Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Mali

More than 430,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in Mali. Access is improving to conflict-affected areas, but the humanitarian response remains challenged by insecurity and sporadic violence. UK humanitarian aid is supporting more than 400,000 Malians with food, medicine and support to refugees in neighbouring countries.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. More than 250,000 people have been displaced inside Mali and 170,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries. What additional assistance will her Department be providing to internally displaced people and refugees?

To date, we have provided about £13 million of overall assistance and we will work with agencies such as the UN, the Red Cross and the World Food Programme to ensure that we have a balanced approach to dealing not just with people in Mali who need our support but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, with the refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries.

Given that the humanitarian situation is likely to get worse until there is a framework of peace, does the Secretary of State support steps towards a UN peacekeeping mission? If so, what does she make of its mandate and the proposed time scale?

My hon. Friend is right that discussions are under way on whether a UN peacekeeping mission can be put in place. Ultimately, if it can sit alongside a political process of reconciliation, that might be one way of starting to create the space not only to get security back into Mali but to provide the conditions for the country to develop in the longer term.

The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 4.3 million people in Mali are in need of humanitarian assistance. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what her Department is doing to ensure access for humanitarian agencies in Mali and in neighbouring countries?

The best thing we can do is work through independent, impartial humanitarian organisations and, through the UN, continue our lobbying work to ensure we have access. Access is a real challenge in places such as Mali and is also, of course, a particular challenge in places such as Syria. Without access, we cannot get humanitarian support to people, and that is why we focus on it.

WaterAid

The total funding provided by the Department for International Development to WaterAid for the financial year 2011-2012 was £5.8 million. The figure for the funding allocated to WaterAid in 2012-13 will be available at the end of this financial year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will she join me in preparing for world water day on 22 March? Will she also recognise the massive contributions from individuals and others, including water companies, who contribute to WaterAid, and from projects such as EcoLink, applied by Nestlé in South Africa, as that all benefits developing countries?

I thank my hon. Friend. I know of her interest in water as chair of the all-party parliamentary water group and I congratulate all those who make a contribution on the key issue of water in developing countries. My hon. Friend mentioned world water day. The Department for International Development will host events on that day, particularly on how water impacts on girls and women.

It is good that there has been progress on access to safe water and sanitation, but there has been much less progress in much of Africa, in both urban and rural areas. What are the Government doing to address that inequality?

The Government are taking a great many measures on water, sanitation and hygiene—WASH. We have so far enabled 1.9 million to gain access to clean drinking water and 2 million to gain access to improved sanitation, and 6.6 million have been reached through DFID support for hygiene promotion. We know more has to be done, particularly in urban areas as those areas increase.

I welcome the Minister’s positive comments on WaterAid and her commitments in respect of world water day, but does she recognise that, currently, UN statistics on the millennium development goals measure only who has improved water, not how many people actually have safe and sufficient water? Will she ensure that a more robust standard is used and is at the centre of DFID’s work?

I will certainly take up the hon. Gentleman’s point on how we measure such things, but the Government have doubled their commitment to reaching 60 million people with WASH funding. We are looking to scale up WASH, because we simply are not reaching enough people at the moment and the millennium goal is off track.

Palestinian Authority

We estimate that the Palestinian Authority’s funding gap in 2013 is likely to be at least $500 million, which will continue to make it hard for it to pay salaries and deliver essential public services. The PA must of course show financial discipline itself, but for it to become stable it is essential that international donors support it in a consistent manner, and that Israel eases its restrictions and meets its legal obligations to transfer tax revenues.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but is he aware that British aid donations to the Palestinian Authority general budget are being used to pay salaries of up to £2,000 a month to convicted Palestinian terrorists, many of whom have been properly convicted? What assurances can the Government provide that no further UK aid donations will be spent in that way?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have a system in place under which DFID’s support to the Palestinian Authority is used specifically to pay for the salaries of civil servants. The list of approved recipients is subject both to vetting processes and to independent audit.

Does the Minister agree that the best way to improve the financial stability of the Palestinian Authority would be to lift the blockade of Gaza and movement and access restrictions on the west bank? Does he also think that the EU should be trading with the Palestinians and not with the illegal Israeli settlements?

A 2011 International Monetary Fund report estimated that without movement and access restrictions the Palestinian economy would be 78% larger in terms of GDP a year, amounting to about $6.3 billion. That would remove its dependence on aid.

Is there not a more general question about international donor money being used to support Palestinian institutions that have taken violence against Israel? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that money genuinely contributes to financial stability and is not used in a way that undermines the peace process?

We rigorously monitor any danger there might be that the Palestinian Authority in any way incites violence, but it is committed to doing exactly the opposite, and it is right that we support it, the potential Government of a Palestinian state. We wish to see further progress towards the peace process over the months ahead.

We all support the creation of a viable two-state solution in the middle east, but that will come about only if the Palestinians are able to run an effective country. What assessment have the Government made of the structures available in the Palestinian Authority to make that happen?

The structures are sorely stretched, which is why we continue to support the Palestinian Authority, and of course we also urge other donors, particularly the Arab states, to carry their fair share of commitment, because if the Palestinian Authority were to collapse there is a serious danger that all prospects of proper peace negotiations would collapse as well.

Mali

4. What discussions she has had with her counterparts in the UN on reinstating bilateral aid to Mali. (147430)

The UK Government do not have a bilateral aid programme in Mali, but we are the second-largest humanitarian donor, providing £13 million in 2013. We have had discussions with our EU and multilateral partners, including the UN, on the importance of co-ordinated resumption of aid.

Bilateral aid from the EU and the World Bank provides a key step in protecting people in Mali from drought and violence. What steps have the Government taken to ensure that that aid is reinstated as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are encouraging the resumption of aid by bilateral partners. In May, there will be a donor conference on Mali, which is an important step, not just as a pledging conference. There is a political crisis in Mali, and the solution is political, which is why we welcome the recent announcement by the Malian authorities to initiate a commission on dialogue and reconciliation.

I thank my hon. Friend for her encouraging answer, but may I ask her to go further and consider whether the UK Government could work with France and the EU to address the fragility across the region and deliver co-ordinated and sustained development assistance to the Sahel and the whole region?

I thank my right hon. Friend. This very issue was discussed at the recent Development Ministers meeting. Stability in the Sahel—the wider region—is of absolute importance. The UK has committed £78 million in humanitarian support to the Sahel through various United Nations agencies, and we continue to work right across the region to create stability and peace.

Syria

Last week saw the terrible landmark of 1 million Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in the region. A further 2 million people are displaced within Syria. Last week, I raised with the UN the issue of preventing violence against women and girls in this and indeed other humanitarian situations and ensuring that funding supports this.

I welcome the reply from the Secretary of State and the UK’s commitment, but World Vision tells me that counting those unregistered as well as registered there could be as many as 1 million refugees in Lebanon alone. Does she agree that if catastrophe is to be prevented for those people and their host countries we need to make sure that donor countries such as the Gulf states play their part and that assistance reaches unregistered as well as registered refugees?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I visited Jordan earlier this year, I saw for myself how many refugees were not in the camp. Indeed, the majority are in communities outside the camp, which is one reason why we have earmarked specific funding to support, both in Jordan and Lebanon, those refugees who are not in camps. Clearly, as the crisis continues, the pressures on neighbouring countries will grow. The Government are deeply concerned about that, which is why we have urged members of the international community to work together to take action.

Keeping in mind the fact that more than half the refugees in Syria are children, will the Secretary of State tell the House exactly what the Department is doing to support child health, protection and education in this humanitarian disaster?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue. About 75% of the refugees are women and children. As I said in my opening answer, we are formally pressing the UN to make sure that the most vulnerable refugees are taken into particular consideration in the construction of plans to support them. We have worked with UNICEF, for example, to provide not just medical assistance but care and counselling for many families, including children who have been through utterly traumatic events.

Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps we can take to protect refugees trying to get from Syria into Turkey? At present, they face fire from Syrian forces.

As my hon. Friend points out, the journeys that many people make en route to refugee camps are fatal in some cases or near fatal in others. It is extremely worrying that, for example, the Syrian Government continue to refuse humanitarian access from Turkey into Syria. We have to work through political and diplomatic routes, but I can assure him that the Government are playing a leading role in making sure that when refugees get out of that country we support them and that, through impartial, independent humanitarian organisations we are still getting support to people who remain in Syria too.

Will the Secretary of State outline what aid has already been granted by her Government to help the refugee crisis in Syria? Is it her intention to increase that aid to alleviate this human tragedy?

We have so far earmarked £140 million of aid overall. That is split partly as support for refugees outside Syria but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, a substantial portion is aimed at supporting people within Syria. It provides support in the form not just of food and shelter but of medical assistance.

Peacekeeping and Defence Operations

6. What plans the Government have to increase the proportion of the aid budget that is spent on peacekeeping and defence operations; and if she will make a statement. (147432)

The Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence are working together within existing international rules on official development assistance spending to consider how we can better use Government resources in dealing with the humanitarian and development aspects of conflict and instability around the world.

The National Audit Office and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact have both been critical of the effectiveness of the conflict pool. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to reform and strengthen these mechanisms in the cross-departmental work?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the conflict pool is a relatively new mechanism to ensure that the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and my own Department work more closely together in fragile and conflict-ridden situations where we know that partnering up can make a difference. We look with interest at the reports from ICAI and the National Audit Office, and we are looking in the next spending review to see how we can strengthen the process and the effectiveness of the way in which the conflict pool works.

Will the Secretary of State welcome the comments by the Prime Minister that ODA funding can, in some dangerous environments, be used by the military to provide overseas humanitarian aid and development assistance and begin the process of stabilisation?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Prime Minister is right to say that we should be open to new ideas about how my Department and the MOD can work more closely together. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the existing ODA guidelines clearly set out what spend can be counted as ODA and what cannot be, but things such as peacekeeping fall within the ODA definition and we should look at how we can work more closely with the Ministry of Defence.

13. Will that policy not simply take us back to the trade for aid days of the 1990s, when predatory western Governments behaved like payday loan companies and developing countries spent more on servicing debt than on helping people? (147439)

I think the hon. Lady might have asked a supplementary question that related to a different question on the Order Paper, but we should be looking at trade as well as aid. That is the route to sustained poverty reduction.

Palestinian Authority

7. What processes are in place to ensure that non-governmental organisations in the Palestinian Authority that are funded by the UK, the EU and the UN do not promote incitement of hate. (147433)

We deplore incitement on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including any comments that could stir up hatred and prejudice. UK, EU and UN-funded NGOs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are subject to rigorous due diligence assessments designed to ensure that funds are used only for legitimate development purposes.

I welcome the Minister’s answer, but in East Jerusalem last year a UN-funded Palestinian NGO performed a puppet show promoting non-smoking. This well-intentioned educational message was corrupted somewhat when the children were urged to replace cigarettes with machine guns. Will the Minister assure me that no British financial aid donations, direct or indirect, are being used to fund such propaganda?

I am aware of that puppet show, put on in a funded community centre, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it. It was an utterly stupid and irresponsible way of corrupting an otherwise sensible no-smoking message. It was performed not by an NGO, but by a visiting organisation. No UK or UN funds had anything whatever to do with sanctioning this performance, and the community centre itself was angered by the content and made its own disapproval very clear.

I agree with the Minister that it is very important that we oppose all those who promote hate in the middle east. May I invite him to say that we must also stand with those human rights organisations in Israel and in Palestine that stand out against hate crimes such as the so-called price tag attacks?

It is essential that we make a stand against the incitement of hate from either side in any way. I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to doing so in his great understanding of this issue.

Topical Questions

Since the last oral questions, I have updated the House on the Syrian humanitarian conference in Kuwait and on the Department’s work to support girls and women. This week I made a speech to the London stock exchange and answered in the House on how my Department will up its game on driving economic development in new and emerging markets. I attended the informal meeting of Development Ministers in Dublin in February and the high-level panel meeting on the millennium development goals after 2015 in Monrovia at the end of January, and I look forward to attending the next high-level panel and global partnership steering committee meetings in Indonesia at the end of this month.

Will the Secretary of State make a statement on what her Department’s new relationship with India will be once all financial aid is withdrawn in 2015?

It will feature technical assistance to help the Indian Government get the most out of their own £50 billion investment in health and education. It will involve returnable capital projects, which will help to drive economic growth in India. I will also work across Government to ensure that our trade relationship develops.

T4. As the Secretary of State knows, I am hugely encouraged by the Government’s commitment to fighting female genital mutilation, a commitment that has been warmly welcomed by the Inter-African Committee and other grass-roots campaigners. I urge her to continue to be guided by their evidence on what works best in combating this deeply harmful practice. (147445)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is critical that efforts to end FGM are evidence-based, which is why we are investing in research to build the evidence base on what is the most effective approach to ending FGM. FGM is unacceptable wherever it happens in the world, including the UK, and we should never turn a blind eye.

On Monday I asked the Secretary of State whether private companies receiving DFID support will have to demonstrate transparency on their tax arrangements and good practice with regard to employment practices, including pay, throughout their supply chain. She did not give me an answer. Will she now put that right?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have failed to listen to the speech I made and the answers I gave to his urgent question earlier this week. The bottom line is that we know that economic development is ultimately the way to end aid dependency. We want to see an end to aid dependency through jobs. He is writing off the contribution our companies are making, which I think is wrong. Ultimately, he sees only the risks of business, which of course we want to work to mitigate, but we also have to see the opportunities.

No answer, yet again. Turning to another private sector issue, the Secretary of State has refused to publish the findings of the report she commissioned into the use of private consultants. Can she explain why in October last year, three months after the £90 million Growth and Employment in States project in Nigeria was assessed as having produced virtually no results at all, Ministers authorised the payments of an additional £7 million for GEMS 3 to the consultant responsible? How many other consultants have received further funding despite extremely poor performance?

I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on how we use consultants. He never signed off a single consultancy contract when he was a Minister in the Department. The reality is that I have brought forward clear expectations and guidelines on how we work with suppliers. Ultimately, I sign off on the contracts. I will take no lectures from someone who spent £7,000 in his constituency using consultants to help organise public meetings. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many very noisy private conversations. It is difficult to hear the questions, let alone the answers. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Dan Rogerson.

Order. I have asked Members to stop doing that. It is rude to the Member on his or her feet. It had stopped for several years. It had better stop in future.

I took it as personal support, Mr Speaker, and was very grateful for it.

Will the Department ensure that it considers the position of the Berber people in Mali and the surrounding countries, because those who feel that their culture and language are secure are far more likely to want to be part of a lasting peace and development for the region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that reconciliation will ultimately come from all the parties around the table having a clear understanding of one another. Mali is an incredibly large country, which is one of the reasons we need to work hard on the process. Ultimately, we need to seek a political resolution; a military one is only a short-term option.

T2. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with her G8 counterparts to galvanise international support for action on tax avoidance in developing countries? (147443)

We have had many, many discussions. The hon. Lady will be delighted to hear, I hope, that tax avoidance and tax evasion will be one of the agenda items that this country will put on the table when we host the G8 this year as part of our presidency. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will lead on that effort.

T7. Representatives of the IF campaign whom I met at Lancaster university last week expressed their gratitude for this Government’s continued commitment towards a 0.7% spend, but they also wondered about our progress with the international voluntary guidelines on the good governance of land, fisheries and forestry. (147448)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The UK welcomes the successful global negotiation of the voluntary guidelines on land tenure and is now pushing for their national implementation, including through the G8, so that we can help share best practice and improve land governance.

T3. According to figures from Amnesty International a staggering 87% of women in Afghanistan will experience violence in their lives. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to prioritise and adequately focus efforts to combat violence against women and girls in Afghanistan? (147444)

The hon. Lady will know that this is an issue about which I am particularly concerned. It is vital that we do not lose the gains that have been made in women’s rights in Afghanistan as we see troop draw-down. That is one of the reasons why I have made the issue of women and girls and, in particular, violence a country-strategic priority for our work in Afghanistan.

T8. Will the Government put the use of food for fuel on the agenda of the G8 food summit this June? (147449)

A range of things will be discussed at the G8. I assure my hon. Friend that I have no doubt that our food and nutrition work, which we are carrying out alongside the G8 efforts, will be one of the topics for discussion.

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.

We all know that the Prime Minister believes there is no alternative to his double-dip, his double-debt or his loss of the triple A credit rating, but is he aware that his Back Benchers and some of his Cabinet believe there is an alternative to him?

What this Government are delivering are 1 million private sector jobs and the fastest rate of new business creation in this country’s history. We have paid down the deficit by 25% and have cut immigration by a third. We have a long, hard road to travel, but we are going in the right direction.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will wish to add his condolences to the family and friends of Christina Edkins, who was murdered on a bus to school in my constituency last Thursday morning.

The Government have rightly introduced minimum custodial sentences for people convicted of threatening someone with a knife, but does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to introduce a legal assumption that people carrying a knife intend to use it and should attract a prison sentence, so that we can redouble our efforts to rid our communities of the scourge of knives?

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House and, indeed, the whole country on the absolute revulsion at this horrific crime. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to Christina Edkins’s family.

We take knife crime extremely seriously, which is why, as my hon. Friend has said, we changed the law so that any adult who commits a crime with a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and for a serious offence they should expect a very log sentence. I will happily look at what my hon. Friend suggests. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is currently reviewing the powers available to the courts to deal with knife possession and will bring forward proposals in due course.

In the light of his U-turn on alcohol pricing, is there anything the Prime Minister could organise in a brewery?

I would like to organise a party in the brewery in my constituency, to which the right hon. Gentleman would be very welcome, to celebrate that the shadow Chancellor should stay for a very long time on the Front Bench.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously could not tell us about his policy on minimum unit pricing for alcohol. The reality is that he has been overruled by the Home Secretary on that one.

Let us turn to another thing that the Prime Minister has said that we cannot trust. In his speech last Thursday, he said that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility is

“absolutely clear that the deficit reduction plan is not responsible”

for low growth. That is not what the OBR says. Will he acknowledge that today?

Just returning to the right hon. Gentleman’s earlier question, the interesting thing—[Interruption.] I will answer his question. The interesting thing about British politics right now is that I have the top team that I want and he has the top team that I want too. Long may they continue.

The point of the Office for Budget Responsibility is that it is independent. Everyone should accept everything that it says, and I do. We should look at what it says about why growth has turned out to be lower than it forecast. It said that

“we concluded from an examination of the…data that the impact of external inflation shocks, deteriorating export markets, and financial sector and eurozone difficulties were more likely explanations.”

To be fair to the shadow Chancellor, his own press release says:

“The OBR says they are yet to be persuaded”

by the case that he makes. Given that his plans are more spending, more borrowing and more debt, the country will never be persuaded.

The Prime Minister is clearly living in a fantasy land. He wants us to believe that the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility wrote him an open letter the day after his speech because he enjoyed it so much and agreed with it so much. Actually, what he said in the letter was:

“we believe that fiscal consolidation measures have reduced economic growth over the past couple of years”.

Yesterday, we learned that industrial production is at its lowest level for 20 years. That sets alarm bells ringing for everyone else in this country; why does it not for the Prime Minister?

The first point is that manufacturing declined as a share of our GDP faster under the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member than at any time since the industrial revolution. That is what happened: the decimation of manufacturing industry under 10 years of a Labour Government. He quotes from the Office for Budget Responsibility and I accept everything that it says, but let me quote from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It says that borrowing under Labour would be £200 billion higher. Does he accept that forecast?

It is good to see, for a second week running, that the right hon. Gentleman is getting into practice for Opposition. He had nothing to say about industrial production, but his own Business Secretary—the guy who is supposed to be in charge of these issues—is going around telling anyone who will listen that the plan is not working. He says that

“we are now in a position where the economy is not growing in the way it had been expected.”

He goes on:

“We don’t want to be Japan with a decade of no growth.”

When the Prime Minister’s own Business Secretary calls for him to change course, is he speaking for the Government?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in industrial production. We are now producing more motor cars in this country than at any time in our history. Exports of goods to all the key markets, such as India, China, Russia and Brazil, are increasing very rapidly. None of those things happened under a Labour Government when they trashed our economy, racked up debts and nearly bankrupted the country.

On capital spending, I think that we should spend more money on capital. That is why we are spending £10 billion more than was in the plans of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member. We should be using the strength of the Government balance sheet to encourage private sector capital. That is why, for the first time in its history, the Treasury is providing those guarantees. The fact is that he wrecked the economy and put in place plans for capital cuts, and we are investing in the country’s infrastructure.

Never mind more car production, it is “Taxi for Cameron” after that answer.

Things are so bad that the Government sent out Baroness Warsi at the weekend to say that she had “full confidence” in the Prime Minister and that he had support from

“large parts of his party.”

Maybe he even has the support of large parts of his Cabinet, I am not sure. Just a week from the Budget, the Home Secretary goes out making speeches about the economy—I think the part-time Chancellor should concentrate on the Budget—then she gets told off by the Children’s Secretary, who is hiding down there by the Chair, for jockeying for position. Is not the truth that it is not just the country that has lost confidence in the Chancellor and his economic plan but the whole Cabinet?

The weakness in the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is that my party has unanimous support for his leadership, as long as he keeps the shadow Chancellor there. I have to say—[Interruption.]

Order. It is very discourteous for Members to gesticulate so aggressively at the Prime Minister. Let us hear his answer.

What is remarkable, yet again, is this—where is the argument on welfare? He has got no argument on welfare. Where is the argument on the deficit? He has got nothing to say about the deficit. Where are his plans for getting the economy moving? He has got nothing to say. That is what is happening under his leadership—absolutely nothing apart from debt, debt and more debt.

The Prime Minister is absolutely hopeless, and today’s exchanges have shown it. A week out from the Budget, they have an economic policy that is failing, a Prime Minister who makes it up as he goes along and a Government who are falling apart, and all the time it is the country that is paying the price.

Six questions, and not a single positive suggestion for how to get on top of the deficit that the right hon. Gentleman left, not a single suggestion for how to deal with the massive welfare bills that we were left, and not a single suggestion for how to improve standards in our schools. But I do know what he has been doing over these last months, because I have been passed—[Interruption.]

And it is a particularly interesting one, because I have here a copy of the right hon. Gentleman’s diary and I know what he has been up to. These are the dinners that he has held to raise money from the trade unions in the last few weeks: the GMB, USDAW, ASLEF, the TSSA, UCATT—£2.7 million, dinosaur after dinosaur, dinner after dinner. They pay the money, they get the policies, but the country would end up paying the price.

Q2. It is national apprenticeship week. More than 1,500 businesses in Kirklees are now offering apprenticeships, and we are becoming an official apprenticeship hub. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising all the businesses in my area that are taking on apprentices, Kirklees college under the leadership of Peter McCann, which is offering vocational training, and all the great young people who are going to see a positive future for our great nation? (147453)

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in what he says about national apprenticeship week. It is an important moment for our country, because over the past two and a half years we have seen 1 million people start apprenticeships, and the run rate is at more than half a million a year. That is very important for our country, and what I want to see is a new norm where we recognise that people who leave school should either be going to university or taking part in an apprenticeship. That is the agenda and the ambition that we should set for young people and our country.

Q3. Is it not the case that a couple who have separated could still live in the same home without bedroom tax rules applying? Given that glaring loophole discouraging marriage, should not the Prime Minister’s next U-turn be axing this cruel and shambolic tax altogether? (147454)

First of all, let me say once again that only the Labour party could call welfare reform a tax. A tax is when you earn money and the Government take away some of your money. This is a basic issue of fairness. There is not a spare room subsidy for people in private rented accommodation in receipt of housing benefit, so we should ask why there is a spare room subsidy for people living in council houses and getting housing benefit. It is a basic issue of fairness and this Government are putting it right.

Q4. Glossop Cartons in my constituency has just invested significantly in placing the world’s first order for the Euclid digital cutting and creasing machine. Tomorrow, Nestlé opens its brand new, state-of-the-art bottling plant for the famous Buxton water, also in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those significant investments show that this Government are making Britain well equipped to win the global race? (147455)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do see investment by large multinational companies, such as Nestlé, which now recognise that we have one of the most competitive tax systems anywhere in the world. KPMG recently reported that in just two years we have gone from having one of the least competitive corporate tax systems in the world, to having one of the most competitive. What has changed is the arrival of this Chancellor and this Government who have put right the mess made by the Labour party.

Millennium Development Goals

Q5. What progress has been made by the high-level panel on the development of priorities for the millennium development goals after 2015. (147456)

I am proud to be leading the United Nations high-level panel on what should replace the millennium development goals when they expire in 2015. In my view, we should put the strongest possible emphasis on attempting to banish extreme poverty from the world, and that focus on extreme poverty should come first and foremost. I also hope that, in replacing and enhancing the millennium development goals, we can for the first time look at what I call the golden thread of things that help people and countries out of poverty, which includes good government, lack of corruption, the presence of law and order, justice and the rule of law. Those things can make a real difference.

In view of proceedings so far I did not expect to hear myself saying this, but I commend the Prime Minister on the work he is doing on that panel and in seeking to hold to the international development budget. At a moment when we are asking people to give generously through Comic Relief this weekend, will he identify one group of people who were not included in the millennium development goals and who are often excluded from society and education—those severely disabled young people who face grinding poverty, ill health and the disadvantage of those disabilities? Will the Prime Minister give priority to them in developments over the next two years?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about helping disabled people across the world, and we should make sure that the framework we look at properly includes those people. On the wider issue of our aid budget, I know it is contentious and I know it is difficult, but I believe we should not break a promise that we made to the poorest people in our world. To those who have their doubts I say that of course there is a strong moral case for our aid budget, but there is also a national security case. It is remarkable that the broken countries—countries affected by conflict—have not met one single millennium development goal among them. By helping to mend those countries, often through security work as well as aid work, we can help the poorest in our world.

Engagements

Q6. In 1997 there were no excess deaths in the mortality data at Mid Staffordshire hospital, but as early as 2002 there were 120 excess deaths. That figure rose year on year, yet Labour Health Secretary after Labour Health Secretary did nothing apart from award the trust foundation status in 2009. In total, 1,197 excess deaths occurred, some of which were patients who died in their own faeces. Does the Prime Minister believe that the Mid Staffordshire scandal underlines the fact that Labour’s supposed claim to be the party of the NHS is the greatest lie in British politics— (147457)

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Members may cheer, but first I am afraid the question was too long, and secondly I ask the Prime Minister to bear in mind what is his responsibility and what is not, in a very brief answer, and then we can move on.

My responsibility is to respond properly to the Francis report, and I commend Francis for what he did. It is important to remember that it is this Government who set up a proper, independent inquiry into the disgraces that happened at Mid Staffs. Everyone has to learn their lessons from what went wrong, including Ministers in the previous Government, but I think we should listen to Francis when he says that we should not seek scapegoats. What we need to do, right across politics, the House and our country, is end any culture of complacency. I love our NHS; there are some fantastic parts to our NHS, but in too many parts we do see—as my hon. Friend said—very bad figures and we need to deal with them.

Q7. In a few weeks we will be 15 years on since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and although devolution is in place, significant challenges remain in delivering on the agreement’s full potential and the commitments contained within it to build reconciliation, unequivocal support for the rule of law, and to deal comprehensively with the past and its legacy. Does the Prime Minister agree that there must be renewed urgency in progressing those outstanding issues, and will he outline, in the light of this week’s positive engagement with the Irish Taoiseach, the rule he sees for both Governments as joint custodians of the agreement in moving that forward? (147458)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her very constructive work in Northern Ireland. I know that the whole House wants to wish her well with the difficulties that she and her office have faced in recent weeks.

I think there is of course a responsibility for the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to work together, and we had a very good set of meetings this week; but the greatest possible responsibility lies with the devolved institutions. It is great that they are working and that the agreement has bedded down, but I would appeal to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all those involved in the Assembly to put away the conflicts of the past, work on a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland, start to take down the segregation, the peace walls and the things that take people apart in Northern Ireland, find the savings from those things and invest in a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Ministerial Visits

I have no immediate—sorry. I look forward to visiting Mid Derbyshire soon. I very much enjoyed my recent visit to Derbyshire, when I went to the Toyota factory, in which many of my hon. Friend’s constituents work, and I am sure I will be back there soon.

I know that my right hon. Friend is quite rightly taking a proactive role in leading trade missions to India and other countries. Does he agree that small manufacturing companies such as those based in Mid Derbyshire should also be given the chance to play their part in driving Britain’s exports to emerging markets such as India, China and the rest?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have improved our performance in terms of exports and goods, as I said earlier, to these key emerging markets, but the real challenge is to get SMEs exporting. If we could increase the figure from what I think is one in five to one in four, we would wipe out our trade deficit and create many jobs and a lot of investment at the same time. I have led trade missions to every single G20 country, apart from Argentina, and I look forward to doing more in the future. I will certainly include SMEs, and perhaps some from my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Engagements

Q9. If the Prime Minister’s Government succeed in closing four A and E departments in west London, those departments will be replaced by privately owned clinics and out-of-hours services. Some of those leading the closure programme have already profited by up to £2.6 million each from their ownership of those primary care services. Does he think that personal financial gain should debar GPs and others from taking part in decisions on hospital closures? (147460)

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right in any part of his question. The first point I would make is that the NHS in north-west London is going to be getting £3.6 billion this year. That is £100 million more than the year before. Under this Government, we are increasing the investment. As for the changes he talks about, if they are referred to the Health Secretary, he will of course consider whether they are in the best interests of patients, and that is the right process to follow.

The Prime Minister will, I am sure, be aware of the strong contribution made to the British economy by the inbound tourism industry. Does he therefore share my concern, as expressed by the Tourism Alliance, that changes to visas are likely to suppress the number of visitors coming, particularly from Brazil? What can we do to ensure that the Border Agency does not become a growth suppressant to the UK?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the National Security Council met recently to consider some of these border issues and has decided not to put visas on to Brazilian nationals. We want to work with the Brazilians and ensure that we enhance border security; but, in defence of the Home Office and the UKBA, there have been great improvements in the time spent processing visas and we are looking at a number of steps to ensure that we attract tourists from the fastest-growing markets, including China and elsewhere.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister accept that families face a triple whammy in meeting the costs of child care? Places are plummeting, costs are going up and the average family has lost more than £1,500 a year in support. Therefore, does he also accept that any measure he may announce next week to help with the costs of child care will be small remedy for a crisis of his own making? (147461)

I do not accept what the hon. Lady says, because it is this Government who extended the number of hours to three and four-year-olds and introduced, for the first time, child care payments for vulnerable two-year-olds. We have also lifted 2 million people out of tax altogether. Someone on a minimum wage working full time has seen their income tax bill cut in half. I know that the hon. Lady wants to try to put people off a very major step forward—when we will be helping people who work hard, who want to do the right thing and who want child care for their children—but that is what we will be announcing, and I think it will be welcome.

Q11. Britain is in a global race not just with our traditional competitor economies but with countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Ahead of the Budget next week, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment he has made of where we would be likely to finish in that race if we abandoned our deficit reduction programme and relied on some magical faraway tree of money, as the Opposition recommend? (147462)

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. One of the most important reasons for continuing to get our deficit down is that it is absolutely essential to have the low interest rates that are essential for home owners and for businesses. If we listened to the Labour party and abandoned those plans, we would have more spending, more borrowing and more debt—exactly the things that got us into this mess in the first place.

The price of petrol and diesel at the pumps is set to rise to near record levels in the near future, and the resulting rise in the cost of living is causing real problems for our constituents. We know what the Government have already done, but will the Prime Minister reassure the House today that further action will be taken to cut the toxic fuel duty tax and bring petrol and diesel prices down, to help hard-pressed motorists, families and industry?

Of course I will listen carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman says, but petrol and diesel prices are 10p a litre lower than they would have been had we stuck to the absolutely toxic plans that were put in place by the Labour party. We have taken action, and we are doing everything we can with the cost of living. That is why we are legislating to get people on to the lowest gas or electricity tariff, why we have taken 2 million out of tax and why we have frozen the council tax; and I hope that we can do more to help people.

Q12. The Prime Minister is right: this Government do have a good record on fuel duty. We are paying 10p a litre less on the mainland and 15p a litre less on islands than under Labour, but the rising price of fuel in a widespread area such as Argyll and Bute is causing real problems, and I hope that there will be good news in the Budget. For a start, will the Chancellor be able to announce that the September fuel duty increase inherited from Labour will be cancelled? (147463)

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about what the Government have already done on fuel duty. He omitted to say that we had also taken the step to help far-flung and island communities such as the one he represents with special conditions, to try to help with this major aspect. In many cases, people who live in his constituency do not have a choice but to use a car, and we have to respect that.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I will pay all of the taxes that I am meant to. [Interruption.] Let me just point out one small point. I had a letter this week which I thought people might enjoy. It is from Ed who lives in Camden. It says this: “I am a millionaire. I live in a house worth £2 million which I got through a combination of inheritance and property speculation. I am worried that if I sell my house and buy another one, I will have to pay the 7% stamp duty that the wicked Tories have introduced. Under Labour, we talked about fairness but we never made the rich pay more. What should a champagne socialist like me do?”

Q14. I know that the Prime Minister recently visited the ACE Centre in Oxford, and I am sure that he shares my view that it does a fantastic job helping young and disabled people to communicate more effectively using technical aids. What guarantees can he give that augmentative and assistive communication aids will be made available to more young people than is currently the case, so that everyone who could benefit from them is able to do so? (147465)

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The ACE centre, which was previously in Oxford and is now located in my constituency, has done incredible work for people with disabilities over many years. It is making the most of the extraordinary changes in technology. When I visited it recently, we looked at a whole raft of ways in which we could make sure that the NHS is making these things available to more people, and I am very committed to working with my hon. Friend and the ACE centre to make sure that that happens.

Q15. Prime Minister, you gave a promise to protect the defence budget in its entirety, but you did not. The Defence Secretary, who has left the Chamber, promised to balance the budget, but the National Audit Office said he failed. Prime Minister, will you now guarantee that there will be no— (147466)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here 16 years. He should not use the word “you” in the Chamber. I am sorry, but he knows the rules. Come on, quickly, finish the question.

The commitment I can give is that the £38 billion black hole that we inherited has been got rid of. Freezing the budget across this Parliament at £33 billion gives us the fourth largest defence budget in the world, and we are determined to use that money to ensure that we equip our forces with what they need for the future. That is in massive contrast to the record of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

Given the appalling nursing care standards revealed at Stafford and the Government’s welcome boost to apprenticeships across the professions, does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time to re-examine whether the nursing profession should remain all-degree or whether we should get back to training at patients’ bedsides?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not think we want a de-professionalisation of nursing—huge improvements have been made in the professional skills and training of nurses—but we have to get back to ensuring that patient care is at the heart of nursing. No one can be a good nurse without those things, so we need to return to such values.

Order. We must get out of this bad habit of Members using the word “you” in the Chamber. “You” refers to the Chair. Please address the House through the Chair.

Mr Speaker, I do not expect the Prime Minister to know the full details, or indeed to be directly responsible, but against the background of “We’re all in this together”, does he think it fair that the lowest-paid workers in this place have been offered a 1% increase, while senior managers have been offered 5%?

That is a matter for the House authorities, not for me. The point I would make, however, is that we have frozen public sector pay at 1%, which we think is fair. The extraordinary thing about Labour’s position is that it supports that 1% increase for public sector workers, but thinks that people on welfare should be getting more than 1%. That seems to be an extraordinary set of priorities.

Whenever alcohol is too cheap, more people die. I know the Prime Minister wants to reduce avoidable early mortality and cut violent crime. Will he meet me so that I can explain to him the evidence base behind minimum pricing and how abandoning this policy would critically undermine the future efforts of those who want to do something about this?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. We have had many discussions about this issue over the past two and a half years. There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores, and I am determined to deal with it. We have published proposals, and are considering the results of the consultation on them, but we must be in no doubt that we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. It has got to change.

I am sure the Prime Minister is aware of the Visteon pension action group, whose members we are meeting outside at 12.30 today. We would like to invite him to join a cross-party group of MPs who will be meeting them on this important date—the fourth anniversary of their campaign.

I shall consider the hon. Lady’s remarks carefully. I have a meeting almost straight after Prime Minister’s questions with the leader of her party to discuss the Leveson proposals, and it might not be possible to rearrange my diary, but may I say how important it is that we support pensioners and achieve proper dignity for people in old age?

Does the Prime Minister agree that the results in Eastleigh, where Labour failed to gain anything at all, show that the Leader of the Opposition’s policies are completely without support in the country?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House of Commons, and if he asks questions like that, I think he will get along just fine.