House of Commons
Wednesday 19 June 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
I have regular discussions with organisations that deliver the Work programme. I recognise that they operate in a challenging environment, but I salute their collective early success in getting more than 200,000 long-term unemployed people into work, as I am sure does the hon. Lady.
I thank the Minister for that response. A recent report by the Work and Pensions Committee on the Work programme found that many voluntary sector organisations that are listed as sub-contractors do not consider themselves to be involved at all, leading to suspicions that specialist organisations are being used as “bid candy”, rather than to deliver services. What will the Minister do to ensure that such charities are treated fairly?
It is for the Department for Work and Pensions to respond to that report; my role is to ensure that the relevant Minister understands the concerns of the voluntary sector. We should recognise that more than 350 voluntary sector organisations in the supply chain are doing incredibly valuable work to get long-term unemployed people back into work. My other role is to ensure that we learn the lessons from that programme in forthcoming payment-by-results programmes, not least in the transforming rehabilitation and probation programme.
Has my hon. Friend noted the figures from the Department for Work and Pensions that show that voluntary and community based organisations, such as Whitwick Community Enterprises in my constituency, make up the largest proportion of workplace providers under the Work programme at 47%?
My hon. Friend is right that almost 50% of the supply chain is in the voluntary sector. We all know from our experience of such organisations what extraordinarily valuable work they do to get people ready for work and into work. We want to make the programme work.
Surely the Minister knows that New Philanthropy Capital has advised the Government not to repeat the mistakes of the Work programme. What lessons will he learn so that those mistakes are not repeated and so that third sector organisations and charities that want to help unemployed people are encouraged to do so?
I do not necessarily recognise that mistakes have been made. Payment-by-results is a tough and challenging regime, but each exercise will be different and the process will evolve. It is a better regime than paying for failure and mediocrity, which is what the Labour Government did. The next test is the probation reforms. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail of what the Ministry of Justice has produced, he will see that lessons have been learned on having more contracts, paying much more attention to how the supply chain is managed and investing in capacity building in the voluntary sector so that it can do more.
The National Fraud Authority estimates that the public purse loses more than £20 billion a year to fraud. That figure has been far too high for far too long. Last year, the Departments that engaged with the cross-Government taskforce that I chair saved an estimated £5.9 billion. However, we know that there is much more to do.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the billions of pounds of cross-departmental savings that he has achieved. In targeting that £20 billion, I urge him to look again at the risk-averse legal advice in Whitehall that is stopping data-sharing between the public and private sectors, because fraudsters who commit fraud against the private sector often do so against the public purse.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks, for his interest in this area and, more generally, for the brilliant forensic work he does on the Public Accounts Committee to protect the taxpayer’s interest. He is right about the legal advice that is often given in this complex area of law, which is a mishmash of common law and statutory provisions. There are many opportunities to share data, which would protect privacy but promote the public interest by saving money. We need to look at that area and have a rather more open approach.
I will certainly consider that. We need to get much better at sharing information about fraud and attempted fraud both within the private sector and between the public and private sectors. That has been done far too little, but we are getting better at it. There is still much to do and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s thoughts.
Public Sector Contracts
It is Government policy to dismantle the barriers facing small companies, charities and voluntary organisations to ensure they can compete for contracts on a level playing field. We have taken a number of significant steps specifically to support charities and social enterprises to bid for and win public sector contracts, such as the implementation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, a community right to challenge, and reforms of procurement processes that make them more open and fair to charities.
The Foundation for Social Improvement today reports:
“Looking to the future of the commissioning process, it is clear that the current situation is not sustainable. Only around one quarter of respondents indicated that they felt they could carry on bidding for—and carrying out—local authority contracts over the next 5 years.”
Is it true that the Government’s plan to break open public services is merely benefiting a handful of large companies that use charities as “bid candy”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) said, and as the report concludes?
As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) made clear in an earlier answer, many charitable organisations are already taking part and there are opportunities for more. What I take from the hon. Gentleman’s question is his willingness to work with me and others who care about making procurement better throughout the whole public sector, and encouraging local authorities to do their bit alongside the reforms we have achieved in central Government.
I applaud the Government’s steps to encourage charities to win public sector contracts, but does my hon. Friend believe there is a threshold to the proportion of income that charities receive from the public sector, above which they stop becoming charities because they are merely agencies of the state?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and it may be just as much the responsibility of trustees of an organisation to look at such issues within that organisation. The Government welcome the diversity of the sector and the opening up of Government procurement to those who can do the job well for value for money.
The Justice Secretary is a man who appears to be in something of a hurry. The Minister may be aware of growing concern among small voluntary organisations that provide services to ex-offenders that under the Justice Secretary’s plans their work will be undermined as large contracts are given to a small number of private providers. What reassurance can be given to those important small charities?
The right hon. Gentleman may wish to direct that question to the Justice Secretary himself, but the Parliamentary Secretary has had many discussions with Members across Government about opportunities for the voluntary sector, and we are passionate about getting that right.
In strongly applauding my hon. Friend’s work in this area, may I suggest that it needs to go beyond the procurement process itself? The other danger is public sector bodies—both locally and centrally—taking on employees to do work that could be done more effectively by voluntary sector organisations.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the value for money that the state would seek to achieve at all levels. Alongside that, our reforms include measures to build the capability of the third sector, which I am sure we would all want to see strongly succeed.
Is it clear that not only have the Government failed to deliver more public sector contracts to charities, but after three years in office the big society project has now become a shrivelled society, except in one area—charitable activity and supporting people whom the hon. Lady’s Government have driven into poverty? More than 13 million people are now in poverty, two thirds of whom are in work.
It is a sad thing. In the past year, the number of people dependent on food banks tripled to almost 350,000, of whom—listen to this figure—126,889 are children. There is no doubt that the Minister is a decent human being, but did she really come into politics to increase the scale of the third sector on the back of a disgraceful rise in the number of children in poverty? Is she ashamed of that record?
What I am ashamed of is the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to turn an important issue into a political football. Like many others in the House, I have stood alongside excellent volunteers at food banks in my constituency. I applaud their efforts, their goodheartedness and their contribution, but I do not applaud his blindness to the notion that the use of food banks in fact soared under the previous Labour Government.
National Citizen Service
The National Citizen Service is a fantastic opportunity for our young constituents to make a difference in the community and to develop really valuable skills. Demand is growing rapidly, so we are making 50,000 places available this year and 90,000 in 2014.
I frequently meet with the Challenge Network, which is the principal provider of the NCS in Pendle, and I am looking forward to taking part in a “Dragons’ Den” exercise with it later this year. Will my hon. Friend say what the outcomes are for young people who have so far taken part in the NCS programme?
I thank my hon. Friend for his positive engagement with the programme. As he would expect, we commissioned independent research on its impact, and it tells us that so far we are getting £2 of value for every £1 of public money we spend. The most significant impact has been on what might be called work-ready skills: in particular, helping young people to develop confidence and teamwork, leadership and communication skills, all of which are very important in the workplace.
Youth work budgets have been slashed throughout the country, but the amount the Government are spending on a six-week programme for 16-year-olds would fund a 52-week-a-year service for 13 to 19-year-olds. Will the Minister rethink the NCS and instead put the money into a year-round youth service?
I think the hon. Lady should speak to her Front-Bench team, who recently said they were not against the NCS. I think they saw the numbers on the very positive impact it has on young people, and I hope she will support that too. Youth services around the country do not have to be cut. There are lots of other options for local authorities—to mutualise, to look at other delivery models—and we stand ready to support them in that.
5. What progress he has made on abolishing quangos. (160378)
To date, the number of public bodies has been reduced by more than 240, through abolitions and mergers, and by the end of the spending review period in March 2015, the Government will have reduced their total number by a third.
That is absolutely the right question, and part of the answer is that in the future any new proposal for creating a public body will have to get the approval of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and I think I can reliably inform the House that the answer would likely be no. Furthermore, in the future, every public body will be subject to triennial reviews set up to justify their continued existence. It is about changing the culture that we inherited from the last Government.
One set of so-called quangos that was immediately abolished were the very accountable regional development agencies, and since then regional assistance has noticeably been a pale shadow of what it was. What steps is the Cabinet Office taking to audit the effectiveness with which the subsequent bodies—the regional growth fund, the local enterprise partnerships—are delivering regeneration to areas that desperately need it, such as mine in north Staffordshire?
I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s question, particularly in relation to exactly whom the RDAs were accountable to. I do not think that anyone is weeping for their absence, and I think that he should give LEPs a chance. My impression is that they are doing increasingly valuable work. We have new city deals and a whole new era of localism, with more and more decisions being taken locally and accountable to the communities they serve. I hope he will welcome that.
Co-operatives and Mutuals
6. What steps he is taking to encourage co-operatives and mutuals to provide public services. (160379)
The Government are committed to supporting public service mutuals in providing public services. We know that mutuals can bring significant efficiencies that benefit not only public service users and the taxpayer, but the staff who form them. Our mutuals support programme is tracking more than 120 emerging and established public service mutuals across 13 different sectors.
I do not entirely see the connection between those two phenomena. We actively encourage groups of public sector workers to come together to form new entities that continue to deliver public services, but on a contractual basis, not a line-managed, bureaucratic basis. I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a lot of interest in the public sector. Many entrepreneurial leaders are looking for the opportunity to lead the service in an innovative and less-restricted way.
The Government wish to strengthen the role of Ministers in permanent secretary appointments to reflect Ministers’ accountability to Parliament for the performance of their Departments. We believe it sensible to allow a choice of candidates who are judged by the Civil Service Commission to be above the line and appointable. The Civil Service Commission’s recent guidance is capable of strengthening the Minister’s role. We will review how it works before deciding whether to seek further changes.
Does the Minister agree with the two recent excellent reports from the Institute of Government and the Institute for Public Policy Research, which say that for there to be proper accountability Secretaries of State must have a say in who runs their Department, albeit from a shortlist agreed in the normal way? Will he reassure us that, contrary to press reports, he is not caving in to the mandarins on this vital reform?
I do not think that that is a phenomenon that would be recognised in Whitehall. The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The relationship between permanent secretary and Minister is very important. Ministers are accountable in this place for their Department, and it seems to us to make sense—it clearly makes sense to him, too—that a Minister should be given a choice of candidates, as long as they are deemed to be politically impartial and capable of doing the job properly.
I commend my right hon. Friend for encouraging a lively debate on the leadership of the senior civil service, not least because senior appointments have led to a great deal of churn and discontinuity at the top of Government Departments in recent years. May I also congratulate him on publishing the IPPR report? We look forward to him coming before the Public Administration Committee to discuss it.
I look forward to one of my regular attendances at my hon. Friend’s Committee with barely concealed impatience. I am grateful for the interest he and his Committee take in this important area. I would like to take the opportunity, while answering this question, to pay tribute to so many hard working civil servants who do a fantastic job, and to the support that so many of them have given to the programme of reform we have set in train.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (160389)
My departmental responsibilities include responsibility for public service efficiency and reform groups, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.
I was able to announce a couple of weeks ago that in the last financial year, 2012-13, we made over £10 billion of efficiency savings. It is a pity that it has taken so long to get on with this. If the present Leader of the Opposition had started on the process when he was in my position, the country’s public finances would now be in a much better state.
The single biggest source of new social finance for charities and social enterprises would be a UK community investment Act that required banks to lend into areas that they are not currently lending into. Why are the Government blocking such reforms?
I think that is the first Labour policy announcement I have heard in three years. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, this country is the acknowledged world leader in developing a new source of finance for social organisations. It is called social investment, and it was the subject of a special meeting of the G8 this week, at which everyone stood up and said that Britain was recognised as a world leader in this regard, not least because of our creation of big society capital, which has £600 million on its balance sheet, to make it easier for charities and social enterprises to access capital.
Way back in 2004, Sir Peter Gershon recommended the introduction of shared services to try to break down that silo mentality and to make efficiency savings. For eight years very little happened, but we are now breaking through and making big progress on legal services, on internal audit and on back-office, transactional, human resources and finance services. There is much more to do, however, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.
T6. Bolton community and volunteer services have congratulated Bolton council on preserving funding for the voluntary sector, but projects are still at risk owing to rising costs, increasing demand and reduced access to funding. What will the Minister do to save community and voluntary sector projects in Bolton West? (160394)
The hon. Lady should direct her first inquiries to the council, because not all councils are cutting funding to the voluntary sector. She should be aware of the broad national picture, in which volunteering is up, giving is stable and social investment is rising. There is a whole range of Government programmes to support and strengthen civil society and help it to maintain its resilience through this very difficult period.
T3. In 2010, the Smith report suggested that substantial cost savings would result from moving parts of the civil service from London to the regions. It suggested a target of moving 15,000 civil servants by 2015. Will the Minister update us on progress? (160391)
Repeated reports show that the best protection that can be given to individuals, households and businesses is basic online hygiene and safety. We have increased spending on cyber-security at a time of great financial stringency, and we are generally regarded as being well placed in the international rankings on cyber-security, but there is absolutely no room for complacency.
T4. Keighley town council is currently running a £160,000 deficit and has a liability of £1 million. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no accountable body for town councils and therefore no one to protect taxpayers’ money? Will he look at this issue as a matter of urgency? (160392)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will have taken note of the concern that my hon. Friend raises, but I have always thought that town councils were meant to be accountable to the residents of the town.
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.
I will also be making an announcement about a new Minister to join the Government. At the end of the year, Stephen Green, the former chair and chief executive of HSBC, will be standing down as Trade Minister, after doing a superb job refocusing the Government’s efforts in key export markets. I can announce today that Ian Livingston—for the past five years chief executive of BT, one of Britain’s most successful businesses—will take on this vital role. I believe he will bring huge talent to a vital national effort.
I think my hon. Friend makes an important point. There are many good teachers in our schools who have not been through the formal processes. I know that this week we have had another new policy from the Opposition banning all such teachers from such schools. As ever, although I have been busy, I have had a careful look at this policy and I note that there are such teachers—people who teach—among those on the Opposition Benches. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), a renowned historian, teaches in his local comprehensive schools. He is going to be banned. And of course, there is the former Member for South Shields, who enjoys doing that as well. I think this policy—another shambles—is another example of brotherly love.
Yes, I do support both those measures. Obviously we need to take time to read this excellent report, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) for the excellent job that he has done. Penalising, including with criminal penalties against bankers who behave irresponsibly—I say yes. Also, making sure that for banks in receipt of taxpayers’ money we can claw back and have a ban on bonuses—I say yes too.
On the specific issue of criminal penalties, I am glad that the Prime Minister supports the proposal, but will he confirm for the House on this important issue that the Government will put down the appropriate amendments to the banking Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, to make sure that this gets on the statute book as soon as possible?
We will be using that Bill to take these important steps. The key thing is that we have the opportunity, first, because we said there should be a parliamentary inquiry that could be done rapidly, rather than a public inquiry, which the right hon. Gentleman supported. If we had done that, we would just about be getting going with the inquiry. Instead, we have a good inquiry and good results, and we can have strong legislation too.
Just to be clear about this, if the Government do not put down the amendments on criminal penalties in the banking Bill, we will and we will make sure they happen.
The Prime Minister praises the Parliamentary Commission on Banking, but let us turn to one of its recommendations from last year’s report. It said that the Government should legislate for a general power to break up the banks, breaking up high-risk casino banking from high street banks. We think it is right, the commission thinks it is right, but the Government are so far refusing to implement—[Interruption.] The part-time Chancellor is trying to give some advice to the Prime Minister. We think it is right and the commission thinks it is right, but the Government have so far refused to implement that recommendation. Why are the Government not doing it?
Let me say first that I would rather listen to my Chancellor than listen to the right hon. Gentleman’s neighbour the shadow Chancellor. We remember his advice. Mortgages of 125% from Northern Rock: that is fine. A knighthood for Fred Goodwin: that is fine. The biggest banking bust in British history: that is fine. The shadow Chancellor was the City Minister when all that went on, and it is this Government who are clearing up the mess. As I have said, we would not have these results without the excellent inquiry that was commissioned by this Government, and we would not be able to legislate if we did not have the excellent banking Bill provided by this Government.
As for the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we are putting a ring fence around retail banks, something which, in 13 years of a Labour Government, the right hon. Gentleman and the shadow Chancellor never got round to doing, although they were both in the Treasury.
We are really not going to take lectures from the guy who was the adviser on Black Wednesday in 1992.
The Prime Minister had no answer to the question about retail and investment banking. Perhaps he can do better on the issue of bonuses and the banks. Last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that in April bonuses in business and financial services were 64% higher than they were a year ago. Why does the Prime Minister think that is?
Bank bonuses are about a fifth of what they were when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury. They have been going down, not up.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discuss the issue of banking, perhaps he will reflect on the fact that the Labour Government’s other City Minister, Lord Myners, had this to say today: “The Government of which I was a member certainly has to take some culpability for the fact that the regulatory oversight of the banks was not as effective as it should be.” He went on: “To do otherwise would be to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate.” Perhaps the next time the right hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box, he will apologise for the mess that Labour made.
The Prime Minister is asking questions, Mr. Speaker. He is preparing for opposition.
Let us talk about what people were saying in 2008. We all remember the speeches, do we not, Mr. Speaker? Let me quote from “David Cameron: A Conservative Economic Strategy”. In March 2008, the Prime Minister said:
“As a free-marketeer by conviction, it will not surprise you to hear me say that a significant part of”
the problems of the last decade
“has been…too much regulation”.
There we have it: the Prime Minister wanted less regulation of the City.
Let us return to the question about bonuses. The fact is that bonuses in the City were up by 64% in April—and why? Because the Prime Minister has cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p. People took their bonuses in April, and were given a massive tax cut as a result. Will the Prime Minister confirm that 64% figure, and the fact that people are being given a massive tax cut as a result of his decision?
First, let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. In 2012-13, City bonuses will be 85% lower than they were in 2007 and 2008, when those two were advising, or working in, the last Government, and had responsibility for regulating the City. It does not matter what the right hon. Gentleman says; he cannot get over the fact that they presided over boom and bust, the collapse of the banks and the failure to regulate. We remember what they said in 2008: they said “No more boom and bust” . They referred to
“ a… golden age for the City”.
That is what they said. They cannot hide their dreadful record, and they ought to start with an apology.
The whole House will have noted that the Prime Minister cannot deny the figures that I read out to him. He does not even know the facts. Bonuses are up so that people can take advantage of his massive cuts. Here is the truth. For all his tough talk, the reality is that the Prime Minister is dragging his feet on banking reform. Business lending is still falling, bonuses are rising, and while ordinary families are suffering, he is giving a massive tax cut to the bankers.
Just another display of extraordinary weakness! Labour had 13 years to sort out this problem and did absolutely nothing. It is this Government who have introduced the banking Bill, this Government who have introduced the ring fence, this Government who have put the Bank of England in charge of regulating credit in our economy. Instead, what we ought to be getting from the right hon. Gentleman is an apology and a thank you to us for clearing up the mess they left.
Occasionally, one should be grateful. May I warmly commend my right hon. Friend for being the first Conservative Prime Minister ever to commit to a referendum on Europe and for leading a Government who have done more than any other to tackle welfare dependency, to reduce immigration and to bring in academies, thereby showing that one can be Conservative, popular and right all at the same time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and may I, on behalf of everyone in the House, congratulate him on his richly deserved knighthood? He has served in this House for many decades and also in the vital role of overseeing the Public Accounts Committee, which does such important work in our parliamentary system. I am grateful for what he says about the referendum and I would urge all colleagues to come to the House on 5 July and vote for this Bill.
I am proud that we have protected the poorest in our country by increasing the child tax credit, but the most important thing we can do to tackle poverty is to get more people into work. There are now more people in work in our country than at any time in our history. In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, in the west midlands, the number of people employed is up 66,000 since the election. It is worth remembering the last Government’s record, because even during the boom years, private sector employment in the west midlands went down.
I am sure the Prime Minister will want to join every Member in wishing all British players the best of luck for the Wimbledon championships, which start on Monday. Looking to the future, does he back the Lawn Tennis Association’s schools tennis programme, which is now in operation in over 16,000 schools, including a number in my Winchester constituency such as the Henry Beaufort and Kings’, to help find us some future home-grown and home-trained champion?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. First of all, let us congratulate Andy Murray on his excellent victory at the Queen’s club at the weekend, and wish him and other British players well for the Wimbledon tournament. We should commend the LTA for its work in trying to make tennis much more of a mass participation sport. I see it in the primary school that my children go to, where more tennis is being taught and played. It still has a long way to go. The LTA has to satisfy Sport England and all the funding bodies that it is doing everything it can to make tennis a mass participation sport.
Q3. When, according to The Sunday Times, just 1,000 of our richest citizens have increased their wealth since the financial crash by £190 billion while everyone else has been forced to take on average a 6% real-terms cut in income, is not the Prime Minister’s policy of enriching the perpetrators and punishing the victims the very opposite of a one nation Britain? (160321)
The richest in our country are going to pay a higher percentage of income tax under this Government than they did under the last one. The right hon. Gentleman sat in that Government and had an opportunity to do something about it, but all the time he was a Minister, the top rate of tax was actually lower than it is going to be under this Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a community is obliged to take a strategic piece of infrastructure, there should be agreements for payments and compensation for any blight that is caused by a nationally important piece of structure like a rail freight interchange?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why section 106 agreements exist. We need to keep this under active review, particularly with a view to how we are going to handle fracking and shale gas, for instance, where we might need a simpler and more direct mechanism to make sure that communities feel the real benefit of things that benefit the economy overall.
Q4. On Monday, the Milburn report showed that the proportion of students from state schools at elite Russell Group universities is now lower than a decade ago. Meanwhile, another report, Project Hero, is secretly considering lifting interest rates on previous graduate loans. After £9,000 tuition fees, does the Prime Minister think such another breach of faith is more likely to encourage students from less wealthy backgrounds to apply to university, or discourage them? (160322)
I will make two points to the hon. Gentleman, because this is an important question. First, the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is higher than it has ever been, so that is a good step forward. Secondly, if we want to get children from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities, we should be supporting things like the academies programme and free schools. We saw in Labour’s announcement this week that they are now saying that they support free schools. That is great. The trouble is they then went on to say that they are not going to allow any more of them. Then they said this, which is quite extraordinary:
“What we will have is a new academies programme including parent-led academies, really good teacher-led academies like Peter Hyman’s school in east London”.
They want more schools like that. The shadow Education Secretary is nodding. There is only one problem: that school is a free school. What a complete shambles.
What discussions has the Prime Minister held with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to amend the priorities of Natural England and the Environment Agency so as to recognise the value of productive land and the need to protect farmland in my constituency from flooding?
I have conversations about this issue with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As I announced in the House last week, he will soon bring forward the proposal to make sure that the insurance scheme that protected households in danger of flooding is renewed. We also need to make sure we protect farmland in the way the hon. Lady says, not least because, with global populations rising, the demand for food production is going to increase, and we should make sure we have a good level of food security in this country.
Q5. The last Labour Government took 1 million children out of poverty. Figures released recently show that one in six children in this country now lives in poverty. In my constituency, one in three is living in poverty, compared with one in 10 in the Prime Minister’s constituency. What is he going to do about it? (160323)
Q6. Whatever the long-term benefits of the high-speed rail project, it is already causing serious worry for tens of thousands of home owners along the route. Will my right hon. Friend give urgent attention and consideration to the possibility of introducing a property bond, to remove that blight? (160324)
I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this issue. It is right that he stands up for his constituents, and other MPs have discussed this issue with me. I think we should remain committed to HS2, because it will connect our cities and communities and bring many benefits, particularly to the north of England, as it is built out, but we should look at the compensation schemes available, and we are consulting and listening to the idea of the property bond.
Q7. In his statement following the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby a month ago, the Prime Minister announced the setting up of the Government’s taskforce on tackling extremism, and said:“We will also look at new ways to support communities as they come together and take a united stand against all forms of extremism.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1235.]In Woolwich, our diverse communities have been working hard to do just that. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what progress has been made by the taskforce, and specifically what new ways he envisages will emerge to support communities such as ours? (160325)
First, may I commend the right hon. Gentleman on all the action he has taken in his community. I saw for myself when visiting Woolwich how strongly that community has come together to decry absolutely what happened and to build a stronger future.
The taskforce has met, and the first papers and ideas have been commissioned. One particular idea we are looking at is something I heard about when I was with the right hon. Gentleman in Woolwich: where, for instance, communities want to come together and try to drive extremist groups out of particular mosques or Islamic centres, they often need help, including help with legal advice, to do that. That is one of the specific ideas, but the action of this taskforce should cover the whole waterfront of everything we do right across our communities.
Given the need to improve recognition of the role of women in the developing world, especially in the contexts of health, education, water and sanitation, business and all other matters that affect administration in those countries, will my right hon. Friend take a positive interest in my Gender Equality (International Development) Bill, which will be introduced today? Will he note that it is already supported by a very wide range of people, including WaterAid, The GREAT Initiative and others?
I will certainly study my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is not necessarily the Bill we would all expect him to produce, but it sounds like an absolutely excellent idea. In co-chairing the high-level panel at the UN about the future of development, I wanted to make sure that gender equality was put right up there in the replacement for the millennium development goals, and it is there. I think his Bill might be able to provide some extra ideas for how to bring this to life.
Q8. In 2010, the Prime Minister proudly stated:“we actually made sure that neither the budget, nor the spending round…would result in any increase in child poverty” but in his first full year as Prime Minister, the number of children in absolute poverty rose by 300,000, and it is still rising. Will he now admit that he was wrong and that his policies are to blame? (160326)
We made a specific decision in the spending round to increase the child tax credit to protect the poorest families in our country, but we had an inheritance from the last Government of such appalling levels of debt that it has been difficult and painful to deal with them. Let me repeat the point that the best way to get people out of poverty is to see employment grow, and in the north-west, the part of the country that the hon. Lady represents, employment has risen by 6,000 this quarter, it has risen by 50,000 since the election and unemployment is down by 20,000 since the election. Those are all life chances, jobs and chances to get on which people did not have under the last Labour Government.
May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s leadership at the G8 to prevent the horrors of Syria from turning into a regional humanitarian catastrophe? May I also urge him to pursue further the support for Lebanon and Jordan, two very fragile neighbouring states, and especially to go further with the support we are providing for the Lebanese army, which is the only cross-confessional organisation in the area and a potential stabilising force?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the G8. We did make some good progress on Syria, particularly on support in terms of humanitarian aid, where $1.5 billion extra was pledged for what is now becoming one of the worst humanitarian crises we have seen in recent years. He is absolutely right to say that we need to support the neighbouring states, and we should pay tribute to the Lebanese army, which plays a very important role—we do indeed fund its activity in terms of some of the border posts.
Q9. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), and indeed several times in this Question Time, the Prime Minister has said that the best way of tackling poverty is to get people into work. In principle I agree with him, but would he explain this: why is it that two thirds of the children in poverty today come from families where at least one adult is in work, and why is that figure rising? (160327)
The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that work is the best answer for taking people out of poverty. Yes of course we should continue to pay child benefit, which we do. Of course we should continue with the tax credits that we do pay. Indeed, one of the decisions we made when we came into office was to stop the nonsense of tax credits going to people, including Members of this House of Commons, earning £50,000 or more a year. So we are focusing the help on the people who need it most, and we have seen in the west midlands an extra 66,000 people in work.
Q10. A few weeks ago, nine paediatricians wrote to me and the Care Quality Commission expressing serious safety concerns after maternity services at the Eastbourne district general hospital were downgraded. Since then, their managers have acted in an intimidating manner. Will the Prime Minister assure me that reprisals will not be made against those doctors and that the managers implement the safety concerns? (160328)
As we have discussed before in this House, there should always be safeguards for people who whistleblow and for people who tell the truth about problems in our NHS. We have completely overhauled the Care Quality Commission from what was—and the report out today proves it—a totally dysfunctional organisation that we inherited.
In a few weeks’ time, thousands of young people across the country, including many from my constituency in Salford and Eccles, will be graduating from university and looking forward to getting their first step on the career ladder. Unfortunately for many of them, the only option will be a long-term unpaid internship that requires them to work for free. Will the Prime Minister therefore make sure that the National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2011 are rigorously enforced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to put an end to this exploitation of our young people?
The right hon. Lady is doing some important work in this area. It is a difficult area to get right, because we all know from our own experiences that some short-term unpaid internships—work experience—can be very valuable for the people taking part. On the other hand, unpaid interns should not be employed instead of workers to avoid the national minimum wage. That is the balance that we have to get right, and I commend the right hon. Lady for the important work that she is doing.
Q11. The excellent children’s heart unit at Southampton general is the best in the country outside London, yet the recent decision by the Secretary of State means more uncertainty for patients and their families in my Eastleigh constituency. What assurances can the Prime Minister give about the future of that unit? (160329)
I do not think the Secretary of State had any choice but to re-begin the whole process of looking at Safe and Sustainable in children’s hospitals, including Southampton, which is twinned with the hospital that serves my constituency, so I quite understand people’s frustration about the time that this is taking, but most important of all is to make sure we get the decision right.
The Government’s own research shows that there is a link between the portrayal of women as sex objects in the media and greater acceptance of sexual harassment and violence against women. That being the case, will the Prime Minister join me in trying to get our own House in order and calling on the parliamentary authorities to stop The Sun being available on the parliamentary estate until page 3 is scrapped, and will he have a word with his friend Rupert Murdoch about it while he is at it?
I am glad the hon. Lady got her question asked after the dazzling T-shirt that she was wearing last week failed to catch Mr Speaker’s eye. I am afraid I do not agree with her. It is important that we can read all newspapers on the parliamentary estate, including The Sun.
Q12. I welcome the Prime Minister’s leadership on getting the G8 to agree a deal on tackling aggressive corporate tax avoidance. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not be offering a corporate tax avoidance service, as does the Labour party? (160330)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At the G8 we achieved real progress on tax transparency and cracking down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, but is it not a sad thing that, although we were doing that, the Labour party is still offering tax avoidance advice to its donors, and it has not paid back the £700,000 of tax that it owes? Let me remind the leader of the Labour party what he said:
“If everyone approaches their tax affairs as some of these companies have approached their tax affairs we wouldn’t have a health service, we wouldn’t have an education system.”
So he has to put his hand in his pocket and give the money back.
Q13. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 8 May and I have not yet received a reply. May I ask him now whether he has had any discussions with Lynton Crosby about the standard packaging of cigarettes or the minimum price of a unit of alcohol—yes or no? (160331)
I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything. The only opinions that I am interested in are how we destroy the credibility of the Labour party, on which he has considerable expertise, though I have to say that he is not doing as good a job as the Labour party.
Q14. Last year the Prime Minister successfully intervened in the case of newly born baby Lexie-Mai, who has eventually been confirmed as the daughter of Private Daniel Wade, who died on active service in Afghanistan. Private Wade’s fiancée and her family are in the Gallery today. This whole situation would not have arisen if the Ministry of Defence routinely kept samples of DNA of soldiers on active duty. Are we making any progress on this? (160332)
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is quite right to have stood up for his constituents in the way that he did. I would like to convene a meeting with MOD Ministers so that I can get back to him with the very best answer about the action we can take to stop these problems happening in the future.
We need to build more houses in our country, and that is exactly what the Government are doing. We are building more social houses and more private houses, and we are reforming housing benefit so that we can better use the money. The question now is for the Opposition. They spent weeks and weeks complaining about the removal of the spare room subsidy. I do not know whether anyone else has noticed: they do not ask questions about it any more. Could that possibly be because they have not got a clue about whether they would restore it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very good news that this free trade agreement has been launched at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. It will now take many months of very difficult and patient negotiation. It is a hugely complicated problem, because we want it to cover all sorts of areas, such as public procurement and services, and not just manufactured goods, but it is good that it is getting going, because this could mean millions of jobs right across Europe and great benefits for us here in the UK.
On the subject of giving money back, which the Prime Minister has just referred to in respect of the Labour party, will he now explain to the House why when he had a windfall he decided to write down his mortgage at Notting Hill instead of writing down the mortgage on the one that he was claiming for from the expenses allowance in the House of Commons?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G8.
The Government decided to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland to demonstrate the strength of this part of the United Kingdom. We wanted to show the success of the peace process, the openness for business and investment, and the potential for tourism and growth. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the First and Deputy First Ministers for all they did to help with the conference, I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those responsible for delivering a safe and successful G8, and I thank everyone in Northern Ireland for giving everyone such a warm welcome. Northern Ireland put on its best face and the whole world could see what a great place it is.
We set a clear agenda for this summit: to boost jobs and growth, with more open trade, fairer taxes and greater transparency—what I have called the three Ts. I also added a fourth T—combating terrorism. We reached important agreements, including on support to the Libyan Government and ending ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. Despite our fundamental differences, we also made good progress, agreeing a way forward on working together to help the Syrian people achieve the change they want. Let me take each of these points in turn.
We started with the issues that matter most to our people—jobs, growth and mending our economies. First, we agreed that each country needs to press on with sorting out its public finances. Dealing with our debts and securing growth are not alternatives. The former is an essential step in achieving the latter. In fact, the communiqué that we agreed unanimously reflects all three parts of the plan for growth that we have in Britain—not just fiscal sustainability, but active monetary policy to unlock the finance that businesses and families need, and structural reforms to increase our competitiveness so that our young people can get into work and succeed in the global race.
The UK’s G8 also launched a bold new pro-business agenda to drive a dramatic increase in trade and to get to grips with the problems of tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and corporate secrecy. This was a distinctive British agenda to shape the way the world economy works for the benefit of everyone. We believe in free trade, private enterprise and low taxes as the best route to growth, but that is only sustainable if ambitious trade deals are agreed, the taxes owed are paid and companies play by the rules. This agenda has now, I believe, been written into the DNA of G8 and G20 summits for many years to come.
On trade, we started the summit with the launch of negotiations on the EU-US trade deal. As has recently been said, this could add as much as £100 billion to the EU economy, £80 billion to the US and £85 billion for the rest of the world. We should be clear about what these numbers mean: more jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops, and the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, launched at our G8.
On tax, the Lough Erne declaration that leaders signed yesterday sets out simple, clear commitments: tax authorities around the world should automatically share information so that those who want to evade taxes will have nowhere to hide; companies should know who really owns them; and tax collectors and law enforcers should be able to obtain this information easily, for example through central registries, so that people cannot escape taxes by using complicated and fake structures. In a world where business has moved from the offline and the national to the online and the international but the tax system has not caught up, we are commissioning the OECD to develop a new international tax tool that will expose discrepancies between where multinationals earn their profits and where they pay their taxes.
The declaration also makes it clear that all that action has to help developing countries too, by sharing tax information and building their capability to collect taxes. Crucially for developing countries, we agreed that oil, gas and mining companies should report what they pay to Governments and that Governments should publish what they receive so that natural resources are a blessing, not a curse. Charities and other non-governmental organisations have rightly campaigned for years for action on these issues, and for the first time they have been raised to the top of the agenda and brought together in one document.
The agreements on tax made at the summit are significant, but it is also worth noting what has happened on this front since I put the issue to the top of the agenda. On 1 January there was no single international standard for automatic exchange of information. Now there is such a standard, and over 30 jurisdictions have already signed up, with more to follow. After years of delay, the European Union has agreed to progress the sharing of tax information between member states. The UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies have signed up to the multilateral convention on information exchange and agreed automatic exchange of information with the UK and action plans for beneficial ownership. Taken together, all the actions agreed with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will provide over £1 billion in revenue to the Exchequer, helping to keep taxes down for hard-working families here in Britain.
People around the world also wanted to know whether the G8 would take action to tackle malnutrition and ensure that there is enough food for everyone. The pledges at our nutrition and hunger summit earlier this month will save 20 million children from stunting by 2020. Crucially, our G8 also took action on some of the causes of these problems. That is why the work we did on land, extractive industries, tax and transparency is so important.
Turing to the fourth T—terrorism—we agreed a tough, patient and intelligent approach: confronting the terrorists, defeating the poisonous ideology that sustains them and tackling the weak and failing states in which they thrive. The G8 leaders reached a groundbreaking agreement on ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. In the last three years alone ransom payments have given al-Qaeda and its allies tens of millions of dollars. These payments have to stop and this G8 agreed that they will.
We also discussed plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. Britain has long supported a peace process in Afghanistan to work alongside our tough security response, so we welcome this step forward.
We also discussed support to Libya. I believe that we should be proud of the role we played in ridding Libya of Colonel Gaddafi, but we need to help that country secure its future. So we held a separate meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister, which included President Obama, and European nations have already offered to train 7,000 troops to help Prime Minister Zeidan disarm and integrate the militias and bring security to the whole country. More contributions will follow from others. Let me be clear that the Libyan Government have asked for this and will pay for it.
Finally, let me turn to Syria. It is no secret that there are very different views around the G8 table, but I was determined that we should use the opportunity of this summit to overcome some of these differences and agree a way forward to help the Syrian people achieve the change that they want. This did not happen during just one night in Lough Erne; the talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been vital.
In the weeks before the summit, I flew to Sochi and Washington, and I met again President Putin and President Obama in the hours before the summit began. These conversations were open, honest and frank, but we were all agreed on what must be the core principle of the international approach to this crisis. There is no military victory to be won and all our efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political solution.
Together with our G8 partners, we agreed almost $1.5 billion of new money for humanitarian support. This is an unprecedented commitment from Lough Erne for Syria and her neighbours. We agreed to back a Geneva II process that delivers a transitional governing body with, crucially, full Executive authority. So a core requirement for success that had been called into doubt in recent weeks has now been reasserted unanimously, with the full authority of the G8.
We pledged to learn the lessons of Iraq by making sure that the key institutions of the state are maintained throughout the transition and that there is no vacuum. This sends a clear message to those loyalists looking for an alternative to Assad. The G8 also unequivocally condemned any use of chemical weapons and, following an extensive debate, we reached for the first time a united position, including Russia, that the regime must immediately allow unrestricted access for UN inspectors to establish the full facts on the use of chemical weapons by regime forces, or indeed by anyone else. All these agreements are absolutely fundamental to saving lives and securing the political transition that we all want to see.
Let us be clear on what is happening in Syria and what we are trying to achieve. We are faced with a dramatically escalating humanitarian disaster with more than 90,000 dead and almost 6 million people having had to flee their homes. There is a radicalisation of terrorists and extremists who will pose a direct threat to the security of the region and also the world. There is a growing risk to the peace and stability of Syria’s neighbours and the long-standing international prohibition on chemical weapons is being breached by a dictator who is brutalising his people.
None of this constitutes an argument for plunging in recklessly. We will not do so, and we will not take any major actions without first coming to this House. But we cannot simply ignore this continuing slaughter. Of course it is right to point out that there are extremists among the Opposition. There are, and I am clear: they pose a threat not just to Syria but to all of us. The G8 agreed that they should be defeated and expelled from their havens in Syria.
I also understand those who fear that whatever we try to do could make things worse, not better. Of course we must think carefully before any course of action, but we must not accept what President Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal action against Syria is extremism and terrorism. There are millions of ordinary Syrians who want to take control of their own future, a future without Assad. That is why I made sure that the G8 agreed that the way through the crisis is to help Syrians forge a new Government who are neither Sunni, nor Alawite, nor Shi’a.
We are committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. This is not easy, but the essential first step must be to get agreement between the main international powers with influence on Syria. That is what we have done at the G8 in Lough Erne. We must now work to turn these commitments into action, and I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s statement. Let me start by commending him on holding the summit in Northern Ireland. Fifteen years ago, holding a G8 summit in Enniskillen would have been unthinkable. Peace has transformed Enniskillen, and the location of this summit alone is testament to what can be achieved through politics and dialogue. It is a credit to all the people of Northern Ireland.
Let me take the G8 issues in turn. On hunger and nutrition, it is completely unacceptable that there is enough food in the world for everyone, yet 1 billion people still go hungry and 2.3 million children die every year from malnutrition. I therefore welcome the agreements and commitments made during the hunger summit. The task must now be to ensure that these commitments will be delivered. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are right to stick by our pledge of 0.7% aid as a proportion of national income and does he further agree with me that we should be using all the moral force that we gain from that position to urge others to follow suit?
On trade, we welcome and support the launch of negotiations on a free trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will tell all his colleagues, including the Cabinet, that this is a timely reminder of the importance for jobs and prosperity of staying in the European Union?
On tax havens, the Prime Minister said that one of his goals was to make sure that there will be public registries of who owns companies and trusts. What blocked getting agreement on that at the G8? Will he clarify whether the agreement reached by rich countries on information sharing, which he mentioned in his statement, will from the outset apply to developing countries? As the IF campaign has said,
“a summit focussed on transparency can’t justify keeping this information secret”
from poorer countries.
Let me turn to the devastating situation in Syria. It was right for the Prime Minister to prioritise this crisis and make it the focus of this week’s talks. We welcome the announcements of additional humanitarian relief, in particular the doubling of UK aid. However, as the Prime Minister has said, the answer to this humanitarian crisis is a political solution. All of us recognise the scale of the challenge of bringing together an international community that has been deeply divided on this issue, and there are no easy options.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that it was
“a strong and purposeful statement on Syria”.
Although we welcome the centrepiece of that statement being a commitment to the Geneva II conference, will the Prime Minister explain why there was no agreement on its starting date? It is being reported that the conference is now being pushed to July or even later in August. Based on his discussions this week, could he now tell us when he expects the conference to take place?
On the substance of Geneva II, the Prime Minister has spoken today about the importance of the agreement in Enniskillen on a transitional governing body with full Executive authority, based on the maintenance of key institutions of the state and an inclusive political settlement. Does he accept, however, that every one of those commitments featured in the Geneva I communiqué back in June 2012? The Prime Minister spoke of this G8 providing a moment of clarity on Syria, but will he set out how in concrete terms yesterday’s statement moves us closer to a political settlement?
On arming the rebels, the Prime Minister now says that it is not his policy to do so. Given that the Geneva conference has already been delayed, is he able to envisage any circumstances in which he would seek to arm the rebels before the conference takes place?
Given the limited nature or the progress achieved this week, does the Prime Minister still maintain that focusing so much time and effort in the days and weeks preceding the summit on lifting the EU arms embargo was the right way to spend political capital and energy?
The reality is that we did not witness the long-hoped-for breakthrough on Syria at the G8 summit, and we need to be candid about that. None of us should doubt the difficulties of the choices that confront this Government and all Governments around the world. The Prime Minister knows that, on the steps agreed this week to tackle terrorism and on the issues of Afghanistan and, indeed, Libya, I have given him my full support. May I urge him in the months ahead, however, to proceed with the greatest possible clarity on his strategy and purpose and to seek to build the greatest possible consensus across this House?
First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about holding the conference in Northern Ireland. That was not without its difficulties and questions were asked, but not only was it a very successful and very well-managed and well-run conference—I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in it—but I think it was also one of the most peaceful G8s in terms of demonstrations. It was rumoured that one of the six tents in the place where all the tents were going to be put up belonged to some Dutch folk who happened to be on holiday. I also read this morning that one of the hopeful shopkeepers in Enniskillen had stocked up on vegan meals only to find that the protesters did not turn up in large enough numbers, so he now has a large supply going spare. It is a remarkable part of our country and it was good to bring the G8 to County Fermanagh.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said on the aid pledge. It is right that Britain has made and kept its promises, and we use that to bring others up to the mark. Of course, the G8 always publishes an accountability report. A lot of these communiqués are impenetrable, but this is very simple and straightforward on who has promised what and whether they have kept that promise. We should go on publishing those reports. I say to any sceptics that for every pound they pay in tax, only 1p of it goes to overseas aid. I think that that is a good investment in the future of the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the trade issue. It is good that we have made a start on EU-US trade and disappointing that we have not completed the Canada negotiations. He mentioned the single market. Of course, it is of benefit to Britain that we are in the single market as a trading nation and able to take part in deals with other parts of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of public registries of beneficial ownership and asked why we had not achieved public registries everywhere. For many G8 Governments and leaders, this is a new issue at the top of the agenda. I am absolutely convinced that central registries of ownership are vital if we are to cut out corruption and corrupt payments from developing countries, and if we are to get to the bottom of tax evasion. We put that on the agenda, and every G8 country has agreed to an action plan, and some have committed to immediate registries. We must keep pushing on that agenda because it is so vital. We will consult on whether our registry should be public—I look forward to the consultation getting going—but no one should underestimate the importance of having a registry so that the tax authorities can get to grips with those problems.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about tax information change—yes, it will be open to poorer countries, but we must help them to take part and carry on with the programmes we have to help poorer countries to collect their taxes.
On Syria, the date of a conference was discussed, but the decision was taken that the most important thing is to get the substance right on the role of the transitional authority, its powers and such like, rather than set too quick a date, which might set us up to fail. Obviously, there is a real sense of urgency and we all want to see it happen in the weeks ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the differences between Geneva I and the position we are now in. I would make two points to him on that. The Russians were backing off the idea of a transitional authority with full Executive powers, but have now fully reaffirmed it. That is important because no one wants to take part in negotiations that are for negotiations’ sake—they must be about something—and a transitional authority will not work unless it has full Executive power, including over the armed forces. As I said in my statement, the language and approach on chemical weapons is new, as is the language on humanitarian aid. Those new things were achieved at the G8.
I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to provide consensus on issues of foreign policy—we should always try to do that, and I hope we can re-forge that consensus in the months ahead—but the point I would make to him is this: I think that lifting the arms embargo in the EU was right. It sent a powerful signal that there is not a moral equivalence between Assad on the one hand and the official opposition, who want a democratic Syria, on the other. That has helped to add to the pressure. There is a huge danger that people will fall into the trap of believing Assad’s argument, which is that the only alternative to him is terrorism and extremism. We should stand for something else in the House and in this country—we should stand up for people who want democracy, freedom and the sorts of things we take for granted right here.
I fully share my right hon. Friend’s horror at the situation in Syria, a country that I first visited when I was 19, and where I have had good friends, but may I urge him not to propagate the myth that progress can be made only by the killing, or removal in some way, of President Assad, because the Syrian presidency is something of a family business, and President Assad has a number of extremely tough and ruthless individuals around him. They are probably tougher and more ruthless than he is. If President Assad is removed, one of them will instantly take over his position, and will be just as determined to prevent the Alawites from being massacred by the Sunni as is President Assad. If Geneva II is to make any real progress, I strongly recommend that President Assad should be invited to attend it, together with a representative of the new Iranian Government, who need to be brought back into the comity of nations.
I have huge respect for my right hon. Friend, but I do not agree with him that, somehow, President Assad can continue. When a leader has used chemical weapons against his own people and presided over such an appalling slaughter, he cannot have a place in the government of his country. I agree with him that, clearly, the aim must be to bring forward a transitional Government that includes Sunni and Alawite representatives, and representatives of the regime and opposition, because we need a Government in whom everyone in Syria can have confidence.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that there can be no military victory in Syria. In his search for a political solution, may I caution him on his apparent insistence on a precondition? Northern Ireland shows that preconditions do not work. He and I share exactly the same view of Assad’s barbarism, but if he insists that Assad cannot come to the conference or play any subsequent role, I caution him that the conference might never happen.
We are insisting that a proper conference must include representatives of the regime and representatives of the opposition, and that it should lead to a transitional Government. The UK Government have a clear view that neither of those stages can involve President Assad, for the reasons we have given, but that should not stand in the way of the transition that is necessary, and the transition that everyone in the G8, Russians included, believes is right.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are persistent reports that, in the course of the discussions on Syria, Russia made it clear that it would no longer insist that any final settlement should include a role for President Assad? If that is true, it represents a substantial step forward, if not a breakthrough, and merely emphasises the importance of continuing dialogue and discussion with Russia, which has such an important part to play in the solution we all seek.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. Obviously, it is important that the Russians are allowed to speak for themselves about what they did and did not say, and what they agree and do not agree with. I found in the discussions that the reason we were able to go ahead with the seven points I laid out at the press conference yesterday was that the conversations were constructive—we did not dwell on the areas where we have disagreed and continue to disagree; we dwelled on those areas where we can agree. I agree with what he says about engaging with President Putin. That is why, in addition to inviting President Putin here before the G8, I flew to Sochi this year—I was the first Prime Minister to visit Russia for many years.
I thank the Prime Minister for highlighting his commitment to ending world hunger as such a central part of the G8, and for highlighting many of the underlying causes, but he will be aware that a third of the most malnourished children in the world live in just four countries—India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh—so will he continue to use his best offices to ensure that those countries give their wholehearted commitment to ensuring that their children do not go to bed hungry every night?
On Syria, two days after America has agreed to sit down with the Taliban, surely it is better to bring everyone around the debating table. We do not want 12 more years of civil war in Syria.
On the Taliban, I have said many times that I welcome a political process. It is worth noting that the Taliban said in their statement that they wanted an Afghanistan that no longer caused instability, death or trouble in other countries. That is significant.
On hunger, the hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is not enough for us just to pass resolutions, or for this country alone to commit to aid programmes. We must engage other countries, which will do a lot of the heavy lifting in dealing with malnutrition. I am confident that, having held our summit at the Olympics last year, with the sort of top-up this year and the Brazilians co-chairing another summit at the Olympic games there, we have achieved a lot in terms of getting other countries to pledge action on hunger.
I commend the Prime Minister and the G8 for addressing the key challenges of the day. On Syria, the situation is becoming increasingly complex as the rebels become increasingly fragmented. Does he agree that the solution lies in a negotiated settlement, but—it is an important “but”—that cannot be achieved without him firmly setting out where his red lines lie?
My hon. Friend is right. Everyone wants a negotiated solution and a peace process. We must think about what things will make a peace process and peace settlement more likely. Obviously, international agreement at the G8 is one of them, but we must also ensure that Assad feels he is under some pressure and cannot achieve what he wants by military means alone. That is where there is such unity of purpose between President Obama, President Hollande, myself, Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper. This is an important point to make to those who have concerns. They cannot think of President Obama as someone sitting in the White House dreaming up ways to start a new engagement or war in the middle east. That is not what Barack Obama is about. He knows that we need a peace process, but he also knows we need to present a tough and united front to President Assad in the process.
The Syrian Government have brought their troubles on themselves. There is no doubt that they are a corrupt and brutal regime. Although the Prime Minister was keen to lift the arms embargo, there was no enthusiasm in this House for doing so and very few Members have stood up and said that they are in favour of sending arms to the Syrian opposition. The sooner we have a debate on this subject, the better.
We are debating it right now and we should go on debating it. We have not made a decision about arming the rebels. However, the fact that we are working with the opposition to help and advise them, along with the French, the Americans and our Gulf allies, is helpful in making sure that Syria has a legitimate opposition who want democracy, freedom and a pluralistic Syria. At the same time, we should have no hesitation in condemning extremism. We must work with everyone to say that the extremists on all sides, including Hezbollah, which is working for the regime, should be expelled from the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the case of my constituent, Shaker Aamer, with President Obama during the G8. Will he update the House on that discussion and on what progress has been made towards Mr Aamer’s release from Guantanamo Bay?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts on behalf of her constituent and his family. I have received moving letters from them. I raised the case with President Obama directly and will be writing to him about the specifics of the case and everything that we can do to expedite it. We need to show some understanding of the huge difficulties that America has faced over Guantanamo Bay. Clearly, President Obama wants to make progress on this issue and we should help him in every way that we can with respect to this individual. I will keep my hon. Friend and the House updated on progress.
I am sure that the Prime Minister was honoured to showcase to his fellow world leaders one of the most beautiful regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the lakelands of Fermanagh, and to bask in the glory of one of the most peaceful G8 summits in history. Will he assure Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland that he will do everything in his power to build on that summit and bring economic prosperity to Northern Ireland? Will he also ensure that all company taxes that are due to the UK coffers go to them, instead of to the Irish Republic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Each of the G8 leaders mentioned how pleased they were to be in Northern Ireland and how impressed they were by the progress of the peace process. The advertising or, as I put it yesterday, infomercial for Northern Ireland was priceless. I ensured that the leaders were all sent off with a bottle of Bushmills to enjoy when they got home.
We discussed the tax issue. It is important to recognise that as well as the issues with the rate of corporation tax, there are issues with how tax authorities handle companies. We must ensure that they do not turn a blind eye to bad practices. That is an important part of the debate.
The Prime Minister was right to take a lead on the EU-US trade deal, which could increase car exports by a further 25%. Does he agree that another very big prize, through the mutual recognition of regulations, would be the ability to set standards globally?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point highlights what a complicated and difficult deal it is. We sometimes think that trade deals are just about taking down tariff barriers and then letting the market decide. Modern trade deals are much more about agreeing common standards and recognition of each other’s standards, and opening up things like services and procurement. The deal will be difficult and complicated, but it has started with good will on all sides, which is the right way to kick it off.
The automatic transfer of tax information and the provision of registers of beneficial ownership appear to be no more than a wish list, since the communiqué says that countries “should” do those things, rather than “will”. What sanctions or pressures will be exerted against countries that refuse or fail to comply, given that that could unravel the whole objective?
The right hon. Gentleman has a long track record of campaigning on these issues. I urge him to read the Lough Erne declaration, because we tried to put down in simple terms something that everyone would understand about publishing information, about companies saying where they pay their taxes and about what extractive industries pay to developing countries. People write and campaign to all Members of the House on that agenda, and we all feel passionately about it. Getting the leaders to sign their name under that declaration means that it will become part of the G8 process. Every time we meet, we will discuss what progress has been made and what fresh agreements have been made. In the end, all countries are sovereign and make their own decisions, but it was remarkable how much progress was made so quickly at the G8 in getting countries to sign up to these things and do them.
The Prime Minister is right to stress the importance of a political settlement in Syria. Does he understand that excluding Iran from the forthcoming talks simply because we do not agree with it is an admission of political and diplomatic failure? It is precisely because we do not agree with it that we should be talking to it. Will he revisit that decision and approach his international partners in the hope that there can be a change of view?
I make two points to my hon. Friend. First, Iran has never accepted the premises of Geneva I, so it has not even crossed the threshold into considering what a transition would look like. Secondly, when we are trying to put together a group of individuals to negotiate at a peace conference, the most important thing is that there are a limited number of people from the regime and a limited number of people from the opposition who represent the people of Syria. We must focus on that more than on anything else.
May I ask the Prime Minister about the fourth T in his tieless summit: the issue of counter-terrorism? I welcome what he said about the agreement on ransom moneys. However, we must consider not only the discussions of the leaders, but the follow-up. What additional resources or powers will he give the Roma-Lyon group that traditionally follows up on the counter-terrorism agenda from G8 summits? In the end, the most important part of the summit meeting is what happens afterwards. The Prime Minister has seven months as president. Will he ensure that there is an effective structure?
The communiqué pays tribute to the Roma-Lyon group and says that it must have what is necessary to take action so that we can co-ordinate better after dreadful events such as that at in Amenas. In the discussion at the G8, we tried to agree on the drivers of terrorism and extremism across north Africa, and on what more the countries around the table could do so that we do not duplicate our efforts, but divide up what needs to be done. For instance, Britain could do more to help Nigeria, France could do more to stabilise Mali and the United States could work with key partners in the region. We tasked our national security advisers with continuing to work out how to adjudicate who should do more of what. It was encouraging that President Putin agreed to take up that work when he chairs the G8 next year.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the gravest threat to western interests and safety would be al-Qaeda getting its hands on Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons of mass destruction? Does he think that arming the rebels would make that outcome more or less likely?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the danger of having extremists in Syria who have weapons and the intent to get hold of chemical weapons. We must ask ourselves how we have got to that point because they already have weapons and that intent. The extremist element of the opposition has become too strong, so our aim should be to reduce its strength. That is why we agreed at the G8 that part of the programme must be to expel extremists on all sides from Syria—that is the absolute key.
I say to those who see dangers, quite rightly, in engaging in any efforts to help Syria that we have got to the point of extremists having arms, ill intent and the desire to get hold of chemical weapons while there has been a deficit of engagement from countries that want Syria to take the right path rather than the wrong path. As I have said, we have not decided to arm the rebels, but are working with the opposition in the ways that I have described. We are working with the Americans and the French. I am sure that being engaged and being positive about what Britain can achieve with its partners is the right approach to reducing the dangers, rather than increasing them.
I welcome the statement on taxation, international transparency and commissioning the OECD to develop new international tools, but has there been a recognition that the big accountancy firms have not always been as benign an influence on that transparency? Unless they too play a part in developing international standards of transparency, we will not succeed.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and we will never solve that issue just through Governments reaching agreements, either nationally or internationally. We need a debate about this in every boardroom and business in the world, and we also need lawyers and accountants to think about their responsibilities, as well as the bottom line. I do not think that is an unreasonable thing to do. A positive suggestion made by the French and Americans, with my support, was that we ought to be asking accountants and lawyers to do more to help developing countries with their tax systems. Otherwise, there is an unequal struggle between businesses armed to the teeth with corporate lawyers and—this was one example given—a country where the entire budget of the department dealing with the company was far smaller than that of the army of lawyers sent to deal with it.
I welcome the G8 pledges on Syria and fairer taxes worldwide, and particularly the Prime Minister’s closing remarks at the summit when he said:
“If Britain weren’t in the EU you would not directly benefit from an EU/US trade deal”.
Is it right that Europe means jobs?
The point I was making—I hope the hon. Gentleman will quote me in full—is that if Britain were not in the European Union we could reach our own trade agreements with different parts of the world, but I believe we benefit from being part of the single market, and obviously part of bigger negotiations where we have a huge amount of heft in delivering these deals. The EU-Korea deal has been positive, and I think the EU-Canada deal will be positive and completed very shortly. The EU-US deal obviously has more potential than all the others put together.
I have listened with interest to a number of the Prime Minister’s answers on tax. The IF campaign said that although there has been progress, the G8 tax deal left major unfinished business, particularly on information exchange in relation to poor countries. What assurances can the Prime Minister give thousands of campaigners up and down the country about when and how he will finish that business?
The IF campaign has done an excellent job in raising the profile of that issue and all the other issues around hunger, and in its response to the outcome yesterday it made a number of fair points. We have made good progress and the issue is far higher up the agenda than it has ever been. Lots of tax agreements have been made and lots of revenue recovered for this country. We have done a huge amount to help the poorest countries in the world. At the lunch meeting yesterday the African leaders said that this is absolutely the agenda they want us to focus on, but there is more to do and I am happy to keep on with that work.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making progress on Syria at the G8 summit, although there is clearly more to do. President Putin reminded us that among the Syrian rebels are those of the same kind that murdered Lee Rigby. What more can we do in this country to stop young British men going to Syria and coming back seriously radicalised?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a danger of young people from Britain taking part in this conflict, just as there has been in Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere. We should do everything we can in the UK to try to crack down on those centres of radicalisation. It is clear to me, as I said during Prime Minister’s questions, that we need to do more to throw extremists out of mosques and confront the radicalisers and hate preachers, and we must do more to throw those who are not British nationals out of the country. This is a huge programme that goes right across Government, and we must do everything we can to deliver it.
The Prime Minister will know that my constituents and people around the world will be positive about much that has come out of the G8 conference, although the hard-headed and cynical press are always ready to say it is pie in the sky. What assurance can he give me and my constituents that jobs and growth are a priority, and how do we know he will follow this through so that it makes a real difference to a world looking for a new deal in employment?
I completely understand people’s cynicism about these great international gatherings because they produce long communiqués, lots of talking, and one has to ask afterwards, “Well, what did you actually agree?” On this occasion, we can point to one or two really concrete things—an agreement not to pay ransom for kidnap by terrorists, which is good, and all the agreements in the run-up to the G8 conference which have delivered an extra £1 billion of revenue, just from Crown dependencies and overseas territories, that can help to keep tax rates down. I think the Lough Erne declaration is the clearest statement yet to come out of an international body about what needs to be done on tax, transparency and extractive industries, and frankly it is now a guide for NGOs to hold Governments to account and make progress on that vital agenda.
May I echo the strong words of the Leader of the Opposition, and thank my right hon. Friend for bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland, and through that, showing the world how far it has come from the dark and dangerous place I remember from my childhood? Before the conference, the Prime Minister alluded in a newspaper interview to his frustration with the diplomatic vagueness of communiqués. This one was a big step forward, and he has a list of real and tangible declarations on tax and transparency. What more will we do to get that excellent list—reproduced in full in today’s Belfast Telegraph—to the British people?
I commend the Belfast Telegraph on the fact that it has not joined the mass of the cynical and hard-bitten, and has actually said, “Hold on, this is an important breakthrough on the issues that people really care about.” We must now hold all those countries to their commitment and ensure that everybody delivers on the action plans for beneficial ownership, so that we can see who owns what company. We must ensure that the international exchange of tax information can involve every country in the world. In that way we can get fairer taxes and help the developing world at the same time. We need follow-up on all these issues.
Will the Prime Minister assure the House that there will be no unilateral military intervention, including the supply of weapons and other arsenals to the rebels in Syria, and that Britain’s role will be confined to an international peace plan? I was, of course, pleased that the G8 came to Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for praising the decision to hold the summit in Northern Ireland, and let me say again how well I think the authorities did in making it work. On Syria, the Government have clearly stated their approach. We want an international peace conference and a transitional Government, and we want a peace settlement. We believe, however, that we should be helping the Syrian national opposition. We have recognised—not just us, but America and countries across the European Union—that the opposition are legitimate spokespeople for the Syrian people. We should decry Assad—frankly, I hope the Labour party and all its allies in the Social Democratic and Labour party and elsewhere will decry Assad—[Interruption.] and continue to do so. We should also decry the use of chemical weapons. It cannot be said often enough what a brutal dictator this man is.
I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on the achievements of the G8. On tax transparency, will he comment a little more on the timetable that might be stretching in front of us for making that happen?
In terms of UK domestic action, we will publish shortly our consultation on whether to make a register of beneficial ownership public, and we can get on with that rapidly. The international exchange of tax information is progressing all the time throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and we need to keep pushing that.
The Prime Minister is aware that 30 years ago, a United States President and a British Conservative Prime Minister decided to arm the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, with consequences that are still with us today in belated talks directly with the Taliban. The Prime Minister mentioned Mali. I was there two weeks ago and we are aware that arms that came out of Libya led to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb almost taking power in that country. What guarantee can he give the House that if he decides to arm elements of the Syrian opposition, we will not be dealing with the same problems in this country and the rest of the world in 30 years’ time?
We have not made that decision and let me say that on Libya, I think it was right to work with others, including the French. There was cross-party agreement to do that and get rid of Gaddafi. Of course, that work is never done, but that should not be an argument for never doing anything anywhere. If we take action, as we do in Libya, we must do everything we can to help the successor regime that is democratically elected get weapons out of Libya, and that is what we are doing. Those are all arguments for engagement and working with partners—not putting our soldiers at risk or taking steps we are not capable of, but working with others to try to get good outcomes.
Was any progress made on international development issues in terms of trying to establish a land registry in Africa and other developing countries, as this would be hugely helpful in enabling people to have security when they lend to boost agricultural and industrial production?
That was discussed at the lunch held yesterday specifically on tax, transparency and trade, and the Lough Erne declaration covers the important issue of land transparency. The point was made that not only do we now have these declarations, but with all the capabilities of satellite mapping and digital technology, it should be easier to take these steps forward in the future.
The talks that the Prime Minister reported on between the Taliban and the west are obviously welcome, and one hopes that they bring about a long-term resolution and peace in Afghanistan, but can he not draw a parallel from that and recognise that a political settlement in Syria must involve Iran as much as Russia and all the other countries? Will he turn his attention to a political settlement, a date for the conference and wide participation, and get off his hobby horse about supplying arms to fuel a civil war within a civil war that can only bring about greater destruction to an already disastrous situation?
I would make two points. First, the Iranians have not accepted what was discussed at Geneva as a basis. Secondly, it is not right to say that the British Government have had a single fixation. After all, it was my decision to fly to Sochi to have the discussions with Vladimir Putin and to invite him back here in order to try and find common ground. When I sit down with him, there are obviously big disagreements—I take a totally different view from him about Assad and the use of chemical weapons—and there is no point hiding that. It is right to engage, however, and to discuss where we can find common ground, and that is exactly what we have done.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his energy in trying to resolve the dreadful humanitarian crisis in Syria and I warmly welcome his statement today that he is emphasising the diplomatic route. In that connection, may I press him gently, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) just did, on the need to bring in everyone who can influence the situation? Is it not a good idea to talk to the new Iranian President?
Of course, we should have discussions, as we are, with the Iranians over the nuclear issue, and perhaps those discussions can get a greater pace with the new Iranian President. We have to remember, however, why we do not have an embassy in Tehran—it was invaded and trashed by the Iranians. We should remember that. On the issue of how wide to take the discussions, of course in the end we need to involve all partners and neighbours—the more people who buy into a process, the better—but it is important that we do not make that a substitute for the real action that is needed, which is to get the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition, with encouragement from the Russians and Americans, to name the people who need to sit round the table to hold those talks. That is where the leaders need to apply pressure on everybody, because otherwise one can get into an endless, tortuous process.
While it was regrettable that climate change was not on the official G8 agenda this week, the communiqué described it as one of the foremost challenges we face. What is the Prime Minister doing to meet this challenge and secure a new global climate change agreement?
This issue was dealt with not only in the communiqué, but in the vital preamble, which is the part that most people look at to see what the conference discussed. My judgment was that it was right to talk with the G8 countries about, in particular, the issues of trade, tax and transparency, because I thought that that was where we could make the greatest progress. Had we had a long conversation on climate change, there would have been basic agreement among most of the participants around the table. We already know one another’s positions, and without some of the developing countries and larger countries, such as China and India, it would not have been a vital agenda-shifting discussion. I chose the subjects we spent the most time on, but there is an important reference to climate change, as the hon. Lady said.
The Prime Minister is to be warmly commended for taking the initiative and for the first time in recent years putting tax, transparency and justice in the developed and developing worlds on the agenda at the G8 and on making progress. In order that it be not the end, but only the beginning, of the process, will he undertake to take that agenda to the EU, the Commonwealth and the G20, so that by the end of the Parliament our Government can deliver on transparent ownership of companies, for example, and ensure that multinationals are seen to pay tax in all the countries where they work?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, the G8 includes a limited number of countries, but it can play a leadership role. Now we have this agenda and a simple and straightforward declaration, we can run it through the G20 and the Commonwealth. The EU has already started to address this issue with the ground-breaking deal on tax exchange between EU members, which for many years the Austrians and Luxembourgers have held up. So yes I want the British Government to drive this through all its multilateral bodies.
At an IF campaign event in Belfast last Saturday, I heard at first hand from Bangladeshi community workers about the impact that land grabs have had on people there, with the poorest farmers having been displaced and agricultural land being destroyed for more than a generation, so I very much welcome the Prime Minister placing land on the G8’s agenda for the first time. What will he do throughout the rest of our presidency of the G8 to ensure that G8 companies involved in aggressive land acquisition are tackled on this matter?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Point 7 of the declaration states:
“Land transactions should be transparent, respecting the property rights of local communities.”
That is the commitment, and we now need to engage with Governments beyond the G8 and businesses to ensure that it is put in place.
Is it not the case that the speed of events on the ground in Syria vis-à-vis chemical weapons potentially falling into the hands of the wrong opposition groups might move quicker than the Westminster parliamentary process? May I encourage the Prime Minister not to be deterred from making immediate national security decisions, if he needs to do so?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, it is a concern, because Syria has very large stockpiles of chemical weapons, and I think we have to focus on both dangers: the danger that the regime could use them again—as we have said, we believe they have been used on 10 occasions, so we have to beware of that danger, and President Obama has sent a clear message about that—and the danger that these stocks could fall into dangerous hands. We have to be alert to both dangers. He is absolutely right to say that we make a big commitment to come to the House, explain, vote and all the rest of it, but obviously Governments have to reserve the ability to take action swiftly on this or other issues.
When the tax avoiders find the first loophole in the Prime Minister’s current plan, will he come straight back to the House or the G8 and close it, or will I have to ask that question of my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party, because he will be the next Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that no sooner do we make one change to the tax system than another loophole opens up that we have to attack. Prime Minister Harper in Canada said that he had taken about 72 tax avoidance measures in recent years. This is continuing work; it never ends. As for the second half of his question, I think I will leave that.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his position vis-à-vis Syria. One of the lessons from Iraq, Libya and Lebanon is that some of these extremist groups thrive not only with the bomb and the bullet, but by distributing food aid and using other ways to aid the communities that they invade. What are we doing to help the official Syrian opposition do that sort of work with the communities in the areas they control?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It was a huge issue in Somalia, where we have seen real progress in recent years. What matters is funding humanitarian relief through the best mechanisms we have. At the moment, that means working a lot with non-governmental organisations and the UN to ensure that they deliver what they can. He is absolutely right, however, about ensuring that it gets to parts of the country held by the Syrian opposition.
Hosting the G8 in Enniskillen was a practical way of showing that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the UK, and I want to add my congratulations to the Prime Minister on taking it there. Is he aware of the concern, however, that the Libyan Prime Minister was in Enniskillen, just a few miles from the site of a terrible atrocity involving semtex from Libya, but was not able to meet those concerned—they got very late notice—and then went and met someone who used to be in the IRA?
First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Libyan semtex played an appalling role in the violence and destruction in Northern Ireland. For all we know, Libyan semtex may still be in the hands of dissident republicans, so this is a serious and live issue. Let me commend the Libyan Prime Minister for wanting to settle all these issues with the United Kingdom. He knows how important it is to communities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to do so. My sense is that he wants to deal with these issues, not least because he knows that Britain played such a key role in getting rid of Gaddafi. Let us not forget that he was the person who provided the semtex in the first place.
I thank the Prime Minister for choosing Northern Ireland to host the G8 conference. It looked very different on the television screens from when I was there some 19 years ago. Many internet providers exploit the global nature of the worldwide web to ensure that they avoid their fair share of tax. I congratulate the Prime Minister on reaching an agreement to commission the OECD to consider what tax regime can ensure that providers are taxed where transactions take place, not where they declare their profits. Will he let us know the timetable?
We commissioned the OECD to help us. The simple principle is that there should be a tool to enable a country to see how much revenue, profit and tax a company is paying in each jurisdiction. Sometimes non-governmental organisations and others have asked for full disclosure of every piece of information, but, frankly, boxfile after boxfile of information does not necessarily get us the high level tax tool we need to see whether there is a problem, to share information with other tax authorities and to find an answer. This is the right approach for the reasons I have just given.
The Prime Minister has in the past supported the public disclosure of ownership of companies, so why is he hesitating now, rather than seizing the opportunity to show leadership again and committing the UK to a public register in its action plan?
As I said, we will set up a central registry and consult on whether it should be public. There are strong arguments for it to be public, but let me make two points. First, the point at which one says one’s own registry will be public, one gives up rather a lot of leverage over other countries we might want to encourage to do that at the same time. Secondly, it is important to take the business community that believes in responsible behaviour with us on this journey of greater transparency and fairness. To be fair, the CBI has been supportive of this agenda, so there is nothing to fear from a consultation where we try to take people with us on this important progress.
I warmly welcome the clear commitments from the G8, led by my right hon. Friend, which I would characterise as growth with responsibility—growth for all citizens and responsibility for the most vulnerable. None of that can happen without responsibilities. Does he share my hope that the groundbreaking agreement on ransoms will not be lost in all this? I have seen this menace with my own eyes in the Sahel. It drives so much of the instability that we can now conquer by cutting it off at the source.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. There is no doubt that paying ransoms to terrorists has been immensely damaging. Tens of millions of dollars in countries such as Mali, Niger and elsewhere in the region he knows so well, can buy a huge amount of arms and power. The countries have all signed up to this. What matters now is that we hold each other’s feet to the fire and make sure we deliver on it. I pay tribute to President Hollande, Prime Minister Letta and others, who all willingly engaged in this agenda and signed this important declaration.
I fear that the Prime Minister’s strategy on Syria is completely misguided, but I want to ask him about the EU-US trade deal. Of course I support it, but we should not be naive. The Motion Picture Association is one of the best funded lobbying organisations in the world. It has always campaigned against any state subsidy of any kind for making movies in t