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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2013

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Services (Digitisation)

1. What estimate he has made of the potential savings to the public purse from the digitisation of public services; and if he will make a statement. (148849)

2. What estimate he has made of the potential savings to the public purse from the digitisation of public services; and if he will make a statement. (148850)

By introducing new digital services and redesigning old ones, we expect to save the taxpayer and service users around £1.2 billion by 2015, and at least £1.7 billion a year thereafter. Of course, that is not just about saving money; it is also about the opportunity to change totally the way the public engage with the Government and radically improve that experience.

What services does the Minister see being digitised in the near future, when does he think that will happen, and how will we get people who do not have experience of computers using those new services?

We are reviewing more than 600 central Government transactions. My hon. Friend will be aware that seven Departments are responsible for around 90% of those. Those Departments have committed to redesigning three significant series each, all the details of which are in their departmental digital strategies. This is a live process, and the Student Loans Company went live in October. He is entirely right to remind us that no one should be excluded from the process, which is why the Government remain committed to an assisted digital service.

The latest figures for Medway show that nearly 90% of people there have accessed the internet. What support are the Government providing to allow more people to access public services through the internet?

We are making it easier to access broadband and have supported, and continue to work closely with, valuable networks such as Go ON UK and UK online centres, because my hon. Friend is right that there is still a big opportunity to help more people, small businesses and charities to access the benefits of the internet.

As I am sure the Minister knows, 11 million people in this country have never used the internet, and at the moment his Department is spending no money on digital inclusion. Is its real way of saving money on public services to make them completely inaccessible to those who need them?

No. As I said, we are clear that no one must be excluded from this process. That is why significant assisted digital provision is still in place, and we will shortly make available details of how that will work. There are digital inclusion projects across Government and we are actively reviewing, with partners such as Go ON UK, what more we can do.

I look forward to reading the real figures on, which had to correct the Minister’s overblown assertions last time. The Opposition know that ICT can make government more accessible and save money, but the Government have abandoned the universal broadband pledge and failed on digital inclusion, so 75% of over-75s and a third of people with disabilities are still not online. In those circumstances, is digital by default not simply digital exclusion by diktat?

I will take no lectures from the Labour party on wasting money on ICT, because the processes we inherited in that regard were absolutely scandalous. I repeat what I said: we see a big opportunity in digital by default. It is a chance to transform the way people engage with the Government. We can see significant savings, which I do not think have been overstated at all. As I said, we have an active commitment to assisted digital, the details of which will come shortly, and to continued activity to support digital inclusion.

Public Service Delivery (Innovative Design)

3. What steps he is taking to utilise innovative design to increase the effectiveness and quality of public service delivery. (148851)

The Government are implementing an ambitious programme of public sector reform. From welfare to education, we are changing the way services are delivered to the public. We are opening up policy making, ensuring that policy is made with implementation in mind. To improve the quality of public services, we are backing new delivery models, such as public service mutuals, and redesigning services to be digital by default.

Is the Minister aware that too many people still think that good design means a beautiful table or chair or a new piece of architecture, such as the Shard? There is a whole body of expert design capacity in this country that could help design services, particularly public services. Will he, his Department and the Government wake up to the fact that good design, as shown in a new publication from the Design Commission, could help recovery in this country?

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says except his assumption that we are not already doing this. I know he is a member of the Design Commission, which produced that excellent publication; it is in fact very complimentary about a number of initiatives that the Government have taken, including the creation of the Government Digital Service, which is committed to ensuring that as we reform the delivery of public services, they are designed around the needs of the user rather than, as has far too often been the case, designed to suit the convenience of the Government.

Given that all public services are going to be under financial pressure for the next few years, is my right hon. Friend happy that enough sharing of best practice is taking place to find new, innovative ways to do more with less?

No, I am not happy that we are yet doing enough, but we are doing more. We are establishing a series of What Works organisations that will exist to share best practice and experiences. We have also set up the commissioning academy, an unexpected by-product of which is that it brings together public service deliverers from all over the public sector who network and share experience, which is already proving extremely beneficial.

On the subject of innovative public service design, the Minister abolished the Central Office of Information and sacked hundreds of staff while simultaneously increasing the number of spin merchants in his Department and others. Meanwhile, he put the Government Information Service out to tender, with contracts valuing £520 million, millions of which then went to a company which he himself had chaired in the past, although I accept that he took no part in letting that contract. There are many ways of describing this chain of events. Does he agree that intelligent design is not one of them?

We did dismantle the Central Office of Information, which was overloaded with 750 people who were not doing enough useful work. We cut down massively on the previous Government’s gross overspend on marketing and advertising, which was throwing money out of the back of a lorry wholly ineffectually. We therefore needed a lot fewer people in the Government communication service. Our own press and media operation in the Cabinet Office is smaller than what we inherited from the previous Government despite the fact that it has to service the Deputy Prime Minister as well as other Ministers and the Prime Minister.

Procurement Contracts

4. What recent steps he has taken to address barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (148852)

5. How he plans to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises secure a larger proportion of Government contracts. (148853)

It is this Government’s policy to dismantle the barriers facing small companies to ensure that they can compete for contracts on a level playing field and that they can better grow. Direct spend with small and medium-sized companies across Government has steadily increased since 2010 as a result of the steps we have taken, and we have required all Departments to put in place plans to ensure that their spend with SMEs continues to increase.

Does the Minister think that it is acceptable for large multinational companies to receive millions of pounds in Government grants while avoiding paying a single penny in corporation tax? If not, what changes will she make to procurement legislation to ensure that we stop this bad practice and instead increase opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that much of what he seeks is covered in debates later today. We have recently announced measures to ensure that the companies we deal with as a Government pay their fair share of tax, and rightly so.

I would like more businesses in Brighton to have contracts with the Government. Will the Minister make data available on a constituency level regarding which businesses do business with the Government?

Since the general election Government have become much more transparent about the business they do, and all contracts over £10,000 are now published online at Contracts Finder. My hon. Friend will also find pipelines covering infrastructure and Government construction that will help him with a lot of data. Although we cannot yet release these data specifically at constituency level, I am very keen to make them available, and I look forward to working with him to make that a reality.

The Minister has done a lot of excellent work on fair payment, but how do we make it easier for our smallest businesses, and our smallest service businesses, to win Government contracts?

Central Government policy is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down the supply chain as a condition of contract. That has earned this Government the title of fair payment champion, which is very important. We encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to use the mystery shopper service to “shop” poor practice where they find it. My hon. Friend will also know that we have streamlined the procurement process, removed bureaucracy and increased transparency. We are challenging the traditional ways of buying and are ready to be held to account for that.

Does the Minister agree that if a company fails to deliver on a contract, it should be put on a list and not allowed to bid for any future contracts?

As I noted in my previous answer, we believe in accountability and in being able to “shop” those examples where that occurs. We take action on every such example and I am confident that that will cover what the right hon. Gentleman seeks.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the sheer cost inflicted on smaller businesses trying to bid for public contracts is prohibitive? What are the Government doing to reduce the cost of bidding for public contracts? Unless we reduce the cost, they simply will not bid.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have streamlined the procurement process by introducing faster and simpler procedures. We have removed bureaucracies such as pre-qualification questionnaires for contracts below the European Union threshold. We are also continually finding ways to help SMEs and others to navigate their way across Government. We look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend’s Committee to do more of that.

I will answer that by quoting evidence submitted to the Public Administration Committee by the Market Research Society, which said that it

“applauds the activity of the Crown’s Representative for SMEs…and the ‘Mystery Shopper Scheme’ enabling SMEs to report examples of good and bad practice”.

Those are ways in which we are holding our own systems to account. We want to do more and it is vital to get SME representatives around the table to do so. I shall be doing more work on that this afternoon.

Teleworking/Home Working

6. What his policy is on the use of teleworking and working from home in Government Departments; and if he will make a statement. (148854)

In order to deliver services that meet the needs of the public, the civil service—just like comparable private sector employers—needs a flexible and dynamic workforce. We recognise that remote and home working can bring significant benefits, such as increased productivity, business resilience, work-life balance and well-being. Business units in every Department will need to make such decisions according to business need.

Does the Minister recognise that young working mothers are the principal beneficiaries of teleworking, and will she do more to keep this pool of talent in the civil service?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This Government are doing plenty to help that group and we made child care announcements yesterday and today. The benefits of flexible working can also be seen on a much broader level: research recently suggested that British businesses could save £34 billion by taking on such an approach.

Women's Voluntary Organisations

7. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government funding for women’s voluntary organisations. (148855)

The Government recognise the tough conditions that all voluntary organisations face at present while we open up new opportunities for them. With limited resources we are helping the sector build its resilience and ability to take up those opportunities, including more than £107 million-worth of transition funding, some of which has been accessed by women’s organisations such as Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid.

What discussions has the Minister had with Ministry of Justice colleagues to ensure that the excellent work done by women’s organisations to meet the specialist needs of women offenders will be protected in a payment-by-results system?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern that, for example, the upcoming commissioning process for reform of probation and rehabilitation services is sensitive and sympathetic to, and makes full opportunity of, the voluntary sector, including the many organisations that do incredibly valuable work with women offenders. We are working very closely with the Ministry of Justice to make sure that happens.

Local authorities across the country have been determining what they will do with Government grants. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that local authorities have been cutting grants to voluntary organisations that provide services to the weak and vulnerable?

I should inform my hon. Friend and fellow Harrow MP that I had a meeting with Harrow charities recently to discuss the response to cuts in their grants from Harrow council. I pointed out the contrast with neighbouring Conservative-led Hillingdon council, which, having managed its public finances excellently over many years, is continuing to invest in front-line charities, rather than cut the grants to them.

Social Market

We are cutting red tape for charities and investing to encourage social action. We are recognised as a world leader in developing the social investment market. We are opening up opportunities for the social sector to help us deliver better public services.

Does the Minister agree that the Cinnamon Network community franchising model is proving an excellent stimulus that is enabling the big society to flourish? Will he commend the work of Simon Redmill and Salisbury city church, who are using a grant from the Cinnamon Network to launch a job club in Salisbury next Monday?

It will not surprise my hon. Friend that I totally agree with him. I am delighted that through the social action fund we have invested more than £1 million to help the Cinnamon Network and Tearfund support church-led community projects around the country. Through him, I congratulate Salisbury city church and wish it every success.

Does the Minister agree with the Federation of Small Businesses and the Forum of Private Business that the three problems for small businesses are the set-up costs for tendering, the difficulty of getting on to lists, and the fact that they do not get their payments in time, which means that they have great problems with cash flow?

I recognise that there are all kinds of challenges for small organisations and, in particular, for small voluntary groups and charities in competing for public service contracts. We are opening up many more opportunities for them than there were under the previous Administration. We are working actively through things like the commissioning academy and new master classes around the country to tool up small organisations so that they can compete more effectively for such contracts.

Late Payments

11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the level of late payment by public sector contractors to small and medium-sized enterprises. (148859)

As I have noted, Government policy is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down supply chains. The Crown representative team in the Cabinet Office is encouraging prime contractors to do that more quickly on a voluntary basis. We have tasked Departments to manage their contracts to ensure that prime contractors pay sub-contractors within 30 days.

I am glad that the Government are now taking seriously late payments to small and medium-sized enterprises, after I received such a dismal response on the issue in 2011. When are the Government going to ensure that public sector contractors have the need to pay SMEs in their supply chain promptly in their contracts?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the award that she has won in connection with her work on this matter. My previous answer covered what the Government are doing. We are extremely keen to see good practice pushed throughout the supply chain. We are ensuring that more business goes to SMEs, which is good for growth. All told, that is a good thing and something of which the Government can be proud.

Topical Questions

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

I thank the Paymaster General for his answer. When I talk to voluntary organisations across Leicester, many of those that took part in the future jobs fund tell me that it had a positive impact. Today, we have seen unemployment across Leicester rise again. The chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently called the Work programme

“a slow motion car crash”.

When are we going to have a scheme to get our young people back to work that truly harnesses the expertise of the voluntary sector?

It would have been nice to hear the hon. Gentleman celebrating the rise in employment and the fact that since the election 1.25 million new jobs have been created in the private sector. It would be very good if he and his colleagues would occasionally support that.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the residents of Redditch will not suffer too much today from the strike action by the Public and Commercial Services Union? (148865)

I am happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the latest numbers suggest that fewer than 95,000 civil servants went on strike today. The leadership of the PCS, who are not serving their hard-working members at all well, claimed this morning that 250,000 civil servants were on strike. That was simply untrue—it is fewer than 95,000.

On 5 March, Sir George Cox published his independent review into “Overcoming Short-termism within British Business”. The report concluded, among other things, that Cabinet Office-led procurement in the public sector is failing, with long-term strategic issues for the UK Government not a part of Government procurement thinking. When does the Minister plan to put that right?

We inherited a position that was exactly as the hon. Gentleman describes from the Government of whom he was a member. We have already improved matters significantly by publishing forward pipelines in a number of sectors so that British suppliers can tool up to bid effectively. We have cut procurement times and costs dramatically so that it is easier and cheaper for businesses to bid and win that business. It is a very great pity that his Government did not get on and do some of that themselves.

T3. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the big society awards help highlight the important work of community groups, just as the 2012 award did for the Street Angels initiative, which helps make night life safer in Macclesfield and in hundreds of towns and cities across the country? (148866)

I can certainly confirm that the big society awards are there to throw a spotlight on and celebrate outstanding community-led initiatives, such as the Street Angels initiative that has done such good work in Macclesfield and has now spread to more than 70 towns across the UK. I encourage colleagues on both sides of the House to think about nominating community initiatives to the big society awards through the No. 10 website.

Can the Minister explain why his Government have failed to bring forward robust proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists given that the public want one, the lobbying industry wants one and the Government promised one?

An announcement will be made shortly, but it is worth pointing out that the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power for 13 years and did the square root of nothing on this.

T5. What services have been affected by the PCS strike today? Does my right hon. Friend agree that responsibility for the strike lies exclusively with the PCS leadership? (148868)

That is exactly right. I can confirm that there has been minimal impact on public services and that the public will have been inconvenienced to a very small extent by today’s strike. The borders at the airports and ports have been properly manned, queues have been minimal and I am delighted to say that at Birmingham airport alone, there have been significant seizures of illegal drugs to the benefit of protecting the public.

T4. Today’s shambolic, reactionary Budget will put the Labour party another step closer to government. Now that we have a fixed-term Parliament, will the Minister lay out a proper timetable for Opposition access to the civil service so that we can clear the mess up? (148867)

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local trade unions are very much part of the big society? Does he support the vital work of USDAW, which is fighting for fair pay and conditions for Tesco workers whose jobs are under threat following the announcement of the closure of the Tesco depot in Harlow? (148869)

Of course, responsible trade unionism has a proper role to play in Britain’s big society. What we object to is the irresponsible leadership of unions such as Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, which is taking strike action today in support of the wholly unrepresentative PCS leadership, whose sway with its members has fallen to the extent that the turnout in the strike today has been the lowest at any time since the election.

T7. It has been reported that half of charities are planning to cut their work force or expenditure in the next 12 months. What real steps will the Minister take to help those charities to carry out the valuable work that they do throughout our country? (148870)

The hon. Lady will know that, to give one example, my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is proposing to open up the whole of rehabilitation services so that particularly charitable and voluntary organisations and social enterprises will be able to bid on a payment-by-results basis to win that business. We have created a growing social investment market, supported by big society capital, which will enable those groups to get for the first time access to capital to fund those projects.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Does the Prime Minister agree that today we need a blue collar Conservative Budget which cuts taxes for people who work hard, do the right thing and want to get on; which stops spending billions of pounds that we do not have on overseas aid; and in which we source the cheapest energy for people, helping them with their costs of living, rather than sourcing the greenest energy?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to remind people that even before this Budget, in two weeks’ time there will be a tax cut for 24 million people in our country as we raise the amount of money someone can earn before they pay tax. We will have taken more than 2 million people out of tax altogether; we have frozen council tax; we have cancelled fuel duty increase after fuel duty increase; and we are legislating to put customers on the lowest electricity tariff. I can also tell my hon. Friend that we are not going to carry on with the proposal made by the previous Energy Secretary, which was to put £179 on everybody’s bill. We have decided to scrap that.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about the situation in Cyprus. Will he update the House on what is being done to protect British nationals, including our armed forces, who have deposits in Cypriot banks?

The Leader of the Opposition raises an extremely important issue at a very sensitive and difficult time for the Republic of Cyprus. First, we have absolutely guaranteed that anyone who is in Cyprus because they have been sent there by the British Government, and the armed forces, Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office, will not lose out in any way in terms of their earnings or their savings. That is the first thing to say. We have also made sure that money will be available, which is why a plane with money was sent to Cyprus last night.

In terms of British citizens in Cyprus, of whom there are many thousands, of course we cannot insure them against any losses in Cypriot bank accounts, but we can make sure that they get safely the pensions and benefits to which they are entitled. We have frozen those payments for the time being until the situation becomes clear, but everyone should know that they will get those payments.

On Monday, the City Minister said that the UK Government have

“intelligence about what went on”—[Official Report, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 620.]

in discussions among eurozone members who negotiated the plan. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the Government knew in advance, and what eurozone members said about that plan?

First, as we are not in the euro, we do not join the discussions about eurozone bail-outs. That is important, and it is worth noting that because of the deal I did in Brussels, getting us out of the bail-out fund, we will not be contributing to what would otherwise, under the previous Government’s plans be perhaps up to £1 billion. Obviously what we are doing is waiting to see the action that the Cypriot Government and the Eurogroup agree, and ensuring that we do everything to help British citizens in the weeks ahead.

The point I make to the Prime Minister is that this is a matter not just for the eurozone but for other European economies, because it goes to trust in the banking system. I think it should have been obvious to everyone that a sudden levy imposed on ordinary savers would undermine basic trust and confidence in banks. Will the Prime Minister send a clear message from the Dispatch Box that any negotiated bail-out that is subsequently agreed with the Government of Cyprus needs to rebuild trust in the banking system and not undermine it further?

We have made our views very clear to the Cypriot Government. In our view, when there are deposit protection schemes—as we have in this country; as all of Europe put in place after the crash of Lehman Brothers—those deposit protection schemes should be respected. That is the whole point; that is why they are there for small savers.

The civil service union has chosen today to go on strike, but the country does not seem to have ground to a halt. Does the Prime Minister agree that that probably indicates that there is a bit more room to save in terms of public sector spending, so that we can clear up Labour’s debts and get this country back on track?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is important to recognise that we should do everything we can to save and find efficiencies in public spending in order to help hard-working families and keep their tax bills down. That is exactly what this Government will continue to do.

Q2. On 9 January, the Prime Minister told me there would be no hospital reorganisations unless they had the support of the local GP commissioners, proper public engagement and an evidence base. Will he now admit that not one of those tests is met in the case of Lewisham hospital, where he proposes to close down half the services and sell off two thirds of the land to bail out a neighbouring failing trust? Can anyone trust this Prime Minister on the NHS ever again? (148834)

It is worth remembering who set up the PFI deal that has meant that this action has had to be taken. The apology over what is happening at the South London Healthcare trust should come from the Labour party, because it was responsible for creating this situation. As the right hon. Lady knows, £1 million a week is being lost from front-line care. No change is not an option, but the Health Secretary’s plans have ensured that Lewisham will retain an A and E with senior medical emergency cover.

Today, the FTSE index is just under 6,500; in 2008, it was just under 3,500. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real investors in this economy agree with the coalition Government’s economic policy, contrary to the policies delivered by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a difficult and hard road that we are travelling to turn this economy round after the huge mess made by Labour, but when we look at the facts—just this morning, we have seen that an extra 131,000 are in work—we see the changes necessary to start the rebuilding of our economy.

Last weekend, the Foreign Secretary said that there was a strong case for lifting or amending the arms embargo on Syria in the months ahead. Given that no decision was taken at the EU Council, does it remain the Prime Minister’s intention to seek a relaxation of the EU arms embargo?

First of all, let us look at what we have already achieved in terms of amending the arms embargo. We asked specifically for it to be changed so that we could give technical support to the opposition. We have achieved that, but the French President and I discussed at the European Council looking for further changes to the arms embargo, which will be discussed by Foreign Affairs Ministers this weekend. The reason for that is twofold. First, that the arms embargo still applies pretty much equally to this hateful regime and to the opposition, who we now recognise as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, sends a peculiar message. Secondly, the French President and I are concerned that we should not be restricted for months and months ahead when we do not know exactly what could happen in Syria—there are very worrying reports of the use of chemical weapons.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Obviously, everybody is appalled by the actions of the Assad regime, but the Prime Minister will know that there is not only a lack of unity among Syrian opposition groups, but the known presence on the ground in Syria of al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda backed terrorist organisation. Does he therefore understand the widespread concern that remains about the idea of seeking to supply weapons to the rebels?

The Leader of the Opposition puts the point absolutely rightly. There is widespread concern about the nature of the opposition. The argument we must engage in is this: are we more likely to help the good elements of the opposition by standing back, or are we more likely to help by getting in there and shaping and giving that technical assistance, so that we can play a part in building up the Syrian opposition, so that they are a legitimate and credible alternative to this hateful regime?

It is worth recalling—we should all recall it—the fact that current policies are not working for the people of Syria. Seventy thousand people are dead and this hateful regime is still in place.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right that the current situation is terrible; we just must not make it worse with the actions that we take. The spokesman for the UN Secretary-General has said that the introduction of more weapons into Syria is “counterproductive” and will not lead to a solution. Special Representative Brahimi recently called for a renewed diplomatic initiative to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Will the Prime Minister set out what steps the UK Government, specifically, are taking to support the UN in advancing that initiative?

We are taking specific steps to help the UN with this vital initiative. Trying to achieve a diplomatic solution, with transition at the top of the regime, is worth while. That is why we have had detailed talks with the Russian Foreign and Defence Ministers in the past week. I would just make one other point about the arms embargo. Sitting in the European Council chamber, I felt that there was a slight similarity between some of the arguments being made about not putting more weapons into Syria and the discussions we had on Bosnia, with the appalling events that followed. In my view, it is better to be engaged and working with the Syrian opposition and trying to bring this conflict to an end.

Q15. Traveller numbers on the coastal railway line running through my constituency are growing fast. Given its importance to local tourism in Dawlish and Teignmouth, can the Prime Minister assure me that urgent investment plans are in hand to repair recent flood damage and to create a long-term sustainable future for this railway line? (148847)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that the Transport Secretary will shortly be visiting her constituency. Investment is going into the whole of the line that serves her constituency, including major investment that will shortly be completed at Reading station, which will help capacity all down the line.

Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware of the growing disquiet across the UK regarding his Government’s welfare reform proposals—great disquiet, because the proposals are deeply unfair and will, I predict, lead to administrative chaos. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, in terms of his legacy, welfare reform will be his poll tax? (148835)

I do not agree with the hon. Lady at all. I find that there is strong support for the housing benefit cap, so that we no longer fund homes in the capital of our country by up to £100,000 a year. There is strong support for the welfare cap, and, indeed, there is strong support for universal credit, which will make sure that in every case people are better off in work and better off when they choose to work extra hours. That is what we want: a welfare system that supports enterprise, work and aspiration.

Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that seven people have died on Norfolk’s roads in the past week? Furthermore, eight have died on the A47 in the past 10 weeks. Does he share my concern about this tragic loss of life? Is he aware of the campaign being run by me and other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), to improve the A47? Norfolk people understand the current budgetary constraints; they simply want a fairer share of resources. (148846)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing me up to date with this important campaign that he and others are leading in Norfolk. We have a much better record on road safety than we have had in recent years, but we should never be complacent and should continue to work on it. Money has been made available for road schemes in Norfolk, the A11 chief among them. I can see from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) nodding vigorously behind my hon. Friend that there may be more to come.

Q4. Does the Prime Minister agree with Lord Heseltine that people are suffering under the recession, and that it would be the wrong politics at this time to remove the 50p top rate of tax? Will he now cancel next month’s tax cut for millionaires? (148836)

The point I make to the hon. Lady is that after the start of the financial year the top rate of tax will be higher than in any year when Labour was in office, and I am sure that that is something with which Michael Heseltine would fully agree.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Warrington bombing. The Prime Minister will recall that more than 20 people were killed and injured, among them a 12-year-old boy, Tim Parry. Will he join me in congratulating Tim’s parents, Wendy and Colin, on how they have worked tirelessly for peace over the past two decades, and particularly on the establishment of the Foundation for Peace, which brings help to victims of conflict around the world?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising that family for the incredible bravery they have shown. When someone suffers such a tragedy, it must be so much easier to try and put it behind them and forget about it, but to go on and campaign for peace and to bring together the people of Warrington as they have done shows enormous character and fortitude. They have the backing of the whole country.

Q5. Has the Prime Minister had time to consider the remarks of the leader of his MEPs in the European Parliament, who said of the decision to cut the 50p rate that it was“one of the biggest mistakes that we’ve made so far in this parliament”and “disastrous to do so in a recession”.Is Mr Callanan right or wrong? (148837)

When the hon. Gentleman’s party put the top rate of tax up, millionaires paid £7 billion less in taxation. We are having a lower tax rate that will raise more revenue. That makes pretty good sense.

Just a few weeks back, my right hon. Friend became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Amritsar in Punjab. As a British Sikh, may I say how warmly his visit was received? More importantly, will he congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on the pioneering work they have done in searching the Sikh turban at European airports? It shows that we can have a proactive relationship with Europe, rather than a reactive one.

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he does in this area and for how he consistently raises issues about the British Sikh community, the immense contribution it makes to our country and the respect that we should show it. I also thank him for accompanying me on that trip to the Golden Temple—something that I will never forget. It gives me the opportunity to say, on behalf of the House, how much British Sikhs give to Britain and how much we thank them for it.

Q6. My constituent Jordan Kingston found himself homeless aged just 17. He was offered social housing and is now studying for his A-levels, determined to improve his situation through education. From his £56 weekly benefit, he will lose £14 in the bedroom tax and £3 in council tax, leaving just £11 per week to live on after utilities. Based on the Prime Minister’s experience of hardship, what advice does he have for Jordan? (148838)

First, the Government are investing in social housing, and the hon. Lady will hear more about that in a moment. Secondly, when housing benefit costs £23 billion a year, we simply have to reform it. There is a basic issue of fairness: why should someone living in private rented accommodation not receive a spare room subsidy and someone in social housing should? There is a basic issue of fairness, and that is why it should be put right.

Unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I am proud of our coalition for sticking to the 0.7% aid target—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady’s question must be heard. People should not jeer before they have heard it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We set an example to the world, and later on this month, the Prime Minister goes to Bali to co-chair the high-level panel to discuss the next set of millennium development goals. Will he use his leadership to press for a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment?

I will look very carefully at what the hon. Lady says about the importance of gender equality in terms of the new millennium development goals. The point I would make to anyone who raises the issue about our aid commitment is that I do not think we should break our promises to the poorest people in the world. Our key aim ought to be to eradicate the extreme poverty that people sometimes still face, living on less than $1.25 a day. That is what we are talking about, and I think that we should be proud of the fact that we are keeping our promises.

Q7. As a money-saving tip on Budget day, and in line with what the Education Secretary wants for teachers, could the Prime Minister put his Chancellor and the Cabinet on performance-related pay? How much does he think it would save? (148839)

It is this Chancellor who has seen the deficit come down by a third since he became Chancellor and has seen the creation of over a million private sector jobs. He is getting the country out of the hole that we were left in by Labour.

Will the Prime Minister welcome the successful launch in Bedford last week of the country’s first local enterprise fund? People who care about Bedford have raised £400,000 to invest in businesses in Bedford, encouraging enterprise and securing employment? Does he agree that in this respect, as in so many others, where Bedford leads, the rest of the country should follow?

I am sure my hon. Friend is right about Bedford’s leadership in all things. He makes an important point, which is that we need to see more small businesses start and more enterprise. We have seen in Britain over the last three years the fastest rate of new business creation in our history, but we need to see more of it to keep the private sector going.

Q8. Rising unemployment remains an issue in my Stockton North constituency. Is unemployment and recession, which grind hard-working families and the most vulnerable into the ground, a price worth paying for next month’s obscene tax cut for millionaires? (148840)

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures today, he will see that there are 131,000 more people in work over the last quarter. We have seen 600,000 more people employed compared with a year ago. That is what is actually happening in terms of employment. I have to say, when we look at the mess we were left by Labour, being given advice on economics on Budget day from Labour is like asking Enron for accountancy advice.

In less than a fortnight’s time, this Government will have taken 3,168 of my constituents out of paying income tax altogether. Does that not show that this Conservative-led Government are on the side of hard-working, low-paid people?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we have consistently lifted the personal tax allowance—the amount of money that people earn before they start paying tax—starting at around £6,000 and now rising all the time, so that over 2 million people have already been taken out of tax altogether. If he is sitting comfortably for the next half an hour, he may hear some further news.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) that his Government’s focus should be on looking after people who are struggling to pay their mortgages, rather than protecting those in £2 million houses? (148841)

We should be helping people who are paying their mortgages, and that is why it is so vital that we stick to our plans. We have low interest rates in this country because we have a plan to get the deficit down. That is absolutely key. The other point I would make to the hon. Lady is that if we look at the funding for lending scheme from the Bank of England, it has now successfully reduced mortgage rates and also made sure that people who do not have access to a large deposit are able to look at buying a house. We are making progress, but there is a lot more to do.

Q10. This month we have had the wonderful news that Jaguar Land Rover is going to create a further 700 jobs in South Staffordshire, bringing its total investment to over £500 million. Last year we saw the creation of 70,000 manufacturing jobs in the UK. Does my right hon. Friend not think that this is a stark contrast to the 1.7 million manufacturing jobs destroyed under the last Labour Government? (148842)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Jaguar Land Rover has been a massive success story for our country, and I would praise all of those who have invested money in that business, all those who work in it and all the apprentices who are being trained in it. It is part of a recovery of our automotive sector, which has, for the first time in 30 years, seen a surplus in the number of cars that we export overseas, and it is part of a picture where Nissan, Toyota, Honda and other automotive businesses in the sector are doing well, and we support them.

The Prime Minister will be aware that this week marks the bicentenary of the birth of Dr David Livingstone—born in Blantyre in my constituency, buried in Westminster abbey—which was marked by a service attended by President Joyce Banda last night in the abbey. He will know that one of Livingstone’s proudest achievements was the drive to abolish slavery in east Africa. Given the bicentenary, does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time for his Government to take the lead to end the scandal of the 2.5 million people in modern-day slavery or prostitution as a result of people trafficking?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he gives me the opportunity to praise President Banda for what she is doing to lift people out of poverty in Malawi, and to thank her for visiting Britain and Scotland this week. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about slavery, because there is still modern-day slavery and we still need to take action to combat it at European level, at national level and at local level with the police. This Government will continue to take that action.

Q11. Whatever further changes the Chancellor announces today, the payslips of ordinary working people will show a tax cut next month as a result of the personal allowance rise that the Liberal Democrats called for. It represents the largest single income tax change in this Parliament. What does this say about the priorities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s coalition Government? (148843)

This is an important priority that we have taken action on in Budget after Budget, even in difficult times, saying to people, “We are on your side. We want to cut your tax bills.” In just two weeks’ time there will be a tax cut of over £200 for 24 million people in our country—each and every taxpayer. At the same time, we are lifting over 2 million people out of tax—they will not pay any income tax at all. This is real progress and it is on the side of the people who work hard and want to get on.

When the top rate of tax was put up, millionaires paid £7 billion less. That is the sort of incompetence and inefficiency that the hon. Lady left the sofa of GMTV to support. [Interruption.]

Order. When a question is asked, Members should not shout their heads off when the Prime Minister is giving an answer.

Given that SAS Sergeant Danny Nightingale has had his conviction quashed following the quashing of his military prison sentence last year, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be totally against the public interest, and against the interests of the SAS Regiment, for Sergeant Nightingale to have to face a fresh trial when others are benefiting from the weapons amnesty that was rightly introduced by the Secretary of State for Defence as a result of the Nightingale case?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Let me say how strongly I support all those who serve in our special forces. As Prime Minister, I have the privilege of meeting many of those brave people and seeing that they are some of the finest and most courageous people in our country. I do not, however, want to get into any trouble with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, so I will leave the issues of the courts to the courts.

Q13. The money that the Government have set aside to help people who are hit by the bedroom tax will not cover a fraction of the really hard cases, such as that of my paralysed constituent who receives round-the-clock care from his wife. There is an acute housing shortage in York, and they have nowhere to move to. So will the Prime Minister do one more U-turn on the bedroom tax, and scrap it altogether? (148845)

First, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that only the Labour party could call a welfare reform a tax. It shows how little they understand how tax and benefits work. We are making available a discretionary fund that is there for the hard cases, but we are also recognising that there is a basic issue of cost—about £23 billion is spent on housing benefit every year—and a basic issue of fairness, not just between the private sector and the social sector but in recognising that there are 1.8 million people on housing waiting lists who would love to have a bedroom.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Business Location Index has just cited Milton Keynes as the best place in the country to do business and that, with more than 2,000 business start-ups in the past year, it is Milton Keynes that is rebuilding our economy?

I was aware of that statistic, because my hon. Friend helpfully reminded me of it when we were in Milton Keynes together recently, talking about what a fantastic location for business it is, about how it is encouraging business start-ups and about how it is leading to a growth in employment in the region.

Given that the Chancellor has joined Twitter this morning, will the Prime Minister remind him and the House what too many tweets make?

I have made a number of remarks about Twitter over the years, most of which I have had to withdraw because I am now tweeting, too. I look forward to the first tweet after the Budget this afternoon. What is clear is that the hon. Gentleman could tweet even now that we are cutting taxes in two weeks’ time for 24 million working people, taking 2 million people out of tax. Tweeting that would certainly not cause any dangers for the hon. Gentleman.

Recently, the shadow Home Secretary admitted that when the Labour party was in government it got its immigration policy wrong. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that across the breakfast table, she should persuade her husband to make a similar admission on Labour’s economic policy.

I think my hon. Friend makes a very good point. We inherited a complete shambles in immigration—a system completely out of control. We have sort of had apologies for that; what we have not had is any sort of apology for the borrowing, the spending and the debt—the mess that the Labour party left us.

It has been estimated that for the cost of just one nuclear reactor, 7 million households could be lifted out of fuel poverty through energy efficiency and conservation. Hinkley is expected to come with an eye-watering £14 billion price tag and a strike price of getting on for double the current price of electricity. If that does not make nuclear unaffordable, can the Prime Minister tell us what would?

I am afraid that I just do not agree with the hon. Lady. Our fleet of nuclear power stations is coming to the end of its life, and I think it is important that we work hard to replace some of that capacity. That is what Hinkley is about; that is why I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was absolutely right to give it the go-ahead. It will be an important provider of carbon-free electricity in the years ahead.