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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Occupied Palestinian Territories

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of aid provided to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (108772)

Both the Minister of State, who is today attending the Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh, and I keep a close eye on the effectiveness of our programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

I thank the Minister for his response. On a trip to Israel and the west bank earlier this year, I saw education materials that incited violence and the use of Palestinian Authority broadcast media to glorify conflict, not least relating to a group of children singing about the aim to saturate their land with blood. Will the Secretary of State provide assurances that our aid donations do not contribute towards such incitement? Will he highlight what steps the Government are taking to deter the Palestinian Authority from supporting such publications and broadcasts?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I would be very interested to see the material he describes. I can tell him that numerous credible studies show no evidence of incitement or anti-Semitism in Palestinian Authority textbooks, so if he ensures that we get a copy of what he has seen, we will take the appropriate action.

Has the International Development Secretary joined the Foreign Secretary and, curiously, the Education Secretary in meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman during his visit to the UK? Irrespective of whether he meets him, will the right hon. Gentleman transmit to the Israeli Foreign Minister the concerns of the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, who visited the west bank last week and said:

“I am extremely concerned about the humanitarian impact of demolitions and displacement on Palestinian families. Such actions cause great human suffering, run counter to international law and must be brought to a halt”?

I do not have any current plans to meet the Foreign Minister from Israel, although I met a series of Israeli Foreign Ministers when I was there just before Christmas. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are passed on to the Foreign Secretary.

I also visited the west bank and East Jerusalem last year and I saw the consequences of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Will the Secretary of State assure us that Church groups will be urged to get the Government of Israel to follow the parable of the Good Samaritan?

I raised the issue of religious tolerance when I visited the west bank and Israel at the end of last year. The hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been heard by the Foreign Office, which I have no doubt will pursue them.

We need to focus on the real issue of aid, not on red herrings about its misuse by the Palestinians. The fact is that Israel has blockaded Gaza and the checkpoints in the west bank are stifling any attempt by the British Government to bring aid to the Palestinians. What is the Secretary of State doing to make the Israelis co-operate in respect of the aid that Britain and the EU gives to the Palestinians?

Britain has an extremely well-targeted aid and development programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It focuses on building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide good government and support for the two-state solution. It focuses, too, on wealth creation and economic growth, which are important. The third strand principally supports the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and ensures that we fulfil our humanitarian responsibilities. The programme is very well placed, and we make certain that it achieves all three of those things effectively.

The next generation of Palestinian peacemakers and state builders are too frequently exposed to messages of hate and violence rather than of peaceful co-existence. What measures are in place to ensure that aid is used to teach mutual understanding and reconciliation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A recent study was set up by the Americans to look at the content of textbooks and teaching both in Israel and in the west bank for precisely the reason that he sets out. We take this issue very seriously. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy of that report when it is published.

Control of international arms transfers is essential to the effectiveness of aid-related conflict resolution measures in the occupied territories and other places. The UK has a key role to play at the UN arms trade treaty negotiations next month. Will the Secretary of State—

Order. I am trying to be generous, but I think allowing latitude would be excessive in this case. I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s comments do not relate sufficiently closely to the question on the Order Paper.

Clean Water and Sanitation

The British Government consider that access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is among the most basic of human needs. At the recent summit in Washington, I announced this Government’s intention to double the commitment on water and sanitation that we made last year.

I welcome the Department’s commitment to doubling the provision of water and sanitation so that it reaches 60 million people, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that sufficient priority is now being given to sanitation? Too often in the past, priority has been given solely to the provision of clean water.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the importance of sanitation. That is why the International Development Committee called its report on these matters “Sanitation and Clean Water” rather than referring to WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene. As he says, for every UK citizen we will provide clean water or sanitation for someone in the poor world who does not have it today. That is an important priority for Members on both sides of the House, and Britain is honouring it.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the tremendous work done by charities such as Excellent Development which supply clean water to many regions in Kenya and Uganda at a fraction of the normal cost. Will he ensure that the Government do what they can to assist such tremendous and cost-effective work?

We make it an absolute priority to ensure that British taxpayers’ money goes as far as it possibly can, and that we secure 100p of delivery on the ground for every pound that we spend. We continue to ensure that we deliver clean water and sanitation at the lowest possible price.

The Sahel

The situation is extremely grave. Eighteen million people across the Sahel are at risk of food shortages, and 8 million of them are now in need of immediate assistance. The British people, through the UK Government, have responded swiftly to the crisis, providing aid for over 400,000 people who have been caught up in this disaster.

The United Kingdom has been admirable in its support for the region, but with 18 million people vulnerable to the impact of the crisis, which is due to peak in about six weeks’ time, and with further delays to the donor conference, what can the UK Government do now to invest in the region and help those people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Like her, I fear that the worst is yet to come. The hunger season in July and August is imminent. The United Nations, with which we are working extremely closely and consistently, is revising its appeals from about £452 million to about £1 billion as a matter of urgency in response to the growing need in the Sahel, and the final appeal for Mali is due to be released at the end of this month. The Department has a special team in place, and we are monitoring the situation closely. That includes assessing the appeals. My ministerial colleagues and I are keeping an extremely close eye on the position.

14. Given recent reports that the African Union has delayed the pledging conference to deal with the crisis until June, what assurances can the Minister give that the UK Government are doing all that they can to establish a date, and who will represent the UK at the conference? (108786)

I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that we are sparing no effort whatever in seeking to persuade all the various parties and stakeholders who can provide assistance to meet the emerging humanitarian crisis. The amount that the UK people have already provided through our humanitarian support has staved off some of the worst, but the trouble is that the crisis continues to escalate.

The question of attendance at the various meetings is being decided, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that we are well represented.

The deteriorating security situation in northern Mali around Timbuktu has caused the European Union to reduce severely the amount of aid that it feels able to give. Given that the UK donates a great deal of its aid through the European Union, will the Minister say what continuing aid we will be able to provide for the people of Mali?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Because of the conflict, the situation in northern Mali is extremely grave, especially around Timbuktu. That is in addition to intense pressures in areas across the Sahel such as Niger and northern Nigeria. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that work is being done both through our bilateral humanitarian system and, in particular, through European support which has already contributed some £106 million to help with the Sahel crisis. We will continue to work very closely with those involved, not least because of the attribution of the contribution that we make.

In view of the widespread recognition that there is an urgent food and security crisis in the Sahel, will the Minister tell me what criteria were used to determine that UK aid to the region should be halved between 2010 and 2012?

As I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a difference between the humanitarian response and programme issues. I think that he was referring to Niger, where we supported a programme led by the French which served the purpose for which it was intended. As for the humanitarian process, we continue to work with a range of international partners in trying to ensure that the donor burden is spread fairly and equitably, while also ensuring that we in the UK step up to our responsibilities.

Official Development Assistance

The Minister’s answer is welcome, but given the Government’s failure, in what is a rather thin legislative programme, to embed that 0.7% investment in law, can he give a guarantee that there will be the same level of investment in those less fortunate than ourselves in 2014 and 2015?

The Government have been very clear, as have all Members of the House, about our commitment to the poorest in the world and not to balance the books on the backs of the least fortunate. We are the first Government ever to set out clearly how we will meet our 0.7% commitment. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about the law, the Bill in question has been drafted, the Prime Minister and I have said that it will proceed, and it rests with the business managers to decide the date for that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in response to those who, rather facilely, argue that charity should begin at home and that we should not be spending this money, it should be pointed out that not only do we have a moral obligation to people around the world who are less fortunate than ourselves, but we are spending the money firmly in Britain’s best strategic interests?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. For a spend of less than 1% of gross national income, we are investing in our future prosperity and our security, as well as doing the right thing by the least fortunate in the world.

Women’s Health (Egypt)

I am mindful of the fact that the first round of presidential elections in Egypt is taking place as we speak. My Department is focused on economic and political transition in Egypt through the Arab Partnership. We do not have a health programme there, but the Department is committed to improving women’s health across the world, with particular focus on the poorest countries and the most vulnerable women. Over the next five years, our support will help to save the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth.

The rate of female genital mutilation in Egypt is now 70%. Some in the country’s political parties want to change the constitution to end all legal restrictions on the practice. I am sure that if the proposal was to chop off part of men’s genitalia, the Minister would put this issue at the top of his agenda. Will he prioritise ending this barbaric human rights abuse?

I absolutely agree that it is a wholly unacceptable and barbaric practice. It is a custom that has survived for millennia, and I assure the hon. Lady that I have taken up this issue on many occasions, and that I seek to ensure it is highlighted. It is genuinely one of the issues that we have put at the top of our agenda, and I discuss it whenever I get the chance to do so in the many countries of Africa where it is prevalent. I assure her that we are committed to this very important project.

The best guarantee of making women’s health a priority, and ending the barbaric practices to which the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) alludes, is making sure women are actively involved, and listened to, in the political process. In what ways is the Department working with women’s organisations and democracy-building organisations to support Egyptian women in making sure their voices are heard?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. I hope she recognises that the Department has put girls and women front and centre of everything we do. We want to ensure that girl’s and women’s voices are heard, particularly as we develop our various future programmes, not least post-2015.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

6. What support the Arab Partnership Participation Fund has provided to projects on political reform and free and fair elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (108777)

The Arab Partnership Participation Fund has supported political participation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It has funded a variety of civil society projects.

Democracy is something that we in this country take for granted. Will the Minister assure me that, as part of our future campaign, we will promote democracy and the rule of law in the occupied territories?

My hon. Friend puts her finger on a key ingredient of development. Promoting democracy and the rule of law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is central to our engagement in the region, as I described in answer to an earlier question.

Does the Secretary of State’s hope for free and fair elections to the Palestinian Authority extend to Palestinians in East Jerusalem?

The British Government’s position is clear and unequivocal on this, as the Foreign Secretary has assured the House on many occasions. Our commitment to promoting the two-state solution and to promoting democracy in this troubled area is absolute.

Copenhagen Consensus Recommendations

7. What assessment he has made of the recommendations by the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 expert panel on setting priorities for development aid. (108778)

The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 is a valuable contribution to the development debate, particularly given its focus on getting the best value for money and greatest impact from aid. This is of course also a major priority for the coalition Government, and DFID’s programme priorities are closely aligned with the recommendations from the Copenhagen Consensus. I find the analysis compelling, and I have been working with the Consensus since 2004.

The economists and Nobel laureates of the Copenhagen Consensus have found that spending on tackling malnutrition provides the most value for money in terms of economic development. How much of the Department’s budget is spent on bundled micronutrient interventions?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and she is right to say that the Copenhagen Consensus puts bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education at the very top of its list of the most desirable activities to achieve maximum impact. Right across our programmes, we have been increasing the delivery of nutrient supplements and fighting hunger. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in Washington last week that we will be supporting the new alliance for food security and nutrition in order to improve food supply and farming across Africa and help to pull 50 million people out of chronic poverty over the next 10 years.

How will these excellent priorities help the people of Yemen, almost half of whom are starving?[Official Report, 12 June 2012, Vol. 546, c. 1-2MC.]

In Yemen, many of the current challenges are humanitarian. Today, we have announced £26 million of humanitarian support and aid to ensure that some of the needs of the population—nearly half of whom, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly observes, are starving—are met. While we are in the humanitarian phase, that is patently the most important response, but we also need to look at the future of governance and resilience in order to improve the lot of the population.

Post-MDG Framework (Women and Girls)

8. What steps he has taken to ensure that women and girls are central to any consultation on a post-millennium development goals framework. (108779)

We are very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been asked by the United Nations Secretary-General to co-chair the high-level panel on a framework to replace the millennium development goals. That process will of course need to be open and consultative, and I am confident that the voice of girls and women, who are often among the world’s poorest people, will be heard. [Interruption.]

There are a lot of noisy private conversations taking place. Let us have a bit of order for Mrs Sharon Hodgson.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Minister for his response and welcome the UK’s customary leadership on this issue. He mentioned the voice of the poorest, among whom the hardest to hear are often women and girls. I am sure he agrees that their voice is the most important one that needs to be heard in order to develop the framework following the millennium development goals. What plans has he in place to ensure that their voice is heard, and what is his timeline for such a framework?

The hon. Lady will be aware that this is work in progress and that a series of meetings and consultations is being initiated. I can give her an absolute assurance that we are building on the success of the current MDG framework, but we also need to learn from its gaps and weaknesses. Part of doing so is making sure that, in addition to providing simple and clear aims, we consult widely and ensure that we reflect the fact that the world has changed, rather than the past. That includes the importance of the views of girls and women in the future.

As the Minister knows, I have welcomed the Prime Minister’s appointment to co-chair the UN panel on the new millennium development goals framework. However, unlike his predecessors—Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—this Prime Minister has shown no inclination at the G8, G20 or EU summits to champion the importance of development. Will the Minister explain the core values that will underpin the UK’s approach to a new global development framework, and can he bring himself to utter the words “social justice and human rights”?

In an area where normally there is a degree of consensus across the House, I am deeply disappointed that the hon. Gentleman should choose to suggest that there is any diminution in our effort. I would argue that the opposite is the case; at the first G8 meeting, there was a clear focus on development by the Prime Minister, and only last week we had the whole focus on food and nutrition. It does not serve the hon. Gentleman well to seek to make a political point out of something that simply has no legs.

Topical Questions

My Department is very focused on delivering the results of the family planning summit that will take place in London on 11 July, chaired by our Prime Minister and Melinda Gates. We have been very focused on the food agenda at the G8 Development Ministers meeting last week, and I will shortly be visiting Malawi.

Two weeks ago, I visited a charitably funded Bedouin school in the west bank that was threatened with demolition by the Israeli Government. This is not the way to make progress, so will the Secretary of State make urgent representations to the Israeli Government to prevent the demolition of places of learning?

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that almost all these demolitions are illegal, and that is a point that the Foreign Secretary has made regularly in his meetings with the Israeli Government.

T6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on ensuring that the taxpayer benefits from the sale of our remaining stake in Actis. Is that not in sharp contrast with the shameful way in which the previous Government allowed Actis to be spun out of CDC in such a way that the British taxpayer did not receive a single penny? (108792)

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is entirely correct; the shameful way in which the previous Government sought to privatise Actis has meant that the taxpayer has received nothing at all from this management company. Thanks to the changes that the coalition Government have made, it is estimated that the taxpayer will receive between $100 million and $200 million.

The forthcoming Rio+20 conference is an important opportunity for this Government to show international leadership on climate change, green jobs and sustainable development. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many meetings have taken place between his Department and other relevant Departments to ensure a joined-up British approach to the Rio conference? Will he write to me with more details?

I can tell the hon. Lady that meetings are taking place every week and every day, most recently yesterday. The delegation will be led by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and I have discussed this with him within the past 24 hours.

T7. I warmly welcome the dramatic increase in aid to our Commonwealth partners, including the funding for the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the type of projects we are funding that are much-needed by our Commonwealth allies? (108793)

The whole House will be grateful to Sir John Major for chairing the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. The British Government have put in £50 million to the match fund for these projects. Under the previous Government, support for the Commonwealth declined from some 45% of our development budget to 35%, whereas under this Government, over five years, it will increase to 55%.

T2. The situation in Syria continues to take lives, as well as to produce instability in the region. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what action the British Government are taking to help with the humanitarian crisis in that country? (108788)

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Foreign Secretary has been doing at the United Nations. On humanitarian support, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are supporting the United Nations, its Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and a number of international non-governmental organisations on dealing with the consequences both outside Syria—on the borders and in the surrounding countries—and internally, within that country.

T8. In the context of the NATO summit and the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the provision for women’s rights after our departure? (108794)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to focus on the role of women in Afghanistan. On my recent visit to Afghanistan, I launched a new civil society fund that will directly address her point. Additionally, the fact that the international community has helped to secure places for 6 million children in school in Afghanistan in recent years will have a transformational effect on the role of women in Afghanistan.

T3. South Sudan is slipping towards war. Recently leaked documents from the World Bank have highlighted the fact that the south could be completely bankrupt by July as a result of the oil dispute. With countries such as China moving to fill the democratic gap, there should be concern that good democratic governance could slip off the agenda in South Sudan. What is his Department doing to ensure that that does not happen? (108789)

Ministers in my Department have had robust meetings with the Government of South Sudan and that of Sudan. The message we give is that it is important that oil should be brought back into commission and exported from Sudan and it is very important that the African Union road map should be adhered to by both sides.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

People in Staffordshire Moorlands recognise that the Government need to take difficult decisions to deal with the deficit, but does the Prime Minister shiver when he thinks about what would have happened had he not put a credible fiscal plan in place?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth while listening to what the managing director of the International Monetary Fund said yesterday. She said:

“when I think back myself to May 2010, when the UK deficit was at 11% and I try to imagine what the situation would be like today if no such fiscal consolidation programme had been decided...I shiver.”

That is what she said and we should remember who is responsible for leaving that situation, doubling the national debt and leaving a record debt and a catastrophic inheritance—one for which we still have not had an apology.

Adrian Beecroft, the Prime Minister’s adviser, says that the law should be changed to allow employers to fire people at will. The Business Secretary says that that is the last thing the Government should do. Who does the Prime Minister agree with?

We need to make it easier for businesses to grow, for businesses to take people on and for businesses to expand. The Beecroft report, which I commissioned, had a number of excellent ideas that we are taking forward. We are doubling the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, exempting businesses with fewer than 10 people from new EU regulations and exempting 1 million self-employed people from health and safety. We are consulting on no-fault dismissal, but only for micro-businesses. It was a good report and it is right that we should take forward its best measures.

The Prime Minister did not answer the question about the proposal—[Interruption.] No, he did not answer the question. Mr Beecroft made a proposal that employers should be able to fire their employees at will. The people sitting behind the Prime Minister think that the Beecroft proposal is a great report—that it is the bee’s knees—and they support the proposal. The people over there on the Liberal Democrat Benches think it is a bonkers proposal and the Business Secretary has been going around saying that. We just want to know where the Prime Minister stands. Who does he agree with?

It is rather sad; the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. We have a call for evidence on no-fault dismissal for micro-businesses and we are not proceeding with it for other businesses. That is the position. I am not surprised at the question, as I know he worries about being fired at will for being incompetent.

I wonder how long it took him to think that one up. The Prime Minister says that he is consulting on the proposal. The author of the proposal, Mr Beecroft, said that

“some people would be dismissed simply because their employer did not like them. While this is sad I believe it is a price worth paying”.

That is what they used to say about unemployment. Is he really telling us that with record numbers out of work, sacking people for no good reason is a price worth paying?

The right hon. Gentleman might, while he is on his feet, welcome the fact that unemployment is falling, inflation is falling, and that this Government have cut the deficit by 25%. Let me explain to him what the Government and the Business Secretary are doing. We are cutting regulation by £3 billion, we are scrapping 1,500 regulations, we are looking at introducing fees for employment tribunals. We are taking all these steps, which led last year to the greatest number of small business start-ups in the country’s history. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman cannot support any changes to employment regulation because he is in the pocket of the trade unions.

In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, his Business Secretary does not support his proposal. What double standards. When it comes to ordinary—[Interruption.] Oh yes. When it comes to ordinary workers, the Prime Minister wants to make it easier for employers to sack them. When it comes to Andy Coulson and the Culture Secretary, it is all about second chances. Can the Prime Minister tell us what impression he thinks it gives about his Government that he commissions advice from a multi-millionaire who recommends making it easier to sack people on low pay, at the same time as giving people like him tens of thousands of pounds in a millionaires’ tax cut?

I will tell you what we do on the Government Benches. We commission a report, we accept the bits that we agree with and we reject the bits that we do not agree with. What the right hon. Gentleman does is take instructions from his trade union paymasters and he cannot accept any changes. He asks what we are doing for the poorest people in our country. It is this Government who are taking 2 million people out of income tax, who have increased tax credits for the poorest, who have got more people in work with 600,000 new private sector jobs, and who have frozen the council tax. His record was completely the opposite.

This is not about the trade unions. It is about millions of people up and down the country in fear for their jobs, and the only answer that this Prime Minister has is, “Make it easier to sack them.” This proposal is a symbol of the Government’s failure on growth. We are in a double-dip recession, unemployment is high, businesses are going bust, there are bad retail sales figures today. Does not the Prime Minister understand how out of touch he sounds to families when he says, as he did last week, that things are moving in the right direction?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that this is about the trade unions. Let me tell him why. He is getting £900,000 from Unite, and that union is threatening a bus strike during the Olympics. What have we heard from him? Silence. He is getting £400,000 from the GMB. That union is holding a baggage handlers strike over the diamond jubilee weekend. Absolute silence from him. People need to know that there are two parties on the Government Benches acting in the national interest, and an Opposition party acting in the trade union interest.

Let us talk about donations. On 21 March the Chancellor cut the top rate of income tax. Then the money comes flooding in from the Tory millionaire donors. It tells us all we need to know about this Government. They stand up for the wrong people. The Prime Minister may have changed the image of the Tory party, but the reality has not changed: tax cuts for millionaires; making it easier to sack people—the nasty party is back.

It is this Government who cut corporation tax, who set up the enterprise zones, who are reforming the planning law, who boosted the apprenticeships, who scrapped Labour’s jobs tax and who cut taxes for 24 million working people, and it is only Labour that thinks the answer is more borrowing, more spending, more debt—exactly the problems that got us into this mess in the first place.

In 1993 the IRA bombed Warrington, killing two small boys and injuring more than 50 other people. Last week a memorial plaque with a scrap value of about £40 was stolen. The Government have already legislated to prevent the sale of scrap metal for cash. Will the Prime Minister consider further legislation making the theft of such memorials an aggravating factor?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I know that the whole country was shocked by the theft of that memorial; everyone remembers the Warrington bomb and the people who died in it. He is right to say that we have already legislated and made this an offence. We are also doing everything we can to sort out the problems of the scrap metal trade. I will look at his suggestion of an aggravated offence, but clearly any court can hand out exemplary sentences in these sorts of circumstances because public justice is important, and the public are absolutely appalled by what has happened.

Youth Unemployment

There are two ways of measuring youth unemployment: first, the International Labour Organisation definition, which includes both full and part-time students and gives a figure of just over 1 million; and secondly, the claimant count, which currently stands at 466,000. Clearly youth unemployment is too high on either measure, although I note that it rose by 40% under the previous Government. Recently it fell by 17,000 in the last quarter. If we look at the claimant count and include people on out-of-work schemes, we see that the number of young unemployed people has actually fallen since the election.

The number of young people in my constituency who are unemployed, underemployed and have fewer opportunities has greatly increased in the past year. Therefore, today we are setting up a taskforce specifically to deal with this increasing scourge. Will the Prime Minister commit to the active participation of every relevant Government Department in our taskforce’s work?

I certainly will do that, because there is vital work to be done to help young unemployed people. What we are finding with all the schemes we have, whether the Work programme or the youth contract, is that the most useful thing is actually the work experience scheme, because it gives young people a real leg-up and experience of the workplace and, therefore, removes some of the disadvantages they face as against older workers. We are finding that it has a much better record than other schemes, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to push that and pioneer it in his constituency with the help of all the agencies, as he has said.


Q3. Did my right hon. Friend see the figures released last week showing that since May 2010 the number of people waiting for an operation on the national health service has fallen by over 50,000? Does that not demonstrate that our commitment to increased health funding and our health reforms are beginning to bear fruit? (108759)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We made an important and difficult decision that, while other budgets were being cut, we would protect the NHS budget. That was not supported by the Labour party, but the fact is that we now have the best ever performance for patients waiting over 18 weeks, the numbers for those waiting more than 26 weeks and 52 weeks have also reached record lows, and average waiting times for both in-patients and out-patients are lower than they were in May 2010. The Labour party often asked whether the test should be the number of people waiting over 18 weeks. Well, if that was the test, we have passed it with flying colours.

Q4. Just over a year ago the Prime Minister launched his flagship export enterprise finance guarantee scheme. We now learn that only five companies have benefited from the scheme. Hard-working businesses in Birmingham that would like to export but cite lack of export finance guarantee as a problem are keen to know who those five lucky companies are and why the scheme has been such a dismal failure. (108760)

I will certainly write to the hon. Lady, because the truth is that that export scheme has been rolled into the export guarantee scheme more generally and the amount of export support is massively up on the last election, with billions of pounds in extra money being spent. The other point I would make is that exports, compared with 2010, were up by over 12% last year.

Q5. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Northamptonshire Parent-Infant Partnership on its sell-out conference on early years intervention last week, where 27 local authorities were represented? Does he agree that, if we are serious about strengthening our society, providing psychotherapeutic support for families struggling to bond with their new babies is absolutely key? (108761)

I know that my hon. Friend speaks with a lot of personal experience, having set up a project in Oxfordshire, the county I represent, that has had a major impact. I think that her work does her huge credit. The truth is that all the studies show that real disadvantage for children kicks in right from the moment they are born if they do not get the love, support and help they need. That is why the projects she is talking about, along with the expansion of the health visitors scheme—4,200 extra health visitors—which can make a real difference, are so important. I will also point out the measure we took last week to make sure that new parents get proper contact with and information from their midwife both before and after their child is born so that we do everything to remove that disadvantage in the early months and years.

Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that he will not succumb to the diktat from the European Court of Human Rights in relation to prisoners voting, that he will stand up for the resolution that was agreed in this House by an overwhelming majority and that he will stand up for the sovereignty of this House and the British people?

The short answer to that is yes. I have always believed that when someone is sent to prison they lose certain rights, and one of those rights is the right to vote. Crucially, I believe that it should be a matter for Parliament to decide, not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision, and I completely agree with it.

Q6. Today, Alstom is opening in my constituency a new facility for the engineering, manufacturing and export of power electronics, in which Stafford is a world leader. Following the news of the first trade surplus in motor vehicles for more than 30 years, what measures does my right hon. Friend consider to be essential to continue and to increase investment in manufacturing? (108762)

I very much remember visiting GEC Alstom when I contested my hon. Friend’s constituency rather unsuccessfully in 1997, but what is absolutely essential for such manufacturing, engineering and technology-based businesses are the support that we are giving to apprenticeships, whereby we achieved more than 450,000 apprenticeship starts last year; the lower rate of corporation tax; and the links between our universities and the new catapult centres in order to ensure that technology goes into our businesses and makes them world-beating. If we look not just at our exports overall, which were up 12% last year, but at exports to India, China and fast-growing markets, we find that they are up 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%.

The Prime Minister pledged to give England’s great cities a seat at the heart of government. Yesterday, Labour took control of Birmingham city council, and the first thing that the new council did was agree to ask the Prime Minister to receive a delegation from the council and Birmingham’s MPs on a fair deal for Birmingham. Will the Prime Minister make good on his pledge and agree to meet that delegation?

Of course, I am happy to meet leaders of Birmingham city council, as I meet leaders of councils up and down the country. What is important is focusing on what needs to be done in Birmingham to drive economic growth and to make sure that we provide good services, but I very much hope that the new council will match the record of the old council in providing value for money.

Q7. Child neglect is a sad fact in all our constituencies, and in Blackpool we await the sentencing of two parents who pleaded guilty this week to keeping their 10-year-old son in demeaning circumstances in a coal bunker. At the same time, the charity Action for Children has highlighted the fact that the law on child neglect dates from 1933 and no longer corresponds to the demands of modern parenting. Does the Prime Minister not agree that it is time to ask the Law Commission to look at this law once again? (108763)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that completely shocking case, and for anyone trying to understand how a parent could treat that child that way, it is just completely unfathomable. I will obviously look at what he says about the Law Commission and modernising the law, but in dealing with such appalling cases of child neglect and with families that have completely broken down, we have so many agencies currently working on this, including, crucially, social workers, and the most important thing is to have a real system of passing on information and passing on concerns rapidly—and then acting on them. Just passing another law will not make up for the common sense and action that we require our agencies to deliver.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for joining so many of their colleagues yesterday in abstaining from the vote against my “Save Bianca” amendment. Given that 65% of the public want to see caps on the cost of credit, when does the Prime Minister think his Ministers will finally give in and do something about ending legal loan sharking in the UK?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have a new power for the Financial Conduct Authority, which has been established, and the Office of Fair Trading has powers as well, so it is very important to talk to those agencies and to make sure that they can act.

Q8. The local council tax frozen for two years, the lowest inflation rate in three years and the biggest monthly fall in local unemployment in five years is great news for jobseekers, pensioners and savers in Tamworth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although times are tough and much still needs to be done, this Government and this country are on the right track? (108764)

Clearly, we face difficult economic times. We will go on in a minute to talk about the growth plans that are required in Europe, but what we have to do in this country is rebalance our economy, which had become over-reliant on the public sector, over-reliant on financial services and not fairly spread around the country. We need a growth of the private sector and of manufacturing and technology, and we need it to be more fairly spread across the country, including in the area that my hon. Friend represents. What we see from the employment figures is, yes, a decline in public sector employment, which would frankly be inevitable whoever was in power right now, but the 600,000 net new jobs in the private sector show that some firms are expanding and growing, and we must be on their side.

Q9. Unemployment in Hartlepool and the north-east is higher now than in May 2010. How much of that increase is down to the Prime Minister’s Government’s policies? (108765)

The point that I made to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is that the last Government excluded from the unemployment numbers people who were on temporary employment schemes. We include those people. People on the Work programme are included in the unemployment numbers. We measure these things accurately, and comparing like for like, youth unemployment has fallen since the election.

Britain has an excellent track record in scientific research and development, despite historically low levels of funding. For this to continue, and to continue to drive so much economic growth, sustained funding is required. Can the Prime Minister assure me that this will be delivered in this Parliament and the next comprehensive spending review?

Obviously, I cannot bind the hands of the next comprehensive spending review, but in this spending review we made an important decision to protect the science budget. It would have been an easy target for reductions, and perhaps we could have spent the money on politically more attractive things, but we decided to take the long-term view and to save the science budget because it is a key part of Britain’s future.

Q10. The Home Office recently announced that 800 front-line police officers would be cut in Wales, while Jeff Mapps, the chair of the Welsh Police Federation, says that the figure will be closer to 1,600, which would be the equivalent of the entire Gwent police force. Who is right? (108766)

The truth is that whoever was in government right now would be having to make cuts to police budgets. The Labour party is committed to a £1 billion cut in the police budget; we have made reductions in police budgets. The key to having police officers on the streets is to cut the paperwork, reform the pensions, and deal with the pay issues. We have the courage to do that, and the hon. Gentleman’s party should support it as well.

Last weekend, the Squatters Network of Brighton and Hove invited its anarchist friends from around Europe to campaign against what they call Weatherley’s law. Will the Prime Minister condemn, with me, the Green party’s support for squatters and welcome, as I do, the criminalisation of squatting?

I certainly support what my hon. Friend says. This law was long overdue. It is very important that home owners have proper protection from people, in effect, stealing their property, which is what squatting is. It is a criminal act and it is now a criminal offence.

Q11. Last week, it was revealed that officials at the UK Border Agency received bonuses of £3.5 million. Given the horrendous queues at our airports, the fact that 100,000 files have now been archived by the UKBA, and the fact that in the past six months 185 people have absconded having been given limited leave to remain, does the Prime Minister agree that in future we should reward success, not failure? (108767)

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no place in the modern civil service for a presumption of good performance. I believe in paying people bonuses if they perform well and meet their targets, but if they do not perform well and do not meet their targets, they should not get a bonus.

In terms of Heathrow and our airports, it is vitally important that we continue to make progress. This is an urgent issue for Britain. It is vital for our trade and vital for inward investment that people have a decent experience when they arrive at our airports. A new control room is opening at Heathrow this month, there are an extra 80 staff for peak times at Heathrow, and an extra 480 people will come on stream during the Olympic period, but I am still not satisfied as to whether we need to do more, including this week and next week, to really get on top of this problem.

Q12. My constituents in Bromsgrove are relieved to learn that the Government have already cleared one quarter of the record, irresponsible deficit left by the Labour party. They understand that you cannot keep spending what you do not earn, but what they would also like to know is: has the Prime Minister received just one quarter of an apology from the Labour party? (108768)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I notice that the Labour party did not want to go anywhere near the International Monetary Fund today. Perhaps that is because of something else that its director said yesterday: “You have to compare” the British deficit situation

“against other countries which experienced severe deficit numbers, did not take action right away and are now facing very, very stressful financing terms that is putting their situation in jeopardy”.

We would have been in jeopardy if we had not taken the brave steps that we took and very necessary they were too.

Q13. Electoral Commission figures show that the Conservatives have received more than half a million pounds already this year from people who have attended secret soirees at Downing street or Chequers. Is the reason why the Prime Minister is out of touch that he listens to those cliques, rather than to decent, hard-working people such as those in Scunthorpe? (108769)

There is a very big difference between the money that the Conservative party raises from business and individuals, and the money that Labour gets from unions, which determines its policies, sponsors its Members of Parliament and elects its leaders. They own you lock, stock and block vote.

The coalition Government have restored order and stability to the public finances, and have therefore won us international confidence. Is not now the right time to put renewed effort and vigour into returning growth to the economy, by the Government facilitating and guaranteeing investment in housing and infrastructure?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I am sure that he welcomes the enterprise zone in Bristol and the support for the animation and television industries. What we need to do, both in Britain and in Europe, is to combine the fiscal deficit reduction that has given us the low interest rates with an active monetary policy, structural reforms to make us competitive, and innovative ways of using our hard-won credibility—[Interruption.] Which we would not have if we listened to the muttering idiot sitting opposite me—[Interruption.]

Order. [Interruption.] Order. I am very worried about the health of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), who is so overexcited that he might suffer a relapse. I am a compassionate chap, so I do not want that to happen.

The Prime Minister will please withdraw the word “idiot”. It is unparliamentary. A simple withdrawal will suffice. We are grateful.

Of course; I will replace it with, “The man who left us this enormous deficit and this financial crisis.”

Q14. After six months in government, the Prime Minister announced that his Government had created 500,000 private sector jobs. After two years, he is giving us the figure of 600,000 jobs since the election. Why has the rate of growth slowed down so much? (108770)

There were 100,000 extra people in employment over the last quarter, and in the last two months we have seen repeated falls in unemployment and increases in employment. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that.

Q15. With unemployment down in Lancaster last week, I visited A & G Precision and Sons in Preesall in my constituency. It is a family-run company of only 40 employees that supplies components for the Hawk. It does high-precision work that is required nationally and internationally. I was told that it had turned two work experience places into full-time company-paid apprenticeships. Does that not show that things are moving in the right direction in Lancashire? (108771)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I am sure he will be pleased, as well, with the order that BAE Systems had today from Saudi Arabia for Hawk aircraft, which is more good news for British jobs, British investment and British aerospace.

Some of our constituents would be hungry today if it were not for the work of Foodbank and similar organisations in our constituencies. If current trends continue, Foodbank reckons that by the next election it will be feeding half a million of our constituents. Might I therefore ask the Prime Minister, before he completes his engagements today, to plan what the Government might do to counter that terrible trend and report back to the House?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the work that Foodbank does. I have visited one of its sites myself to see what it does. What is absolutely vital in these difficult economic times is that we do what we can to protect the poorest people in our country. That is why we have frozen the council tax, increased the basic state pension and uprated benefits in line with inflation, which has protected the people who need protection the most. Yes, we have had to cut tax credits for those people on £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000, but we have actually increased the tax credits that the poorest people receive.

The Prime Minister and I might not agree about everything, but we do agree about certain things. For example, we agree that I should never be promoted. [Laughter.] Another thing that we agree about is the need to put public sector pensions on a sustainable and affordable footing. In that context, judges are being asked to pay just 2% of their salary towards their pension, whereas the taxpayer pays 33%. That is neither affordable nor sustainable. Given the increases in pension contributions that we are expecting from other, lower-paid public sector workers, will the Prime Minister ensure that we apply the same tests and requirements to judges, too?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Judicial pensions have always been treated separately, because of what judges do for our country, but on public sector pensions more generally we have managed to—[Interruption.]

Order. The Prime Minister is making a reply to a serious question. Let us hear it with a degree of respect and restraint.

There was going to be a separate judicial pensions Bill under the last Government.

On public sector pensions more generally, we have reduced the future cost by half while maintaining a public sector pension system that is more generous than what people are able to access in the private sector.

As for my hon. Friend’s earlier remarks, I have got plans for him.

Order. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go into any of that, but I do want to hear Mr McCann.

Prison officer Neville Husband abused young men in the Medomsley detention centre for decades before he was prosecuted and sentenced for some of his crimes. A constituent who was abused by Husband has given me information that suggests that senior figures in the establishment knew what was going on. The Crown Prosecution Service refuses to pursue these matters, and instead the Home Office has sought to issue compensation payments. Young men were detained by the state and then abused by the state. Does the Prime Minister agree that a full inquiry is necessary, to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done?

The first thing that the hon. Gentleman should do—I am sure he already has—is make sure that any evidence that he has of abuse, cover-ups of abuse or compliance with abuse is given to the Crown Prosecution Service and the authorities so that it can be properly investigated. The Home Affairs Committee, on which I sat, looked into the issue in years past and made a number of recommendations. I will look carefully at what he says and see whether there is more advice that I can provide.