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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service

1. If he will undertake an impact assessment on the effect of changes in resource for the civil service on delivery of Government policy. (100937)

8. If he will undertake an impact assessment on the effect of changes in resource for the civil service on delivery of Government policy. (100944)

Our aim is to maintain the superb quality of our civil service while reducing its quantity. Under this Government the civil service headcount has come down from 487,000 to 435,000, which is smaller than it has been at any time since the second world war. Of course, this reduction helps to reduce the deficit, but it is also a natural consequence of our intention to reduce bureaucracy, improve public services and promote the big society by shifting power to people on the front line.

A recent National Audit Office report on cost reduction in central Government suggests that the staffing departures revealed an unplanned and haphazard redundancy drive that has paid off 18,000 civil servants since 2010, at a cost of £600 million, to save just £400 million. One of the report’s conclusions is:

“Few departmental systems can link costs to outputs and impacts, making it difficult to evaluate the effect of cost changes”.

Does the Minister agree, and what will his Department do about it?

The right hon. Gentleman has a distinguished career, which includes at one time being Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Kinnock, so presumably he has some experience of figures that go completely wonky, and the ones he is presenting give a very wonky picture. What the NAO report actually revealed is that the cost to the Departments was £600 million, the payback to the taxpayer was over 10 to 16 months and the total savings in this spending review period alone, in net present value, will be between £750 million and £1.4 billion. There is a massive saving there, which he would see if he read the whole report.

Recent analysis by the Office for National Statistics revealed that half of all central Government Departments, including the Minister’s, have actually increased staff numbers in the past six months. How does that fit with the Government’s pledge to increase localism? Is that not more central bureaucracy being created?

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as I mentioned in my first answer, there has been a massive reduction in the headcount of the civil service as a whole. Of course there have been particular cases in which particular people needed to be hired, but the broad effort we have been making has brought down the deficit and increased dramatically the efficiency of the civil service.

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the findings of the Public Administration Committee report, “Change in Government”, published last autumn, which identified the reduction in resources as just one of the many changes the Government are trying to achieve in the civil service? We await the plan for civil service reform with great interest, because our main conclusion was that the Government need a plan in order to effect this change.

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and I have had meetings with the Prime Minister, the head of the civil service and the Cabinet Secretary, and under the aegis of those two very senior officials the review to which my hon. Friend refers is now being carried forward. There will be a strategy—much beloved of the Committee—that will emerge from that review, and once it is available Ministers will consider it and produce a plan for further changes in the civil service.

It has been reported that the outgoing director of strategy for the Prime Minister, the excellent Steve Hilton, wishes to reduce the number of Whitehall civil servants by two thirds. Does the Minister agree?

I am afraid that some wildly inaccurate reports have been floating around, but it is certainly true that the review that the Cabinet Secretary and the head of the civil service are leading on, which I mentioned in my previous answer, is looking right across the board to try to work out what a modern civil service ought to look like, bearing in mind all the technology and other advantages we currently have, in order to deliver innovation, change and the delivery of policy in the most effective and efficient way possible.

The Minister has announced the closure of the Central Office of Information, which provides politically independent public information from professional civil servants, and he will instead locate the service in various Departments, with the consequential inherent risk that the Government information service might become politicised. We would of course support any sensible measure to deliver a more economic service, but is not the current flood of leaks, on an industrial scale, in relation to today’s Budget a portent of the public information service’s politicisation, which he is opening the door to?

In a word, no. The changes that are being made in the structure and character of the information service are being made in order to have a modern service that can actually do the job properly. The hon. Gentleman ought to pause before talking about politicisation of the civil service, as under the previous Government efforts were made on an unparalleled scale to politicise the service’s activities. By contrast, this Government in all our information have been extraordinarily transparent, providing data on an unparalleled scale and operating a much more open Government than he and his colleagues ever dreamed of doing.

But that is all flim-flam, frankly. The leaking of Budget information on that scale is without precedent, and it is in clear breach, Mr Speaker, of your strict admonition that such statements should take place first in the House and not in the media. There is no way that professional civil servants in the COI would have undertaken such leaking, so does the Minister agree that there should be a Cabinet Office inquiry to identify the leakers? If it was civil servants, they are clearly in breach of their code of conduct, but, if it was Ministers, they are playing fast and loose with our democracy.

First, if the hon. Gentleman recalls his time as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous Prime Minister, he will be aware that he was serving a past master at giving foretastes of Budgets. Secondly, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman feels he knows what is or is not a leak, as he has not seen the Budget yet, and nor has the House.

Policy Advice (Outsourcing)

2. What recent discussions he has had with permanent secretaries on Government outsourcing of policy advice. (100938)

The head of the civil service has set up a number of themed groups to explore various aspects of civil service reform. One is exploring whether outsourcing policy making could deliver more creative and innovative results, while ensuring accountability and value for money, and I met permanent secretaries recently to discuss that and other issues.

The Cabinet Office spent almost £120,000 in one day in August last year on consultancy, and McKinsey & Company is reported to have earned almost £14 million from Government health policy since the election. Outsourcing policy advice is costly and can lead to conflicts of interest, so will Conservative Ministers stick to their pledge in their manifesto to reduce the amount of consultancy?

Not only will we, but we have. We have more than halved—I stress, more than halved—the cost of consultancy to the taxpayer. Under the previous Government, such money was spent incontinently, and the result was bad value for money and the serious undermining of the self-esteem of professional civil servants, who like being asked to do difficult things and are very good at doing them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every Government need the best possible policy advice available, and that sometimes it comes from within the civil service, and sometimes from without?

As the new Cabinet Secretary said the other day, the civil service has in the past had a monopoly on policy advice, and he and others feel that it is something worth questioning. I am sorry that it is only the Opposition who seem to have closed minds on the issue.

Voluntary and Community Sector

3. What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. (100939)

13. What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. (100949)

We want to help the voluntary and community sector to become more resilient by developing three pillars of funding: traditional giving, income from the state including more opportunities to deliver public service and a new pillar, the emerging market of social investment.

Many local voluntary organisations were set up to complement statutory services, as Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service reminded me when I met its representatives last week. If the predominant funding source for the voluntary sector is now to be public sector contracts, will not thousands of valuable voluntary groups throughout the country be left high and dry, showing once again this Government’s utter contempt for the big society that they purport to champion?

I think the hon. Lady missed my point. We are developing three pillars of funding, with the encouragement of high levels of giving, including a very generous tax incentive introduced by the Chancellor in the previous Budget; a new source of funding, social investment; and the launch of the world’s first social investment bank within a few weeks. But, yes, we want to do more with the sector to help us deliver public services, so, yes, we will be opening up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to help us do just that.

No. The hon. Gentleman asks his supplementary question now, although it would have been helpful if there had been advance notification of the grouping to my office, which there was not. Very regrettable. The Minister must do better in the future, I am afraid.

A survey commissioned by Charity Bank has revealed that more than 20% of charities have suffered from the cancellation of contracts with businesses and Government bodies in the past year. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s refusal to recognise the needs and benefits of charities and voluntary organisations in policy formulation is preventing such organisations from getting vital funding to which they are entitled?

First, Mr Speaker, I apologise to you formally for that oversight by my office.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Any commissioner in the public sector needs to engage with stakeholders in communities before commissioning services—not least in the voluntary and community sector, whose stakeholders tend to have, on the whole, a much better understanding of the needs of the people we are trying to help.

Five months ago, the Prime Minister told me here that he would look at the funding gap arising from changes to legal aid funding for advice services such as the citizens advice bureaux in Wiltshire. Does the Minister consider that he has yet found lasting funding arrangements to sustain that voluntary sector service in future years?

We know that the charity advice sector is under a lot of pressure; that is why we found the money for a £20 million fund to provide immediate support for the most vulnerable organisations and why we are undertaking a serious review of the longer-term issues facing the sector. We will be announcing the findings of that review later in the spring, so the hon. Gentleman may not have to wait very long.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the work of bodies such as Voluntary Action Leicestershire, which are advising the voluntary and community sector so well in Leicestershire, including my constituency of Loughborough, on how to find alternative funding models and how to do things differently given the changed funding environment?

I am certainly happy to do that. Such organisations play an essential role in providing support for front-line organisations. That is why we have found £30 million of funding to support organisations as they improve those services for the front line through the transforming local infrastructure fund.

Voluntary Sector Funding

Most voluntary sector organisations receive no public funding at all, but those that do cannot be immune from the need to reduce public spending. That is why we are taking active steps to help the most vulnerable organisations, to encourage more giving and social investment, and to create new opportunities to deliver more public services.

Given that the most recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that, according to the Government’s own figures, charities are facing cuts of £1.2 billion in public money per year, does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to support the voluntary sector in constituencies such as mine, Feltham and Heston, as we turn around what the NCVO has described as a “toxic mix of circumstances” affecting our charities?

As I have said, almost 80% of charities receive no money from the state, but we have made it clear that those that do cannot be immune from cuts. The Labour leader himself has made it clear that he could not have protected them from cuts at all. We should remind ourselves that the cuts are necessary because of the actions of the last Labour Government. This Government are taking action to protect the most vulnerable organisations, create new sources of funding and open up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to deliver public services. All they hear from the Labour party are empty words.

Voluntary and Community Sector

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that the community and voluntary sector is considered in policy formulation in all Departments. (100941)

Our agenda is to give community groups and other voluntary sector organisations a much wider role in fulfilling the demands and needs of the public than they have had in the past. That is why, in considering each of our public service reforms, we have paid particular attention to the question of how the voluntary and community sector can work through them and help them.

Research by the NCVO has shown that Government Departments plan to cut a further £444 million of funding from the voluntary and community sector. Does the Minister agree that that is evidence of the complete disregard of his own Government for that sector?

Absolutely not. The hon. Lady should look carefully at what we have done in respect of funding of advice services, to which the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), referred a moment or two ago. In 2010-11, the funding stood at rather less than £200 million, but in 2011-12 it went up and it has almost maintained the 2011-12 levels—still above those of 2010-11—for 2012-13. The Government are investing in the voluntary and community sector, not disinvesting in it.

Some examples of bureaucracy are being faced by many in the community and voluntary sectors. What are the Government doing to try to ensure that those sectors face no undue levels of bureaucracy in delivering their services?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are major bureaucratic obstacles and regulatory hurdles. My noble Friend Lord Hodgson has been looking specifically at those, and my team and I have been looking at them as part of the red tape challenge. We are going through every single regulation that affects the voluntary sector, the community sector and social enterprises to see what we can do to ameliorate or remove those obstacles, because we are determined to build the big society.

Government Procurement

6. How much and what proportion of Government procurement was made from small and medium-sized enterprises in the latest period for which figures are available. (100942)

9. What recent progress he has made on opening up public sector procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises. (100945)

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

A year ago, the Prime Minister and I launched a package of radical measures to increase opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to supply to Government. One year on, central Government’s direct spend with SMEs is on track to more than double to nearly 14% since we took office.

Those are very encouraging figures. In order to encourage small and medium-sized firms and show Government transparency, will the evidence behind the facts and figures be put in the public domain as soon as possible?

I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend that we make this information much more public and transparent than it has ever been before. The Contracts Finder website contains much more information about tenders, contracts and successful bids than has ever been the case, but we have more distance to go, and we will do so.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to help SMEs to access Government contracts, but will he now consider writing protection for small sub-contractors into every major Government contract?

I am delighted to say that nine of the biggest suppliers to Government have already agreed that they will advertise on Contracts Finder their contracts for sub-contract as well, and that will increase accessibility. In addition, we are taking steps to ensure that payments get made quickly not only to prime contractors but to sub-contractors further down the supply chain. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many very noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is unfair to the questioner and deeply unfair to Ministers, who may well be greatly wounded by the experience.

11. The Government say that they are committed to ensuring that 25% of all Government contracts will be awarded to SMEs, but official figures and the experience of SMEs in my constituency show that the situation is getting worse. When are the Government going to get their act together on this? (100947)

I fear that the hon. Lady wrote her question before hearing my answer. We cannot make a commitment; it would be illegal to do that. We have an aspiration to move to 25%. The Government formed by the party of which the hon. Lady is a member did not even bother to measure how much of this was happening. In the past year, we have more than doubled the amount of spend that goes directly to SMEs, but there is further to go and we will go that distance.

Last week, Mark Taylor, the co-chair of the “new suppliers to Government” panel which is advising the Minister on SMEs, resigned, saying that Government contracts to SMEs were “drying up”, that things were “going backwards”, and that SMEs were

“finding it more difficult to do business with Government”,

and accusing the Government of “recounting” their figures. Given that the Minister has admitted that the Government are nowhere near their promised 25% target, will he explain why the proportion of procurement spend going to SMEs is falling at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Department for Transport, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development, and the Treasury?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that if Mr Mark Taylor had come to any meetings of the SME panel over the past six months, he would have been more up to speed with the considerable progress that is being made. The previous Government, for whom the hon. Gentleman was an adviser, cared so little about this matter that they did not even measure what was being done. We have, I repeat, more than doubled the amount that is spent with SMEs over the past year. That amount will continue to grow.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are public sector efficiency and reform, civil service issues, the industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

National citizen service is going to become a rite of passage for many of our constituents. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how young people in Rossendale and Darwen can find out about getting involved this summer?

Three providers are delivering more than 600 places across Lancashire this year. Those providers are Catch22, The Challenge Network and Fylde Coast YMCA. I strongly encourage young people and their parents in Rossendale and Darwen to find out more about the NCS through its Facebook page or the Cabinet Office’s NCS website.

T2. What progress has been made by the commission into the West Lothian question? Many Opposition Members, and I am sure many Government Members, do not want to see a two-tier system of hon. Members in Westminster. What progress has the Minister made on this matter? Will he assure Members that we will be allowed to make a contribution to the commission? (100953)

I am completely confident that the members of the West Lothian commission will read the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with great interest.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when the plans to refurbish No. 70 Whitehall were approved? (100955)

Those plans were approved in 2008, when the current Leader of the Opposition was Minister for the Cabinet Office. It is therefore surprising that the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office chose recently to mount an unprovoked attack on the decision made by his party leader.

T3. Part of my constituency had a bad experience with the Big Lottery Fund, which awarded it £1 million, but then sat on the money for the best part of two years. Will the Minister give better policy direction to that body so that it does not award funding and then sit on it for two years? (100954)

I hear what the hon. Lady says and I will look into it. I am surprised to hear that that was the case.

T5. Yesterday, Britain showed itself at its best. The Olympics offer us a chance to repeat such a show to the world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that strike action has been threatened during such a wonderful opportunity? (100956)

It was distressing that the leader of the Unite trade union made that intemperate threat. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will take an early opportunity to condemn these bully-boy paymasters, who are threatening, when the eyes of the world are on Britain, to bring the country to a standstill.

T6. Concerns have been raised about the role of Circle health care in the Government’s pathfinder programme. Will the Minister clarify its role in the programme? (100957)

I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says and provide him with what will no doubt be a comprehensive answer.[Interruption.]

Order. I am not altogether sure that the Minister heard the question. If he did not, he was not the only one. There is too much noise and Members are yelling even when Members from their own party are asking questions. A bit of order would help.

T7. Had we reached Question 10, I would have asked what recent assessment has been made of Government policy on open source software and open standards. (100958)

We are strongly in favour of using open source software wherever possible. We have established that that can cut the cost of providing digital services massively, while producing better results. On a recent visit to silicon valley, I and a number of colleagues found businesses that were capable of cutting those costs on a massive scale.

A study by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has found that applications by charities for emergency help were highest in the north-east, because the 20 poorest areas suffered 40 times as much reduction in their funding as the 20 richest. A year ago the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), said that the voluntary sector would

“find that there is access to a large amount of revenue”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 936.]

Has he disappeared because he no longer believes that?

I deeply regret that it has been necessary for the Government to cut spending in the way that they have. The reason is very simple—the Government of which the hon. Lady was a member left this country with the biggest budget deficit in the developed world.

T8. In the past decade, small business has increased employment by 1 million and big business cut it by 1 million. Does that not show that procurement for small businesses is about not just fairness but more jobs and money? (100959)

My hon. Friend is completely right. That is why we have an aspiration to increase the direct spend to 25% of what the Government spend. We have already more than doubled that, and we intend to go further.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Small business is concerned that Britain suffers from a sicknote culture. Does the Prime Minister agree that an example should be set from the very top, and that those who throw sickies and then swan off to a football match in a Rolls-Royce are setting a very bad example indeed?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We do have a problem of a sicknote culture, and I have to report that the problem can sometimes go to the very top. The Leader of the Opposition was meant to be addressing a health rally, called a sickie, and three hours later was at a Hull football match. As well as his knowing the miracle cure, I think there is an important question—what was it that first attracted him to the multi-millionaire owner of the Hull football club?

Following the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Washington, we now know that the timetable for the withdrawal of British and other international combat forces in Afghanistan will be reviewed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. He has previously set out a timetable that would see combat operations for British troops cease by the end of 2014. Given the recent statements by the US Defence Secretary and the French President about an accelerated timetable for their troops, can the Prime Minister confirm the British Government’s position going into that summit?

First, let me take this opportunity on behalf of the whole House once again to pay tribute to the magnificent work that our armed forces do in Afghanistan. We had another reminder yesterday of the very high price that we have paid.

On the programme of withdrawal, what I have said absolutely stands, which is that we will not be in a combat role in Afghanistan after 2014, nor will we have anything like the number of troops that we have now. We will be performing a training task, particularly helping with the officer training academy. Between now and 2014, it is important that we have a sensible profile for the reduction in troop numbers, which should be largely based on the conditions in the three parts of Helmand province that we are still responsible for and the transition that takes place.

What I discussed with President Obama in America was that in 2013, if there are opportunities to change the nature of the mission and be more in a support rather than in a direct combat role, that is something that I think everyone will want to see. We can make further progress on that issue at the Chicago summit and make announcements later in the year about that.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I know he will keep the House informed of any change in the British position, and indeed of the precise timetable and any evolution of it.

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that in the wake of the tragic killing of Afghan civilians last week, which we all abhor, we must carry on with our mission. President Karzai has recommended that international troops should be confined to their main bases. Notwithstanding the tragedy of the incident that occurred, does the Prime Minister agree that while international troops are there, they must be able to perform their role of protecting the Afghan population? Can he tell us what discussions he has had with President Karzai and his representatives about the impact that any change in that role will have on security in Helmand, were that to happen?

Obviously our teams are in permanent contact about Afghanistan, and I speak to President Karzai regularly. Obviously what happened in Afghanistan, with the dreadful shootings that the rogue American soldier carried out, was a dreadful event, which must be properly prosecuted and dealt with for what it was: a mass murder. I know that President Obama takes that view very strongly.

In terms of making sure that we work with the Afghans, as I have said, the key is ensuring that we transition in the three parts of Helmand for which we are responsible, that we hand over to Afghan troops, and that they are in the lead as soon as they are capable of fulfilling that task. I do not have any concerns at the moment about the role of British troops—they are able to carry out the tasks that they are allotted. We are making good progress in the three parts of Helmand. We will be in permanent touch with the Afghans about that transition, but transition is a process and, as the Chancellor will explain in a moment or two, we should try to make the most of the transition that will take place.

I know that the Prime Minister agrees with me that dialogue with President Karzai and his representatives on the issue is very important, particularly in the light of the comments that were made. A few days ago, the Taliban decided to suspend preliminary talks with the United States. Will the Prime Minister give the House his assessment of the significance of that? Does he agree that we owe it to our troops serving in Afghanistan to be much more urgently focused on the task of securing a lasting political settlement? How do the British Government plan to play their role in getting the political process restarted?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. It is vital that we get this right. Since we took office—to be fair to the previous Government, they took this view as well—the British position has always been that we need a political settlement to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of Afghanistan. Britain has been pushing for political reconciliation and reintegration, and I had very productive talks with President Obama last week because the American view is now the same; they want to support that political process. Of course, the Taliban said what they said last week. I would make this point: we are committed to handing over to the Afghan Government, the Afghan military and the Afghan police—and the numbers of Afghan military and police are on track—at the end of 2014. We believe that that can happen even without a political settlement, with a satisfactory outcome for the United Kingdom, but clearly it would be better for everyone concerned if it was accompanied by a political settlement. The work for that, including setting up a Taliban political office in Qatar, is progressing well, and I believe that it is in everyone’s interest that we keep pushing that agenda. However, the Taliban should be in no doubt: there are opportunities for a political settlement if they give up violence, renounce al-Qaeda and want to play a part in the future politics of Afghanistan, but if they do not take those steps, we will continue to defeat them on the battlefield every time they raise their head.

Q2. I know that the Prime Minister will agree that the Association of Air Ambulances is a fantastic charity, which enjoys support across the House. However, a typical air ambulance branch needs to raise about £5 million a year, yet can claim gift aid often on only about 5% of that. Will he support my efforts to make it easier for charities to get the gift aid that they are due? (100963)

First, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the air ambulance service, which does an amazing job in responding to emergencies, and saves many, many lives. We are providing £3 billion a year in tax reliefs for charities, of which gift aid makes up around £1 billion. We are increasing the amount on which charities are allowed to claim gift aid without the need for a declaration. That takes it up to £5,000, and I think that that will be a significant help to great charities such as the one my hon. Friend mentioned.

When the disability Minister came to Wales last week, she said that it was for others to consider whether Remploy’s budgets should be devolved to Wales. I think, when she said “others”, she meant you, Prime Minister. The Welsh Government have already said that they are committed to supporting the Remploy workers in Wales. Will the Prime Minister therefore devolve the Remploy budgets for the Welsh factories for the next three years to ensure that all the factories that can have a future do have a future?

I will look carefully at the right hon. Lady’s proposal, because I know it is put forward in a constructive spirit. However, whether the decision is reserved or devolved, it does not mean that we do not have to take difficult decisions. The fact is that we asked the chief executive of Disability Rights UK to look at the issue, and the outcome she proposed is supported by Mencap, Mind, Disability Wales, Sense for Deafblind People and the Centre for Mental Health. The point is this: Government funding allows for half a billion pounds over five years for Remploy, but even that is not enough to keep those factories open, because although access to work awards are around £2,900 per disabled person, the cost of each job in Remploy is around £25,000 per person. Therefore, if the aim of policy is to use the money that we have to support disabled people into work, the right hon. Lady will understand why the review came to the decision that it did.

3. The last few weeks have seen the start of the £350 million construction of Jaguar Land Rover’s new engine plant in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a sign of growing confidence and belief in British manufacturing, which is in stark contrast to the destruction wrought on it by the last Labour Government? (100964)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Jaguar Land Rover news is excellent news for the west midlands and for British manufacturing and British car making. The good news is that what is happening in the car industry is not confined to Jaguar Land Rover: Nissan, Honda and Toyota are all expanding across our country. That is very good news for British manufacturing.

On the bus to the Commons today I foolishly revealed to a fellow passenger that I was a Member of Parliament. After some light-hearted and customary abuse, our conversation turned to life, the universe and commuting. Can the Prime Minister tell me and the man on the Peckham omnibus this: if that journey cost me 90p under Ken, how much did the same journey cost me today under Boris?

The point I would make is that Ken twice promised to freeze fares and twice did not deliver, but the difference between Boris and Ken is that Boris pays his taxes and Ken does not.

On that very subject, I look forward in the Budget later to measures on tax avoidance, but does the Prime Minister agree that people seeking high office in public life should set a better example?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I note that Ken Livingstone has said that if he is elected Mayor of London, he will fully pay his taxes. It is not for me to hand out political advice, but my advice would be to pay them before the campaign gets going.

5. Does the Prime Minister recognise that the introduction of regional pay would set hospital against hospital, and school against school, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has helpfully pointed out, and yet it would almost certainly push up the overall cost of public sector pay? Can the Prime Minister give us a guarantee or a promise today that introducing regional pay will bring down the overall bill? (100966)

The last Government introduced local pay into the Court Service. The idea of local pay for some public services is not an alien concept, but a perfectly sensible thing to look at. Labour Front Benchers suggested in the debate on benefits that we look at local levels of benefits, so surely the hon. Gentleman should be in favour rather than against.

14. I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in praising the work of the search and rescue helicopter service around our country, but does he share my concern that the loss of the Portland search and rescue helicopter in 2017 will threaten the lives of my constituents and damage the integrity of the search and rescue service on the south coast? (100975)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend that a reliable search and rescue service is vital. We have looked at keeping the Sea King helicopters, which is one of the things he suggested, but they would not be able to provide a service as good or as capable as a modern fleet of helicopters. That is why we are planning the changes. We believe that it should provide faster flying times and a more reliable service.

Following last year’s riots, the Prime Minister came to the House and said that

“we will help you repair the damage, get your businesses back up and running and support your communities.”—[Official Report, 11 August 2011; Vol. 531, c. 1053.]

Last week, a report by the Metropolitan police revealed that of the claims made by the uninsured under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, only about half had been settled since last August. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is simply not good enough?

I agree. There have been problems under the Riot (Damages) Act, which is specifically why we also introduced a number of extra funds run by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Those funds have paid out faster. It is right, in a way, to have the Riot (Damages) Act, although it is quite out of date. However, it takes time to make the payments, and I will certainly do what I can to chase them up.

We are eight months on from the riots. The Deputy Prime Minister hosted a reception—[Interruption.] Government Members should listen to this very important issue about the riots. At a reception last week organised by the Deputy Prime Minister, he and I met Amrit Khurmy, the owner of Ealing Green supermarket, which was razed to the ground during the violence on 8 August. She is still waiting to receive any compensation. Does the Prime Minister agree that, eight months on, that is just not right? Does he further agree that ultimately it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that she gets the compensation that she deserves?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will look into that specific case. As I said, one reason I introduced funds alongside the Riot (Damages) Act was to get that money out to local authorities faster. If he likes, I will put in the Library of the House of Commons a set of information about what those funds did and where we have got to with that Act. I will also look into the individual case that he mentioned.

We are talking about people who have not been helped by the money provided to local authorities and cannot get help. Three things need to happen to make good on this. First, as matter of urgency, there needs to be proper information on the payments made under the Riot (Damages) Act—[Interruption.] Government Members say, “There is information”. There is information from the Metropolitan police, but the reality is that the information available about what is happening around the country is very patchy. So first we need proper information. Secondly, I ask the Prime Minister to nominate a Home Office Minister with the job of ensuring that these claims are paid. Thirdly, will he promise to return to the House with a clear indication of when 100% of legitimate claims will be properly settled?

I am certainly happy to return to the House, as I said, putting an answer in the House of Commons Library about all this information. On the individual case that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, I understand that it was a multiple claim because it was a shop with a number of flats above it, but I accept that eight months is too long. So we will make progress on that case. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is taking the lead on this matter, but I have also held follow-up meetings myself with DCLG and the Home Office to ensure that the money is paid out.

Q15. The Prime Minister might be aware that the St Dunstan’s charity, which provides support for injured servicemen, has recently changed its name to Blind Veterans UK. To raise awareness of this name change, will he join me in visiting its new residential centre in Llandudno to see at first hand the wonderful work it does in supporting our veterans? (100976)

I always enjoy my visits to Llandudno, and perhaps I will be able to schedule one before long. I would like to put on the record my thanks for the tireless and highly professional way in which the charity assists service personnel who have tragically lost their sight. My hon. Friend pays it a great compliment and does his duty by explaining the change in its name, so that people know what it is and can give it money. As a country and a Government, we have a huge debt to pay to former service personnel. They have done extraordinary things on behalf of their country, and we need to look after them through their lives. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some announcements about that in his Budget.

Q6. The Prime Minister said last year that under his Government unemployment would fall year on year, but here we are with unemployment at a 17-year high. In my constituency, 55.4 people are chasing every job vacancy. The regional growth fund has supported only four businesses. Why should the 515 workers in Rio Tinto Alcan, the disabled workers at Remploy and many others set to lose their jobs believe a single word that he or the Chancellor say? (100967)

First, on the specific case of the Rio Tinto plant, I know how important that is. We are working with Northumbria county council and the company to do what we can to help get those people work, although I understand that Rio Tinto is still in negotiations with a potential purchaser of that plant. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman about employment and unemployment is this. Clearly we need more jobs in our economy, but since the election we have had more than 600,000 new jobs in the private sector. The level of employment in the country is up by around 250,000 and there are fewer people on out-of-work benefits now than there were at the time of the election. In terms of what is happening in the north-east, we should also celebrate the good news—the fact that Nissan is creating 2,000 jobs; the fact that Hitachi is building a new plant in County Durham; the fact that Newcastle airport is expanding; the fact that Greggs is putting more money into the north-east. We should be talking up the north-east instead of talking it down.

The running aground of a cargo vessel on a small island in the Minch showed the need for the emergency coastguard tug that was recently withdrawn from service. Will the Prime Minister please look into this as a matter of urgency, with a view to getting a replacement tug in place before a worse incident happens?

I know this issue is being looked into at the moment, so I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and give him the details. He represents island communities that can be extremely cut off, particularly during the winter months. He needs to know that those services are there, and I will write to him about that.

Early Intervention

Q7. Further to his letter to the hon. Member for Nottingham North of 15 August 2011, when he expects the civil service to issue the full tender document required to set up an early intervention foundation. (100968)

First, let me pay tribute to the work the hon. Gentleman does in this area. Early intervention is absolutely central to what this Government are looking to achieve. That is how we are going to improve the life chances of the least well-off in our country, and genuinely lift young people and children out of poverty. We will base funding decisions on what comes out of the first two years, but as he will know, the early intervention grant, which is a crucial piece of Government funding and policy, is going to rise next year.

May I thank the Prime Minister and the leaders of all parties in the Chamber for their continuing support for early intervention? Early intervention not only helps babies, children and young people to develop the social and emotional capability to make the best of themselves, but saves the country billions of pounds in the long run. Will the Prime Minister and the Chancellor take this as the first representation not for today’s Budget, but for next year’s Budget? Will he consider theming next year’s Budget around early intervention, bringing forward proposals for tax changes to stimulate the social finance market, which we heard about in earlier questions, and move 1% only of departmental budgets from late intervention to early intervention?

In terms of Budget submissions, that was definitely an example of early intervention. I praise the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done. As he knows, we will be setting up the early intervention foundation, which will be funded to make the arguments that he has put very effectively, whichever side of the Chamber he has been sitting on, for very many years. I will certainly discuss this issue with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. What we are trying to do is look at all the mechanisms we have, whether it is backing nursery education, introducing a pupil premium, making sure the early intervention grant is going up or actually putting the money in early to try to change people’s life chances before it is too late.


Q8. Is the Prime Minister aware that Harlow has the highest business growth in the whole of the United Kingdom, thanks to a Conservative council that is open for business and a Conservative-led Government who have invested in an enterprise zone, increased apprentices and cut taxes? Will the Prime Minister come to Harlow so we can show Britain how to lead the economic recovery? (100969)

Although I am in danger of being accused of watching too much television, I think we could summarise my hon. Friend’s question by saying, “The only way is Essex”. I know he speaks up for his county; what I would say is that I congratulate Harlow on its fantastic achievement. The Government want to play their part, not least with the enterprise zone in west Essex, which covers Harlow and which we hope will create 5,000 new jobs.

Q9. In North Tyneside more than 7,000 hard-working families depend on working tax credits to make ends meet, yet fewer than 200 people have to pay top-rate tax. Which of those groups does the Prime Minister think needs the most support in the Chancellor’s Budget? (100970)

What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we increased the child tax credit by £255 last year, which was the biggest increase in its history, and that it will go up by another £135 this year. In terms of the very richest in our country, let me reassure her that, after this Budget, they will be paying more in tax.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that, as well as the Liberal Democrat priority to lift the tax threshold to £10,000, one of the best ways of helping—[Interruption.] (100971)

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the best ways of helping families on low and medium incomes is to build more affordable housing throughout the country? Given that Labour’s legacy in London was to have 350,000 families on the waiting list, will he assure us that there will be more affordable housing in London and across the country?

We do want to get our housing markets started again, including for affordable housing. That is why, with the higher right-to-buy discounts, that money is going to go back into building affordable homes. At the same time, we are doing more to kick-start those places that have planning permission but cannot get under way because of problems with bank and other finance. That is why we are putting extra money into those schemes, to make sure that that building takes place this year or next year.

The Information Commissioner has confirmed that some of the information used by the Consulting Association to blacklist trade unionists could only have come from the police or the Security Service. When 3,000 people, mostly celebrities, had their telephones hacked, the Government set up an inquiry under Leveson. When 3,200 trade unionists have been blacklisted, and many have lost their livelihoods, the Home Secretary simply suggests that they go to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Why is there one route to justice for celebrities, and another for working people?

There is one law that has to cover everybody in this land, and if there is any accusation of wrongdoing, that is something that the police, who are completely independent of the Government, can investigate. That is what should happen. I say that on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, but he could do something on everyone else’s behalf. He runs the Right to Work campaign, which is stopping young people getting work experience places. If he cares about opportunities for young people, he will give up that left-wing organisation.

Q11. My county of Herefordshire has below-average household income, but public funding for schools and health care in Herefordshire has been among the lowest in the country for a long time. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that that is unfair, and will he personally support measures to change the funding formulas, to get a fair deal for my county and for other similarly affected rural areas? (100972)

My hon. Friend will know that we are looking at the funding formula for schools. We want to try to make it simpler, so that people can see what the criteria are and why their area receives the money that it does. At the same time, we are introducing the pupil premium, which will mean that parts of the country such as his, where there are quite high levels of deprivation in parts, will get specific funding for those children who are on free school meals. That should help the funding of those schools that need the money the most.

Will the Prime Minister do the honourable thing and publish the risk register, including the action that is needed to mitigate the risks that the Health and Social Care Bill still poses to patients?

What I would say is that, as far as I can see, we have actually voted in this House of Commons twice on the same issue—thank you, Mr Speaker—and on both occasions, there was a significant majority in favour of the Government’s position. I would also add that the last Government had many, many opportunities to publish risk registers, and they did not do it.

Q12. For 10 years or more, leading Conservatives such as Lord Saatchi and Lord Tebbit have argued for working people and pensioners on low incomes to be taken out of income tax altogether. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a thoroughly Conservative idea whose time has well and truly arrived? (100973)

What I would say to my hon. Friend is that, almost uniquely, I am not going to prejudge what is in the Chancellor’s Budget. However, I think that we can say that it is—if you like, Mr Speaker—a kaleidoscope Budget.

Q13. The Prime Minister may recall that at the time of the strategic defence and security review, he described it as a mistake and an error to use the short take-off vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. As the Ministry of Defence is about to perform a U-turn on the decision to rescind the original decision, does he now accept and understand that the real mistake and error has been a defence review that has been inadequate and is fast unravelling? (100974)

The real mistake and error was inheriting a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. To pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, what he wants as Defence Secretary is to be the first—in a generation, frankly—to announce a balanced and funded budget for defence, for this year and for many years to come. That is what we are discussing. We will look at all the evidence and all the costings. As the hon. Gentleman will know, costings change in defence, but I make this pledge: if costs and facts change, we—unlike previous Governments—will not just plough on regardless and make the wrong decisions for political reasons.