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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2011

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Community Projects

1. What steps he is taking to encourage individuals and organisations to engage in projects that benefit their local community. (77750)

Encouraging more social action is a key strand of the big society vision, so we are looking at ways to cut some of the red tape that gets in the way and are busy delivering programmes such as Community Organisers, Community First, the national citizen service and the social action fund.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he expand on how these initiatives will impact on the residents of South Basildon and East Thurrock and on what they could hope to see from such great ideas in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his positive reaction. I am aware that at least three wards, I think, in his constituency are eligible for the Community First grant programme. This is a fund designed to put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them implement their own plans. It is focused on wards that blend high levels of deprivation with low levels of social capital, and I very much hope that he will engage personally in supporting constituents in those wards to maximise those particular opportunities.

I declare an interest as a trustee of Community Service Volunteers, which had its Make a Difference day on Saturday last week, encouraging people to volunteer and make a difference in their community. What steps will the Government take to ensure that organisations such as Community Service Volunteers can reach out and encourage volunteers like Abbie, who is unemployed, to make a difference by working in her local Marie Curie shop?

Community Service Volunteers is a great organisation and it had a spectacularly successful day. The answer lies in trying to reduce some of the barriers, such as the red tape that I mentioned, that stop people getting involved. It is also important to try to inspire people to step up and get more involved. That is why we believe that programmes such as Community Organisers and Community First, which are about bringing communities together to identify what they want to change and inspiring them to work together to make that change happen, can be a very powerful intervention.

The Minister will be aware that this is national trustees week. Will he address two particular concerns of that campaign? The first is that the number of young people being attracted to become trustees is very small indeed, and the other is the fact that more than half of charities have at least one vacancy on their board of trustees.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We all know the value and importance of the work of trustees and the ability of a really good set of trustees to transform the capability of a charity or voluntary organisation. It is important that the Government will announce some steps to promote wider awareness of the opportunity to take part in being a trustee.

Voluntary Sector

I refer the hon. Members for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) to the open letter to the voluntary sector, which was sent to all MPs and published on the Cabinet Office website; it sets out our strategy for encouraging more social action and supporting civil society.

The Greater Manchester centre for voluntary organisation estimates that a quarter of those employed by voluntary organisations are losing their jobs in this two-year period. Can the Minister honestly tell the voluntary sector through the House that with that level of cutbacks there really is a role for that sector? Volunteers need a structure in which to work.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We all have to recognise that there is less money around so some difficult choices have to be made. I simply refer him to the statement made by his own leader to the BBC on Valentine’s day this year to the effect that he could not have protected the voluntary sector from local authority cuts. There is awareness of the challenge that we all face. I know that the sector in Manchester has benefited from the transition fund and that a bid has been put in to the infrastructure fund from the organisations that support front-line organisations. Eighteen wards in the city of Manchester and 69 in Greater Manchester are eligible for the Community First grant programme.

People in my constituency who are living with cancer and other long-term conditions desperately need benefits advice. It is currently provided by Macmillan Cancer Support, Citizens Advice, Welfare Rights and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. I attended a meeting with these groups on Monday morning. Let me tell the Minister that they are under real pressure to find the financial wherewithal to go forward. Surely now is the time to make sure that these organisations have the financial support that is required to provide quality benefits advice.

I could not agree more. When I visited my local advice centre on Friday, I had a real sense of the strain and stress that its staff were experiencing. We have set aside a further £20 million of special funding for advice centres. There is also to be a short review to investigate what the Government can do to manage levels of demand on those working in that vital sector, and how we can make life easier for them.

Does the Minister agree that voluntary groups set up by people who do what they do because they want to, and because they have a lifetime of experience in the field—one example is Home-Start in my constituency—often fulfil their roles not only in a more cost-effective way, but better than others?

Absolutely. Value is reflected in two ways, in terms of cost and in terms of the effectiveness of the support that is given. In my experience, volunteer-led organisations enjoy a different level of trust among the people whom they are trying to help.

Would the Minister welcome increased Government spending to enable the voluntary sector to deal with human trafficking? If the money went through the Salvation Army, the big society could help all charities to look after victims.

The latest survey of charity leaders by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that 30% of them expect to cut jobs in the next three months, and that some 60% expect the economic situation, as it affects such organisations, to deteriorate over the next 12 months. Given that voluntary sector capacity is being reduced, is not the truth about the big society that, on the Minister’s watch, it is about to get smaller?

I dispute that. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the leader of his party told the BBC in February that he would not make councils protect cash for voluntary groups. There is a hard economic reality here: a sector that receives £13 billion of taxpayers’ money cannot be immune to the requirement to contribute to a reduction in Government borrowing. The challenge now is for us to find a way of working together to mitigate the damage done to the voluntary sector in the short term, while preparing it for the real opportunities down the track to deliver more public services.

Open Government Partnership

4. What assessment he has made of the potential role of the open government partnership in promoting openness and transparency. (77753)

Transparency is an idea whose time has come. It makes choice possible, it encourages accountability, and it can change lives. The United Kingdom Government are already the world leader in transparency, and the open government partnership will enable those huge benefits to be promoted to many other countries around the world.

The open government partnership is an interesting and exciting concept. Can my right hon. Friend tell me the key UK transparency commitments within it?

All the principles underlying the partnership reflect things that we have already introduced: openness about Government spending, openness about salaries, openness about the internal workings of government, and an increase in the publication of outcome data about the way in which public services operate. We have said that commitment to and implementation of the principles of the open government partnership will increasingly be a material factor in decisions by the Department for International Development about where to place direct budget support for developing country Governments.

In the interests of open government, will the Minister agree to publish all the credit card expenses of Ministers and officials under the sum of £500 in all Departments, starting with the Housing Minister?

It is good to hear the right hon. Gentleman being so enthusiastic about transparency. We have already published Government payment card data covering transactions between April and August this year, and we will continue to do so. We will publish the data for 2010 and 2011, and Departments will also have the option of publishing data for the previous year, when the last Government were in office. I look forward to enthusiastic support from the Labour party when the transactions made when it was in office are made public.

I thank the Minister for that response, and in particular for what he said about the last Government. I believe that the limit should be zero rather than £500, because we would not have known about the expenditure of the NHS on finger puppets if a higher limit had applied.

My hon. Friend makes the purist case for the disclosure of absolutely everything, but we have gone infinitely further than any Government have ever gone before in exposing the spending of Departments. Of course we will keep that under review, but the first thing we need to do is complete the publication of the data on transactions below £500, including some that took place under the last Government.

Given the pride the Minister obviously takes in transparency, is it not slightly odd that his Department, which leads on these matters for the whole Government, has the worst record in responding to freedom of information requests? Indeed, some people might think that is almost fishy. Since coming into office, the number of FOI requests answered on time by his Department has nosedived from 90% in March 2010 to only 42% in March this year. What do they have to hide? Will the Minister now tell us when he intends to get his house in order on FOI?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and congratulate him on his elevation to the shadow Cabinet.

The Cabinet Office deals with FOI requests in respect of Cabinet papers under the last Government, and that takes some time to deal with because we need to consult former Ministers in that Government. Any FOI requests relating to the royal family also need to be dealt with sensitively, with a lot of consultation. I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not raise the issue of Government procurement cards, and does not echo the response of his colleague, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who said, when we published these data, that we had gone on a spending spree, when, in fact, we had cut spending under Government procurement cards by 10% compared with the record of his party.

Trade Union Facility Time

5. What the cost to the public purse was of the provision of trade union facility time by Government Departments in the last year for which figures are available. (77754)

Total spend on trade union facility time across the civil service is estimated to be around £30 million a year, while in the public sector as a whole the estimate is £225 million. ACAS guidance suggests this system should be regularly reviewed. Strangely, we have not been able to find any evidence that it was reviewed under the last Government.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very revealing answer. He will be aware of the current scandal of public sector employees spending 100% of their time on union activities while still drawing their publicly funded salary. My constituents in Lincoln expect their thousands of pounds in taxes to be used to pay for public services, not union activities. This situation clearly does not—

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that as part of any consultation or meeting, such as the one he had today, he will fully examine this scandal?

As I have said, we are going to consult on this. We will want to look very carefully at the phenomenon whereby large numbers of civil servants and other public servants are engaged full time as union officials at the taxpayers’ expense. There may be a case for some of this continuing, but certainly not on the scale we inherited from the Labour party.

But is there not also a point to be made about how much money is saved to the public purse by having good industrial relations? Instead of going backwards, should not the Minister be going forward and talking about how he could improve industrial relations?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make the case for why more and more taxpayers’ money should be spent on subsidising union officials, let him do so, and let him explain to his constituents why that is good value when what they want is taxpayers’ money to be spent on front-line public services, on which the most vulnerable people in our society depend.

Third Sector Contracts

6. What recent progress he has made in increasing the number of central Government contracts secured by the third sector. (77756)

Since May 2010 there have been 702 purchase orders for third sector services by the Department of Health alone. There have also been 94 contracts with third sector organisations from five different Departments: four from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 21 from the Ministry of Justice, 15 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 47 from the Department for Work and Pensions and seven from the Department for Transport. Those contracts have a total value of more than £488 million. Unfortunately, I cannot say how that compares with the previous Government’s record as records were not kept at that time.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. In the last week, I met a voluntary third sector organisation in my constituency called Tolsam, which does a lot of valuable work with the young unemployed and those not in education, employment or training. Given the scale of the youth unemployment problem our country now faces, will Ministers consider introducing a requirement that third sector organisations that work with NEETs and the young employed are favoured when awarding contracts?

The hon. Gentleman, who I have discovered has a very honourable record of visiting social enterprises in his constituency, makes a good point. We do believe that there is great merit in including in public sector contracting provisions that reflect social value and social outcomes. We are working on that and we intend to proceed with it.

The Government have launched the Contracts Finder website, which enables third sector companies to find Government contracts. How does the Minister intend to assess how successful that has been and will he publish figures to demonstrate whether or not it has worked?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have indeed launched the Contracts Finder website, and I did a bit of mystery shopping to check whether it was possible to use it. I am glad to be able to tell the House that it is a very useful thing. We have already received some feedback from businesses and third sector organisations that have been on the website, and where we have had that feedback we have responded to it. We will be looking at the overall effectiveness of the website in due course and reporting back to the House.

Social Enterprise

First, we now have Big Society Capital established—the initial investment was made in the summer. Secondly, we are moving ahead with the establishment of mutuals, with a new mutuals support programme; 45,000 staff are already in social enterprises in health care alone. Thirdly, we have promoted social enterprise in the Work programme, with two social enterprises as prime providers and about 500 more voluntary sector organisations as subcontractors.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he believe that the Government and local authorities should be developing strategies to promote social enterprises? If so, why has he axed the clauses that would have made Departments do that from the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White)?

We do not feel that it is necessary to legislate for strategies at a national and local level. The previous Government specialised in having lots of strategies and fulfilling none of them. By contrast, we are in favour of taking action, which is why we are working with my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) to ensure, as I mentioned in answer to the previous question, that there is provision for social outcomes and social value to be measured in contracts. That is, of course, part of his Bill. [Interruption.]

Order. I am sure that when the Minister was conducting his philosophy seminars he had a rather more respectful and attentive audience, and that is what we should grant him.

Allia and Future Business are promoting social bonds to support social enterprises, such as the future business centre in my constituency. There has been a very good uptake by individuals and companies, but not by the banks. Will the Minister have discussions with the banks to encourage them to invest in these bonds, which provide a secure social investment asset?

We believe that social impact bonds have an enormous role to play. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for the civil society, and I recently had a round table meeting with a group of social entrepreneurs and investors who are interested in investing in social enterprise. We are encouraging that and we are taking further steps through Big Society Capital to promote the use of social impact bonds. Of course our payment-by-results systems also make use of social impact bonds.

Head of the Civil Service

The roles of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service are very different and were indeed separate roles until 1981. Following the announcement of the retirement of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the role of head of the civil service will, once again, be separated from the Cabinet Secretary role. The two individual roles will be more focused, and people can be appointed to each on the basis of the skills match to each role. An internal competition is under way to recruit the post holder from among existing permanent secretaries.

Change is the watchword of the Prime Minister and change in government is a vital ingredient of the Government’s reform programme. How will the head of the civil service be able to lead and implement change if he does not have equal authority and equal access to the centre of government as he does now?

He or she will have equal access and will exercise a decisive role in leading the reform of the civil service so that we can create a genuinely modern, progressive civil service that a modern Britain requires.

Is the Minister satisfied that with the split of the new roles, the various questions of probity, propriety and procedure that were aired in the O’Donnell report on the Werritty affair will be clearly brought to a known figure in the future, or will there be confusion?

We will make sure that those issues are properly scrutinised, as they were on that occasion, and that there are proper arrangements to ensure that that is the case.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are 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.

The average pension for a woman retiring from the NHS is £3,000 and the average local government pension is £4,000. Does the Minister accept that if we increase the contributions for a worse pension, more people will simply opt out and we will end up paying more through the state benefits system?

It is in no one’s interest that public sector workers should opt out of pension schemes. The numbers to which the hon. Lady refers do not in any way reflect the pension that people retire on after a full career. That is the average, including many people who serve relatively short times in the public service. At the end of these reforms public sector pensions will still be among the very best available, much better than those available to most people in the private sector, who have no chance of enjoying such pensions. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place. The House will want to hear Stephen Mosley.

T3. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of negotiations with the trade unions on public sector pension reform? (77769)

We have made progress and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and I met the TUC again this morning. My right hon. Friend will make a statement to the House later. As I said, our intention is that public sector pensions will continue to be among the very best available, but fair both to public sector staff and to the general taxpayer, who has had to bear an increasing burden of the cost of paying for these pensions in recent years.

During last week’s debate on the Public Bodies Bill, the Government voted to scrap the role of the chief coroner, despite opposition from Opposition Members and from Back-Bench Conservative Members as well. Responding, the Royal British Legion said that it was

“saddened that this opportunity to do the right thing by bereaved Service families was not taken”

by the Government. As we approach Remembrance Sunday, is it not time that the Government did the right thing and listened to the Royal British Legion?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard Ministers in the Ministry of Justice talking about this when we debated the matter last week, and I think they made a very good case for what the Government intend to do.

T4. Can my right hon. Friend say how the British Government compare with the French Government when it comes to the number of contracts they procure with domestic suppliers? (77770)

The procurement practice that we inherited from the previous Government militates heavily against the interests of UK suppliers and UK jobs, especially when it comes to very large contracts. Both France and Germany, which do not operate protectionist regimes and which obey the rules, give away fewer jobs to other countries. We are looking at this to see how we can support UK suppliers in a way that the previous Government signally failed to do.

T2. Speaking of fewer jobs, the Public Bodies Bill scrapped regional development agencies. My constituent Mark Davenport invested £6,000 setting up a business installing solar panels. At six weeks’ notice, the investment made by thousands of businesses was wiped out by a dramatic cut in the feed-in tariff scheme. Can the Minister explain to Mr Davenport how the abolition of the RDAs and now the cut in feed-in tariffs is helping jobs and growth? (77766)

What the hon. Gentleman needs to deal with is the fact that the regional development agencies in their time never managed to achieve what they set out to achieve and acquired vast liabilities—an astonishing achievement for development agencies. The solar tariffs had to be reduced because they were a disgrace and would have cast ill-repute on the whole of the very important programme that we have for supporting renewables and feed-in tariffs in this country.

T5. People in Edgworth in my constituency found out that their bus service is being scrapped for want of £10,000, although the local authority can still find almost £100,000 to support trade union activity. What action will the Government take to end taxpayer-funded activity within the public sector? (77771)

I have already said what we are planning to do in relation to the civil service. Obviously, local authorities must answer for their own affairs, but the guidance is that those arrangements should be reviewed regularly. I urge my hon. Friend to put pressure on his local authority to explain how it justifies spending money that should be spent on front-line public services supporting vulnerable people on subsidising trade union activity instead.

What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues who are responsible for the Work programme about openness and transparency? They are yet to publish any performance data on the programme. Moreover, they have banned Work programme providers from publishing their own performance data, as many of them would like to do.

All the indications are that the Work programme is a successful move, and I will make those representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We are generally the most open Government ever. We lead the world in transparency and have gone much further than the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a distinguished member ever dreamt of going.

T6. Having heard the excellent news this week on the increase in apprenticeship places, which are up 50% to 442,000, does my hon. Friend agree that the national citizen service can also play a key role in helping our young people into work? (77773)

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

With the average 60-year-old living 10 years longer than in the 1970s, public sector pension reform is essential. Will the Prime Minister ensure that reform is fair for my constituents, both in terms of taxpayers and public sector workers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be making a full statement to the House. It seems to me to be absolutely vital that we do something that is fair to both taxpayers and public sector workers. The cost of our public sector pensions system is up by a third in the last decade. It is not fair to go on as we are, but the new arrangements must be fair to people who work hard in the public sector and on whom we all rely. I can tell the House that low and middle-income earners will actually get more from their public sector pensions, everyone will keep what they have built up so far, anyone within 10 years of retirement will see no change to their pension arrangements and, at the end of all this, people in the public sector will still get far better pensions than people in the private sector. I really think it is time that the Labour party was clear that it does not support strikes later this month.

Does the Prime Minister believe that growth of 0.5% over the last year and unemployment at a 17-year high point to the success or failure of his economic plan?

Obviously, everybody wants the British economy to grow faster—that is what everybody wants. Yesterday’s figure of 0.5% was better than many people expected and is it not noticeable that the right hon. Gentleman cannot even bring himself to welcome news like that? The key issue we all have to address is this: there is a global storm in the world economy today and it is in our interests to help others to confront that global storm, but we must also keep the British economy safe. We will not keep it safe if we add to our deficit, add to our debt and put interest rates at risk.

First the right hon. Gentleman blamed the Labour Government, then he blamed Europe, and yesterday he apparently blamed his Cabinet colleagues for the lack of growth in our economy. The truth about this Prime Minister is that when things go wrong it is never anything to do with him.

Let me ask about another of his flagship policies, the business growth fund, which was launched nine months ago with the banks. Can he tell us the number of businesses the fund has invested in?

First, the problem with pre-scripted questions is that the right hon. Gentleman does not listen to the first answer. I did not actually in my first answer blame the last Labour Government, but if he would like me to do so I can start right now, because it was the last Labour Government who left us the record debts and the record deficit, and it is this Government who are having to deal with that.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the business growth fund. This is one of the schemes to ensure that banks are lending, alongside the Merlin scheme, which is actually seeing an increase in lending to small businesses. That is the record we can be proud of—and something he did not achieve.

We all know by now with this Prime Minister that when he blusters like that at the Dispatch Box he is either too embarrassed to answer or he does not know the answer, so let me help him. The business growth fund was announced nine months ago, it has five offices and 50 staff. How many investments? A grand total of two. It is becoming a pattern with this Prime Minister: fanfare announcement then radio silence. He said in March:

“I’m going to watch those banks like a hawk and make sure they deliver”.

So what is he going to do to get the business growth fund moving?

These are the banks the right hon. Gentleman completely failed to regulate year after year—[Interruption.] Yes, yes, and these—[Interruption.]

Order. The House is getting—[Interruption.] Order. Mr Ronnie Campbell, calm yourself. The House is getting far too excited. It is only six minutes past—[Interruption.] Order. Let me say it at the outset: both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must be heard. It is called democracy and free expression.

Let me just give the right hon. Gentleman the figures for what has happened under the bank lending schemes of this Government. We have £190 billion of new credit this year, up from £179 billion last year. That is a huge increase. There is £76 billion for small and medium-sized enterprises, up 15% on last year. We are seeing more bank lending under this Government, but we are seeing also the bank levy, so people in the banks are helping to pay to deal with the deficit that his Government created.

A totally hopeless answer. One of his own schemes, the business growth fund—they trumpeted the announcements, and they have not got a clue what is happening to their own scheme.

Businesses are struggling, but one group in our economy is doing very well, indeed. Over the past year, when many people have seen their wages frozen, directors’ pay has risen by 49%. The Prime Minister expressed concern about that last Friday, but the public want to know: what is he going to do about it?

Let me tell you exactly what we are doing about it, and will do about it. It is this Government who introduced the bank levy—more raised in one year than the bonus tax that the previous Government created; it is this Government who have increased the fees that non-doms have to pay; it is this Government who have had an agreement with Switzerland and Liechtenstein to get hold of people who put money overseas; and it is this Government who have actually seen lower bank bonuses. But, where I agree with the right hon. Gentleman is that I think the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks, frankly, for the whole country when he says that it is unacceptable in a time of difficulty when people at the top of our society are not showing signs of responsibility. It is this Government who are consulting on proper measures to make sure we get transparency in terms of boardroom pay, proper accountability and more power for shareholders. All those things we are doing, and I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman, if he is so keen on this agenda, what did he do for the past 13 years?

I will tell you what we did, Mr Speaker. We introduced the 50p rate of income tax that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor want to abolish, but I am glad that we agree that something needs to be done about top pay. Now, last—[Interruption.] Conservative Members should just calm down. Follow the Prime Minister’s advice: just calm down. Last March, his fair pay review, which he set up, recommended that the Government require by January 2012—so January next year—that every top company publish how much the highest earners get paid compared with the average earner. That type of transparency is the least we should expect. Can he confirm that this will happen from January 2012? Yes or no?

What the right hon. Gentleman will know is that unlike the previous Government, who did absolutely nothing, we are consulting on a whole series of steps to bring responsibility to the boardroom. I have to say that we are a little wary about accepting lectures from a party that told us it was intensely relaxed about everyone getting filthy rich—a party that had a capital gains tax system so that people in the City paid less tax than their cleaner. I know he has forgotten all these things but we remember them and we have done something about it.

Another report to Government; another failure to act. The truth is that the Prime Minister has sat on Will Hutton’s review for the past nine months and has done nothing about it. That is why the recommendation is not going to be implemented. That is the truth about this Prime Minister: he says we are all in it together but he lets the top 1% get away with it while the other 99% see their living standards squeezed and lose their jobs. That is why people are increasingly saying that this is a Prime Minister who is totally out of touch with their lives.

I have to say that in the week when the Labour party has hired a former tax exile to run their election campaign, the right hon. Gentleman has got a bit of nerve to come and lecture us on that. Labour had 13 years to regulate the banks but did nothing. It had 13 years to deal with bank bonuses but did nothing. Now it is in opposition, its message to business is, “Give us some money—you can run our election.”

Q2. Cable theft has cost the rail industry £43 million in the past three years and Gurkhas have even been drafted in to patrol the network. Meanwhile, homes and churches are having their lead and copper pilfered and, in the past month, one churchyard in Huddersfield has had 169 memorial plaques stolen for their metal. Will the Prime Minister join me in saying that now is the time to legislate to stop those stolen metals going to merchants? (77736)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The theft of metal, particularly from war memorials, is an absolutely sickening and disgusting crime. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to put in place an action plan to deal with this, which will involve looking again at the whole regulation of scrap metal dealers. We are determined to do that to put a stop to this appalling crime.

People in my constituency and right across the country are desperately worried about the increasing cost of gas, electricity and home heating oil and about how they are going to keep their home warm this winter. What more can the Prime Minister tell the country he is going to do to help people in that situation? In particular, will he reverse the cuts to winter fuel allowance that hit senior citizens? Surely, it is not good enough simply to say that he is following the Opposition’s plans—he has done so many things differently from the Opposition, so why does he not do something different on the winter fuel allowance?

On the winter fuel allowance we have kept the plans that were set out by the previous Government and I think that is the right thing to do. On the cold weather payments, we have taken the increase that was meant for one year and maintained it, so if there is a particularly cold winter, people will be getting that help. The other step we are taking is making sure that energy companies give people proper information about the lowest tariffs they can get and that we have proper reform of the energy market—something that the Labour party has now suddenly started to talk about but did absolutely nothing about in government.

Q3. Public sector pension reform should be achieved through negotiation and compromise. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wholly irresponsible and downright destructive for senior politicians of any political party to support strike action while negotiations are ongoing? (77737)

I think my hon. Friend is entirely right. It is a very fair offer to hard-working public servants to say, “This is a strong set of pension reforms that will give you pensions that are still better than anything available in the private sector.” Frankly, to have a Labour Front-Bench team who are silent on this issue, with their education spokesman actually encouraging teachers to strike, is the height of irresponsibility.

Q4. My constituents Alan and Linda Eastwood have a son who has been serving in our nation’s armed forces in Afghanistan. In common with the Royal British Legion, Mr and Mrs Eastwood regard the Prime Minister’s decision to abolish the post of chief coroner as a betrayal. Will the Prime Minister tell us why he thinks he is right on this issue and the Royal British Legion is wrong? (77738)

This is a very important issue, and I have had discussions with the Royal British Legion about it, as has my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. The point about it is that the current proposal for the office of chief coroner to be established would involve something like £10 million of spending, and we think the money would be better spent on improving all coroners’ services across the country. We are listening very carefully to the concerns expressed in both Houses of Parliament about this issue, but what really matters is: are we going to improve the performance of our coroners? That is what service families want; that is what I want; and that is what we will deliver.

Q5. Public sector workers in my constituency work extremely hard to deliver essential public services, and I know that my right hon. Friend agrees that we value those services tremendously. Will he reassure those workers and confirm that the Government’s reforms—very necessary reforms that they are—will ensure that those services are sustainable and remain among the very best? (77739)

I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The cost of supporting public sector pensions has gone up by one third in the last decade, and we are now spending something like £32 billion. They are a major item of public spending, and obviously we are taking taxes off people, including those in the private sector who have less good pensions, to pay for that pension provision.

I believe that our scheme is fair. For example, a teacher retiring on a salary of £37,000 after a full career would retire on a pension of £25,000 in future. That is more than the £19,000 that they would currently get. This is a fair set of changes. The less well-off are really protected, and the low paid in the public sector will not have to pay the increased contributions. Frankly, I think the whole House of Commons should get behind them instead of playing with strike action like the Labour party.

When the Prime Minister goes to the G20 meeting over the next couple of days, will he try to persuade his colleagues of the urgency of coming up with some detail on the eurozone settlement reached last week? It is not at all clear how on earth Greece will get out of its difficulties, even if the referendum passes. European banks will need shoring up well before next summer, and as for the new rescue fund, which may be needed sooner than we think, it does not actually exist. Will he accept that the G20 now needs to show the same urgency and sense of purpose that it showed two years ago when it met in London? Otherwise, far from getting ahead of events, Governments will be condemned to being dragged along in their wake.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in what he says about the urgency of the G20 meeting, and the necessity of its agenda. I think some progress was made at the European Council meeting a week ago when, for the first time, it accepted a proper write-down of Greek debt, which must be part of the solution, and a proper recapitalisation of Europe’s banks done to a credible test, rather than the incredible test we have had in months gone by.

The final element that the right hon. Gentleman rightly refers to—and which needs to have more detail and substance added—is to make sure there is a proper firewall to stop contagion in the eurozone. The need has become even greater. Frankly, of course we cannot involve ourselves in Greek domestic politics, but it has become even more urgent to put meat on the bones of these plans to show that we are removing one of the key obstacles to global growth, which is the failure to agree a proper plan to deal with problems in the eurozone.

Q6. According to the Government’s own projections, Britain’s population is set to increase from 62 million today to 70 million by 2027, with two thirds of that increase being driven by immigration. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to stem that increase by breaking the almost automatic link between foreign nationals who come to work here subsequently being granted citizenship? (77740)

We are committed to doing exactly that, and my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I think that proper immigration control and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin, and this Government are committed to controlling immigration properly, but also to putting British people back to work. The two work together.

Today, we have announced that, in terms of the illegal immigration that comes through the student route, more than 450 colleges will no longer be able to sponsor new international students, because they were not properly established to do that. Those colleges could have brought in more than 11,000 students to the UK to study each year. That is just one example of how this Government are living up to their promise to get a grip on immigration.

Q7. Does the Prime Minister agree with the vast majority of people that smoking should be banned in vehicles when children are present, and will he encourage the Government to adopt the contents of my ten-minute rule Bill, which aims to put an end to it? (77741)

I do think the smoking ban is right. I have to admit, as a former smoker, and someone who believes strongly in liberties and who did not support it at the time, that the smoking ban has worked, and I think it is successful. I am much more nervous about going into what people do inside a vehicle. I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says, but we have to have a serious think before we take that step.

The Prime Minister will be aware of Citigroup’s report, issued yesterday, on green energy investment in Scotland. Does he agree that this report very ably demonstrates that the benefits of green energy in the UK are unlocked only by combining Scotland’s renewable potential with the large-scale investment made possible by the UK; and does he agree that a drawn-out independence referendum is a serious distraction from that?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In fact, a major financial institution warned yesterday of the dangers of investing in Scotland while there is this uncertainty about the future of the constitution under way. I think it is very important that we keep our United Kingdom together and we stress that when it comes to vital industries like green technology, the combination of a green investment bank sponsored by the United Kingdom Government and the many natural advantages that there are in Scotland can make this a great industry for people in Scotland—but we will do that only if we keep our country together.

Q8. Just after the election, the Prime Minister said that his Government would be the greenest ever. Does he still take that statement seriously? If he does, will he personally intervene to sort out the appalling chaos that is resulting from the slashing, in six weeks’ time, of feed-in tariffs for solar PV, leading to substantial job losses, chaos in the solar PV industry, and devastation for hundreds of community renewables projects? (77742)

It is this Government who set aside £3 billion for a green investment bank, much talked about in the past but never done. It is this Government who have put in place a carbon price floor—one of the first Governments anywhere in the world to do so. It is we who put aside £1 billion for carbon capture and storage. So this is a very green Government living up to our promises—absolutely right.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the pupils and staff at Whitchurch high school, a foundation-status comprehensive school in my constituency? It is the former school of Sam Warburton, the outstanding Welsh rugby captain; Gareth Bale, the impressive footballer at Spurs and Wales; and Geraint Thomas, the gold medallist. It will be receiving the award for state school of the year for sports— (77743)

I have to say that that is a very impressive list of sports personalities who have attended this school; I do not know what they put in the water, but I think we would probably all like to have some. I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating such an excellent school.

In the past four years, six children and two adults have been killed in dog attacks, and some 6,000 postal workers are attacked each year. There is cross-party agreement that we need to tighten up the law in this area. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest and make sure that legislation is brought forward as soon as possible?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Legislative attempts at this in the past have not always been successful and have not always captured the breeds that need to be captured, so I will certainly take a personal interest, and perhaps I can write to the hon. Lady and set out what the Government intend to do.

Q10. Following the Prime Minister’s answers a moment ago, and given the huge anger about the pay for the top 100 directors, can he give me a personal assurance that he is committed to the transfer of power over pay from the boardroom to the shareholders of our companies? (77744)

I do want to see that happen. The answer to this is much more transparency about the levels of pay, much more accountability, and strengthening the hand of shareholders. There is something else we need to do, which is to make sure that non-executive directors on boards are not the usual sort of rotating list of men patting each other’s backs and increasing the level of remuneration. I want to see more women in Britain’s boardrooms, which I think would have a thoroughly good influence.

The Prime Minister has described his Work programme as the biggest back-to-work programme since the 1930s, but he knows that it does not create jobs—it merely links people to vacancies. In Tottenham, there are 6,500 people unemployed, 28,000 people on out-of-work benefits, and only 150 vacancies. What is his Work programme going to do about that?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, the Work programme plays a key role in helping to prepare people for work. That is absolutely vital. It also brings employers in, so that they can offer jobs to those people. I have looked specifically at the issue of Tottenham, because I know from when I visited his constituency with him that, yes of course, there is a shortage of vacancies in the borough of Tottenham itself, but we have to encourage people who live in London to be prepared to travel more widely to look for work. That is absolutely vital, and part of the Work programme should be aimed at addressing exactly that.

Rural fire services attend more primary fires and more road traffic accidents than do those in urban areas, yet they receive less funding. This is typical of rural services across the piece, with residents paying more and receiving less. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a group of other MPs from across the House who represent rural areas, to discuss getting a fairer deal for those in rural areas, particularly the rural poor?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. It is important that we have a fair deal for rural areas. There are obviously very big differences, particularly in the use of retained firefighters, but I am happy to meet him to discuss the issue.

Q12. The Prime Minister knows, thanks to the Leader of the Opposition, that in nine months, the Government’s business growth fund has invested in precisely two companies. At a time when the economy is flatlining, is that good enough? (77746)

What this Government have done is cut corporation tax for every business in the country. We have introduced enterprise zones to help employment, and increased the number of apprenticeships by 250,000 over the life of this Parliament. The Opposition criticise the regional growth fund, but there was no regional growth fund under Labour. That is the point. Let me just remind them that we inherited an economy with the biggest budget deficit in Europe, and it is this Government who are helping our economy through the international storms to ensure that we remain safe in the UK.

This week is national adoption week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must continue to do all that we can to support children in the care system, and to encourage prospective adoptive parents to come forward?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. In national adoption week, we really need more parents to come forward as potential adopters and potential foster carers, because there is a huge build-up of children in the care system who will not get that help unless people come forward. It is also important that the Government pledge that we will make the process of adoption and fostering simpler. It has become too bureaucratic and difficult, and the result is that it is putting people off. I am absolutely determined that we crack this. It is a matter of national shame that, while there are 3,660 children under the age of one in the care system, there were only 60 adoptions last year. We are now publishing information on every single council, so that people can see how we are doing in terms of driving this vital agenda.

Q13. This week, yet another military academic has called for the reopening of the defence review, and a leading military think-tank has said: “Britain is now cutting military equipment that might prove vital in future.”Will the Prime Minister finally listen to the voices of the defence community and reopen his deeply flawed defence review? (77747)

We had no defence review for 10 years, and now the Opposition want two in one go. That is absolutely typical of the opportunism of the Labour party. This is a day, as hostilities in Libya are coming to an end, on which we should be praising our armed services and all that they have done.

Q14. Schools in rural Northumberland were largely ignored by the previous Government. With the schools budget rising from £35 billion to £39 billion in 2015, will the Prime Minister welcome the finance bid put forward by Prudhoe community high school in my constituency? (77748)

I will certainly welcome that bid. It is important to note that, because we are protecting the per-pupil funding, even at a difficult time for the economy and public spending, the education budget will be rising and not falling—[Interruption.] As ever, the shadow Chancellor is wrong, even when he is sitting down. He talks even more rubbish when he stands up. I digress. As well as the extra investment in the schools budget, there is also the opportunity for free schools, which I think are going to be a major reform in our country, to bring in more good school places. Perhaps when a future shadow Chancellor attends one of those schools, he will learn a few manners. [Interruption.]

Order. Some people are going to burst they are getting so excited, which is a bit of a shame—and a bit of a problem for them.

Will the Prime Minister listen to both the campaigners outside Parliament today and the 80,000 people who have written to him in recent weeks, and commit to becoming a leading advocate for the introduction of a Robin Hood tax at the G20 summit later this week? Will he ensure that the revenue is earmarked to tackle sustainable development and the growing climate crisis?

As the hon. Lady knows, there is widespread support for the principles behind such a tax, but it must be adopted on a global basis. Let me say this as quite an important warning to those who are pushing so hard for such a tax: we must be careful that we do not allow other countries, including some European countries, to use a campaign for the tax, which they know is unlikely to be adopted in the short term, as an excuse for getting out of their aid commitments. The House and the country can be proud of the fact that we are meeting our aid commitments. Do not let others use the tax as a way getting out of things that they promised.

Q15. The world population passed 7 billion this week. That is an awful lot of mouths to feed. In addition, the UN predicts that over the next 40 years, world demand for food will increase by 70%. That ought to be good news for farmers, but sadly, since 1990, Britain’s capacity to feed itself has fallen by a fifth. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is a disastrous situation, and will he urgently introduce a credible strategy to grow Britain’s farming industry to feed us all in future? (77749)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is true that we have seen our food security decline and our food production severely challenged over the past 10 years. It is important to remember that farmers are businesses. They need things done like other businesses do on deregulation, predictable income and all those things. This Government are committed to making that happen, which will benefit particularly people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On 13 September 2010 at the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, when asked whether success for this Government will mean building more homes per year than were being built prior to the recession, the Minister for Housing and Local Government replied:

“Yes. Building more homes is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”

In which year or years of this Parliament does the Prime Minister expect that gold standard to be achieved?

What we have said is that we are going to expand the building of homes for social rent by increasing and reintroducing the right to buy, which the previous Government so scandalously ran down. That will help. We will also make available Government land, so that builders can get on and build without having to buy that land. They will have to pay only when they have actually delivered the house. We want to see an extra 200,000 homes built in that way, which will give us a far better record than that of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman represented.

Notwithstanding the increasingly maniacal gesticulations of the shadow Chancellor, is it not remarkable that in the middle of the world’s biggest crisis, Britain is able to borrow at lower rates of interest than almost any other country in the world?

As ever, it takes the Father of the House to bring the wisdom to the table, which is that if we did not have a proper plan for getting on top of our debts and our deficit, we would not have 2.5% interest rates, which are the greatest stimulus our economy could have. Instead, we would have interest rates like those of the Greeks, the Spanish and the Italians, and our economy would be hit. Do you know how you get interest rates like that? You get them if you adopt the plans of the Labour party. Its plan is for an extra £87 billion of borrowing over this Parliament. You do not solve a debt crisis by adding to your debts—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor can go on making his rather questionable salutes, but it is time for him to take a primer.

Order. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber, who unaccountably do not wish to remain for the statement, to do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us can listen attentively to the Chief Secretary.