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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

IT Procurement

1. What recent progress he has made on bringing forward proposals on Government IT procurement; and if he will make a statement. (94020)

Soon after the coalition Government came to office, we introduced strict controls on ICT spend that saved £300 million in the year to March 2011 alone. We have opened up procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises, we are moving towards open standards and interoperability, and we are examining some of the incredibly expensive and burdensome ICT contracts that we inherited from the previous Government.

Will the Minister tell us more about how open source, getting computers to talk to each other through common standards, and smarter procurement can help to save billions of pounds, secure better computers, and break up the IT cartel that was fostered under the previous Government?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Government have opportunities to handle their IT and increase their digital offering in transactional public services very differently from that which we inherited. It is also becoming increasingly clear that it will be possible for both the quality of those public services and public interaction to be massively improved, at a fraction of the cost incurred by the previous Government.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the latest report on IT procurement by the Select Committee on Public Administration, which includes the Government’s response to our original report? We commend the Minister for that response, but there is further progress to be made. In particular, how will the Minister tackle the cartel-like behaviour of the large prime contractors?

The reports produced by my hon. Friend’s Committee are my regular reading, and I enjoy them enormously. I commend the Committee’s work, especially its conclusions on Government ICT. I also commend the work of the Public Accounts Committee, which has focused on the subject. I think that we are making progress, but I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point: there is much, much more to be done. The previous Government left the taxpayer in hock to an oligopoly of ICT suppliers, and we intend to move on from that.

Social Action Fund

The social action fund exists to scale up projects that have proved their ability to inspire people to take social action. We recently announced the first investments for the fund, which are worth £9.4 million and have generated a further £9 million in match funding. We believe that those combined investments will generate more than 200,000 volunteering opportunities.

A registered charity in my constituency, Fourtwelve Ministries, which runs the Carpenter’s Arms residential rehabilitation centre and a food parcel handout service, was recently turned down for funding by the Social Investment Business, which administers the social action fund. One of the reasons given was that it was part of a Christian charity. Can the Minister assure me that the Government fully recognise the role played by Christian groups in delivering social action projects?

Yes, I can, but I should clarify one point. The charity was not turned down for the social action fund; it was turned down for another fund.

We all know from our constituencies that many churches and faith groups are very active in generating opportunities for people to become involved and give time to help others, and the social action fund is open to bids from faith groups that make social action possible. In the first round we invested in the Cathedral Archer Project, a Christian group in Sheffield that is enabling homeless people to volunteer to help other homeless people.

A recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations showed that, according to the Government’s own figures, charities face cuts of over £900 million. Does the Minister agree that the £20 million managed by the social action fund is a drop in the ocean in comparison with what charities need?

Let me make two points. First, the sector would have faced cuts under any Administration, as the leader of the Labour party has made clear. Secondly, the £20 million social action fund exists to do something very specific. Its purpose is to scale up successful, proven projects in order to inspire social action.

Big Society

3. How many big society projects were under way in the most recent period for which figures are available. (94023)

Our big society agenda involves putting power into the hands of individuals and communities, and it is emphatically not a programme driven from the centre of Government. I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that there is not an army of bureaucrats going around counting big society projects; that would entirely defeat the purpose.

I am grateful to the Minister for telling me that he has no idea—I appreciate that.

Big society projects have been one of the many successes of this Conservative-led Government. In my constituency we have the Hope project, led by the superb Simon Trundle, which is transforming one of the most deprived areas in the constituency. However, it is experiencing problems as local funding is cut, and it may even have to be closed. How can the big society initiative help it to obtain more funds?

I am aware of the Hope project, which is to be greatly commended, and I am happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the Minister for civil society, will meet him to discuss this. I have a terrible feeling that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) might even succeed, because I did some research and discovered that he managed to get community first funding for two of the wards in his constituency. I wish him luck in this endeavour, too.

Patrick Butler said in The Guardian recently:

“For many in the charity world, the Big Society…has become a toxic sign of Government hypocrisy, broken promises and ineptitude”.

What are the Government doing to change that?

I hope the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will help me to do so, because distinguished members of his party totally back the big society, including the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), who tells him and his colleagues:

“We should be for the Big Society.”

I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in putting across the idea that we should welcome the giving back of power to communities and individuals to change their own lives for the better.

One of the ways the big society will succeed is through the dissemination of successful projects, for which the big society awards were intended to be one of the vehicles. What progress has been made with the awards?

I am happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the big society awards are alive and well and happening, with successive tranches of people coming in to get them. The Prime Minister is hugely devoted to this. It is important to recognise what communities and community groups are doing the length and breadth of the land.

The Minister is a keen follower of my website, so he will know that I support initiatives to build social capital in communities. When I visit voluntary groups, I am very struck by the extent to which they have benefited from the future jobs fund. From a big society point of view, was it not a mistake, therefore, to abolish that fund?

I am indeed an avid follower of the hon. Gentleman’s website, and a most interesting document it is, too. The fact is that, alas, the future jobs fund offered only a very temporary fix. By contrast, we are trying to create a framework within which the voluntary community sector has long-term prospects that it can build on through achievement and by providing the taxpayer with value for money.

Efficiency Savings

We have made huge efficiency savings in the spending we inherited from the previous Government. In the 10 months to March 2011 we delivered £3.75 billion in savings by reducing waste. For the first time, the savings were verified by the Public Accounts Committee and by the National Audit Office in its report last week, but this is only the start and further significant savings will derive from the Efficiency and Reform Group’s programme of long-term, sustainable reform.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am a keen follower of his Department’s website and I noted that its jobs section last week advertised eight jobs with a salary of more than £100,000 before bonuses, perks and who knows what tax arrangements. Will the Minister explain how that fits with his freeze on non-essential and non-front line jobs in the public sector, and at a time when public sector workers are under increasing pressure?

It is completely consistent with that, because we need particular skills to drive out the waste we inherited. Particularly, there is a need for commercial and IT skills. While those skills exist in Government, we do not have enough of them. Every single one of those external recruitments by the Cabinet Office will have been approved by me personally, and I make absolutely no apology at all for approving them. Where those skills are needed and a rigorous search has shown that they are not available within Government, we will recruit from outside and we will pay people properly for work that is essential.

Is it not a fact that the Minister’s Efficiency and Reform Group will achieve no savings at all if the most senior officials in Government are distracted into chaotic breaches of the Cabinet Office code of conduct? Will he confirm that the Cabinet Secretary has now restored efficient Government by launching an investigation into such destructive breaches of the code as that reported in The Times yesterday of a senior No. 10 aide saying the Health Secretary should be “taken out and shot”?

Frankly, coming from the hon. Gentleman—the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous Prime Minister, who operated in a No. 10 that was widely reviled as a snake pit of back-biting and anonymous briefings—that is pretty rich.

Big Society

Our objectives are to build social capital by transferring powers to communities, opening up public services and encouraging more social action.

Last year, the Prime Minister included community empowerment among his three big society aims, but this year the Communities Secretary has already been forced to write to the Conservative leader of Nottingham county council following reports of disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector. Can the Minister tell me exactly how this Tory council’s decision to cut voluntary sector funding by a huge 34% will empower communities in our county?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written in extremely uncompromising and tough terms to the county council in question, reminding it that there is statutory guidance, and that the proportion by which the voluntary and community sector is cut should be the same as the proportion by which the council’s own budgets are cut. I am delighted to pay tribute, unusually, to the hon. Lady’s own council, which, despite coming from a different political party from mine, has actually followed that rule, cutting both by roughly similar proportions.

The Public Administration Committee report on the big society described it as lacking clarity and leadership and ways of measuring progress. Why does the Minister think this cross-party group is so critical of the big society idea?

As a matter of fact, the Committee’s report is an admirable work that brings out extremely clearly the value of our big society agenda and urges us to push it further and faster, and we agree with that. Actually, the evidence clearly shows that it is on the ground that people will measure success. When they see more free schools educating their children better, mutuals delivering better health care, and communities taking charge of their own neighbourhood planning and making their environment better, then we will know it is a success.

The shadow spokesman on London and the Olympics said that the big society “should be Labour territory”. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the whole point of the big society is that it is not just for Labour but for everyone?

Yes, I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend, and I should like to pray in aid the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who said that the big society is

“something that the Labour party should instinctively understand as part of its own DNA”.

The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), told the Labour party:

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the Big Society; we should claim it for our own”.

I hope this can bring the whole House together.

If my right hon. Friend wants to see the big society at work, may I suggest that he look at the snow in winter clearance initiatives of East Riding and North Lincolnshire councils? They have devolved money down to local communities, enabling them last weekend to sort out snow clearance in their own way, as they wished.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is a classic example of what I see in my own constituency, in many other rural constituencies up and down the country and increasingly in the suburbs. People are taking charge and making sure that they get what they actually need delivered locally, by people who understand the local circumstances, and in many cases much more cheaply than was previously possible from the centre.

Given what is really happening, the objectives for the big society would appear to be huge funding and job cuts across the third sector, charities walking away from the Work programme and health service mutuals not getting health service contracts. Given the lack of influence that Cabinet Office Ministers clearly have across the rest of Whitehall, is the Cabinet Office not now merely the place where the emperor’s new clothes get spun?

Unfortunately, what the hon. Gentleman fails to reckon with is that not only this Government but any Government currently trying to run the United Kingdom would be faced with the need to clear up the fiscal mess that he and his colleagues left this country in, and that certainly entails cuts. We are very clear about that, and as matter of fact his own leader is now beginning to be clearer about that—although we are still not clear how clear he is. The fact is, therefore, that the voluntary and community sector does suffer some reduction in funding, but we are determined to create vast new opportunities for that sector, so it can compete to provide public services effectively and for the sake of the taxpayer.

Consultancy

During 2010-11, the Cabinet Office spent just over £9 million on consultancy. The figure is down from £27.5 million in 2009-10, the last year of the previous Government. That is a reduction of more than two thirds and we anticipate further reductions in the current financial year. Across central Government, expenditure was reduced from £1.234 billion in 2009-10 to £361 million in the last financial year—that is a 71% reduction.

In August 2010, the most recent month for which figures are available, the Cabinet Office spent almost £120,000 on consultants for advice on judicial reviews. Does the Minister agree that spending hundreds of thousands of pounds defending this Government’s mistakes is not the best use of taxpayers’ money?

The Government are obliged to protect what they do in the interests of the taxpayer. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that spending on consultants was spiralling completely out of control under the previous Government. That was providing very bad value for the taxpayer and it was very demoralising for mainstream civil servants, who felt that they were undervalued by the previous Government, whose default setting when anything difficult came up was to hire consultants. We will put our faith in the work that civil servants do. [Interruption.]

Order. A large number of very noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber, even as I speak. Some involve very senior Members who ought to know better.

Public Procurement

8. What assessment he has made of the effects of changes to public procurement on the ability of small and medium-sized enterprises to secure contracts. (94028)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of new suppliers to Government working groups in making it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for Government contracts. (94029)

We want 25% of the value of Government contracts to be awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises, and we have made significant progress towards that. This has so far led to a more than doubling in the amount of direct spend awarded to SMEs in the first half of the current year.

The Minister will be aware that his own commercial representatives of SMEs have said that it will take up to two years before SMEs stop being excluded from Government contracts. Does he agree that that is utterly unacceptable? What is he going to do to make better use of EU exemptions that protect local economies?

I fully accept that it will take a little time to get things fully sorted out following the mess left after 13 years of the hon. Lady’s Government, so rather than chiding us for the progress that we are making why does she not congratulate us on our progress and start apologising for the mess her Government left behind?

Further to the Minister’s answer, the leader of one of the Government’s own working groups, Mark Taylor, who is the chief executive officer of Sirius, has said:

“There are SMEs being taken out of procurement, not put into it.”

He said that that is “simply not acceptable.” Are not Government policies, as Mr Taylor points out, making it more difficult for SMEs to take part in Government procurement projects, rather than easier?

No, that is the reverse of the truth. The arrangements we inherited made it incredibly difficult for SMEs to bid, because the procurement processes were so bureaucratic, so clunky and so expensive, both for the taxpayer and for bidders, that many SMEs and voluntary and community sector organisations were, in effect, excluded. We are addressing that. There is more to do, but I would be grateful for some support from the hon. Lady’s side, particularly in encouraging Labour-led local authorities.

My constituent, Mr Isham, who runs a business in Willington, is also finding it difficult to break through the barriers to obtaining Government contracts. May I encourage the Minister to come to South Derbyshire for a question and answer session with local business people, so that they can learn at first hand from the master how to apply?

I would obviously be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituents, but I would urge them to look at the Contracts Finder website, where, for the first time, Government and public sector contracts are available for scrutiny. If they find that procurement is still being done in the old-fashioned, outmoded way that we inherited from the Labour Government, they should phone our helpline and we will get on the case, as we have done in many cases already, and put improvements in place.

Manufacturing companies in my constituency are slowly dragging this country out of the mire in which it was left by the previous Government. Will the Minister please advise my manufacturing companies how, other than by looking at the website, they can find out about getting on the list to provide the national Government with products?

We inherited some very rigid arrangements that militated against UK-based suppliers and at the same time provided very bad value for taxpayers. We are making reforms that make it easier for local businesses, particularly manufacturing businesses, to compete effectively, but I will happily consider the issue raised by my hon. Friend.

The Government promised that 25% of Government contracts would be awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises, yet figures on the Minister’s departmental website show that the percentage of procurement spend with SMEs at the Cabinet Office has fallen from just under 11% to 7%, a decline replicated across Whitehall. At a time when net lending to SMEs is falling and the number of companies going under is increasing, why are things getting worse, not better, for small businesses on his watch?

It is simply not the case that things are getting worse. The value of contracts being given to SMEs is rising and rising markedly from the very low base that we inherited. The other issue that we have had to deal with is the fact that the quality of information left by the previous Government was deplorable.

Topical Questions

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

Will the Minister explain how the Government’s action in allowing the chief executive of the Student Loans Company not to pay tax or national insurance on his £182,000 salary is in line with his own Government’s report, “Tackling Debt Owed to Central Government”? Does the Minister agree that this Government have one rule for the rich and another for everyone else?

T2. In reply to a question I tabled last July, my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of reforming the civil service appraisal system. Will he update the House on what changes have been made? (94036)

We have already put in place new arrangements for the senior civil service and they will be rolled out for the whole civil service at the delegated grades. It is really important that appraisal identifies the very best performers, rewarding them with promotion and proper pay, and pays serious attention to those who underperform, who cause massive demoralisation to the hard-working majority of dedicated civil servants.

T3. Given the fact that the report of the Public Administration Committee, “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”, has recommended that owing to allegations of anti-competitiveness and collusive behaviour by some large IT suppliers, the Government should establish an independent and external investigation into those claims, will the Minister agree to implement the recommendations and set up an investigation into the oligopoly of large suppliers? (94037)

The hon. Gentleman is completely correct that an oligopoly of IT suppliers has, to far too great an extent, dominated Government ICT contracts. We seek to change that by having smaller contracts and much quicker and better procurement processes, but we have a legacy of huge contracts with that oligopoly of suppliers and are looking at how we can deal with that.

T8. Europe’s most energy efficient data centre was recently opened by Ark Continuity near Corsham on the edge of my constituency, providing resilient top-tier security infrastructure. Given the Minister’s interest in improving public sector information, communications and technology, can I interest him in joining me on a site visit to see that world-leading technology for himself? (94042)

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and that installation. There are now ways of providing much better ICT at a much lower cost and in a much greener way. We are exploring all of them and I would be delighted to share our thinking with my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise. We can scarcely hear the Minister’s answers, which is unfair on the Minister and unfair on the House.

T4. Sixty per cent. of Welsh Government public procurement contracts are awarded to SMEs, half of which are in Wales. In England the figure is less than 10%. Given that SMEs invest more in local jobs, pay more tax and create more growth, what is the Minister doing to ensure that SMEs get business in England, instead of the money being siphoned off abroad? (94038)

We are radically reforming procurement to cut the cost to businesses. Bidding for public sector contracts has been far too expensive, both for the taxpayer and for bidders, and it is entirely right to say that too many SMEs have simply been frozen out of the process. We are determined to open that up and to enable more SMEs, which will tend to be UK-based, to bid successfully.

T9. I welcome the Minister’s wise decision to accept a bid from the Hastings Trust and other charities to the social action fund to build community volunteers and to promote the big society in Hastings. May I urge him to visit us in Hastings, to see the good work that is being done? (94043)

The allure of a visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency is hard to resist. I can undertake that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the Minister for civil society, will fulfil that engagement.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Her Majesty the Queen—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—in this historic week marking the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. Her Majesty’s 60 years of remarkable leadership and dedicated public service are an inspiration to us all and something that the whole country and the whole Commonwealth can be immensely proud of. Members will have the opportunity to pay individual tributes during debate on the humble address on 7 March.

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.

I am sure the whole House, and not least myself, will wish to join the Prime Minister in his warm tribute to Her Majesty. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

In March last year the Prime Minister said:

“There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line police officers.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 335.]

Will he confirm that front-line officer numbers have been cut in 40 out of 43 police forces?

The proportion of officers on the front line is up, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating Mayor Boris Johnson on his excellent record on crime in our capital. Total crime is down, violent crime is down on buses and tubes, 11,000 knives and guns have been taken off our streets, and there are 1,000 more officers on the streets of London at the end of his term than at the beginning. That, together with his reminder of the rule on the dangers of tweeting, is a good start to the day.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at the overthrow yesterday of the first democratically elected President of the Maldives in a coup d’état? Given our historical links with the islands, will the Government, by way of a message, do all they can to ensure that no violence results and that the democratic institutions remain?

My hon. Friend is right. This country does have strong links with the Maldives and a good relationship with President Nasheed, but we have to be clear. President Nasheed has resigned, and we have a strong interest in the well-being of several thousand British tourists and in a stable and democratic Government in the Maldives. Our high commissioner is in the capital now and meeting all the political leaders. We call on the new Government to demonstrate their respect for the rights of all political parties and their members, and to ensure that the constitution is upheld. We advise British tourists to avoid non-essential travel to Malé island, and those using Malé airport and the tourist resorts should exercise caution.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Her Majesty the Queen as we celebrate her diamond jubilee. Her dedication to the country and to public service is an inspiration and an example to us all, and we all look forward to the official celebrations later this year, which will enable us to celebrate both Her Majesty and our country.

On the day the Prime Minister completed his NHS listening exercise, he said:

“some of the people who worked in our NHS were sceptical of our changes. Today, we are taking people with us. It’s in this spirit of unity that we want to continue.”

Why does he think he has failed?

Today, 95% of the country is covered by general practitioners who are not actually supporting our reforms; they are implementing them. Just today—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. There is a long way to go, so let us hear the answers. There will be plenty of time. Calm.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Just today, 50 foundation trusts have written to the newspapers in support of our reforms and objecting to what Labour is proposing, and the signature at the top of the list, which the right hon. Gentleman might not have noticed, is that of one Anne Campbell, the former Labour MP for Cambridge. She, running her local foundation trust, supports the reforms. That is what happens: Labour MPs leave this House and start implementing coalition policy.

Even the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that nonsense he just came out with. Last Friday the Royal College of General Practitioners said that his health Bill would

“cause irreparable damage to patient care and jeopardise the NHS.”

[Interruption.] The Health Secretary is shouting from a sedentary position—from some distance away, I notice. It is nice to see him here. The Prime Minister says that he wants the voice of doctors to be heard in the NHS. Why does he not listen to them?

It is always good to get a lecture on happy families from the right hon. Gentleman. I care passionately about our NHS, not least because of what it has done for my family and because of the amazing service I have received. I want to see that excellent service implemented for everyone, and that means two things: we have to put more money into the NHS, which we are doing, but we also have to reform the NHS. He used to be in favour of reform. Let me read him something. Who said:

“to safeguard the NHS in tougher fiscal times, we need sustained reform.”?

That was in the Labour manifesto at the last election. Because the NHS is important, we are committed to £12.5 billion in this Parliament, yet his health spokesman, who is sitting right there, said that it would be “irresponsible” to spend more money on the NHS. The Opposition are not in favour of the money. They are not in favour of the reform. They are just a bunch of opportunists.

Isn’t this interesting? The Prime Minister says that this is all about reform, but the Tory Reform Group has come out against these proposals. It comes to something when even the Tories do not trust the Tories on the NHS. Let us hear what Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] So when the people Government Members want to put at the heart of the NHS say things about their Bill, they just groan. That says it all about those on the Government Benches. Clare Gerada said:

“This bill is a burden. It makes no sense, it is incoherent… It won’t deal with the big issues… and it will also result in a health service that certainly will never match the health service that we… had 12 months ago.”

Which part of that does the right hon. Gentleman not understand?

Let us look at what has happened to the NHS over the past 18 months—[Interruption.] Yes, let us look at the figures: 100,000 more patients treated every month; 4,000 extra doctors since the election; the number of clinical staff up; the level of hospital-acquired infections down; the number of people who are in mixed-sex wards down by 94%. That is what is happening, because there is a combination of money going in and reform.

Now, we know what happens if we do not put in the money and do not undertake the reform, because there is one part of the NHS which is run by Labour, and that is in Wales. Let us have a look at what is happening to the NHS in Wales. Labour has cut the money, and one third of people are waiting longer than 18 weeks. That is what is happening in Labour’s NHS, and if we did not put the money in and did not have the reform, it would happen right here, too.

I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is getting so agitated, because he thought that the NHS was his way to modernise the Conservative party, and I am afraid that it is coming apart. I will tell him why: it is because the promises he made before the election are coming back to haunt him. We all remember the promise of no more top-down reorganisation. Now he says that he knows better than the doctors, better than the nurses, better than the midwives and better than the patients associations—people who day in, day out rely on and devote their lives to the health service. This is a matter of trust in the Prime Minister. Can he honestly look people in the health service in the eye and say that he has kept his promise of no more top-down reorganisation?

What we are doing is cutting the bureaucracy in the NHS. We are taking out £4.5 billion of bureaucracy which will be ploughed into patient care. If you don’t support the reform, you won’t see that money go into operations, doctors, nurses, hospitals, health care assistants. That is what is actually happening in the NHS, but there is one group of people I will not listen to, and that is the people who ran the NHS under Labour. This is what they did: £6 billion wasted on the NHS computer; £250 million spent on private sector operations that were never carried out. We still have private finance initiative agreements whereby we pay £300 every time someone changes a light bulb. That is what we got from Labour. We are putting the money in, we are putting the reform in, the number of operations is up, the waiting times are down, the NHS is improving, and that is the way it is going to stay.

I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman about our record on the NHS: the shortest waiting times in NHS history; more doctors and nurses than ever before; the highest level of patient satisfaction ever in the health service.

But everyone will have heard a Prime Minister unable to defend the promise that he made: the promise of no more top-down reorganisation—a Prime Minister who has broken his word. The reality is this: all his attention is on this pointless, top-down reorganisation, and the front line is suffering: the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks—up, under him; A and E targets being missed; cancelled operations. Why will he not just give up, stop wasting billions and drop his Bill?

If the Opposition’s record was so good, why were they thrown out at the last election?

Now, let me just—[Interruption.] Let me— [Interruption.]

Order. I am worried about Opposition Members. They must calm themselves and do so straight away.

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of the clear test that he set for the reforms and for the Government. He said that the test was whether waiting times and waiting lists would come down. Let me now give him the figures: in-patient waiting times, down; out-patient waiting times, down; the number of people waiting more than a year, down to its lowest ever level; the number of people waiting for six months, down to its lowest ever level; and, indeed, the number of people on the waiting list—what he said was the clear test—is down. This is what it proves about the Labour leader: even when he moves the goalposts, he can’t put it in the back of the net.

The person who is moving the goalposts is the Prime Minister. The reality is that the key test that was set for the health service was the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks, and that number is up 43% since the general election. However much he twists and turns, that is the reality.

In his heart of hearts, the Prime Minister knows that the Bill is a complete disaster. That is why his aides are saying that the Health Secretary should be taken out and shot, because they know it is a disaster. The reality about the Bill is this: the doctors know that it is bad for the NHS; the nurses know that it is bad for the NHS; and patients know that it is bad for the NHS. Every day the Prime Minister fights for the Bill, every day trust in him on the NHS ebbs away and every day it becomes clearer that the health service is not safe in his hands.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that the career prospects of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary are a lot better than his. That is what this is about. This is not a campaign to save the NHS; this is a campaign to try to save the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership. I make this prediction: the NHS will go on getting better and his prospects will go on getting worse.

When the Work programme was introduced in Burnley in October 2010, 66% of people there were economically active; since then, the figure has climbed to 75%. Would the Prime Minister like to congratulate the people of Burnley—and in particular, Vedas Recruitment—for that success?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating not only the people in Burnley but the people conducting the Work programme and our welfare reforms. What we are seeing is more people becoming able to work and therefore able to enter the work force and raise not only the country’s living standards but their own, too.

Q2. The people of Preston are furious that the Indian Government have selected a French company as their preferred bidder for the Indian air force jet contract. The Prime Minister repeatedly talks about rebalancing the British economy, but this is a major blow to manufacturing in this country. Other European leaders go to help their companies get major contracts. Why is this weak Prime Minister not doing that and why have we not got the contract with the Indian Government? (93968)

The hon. Gentleman ought to think about the fact that all European leaders are backing the Eurofighter project—it is a German project, an Italian project, a Spanish project and a British project, and that is how it should be. I am very disappointed by what has happened in India, but Eurofighter is not out of the contest and we need to re-engage as hard as we can to make sure that we get the best deal for all those workers in Britain who make Eurofighters. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is shouting from a sedentary position, but this is something that ought to unite parties in this House—getting behind our great defence producers.

In order that a constituent of mine could access the drugs and treatment that she was entitled to under the NHS constitution, her GP, her consultant, her specialist oncologist, the Secretary of State for Health and I had to write a total of 70 appeal letters. When will health care professionals be able to decide what treatments their patients get?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Since the introduction of the cancer drugs fund under this Government, 10,000 more people have been able to get cancer drugs, which are so essential. Let me tell the House one thing that would really damage cancer treatment in this country—it is the proposal from the Labour party to cap at 5% any private sector involvement in our hospitals. The Royal Marsden, one of the best cancer hospitals in the country, would have to cut by a quarter the services that it delivers. What a crazy, left-wing plan, which only the Leader of the Opposition could come up with.

Q3. In three months’ time, just before the Olympics, Abu Qatada, a truly dangerous man, will be roaming the streets of London with his mobile phone and internet access, thanks to the Prime Minister’s having abolished control orders and house arrest provisions. How can the Prime Minister justify putting the public’s right to life at risk to give over to the Liberal Democrats on their demands to abolish control orders? It is disgusting. (93969)

The situation with Abu Qatada is completely unacceptable. As I said when I went to Strasbourg to make a speech to the Council of Europe about this issue, it is not acceptable that we end up with a situation where we cannot try, detain or deport someone in our country who threatens to do us harm. That is why the Government will do everything they can, working with our Jordanian friends and allies, to make sure that he can be deported. Again, instead of the hon. Gentleman sniping about this, the whole House ought to unite to help sort this out.

As recently as last September, only a tiny handful of the 165 acute mental health adult in-patient beds in Hampshire were vacant, yet the trust concerned proposes to cut those 165 beds to 107, replacing them with something called a hospital at home, or a virtual ward. Given my belief that the statistics on which that decision is based are inconsistent and unreliable, will the Prime Minister support my call for independent experts from the Audit Commission to look at those figures before those beds are closed?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we are putting extra resources into the NHS, but there needs to be a clear series of tests—as there is now under our plans—before any facilities are changed or closed. That is about ensuring that there is GP backing for what is proposed, and ensuring that any such changes will improve the health of the area. I will happily look at the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and ensure that the Department of Health engages on it with him.

Q4. Four police authorities, including one that I share with the Chancellor, have just started buying Hyundai cars imported from Korea. Add to that the Thameslink fiasco and that of the Olympic tickets—when will we see some leadership from the Prime Minister on public procurement in this country? (93970)

The most important thing in police procurement is that police forces get together and procure together to cut their costs. We have all lost count of the times spent wandering through police stations and seeing countless different types of vehicle, all costing a large amount of money. What the public want is police on the streets, not money spent on unnecessary procurement.

Q5. The Prime Minister will have seen this morning’s Defence Committee report on Libya. What steps is he taking to ensure that the UK will be fully able to evacuate all UK nationals from conflict zones, and reduce our reliance on civil charter aircraft? (93971)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I think that the Libya evacuation, and other potential evacuations in a dangerous and unstable world, have brought home to us the importance of having transport aircraft in the Ministry of Defence and the RAF. I can announce today that because the MOD’s finances are now better run and better managed, and because we have found savings, we will be able to purchase an additional C-17 for the RAF. This aircraft is becoming an absolutely brilliant workhorse for the RAF, bringing men and material into a war zone such as Afghanistan, and evacuating civilians in times of need. It is an important investment for the country, and I am glad to announce that we can make it today.

May I first associate myself with the tributes to Her Majesty the Queen?

Yesterday, the all-party independent group on stalking published its report. The Prime Minister knows of my interest in that subject, and the Government consultation concluded yesterday. Will he please meet me and a small group of members of that all-party group to discuss the urgent need for a stalking law?

We take this issue seriously, and I would be happy to meet with the right hon. Gentleman and discuss it. I know that he has had conversations with the Home Office. We all want to get the issue right, and if there is a need for legislative changes, there may well be opportunities in the next Session for that sort of criminal justice legislation. I will happily meet the right hon. Gentleman and talk with him about it.

Q6. During apprenticeship week I am proud to highlight the fact that Macclesfield college has increased its number of apprenticeships from nine to 160 over the past three years, and that the Government have increased the number of apprenticeships by 177,000 in the past year alone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that achievements such as those illustrate the importance of apprenticeships, and the commitment that is required to give them the focus, attention and recognition that they deserve? (93972)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the most important investments that we can make in the future industrial base of this country and in helping young people is in apprenticeships. The number of apprenticeships has increased by a staggering 60% over the past year, and 457,000 people are starting apprenticeships. In apprenticeship week, it is important to stress what we are doing to get over the objections that people have had in the past, and to ensure that apprenticeships are more easily taken up by small businesses through the payment of a simple fee. We must ensure that we have more higher-level apprenticeships to show that apprenticeships are every bit as good as having a university degree, and often involve a university degree. We must also cut bureaucracy by allowing big businesses to run apprenticeship schemes themselves, rather than doing it via a training provider. All those things will make a big difference.

Q7. Why have the Government not lodged an appeal against the Abu Qatada judgment? Aren’t you being dangerously complacent, Prime Minister? (93973)

We are doing everything we can to get this man out of the country. The absolutely key thing is to get an agreement with Jordan about the way he will be treated, because the European Court of Human Rights has made a very clear judgment. I happen to think it is the wrong judgment, and I regret that judgment. This guy should have been deported years ago. Nevertheless, if we can get that agreement with Jordan, he can be on his way.

Q8. Complex employment law makes small businesses nervous about hiring new staff. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a simpler alternative for our smallest firms on dismissal rules? (93974)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. If every small business in the country hired an additional worker, that would go a long way to curing both long-term youth unemployment and total unemployment at one stroke. We have got to make it easier for businesses to take people on. One of the key considerations for businesses is how difficult it is to let someone go if it does not work out. That is why extending to two years the amount of time that someone has to work before they get access to a tribunal will make a real difference in small business employment.

We have heard from the Prime Minister how the Italian and German Governments are out there fighting for British jobs. Will he tell us exactly how many phone conversations he had directly with the Indian Prime Minister about the Typhoon bid, and when the last conversation took place?

I raised this issue with the Indian Prime Minister repeatedly on my visit to India, and indeed at the G20 in Cannes, but let me remind the hon. Lady of one important fact. When I loaded up an aeroplane with British business people, including from businesses like Rolls-Royce, and took them around the Gulf to sell our defence equipment, who was it that attacked me? Who was it that put out press releases? Who is it that does not stand up for British industry, British defence companies and British jobs? It is Labour.

Q9. On Monday I visited the offices of the Bucks Free Press to hear what my constituents have been saying about proposed changes to health services at Wycombe hospital. I can tell the Prime Minister that Labour’s tragic legacy in my constituency is distrust and despair. Does he agree with me that the right way to deliver local accountability in health care in our constituencies is clinical commissioning and foundation trust status? (93975)

I think my hon. Friend is entirely right. The whole point of the reforms is to put the power in the hands of local doctors, so that they make decisions on behalf of patients and based on what is good for health care in their local area. We may well find that the community hospitals that were repeatedly undermined by Labour will actually get a great boost, because local people and local doctors want to see them succeed. That is what our reforms are all about.

The PIP implant saga has left 40,000 women sick with anxiety because of faulty medical products, and now they are being failed by private clinics and by an NHS that is dithering about what to do with them. In this saga we can see the future of a privatised NHS, so will the Prime Minister pledge to support those women in the NHS now and claim against the clinics later, and will he drop the Health and Social Care Bill so that we do not have this happening again across the NHS?

Let me take the hon. Lady’s question in two halves. She is entirely right about the scandal of the PIP implants. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we will offer every one of those women a free consultation and ensure that we do everything we can on the NHS to help them. It is an absolute scandal, and the private clinics that carried out those operations should feel the maximum pressure to undo the harm that they have done.

On the issue of greater competition and choice within the NHS, I think the hon. Lady should listen to past Labour politicians who have themselves said that actually, greater choice, greater competition and the involvement of the private sector can help to raise standards in our NHS system. That is why we should support it.

Q10. The threat to shipbuilding jobs at Portsmouth dockyard places a question mark over not only 1,500 livelihoods at BAE Systems but 32,000 jobs in the wider regional supply chain. I know that the Prime Minister shares my concerns about that, but will he commit to do all he can to protect that site, where they have been building warships for more than 500 years? (93976)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for Portsmouth, for her constituents and for shipbuilding. BAE Systems has not approached the Government with any proposal to rationalise shipbuilding in the UK. As far as I am aware, no decisions have yet been taken by the company. On this Government’s commitment to the Royal Navy, we are building the new frigates, the global combat ship and the hunter-killer submarines. We have plans for replacing Trident, and plans for aircraft carriers are well under way. That is a major punch for the Royal Navy, which I strongly support.

Q11. Treasury tax raids on North sea oil and gas are putting 1,500 jobs at Offshore Group Newcastle in North Tyneside at risk. I ask the Prime Minister not to be complacent about north-east jobs, but to incentivise offshore development and guarantee tax relief on platform decommissioning in the Budget, and to meet me and others about the job situation in the north-east. (93978)

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. I saw for myself when I went to Aberdeen how vital this industry is and how much investment is taking place in the North sea. Let me remind her, however, that the reason we put up the tax on the North sea was to cut petrol duty for families up and down the country, but we will make sure—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not know why Members are falling about unable to contain themselves. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer.

We will make sure there is a good tax regime for the North sea, whether that is servicing jobs in England or, indeed, in Scotland.

Q12. Last Wednesday, the Commons rejected the Lords attempt to wreck the Welfare Reform Bill. On seven occasions, the Commons voted. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister voted, but the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who has responsibility for children, refused to support the Government and has spoken against the policy. On occasion, I have spoken against the Government and not supported them, but I am not a Government Minister. Why is she still a Government Minister? [Interruption.] (93979)

Order. We want to hear the Prime Minister’s verdict on the hon. Member for Brent Central, and we will not if there is too much noise.

I thought my hon. Friend was going to say that he was not a Government Minister “yet”. The hon. Lady is a Government Minister and supports Government policy, as all Ministers do.

Q13. Fifteen thousand young disabled people will be affected by the changes to contributory employment support allowance. The worst 10%—1,500 new claimants —will lose £4,900 a year. Is this the Government of values that the Prime Minister spoke about in May 2010? (93980)

The important value with respect to employment support allowance is that we are saying that there are two groups. The first group—the support group—is for people who are not able to work, who deserve to get that support over and above jobseeker’s allowance, for as long as they need it, without any element of means-testing. The second group—the work-related activity group—is for people who need help to get work but who will be able to work. That is why they are in that group. They will get tailored help and support under the Work programme to get them into work. I know the Labour party has set its face against all welfare reform, but it is making a massive mistake in doing so.

What confidence can we have that unilateral intervention by Russia will put an end to the terrible violence in Syria?

I think we can have very little confidence in that. Frankly, Russia and China set themselves against Arab opinion and world opinion when they set themselves against passing what would have been a strong and good UN resolution. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to push for that resolution.

What we now need—Britain will play a big part in this—is real engagement with the opposition groups both inside and outside Syria, bringing together the strongest possible international alliance through a contact group, so that we can co-ordinate our efforts with respect to getting rid of that dreadful regime. We should make sure, through the EU and other bodies, that we continue the sanctions and pressure.

The bloodshed in Syria is absolutely appalling. The Russians have to look at their consciences and realise what they have done, but the rest of the world will keep fighting as hard as we can to give the Syrian people a chance to choose their own future.

Q14. Yesterday, I heard a health expert who is visiting the UK say that the NHS remains a beacon for care and effectiveness in the world, and that it needs to be improved and perfected, not changed. Will the Prime Minister accept that advice and abandon the health Bill? (93981)

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I will tell him what Labour is doing in Wales. It has cut health spending in Wales by £400 million, which is a 6.5% cut; and 27% of people in Wales wait more than six weeks for diagnostic services, whereas the figure for England is just 1%. As I said earlier, one third of people wait more than 18 weeks for an operation in Wales. That is what we get from Labour: no money, no reform, no good health service.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many of my constituents are among the 337 redundancies announced by Kerry Foods, based at Europarc industrial estate, which straddles the Cleethorpes and Great Grimsby constituencies. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and I have approached various Departments for support, which I am sure will be forthcoming. One possibility is the extension of the recently announced enterprise zone. Will the Prime Minister give some comfort to my constituents by considering the proposal sympathetically?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right to speak up for his constituents in this way. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is happy to consider expanding the enterprise zone and see what else we can do to help my hon. Friend’s constituents and ensure that they can get into work.

We now come to the ten-minute rule motion. As always, I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) can be respectfully heard by all who remain in the Chamber.