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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2011

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Procurement

1. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of planned changes to Government procurement on UK businesses bidding for contracts. (86418)

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of planned changes to Government procurement on UK businesses bidding for contracts. (86424)

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of planned changes to Government procurement on UK businesses bidding for contracts. (86425)

On 21 November, I announced a package of measures to transform how the Government buy. We want to save money for the taxpayer and for suppliers and to make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises and voluntary organisations to bid successfully. That is why we have announced a pipeline of £50 billion-worth of future business opportunities. We will make it 40% quicker to do business with Government and we will, in future, engage proactively with current and future suppliers to discuss upcoming procurement opportunities.

Will my right hon. Friend describe to the SMEs in my constituency of Elmet and Rothwell where they should go if they have any problems or issues with Government procurement?

If there are problems not only in how central Government procure but across the wider public sector, I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will make contact with my Department through the helpline that we have set up specifically for the purpose. If they highlight how procurements are being done that entrench the old, inefficient and anti-enterprise way of doing things, we can then intervene proactively, as we have done on a number of occasions, to make improvements.

It is the small businesses that often have the greatest difficulty in accessing Government contracts, and that is because of a regulation from the European Union. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to reform EU regulations to make it easier to secure contracts with Government both at a national and local level?

The first thing that we are doing is trying to ensure that the way in which we implement the European directives is sensible and not overly bureaucratic and legalistic, which it usually is at the moment. The European Commission is introducing proposals to streamline and simplify the procurement directives, which we welcome. I was talking to Commissioner Barnier in Brussels two or three weeks ago, and he was very open to that happening.

Fresh Opportunities is a company in my constituency that supplies water drinkers to jobcentres. Sadly, though, it lost the contract. That was not because it was inefficient or too expensive but because it could not deliver a service on a large enough scale. What can the Minister do to enable SMEs, which cannot operate on a national scale, to be able to deal with Government bodies?

We have two objectives here. We want to buy as efficiently as we can, which, in many cases, means using the scale of Government to aggregate volume and drive down prices. In many areas of procurement of commodities, goods and services, we are able to get the price advantages of aggregation but, none the less, involve SMEs much more in the process. We have a commitment and an aspiration to increase the value of SME business to 25% of the total.

The Minister will be aware that public procurement guidelines in Northern Ireland are set by EU directives and UK regulations. Will the Minister, therefore, give a commitment to work alongside the Northern Ireland Executive and not to turn his back on Europe in negotiations to tackle the issues of over-complexity, cost and red tape, as those are issues that are affecting local business?

As I said, we are actively engaged with the European Commission in supporting the good work that it is undertaking to streamline procurement processes, but we need to ensure—and I hope that the hon. Lady will do this—that the Administration in Northern Ireland do not overimplement the directives because we are finding that central Government and the wider public sector in Great Britain tend to do that.

Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the economies of scale, the Federation of Small Businesses has reported an increased tendency for public sector contracts to be aggregated into much larger ones, thereby penalising smaller businesses. What has the Minister got to say to those small businesses?

There is a whole range of procurement opportunities that are particularly suitable for smaller businesses. Even when we aggregate, that does not exclude small businesses. For example, we have just let the contracts for travel for the whole of Government and one of the successful two bidders is a very small business, which, as a result of winning that contract, will become a much bigger one.

Can my right hon. Friend include in that assessment the ability of charities and small organisations, mutuals and so on to bid for public sector contracts as providers of public services? May I commend the report that the Select Committee on Public Administration has published today on the big society, which recommends that the Government extend the eligibility for the VAT refund scheme, which currently applies to public sector bodies, to charities that deliver public services under contract with a public sector organisation?

I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor takes note of my hon. Friend’s suggestion. We want to make it easier for small voluntary organisations and mutuals to bid successfully. One thing that we aim to do is to get contracts chunked up into smaller lots. We have much bigger contracts, generally, than France or Germany would have in equivalent circumstances, which tends to militate and be biased against the interests of smaller businesses and voluntary and charitable organisations.

Social Exclusion

3. What assessment his Department has made of the role of the big society initiative in tackling social exclusion. (86421)

The big society is all about building social capital, which is key to solving social exclusion. There are four places where most of us build the relationships that sustain us: in the family, in school, in our communities and at work. We are taking action to build social capital in all of those through a focus on the 120,000 most troubled families, through competition and raising standards in schools, through community organisers and the community first initiative in communities and through the Work programme, the rehabilitation revolution and the drug and alcohol recovery programme.

I thank the Minister for that answer and I know that he is sincere in wanting to see civic society flourish, as am I. In Leicester, many organisations who work with vulnerable people at risk of social exclusion, such as the Shama women’s centre or those at the Saffron Lane resource centre, increasingly find that their grants and pots of money are being cut. Does the Minister think he will be able to create the big society on the cheap?

As I said the previous time the hon. Gentleman asked such a question, he is extraordinarily assiduous in this area. I have done some further research on where he has been recently and the Saffron Lane centre that he describes is, I am glad to say, one area where the community organisers to which I referred will be located. While I am at it, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman drags the Government with him every time he goes anywhere. He also visited the Eyres Monsell centre and that is now receiving a £50,000 grant from the community grants system. We can be said to be delivering not on the cheap but on the expensive in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

This year, 40,000 households were made homeless. As we approach Christmas and with today’s rise in unemployment, Shelter estimates that every two minutes someone else faces losing their home. Now we hear that Government cuts to the big society have resulted in homeless charities facing 25% reductions in their funding. Will the Minister at least immediately agree to restore the social exclusion taskforce, which the Government shamelessly abolished when they entered the Cabinet Office, so that in the future the homeless and others who suffer from social exclusion will at least have a voice when he and his colleagues make such hard-hearted decisions?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the changes in the machinery of government that have taken place under this Government. It is perfectly true that the social exclusion taskforce has been abolished, and the reason for that is that we have set up instead a fully fledged first-rank Cabinet committee on social justice—

It is not in the least secret, as the hon. Gentleman mutters from a sedentary position, in the sense that it will produce a social justice strategy that he will be able to read along with the rest of the House. I think he will find that we are putting absolutely at the centre of our activities the fostering of the big society in order to help, among other things, those who are homeless. That is also one of the reasons why we recently issued our housing strategy, which does more than the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues did in many years to try to improve housing in this country.

Government Documents (Disposal)

4. Whether his Department has considered altering its guidance on the disposal of official Government documents. (86422)

According to Cabinet Office guidance, what would be the recourse if a civil servant in the Minister’s Department breached the Data Protection Act?

I can provide a detailed answer to the hon. Gentleman if he requires. If he is concerned about classified Government documents going amiss, I suggest he raises the matter with his right hon. Friend the shadow Health Secretary, who in 2009 had to apologise for leaving a briefcase full of classified Government documents on a train.

Big Society Capital

Big Society Capital is all about trying to make it easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital. We think that we are making good progress, moving swiftly through the Financial Services Authority authorisation and EU state-aid approval processes, and we are confident that Big Society Capital will be open for business by spring. In the meantime, the interim investment committee, which made its first investment in July, will announce its next investment shortly.

I thank the Minister for his answer. My focus is on the voluntary organisations whose budgets are always tight, so will he advise me on how he can enhance their capacity to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Big Society Capital?

My hon. Friend knows from his lengthy experience in the area that we have fantastic social entrepreneurs in this country, and we want to make it easier for them to access capital, but, as he points out, some of them need more help to become more investment-ready. That is exactly why we have set up a £10 million investment and contract readiness fund—to provide grants for organisations that want to attract investment but know they need more help to become more investment-ready.

Among the Public Administration Committee’s many criticisms in its report today, it rightly highlights that Ministers cannot expect the big society bank to provide the solution to the funding crisis that their cuts are causing for hundreds of charities. Given that the report goes on effectively to accuse Ministers of being out of touch and not providing effective leadership to tackle the problems that charities face, would not now be the perfect time for yet another one of the Prime Minister’s big society re-launches?

I am not going to take any lectures on leadership and Big Society Capital from the Opposition, because they talked for 10 years about setting it up but did not actually do it. We are doing it because we want to make it easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital. It is on track, and we are very proud of it.

Employee Mutuals

8. What steps he is taking to encourage employee mutuals to develop and run central Government services. (86427)

As we set out in the “Open Public Services” White Paper, we are committed to an ambitious programme of mutualisation, allowing staff to break free of bureaucracy and to spin out from the public sector. To support that, we have put in place the mutuals support programme, the mentoring of mutuals by groups such as John Lewis, the mutuals task force chaired by Professor Le Grand and the mutuals information service, and we are increasing the “right to provide” scheme.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office expects there to be an extra 1 million workers in organisations taking over the running of public services by 2015. Will he update the House on how many he expects to be doing so by the end of this financial year?

I have certainly not set a target of 1 million, but it is perfectly feasible that 1 million public sector workers will choose to take themselves out of the public sector in order to deliver in employee-led organisations the services that they currently provide. The number is growing, and, although we cannot make it happen, we are going to make it a great deal easier and to support all those groups. The benefits are huge in terms of productivity. Staff absence falls, staff turnover falls and customer satisfaction rises very dramatically, so I hope that we have the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiastic support for this programme of mutualisation.

Government Contracts

9. How small and medium-sized enterprises in Calder Valley constituency can bid for central Government information and communications technology and facilities management contracts. (86428)

It is absolutely vital that small and medium-sized enterprises should be able to bid for ICT and other contracts, and that is why the Minister for the Cabinet Office said a moment or two ago that we have set an ambition for 25% of contracts to go to SMEs. We have also simplified the contracting process, making it easier for SMEs to find out what the Government seek to purchase, and I recommend that the enterprises in my hon. Friend’s constituency look at the Contracts Finder website, which I have been on myself, It is an absolutely admirable one-stop shop for finding out about Government contracts.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am not a cynical kind of guy, but I wonder whether he can give the House some examples of how the Government are helping SMEs by awarding them contracts.

Yes, I can, and I refer again to something that my right hon. Friend was saying. Recently, the Government’s very large domestic travel contract was let—the domestic side alone amounts to £1.1 billion a year of travel—and one might have expected it to go to a very large firm, but, because of the way in which my right hon. Friend structured it, it went to Redfern Travel, a company with 33 employees. It is a small or, at any rate and by anyone’s definition, only a medium-scale enterprise, and it was able to win the contract. The managing director said:

“The award of this contract…clearly demonstrates that…any SME can not only bid for major Government contracts, but also meet the challenging requirements”,

so I think that that is a very good test case.

Order. It is normally a great pleasure to hear from the hon. Lady, but the Wirral is a little distance away from Calder Valley, to which this question exclusively relates. We will save her up for another occasion.

Public Sector Pensions

10. What progress he has made in reaching agreement with trade unions on the Government’s proposed reforms to public sector pensions. (86429)

We have engaged in intensive and frequent discussions with the trade unions. At their request, talks are continuing at scheme level in the four public sector pension schemes that are currently being discussed, and we continue to make progress, I believe, in all four. We are determined that public sector pensions will remain among the very best available, but in order to make them sustainable and affordable for the long term, reform is urgently needed.

Under the Government’s offer, a teacher earning £32,000 a year could anticipate a pension of £20,000 a year, whereas a private sector worker earning the same salary would have to devote some 38% of his or her wages in order to get a pension of the same size. Given the terms of the Government’s offer, should the trade unions not now call off any threat of further industrial action?

I simply pray in aid what Lord Hutton, the former Labour Pensions Secretary, said yesterday, when he referred to public sector trade unions “holding a gun” to the taxpayer’s head. He said that the offer was generous and that it was hard

“to envisage a better offer being made.”

I hope that we can now move quickly to resolve the final, outstanding issues, so that we can move on without further disruption to people’s lives.

Given that the Minister’s Department is currently the worst in Whitehall for meeting the Government’s business plan targets—targets for which he is responsible—having missed 38 at the last count, would his time not be better spent sorting out his own Department, rather than picking fights with public sector unions?

The short answer is that we want to get these public sector pension issues resolved quickly. I would be quite interested to know whether the right hon. Gentleman shares our belief—and that of Lord Hutton, his former colleague—that we are talking about a generous offer that the trade unions should accept, and that they should stop “holding a gun” to the taxpayer’s head. Does he agree with that?

The Minister earlier announced that if he had not secured agreement by Christmas, he would impose a pensions settlement or scheme on the unions. Is that still his intention, and if it is, will he make a statement to the House next week?

We very much hope that it will not be necessary for the Government to move to the stage of imposition. Our intention is that we should reach agreement. It is necessary that we reach agreement by the end of the year, because there is a lot of work to do to put the new schemes in place as early as possible, so that people know what their future holds and we can implement the new schemes; so yes, we will be making further announcements to the House before it rises.

Voluntary Sector

We are supporting the sector through this difficult time by cutting red tape, investing in transition funds for infrastructure and front-line organisations, creating significant new opportunities for the sector to deliver public services, and supporting new initiatives to encourage giving and social investment.

The Roots project in Westhoughton in my constituency has been praised by the Government as a beacon of the big society, but Liz Douglas, the founder, has had no wages for six months. Words are no good. When will the Minister take action to support the voluntary and community sector?

The hon. Lady knows that we have taken a great deal of action, not least by putting in place a £107 million transition fund to help the most vulnerable organisations. If she is talking about cuts being made locally by Bolton council, she will know that the reduction in its spending this year was only 7%. The questions that she has to ask Bolton council are: “Why were you so badly prepared for this situation?” and: “Why did you block a proposal from Conservative councillors to create a fund to support local voluntary organisations?”

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector Efficiency and Reform Group, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy across the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

Lists for 2010 failed to mention that the Prime Minister met Rupert Murdoch in June 2010. This was amended to ensure transparency only recently. Why?

No doubt we can provide an answer to that question, but I do not have one at my fingertips.

T2. Mindful of the fact that we have not had flooding for a number of months and mindful of the forecasted storm weather, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office assure us that flood rehearsals are taking place between all the relevant emergency services on a regular basis? (86434)

I can certainly confirm that. Meetings are taking place between the relevant Departments—one took place earlier this morning—to ensure that capabilities are in place in advance of any possible flooding, with urgent consideration given to ensuring that the public receive the right advice. I am glad to say that the forecast is looking a little better than it was.

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order.

According to figures published by the Cabinet Office last week, the Deputy Prime Minister has appointed four more special advisers at a cost to the taxpayer of at least £190,000. At a time when the average family is set to lose £320 a year as a result of tax credit changes and at a time when almost everyone is asking what exactly is the point of the Deputy Prime Minister, does the Minister think that this is a good use of public money?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would realise that it is extremely important in a coalition that the Deputy Prime Minister as well as the Prime Minister should have adequate research support. It is extraordinarily difficult for Government Members to take comments of that kind seriously, given the previous Government’s record on employing special advisers.

I sense that the House is waiting on the edge of its seat for my answer. On 30 November, 146,256 civil servants went on strike, which represents about 30% of the civil service work force. I would like to express my appreciation to the 70% of civil servants who came to work that day as normal.

T4. The Minister is refusing to negotiate with the unions over pension contribution increases, the retirement age, cost ceiling, indexation and other issues. Is that not typical of this Government, proving that they enter into negotiations with no intention whatever of coming to an amicable agreement? Are not the Government spoiling for a scrap with the trade unions? (86437)

Far from spoiling for a scrap with the trade unions, we are engaged in very intensive discussions with them. Even in the week during which the strike took place—a completely unnecessary strike, which the Labour party refused to condemn, massively inconveniencing many people and damaging the economy—a number of meetings took place with the trade unions to try to secure agreement on the much needed reforms. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that Lord Hutton, the former Labour Pensions Secretary, has said that this is a generous offer and that the unions should stop “holding a gun” to the taxpayer’s head.

T6. Malvern has a cluster of firms—small, medium and large—with expertise in cyber-security. I invite the Minister down to Malvern to meet them. (86439)

T8. Does the Minister have any regrets about the way in which he has conducted negotiations with the public sector trade unions by using megaphone diplomacy through the media and not providing information in a timely way? (86441)

No, I have no regrets at all. We have engaged in very intensive discussions over a long period with the unions and the leadership of the TUC over the individual schemes. If the hon. Lady thinks we are not negotiating, she should talk to the TUC about the intensiveness of the negotiations. Perhaps she would like to remind her friends in the unions of what Lord Hutton, the former Labour Pensions Secretary, said only yesterday about the Government’s offer. [Interruption.]

T7. What contribution are Departments making to greater energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions following the successful Durban summit? (86440)

In the first year following the forming of the coalition Government, we cut carbon emissions by more than the 10% target that we had set ourselves. We have also committed ourselves to ensuring that carbon emissions from Government buildings—Government property—fall by no less than 25% during the current Parliament, and I am confident that we will fulfil that commitment.

The Electoral Commission announced today that there are not 3 million but 6 million missing, unregistered voters. Does the Minister agree that the equalisation of seats should be postponed, or suspended, until a full investigation has been conducted to establish where those 6 million people are?

I very much regret the fact that in the 13 years for which the hon. Gentleman’s party was in office, it did absolutely nothing to address that problem.

T9. The national citizens service is an excellent initiative to help young people to develop the skills and attitudes that they need in order to become responsible citizens. Can the Minister tell me what local branches of the service will be available to them in my constituency? (86442)

I will write to all Members shortly to tell them which providers of the service are operating in their local authority areas, but I can confirm that providers will be working in Cheshire East and in Cheshire West and Chester next year. I strongly encourage all Members to become involved with this programme, which provides a fantastic opportunity for young people.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper Elijah Bond of 35 Engineer Regiment, who died in Queen Elizabeth hospital, Birmingham last Thursday as a result of wounds that he had sustained in Afghanistan. He was a dedicated and highly professional soldier, and at this tragic time we should send our condolences to his loved ones, his friends and his colleagues.

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

Let me associate myself and, I am sure, all other Members with the Prime Minister’s words about Sapper Elijah Bond.

The people of Bedford and Kempston will be disappointed that this week’s report on the financial crisis in the Royal Bank of Scotland contained no provision for the criminal prosecution of executives, directors, regulators and Ministers for their failures. Can the Prime Minister assure me that, unlike the last Government, his Ministers will reinforce financial regulations, and will not undermine them as the shadow Chancellor did when he was in office?

My hon. Friend is right, and as he will know, we are considering specific extra measures. We are considering sanctions in relation to what was done by people on the board of RBS. However, the report was not just damning about the board of RBS; it was damning about the politicians who were responsible for regulating RBS. And it did not just name politicians who are no longer serving: it also named the shadow Chancellor.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper Elijah Bond of 35 Engineer Regiment. He bravely gave his life in trying to improve the lives of others, and all our thoughts are with his family and friends. As we approach Christmas, our thoughts are also with all our troops who are serving so bravely in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Many will be spending Christmas away from their families and friends to ensure a peaceful Christmas for us, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

In this, the last Prime Minister’s Question Time of the year, let me remind the Prime Minister of what he had to say in his new year message of 2011. He said:

“Uppermost in my mind as we enter the New Year is jobs.”

In the light of today’s unemployment figures, can he explain what has gone wrong?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in his fitting and right tribute to our forces at Christmas time—those who are serving in Afghanistan, but also those who are serving in other parts of the world. One of the things that strikes you most in this job is that they are the best of the best. They are brave, they are courageous, they are dedicated, and their families, too, give up a huge amount. I join the right hon. Gentleman in saying that.

Let me say about the unemployment figures that any increase in unemployment is bad news and a tragedy for those involved, and that is why we will do everything we can to help people back into work. That is why we have the Work programme, which will help 2.5 million people; that is why we have the massive increase in apprenticeships that will help 400,000 people this year; and that is why we will give particular help to young people through the youth contract and through the work experience places. We will do all we can to help people back into work.

But the figures show that the Prime Minister’s economic strategy is failing. The Chancellor said at the time of the spending review last year:

“private sector job creation will far outweigh the reduction in public sector employment.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 536, c. 531.]

Will the Prime Minister confirm that over the last three months, for every job being created in the private sector 13 are being lost in the public sector?

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. Since the election, in the private sector there have been 581,000 extra jobs. In the public sector, he is right that we have lost 336,000 jobs, so we need private sector employment to grow even faster. But let me make this point to him, because I think this is important: whoever was in government right now would have to be making reductions in public spending. The only way you can keep people in work in the public sector while doing that is to cut welfare—something we are doing and he opposes—or to freeze public sector pay—something we are doing and he opposes—or to reform public sector pensions—something we are doing and he opposes. So it is all very well standing there and complaining about the rise in unemployment, but if we do not take those steps, we would lose more jobs in the public sector.

I think the whole House will have heard that the Prime Minister cannot deny that the central economic claim that he made—that the private sector would fill the gap left by the public sector—has not been met. He has broken his promise, and today’s figures also confirm that youth unemployment not only remains over 1 million; it is still rising, and long-term youth unemployment has gone up by 93% since he made his new year pledge on jobs. Is not the reality that he is betraying a whole generation of young people?

We will not take lectures from a party that put up youth unemployment by 40%. That is the case—even the right hon. Gentleman’s brother admitted the other day that youth unemployment was not a problem invented by this Government; it has been going up since 2004. But let me explain what we are doing to help young people get a job. Through the youth contract we are providing 160,000 new jobs with private sector subsidies. With the 250,000 work experience places, half those people are actually getting jobs and getting off benefit within two months. That is 20 times more effective than the future jobs fund.

But the absolute key to all this is getting our economy moving. We need private sector jobs. It is this Government who have got interest rates down to 2%—that is why we have the prospects of growth—whereas the right hon. Gentleman’s plans are for more spending, more borrowing and more debt: more of the mess that we started with.

The truth is that the Prime Minister’s promises to young people for next year are as worthless as the promises he made in 2011. Let us turn from his broken promise on jobs to his broken promise on the coalition. And Mr Speaker, let me say that it is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister back in the House. This is what the Prime Minister said—[Interruption.] Calm down. This is what he said in his new year’s message for 2011—and I will place a copy in the Library of the House, just so that everyone can see it:

“Coalition politics is not always straightforward…But I believe we are bringing in a”


“new style of government.”

[Hon. Members: “More! More!”] There is more:

“A more collegiate approach.”

I am bound to ask, what has gone wrong?

I will answer. No one in this House is going to be surprised that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not always agree about Europe, but let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman. He should not believe everything he reads in the papers. It’s not that bad—it’s not like we’re brothers or anything! [Hon. Members: “More! More!”] He certainly walked into that one.

I think our sympathy is with the Deputy Prime Minister. His partner goes on a business trip and he is left waiting by the phone, but he hears nothing until a rambling phone call at 4 am confessing to a terrible mistake.

How is the Prime Minister going to pick up the pieces of the bad deal he delivered for Britain? The Council came to conclusions on Friday morning, but the treaty will not be signed until March. In the cold light of day, with other countries—[Interruption.]

Order. Some very, very foolish person shouted out “Stop”. The person who did that will stop, because people in this place must be heard. If there is a Member here who does not think so, I invite that Member to leave the Chamber.

In the cold light of day, with other countries spending the weeks and months ahead trying to see whether they can get a better deal for themselves, would not the sensible thing for the Prime Minister to do be to re-enter the negotiations and try to get a better deal for Britain?

First, I make no apologies for standing up for Britain. In the past two days we have read a lot about my opinions and we have read a lot about the Deputy Prime Minister’s opinions; the one thing we do not know is what the right hon. Gentleman would have done. While he was here on Monday his aides were running around the Press Gallery briefing that he would not have signed up to the treaty. Well, here is another try: what’s your answer?

I have no answer on this matter whatsoever—[Interruption.] Order. I am glad the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), has returned from his travels. We wish him a merry Christmas, but in his case it should be a quiet one.

There was a better deal for Britain that the Prime Minister should have got, and that is what the Deputy Prime Minister himself says. Here is the truth: last week the Prime Minister made a catastrophic mistake, and this week we discover that unemployment is at its highest level for 17 years. This Prime Minister thinks he is born to rule. The truth is that he is just not very good at it.

Even the soundbite was recycled from a previous Prime Minister’s Question Time. On Wednesday the answer was no. Today—I think—the answer is maybe. This Leader of the Labour party makes weakness and indecision an art form; that is the fact.

The right hon. Gentleman gave me my end-of-year report; let me give him his. He told us at the start of the year, in his new year’s message, that the fightback started in Scotland. Well, that went well, didn’t it? He told us that he would have credible plans to cut the deficit, but we still have not seen them. He said that he would stand up to vested interests, yet he backed the biggest strike for years. We all know that he has achieved one thing, though. He has completely united his party. Every single one of them has asked Santa for the same thing: a new leader for Christmas.

Order. I am sure Government Back Benchers want to hear their own colleague, Mr Martin Vickers.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yesterday’s announcement about local television was good news for my constituency, where Channel 7, the sole survivor from the original batch, is based. Does the Prime Minister agree that local broadcasting strengthens local communities and advances the big society? If he is in north Lincolnshire in the near future, will he find time to pay Channel 7 a visit?

I would be delighted to do that. I do not have any immediate plans to visit north Lincolnshire, but I do support local television. I also think that north Lincolnshire had some very good news with the Siemens plant going into Hull. That is excellent news for the whole region.

Q2. In the early new year the Government intend to announce a wholesale revision of the national curriculum. May I put it to the Prime Minister that it would be perverse—in fact it would be absurd—to require those coming from abroad to settle in Britain to learn about our democracy and to take citizenship courses while withdrawing the teaching of citizenship and democracy to our own children in our schools? (86404)

I listen very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman says, because I agree with some of the proposals about citizenship that he put forward when he was Home Secretary. Many Members will have been to the citizenship ceremonies that he was responsible for, which have been a good addition to our country and our democracy. On behalf of the whole House, I pay tribute to him for that. We will look very carefully at what he says about the curriculum, but the key aim has to be to making sure that we teach the basics properly and well, and that we test on those basics, because if someone cannot read and write properly, no lessons in citizenship will mean anything at all.

Ninety-one per cent. of people who get into financial difficulty believe they would have avoided doing so had they been better informed. Therefore, ahead of tomorrow’s debate on financial education, will the Prime Minister support our calls for compulsory financial education for young people?

This very much links with the previous question. I strongly support teaching young children about the importance of financial education, but the point of having a proper review of the curriculum is to make sure that we know what is absolutely essential and core and what can be included as extra lessons.

Q3. Unemployment is going up and living standards are being squeezed. Many more people are being forced into the hands of the payday lenders and fee-charging debt management companies. Will the Prime Minister act to protect ordinary people who are being preyed on and ripped off? (86405)

The hon. Lady speaks with great experience, because she worked for Citizens Advice before coming to the House. She stands up for Citizens Advice and is right to do so. All of us know what a brilliant job it does in our constituencies. She will know that the previous Government wrestled with the issue of how best to regulate doorstep lenders and other lenders, and the danger of driving people into the hands of loan sharks if we got rid of the regulated sector. I am very happy to discuss this further with interested colleagues. It is a very difficult subject to get right, but the Government are working at it.

Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the impact of pocket-money priced alcohol on the state of our nation’s health and antisocial behaviour in our town centres, as well as about the damage it does to our community pubs?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. There is no doubt in my mind that very low-cost alcohol is part of the problem in our town centres. One of the answers that the Government have already come up with is to ban the deeply discounted selling of alcohol, but we need to look at the broader question of low-cost alcohol. I have noted very carefully the letter in the papers this morning from a whole set of people with great expertise on this, and we are looking carefully at the issue.

Q4. This morning we learned that the Teesside airport is up for sale and it seems that, as unemployment is sky-rocketing in the north-east, our planes may be grounded. Is not the loss of infrastructure and jobs in the north-east further evidence that this Government’s economic plan is a catastrophic failure? (86406)

The key thing about the future of Durham Tees Valley airport, which is a vital airport, is not necessarily who owns it but whether it is being invested in and expanded. Is it working well? That is the key question, and that is the question that I know my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is looking at carefully.

Q5. Has the Prime Minister seen the OECD and National Institute of Economic and Social Research findings this week, which show that soaring immigration was caused not by the prospect of prosperity but by the open-door policies of the previous Government—and will he prevent that from happening again? (86407)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The report said specifically that

“the increase in net immigration to the UK was not driven primarily by the economic performance of the UK or other countries.”

Instead, the report points to immigration policy. The fact is that the previous Government quadrupled immigration and let an extra 2.2 million people into the country. The answer is to deal with the bogus colleges, and we are doing that; to put a limit on economic migration from outside the EU, and we are doing that; and to have proper border controls and a border police command, and we are doing that as well.

Q6. The autumn statement saw 400,000 Scottish children lose more than £40 million as a result of changes in the tax system. In my constituency that meant that £600,000 was taken from children. Why is the Prime Minister taking money out of children’s pockets, while allowing it to remain in the pockets of bankers? (86408)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong: the child tax credit is going up by £135. He talks about the bankers, but it is this Government who have put in place a bank levy that will raise more every year than Labour’s one-off bonus tax raised in one year.

Q7. As a York MP, I am extremely proud of our city’s vibrant tourism sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tourism plays a key role in our local economies? Will he ensure that northern tourist attractions in particular are promoted in the run-up to the Olympic games? (86409)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Millions of people will be coming to this country for the Olympic games. We need to encourage them not just to go to the Olympic games, but to visit other parts of the country and to return to Britain for a subsequent visit. We will be running all sorts of promotions and schemes to encourage that. If we could encourage people more generally to visit other places as well as London—York has many great tourist attractions and things of historical importance to see—we would drive a huge amount of jobs and growth in our regions.

On 16 December Bangladesh will mark its 40th anniversary as an independent nation, following a war that cost 3 million lives. I want to pay tribute to the contribution made by this Parliament in supporting the people in their fight for liberty and self-determination. As Bangladesh is the country that is the second most vulnerable to climate change, with an estimated 15 million to 20 million people likely to be affected in the coming decades, does the Prime Minister agree that it is now more important than ever to support developing countries against the devastating effects of climate change?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The whole House should recognise what she has done in raising the issue at this time, as Bangladesh approaches this important anniversary. Britain can be proud of the fact that we have very good relations with Bangladesh, and our aid programme in Bangladesh is now of the leading ones from anywhere in the world into that country. We are spending specific money on helping the Bangladeshis with climate change, meeting all the promises that we made. I have met the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. One of the issues that we do have to raise, though, is that there are human rights issues in Bangladesh, and we should not be scared of raising them with the authorities in the proper way.

Q8. An EU-wide agreement on prisoner transfers comes into force this month, which will enable the UK to repatriate to jails in their own country any EU nationals imprisoned here. Given that some 13% of our prison population is made up of foreign nationals, will the Prime Minister ensure that our EU partners stick to these new rules and take their criminals back? (86410)

If my hon. Friend, with his strong views, is asking a question about a successful EU scheme, it really must be Christmas, so his question is very welcome. He is absolutely right: 13% of our prison spaces are taken up by foreign nationals. That is hugely expensive, and the EU-wide agreement gives us a great opportunity to return people to their national prisons and save money at the same time.

Is freezing the pay of young privates and corporals while they are fighting in Afghanistan, without reference to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, a breach of the military covenant?

It is this Government who doubled the operational allowance, which is the best way to get money to the privates and the corporals in Afghanistan who are doing such a good job. The operational allowance, being a flat cash sum, is of disproportionate benefit to relatively low-paid people in the armed forces, whereas obviously a percentage increase would mean more money for the generals, the colonels and the brigadiers, rather than for the people on the front line. Looking at the operational allowance is crucial, but this Government have not just done that. We have extended the pupil premium to forces children, we have increased the council tax rebates for those who are serving, and for the first time we have written the military covenant into the law of our land.

Q9. I commend my right hon. Friend for protecting our national interest by exercising the veto last Friday. The people of Dudley South thank him for it. The deal that he vetoed commits eurozone members to restricting structural deficits to below 0.5% of GDP. Did the Prime Minister appreciate that this is 16 times the UK structural deficit left by Labour? (86411)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is perhaps why the leader of the Labour party is struggling so much to tell us what his view is on the proposed treaty. On one hand he wants to join the euro, if he is Prime Minister for long enough, and on the other hand he wants to sign a treaty—[Interruption.] That is rubbish? He does not want to be Prime Minister for long enough! He wants to join the euro, he wants a deal with very tough budget deficit limits, and he wants to increase spending, borrowing and debt. He tells us that he has a five-point plan, and I can sum it up in five words: “Let us bankrupt Britain again.”

Q10. Perhaps the Prime Minister could tell us why the Deputy Prime Minister did not support his position on Europe on Monday, and why not one single Liberal Democrat MP voted with the Prime Minister last night. (86412)

Last night there was something of a parliamentary rarity: a motion tabled by an opposition party praising the Prime Minister. I am very grateful to colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party. I suspect that many people concluded that Labour simply would not get its act together and did not think that it was worth voting, and as a result we won very easily.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking a remarkable man who has served this country and this place with courage and distinction for nearly 50 years. Eddie McKay, who is in the Gallery right now, has been a Doorkeeper here for 23 years and retires on Tuesday. Before coming to this place he served with distinction with the Scots Guards, leaving after 23 years of service as a senior warrant officer. In the Household Division, you are not promoted to drill sergeant unless you are exceptional. He saw action on Tumbledown mountain during the Falklands war in 1982. His company, G company, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, led that successful and audacious night assault. May I ask the Prime Minister, on behalf of us all, to wish Drill Sergeant Eddie McKay a happy retirement and a happy Christmas?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and, on behalf of the whole House, very much thank Eddie for his incredible service. I think that in this House we sometimes take for granted the people who work so hard to keep it working and keep it going, and I sometimes wonder what they think of all the antics we get up to in this House. We are incredibly grateful that he, after the incredible service he gave our nation, came here and worked so hard for so many years. We are all in his debt, and send him good wishes for his retirement.

Q11. Youth unemployment figures published this morning show that in the last quarter, 22% of 16 to 24-year-old economically active citizens are unemployed—an increase of 1.2% on the previous quarter. The Prime Minister ranted earlier in Question Time about what the Government are doing about youth unemployment in this country. Can he tell us why it is increasing? (86413)

Every increase in youth unemployment is unacceptable—[Interruption.] I will tell the House exactly what is happening. The number of 16 to 18-year-old young people not in employment, education or training is actually going down, but the problem, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, is that 18 to 24-year-olds are finding the job market extremely difficult. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] The reason why unemployment is going up is that we are losing jobs in the public sector and not growing them fast enough in the private sector, so we need to do everything we can to get our economy moving. The absolute key to that is keeping our interest rates low. We now have interest rates down to 2%. If we followed his party’s policy of extra spending, extra borrowing and extra debt, interest rates would go up, more businesses would go under and we would not get our economy moving.

Q12. Many Members will have encountered examples of banks using the threat of receivership to extract new charges and higher interest rates from their business customers. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wrong for banks to use what is effectively an extortionate bargaining position in this way, and will he agree to meet me to discuss some of the proposals I have outlined to limit the power of receivers and require banks to obtain a possession order before selling up small businesses? (86414)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend about this issue. It is vital that we not only get our banks lending properly, and lending to small businesses, but ensure that they behave in an ethical and proper way as they do so. We are addressing the first issue—the quantity of lending—through the national loan guarantee scheme and the other credit-easing measures that the Chancellor set out in the autumn statement, but we also need to ensure that the practices that the banks follow are fair, and seen to be fair. They have an interest in making sure that small businesses are in good health, and they need to follow those sorts of procedures to ensure that that happens.

Q13. Youth unemployment in Dumfries and Galloway has risen by 65% over the past 12 months, and with the British Retail Consortium indicating that almost one in three jobs there are filled by under-25s, does the Prime Minister recognise that the predicted squeeze on the retail sector will only increase the chances of youth unemployment increasing across the entire country? (86415)

The thing that would put the biggest squeeze on the retail sector is interest rates going up. Just one percentage point increase in interest rates would see the typical family lose £1,000 a year through extra mortgage payments. Everybody knows we are in a difficult economic situation and we have to take difficult decisions, as there is effectively a freeze across the eurozone, but the most important thing is to keep those interest rates low, so that people have money in their pockets and we can see some good retail recovery.

Q14. East Cheshire hospice and many other hospices across the country run Christmas tree collection services that help many families to recycle their Christmas trees in an environmentally sensitive way. Will the Prime Minister join me in this festive season in supporting the great work that such charities do in collecting trees to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for the important work of our hospices? (86416)

I certainly join my hon. Friend, at this time of year, particularly, in praising the amazing work that hospices do. Many hospices do not receive a huge amount of Government funding, and they have to be very ingenious about how they raise money from people up and down the country. Collecting and recycling Christmas trees so that we do not just leave them outside the house but do this thing properly is an excellent idea. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in praising the work that hospices do, particularly at Christmas time.

Q15. For the past 18 months the Prime Minister has been promising legislation to create a register of lobbyists, but nothing has happened so far. Will he give us a publication date for a consultation paper leading to legislation—or could he take on my ten-minute rule Bill, which is already published? I am a generous sort of bloke, so he can have it now and get it on to the statute book. (86417)

I am a generous sort of bloke too, so I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the lobbying proposals will be published within the next month—so this Government will have moved faster in 18 months than the previous Government did in 13 years.

The Prime Minister will have seen the news this morning of the study on the excess deaths of people with diabetes—unnecessary deaths, if the condition is treated correctly. The national service framework for diabetes comes to an end in 2013. Will the Prime Minister look at NSFs as a way of meeting the challenges in the health service and the health service budget, and helping people with diabetes?

I am very happy to look at the national service frameworks, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The key issue with diabetes is that we need to raise the profile of the condition, because many people have it and do not know they have it—but also to look at the public health issues, because the explosion in diabetes is partly due to bad diet and obesity in childhood. We need to address those issues; otherwise we are always going to be dealing with the disease rather than trying to prevent it.

I am in a generous mood too, and it is always a delight to listen to my colleagues, so we will have a little more.

Earlier this week in the other place, the coalition Government voted down, by a majority of two, a proposal to protect the benefits of disabled children. Is reducing benefits for disabled children by over £1,300 a year something that reflects the Prime Minister’s often repeated mantra that we are all in this together?

First of all, we are not cutting benefits for disabled children. Actually, we are uprating all those benefits by 5.2%, so people will see an increase in the benefits that they receive next year.

The Prime Minister will be aware that capacity levels on the west coast main line are intolerable and getting worse. Does he share the concerns of rail users that delays to High Speed 2 will only make their journeys more unpleasant? Will he provide the assurance that they seek about the future that he promised them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. Clearly the country has a choice. Because the west coast main line is as congested as it is, we need to replace it with either a traditional line or a high-speed line. It is well known that the Government’s view is that a high-speed line is the right answer. That is why the consultation has been conducted. Not only will it be good for people who use the west coast main line; it will be a successful regional policy that will link up our great cities, shrink the size of our country and ensure that all parts of the country can enjoy economic prosperity and growth.

I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that we can all listen attentively to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—preferably facing the House or the Chair.