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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate (Savings)

1. What savings to the public purse have resulted from changes to the Government estate in the last two years. (110349)

The moratorium on new leases and on passing over breaks in existing leases has helped us across central Government to save the taxpayer some £278 million from property in just the first 10 months of the coalition Government’s time in office. To date, central Government have got out of more than 900 leases and released freeholds, and last year alone the size of the estate fell by 6%.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Government will get value for taxpayers’ money by ensuring that, wherever possible, the publicly owned freehold estate is used to avoid the need for expensive leases?

That is exactly our approach. Far too much of the freehold estate is under-occupied and far too many expensive leasehold properties are occupied in a very inefficient way. In Bristol alone we discovered that central Government, in their different forms, occupied 115 separate addresses, which is very inefficient and not at all conducive to joined-up government.

As you know, Mr Speaker, we should always watch what Ministers do, rather than simply listening to what they say. The problem with this Minister is that he promised millions of pounds of savings from other Departments while sneakily building up his own empire. In truth, his Department’s agencies had 23,000 square metres of office space when he came to office, but that figure has more than doubled to a staggering 56,000 square metres. Squeezing others while fattening up his own Department is hardly a policy that will incentivise colleagues to reduce their estate. When will he deliver the savings, and not just mythical ones?

The hon. Gentleman ought to look a little more carefully at the facts. He will see that the National School of Government and the Central Office of Information, which had been part of quangoland under the previous Government, have been brought in-house and so have been closed down.

May I satisfy the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and give the Minister for the Cabinet Office good news by suggesting that even more money could be saved by relocating out of London and coming to Wellingborough?

I am confident that, under my hon. Friend’s benign guidance, Wellingborough is an incredibly good place for people to work. The size of the civil service is falling to its smallest since the second world war and we are reducing the number of people who need to be in central London, but if the opportunity to relocate people out of London arises, I am sure that Wellingborough will have a very good case to make.

When it comes to making savings for the public purse, a constituent of mine has written to me: she works for the civil service and is travelling two to three times a week from Nottinghamshire to London to attend meetings that last about an hour. Is that not a ridiculous waste of money, and what are Ministers doing about it?

Yes, indeed. I recommend that the Department for which the hon. Lady’s constituent works investigate the use of the telephone, which has been around for quite some time.

Big Society Capital

Big Society Capital exists to make it easier for charities and social enterprises across the UK to access capital. It has two measures of success: growth in social investment and the social impact of its investments. It is required to report annually on both the social and financial performance of those investments.

I thank the Minister for that response. Cathy Pharoah of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy has said that Big Society Capital is likely to be biased in favour of safe lending. How will the Minister ensure that smaller projects with higher-risk clients have access to it?

Big Society Capital is a fundraising organisation with a social mission and exists to correct a market failure. It will support innovation and grow the new social investment market and will invest across a range of products. All we have asked it to do is ensure that it secures a sufficient return to cover its costs.

In a written answer to me on 11 June, the Minister stated:

“The Investment and Contract Readiness Fund applies to England only.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 218W.]

Given that Big Society Capital is for the whole United Kingdom, how will companies in other parts of the country be able to secure the same assistance?

Ultimately, that is a matter for the devolved Administrations, but the hon. Lady is right: Big Society Capital has been set up to be available to charities and social enterprises throughout the UK. The investment and contract readiness fund—£10 million of grants—is available to charities and social enterprises in England which want to make themselves more investment-ready, but the policy area is devolved and therefore a matter for the devolved Administrations.

Smaller charities say that they have a harder time accessing capital than the big “Tesco” charities. How can we ensure that the big society benefits the little society?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is particularly relevant and valid in small charities week. He is entirely right. Access to capital affects smaller charities more than larger ones, and that is one reason why within two years we have developed and established the world’s first social investment institution, Big Society Capital, which exists to make such capital much easier to access.

In measuring the impact of Big Society Capital, will the Minister assure the House that the resource will tackle deprivation in hard-to-reach communities, particularly in Northern Ireland, where there are isolated rural communities and 35 scientifically measured areas of disadvantage?

I have been to Northern Ireland myself to make the point that Big Society Capital is available to charities and social enterprises there. The honest answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that any outcome depends on the quality of the investment proposition that intermediaries take to Big Society Capital, but we are very keen to engage with charities and social enterprises in Northern Ireland in order to make sure that the measure is as accessible to Northern Ireland as we say we want it to be.

Civil Servants (Redundancy)

All Departments are rightly required to maximise opportunities for redeployment within the Government and to make all reasonable efforts to avoid compulsory redundancies. All Departments also have in place appropriate support for those employees affected, including retraining, career coaching and advice, and help with CV writing.

Since the coalition Government were formed, 1,000 senior civil servants have left the civil service. How many senior civil servants does the Minister expect to leave in the immediate future?

As I said a little earlier, the size of the civil service has already fallen to its smallest since the second world war, and there will be further downsizing, as we have made clear. The resignation rate of senior civil servants is stable: there is no higher turnover than before.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that next week the Government are going to publish their civil service reform plan, and that this issue may be one that the plan addresses as the Government try to set out a clear change programme for the whole of government?

We will publish in due course a plan for civil service reform, the pattern of which will be incremental reform that is capable of implementation. It should not be another civil service reform plan that lies unimplemented, gathering dust on library shelves.

Government Contracts

4. What steps he is taking to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for Government contracts. (110353)

It is our aim and aspiration that by the end of this Parliament 25% of central Government spend with outside providers should be with small and medium-sized enterprises. We have launched a series of radical measures to simplify the procurement process in order to make it easier and cheaper for all companies to see the business available with the Government and to bid and compete effectively. Our direct spend with SMEs since the Labour party left office is already on track to double.

How can SMEs in my constituency find out more about how to do more business with the Government?[Official Report, 18 June 2012, Vol. 546, c. 3-4MC.]

By looking at the Contracts Finder website, which is the main source of Government contracts over £100,000. That is the place where they should look, and I hope that they will, but since February 2011, when we announced our new approach, about a third of new contracts have already been awarded to SMEs.

Will the Minister advise the House on what help or education have been given to small and medium-sized businesses regarding online e-procurement? Many small businesses in my constituency find it quite challenging to go online.

I will look into that, but the hon. Gentleman might like to bring some of those suppliers to me to talk through the difficulties, because we want to make the process as easy as possible. Suppliers tell me that bidding for public sector contracts costs them typically four times as much as bidding for private sector contracts. The changes that we are making will radically reduce that, but we want to make sure that the process works, so I should be grateful for his help.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 40% of businesses still say that the tendering process is too complex. There are some very good messages in the procurement pledge on the website that the Minister mentioned. What steps is he taking to encourage people to adopt the principles of the pledge?

That is policy within central Government, and it should happen, although I am not for a moment claiming that it is universal yet. We want to hear about procurements that are not being done in the right way. In the wider public sector, we can do no more than exhort and encourage, and we will do so. However, it remains the case that if we are alerted to procurements being done in the old-fashioned way, which is very antagonistic to small businesses, we will intervene. We have got a number of those changed for the better.

The latest official figures continue to show that the proportion of procurement spend going to SMEs is decreasing in the majority of Government Departments. A recent survey by the FSB found that 40% of SMEs believe that the tendering process is too complicated, while 37% believe that they are being “sidelined” by the Government. Does the Minister agree with Mark Thompson, an adviser to his own Department, who said:

“The reality is, government has very little idea of how to deal with SMEs and has very little in the way in terms of concrete plans here”?

The main change is that for the first time there are official figures for this spend—the previous Government did not even bother to count it—and the numbers are going up. Obviously within each Department there will not necessarily be an even progress all the time—I would have thought that even the hon. Gentleman ought to be able to understand that—but across the whole of Government spend with SMEs has doubled. I would hope that he would enthusiastically welcome that.


5. What steps he is taking to reduce the administrative and regulatory burdens that affects the number of people who volunteer. (110354)

We want to make it much easier to volunteer, so we are implementing most of the recommendations in Lord Hodgson’s excellent report, “Unshackling Good Neighbours”. To identify any remaining burdens, we have launched the civil society red tape challenge and have urged the sector and the public to contribute by visiting the challenge website.

In Sherwood, many people are put off volunteering by unnecessary Criminal Records Bureau checks. Will the Minister update the House on how we can reduce that burden?

That is a frustration felt in many constituencies. My hon. Friend will be aware that changes are under way. There are two major thrusts of change: many fewer people will require checks; and those who do will find it much easier to carry those checks around the system—the portability for which people have been asking for some time. Those changes will largely be in place by next spring, and I am sure that they will be as welcome in Sherwood as they will in Ruislip.

This issue has come up repeatedly. Does the Minister accept that in the coming years the red tape challenge will be judged on the numbers of people who are involved in volunteering and the verdict of those who want to volunteer?

All I know is that it is incumbent on Government to get out of the way as much as they can. Many areas of regulation are too intrusive and take up too much time and money that could be better used. I think that there is cross-party support for wanting to encourage more people to get involved, and if the Government can get out of the way, then we should.

Civil Service Pensions

We are committed to ensuring that the reform of public sector pensions means that public servants will continue to receive pensions that are among the very best available. These now provide a fair deal for public service workers while being an affordable deal for the taxpayer and a good deal for the country that is sustainable in the long term. We have spent months negotiating a new scheme that was put to the civil service unions some months ago. I am pleased that four unions have now accepted the proposals.

I am sure that the 85% of the work force in my constituency who work in the private sector will welcome that response given that their pensions are, on average, far less generous than those available in the public sector, which they are also expected to fund. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an estimate of the sum that the taxpayer would be expected to pay for public sector pensions over the next 25 years if these reforms did not take place?

It is perfectly clear that the reforms that we put in place across the public sector will save the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds over coming decades. The Office for Budget Responsibility will make a more precise calculation in its next long-term outlook.

Charitable Donations

7. What discussions Ministers in his Department have had with their ministerial colleagues on charitable donations. (110357)

We liaise regularly with other Departments in the development of our agenda to encourage more giving of both time and money.

Research from New Philanthropy Capital has revealed that 65% of charities are being forced to cut front-line services. In addition, after the way in which the tax relief proposal was handled, the expert Alana Lowe-Patraske said:

“It remains to be seen if donors and charities trust this government on philanthropy”.

Will the Minister update the House on how the Government will repair their relationships with charities?

I think the hon. Lady will find that most people in the sector and most commentators recognise and welcome the Chancellor’s change of mind on that. They also recognise that this is a Government absolutely committed to creating the conditions for charities and social enterprises to do more. That includes supporting more giving of time and money through initiatives such as the social action fund, through various match funding and through some generous tax incentives—

I commend the Government for their actions following the consultations on taxation and charitable donations, but may I urge the Minister to look again at the gift aid structure, and perhaps to consider a transfer to a system whereby individuals can deduct their charitable donations from their tax directly?

Gift aid and all matters relating to tax are a Treasury matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that gift aid is under constant review, and in the 2011 Budget some welcome initiatives were brought in to make gift aid easier to claim for small charities and small donations.

Behavioural Insights Team

The team is headed by a steering board which is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. In September 2011 the team published an annual update of its first year, and a two-year sunset review will be conducted by the board in summer 2012.

The team does some very interesting work on encouraging behaviour to change in cost-effective ways. If my hon. Friend looks at the annual report, she will see some good examples. For instance, by slightly changing the wording in letters sent out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to self-assessment taxpayers who owed money, the team increased payment rates from 68% to 83%, which is estimated to lead to savings of £30 million a year in administrative and court costs if rolled out across the country.

Government Policy (Delivery)

On 31 May we published business plans for 17 Government Departments, which clearly set out the actions that Departments will take to implement the Government’s reform priorities and by when. The No. 10 website publishes monthly updates on which actions have been completed and which are overdue.

Will the Minister explain how one Government policy operating in direct conflict with another—for example, the withdrawal of the right to flexible working conflicting with support for carers—amounts to efficiency?

The particular issues are well outside my responsibilities, but I will cheerfully look at the question that the hon. Lady raises.

Procurement Fraud

We are committed to tackling fraud and error in all areas of Government business, including public procurement. We believe that we can save the taxpayer billions of pounds a year by doing that across Government. Every central Government body will carry out a spend recovery audit by the end of next year, which should generate savings of between £50 million and £100 million. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have already recovered significant amounts by doing this.

In welcoming the greater efficiencies and economies of scale that come from centralised procurement, does my right hon. Friend recognise the danger that centralised procurement can, in effect, throw up barriers to entry for smaller suppliers? Might this not help to explain why small and medium-sized enterprises are not always getting their fair share?

As I said earlier, SMEs are increasing their share of Government business. It has doubled since the election and is set to continue further. I point my hon. Friend to what happened with the Government’s aggregated travel contract when we brought it together: one of the two contracts for travel across the whole of Government was won by a small business, which is rapidly becoming a bigger one.

Topical Questions

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

In March, Ministers confirmed in this place that the Department was conducting a review into the long-term funding challenges facing the charity advice sector, as was promised to me by the Prime Minister last October. Will the Minister tell the House and the busy advisers, such as those at Wiltshire’s citizens advice bureau, what conclusions he has reached?

Advice providers, like other parts of the voluntary sector, are facing a difficult funding situation. In the Budget, the Chancellor made £20 million available in each of the next two years to support the not-for-profit advice sector as it adapts. Our transition fund also provides support to 45 CABs and 17 law centres, and the Ministry of Justice is increasing funding for mediation services by £15 million to encourage greater use of mediation in disputes.

Twelve months ago, the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave the Work programme as an example of the big society in action. A year on, some of the charities that signed up originally have gone bust and almost 100 have withdrawn their welfare-to-work expertise from the programme completely. Is this yet another example of the lack of leadership from Cabinet Office Ministers for charities across Whitehall, or can we finally expect some action to sort this mess out?

I do not know from that question whether the hon. Gentleman believes it is right for social enterprises to play a major role in the provision of public services. We do, and more than 500 social enterprises and voluntary organisations are involved in the supply chain. I would have thought that he welcomed that.

Order. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order for Nicola Blackwood.

T6. I am sure that the Minister will join me in applauding the work of the Archway Foundation, which for 30 years has been combating loneliness in my constituency. Like many charities, it is struggling increasingly with excessive regulation. What steps is he taking to combat red tape to let charities do what they do best, which is to help those who are most in need in our communities? (110369)

I am delighted to congratulate the Archway Foundation on its work. My hon. Friend is right that there is too much that gets in the way of charities and voluntary organisations in doing their work. That is why we are undertaking what is probably the most comprehensive review of the regulation and legislation that affects the sector.

T2. The Department for Work and Pensions has no right to data. Absurdly, its Ministers have banned Work programme providers from publishing any data on their performance. That is the opposite of this Minister’s open data policy. What is he doing about it? (110365)

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what we are doing about it: we are following the processes set up by the last Government.

Independent research has shown that more than 8,000 teenagers committed almost 250,000 hours of service to their communities last year, that the customer satisfaction rating among the teenagers who took part was 93%, and that the benefit-cost ratio was 2:1. That was a good start and I encourage all colleagues of all parties to get involved with the NCS in their constituencies this summer. It is a fantastic opportunity for their young constituents.

T3. The Government came to power promising a bonfire of the quangos. Will the Minister confirm, however, that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 creates more quangos than the Public Bodies Act 2011 abolished? (110366)

T9. The Minister for the Cabinet Office must be praised for his efforts in driving forward the open data agenda, through which dusty Government datasets are beginning to provide the jobs and economic growth that the country so desperately needs. What further measures does he have in mind to open up such dusty public sector datasets? (110373)

My hon. Friend has been a formidable, expert and passionate advocate of the open data agenda. Open data are the new raw material and can drive a huge amount of business growth. The Government are already the world leader in opening up data, but there is more to come. [Interruption.]

Order. It is very unfair on the Minister that he is not being heard. He should be heard, as should all Members.

T4. The Government have sold off 250 freeholds of the nation’s buildings and land. If they are going to continue to do that, will the Minister ensure that there is a covenant in the conveyancing to ensure that the public have access to public land? (110367)

I will look at the issue that the hon. Lady raises. If she has particular concerns about property to which public access should be guaranteed and is not, we will no doubt want to consider the matter.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have fallen since the House last met, Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They were talented, dedicated soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of our nation. Our deepest condolences are with their families, their friends and their colleagues. We will always remember them.

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.

I am sure all Members will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s tribute.

Can the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that for as long as he is the Prime Minister, there will be no policy shift at all in relation to the third runway at Heathrow, and that this Government will focus their attention on improving Heathrow’s hub status by expanding links between London airports and displacing some of the short-haul and less valuable slots elsewhere?

I know that this is not just a constituency campaign for my hon. Friend but something he feels very powerfully about. I can tell him that the coalition position has not changed, but clearly we must not be blind to two important considerations: how we expand airport capacity overall, and how we ensure that Heathrow operates better and that we welcome people to our country better than we are at the moment. A lot of progress has been made on that agenda, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the extra resources and people that have been put into doing that important job.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They served their country with dignity and bravery, and the condolences of the whole House go to their family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us why he referred Baroness Warsi to the independent adviser on ministerial interests but not the Culture Secretary?

Yes; I think there is a very significant difference between the two cases. In the case of Baroness Warsi, there has not been a judge-led inquiry, with witnesses taking evidence under oath, to get to all the factual information behind her case. That is why I have asked Sir Alex Allan to look at the case and establish some of the facts. I have to say, I am entirely happy with the explanation that I have been given by Baroness Warsi. She admits to breaking the ministerial code and has apologised for it, and I think that is a very important point.

The Prime Minister refers to the Leveson inquiry, but can he confirm that, in his appearance there, the Culture Secretary was quite properly—it is not the remit of the Leveson inquiry—not asked a single question about whether he misled this House and thereby broke the ministerial code?

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically why I have not referred the case to Sir Alex Allan. As he knows, I have not done that, but I have asked Sir Alex Allan for his advice on future guidance on, for instance, quasi-judicial decision making, which the right hon. Gentleman discussed at the Leveson inquiry and which I will discuss tomorrow as well. Sir Alex Allan has replied to my letter. I will put a copy of both letters in the Library of the House, but the House might want to know what he said:

“I note your decision in relation to Jeremy Hunt’s adherence to the Ministerial Code which is of course a matter for you.”

He went on:

“The fact that there is an on-going judicial inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe I could usefully add to the facts in this case”.

He went on to say that he remains available if circumstances should change, but those are the views of Sir Alex Allan.

The key issue is who makes the judgment on whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code. This is what Lord Leveson said on 10 May:

“I will not be making a judgment on whether there has been a breach of it, that is simply not my job”.

In other words, it is the job of Sir Alex Allan.

Let us take one of the issues that was—[Interruption.] I can see that Conservative Members have been well whipped today. They obviously got the memo from the Prime Minister’s aide, who is sending memos round. The last one began: “Comrades”—[Laughter.] I like the sound of that. “We need a protective wall of sound. Last week we rather dried up. Please show sufficient stamina for the full half hour.”

Let us take one of the issues that was not raised at the Leveson inquiry. On 25 April, the Culture Secretary told the House: “I made absolutely”—[Interruption.] There is no point in the part-time Chancellor trying to give the Prime Minister the answer before I have asked the question. The Culture Secretary told the House:

“I made absolutely no interventions”

in “a quasi-judicial” process

“that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”,

yet we now know that he wrote a memo to the Prime Minister that said:

“If we block it our media sector will suffer for years.”

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Culture Secretary, in his answer from 25 April, was not straight with this House of Commons?

Let me first explain that, on the Government side of the House, “comrades” is a term of endearment, not an official title—[Interruption.] Liberal Democrat Members are also comrades.

The point is that it is the job of the Prime Minister to make the judgment about ministerial code. I have made that judgment. I have quoted what Sir Alex Allan has said. He was very clear that he could not

“usefully add to the facts in this case”.

I am sorry that the political strategy behind the right hon. Gentleman’s Opposition motion has collapsed, but that is the fact of the case.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the note that the Culture Secretary sent to me on 19 November, in which he specifically says that it would be completely wrong to go against the proper regulatory procedures. The truth of what has happened in recent days is that the Culture Secretary gave a very full account of his actions to the Leveson inquiry, and demonstrated that, when it came to the BSkyB bid, he took independent advice at every part of the process and followed independent advice at every stage of the process, which is a complete contrast to how the previous Government behaved.

Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister is claiming. The Culture Secretary told the House:

“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 973, c. 543.]

The Prime Minister is claiming that a memo to the Prime Minister is somehow an insignificant document in relation to a decision that the Government must make. It is the first time in political history that that is the case.

If the Prime Minister’s case is so strong, why is the Deputy Prime Minister not supporting him?

Let me read exactly what the note from the Culture Secretary from 19 November states:

“It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length.”

When he got responsibility for the dossier, he behaved in exactly that way.

By the way, the whole reason we are discussing this takeover is that the previous Government changed the law to allow a foreign company to own a British broadcasting licence. Labour Members conveniently forget that point.

The Leader of the Opposition asked specifically about the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me be frank: we are talking about the relationships that Conservative politicians and Labour politicians have had over the past 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did not have that relationship. Their abstention tonight will make that point. I understand that: it is politics—[Interruption.]

I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman has reached a new state of delusion—really and truly. He just wants to talk about the past—he was the future once. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the decision should go to the independent adviser, the Conservative chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration says it should be referred and the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life says that it should be referred—is it not the truth that the reason the Prime Minister will not refer the Culture Secretary to the independent adviser is that he is scared that the Culture Secretary will not be cleared?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are talking about the past, but some elements of the Leveson inquiry and the relationship between politicians and the press are about the past. We had a little insight into that when the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), gave evidence. In an extraordinary moment, he said that

“the one thing I can say”—

the one thing—

“definitely is that nobody in my position would have instructed…briefing against a senior minister”.

Perhaps the victims could put their hands up. Any takers? I do not need Sir Alex Allan to adjudicate on that one.

The reality is that everyone knows that it was the Prime Minister who decided to appoint the Culture Secretary to oversee the bid and it is the Prime Minister who is clinging on to him now in the face of all the evidence. Does he not realise that it is no longer about the Culture Secretary’s judgment but about the Prime Minister’s, which is so badly flawed that even his deputy will not support him?

I hope that the England football team is better at putting the ball in the back of the net. The point is that it is for the adviser on ministerial standards to discover the facts and for the Prime Minister to make the judgment. My judgment is that we should let the Culture Secretary get on with organising the most important event, which is the Olympics. As we are on the Olympics, let us consider this: if there was an Olympic medal for double standards and rank hypocrisy, the Labour party would be well in the running.

I call Mr Nigel Adams—[Interruption.] I am really very worried about the conduct of the Education Secretary. In the average classroom, he would have been excluded by now. He must calm himself.

Q2. As we remember those who fell 30 years ago during the Falklands war, Argentina continues to dispute British sovereignty over those islands yet continues to receive loans worth billions of pounds from the World Bank, in which British taxpayers are a major shareholder. Will the Prime Minister join President Obama in instructing his officials to vote against any more such loans to Argentina? (110300)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. No British taxpayers’ money is spent on World Bank loans to Argentina, and I think that that is an important point, but what is even more important is what happened yesterday. The Falkland islanders have decided that they will hold a referendum to demonstrate that they believe in self-determination. That is important because Argentina continues to try to hide the argument and to pretend that the views of the Falkland islanders do not matter. They do matter; I hope that they will speak loudly and clearly and that Argentina will listen.

Q3. The Prime Minister just said that he believes that the Leveson inquiry dealt with all the relevant issues regarding the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but it did not deal with section 118 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which deals with market abuse and the passing of information to one party that is not available to others in a market situation. Given the hundreds of texts, e-mails and memos in this case, will he ask the Financial Services Authority to examine the evidence and see whether there has been a breach of section 118 or any part of that Act? (110301)

Clearly there are very strict rules, including the stock exchange code and the Act that the right hon. Gentleman mentions, governing all of these areas. The point I would make to him is that there is no doubt that the special adviser did behave wrongly. That is why he offered his resignation and that is why it was accepted.

Q4. I am sure that all hon. Members will congratulate the volunteers who raised £6.5 million to recognise the contribution and sacrifice by Bomber Command personnel in the second world war. The memorial will be opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 28 June, but the costs for security on the day have risen sharply. Despite necessary constraints on all Government expenditure, will my right hon. Friend consider financial support from the Government to ensure that veterans and their relations are properly looked after? (110302)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Many people served in Bomber Command during the second world war and many lost their lives, so it is right that there will be this splendid memorial, unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen. These memorials tend to be paid for by public subscription and that is what has happened in this case, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport does have the ability to intervene, especially when monuments and other things are done on a national basis for a national purpose. I am sure that the Culture Secretary will have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said.

Q5. Because of top-down Government health cuts, South Tees hospitals such as the Friarage and Guisborough hospitals in my constituency have had reduced services, leaving both hospitals uncertain of their future. Therefore, will the Prime Minister support his Foreign Secretary, who said to a crowd of 4,000 people that the Government NHS cuts are “unacceptable”? (110303)

I would point out that the increase in health spending for the hon. Gentleman’s primary care trust is 2.9%, a £8.2 million increase for the current year—[Interruption.] That is what is happening. The only reason more money is going into the health service in his constituency is because this coalition Government decided to invest in our NHS, against the advice that we received from the Opposition, who think that increases in health spending are “irresponsible”.

Cabinet Meeting (Kettering)

As my hon. Friend knows, Cabinet meetings are occasionally held outside London, not least so that we can get Cabinet Ministers to different parts of the country to meet all sorts of different organisations. The Cabinet has so far met in Bradford, Derby, Ipswich, Cardiff and the Olympic park. Locations for future meetings—including, I hope, the east midlands—will be announced in due course.

Were the Cabinet to come to Kettering, it would be able to congratulate Kettering borough council on its pledge to freeze its council tax for the next five years, and to celebrate the £210 million funding from the Department for Transport for the widening of the Kettering A14 bypass. But will my right hon. Friend also commit to upgrade and electrify the midland main line, a project that enjoys cross-party support and that would make a big difference to the Kettering economy?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating his borough council. That commitment on council tax is remarkable and shows what value-for-money services Conservative councils can provide. We are committed to electrifying more than 300 miles of railway routes, which compares with just nine miles that were electrified in the 13 years of the last Labour Government. There is a large amount of support for the midland main line electrification and the decision will depend on whether it is affordable and on assessing competing priorities, but I will listen very carefully—as I know the Treasury will too—to what he says.


Given that the purpose of the Leveson inquiry is to get at the unvarnished truth about the unhealthy relationship between some politicians and the media, why do Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, need to be briefed and coached by lawyers before attending to give evidence?

What Ministers, I am sure, are doing, as I have done, is refamiliarise themselves with a huge amount of evidence going back over seven years. For instance, I have provided to the Leveson inquiry all the evidence I can find of meetings with press editors, proprietors and the rest going back to December 2005. There is a huge amount of information preparation, which I think is entirely appropriate.

Q7. My constituency has a high recycling rate—the best in the north-west—so does the Prime Minister believe it right for a huge waste-burning incinerator to be built there? The incinerator was rejected by the local planning board, is overwhelmingly opposed by my constituents in Middlewich and would involve transporting lorry-loads of waste hundreds of miles across the country. Will he do what he can to prevent an inappropriate development that surely cannot be called environmentally sustainable or an example of true localism? (110305)

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern; she is right to raise this issue and I can understand her disappointment that the local planning board’s decision was appealed against. As she knows, however, appeals against a decision on such a planning application can be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She can make her views clear. It would be inappropriate to prejudge any decision that he might take, but obviously there is a need to take into account the size and scale of any proposed development and to consider the potential effect on any local community. I am sure that she will want to make those points.

Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware of the latest British social attitudes survey showing a record fall in public satisfaction with the NHS. I would like to know—I would appreciate an answer because his Health Secretary would not give me one yesterday—whether the Prime Minister will intervene to stop the scandal of the NHS having to reply on charitable donations to fund the purchase of the latest advanced radiotherapy equipment in regions such as mine, the north-east, and throughout the country? (110313)

The Government are putting record sums into the health service—we are increasing the money going into the health service—but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to stand here and criticise the volunteers, the charities and the big society, which provide so many scanners and great machines for our health service, I certainly will not. It adds to our health service. He raised, in particular, the survey. There is a 2011 survey of people who have actually used the health service, rather than one that asks people about their perceptions, and it found that 92% of in-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. That is what is happening in our health service, and we should be proud of it.

Q8. Will the Government go ahead with High Speed 2? The project is extremely important to the economy and jobs in the north. If the answer is yes, I suggest we start laying the track in west Yorkshire first. (110306)

I am grateful for that enthusiastic endorsement. I believe that we should go ahead with HS2. It is important for the country’s economy, and it is important that we get on board this high-speed rail revolution. It links to the question asked by my hon. Friend’s neighbour, as it were, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), about Heathrow. Many flights could be avoided if we had a network of high-speed rail in our country, and I am keen to press ahead.

Q9. Before the last general election, the Prime Minister made an important speech condemning crony capitalism, “with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”Is that not a pitch-perfect description of the undignified courting of News Corporation by the Culture Secretary? When will the Prime Minister show some judgment on this? (110307)

If they are looking for volunteers for the Olympic team for hypocrisy, I think we might have the decathlete. We had 13 years of pyjama parties, christenings, changing the law and sucking up to the Murdochs. Honestly, what a lot of brass neck!

Q10. In 44 days, the Olympics and Paralympics come to London, and millions of people will be coming to London to enjoy the games. Most of them will be totally dependent on public transport to reach the venues. Will my right hon. Friend condemn the Unite union for calling bus strikes, and does not the silence from the Labour party on this subject speak volumes about their attitude to Londoners? (110308)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want an example of crony politics, frankly, it is the fact that the party opposite gets £5 million from the Unite union, and when it comes to this strike, which could disrupt the Olympics, we have had absolute silence—not a word of condemnation. It is not surprising, because the Unite union does not just give the Labour party the money; it picks its leader as well.

The patient satisfaction survey results have shown the greatest reduction in patient satisfaction in the history of the national health service. What will the Prime Minister do to turn around perceptions of the failure of the NHS under his Government?

The King’s Fund, which carried out this survey, says:

“There is no evidence of a real decline in service quality or performance”.

That is what the King’s Fund says about its own survey. Frankly, I would put more weight on a survey of people who have actually been using the NHS. As I said, of the users of the NHS, 92% of in-patients and 95% of out-patients rated their overall experience as good, very good or excellent. I do not think that is surprising, because since the election there are 4,000 more doctors, mixed-sex accommodation is down 96%, hospital infections are at their lowest levels since surveillance began, the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks is also at its lowest since records began, and average waiting times are down as well. The health service is performing extremely well and we should praise all those who have delivered that performance.

Q11. As a constituency MP, the Prime Minister will be aware of the current shortage in primary school places across our country. It is particularly acute in Winchester right now, where temporary classrooms are the order of the day, to accommodate reception year pupils for this September. May I ask the Prime Minister what the Government are doing to help councils in this bulge year, and whether he is confident that enough is being done to prevent a repeat performance when those pupils reach secondary school in six years’ time? (110309)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that in certain constituencies this is becoming an issue. What the Department for Education has done is put aside £1.4 billion of schools capital for 2011-12 and a further £1.4 billion for the subsequent year. There is also the opportunity, through free schools, to have excellent new schools established in hon. Members’ constituencies, so that we get not only new capacity, but the competition and choice that I believe will help to drive up standards.

The use of food banks in Plymouth has gone up, from 790 food banks to nearly 4,000 in a year. Is the Prime Minister proud of the fact that it is his changes to benefit arrangements which are causing this to happen—there is no doubt about that—and is he therefore going to stand up and say, “Yes, that’s fine; food banks are lovely”? Yes, they are lovely, and the people of Plymouth are magnificent in the way they feed in to those, but will he pass the buck on this, and go for a gold medal in passing the buck, as he has over the Culture Secretary—

First, let me join the hon. Lady in praising people in Plymouth, who obviously do a huge amount for their neighbours and members of their community. That is all to the good. What I would say is yes, we have had to make difficult decisions, but we have actually protected tax credits for the least well-off and we have protected benefits for the least well-off. However, I have to say that the biggest welfare reform that we have made is to put a cap on welfare, where we have said that people should not be able to get on welfare more than the average family gets in work, which is £26,500 a year. However, when we put that forward, the Labour party voted against it.

Q12. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how much it would have cost this country to take part in the bail-out of Spain’s banks this week if he had not stood up for Britain and got us out of the previous Government’s commitments? (110310)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Before this Government came to power, bail-outs were carried out with Britain playing a full part—often by as much as 14% of the total—so in a €100 billion bail-out of Spain, Britain could have been paying as much as €14 billion, or £10 billion. That money has been saved because this Government, unlike the last one, stand up for Britain in Europe.

Prime Minister, an omnishambles of Budget that you claimed you had read line by line; a double-dip recession that you made in Downing street; and a Tory-led Committee reporting that the coalition “lacks strategic direction”—evidence, if ever it was needed, that men can multi-task. It is just, obviously, that some are not very good at it. Prime Minister, have you now run out of steam, or is the job just too big for you?

I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is introducing compulsory poetry reading lessons in class. Perhaps we could start with the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.]

Order. What is rude is for people to continue shouting when they have been asked not to do so. I know that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) is exceptionally well behaved, and I know that he will sit in his usual quiet, respectful fashion.

Q13. The Prime Minister has called for compassion for my constituent, Gary McKinnon, who doctors report is likely to take his life if he is extradited. The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that it would be cruel to extradite him. Will the Government be true to their word and stop the extradition and, finally, after 10 years, give Gary McKinnon his life back? (110311)

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. As he knows, the Home Secretary is carefully considering a wide range of material before making her decision. She has instructed two independent medical experts to view the various reports that have been submitted in this case. She will make her decision as quickly as possible, but this is not an easy case. A number of difficult issues have to be considered before she makes that announcement.

The popular NHS walk-in centre in my constituency has recently closed, and similar walk-in centres are closing all over the country. Why?

It is certainly not because the money in the NHS is being cut, because it is not being cut. The money in the NHS is being increased. If we had followed the hon. Lady’s advice, however, the money would be going down. What matters is that the money in the NHS is spent to deliver better health outcomes, and I think that that is a decision that needs to be taken locally.

Q14. Given the fascinating evidence that was presented by his predecessor to the Leveson inquiry, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be overwhelmingly in the public interest to publish the Downing street phone records, so that we can finally establish what conversations took place between his predecessor and Rupert Murdoch? (110312)

As my hon. Friend knows, Governments cannot release information provided by previous Governments, but I am sure that this is an issue that the previous Prime Minister will want to consider, given the very clear statement that he made.

The Prime Minister will probably not be aware that a firm in my constituency, Niche Drinks, produces cream liqueurs and other intermediate alcohol products. I do not know whether he ever chillaxes with such commodities. The company has recently planned a £10 million investment, and more than 40% of its exports are outside the EU. However, it and other similar firms on this island are worried that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is reinterpreting how to treat their products for duty purposes, under pressure from the European Commission following its erroneous interpretation of a European Court of Justice ruling in 2009. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a competent Treasury Minister meets me and other interested MPs to ensure that common sense and consistency prevail?

I have not tried one of those delicious-sounding beverages. If it is all right with the hon. Gentleman, I will wait until after tomorrow before doing so. I understand that there is an issue with HMRC, and I would be very happy to arrange a meeting between him and a Treasury Minister so that they can look carefully at this issue.

Unprecedented levels of flooding hit the north Ceredigion communities at the weekend, causing untold damage to households, businesses and infrastructure. I thank the Prime Minister for his words of support to my constituents, and I know that he is aware of the speed with which Ceredigion county council, the emergency services and many in the local community rallied to ensure that there was no loss of life. Will he urge all the insurance companies to act on this matter now, with renewed speed, so that we can get the communities back on their feet as quickly as possible?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising the emergency services, which did a superb job at the weekend. I asked the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh First Minister to pass on my best wishes for the work that the emergency services had done. It was remarkable work. In all these flood situations, there is a rescue and emergency part, followed by a recovery phase. In many ways, the most difficult phase to get right is when people are going back into soaked homes with peeling plaster and all the other problems. That is when we need to ensure that they get swift action in the form of help from their district council and, above all, from the insurance companies. I will certainly work with my hon. Friend to ensure that that happens in this case.