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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Society Organisations (Financial Support)

1. How much financial support the Government gave to civil society organisations in (a) 2009-10 and (b) 2012-13 to date. (141649)

It is estimated that the Government committed £13.9 billion to general charities in 2009-10. As the hon. Gentleman will know, data for 2012-13 are not yet available.

Thousands of people in every one of our constituencies depend on the services provided by voluntary bodies. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimates that funding for the sector will fall by £3.2 billion during the current Parliament, while the Charities Aid Foundation says that private giving to charities has fallen by 20%. The big society is shrinking. How are the Government going to give it the resources it needs to provide services for our constituents?

The Government are doing a great deal to support our charities. We are encouraging giving, volunteering and social investment, and we are trying to make it easier for charities to help us to deliver public services. There is less money around as a direct consequence of the actions, and the fiscal incontinence, of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman did not adorn. We all have a role and a responsibility to support our charities, but this Government are doing their bit.

That very same research by the Charities Aid Foundation clearly showed that 85% of respondents were concerned about the future financial viability of charitable giving. In view of the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), may I ask why he does not share those concerns?

I do not need any lectures from Labour Members about the extent of the pressure that the charitable sector is under. At a time when resources are very constrained, the Treasury has introduced new tax incentives for giving, including the gift aid small donations scheme. Between them, those incentives will be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the sector during the current Parliament. We are providing match funding for giving, and investing in new and innovative ways of encouraging it. The Government are showing a great deal of creativity in trying to connect people with the chance to give to and support charities in their communities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Kent Air Ambulance, the Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury and homelessness charities such as Porchlight and Catching Lives demonstrate that there is a healthy sector in Kent? Does he also agree that the most successful elements of the charitable sector are those that raise the bulk of the funds themselves—with some help from the state—rather than the client organisations whose number increased under the last Government?

My hon. Friend, who is a tireless supporter of charities in his constituency, has raised an important point. It is worth reminding the House that 75% of charities receive no income at all from the state, and that 80% of the public funding that goes to charities goes to organisations with incomes of more than £1 million. We are actively trying to encourage more charities to live within their means and raise their own money by promoting the kind of giving that I mentioned earlier.

Voluntary and Community Sector

The Government are doing a great deal in trying to increase the capacity and capability of the sector. One of the most important things that we have done is launch the world’s first social investment institution, Big Society Capital, which will have £600 million on its balance sheet. That will enable it to increase the social investment market and make it easier for charities and social enterprises to gain access to capital.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate the newly formed Wymering Manor Trust in my constituency on securing the manor as a community asset? In stark contrast to the smooth running of that transfer, the obstacles that the community have encountered in trying to buy out Portsmouth football club, and the culture that they have encountered in the world of football, have been dreadful. What more can be done to help fans to own and govern their local clubs, and to stop football being a big society-free zone?

I am delighted to congratulate the trust, not least because I understand that it is chaired by Conservatives. Let me also wish the supporters of Portsmouth football club well in their endeavours. The Government are trying to help communities to realise their dreams, and if there is anything that our Department or Big Society Capital can do to support that community, my hon. Friend must let me know.

I think that there is a different story. I visited the office of Fairplay in Derbyshire the other Friday and met the people there who look after, for instance, disabled teenagers. I have also visited various other voluntary organisations. Their story is that they are being cut left, right and centre, and are having a job making ends meet. When will the Government support the voluntary workers who are trying to rescue those people, and to help all kinds of individuals? This really has reached a chronic stage. Get something done!

We are doing a great deal. I totally accept what the hon. Gentleman says: there is a lot of pressure on charities in all our constituencies. We all know that there is less money around, but I would like to hear a little more honesty and recognition from the Opposition Benches as to why the cuts in public expenditure are necessary. They are the direct result of the fiscal incontinence of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s Government.

As the Minister reflects on the capacity of the voluntary sector, he will surely consider in particular the capacity of the Charity Commission—which has been cut by a third on his watch—to prevent charities such as Cup Trust from being used for huge levels of tax avoidance. Is the Minister convinced that the new head of the commission understands the seriousness of the situation, and is a cross-Government plan now in place to prevent such a repeat?

Yes. Under this Government, we have sent a very clear message to the Charity Commission that we expect it to hunker down on its core responsibility of regulating the sector and protecting its integrity, and, under the new chairman, we expect that to happen.

Tax Avoidance (Government Contracts)

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring that companies in receipt of Government contracts do not engage in tax avoidance schemes. (141652)

In the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the Cabinet Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would examine how the procurement process can be used to deter tax avoidance and evasion. I expect an announcement to be made on this matter shortly with a view to new arrangements coming into effect from 1 April.

That is very welcome news, and I hope that friends of the Cabinet Office will be able to make sure that the Chancellor announces in the Budget that we will end once and for all the possibility of taxpayers’ money funding people to avoid paying their corporate taxes. That has to end at both national level and local government contract level.

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. Our primary concern in public procurement is value for the taxpayer, but it is entirely legitimate to be concerned about ensuring that companies that are—rightly—profiting from Government contracts should be paying the proper amount of tax.

Is not the answer simply to put out a message to all companies that if they do not pay their taxes they will not get the contract?

I do not recall this ever being addressed by the previous Government. We have inherited very large numbers of extremely costly contracts where nobody has taken any interest in this subject at all.

Information Technology Management

4. What plans he has to achieve greater value for money from the Government’s management of information technology. (141653)

Days after the coalition Government came to office, we introduced strict controls on ICT spend that saved the taxpayer £316 million last year alone, a figure verified by the National Audit Office. We have opened up procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises, we are moving towards open standards and interoperability, and we are reopening some of the incredibly expensive and burdensome ICT contracts that we inherited from the previous Government, with a view to making significant further savings. There is much more that can be done, and much more that we will do.

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome those actions. I also thank him for visiting Ark Continuity in my constituency, a company whose data centres make cloud computing possible. There are myriad data centres in local and national Government and in the wider public sector, and there are huge savings to be made. Will the Minister target this area in searching for ways to save the taxpayer money?

I enjoyed my visit with my hon. Friend to Ark Continuity. It was very illuminating. There is a huge amount we can do. Data centre capacity across Government is massively underused. A huge amount of overcapacity was left in place by the outgoing Government, who had no interest in these subjects at all. We are getting to grips with it, however. We need to do more, and we will do so; there is much more money we can save.

The fact is that the NAO did not verify the savings. According to the NAO, the Department overstated its claimed IT savings probably by tens of millions of pounds. The Minister has form on this: he predicted £20 billion of savings from his quango review, but the NAO showed he barely saved a tenth of that. Perhaps the Department should propose a new ministerial baccalaureate in adding up and taking away. Since the Minister cannot get his figures right, will he now at least agree to brush up on his maths?

The hon. Gentleman is talking total nonsense. We inherited a massive Budget deficit left by a Government who were fiscally incontinent and made no effort to deliver any efficiency savings whatsoever. Through our efficiency programme, we have already delivered £12 billion of savings and there is much more that can be done. The outgoing Government left the public finances and Whitehall efficiency in a shockingly sorry state.

Cyber-security Partnership

On 25 January, the Foreign Secretary signed the World Economic Forum’s new set of principles on cyber-resilience. The UK was the first country to join that cyber-security partnership, alongside more than 70 companies and Government bodies across 15 sectors and 25 countries. That is an important step in demonstrating our leadership role on the international stage in combating cyber-threats.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Has she seen the recent report by Lancaster university, which is a centre of excellence in cyber-security and she is more than welcome to visit? The report highlighted the lack of investment by so many small businesses in even the simplest systems to protect their IT systems.

I very much welcome Lancaster university’s report, which I have seen. It does show the university’s place as an academic centre of excellence for cyber-security. That research gives us valuable insights into how business is responding. I understand that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be supporting a further small and medium-sized enterprise conference with Lancaster university. The Government are bringing forward a cross-government cyber-security awareness campaign, which is aimed at SMEs. I ought to quote from the report, because I agree with its statement that small businesses should be able to

“embrace technology and prosper without exposing themselves to unwanted business risks.”

Cyber-security should be a growth area for UK industry. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what she is doing to help promote cyber-security for the UK industrial sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. When we published the cyber-security strategy we made it clear that there are important opportunities for UK businesses. Our country has long-standing expertise in cyber-security, which makes us well placed to capitalise on the commercial opportunities on offer, both domestically and overseas. I can confirm to him that we have put in place measures to help promote UK products abroad, particularly through setting up a cyber-growth partnership.

If only the Minister’s warm words on international partnerships were matched by her Government’s actions. In October, the Home Secretary announced that the UK would opt out of cross-border co-operation on tackling crime—cybercrime is, of course, predominantly cross-border in nature. Will the Minister confirm that position? Specifically, will we be part of the new European cybercrime centre, or are her Government more obsessed with damaging Europe than strengthening our cyber-security?

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in the Opposition Front-Bench team, although I hope that the Labour party has updated its website, as I do not believe its cyber-skills showed her in her correct place at the time she asked that question. Of course, I can offer my reassurance that the UK Government are doing all they can on tackling cybercrime, where there is much to be done. There is also much to be done in Europe.

In developing the cyber-security strategy, will the Minister consider forming a civilian cyber-security reserve, so that people working in the IT security sector can back-fill those positions that are very specialist and where the work perhaps cannot be carried out by the Ministry of Defence?

My hon. Friend makes correct points about the need to ensure that we have robust skills across both the public and private sectors in respect of cyber-security. There is much to do to build our country’s capability. He will know that the MOD is taking forward the development of a cyber-reserve, and he makes sensible points about a civilian version.

Contracts Finder Website

The Prime Minister launched Contracts Finder two years ago to make Government procurement opportunities more accessible for small and medium-sized enterprises. That is precisely what that site does.

I thank the Minister for her reply and her letter, which I received this morning in reply to my question to her and her colleagues last September about the number of contracts with Atos. We know that the Government have about £3 billion-worth of contracts with Atos and in her answer she referred me to the Contracts Finder website, but a significant number of contracts were not on that site. Now that she has provided those details, will she tell me why the Cabinet Office does not include contracts renewed since 1 January 2011 given that they are renewed and extended by her Department?

Of the contracts identified in response to the hon. Gentleman’s inquiries, only seven are required to be on Contracts Finder and each of them is there. We are publishing more contract opportunities and more contract information than ever before and we are seeing an increase in the amount of business going to SMEs. Contracts Finder was designed to help suppliers, particularly SMEs, to find contract opportunities, whereas the hon. Gentleman’s Government did nothing on that in 13 years.

The Minister has just referred to what happened three years ago. Has she had an opportunity to assess why small businesses were winning such a small share of Government procurement contracts when the Government came to power?

We are absolutely serious about opening up Government business to SMEs, and it is a shame that the previous Administration appeared not to be. We have made progress: we have posted information about the opportunities, as I said in response to the previous question; we have removed bureaucratic pre-qualification processes; we have given SMEs a voice at the top table; and we have made Government more accountable through the mystery shopper service. My hon. Friend knows that it is a shame that the previous Government did not do any of those things.

Civil Service Pensions

7. What estimate he has made of the potential savings to the Exchequer from the Government’s proposed reforms to civil service pensions. [R] (141659)

The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that this Government’s reforms of public service pensions will deliver more than £430 billion of savings over the next 50 years.

The Minister’s answer is good news for taxpayers, who include many of the 13 million people in this country without a pension at all, but it is also important that public sector workers receive a good pension. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the revised structure is still a defined benefit one and that it is fairer to part-time workers, who are often women, and to lower-paid workers?

Public sector pensions, after the reforms are fully in place, will remain among the very best available. That is right and we are strongly in support of it, but the cost was out of control. It is now back under control.

What discussions are the Government having with trade unions representing civil servants to ensure the smoothest possible transition?

We have regular discussions at official and ministerial level with the civil service unions, which, for the most part, have adopted a constructive approach and want the change to be introduced as smoothly as possible. Those discussions continue.

National Citizen Service

I am delighted to say that we think that almost three times more young people took part in NCS this year and I hope that the whole House will join me in congratulating those young people, who between them contributed some 750,000 hours of community service in their local areas. The number will grow again this year and teenagers can sign up at www.ncsyes.co.uk.

In an era when young people must take every advantage to give themselves a competitive edge, does my hon. Friend agree that the NCS furnishes graduates with the skills that will attract future employers?

Yes, I do. Young people and employers are telling us that. They recognise that the NCS helps young people develop the character skills, leadership, communication, teamwork and self-confidence that will help them succeed in the workplace. That is why we are so proud to support it.

Does the Minister agree that the NCS ought to go hand in hand with paying attention to first-class citizenship in our schools? Is he aware that citizenship in schools has been run down to almost nothing?

That is under review by the Department for Education, but I stress that NCS and programmes like it complement what is going on in schools to build the confidence of young people and change how they feel about what they achieve. They are enormously valuable.

10. I was delighted to attend Royds Hall school last year to see dozens of youngsters who had been inspired to sign up for the National Citizen Service. Can the Minister assure me that this fantastic scheme will be rolled out not only across my constituency, but across the rest of the country this year? (141662)

My hon. Friend is a tireless champion of NCS in his area, and I am delighted that we will shortly announce plans to expand the service this year. It will expand considerably in his constituency and other areas, and I encourage colleagues to tell parents and young people about it, and to direct young people to the website, ncsyes.co.uk.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are for the public sector Efficiency and Reform Group for civil service issues; industrial relations strategy and the public sector; Government transparency; civil contingencies; civil society; and cyber-security.

The Government expect to increase debt by £212 billion more than they originally predicted, and our youth services are being cut to the bone. Study after study has shown, however, that the National Citizen Service, worthy as it is, has reached a tiny number of children. Is it not time that the Government either reformed the NCS to ensure that it provides better value for money or changed it altogether?

It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to lecture this Government about debt and deficit, given the state of the public finances when his Government left office; there was reckless incontinence. The National Citizen Service, which we expect to expand, provides an incredibly valuable experience for growing numbers of young people, and I would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for it.

T2. To the coalition Government’s great credit, four months ago they started to tackle the scandal of civil servants being given paid time off to do trade union work. The TaxPayers Alliance has worked out that that costs £90 million a year. How many savings so far have the Government made on that £90 million? (141665)

One of the difficulties is that under the previous Government no one even monitored how much time was spent on trade union activities and duties. There is a statutory requirement to provide paid time off for trade union duties, but that was roundly abused. We now have in place a proper system of control and monitoring, and the cost will be cut right back.

T3. It is estimated that 71% of over-55s do not have access to the internet at home, so will the Minister explain exactly what support has been put in place to enable them to access Government services for which it is compulsory to apply online? (141666)

The hon. Lady will know that we have in place an assisted digital strategy, so that as we roll out our digital by default approach, which will provide services on a much more convenient basis for the citizen at much lower cost to the taxpayer, there will always be available a place where people can go so that the digital transaction can be carried out with the support of someone to help the citizen. [Interruption.]

Order. It would be helpful if the House listened to the questions and, indeed, to Ministers’ answers.

T7. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) about small and medium-sized enterprise procurement, does the Minister agree that it is not just a question of giving contracts to small firms but that it is essential that the public sector pays its bills on time? (141670)

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right: not only are hundreds of contract opportunities being made available for SMEs, but the Government are a fair payment champion, recognised by external bodies for their behaviour, just as he said.

T4. Research published by the Charities Aid Foundation found that one in six charities feared having to close this year, putting at risk the services on which many vulnerable people rely. Will the Minister tell the House what action the Government are taking to prevent charities from going to the wall? (141667)

The Government are doing a great deal to encourage giving in this country. The Treasury has introduced new tax incentives for giving, and is working hard to make gift aid work better for the charity sector. The small donation scheme is looking at how gift aid can work with digital giving, and we are looking at how we can make payroll giving work much more effectively. Across a range of areas, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office are working hard to make sure that charities get the support that they need in these difficult times.

T9. What monitoring arrangements for taxpayer-funded trade union representatives did my right hon. Friend discover after the general election, and what is his policy on this matter? (141672)

Rather surprisingly, we found no arrangements whatever in place for monitoring the cost to the taxpayer of paid time off for trade union representatives. It had been allowed to spiral completely out of control under the previous Government and we are at long last bringing it under control.

T5. The Cabinet Office seems to have left out its responsibility for the Office for National Statistics when it listed its responsibilities. When it is clear that the country is facing a major problem of addictive gambling, why have the Government not carried out the gambling prevalence survey provided for in the Gambling Act 2005, so we do not know how much addictive gambling there is in the country? (141668)

As the hon. Gentleman ought to know, the Office for National Statistics is a non-ministerial Government department, which has statutory independence from Ministers.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Cabinet Office keeps a proper record of all the circumstances in which collective ministerial responsibility is set aside, so that we can have some transparency in relation to that process? (141673)

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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 thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have given him notice of my question, which he may find particularly useful in the sense that it is fair and transparent and also very modern. In response to the many concerns expressed in yesterday’s debate, will he ensure that civil partnerships are open to heterosexual couples on an equal basis with homosexual couples?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me notice of his question. I will obviously listen carefully to what he says, but frankly I am a marriage man. I am a great supporter of marriage. I want to promote marriage, defend marriage, encourage marriage, and the great thing about last night’s vote is that two gay people who love each other will now be able to get married. That is an important advance. We should be promoting marriage, rather than looking at any other way of weakening it.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about the bedroom tax. Alison in Middlesbrough has 18-year-old twin sons who are both in the Army. The Prime Minister’s bedroom tax means that while her sons are away, she will be charged more for their bedrooms. She says:

“I resent the fact that both my sons are serving and protecting their country, and in return will not have a home to come home to when they are granted their much needed leave.”

What is the Prime Minister’s answer to Alison?

First of all, let me make it clear that this is not a tax; it is a benefit. I would make two points in respect of the specific case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. First, all the time Labour was in government, if somebody was in a private sector rented home and were in receipt of housing benefit, they did not get any benefit for empty rooms. That is important. So it is only fair that we treat people in social housing the same way. The second point is that if anyone is away from home, obviously their earnings are not counted, so the benefits of that person are likely to go up.

I look forward to the Prime Minister explaining to Alison why her paying £25 a week more from April is not a tax on her. As for his point about the private rented sector, I think he misunderstands the point of social housing. Part of its purpose is to protect the most vulnerable. According to the Government’s own figures, two thirds of the people hit are disabled. Let me tell the Prime Minister about an e-mail that I received last week, which says:

“My wife is disabled, has a degenerative condition and is cared for in bed.”

The gentleman goes on:

“Due to her illness and my own medical conditions I usually sleep in the spare bedroom.”

Why is it fair for him and hundreds of thousands of other disabled people like him to be hit by the bedroom tax?

As with every hon. Member, if the right hon. Gentleman wants me or the Department for Work and Pensions to look at a specific case, of course I will, but let me again make some detailed points to him. First of all, there is a £50 million fund to deal with difficult cases. But let me also make the basic argument of fairness that he seems to miss. If someone is in private rented housing and receives no housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, and if someone is in private housing and do get housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, so there is a basic argument of fairness. Why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than for people in private housing on housing benefit? There is one additional point that, frankly, he has got to engage in. The housing benefit bill is now £23 billion a year. We know that he is against capping welfare and we know that he is against restricting welfare to below the rate of increase in wages. We know all the things he is against; we are beginning to wonder what on earth he is for.

The Prime Minister is spending more than £8 billion more than he planned on housing benefit because of his economic failure during this Parliament. I say to him that the whole point of social housing is to protect families, including the disabled. It does not sound like he is going to do anything for military families or the disabled, but let us talk about a group of people he is moved by. I have here a letter sent on his behalf by the Conservative party treasurer about the so-called mansion tax. It says:

“We promise that no homes tax will be introduced during the course of this parliament”.

It goes on:

“To keep the taxman out of your home…please help by donating today and supporting the ‘No Homes Tax’ campaign.”

Can the Prime Minister explain what it is about the plight of those people that he finds so much more compelling than that of those hit by the bedroom tax?

If the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of a mansion tax, why did he not introduce one in the 13 years he was in government? If he is so passionate about social housing, why did he not build any when he was in government? If he thinks we are spending too much on housing benefit—he has just said that the bill is going up—why does he oppose each and every attempt we make to get the welfare bill under control? The fact is that the public can see that we are on the side of people who work hard and want to do the right thing; all he can ever do is spend more money.

I say to the Prime Minister that he should not get so het up. After all, he has got nearly half his parliamentary party behind him.

The policy is not just unfair; it is not going to work either. In Hull, for example, 4,700 people are going to be hit by the bedroom tax, and there are just 73 council properties for them to move to. Can the Prime Minister explain how exactly that is going to work?

What this Government are doing is building more houses and controlling welfare bills. Frankly, the question is one that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer, too. If he opposes the welfare cap, if he opposes restrictions on increased welfare, if he opposes reform of disability benefits and if he opposes each and every welfare change we make, how on earth is he going to get control of public spending?

The clue is in the title: Prime Minister’s questions. He is supposed to try to answer the question.

The Prime Minister clearly does not understand his own policy, but I thought that he might say, “Move to the private rented sector,” because there are not enough council properties for people. This is where—[Interruption.] When he gets up I would like him to say what those people should do. The policy is supposed to save money, and that is where it is not going to work out. Another woman who wrote to me, Diane, says that

“my rent for my family home”—[Interruption.]

I do not know why Government Members are groaning—thousands of their constituents are going to be hit by this policy. Diane says that

“my rent for my family home is at present £65.68, whereas a one bedroom”

in the private sector “would cost over £100.” How can it possibly make sense to force people into a situation where they cost the state more, not less, by moving into the private rented sector?

What this Government are doing is building more homes. If the right hon. Gentleman supports that, will he now support our changes to the planning system and the new homes bonus? Will he support the things that will get more homes built and more people into jobs? We have 1 million extra people working in the private sector—that is what he has to engage in. He has absolutely no suggestions for how to get on top of welfare, to get our deficit down, to get our economy moving or, frankly, to do anything else.

So today we discover that the Prime Minister has not even got a clue about his own policy, which he is introducing in April. His answers today remind us of what his party and the country are saying about him. The only people he listens to are a small group of rich and powerful people at the top. That is why he has come up with a policy that is unworkable and unfair. He is a Prime Minister who is weak, incompetent and totally out of touch.

That is the totally pathetic, pre-scripted rubbish that we get used to every Wednesday. On the issue of who listens to whom, I have a very clear idea of who the right hon. Gentleman listens to, because we heard it in the LSE lecture by Len McCluskey, who said of the right hon. Gentleman:

“I met him and he asked me—‘Len, if you had three wishes, three things that you’d like us to do if we got back into power, what would you like them to be’”?

Len McCluskey’s answer was

“trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms.”

That is who the right hon. Gentleman wants to be the fairy godmother to.

At the time of the strategic defence and security review two and a half years ago, my right hon. Friend said:

“My own strong view is that this structure will require year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 799.]

Does that remain his view and has he heard any similar view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition?

It does remain my view, but I am afraid to say that, as far as I can see, I am the only party leader who believes that, in the years beyond this Parliament, we should increase defence spending in the way described by my right hon. Friend. The good news for all those who care about this issue is that it is agreed Government policy that the defence equipment programme needs real-terms increases up to after 2015. It is very important for us to be able to plan our exceptional equipment programme, which will give us some of the best-equipped armed forces anywhere in the world.

Q2. The Office for Budget Responsibility tells us that the bankers will pay £500 million less for the bankers tax than the Prime Minister promised last year, yet in April he will inflict a £500 million cut on the poorest through the second empty bedroom tax. How can he justify taking from the poor and giving to the rich? (141635)

I say to the hon. Gentleman—this is an important point—that we have introduced the bank levy. We think that that is a better answer than a one-off bonus tax. The bank levy will, of course, be paid every year, so it will raise considerably more than a one-off bonus tax. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done when the bank levy has not come up to the figures that we require is increase the bank levy to make sure that they do.

I remind the House of my declared interests.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will go to Brussels to argue, rightly, for a substantial reduction in common agricultural policy funding. Will he ensure that any reduction applies to farmers right across Europe, not just those in the UK? Will he also make sure that he does not fall into the same trap as his predecessor did last time around in 2005? When pressing for cuts, his predecessor ended up with a cut to the one part of the CAP that everyone thinks is worth while—the rural development programme and the environment.

My right hon. Friend speaks very knowledgeably about this matter. These will be extremely difficult negotiations. Obviously, our aim is the significant cut that I have spoken about. The point that he makes about agriculture is important, particularly in respect of the flexibility that we require to ensure that things such as the rural development programme continue to succeed.

Q3. We know that the Prime Minister has met lots of millionaires, but has he ever met anyone who will lose their home because of his bedroom tax? (141636)

I hold constituency surgeries and listen to all the sorts of cases that the Leader of the Opposition has brought out today. I have RAF Brize Norton in my constituency, and many forces families live there. What they say to me is that they want a Government who are on the side of people who work hard and do the right thing. They support the fact that we are capping welfare, getting on top of immigration and clearing up the mess left by the hon. Lady’s party.

Today is the United Nations international day of zero tolerance to female genital mutilation. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should be doing all it can to combat this dreadful abuse of the human rights of women and girls overseas and here in the UK?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She is right to raise this matter. The Government have made progress by chairing a forum to look right across the piece, including at what we do overseas through our aid programme to prevent the horrific practice of female genital mutilation and at what we do here to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service and others are aware of the law and do everything they can to ensure that it is properly prosecuted.

That is not a constituency case that has come my way. All I can say is that I hope it will engender a great historical understanding of these events among all our people and provide a great boost to the great city of Leicester.

This week’s announcement that the work of the Insolvency Service at Stockton is moving to Newcastle is the latest in a long series of similar announcements affecting the Tees valley, including the closure of Middlesbrough’s HMRC office by the previous Government. Will the Prime Minister look to bring extra work to the HMRC office in Stockton and to move another public sector agency to the Tees valley?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. We want to ensure that public sector jobs are fairly distributed around the country, but we have to be frank and say that the real need is for a rebalancing in the economy, with growth in the private sector to make up for the decline in public sector jobs. Over the past two and a half years, the million extra private sector jobs have more than offset the decline in public sector employment. That is why unemployment is falling around the country.

Q5. The Prime Minister may not be aware of an opinion poll by the BBC in Northern Ireland showing that in all Six Counties there is now a clear majority in favour of the Union. People right across Northern Ireland recognise that when it comes to being part of this United Kingdom, we are better off together. (141638)

I sometimes try to avoid opinion polls, so I have not seen that one. It sounds as if it is one that will lift the spirits of almost everyone in this House, because we believe in a United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland being part of that United Kingdom.

Q6. Can the Prime Minister reassure this House that he still believes in increasing spending on the NHS and in ensuring that those funds go to the doctors and nurses at the front line of our service? (141639)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is why we made a commitment to increase NHS spending in each year of this Parliament. We are on course to do that. Crucially, we want to ensure that the money goes to the front line. That is why the number of managers and administrators in our NHS is right down and the number of clinical staff right up.

Q7. Was it the double-dip recession, the slow-down in deficit reduction or the projected 60% increase in national debt over the next five years that led the Prime Minister to state that he had full confidence in his Chancellor? (141640)

I have confidence in the Chancellor because the deficit is down by 25%, there are a million extra private sector jobs and we are cleaning up the mess made by the Labour party.

In Dover, plans are moving forward for the building of a new hospital, after a decade in which local hospital services were decimated. May I, too, say that we need to increase investment in the NHS and focus on the front line?

This day, particularly when we are about to discuss what happened at Stafford hospital, is a day to talk about the importance of care in our health service, the importance of the front line and, above all, the importance of really looking at quality and listening to patients. Under this Government, of course resources have been constrained, for all the reasons we discuss across the Dispatch Box, week in, week out, but we made a conscious choice to put more money into the NHS and get that to the front line. That is why there are 5,900 more doctors and 19,000 fewer non-clinical staff. The money is going to the front line, but the focus needs to be on quality and the patient.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister share the concern of the Democratic Unionist party about suicide levels in our society? In the light of the debate later in this House, will he assure me and my party of the Government’s support to raise awareness of that issue and work with the devolved Administrations to tackle this scourge across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? (141641)

First, I commend the hon. Gentleman and the Democratic Unionists for tabling this motion and bringing forward the issue. We often do not talk enough or address the whole issue of suicide in our society and country, and it is absolutely right to do so. It is a shocking statistic that in Northern Ireland almost six times the number of people killed in road traffic accidents are lost to suicide. Raising awareness of the issue and ensuring a proper cross-Government strategy to help people deal with it is vital, and the DUP is right to raise it.

Order. The House must calm down. We have a lot of questions to get through and I intend to get through them. Let us have a bit of order for Mr John Leech.

Local councils have faced as tough a budget settlement as most other Departments. Does the Prime Minister share my dismay that Manchester city council is choosing to close libraries, leisure centres and the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service, while at the same time it was happy to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on an Alicia Keys concert and leave £100 million in reserves sitting in the bank?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course councils face difficult spending decisions, but in many cases the level of spending and grant they are still getting is equivalent to what they received under the last Government. Obviously, the economy has declined since then and we have to cut our cloth accordingly. Councils should be held accountable for the decisions that they make, and in some cases there can be little doubt that they are making high-profile cuts to try to make a point. They should not be damaging people’s livelihoods; they should be doing the best for their cities.

Will the Prime Minister confirm for the record that thanks to his cuts to the child care element of the working tax credit, families with children are losing up to £1,500 a year?

What has happened with child tax credit is that we increased it by £390 in this Government’s early Budgets. If we look at the benefits for a two parent, two child family, we see that that family will be getting more than £1,500 extra this year—that is £30 a week—compared with 2010. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister pay tribute to the new President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose Government have made remarkable progress over the past few months? Although there is still a long way to go, does the Prime Minister agree that the Somali peace process is a good example of Britain combining aid and development with energising the neighbouring states and the diplomatic community worldwide, and will he tell the House what role he envisages for the Somali diaspora here in the UK? (141644)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and to anyone wondering about the relevance of Somalia to us here in the UK, we must remember that that country has been the author of huge problems with terrorism, piracy and mass migration. Even to the most hardened sceptic of our aid budget I would say that Somalia is a really good case where engagement, aid and diplomacy can help that country to mend itself for the future. I hope that the diaspora will give full support to the new President, who is demonstrating a huge grip in his country on mending the problems that have bedevilled it for so long.

The Prime Minister’s career probably peaked when he was a Back-Bench member of the Home Affairs Committee in 2005. Will he revive his progressive courage of that time when he looks at the report from the all-party parliamentary group on drug misuse on the awful problems of new drugs that are on the market but not controlled in any way?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s view of my career trajectory. I will not ask him about his—perhaps we can agree about it afterwards. I learned some important lessons from the Home Affairs Committee report I worked on, including on the priority we give in tackling drugs to education and treatment. Those are the two key arms of what needs to be done. However, I do not believe we should be legalising drugs that are currently illegal. On current legal highs and problems relating to substances such as khat, which was mentioned in a previous question, we need to look carefully at the evidence on what will work best.

Q11. In Solihull, more than 80,000 people have benefited from our policy of raising the threshold at which people start to pay tax. This morning, the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that that policy is right, and that those who have the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden of tax. In the light of that, will the Government commit to raising the threshold at which people pay tax to £10,000 in the Budget? (141645)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question—she is absolutely right about raising the threshold before which people start to pay tax. It means that the tax bill for someone on the minimum wage working full time has been cut by one half. That is a huge change to help people who work hard and want to do the right thing. This Government are rewarding them. She mentions the IFS green budget, which came out this morning. I have not had that much time to study it, but one thing stood out. On fairness, it states:

“The whole set of tax and benefit changes introduced between the start of 2010 and 2015–16 will hit the richest households hardest.”

This Government are fair, and we are helping the hardest working.

Q12. The Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister a very simple question to which he gave no adequate reply, so I will ask it again. What is the difference between a bedroom tax on the disabled and a mansion tax on millionaires? (141646)

I do not accept that the bedroom tax is a tax—it is about benefit. The fact is that, as a country, we are spending £23 billion on housing benefit. We must have a debate in this country about getting on top of housing benefit—the previous Government said that. Indeed, it featured in the Labour manifesto on which all Labour Members were elected. Since they have moved to the Opposition Benches, they have given up all pretence of responsibility.

Can the Prime Minister reconcile his recent comments on the need to accelerate major infrastructure projects with the Government’s decision to postpone forming a policy on airports until after the next general election? Will he reconsider and bring that review forward?

I listen very carefully to my hon. Friend, but Sir Howard Davies says in his review that this is a complicated issue that merits proper examination, which will take time. We need, as a country, to make major decisions on airports and airport capacity. We should aim as far as possible to try to make those decisions on a cross-party basis. I hope the Howard Davies report helps that to happen.

Q13. Last night’s vote on same-sex marriage is widely regarded as a historic vote. Does the Prime Minister agree that the vote is a tribute to the people down the decades who have worked—in all parties and no party, behind the scenes and in public—for such equality? Does he also agree that the vote proves that the arc of history bends slowly, but bends towards justice? (141647)

I agree very much with the hon. Lady. Last night’s vote will be seen not just as one that ensured a proper element of equality, but one that helps us to build a stronger and fairer society. Many of the speeches made last night were very moving and emotional. I pay tribute to all those people who have made the case—some have made it for many years—that they want their love to count the same way as a man and woman’s love for each other counts. That is what we have opened in this country, and why I am proud this Government brought it forward.

For years, young people in Goole and Brigg have had some of the lowest per pupil school funding in the country. This is now becoming critical for counties such as the East Riding of Yorkshire. Will the Prime Minister look closely not just at the 40 authorities, but specifically at the low level of per pupil funding that the East Riding of Yorkshire receives?

I will look closely at what my hon. Friend has said, but I will make a couple of points. Within the education budget we have prioritised per pupil funding, so there has not been a reduction in per pupil funding. It is very important that schools can see forward to future years to the sorts of budgets that they will have, given the roll of children coming to their school. The second thing we have done, through the academy programme, is to encourage the devolution of more of the schools budget to schools directly, and I still think there is more we can achieve on that agenda.

Q14. The Prime Minister said that he would give the public a strong voice in the NHS, and his former Health Secretary said that he would put patients at the centre of the NHS. Why then was a motion to strengthen patient and public involvement in the new patient watchdog rejected by the Government in the other place last night? (141648)

We do want to see patients have a stronger voice in the NHS, and we are about to debate, at some length in terms of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, how that is done. One of the most important ways of doing that will be to make sure that the NHS Commissioning Board mandate has at its heart quality nursing, quality care and the voice of patients. We also need to look at how HealthWatch will work to ensure that it is truly independent. We have to understand that some of the ways we have tried to empower patients in the past—the report we are about to discuss goes into this in some detail—and give them a better voice, always with good intentions from Governments on both sides of the House, just have not worked, and we have to listen to Francis when he says that.

With more women in work than ever before, with more men in work than ever before, and with more jobs created in the private sector, does the Prime Minister agree that not only is the Chancellor’s plan A working, but that the economy is beginning to turn the corner?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We should listen very carefully to the Governor of the Bank of England. He has said that growth is slower than we would like, but that the economy is moving in the right direction and that rebalancing is taking place. The things that need to be fixed in our economy, in terms of bank lending and the housing supply, are being fixed, and that is what the Government are determined to do.

One of my constituents has learned that when the bedroom tax is introduced she will have £24 a week to live on. She is so anxious about how she will manage she is receiving cognitive behavioural therapy. Her anxiety is totally understandable. Does the Prime Minister agree that those who should be receiving cognitive behavioural therapy are the ones—namely his Ministers—who think that she could live on £24 a week?

The Opposition have to address the fact that for 13 years in government they were perfectly content to have a housing benefit system for people in private sector housing that had no extra benefit for empty rooms. I cannot understand why they cannot see that it is unfair to have one rule for people who have the benefit of social housing with lower rents and another rule for people in private sector accommodation. Week after week, Labour MPs and the Labour leader come here opposing this benefit change, that benefit change and everything we do to deal with the mess they left to fill in the deficit they left us. Until they learn to take some responsibility for the mess they left, no one will ever listen to them.