger NHS and better outcomes for patients.

May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave servicemen who have given their lives over the summer: Lance Corporal Paul Watkins, from 9th/12th Royal Lancers (Prince of Wales’s); Corporal Mark Palin, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Marine James Wright, from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; Lieutenant Daniel Clack, from 1st Battalion The Rifles; Sergeant Barry Weston, from Kilo Company, 42 Commando, Royal Marines; and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering. All of them demonstrated tremendous bravery and courage in the line of duty, and we send our deepest condolences to their families and friends.

Let me also join the Prime Minister in remembering all those who died in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. We all said at the time that we would never forget, and it is right that we pay particular attention on this the 10th anniversary of 11 September, so that for the victims and their families we show that we are true to the words that we spoke in the aftermath of those terrible attacks.

As the House returns from the recess, I also thank all our policemen and policewomen who did such a tremendous job in the riots over the summer, and it is on the subject of policing that I want to start my questions to the Prime Minister. We learned last night that the Prime Minister now wants to hold his elections for police commissioners not alongside local elections, as originally intended, but in November next year. How much extra money does he expect that to cost?

So the Prime Minister is making a bad policy worse by wasting money. If he wanted to postpone the elections, he could easily have decided to hold them in May 2013; and, indeed, subsequent elections will be held in May 2016. Will he tell us why he has decided to waste his money in this way?

It is important to get the policy right, and to make sure that it works. Let us be clear. First of all, why are the Opposition so frightened of an election? What have they to fear?

The right hon. Gentleman called this bad policy. Let me tell him what was said by his own shadow Policing Minister. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said that

“only direct election, based on geographic constituencies, will deliver the strong connection to the public which is critical”.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of an election and proper police accountability?

We know what the public up and down this country know: this is the wrong priority for the country. What did we see during the riots? We saw visible, effective policing. Now the Prime Minister tells us that the country cannot afford the current police budgets, and that we must cut the number of police officers by 16,000. However, he tells the country that it can afford £100 million and more as a result of his decision to waste money on 42 elected politicians earning more than £120,000 a year. That could pay for 2,000 extra police officers. Is not the truth that this is the wrong priority at the wrong time for the country?

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman has got his figures completely wrong. The police authorities of whom only 6% of the country have actually heard will be abolished, and that will save money.

Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. Why is he frightened of direct elections that will make the police accountable? He was responsible for the last Labour manifesto, and this is what the last Labour Prime Minister said:

“the Home Secretary will bring forward proposals for directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing”.—[Official Report, 14 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1388.]

Why the U-turn?

We know that the Prime Minister has got the wrong priorities on the police and that he is refusing to back down. However, he has got the wrong priorities not just on the police, but on the health service as well. Can he tell us why the number of people who have had to wait longer than six months for an operation has gone up by more than 60% since he came to office?

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to change the subject, because on policing he was having his collar felt as he has done a complete U-turn on the policy he used to be committed to.

As I said some moments ago, in our health service we are seeing more cancer patients get treatment, more doctors in our NHS, fewer bureaucrats, a reduction in mixed-sex—[Interruption.] I know Labour Members do not like hearing—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in what is beginning to sound like orchestrated heckling. [Interruption.] Order. It is profoundly discourteous and it should stop.

The trouble is that the Opposition do not like hearing good news about what is happening in the national health service. The fact is that waiting times for outpatients have actually fallen since the last election.

That was a complete non-answer; the Prime Minister cannot even answer the questions. We are talking about people up and down this country who have been waiting longer for their operations. [Interruption.] The Government Chief Whip shouts from a sedentary position; he should care about these people who have been waiting longer for their operations. Let me tell the Government Chief Whip and the whole Government Front Bench what we are talking about. Between June 2010 and June 2011, the number of people waiting more than six months for an operation was up by 42% for those waiting for a heart operation, up by 62% for those waiting for orthopaedic operations, and up by 72% for those waiting for eye surgery. The country and I are just asking for a simple explanation from the Prime Minister: why has it happened?

The explanation is that the amount of time that people are waiting for an outpatient operation has actually gone down; that is what has happened. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have targets for 90% of people to get their treatment within 18 weeks, and those targets are being met. He may not like the truth, but that is the truth, and I have to say to him that that is why we now see the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing all supporting our health reforms. We even see Lord Darzi, the former Health Minister, supporting our health reforms. Labour has got itself into a position of opposing all reform to the NHS and opposing the extra money into the NHS; that is its position.

I think the Prime Minister has convinced the country that he is on another planet from them. He had his holidays interrupted—fair play to him—but he took time off from his holiday to tell the Western Morning News what he has just repeated: that the

“whole health profession is on board for what is now being done.”

I have to ask: does he read the newspapers, because only on Tuesday of this week the British Medical Association, the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Midwives all rejected his Bill? And that was only this week. The truth is that under this Government we are seeing two reckless and needless reorganisations of our public services: police numbers down and waiting lists up. Under Labour, we saw police officers up and waiting lists down. Why does he not do the right thing for the future of our public services, and scrap both of these disruptive and dangerous plans?

Is it not interesting that he does not dare in six questions to mention the economy? On our health reforms, let me quote what the man his Government plucked from the NHS to run the Department of Health, Lord Darzi, says:

“The proposals from the NHS Future Forum, and supported by the Government, have recast the reforms in”

the right

“direction and are to be welcomed.”

So now we have the Royal College of GPs, the physicians, the nurses and people working in the health service supporting the changes we are making, and Labour wanting to cut the money and also cut the reform. Isn’t it no surprise that the shadow Health Secretary—it is traditional to quote the shadow Health Secretary on these occasions—said this:

“It’s a tough fact of life…that what Labour says matters less than what almost anyone else says”?

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Does the Prime Minister agree that building stronger families and communities is absolutely essential and key to dealing with antisocial and delinquent behaviour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is important and I am sure that there will be all-party agreement on it. As well as having a tough response from the criminal justice system to the riots—we have seen that tough response, with some exemplary sentences handed out very rapidly by the courts system; I praise all those who have been involved in speeding up the justice system—at the same time we need to do more to strengthen communities, to strengthen families, to increase discipline in schools and to make sure that our welfare system supports responsible behaviour rather than irresponsible behaviour. We will be bringing forward proposals along those lines and I hope that they will have support from everyone in this House.

Q2. Before the summer, the Prime Minister took part in a TV documentary that highlighted fears of crime and antisocial behaviour on the Saffron Lane estate in my constituency. Does he expect crime and antisocial behaviour on that estate, and across Leicester, to increase or decrease when he cuts 200 police officers from the Leicestershire force? (69965)

I want to see crime and antisocial behaviour go down. Let me just remind the hon. Gentleman that today only 12% of police officers——only one in 10—are on the beat at any one time. There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs, not on the front line. We all have a responsibility to try to get our budget deficit under control. His party is committed to a £1 billion cut in the police. What we have to do is recognise that this is about getting officers on to the front line—that is the debate we should be engaged in.

Q3. In the wake of the riots, may I commend the Government’s and Mayor of London’s support for high streets, such as those in Enfield, which were badly hit? Is this not a good time to support the forthcoming global day of prayer, which in London will be taking place at Wembley? (69966)

I certainly pay tribute to what the Mayor has done and what the Department for Communities and Local Government has done to make sure that there is money available for rebuilding our communities. The good thing about the £20 million high street support scheme, which my hon. Friend mentions, is that 29 local authorities have already registered for it. I hope that we will see the money being spent quickly to help rebuild our high streets.

It is up to chief constables to work out how best to police their areas, but what I am finding from talking to police constables up and down the country is that they want to put their resources into visible policing on the streets. They have got the support of a Government who are cutting the paperwork, reforming the pay and reforming the pensions—taking the difficult decisions that will make sure that we have more police on our streets than we ever would under Labour.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a very clear message to the Travellers at the illegal Dale Farm site: we all hope that they move off peacefully in order to avoid a forced eviction but if they do not do so, they should be in no doubt that the Government fully support Basildon council and Essex police in reclaiming this green belt land on behalf of the law-abiding majority? (69967)

I certainly give my support to Essex police and to all the county and district councils that have been involved, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the very hard work he has put in on this issue. What I would say is that it is a basic issue of fairness: everyone in this country has to obey the law, including the law about planning permission and about building on green belt land. Where this has been done without permission it is an illegal development and so those people should move away. I completely agree with the way in which he put his question.

Q5. The Prime Minister opposed Labour’s anti-gang laws, but then the riots occurred and he decided to strengthen them. Now he wants to weaken anti-terror laws by scrapping relocation powers. What will have to happen before he is prepared to admit that the mess he is replacing them with is putting national security at risk? (69968)

I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In our review of control orders, we listened extremely carefully to MI5, the security services, the Metropolitan police and all those involved. There was a full review process to make sure that we could have a system that is legal—that is vital because the courts unpicked so many of the last Government’s changes—that the public can have confidence in and that will keep us safe.

On the day when 200 people from Bombardier in Derby are here to hear whether we can change the arrangements for the Thameslink contract, can the Prime Minister give us some hope about future contracts and about changing the tender arrangements—the mess that we were left in by the previous Government?

I certainly want to do everything I can to help Bombardier, which is an excellent company that employs people in Derbyshire and has done a brilliant job as an engineering business in this country for so many years. Before people from the Labour party start shouting, let me remind them that this procurement process was designed and initiated by the previous Government. It is no good their trying to shuffle off their responsibility—it is their responsibility.

Q6. Why do the Government not agree with the police that children as young as seven should be banned from having shotgun licences? (69969)

I think we should enforce proper rules on gun licences, including shotgun licences. We always keep these rules under review and if they need toughening, I will happily look at that.

The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss? [Interruption.]

I know that the hon. Lady is extremely frustrated about the—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should start all over again—[Interruption.] I am going to give up on this one.

Q7. With the Future Jobs Fund and education maintenance allowance having been scrapped, the number of young people not in education, unemployment and training is at a record high of 18.4% on the Prime Minister’s watch. When will things get better for our young people? (69970)

Clearly, we face a difficult situation in terms of youth unemployment. Let us be clear that the situation was getting worse during the economic good times, and there was a 40% increase in youth unemployment over the time of the previous Government. What we are seeing today is a disturbing increase in the number of those not in employment, education and training over the age of 18, but under the age of 18 that number is coming down. The steps that we are taking are to improve schooling, to raise the participation age to 18 and massively to increase the level of apprenticeships to 360,000 starts this year. We are also introducing the Work programme, which is the biggest back-to-work programme that has taken place in this country since the 1930s and it will also be made available to young people who are in danger of being left out of employment, education and training.

Q8. I have been working with local businesses, my councils and other organisations to help promote, expand and grow the Carlisle economy. Clearly, given the economic background, it is imperative that we grow both the local and national economy. Will the Prime Minister tell us what new measures the Government will introduce to help promote such growth? (69971)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I enjoyed seeing at first hand what is happening in Cumbria to try get the local economy moving. The action we are taking obviously includes the cuts in corporation tax, and the regional growth fund and the enterprise zones. Specifically for Cumbria, the money we are investing for superfast broadband will really help that county, particularly the most rural and far-flung parts, and will ensure that small businesses can benefit throughout the county.

Q15. DNA and CCTV played a vital role in the arrest of many of the looters. Why is the Prime Minister undermining that in the Protection of Freedoms Bill? (69978)

Q9. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes to consider next week’s Vickers report on the banks, which have been rescued with fantastic amounts of taxpayers’ money, will he have no truck with the banks’ argument that they cannot be reformed to prevent another crisis because they are having such a struggle coping with the crisis they have already created? Surely never again should British taxpayers have to bail out banks that are too big to fail. (69972)

My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the Government must take action to reform the banks, and that is what we are doing. We have already set out how we are getting rid of the tripartite structure that failed so badly under the previous Government, how we are putting the Bank of England back in charge, and how we are making sure that, as he put it, we cannot have in the future these catastrophic bank failures that cost the taxpayer so dear. We are looking forward to receiving Professor Vickers’ report. It seems to me there are two vital things we have to secure—a safe and secure banking system for the future, but also proper bank lending, including to small businesses, right now in our economy. That is what Government policy will be aiming for.

Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that his Government are consulting on their changes to housing benefit claims under the criteria of under-occupancy. This will adversely affect 450,000 disabled people, including 33,000 in the north-east alone, who stand to lose on average £676 a year. A substantial number will be affected in my constituency. How does this policy meet his Government’s fairness test? (69973)

We are making a specific exclusion to deal with people who have carers living in the home, but we do have to reform housing benefit. I think the whole House knows, frankly, that housing benefit was one of those budget items that was completely out of control. In some parts of London, we had families claiming £60,000, £70,000 and £80,000 in housing benefit just for one family, so this does need to be reformed. It is no good for the Labour party—

Frankly, too many. And it is no good for the Labour party to complain about every single reduction to public spending when it left us with the biggest budget deficit in Europe.

The Prime Minister has listened to Liberal Democrat colleagues by delaying police elections until November next year. Will he now listen to Conservative colleagues and take the opportunity to hold a referendum on Europe?

That is an ingenious way of putting the question. As I explained yesterday, I want us to be influential in Europe about the things that matter to our national interest—promoting the single market, pushing forward for growth and making sure that we get lower energy prices. Those are the things that we will be fighting for, but I do not see the case for an in/out referendum on Europe. We are in Europe and we have got to make it work for us.

Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Housing Minister that due to the economic policies of the Government, we now have a growth crisis? When he does a U-turn, will he choose to cut VAT, which is Labour’s policy, or to give tax cuts to the rich? (69974)

The hon. Gentleman obviously has not had time to read this great tome, which points out that increasing VAT was Labour’s policy at the last election. What he should focus on is the fact that the person responsible for Labour’s economic policy at the last election has said it had no credible policy whatever. The problem for Labour is that absolutely nothing has changed.

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Members from both sides of the House and in both Houses on their generosity in responding to the letter from Mr Speaker and the Lords’ Speaker in supporting a gift for Her Majesty the Queen for her forthcoming diamond jubilee from this Parliament?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone who contributed to this very imaginative and sensible gift for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. Perhaps I could pay particular tribute to him because he has worked so hard to make this work. I think it will be a fitting tribute and it is something that the country should focus on. To have a diamond jubilee is an extraordinary thing for us to be able to celebrate in our lifetimes.

Q12. With electricity and gas bills going up by 20%, and with 6 million families in this country now facing fuel poverty, does the Prime Minister still think it was right to cut the winter fuel payment to pensioners by £100? (69975)

Let us be clear: we are going ahead with the winter fuel payment set out by the previous Labour Government in their Budget. At the same time, we are increasing the cold weather payments on a permanent basis, so this Government are being more generous than the previous Government.

In seeking to address the economic recovery, is it better to help those who are taxed on incomes as little as £150 a week, or those who, after tax, take home around 10 times that amount?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Let me just point out two things that we have done that are totally in line with that, one of which is to lift 1 million people out of income tax altogether—that is a coalition commitment that we have been delivering on. The second thing, when it comes to tax credits, is that we have increased, over two years, by £290 the tax credits that go to the poorest families in our country. That is why we have managed to take difficult decisions—everyone knows we have had to take difficult decisions—without an increase in child poverty. In better economic times, under the previous Government, child poverty actually went up.

Q13. Bringing Siemens, manufacturing wind turbines, to the Humber is vital for jobs and a breakthrough on renewables, which will hopefully increase the UK industry in this area. Local councils and businesses are doing everything they can to attract Siemens to the area, but we face very strong foreign competition. Will this Government do what the last Government did and back this bid? Will the Prime Minister do everything he can to secure Siemens coming to Hull? (69976)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I think it is vital for the future of our economy and the future of the area that she represents. I met Members of Parliament from Humberside to discuss the issue. I have myself spoken to the head of Siemens about the importance of this investment going ahead. We are continuing the extra money going into ports to help the development of this industry and we back it all the way.

At a meeting this morning with organisations working in the horn of Africa, representatives expressed their gratitude for the fact that the British public have been so generous and the Department for International Development has provided such leadership. That famine is continuing to become more severe. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to provide international leadership to help the people in east Africa?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The response of the British public has been remarkable. These are difficult economic times, but they have shown an incredible generosity and led the world in the contributions that they have made. And because this Government, again in difficult economic times, have made the decision to fulfil our pledge of reaching the level of 0.7% of national income going into aid, we are also leading the world in the amount of money that we are putting into the horn of Africa to vaccinate children, to save lives and to recognise that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Q14. Does the Prime Minister agree that his Housing Minister is an absolute star? In the face of declining planning permissions for new build homes, in the face of fewer new homes being built in the previous 12 months than in any year of Labour’s programme of administration for house building, his Minister’s great idea is to urge councils to build more moorings for houseboats. Fantastic. (69977)

I thought the hon. Gentleman was doing so well till he got all political. I think there should be agreement across the House that house building is too low in this country, and it is a shocking statistic that the typical first-time buyer is now in their mid-30s. So we do need change, we do need more houses to be built, and I think my Housing Minister is doing a first-class job.

While much attention is being paid to the military activities occurring in Libya over the summer, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Captain Steve Norris and the crew of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Wave Ruler in the work they are doing combating drugs in the Caribbean? Not only did they intercept £50 million of cocaine over the summer, but they have also been helping humanitarian efforts in the Overseas Territories following Hurricane Irene.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. While we obviously should focus on and praise the incredible work that our services have done in Libya and Afghanistan, there are the ongoing tasks. He talks about drug interdiction in the West Indies. There is also the task of protecting the Falkland Islands. There is the work that we are doing to prevent piracy off the horn of Africa. In all these tasks people are giving a huge amount of time and effort, and we should praise and thank them for what they do.