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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2012

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Syria

We have given direct support to 20,000 families for food rations, medical supplies and emergency water. We are today announcing additional support for humanitarian aid.

The massacres unfolding at the hands of the murderous Assad regime are now being compared to great humanitarian tragedies such as Srebrenica. Unhindered humanitarian access is desperately needed. Has the recent Valerie Amos mission on behalf of the United Nations offered any hope whatever?

Any hope from that mission is severely limited. At the weekend I spoke to Baroness Amos, the head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and on Monday night I spoke to Jakob Kellenberger, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross. We continue to reflect the horror and indignation at what is happening in Syria—as my hon. Friend expressed—and to demand unfettered access for all humanitarian agencies.

13. Will the Government give a commitment that maximum pressure will be put on Russia in particular to ensure that it plays a far more positive role in future? (99641)

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to identify Russia as the key blocker to international agreement and to taking effective action on humanitarian relief, and more widely, in Syria. This subject is very dear to the heart of the Foreign Secretary, and he has repeatedly raised it in New York.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to secure humanitarian access to help the people of Syria, but what steps are being taken to protect the estimated 230,000 internal and external refugees fleeing the violence, especially in light of reports that the Syrian regime is laying mines along the routes to the borders with Lebanon and Turkey?

The hon. Lady rightly flags up the plight of those who have been forced to leave their homes, and not only the refugees who have fled across the border, but the internally displaced people. That is why some of our specific support goes to help 5,500 people who are in Syria and who have been forced to leave their homes.

Palestinian Territories

The UK has allocated funding for Palestinian development to help build a future Palestinian state that is stable, prosperous and an effective partner for peace.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that it is imperative that any funds provided by this country to the Palestinian Authority go towards securing the Quartet principles. Does he therefore share my concern that there are still Palestinian textbooks that contain anti-Christian, anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiments? Can he assure me that his Department is doing everything possible to ensure that no British taxpayer money is being used to fund textbooks of that sort?

I have looked very carefully into this issue, not least because I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in it, and I have found no evidence in Palestinian school textbooks of what he describes. I was in Gaza just before Christmas, and I raised the specific matter then. I am sure my hon. Friend will share my pleasure in the fact that the State Department in America has set up an inquiry to examine the quality of both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks and will be reporting later this year, probably in the autumn. He and I will, no doubt, look with great interest at what the report has to say.

I was in Gaza at the weekend, as it witnessed the biggest escalation in Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rockets for three years. Although we all hope that the current truce holds, does the Secretary of State agree that the ongoing and daily madness of Israel’s blockade is illustrated by the fact that it incentivises a few to make millions from a tunnel economy and benefits armed groups, while legitimate Palestinian businesses cannot export, the UN cannot get the materials it needs to rebuild shattered schools and hospitals, and the poor are forced to rely on food handouts?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the effects of this action in terms of the Palestinian economy, but he will know that the Government’s position is clear: we urge both sides to desist from the actions he has described.

Given that many hundreds of missiles have been fired from Gaza into Israel—some armed with ball-bearings and causing enormous hardship to many—will my right hon. Friend use the levers of aid to put pressure on the Gaza authorities and Hamas to stop firing them?

I had an opportunity on a recent trip to Israel to visit Sderot and see for myself the effects of what my hon. Friend is describing. British development policy on Palestine is very clear: we concentrate on state building and strengthening financial management by public authorities; we support the private sector on growth, reducing unemployment and eliminating poverty; and we are working closely with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the World Food Programme on issues of humanitarian relief. I will, however, take on board the point he is making.

The last time I was in Gaza the thing I thought was most cruel was the denial to the Palestinians of their land—35% of their land—and of 85% of their fishing rights. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be so much better if people could produce food for themselves and for the local economy, and were not reliant on food aid?

The right hon. Lady is entirely right to say that it is much better to produce food in a sustainable way than to have to rely on food aid, and that is one of the policies we are pursing vigorously around the world. However, as she will know, the answer is for both parties in this long, protracted and bitter dispute to negotiate with each other in good faith. That is the way in which we will reach a two-state solution.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

3. What steps his Department is taking to address governance issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[Official Report, 26 March 2012, Vol. 542, c. 4MC.] (99630)

Good governance is central to improving the lives of the Congolese people. We supported voter education for 2 million citizens; we are working to increase mining revenues by a total of $2.8 billion over 10 years through improved transparency; we are empowering 2,500 communities to control their own development; and we are strengthening public financial management in the DRC.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but he will be aware of the significant legal challenges to the elections that have just been held in the DRC and of the level of violence that has occurred in that country over many years, which has caused the deaths of more than 3 million people. What steps are the Government taking to work with the international community to ensure that good governance and the safety of the population is our priority in the weeks to come, as we await this outcome?

The hon. Lady is entirely correct to say that this is a large challenge facing the Congolese people. We are working to review the priorities for future funding on the question of elections through the CENI, the DRC’s electoral commission. We are also urging the CENI to carry out an in-depth investigation into all the allegations. Good governance and, in particular, access to justice, not least for women and girls and in response to sexual violence and violent crimes, is one of the areas in which we are seeking to make strengthening partnerships.

Women's Rights

4. What proportion of his Department’s budget support was spent on projects promoting women’s rights and empowerment in the last year for which figures are available. (99631)

In DFID, we put girls and women at the heart of everything we do. DFID’s strategic vision for girls and women, launched last March, sets out four priority areas for greater action in all its 28 country programmes. It is not, however, possible to calculate the precise proportion of our budget that is spent on that.

I am grateful for that reply. Given President Karzai’s support for the ulema council’s statement, which classified women as “secondary”, what representations have the UK Government made to him on this issue? What projects are the Department developing specifically to promote Afghan women’s social and political rights, and participation?

Supporting girls and women is an integral part of the UK’s work in Afghanistan. We support initiatives to increase girls’ education and access to finance, and to increase women’s participation in governance. For example, we fund the gender unit in Afghanistan’s independent electoral commission.

I welcome the Government’s approach to putting women at the heart of international development efforts, especially the most recent drive to combat domestic violence and trafficking in the poorest countries. Will my right hon. Friend give some more information about how that will work in the forthcoming months and years?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities is the UK’s ministerial champion on tackling violence against women and girls overseas. She has made successful visits to India and Nepal, for example, to raise awareness of this agenda, and DFID has increased its focus in 25 out of our 28 bilateral programmes to tackle violence against women.

In assisting women’s groups in Egypt, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recently went on a visit and met some of them. One of the issues raised with us, particularly by women who had demonstrated in Tahrir square, was the forced virginity tests that many of them had to undertake. A military court has just acquitted the doctor responsible of the charges against him. Will the Minister raise this issue in conversations with any Egyptian counterparts?

The answer to the right hon. Lady’s question is most definitely yes. We are working through the Arab partnership that we set up specifically to encourage groups, and women in particular, in developing countries following the Arab spring. The agenda that the right hon. Lady has championed for many years is one that we share.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia is making real progress in development and Britain’s programme plays a crucial role, as I saw for myself on the ground during January.

As my entry in the register shows, I travelled with Save the Children to Ethiopia during the February recess and I saw at first hand how UK aid is saving children’s lives in remote parts of the country. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how UK aid is helping with malnutrition in Ethiopia and other parts of the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that visit with Save the Children. I know she has both great interest and great expertise in that area. She asks about the results, and last year Britain secured provision so that some 1.7 million children are getting into school. We have also conducted a very successful pilot programme to help eradicate early marriage. Over the next four years, Britain will help to ensure that some 2 million children are able to go to school in Ethiopia.

Malaria

The UK Government are committed to helping halve malaria deaths in at least 10 of the worst affected countries by 2015. We will achieve that through support to country programmes and through multilateral channels. I recently visited Kenya, a country where DFID has provided 20 million bed nets. Those nets have played a part in the 40% reduction in child deaths over the past five years.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he consider a discrete programme to support malaria treatment in a hospital in Kaesong in north Korea, where a remarkable South Korean doctor, Dr Kim—who spoke in Westminster recently—and his team attend the medical needs of thousands of North Koreans and have identified malaria as one of their most pressing problems?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also had the opportunity to meet the doctor and admire the great work that is being done. It is right that our methodology for support should be through our investment in the various multilateral organisations, such as the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. Working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on that basis represents the best way to help the people of that republic.

Many faith-based groups are doing excellent work on the continent of Africa. Will the Minister assure the House that those faith-based groups that carry out excellent work in education and in treating malaria can be of assistance in trying to combat its spread?

Not only could such groups be of assistance, but they already are of great assistance. There are many examples of faith-based groups and others that are helping and complementing the national malaria control programmes and many of the large international programmes. We have set up a group in our Department to work with the Synod to consider precisely what more can be done and how that assistance and complementary activity can be more effective.

One of the key players in eradicating malaria is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Will the Government consider calling an emergency replenishment conference to increase the funds for that organisation so that it can work further and faster towards eradicating the diseases, saving money in the long run on treatment?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The global health fund is making a significant contribution to the eradication of malaria over time as well as to combating HIV/AIDS and TB. With the cancellation of round 11, there is now a question mark over how we can continue the funding. I can assure him that the UK’s pledge of £1 billion between 2008 and 2015, of which we have contributed £638 million to date, is showing the UK’s leadership. We stand ready to make further funding available when the reforms that we want to see have been put through.

Development Assistance

7. What recent progress he has made in bringing forward legislative proposals to set official development assistance at 0.7% of gross national product. (99634)

The coalition Government have set out how we will stand by the United Kingdom’s promise to invest 0.7% of national income as aid from 2013. The Bill is ready and we will legislate when parliamentary time allows.

May I therefore take from that answer that the Bill will be in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech?

It would be quite wrong of me to anticipate the contents of the Gracious Speech, but as I have explained, the Bill is ready to go and will proceed when parliamentary time permits.

Does the very able Secretary of State—[Laughter]no, genuinely, the very able Secretary of State. Does he understand the concern in the country that the overseas aid budget is to increase from £8 billion to £12 billion because of this commitment while brave men and women in our armed forces are being sacked because of the cuts?

As I have said to my hon. Friend before, I yield to no one in my respect for the armed forces having served in the Army myself. However, Britain’s development budget is spent very much in Britain’s national interests. We do it because it is the right thing to do and because it is hugely in our national interests. There is enormous support across the country, which is not always reflected in all our tabloids, for Britain’s very strong commitment to this important policy area.

The Secretary of State has been unable to give hon. Members a cast-iron guarantee today that the 0.7% legislation promised by the coalition parties will be in the Queen’s Speech. Can he now assure the House that he has made it clear to the Chancellor that any retreat in the Budget on the Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% on aid by 2013 would be a broken promise? It would be another nail in the coffin of the Prime Minister’s claim to have changed the Conservative party.

The hon. Gentleman has set up a straw man that he knows to be untrue. We are the first Government in history who have set out very clearly precisely how we will reach the 0.7% target. As I have made very clear, the Bill inevitably has to take its place in the queue behind essential legislation for rescuing the country from the perilous economic condition inherited from the Government of whom he was a part.

Biofuels

The Government recognise the threats and opportunities for economic growth, poverty reduction and food security related to the expansion of biofuel production in developing countries, and that they are important subjects for analysis and debate.

Does the Minister agree that the development of biofuels, particularly in developing countries, should not be at the expense of ordinary people’s human rights, particularly with regard to water, insufficient food, health and workers’ rights? Will he outline the Government’s policy on biofuels?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight the challenges and opportunities represented by biofuels, particularly in developing countries, and he ties those issues to human rights. UK biofuels policy is set by the Department for Transport, but I assure him that my Department continues constantly and rigorously to review the evidence on the impact of biofuel production in developing countries, not least in relation to land and water rights.

Somalia

Thanks to British aid and support, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis have been saved, but insecurity and drought continue to threaten lives, as I saw during my visits in recent months to Puntland, Mogadishu and Dolow, and to Hargeisa in Somaliland.

The Somalia conference, which my right hon. Friends organised, was a huge success with great hoo-hah, but now that the press caravan has moved on can the Secretary of State assure us that Somalia and its desperately sad situation remain central to his concerns?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to identify the conference on Somalia organised by the Prime Minister as the beginning and not the end of the process. Certainly, there will be an absolute commitment across Whitehall to drive forward the results of that conference and make them meaningful on the ground in the way that my hon. Friend describes.

Topical Questions

My Department is heavily engaged in achieving the development results set out to Parliament a year ago in the bilateral and multilateral aid reviews. Those include securing education for at least 11 million children, saving the lives of 50,000 women in childbirth, and getting clean water and sanitation to more people than live in the whole of the United Kingdom. Britain is also heavily engaged in difficult humanitarian situations around the world, including in Syria.

On 24 February, Israeli authorities approved 500 new homes in the west bank settlement of Shiloh and retroactively legalised more than 200 built-without-permits, some in the settler outpost of Shvut Rachel. What does the Minister say to his colleagues in Israel to try to stop these illegal developments?

As the hon. Gentleman makes clear, these settlements are illegal and the Foreign Secretary has made that absolutely clear to his opposite numbers, as did I when I visited Israel, the west bank and Gaza just before Christmas. [Interruption.]

Order. May we have some order in the Chamber? There are far too many noisy private conversations when we are discussing the plight of the poorest people on the face of the planet.

T2. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that British funds provided to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency are not abused in a way that undermines the middle east peace process? (99644)

I can tell my hon. Friend that I have looked in detail at that, not least because of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made earlier, and not least because during the latter part of last year I spent time with UNRWA in Gaza. We are very clear that the funds that we are allocating to UNWRA are buying the results that we have agreed they should buy.

Last week the target was met on access to safe water, yet diarrhoea continues to be the biggest killer of children in Africa and the second biggest killer in south Asia. What priority is the Department giving to sanitation?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to flag up the importance of clean water and sanitation. That is why in the bilateral and multilateral reviews last year we set out clearly that this Government would seek to ensure over the next four years that we get clean water and sanitation to more people than live in the whole of the United Kingdom.

T3. The people of Somaliland have deep wells of friendship towards this country and they have made a success of their country, unlike Somalia as a whole. Is it not about time that we recognised their independence? (99645)

The Foreign Secretary has set out clearly the need to resolve some disputes which affect the land space of Puntland and Somaliland, but that the issue of the future of Somaliland is a matter for Somaliland, Somalia and the surrounding countries. [Interruption.]

T5. Will the Secretary of State commit not only to work on further food and shelter developments for the people who need them throughout the globe, but to look at the social and emotional development of the children and families of those suffering areas, and to learn from some of the early intervention techniques being pioneered in this country? (99648)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of this question. I have considered it in some detail. I agree with him about the importance of early intervention. Much of the Department’s work in relation to the early years is to try to make sure that contraception is available to women so that they can space their children and decide whether or not they want children; to focus particularly on nutrition, the lack of which causes stunting; and to get children, particularly girls, into school. I believe that those three things at least contribute to the agenda that the hon. Gentleman so wisely champions.

T4. As many residents of Pendle have friends or family in Kashmir, will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of reconstruction work and aid following the 2005 earthquake? (99647)

My hon. Friend is right to point to the important work that is going on in Kashmir, not least following the earthquake. I can tell him that work has recently been completed. We have refurbished some 37 schools, affecting 10,000 children, and we have also managed to rebuild 35 bridges and secure about 66,000 latrines.

T8. Next Thursday is world water day, when we recognise that 743 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water, and more than 2.6 billion live without proper sanitation. Although I welcome the announcement last week that we have met one of the access to water millennium development goals targets, can the Secretary of State tell the House what ministerial representation the Government will have at the high-level meeting of Sanitation and Water for All on 20 April? (99651)

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to emphasise the importance of this. I referred earlier to the Government’s commitment on water and sanitation, and it is because of the importance of the agenda he has identified that I will be attending the conference myself.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the whole of the DFID budget is effectively allocated and that, if non-governmental organisations or others exhort him to spend more money on one aspect of international development, however worthwhile, it behoves them to explain where in the departmental budget other savings need to be made?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole of the international development budget now focuses on outputs and outcomes, buying results, with the added extra that we now have an independent watchdog that can assure taxpayers that the money is really well spent.

In thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the way he dedicates himself to alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people and congratulating him on the trouble he takes to go there and see for himself, may I ask him, with regard to textbooks for Palestinian children and children in Gaza, whether it would be valuable if there were schools in which they could study, in view of the large number of schools destroyed by the Israelis and their refusal to allow building materials in to rebuild them?

The right hon. Gentleman, who has long and distinguished experience in championing this area, is entirely right. We will be meeting UNRWA on Monday, but I have seen for myself the effective way it is working to alleviate suffering and promote education in Gaza and elsewhere.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen who died in Afghanistan last Tuesday: Sergeant Nigel Coupe from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anton Frampton, Private Chris Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford, all from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. These were men of outstanding courage and selflessness. This tragic incident will long be remembered by our nation, because it reminds us all of the immense danger that our armed forces regularly endure to guarantee the safety and security of our country.

We are also deeply shocked by the appalling news that a number of Afghan civilians were wounded and killed in Afghanistan on Sunday morning and send our sincere sympathies to the victims and families who have been affected by this terrible incident.

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

I would like to associate myself with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on the tragic events in Afghanistan. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House express our deepest sympathies for the families who have lost loved ones at this deeply distressing time.

Today the Prime Minister is in America, where unemployment is coming down and the economy is growing. In Britain, unemployment is now at its highest level for 17 years and the economy is flatlining. Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain what has gone wrong?

What went wrong was the Labour Government for 13 years. They created the most unholy mess in 2008, which we are now having to clear up. The only way to get the economy moving is to fix the deficit, get banks lending money again and make sure we have a tax and benefits system that pays people to work.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister introduce a freedom Bill to get rid of a lot of bossy and unloved regulations?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we have already introduced a large set of measures that have removed a lot of unnecessary clutter from the statute book, and we will grab any further opportunities to do so with open arms.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sergeant Nigel Coupe, of 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton, Private Christopher Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford. They died in tragic circumstances, serving our country with bravery and with determination. Their deaths remind us of the great sacrifice that our armed services make on our behalf, and our thoughts are with their families.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister also in expressing our horror at the appalling murder in Afghanistan on Sunday of 16 civilians, including nine children. We all deplore that crime and offer our deepest condolences.

Today’s figures show unemployment up, and the hardest hit are young people looking for work and women being thrown out of work. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Liberal Democrats are making a difference in this Government. With more than 1 million women looking for work, what difference does he believe he has made to those women?

Of course any increase in unemployment is disappointing. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who loses their job—for them and their families. The right hon. and learned Lady should be careful, however, not to pretend that somehow this is a problem which was invented by this Government. Let us remember that unemployment among women went up by 24% under Labour. Youth unemployment went up by 40% under Labour—remorselessly from 2004. I suggest that we all need to work together to bring unemployment down.

When we left government unemployment was coming down, and this Government’s economic policy is not only driving up unemployment but means that they will have to borrow more. It is hurting but it certainly is not working. For all the right hon. Gentleman’s bluster, the truth is that having five Liberal Democrats seated around the Cabinet table has made no difference whatsoever. This is what the Business Secretary said on economic policy: he said that this Government have no “compelling vision”. These days no one agrees with Nick, but does Nick agree with Vince?

It is worth dwelling on some of the details that have been published this morning on the unemployment statistics, because behind the headline figures long-term unemployment actually came down in the quarterly figures, and very importantly the number of new jobs created in the private sector outstripped the number of jobs lost in the public sector. Under the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government, the Labour party sucked up to the City of London and over-relied on jobs in the public sector. We are now having to remedy those mistakes, and we are creating new jobs in the private sector.

The right hon. Gentleman is complacent about unemployment under his Government, and the Lib Dems are making no difference on unemployment, just as they are making no difference on the NHS.

When it comes to the NHS, the Deputy Prime Minister obviously thinks that he is doing a stunning job, so will he explain why he has failed to persuade the doctors, the nurses, the midwives, the paediatricians, the physicians, the physiotherapists and the patients?

The Labour party used to believe in reform. Now it believes in starving the NHS of cash and is failing to provide any reform. The right hon. and learned Lady’s own party manifesto in 2010 said—

Indeed. The right hon. and learned Lady’s own party manifesto said that

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

The Labour party was right then and is wrong now. What happened?

We are proud of what Labour did when we were in government: more doctors, more nurses, shorter waiting times, greater patient satisfaction. No one believes the right hon. Gentleman. It is no wonder that he cannot convince those who work in the health service; he cannot even convince his own conference. Does he not realise that people are still against the Bill because it has not changed one bit? It is still a top-down reorganisation—

Order. I said a moment ago that the Deputy Prime Minister’s response must be heard. The question from the deputy leader of the Labour party will be heard. That is the be-all and end-all of it.

The Bill is still a top-down reorganisation, it is still going to cost the NHS a fortune, and it is still going to lead to fragmentation and privatisation. It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister will not stand up for the NHS—the only thing he stands up for is when the Prime Minister walks into the room.

Some of the right hon. and learned Lady’s colleagues must think that the Liberal Democrats make a difference, because they were handing out leaflets at our conference in Gateshead while her leader was throwing a sickie and going to watch Hull City play football instead. She says that she is proud of Labour’s record. Is she proud of the fact that her Government spent £250 million of taxpayers’ money on sweetheart deals with the private sector that did not help a single NHS patient? Is she proud of the fact that the Health Act 2006, which the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) worked on, was a privatiser’s charter in which her Government offered an 11% premium to the private sector to undercut the NHS?

Order. Some Members who are perhaps not initiated in the proceedings of Prime Minister’s Questions are yelling “Answer!” I remind the House that in these matters the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister does the answering; that is the situation.

We will compare what our Government did on the NHS with what the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government are doing any day. He says that the problem with the Bill is that doctors and nurses just do not understand it, but the problem is that they do. However, even at this late stage it is within his power to stop the Bill. Next Monday, the Bill reaches its final stage in the House of Lords. There are 90 Lib Dem peers, and their votes will decide whether the Bill becomes law. Will he instruct Shirley Williams and his peers to vote to stop the Bill?

The right hon. and learned Lady has invited me to make a comparison. Let me make three comparisons. [Interruption.]

Order. I say it again: the Deputy Prime Minister’s response must be heard, and that is all there is to it.

The right hon. and learned Lady has invited me to make comparisons; let me make three comparisons. The shadow Health Secretary has said:

“It is irresponsible to increase NHS spending”.

So Labour Members do not believe in more money for the NHS; we do. That is comparison No. 1. Secondly, Labour Members indulged the private sector with sweetheart deals, which we are making illegal in the Bill. They want sweetheart deals with the private sector; we do not. Thirdly, they presided over inequality in the NHS; we are including a statutory obligation in the Bill to deliver more equal outcomes in the NHS, which they failed to deliver in 13 years.

That is absolute rubbish. In undermining the NHS and making Shirley Williams vote for it, the Deputy Prime Minister has trashed not one but two national treasures. He did not need to sign the Bill, but he did. He could stop the Bill, but he will not. He says that the Lib Dems make a difference, but they do not. What has happened to that fine Liberal tradition? They must be turning in their graves: the party of William Gladstone; the party of David Lloyd George: now the party of Nick Clegg.

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady has her prepared script which she sticks to religiously, but it is worth having a question and answer session; that is what this whole thing is actually about. What we are doing—the two parties that have come together in the coalition—is to sort out the banking system, which she left in a mess; to sort out the public finances, which she left in a mess; to sort out the economy, which she left in a mess; and to stop the arbitrary privatisation of the NHS, which she left in a mess. Do you know what? In government, the Labour party ran out of money; in opposition, it is running out of ideas.

My right hon. Friend may be aware of the figures that were released this week, which show that there has at least been some progress towards the target of 25% of places on boards being filled by women by 2015. What will the coalition Government do to ensure that they meet that target and enrich our boards with a diversity of talent that will help to achieve the growth that our country needs?

It is excellent news that there has been real progress in the few short months in which we have been in government—far more progress than was delivered in 13 years under Labour—to get more women on to our boards. I think that everybody now agrees with the consensus that having more women on boards is good for all companies. There has been a woefully unrepresentative mix on our boards. I very much hope that we will continue to apply the right kind of voluntary pressure to see the representation of women increase further.

Q2. I sincerely hope that the Deputy Prime Minister enjoyed our famous north-east hospitality and the support of Northumbria police at his spring conference in Gateshead. Will he tell the House when the 3,000 extra police he promised at the general election will be in post? (99614)

As the hon. Lady’s party acknowledges, the police need to make savings. The key thing is not what the total number is, but where the police—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not know what hon. Members have had for breakfast, but I want no part of it. The Deputy Prime Minister’s answers must be heard.

The key thing is whether police officers are properly deployed. Over the past decade, far too many police officers have been tied up in knots, filling out paperwork in the back office, rather than being out in our communities and on the streets where they belong.

Does my right hon. Friend share the priorities of my constituents, who believe that this Parliament should focus its attention on cutting the deficit, promoting growth and getting people off welfare and into work? They would be bemused if they learned that we were to spend much of our time discussing the reform of the House of Lords. How shall I explain that priority to them?

I suspect that my right hon. Friend will do so in the same way as he will no doubt explain to his constituents that there are other priorities, such as changing the boundaries of constituencies, which I know is close to his heart and that of his party. I think that Governments and Parliaments can do more than one thing at once. I also believe that it is a simple democratic principle that the people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land.

Q3. Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] My apologies, Mr Speaker. It is elsewhere that the deputies are present today. Study after study shows that it is crucial for older people that NHS services work closely with social care. My primary care trust in Blackpool has been doing that by working alongside the council’s social services in the same set of offices. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister still cheerleading for a Bill that scraps trusts and such co-operation, and that puts the health of older people, including those in my constituency, at risk? (99615)

I am backing a Bill that includes, for the first time, statutory obligations to integrate social and health care. The hon. Gentleman is right that one of the abiding failings of our health service is that social and health care are not properly integrated. There has not been much integration over the past 10 years. We are trying to change that. Secondly, the creation of health and wellbeing boards will bring together representatives of the NHS and social care.

As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group, I commend the Government for their efforts to tackle the irresponsible pricing of alcohol by supermarkets. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the safest place to drink is in the community pub, that beer is a lower-strength drink, and that scrapping the beer duty escalator would create 5,000 jobs? Will he take his Treasury colleagues out for a beer and tell them not to put up the duty on the great British pint?

As my hon. Friend knows, all such matters are for the Chancellor to announce at the time of the Budget, but I am sure everyone across the House agrees with his sentiment that we should support community pubs, which are such an important part of the fabric of our communities up and down the country.

Q4. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that now that the gang of four Tories are gallivanting around America, he has got a chance to shine? What does he really, really think about this Murdoch sleaze and the latest development—the Prime Minister riding borrowed police horses, having employed Andy Coulson in the heart of government? Man to man, what does he really think? I will give him a chance to separate himself from the serried ranks of Tories behind him. Come on, be a man! (99616)

We had to wait a while for the hon. Gentleman to get going, but it was great when he did. I think we are soon going to celebrate, if that is the right verb, 42 years of his presence in this House, and I am delighted to see that in all that time he has not mellowed one bit.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) in congratulating the citizens of Chelmsford on their newly acquired status following Her Majesty’s announcement that Chelmsford is to be a city? Does he agree that it is entirely appropriate in Olympic year that Essex’s first city should be chosen when Essex is also looking forward to hosting the mountain biking competition during the Olympics?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) would entirely share that sentiment—we are all aware of the Colchester-Chelmsford rivalry. However, I can confirm the announcement today of the results of the civic honours competition in honour of Her Majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee, namely that Chelmsford, Perth and St Asaph have been awarded the right to call themselves cities, while Armagh will from now on have a lord mayor. Although I know there will be disappointment in other communities that entered the contest, this is another announcement that will really lift the spirits of the nation in this, the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

Q5. Before the general election, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was profoundly hostile to the closure of Remploy factories. Now, 1,700 disabled people are losing their jobs because of the closure of 36 factories. What difference has he made? (99617)

As the hon. Lady will know, this is a consequence of a review conducted by Liz Sayce, the head of the UK disability forum. Her conclusions are supported by such organisations as Mind, Mencap and others, and I do not want to disagree with them lightly. They say—this is their conclusion and what they think we should be doing—that segregated employment, which was started in the aftermath of the second world war, is not the best way to promote the interests of disabled people in this country in the 21st century.

Q14. Last weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the need for a tycoon tax. Does he intend that to include individuals who claim that they want tax raised on the rich, yet set up companies so that they pay only 20%, not 50%, of their income, such as Ken Livingstone? (99626)

It is worth dwelling for a minute on the explanation provided by Ken Livingstone for his exotic tax arrangements. I quote from an interview that he gave just this weekend:

“I get loads of money, all from different sources, and I give it to an accountant and they manage it”.

That is modern socialism for you.

Q6. In September 2010, I raised with the Prime Minister the case of a part-built college in my constituency that lost £4 million following the closure of the regional development agency. I asked the Prime Minister for a hand-up, not a handout, for the young people in my constituency. Last week, that college was officially opened, yet 18 months on there is no sign of progress in addressing the shortfall. As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, there should be“no…barriers to people’s talent and aspiration”.Will he help give the young people of West Lancashire a hand-up? (99618)

Of course, Ministers will be more than willing to look into the case of the hon. Lady’s college. Colleges are unbelievably important in providing skills and support to young people seeking to get the right qualifications to get into work. They have been working successfully with the Government, not least, for instance, to provide a hugely expanded apprenticeship programme—the largest expansion in apprenticeships ever in our country. I am more than happy to ensure that Ministers look at the case she raises.

Q7. After the 2004 Morecambe bay cockle pickers disaster, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was created. Although the GLA has protected vulnerable workers, it has also been a burden to business. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that any cuts in red tape will not leave workers unprotected, particularly those in the shell fisheries industry? (99619)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. This is an important issue and it is important to get the balance right. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working to ensure that the GLA works effectively and bears down on abuse, such as that in Morecambe bay to which he alludes, but that it does so in as business-friendly a manner as possible to minimise the amount of unnecessary red tape.

I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister would like heartily to congratulate the city of Perth on the restoration of its city status in today’s diamond jubilee announcement on official city status. He will know of the fantastic cross-community, cross-party support that has led to the restoration of that fantastic civic honour. May I thank the palace, the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department for organising this competition and for that tremendous award today?

Those are the kind of questions I like. It is a good thing, and of course, on behalf of everybody in the House, I would like to convey my congratulations to all the people of Perth who have worked in such a fabulous way, and on a cross-party basis, to get this accolade and award today.

Q8. One treasured piece of green space near Cheltenham is attracting a lot of sporting attention this week, but other local green spaces treasured by local people will be at risk if the national planning policy framework does not help us to follow Germany’s example of combining economic success with tough controls to protect the countryside. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us that a truly green planning framework is still a safe bet? (99620)

The Government will publish the national planning policy framework shortly. It is important that we do everything, including through the planning system, to promote growth, because we need growth, jobs and new homes, particularly for young families who are unable to have a home to call their own. Of course, that should be tempered by social and environmental considerations. That balance will be properly reflected in the planning framework when it is published—I hope—shortly.

On Monday, the Housing and Local Government Minister told me and the House that the Government have no plans or wish to introduce rent controls in the private sector. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the increase in private sector rents in central London and the capping of housing benefits means, in effect, that many families on benefit are being forced out, and that a process of social cleansing is going on? Will he give a commitment that the Government will examine the case for private sector rent controls?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we accompanied the restraint on the housing benefit budget—there was a commitment in the Labour party manifesto to bring that part of the benefits system under control—with a major fund to deal with hard cases. We have also unveiled a number of measures that should lead to a significant increase in the building of affordable homes. The lack of supply of affordable homes is the underlying problem in London and elsewhere in the country.

Q9. Changes to child benefit will mean that a single-income family earning £43,000 a year, with one parent staying at home to care for the children, will subsidise a couple earning more than £80,000. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that that is fair? (99621)

I think it is fair that someone who is earning far, far beyond the average should not be subsidised by, and receiving child benefit from, people on much lower incomes. The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly valid point, which is that the cut-off point can create those anomalies and cliff edges—as he said, one earner on £43,000 will have their child benefit removed while two earners earning £80,000 will not. We have all said that we will look at a pragmatic way of implementing this in a sensitive manner.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the very serious incidents in my constituency involving three separate explosive devices planted since Friday, the most recent being adjacent to two local schools. Will he join me in condemning such reckless attacks, which bring misery to the community and place lives at risk, and will he assure the House that, in the absence of the International Monitoring Commission, the UK Government will continue to monitor closely any linkages between such activity and proscribed organisations?

I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole House in utterly condemning the cowardly pipe bomb attacks in east Belfast, which endangered the lives of all those in the surrounding areas, including those of young children attending school. It was totally reprehensible. I understand that all these attacks are now being investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There is no indication, at present, that these were terrorist attacks, and they therefore fall to the purview of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister.

Q10. The EU is currently consulting on changes to the rules governing state aid in assisted areas. The Government have shown commitment to northern Lincolnshire by establishing an enterprise zone to attract large businesses. The changes will restrict aid only to small and medium-sized enterprises. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the Government will fight these proposals and look for alternatives? (99622)

I am delighted that the enterprise zone in north Lincolnshire and the Humber area is now taking shape. It will be a huge boost, not least through investment from such major investors as Siemens in the renewable energy sector in that part of the world. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the European Commission reviewing how those rules will be applied for regional aid—from 2014 onwards, I think. We are extremely mindful that we do not want those rules to undermine the excellent work taking place in north Lincolnshire.

Q11. The Ministry of Justice announced today that it had given two new contracts, worth £30 million of public money, to A4e. This company has been under investigation by the police, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Public Accounts Committee, and since I have been raising concerns about it, I have received 40 or 50 e-mails from members of the public alleging fraud and bad practice. Are the Government going to continue handing out public money to A4e? (99623)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. The police investigation into allegations of fraud at A4e concern contracts entered into by the previous Government. We have now launched our own audit of the existing contracts that A4e has received from government, and if there is any evidence of systematic abuse, of course we will end all contracts with A4e.

The six British servicemen killed in Afghanistan last week will be repatriated next Tuesday and include three of my constituents: Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Danny Wilford and Private Anthony Frampton. At this difficult time for the families, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me, and my constituents, that everything is being done by the Government to support the families?

I know how strongly the hon. Gentleman must feel about this terrible accident, given that three of his constituents have, sadly, lost their lives. I know that the MOD and, I am sure, the Secretary of State would wish to confirm to him personally that they are doing absolutely everything possible in quite difficult circumstances to ensure that the bodies are returned to the families as soon as possible.

Q12. Has the Deputy Prime Minister considered the implications of the Treasury’s planned changes to the controlled foreign companies rules, which will incentivise multinationals having recourse to tax havens? Opening this new tax loophole is estimated to cost developing countries some £4 billion in fair and much-needed revenue and the Exchequer here £1 billion in fair and much-needed revenue. Will this perverse and invidious change be corrected in forthcoming Budget measures? (99624)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I have spoken to campaigners about this matter, and I know that ActionAid, for instance, has spoken to Treasury Ministers as well. Like all international tax matters, it is incredibly complicated once we get into the detail, but it is something that was not dealt with in the past 13 years and which we are now prepared to look into.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming today’s launch of the Government’s adoption action plan, which sets out how we can achieve more adoptions more quickly? Does he agree that making adoption work well everywhere should be the priority of all of us who have the interests of vulnerable people at heart?

I am sure that we speak on behalf of everyone in the House when we say that it is very frustrating for couples and parents who want to adopt children, and not good for the children concerned, when there are inordinate delays. That is why I think it is a very good thing that there seems to be a general consensus on the announcements made recently by the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister to accelerate the adoption process to ensure that this will now indeed happen.

Q13. Is it right that when my constituent took her young daughter to A and E, she later received a letter from her GP saying that the visit was inappropriate and also reminding her of the cost? Is this going to be the future of the NHS under this Government, with vulnerable and elderly people scared to ask for treatment? (99625)

Of course not, and clearly that letter was issued under the current system. However, the hon. Gentleman touches on a serious issue that not only we in this country face, but every developed society faces, which is that we have health care systems that were not designed for a massively ageing population or for an increasingly large number of older people with long-term chronic conditions spending much, much longer in hospital than before. That is why we need to ensure that they are kept well and strong, so far as possible in their homes and in their communities. That is what this NHS Bill is all about.

Students at comprehensive school are just as likely to study A-level history as their private school counterparts, but are only half as likely to study maths or physics. What are the Government going to do about the social mobility issue that we face in the sciences, and does he support the proposed Sir Isaac Newton maths school in Norfolk to help to address this issue?

The hon. Lady highlights an incredibly important point. It is one of the reasons why the new English baccalaureate places great emphasis on those scientific disciplines; it is why we have protected the science budget, in order to send out a clear signal that we value sciences; and it is why we have placed such an emphasis on STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—because we need more youngsters, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, taking up maths and science courses for our collective future and the country as a whole.

Q15. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the Health and Social Care Bill would be going through unamended without the Liberal Democrats, but will he listen to people up and down the country who know the real truth: that the Tories would not be getting their shambolic Bill at all without him and his MPs propping them up? (99627)

As I said before, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome legislation that outlaws the practice, indulged in on an industrial scale by his party, of giving sweetheart deals to the private sector.