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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
09 September 2013
Volume 567

House of Commons

Monday 9 September 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Primary Schools: Sport

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1. What plans he has to encourage sport in primary schools. [900158]

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10. What plans he has to encourage sport in primary schools. [900168]

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Making physical activity integral to every child’s life from an early age is the key to an enduring, active and healthy lifestyle. That is why the Prime Minister announced cross-Government funding of £150 million each year for 2013-14 and 2014-15, to go to every state-funded primary school. This must be spent on improving the provision of physical education and sport. Ofsted will review schools’ use of this funding, and PE will remain compulsory in the national curriculum at all four key stages.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he join me in welcoming the benefits of the FA Tesco skills programme for primary school pupils, which aims to coach 4.7 million children by 2014?

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I am happy to welcome the benefits of the FA Tesco Skills programme, and to congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment as the FA’s parliamentary fellow. I can see huge benefits in sponsors such as Tesco and other well-known supermarkets working closely with national governing bodies to improve children’s access to high-quality coaching in different sports, which Lord Coe believes is an important aspect of our strategy going forward.

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Sport and healthy eating are vital in tackling childhood obesity. How does the Minister plan to encourage more primary schools to spend more time teaching those skills in a busy curriculum?

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With a third of children leaving primary school with a problem with their weight, that is a concern for us all, and as I have said, the final national curriculum, which is due to be published shortly, will make PE compulsory at all four key stages. The status of cooking and healthy eating will reflect the recent school food plan, so it is right that we do that, but ultimately it should be up to individual schools to plan their own curriculum to ensure that ample time is available to cover all subjects.

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Does the Minister agree that taking part in competitive swimming should be available to school pupils? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government the unfair funding for my home town of Hull, because our swimming pools are being closed, including Ennerdale, which is the only competition-sized pool in the city?

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I am happy to look at the particular situation that the hon. Lady has articulated, but it is up to local councils to make those decisions. Many councils are opening swimming pools around the country, and swimming will be a compulsory activity in the new curriculum, as we have seen the benefits that it can bring to a healthy lifestyle for many children across the country.

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The Government were warned when they cut the money for school sport partnerships in 2010 that there would be fewer children in schools doing sport. Survey after survey has shown just that. The Taking Part survey, which was published last month, showed that there had been a 10% cut since 2009 in the number of children aged five to 10 doing sport in school. What are the Government going to do to turn that around?

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It is disappointing to see the results of the Taking Part survey, but the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman have to make a decision soon about where they stand on school sport, and whether they are going to join the consensus that recognises that intervening early in a child’s life and making sport, through the work that we are doing with primary schools, an integral part of their life is the way forward. I am happy to discuss with him how he can join us to make sure that the huge amount of investment that we have made in school sports, which is ring-fenced and will be inspected by Ofsted, will have a real impact in the long term. I am open to those conversations, but he has to make a choice as to whether he is going to continue to carp from the sidelines or engage in the real debate.

Primary School Places

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2. What steps he is taking to ensure a sufficient supply of primary school places; and if he will make a statement. [900159]

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We are spending £5 billion in this Parliament on creating new school places—more than double the amount spent by the previous Government over the same time frame. We have worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding, so it is now more accurate than ever before, targeting money to the places where the demand is greatest.

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The Department for Education will be well aware of the concerns of parents in Walthamstow about the lack of school places, 400 of them having written to the Department. The only new school which has opened on its watch, a free school, has no outdoor play space. Are the Government happy, especially given the previous comments about sport, that this is good enough for kids in my constituency?

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We are very proud of our record, not just across the country, but in the hon. Lady’s area. I looked at the figures in preparation for today’s session, comparing the amount of basic need funding under the Labour Government with the allocations during this Parliament. Under the previous Government the allocations to her authority were £1 million, less than £1 million, less than £1 million, and so on—£11.2 million in total over the previous Parliament. Under this coalition Government the allocation will not be £11.2 million. It will be £126.7 million.

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Does my right hon. Friend think the policy of uncontrolled immigration pursued by the Opposition has led to some of the pressure that we see on primary school places in areas such as Rossendale and Darwen?

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There certainly are pressures from immigration, and there are other pressures on the birth rate too. These pressures have been known about since 2003, and in spite of that the Labour Government took 200,000 places in primary schools out of circulation, notwithstanding the warnings from those now on the Government Benches.

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We have heard an incredibly complacent answer from the Minister. In 2010 the Secretary of State promised a new generation of good small schools with smaller class sizes. Since then we have seen a trebling of the number of very large primary schools, and in the past year a doubling in the number of infant classes of more than 30 children. Does the Minister not regret the decision in 2010 to cancel Labour’s primary school building programme?

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The hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge, in fairness, that this Government are allocating more than twice the amount his Government allocated for basic need. He needs to acknowledge that his Government made a mistake in withdrawing 200,000 places from primary education in the period from 2003. If he really is concerned about our capital expenditure on schools, perhaps he can tell me whether the Labour party is planning to increase it.

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It is time that this Government took some responsibility for their own decisions. They have been in power for three and a half years and we have a crisis in primary school places. Last week the Secretary of State told us that free schools would solve this. Next year only one in three of the free schools that will open will be primary schools. How does that solve the problem? Will he change course even at this stage and give top priority in capital spending for new school places in areas that need extra school places?

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If the hon. Gentleman were doing his homework, he would know that the vast majority of new free schools are in areas of basic need and that almost half the free schools that we have just announced are in places such as London. I gently say to him that I did not hear an answer to the question of whether he is really suggesting that we need additional capital expenditure. What many in the House and outside will detect is the Labour party, in the same way as it did over Syria, offering criticisms but no serious policy solutions.

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Further to my right hon. Friend’s answer concerning the impact of free schools, can he assure me that those that are planned in areas where the need may not be as acute will remain under review, so that any further capital investment can be prioritised to deliver the places that we need?

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I can absolutely guarantee that we will continue to prioritise areas of basic need for free schools, and that we will make sure that we have the allocations of money to deal with the basic need problems left to us by the previous Government.

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Will the Schools Minister welcome the willingness of Rotherham council to add to the money that the Department is providing under the basic need funding to allow Cortonwood infants school and Brampton the Ellis junior school to expand their places? Why is it that half the free schools open already are in areas where there is no need for extra places?

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The second statement is simply wrong. The overwhelming majority of free schools are in areas of basic need. On the first question, I would be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his specific proposal. We want to be as pragmatic and helpful as possible to councils that face these pressures.

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Following the recent Public Accounts Committee report, it is clear to me that we have pressure on primary school places because Labour was obsessed with building landlocked expensive private finance initiative schools and decided to remove a quarter of a million primary school places during a baby boom. What is the quickest way for local communities to respond?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that from 2003 onwards, the Office for National Statistics was pointing to one of the biggest increases in the birth rate for many generations. Those who are now on the Government Benches were warning the Labour Government that there would be a real crisis in primary school places. In spite of that, 200,000 places were removed between 2003 and 2010. Labour Members will be pleased to know that almost all the 200,000 places have been replaced by this coalition Government.

Ofsted Inspections: Free Schools

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3. What assessment he has made of the outcome of Ofsted inspections of the first free schools. [900160]

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The first 24 free schools to open have been inspected by Ofsted and three quarters were judged to be either good or outstanding. One school was judged to be inadequate and we expect it to take urgent action to bring about rapid improvement. It is being closely monitored by Ofsted and the Department.

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What advice has my right hon. Friend given to Ofsted on the assessment of free schools, such as the Discovery New School in my constituency, given that they do not always meet the rigid national criteria of other schools?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Ofsted has, in its new revised handbook, taken account of the fact that more parents are exercising choice in a way that inevitably compels Ofsted to review its guidance, and explicitly it says:

“Certain types of schools (such as faith, Steiner and Montessori schools) exist as maintained or independent schools. When inspecting such…provisions, inspectors should familiarise themselves with the background information to these types of schools”.

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We heard at Prime Minister’s questions last week about the impact of free schools on the cost of school uniforms. Whatever the rights and wrongs of free schools or uniform policy, may I give the Secretary of State a second chance on this, and will he explain what steps he has been taking, in relation to free or other schools, to keep the cost of school uniforms down for parents?

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This is an important issue. Parents need reassurance that we are doing everything possible to keep down the cost of school uniforms. Clear guidance is issued by the Department for Education on how costs can be kept down. I subsequently read the report that was mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions last week and it referred to 13 schools, a small sample, but there were one or two worrying cases. I believe that those worrying cases may well be voluntary-aided schools rather than academy or free schools, but we shall keep the issue constantly under review.

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During the past 20 years, many Ofsted inspectors have required schools to adopt particular teaching methods, which some would call progressive, but which the evidence suggests have failed. The new Ofsted inspection framework now makes it clear that

“Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure.”

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that message is heard loud and clear by both inspectors and teachers, as he did in his excellent Policy Exchange speech on Thursday: that teachers who want to adopt a more effective teacher-led approach to teaching are now free to do so?

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My hon. Friend is right. One of the many reasons why Sir Michael Wilshaw is proving an outstanding chief inspector is that he has moved away from the rigid prescription that forced methods of teaching on schools which were not in the best interests of children, and he has ensured that we now have an approach that encourages teachers to teach, and that once more says that direct instruction, and the pedagogy that concentrates on knowledge, should be at the heart of what happens in our schools.

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It has been reported that the Durham free school has nine staff for 30 pupils. Does that, in addition to its unlimited capital, represent good value for the taxpayer or is it an act of political folly?

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I think it represents excellent value, because for far too long, as the hon. Gentleman knows, schools in County Durham, particularly in the east of the county, have not been good enough. The fact that parents at last have a challenger school, helping to raise standards in an area where, frankly, working-class children have been let down for far too long by a complacent Labour party, is to be welcomed. A genuine progressive would welcome it instead of carping and reading from the NASUWT National Union of Teachers hymn book.

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One in a Million free school opened last week in Bradford and was over-subscribed. I am sure that it will have excellent Ofsted inspections in the future. May I thank Lord Hill for the work that he put in to ensure that the school opened successfully, and will the Secretary of State confirm that either he or another Minister will visit One in a Million free school in the very near future?

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My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the school. I will do everything possible to ensure that I or another Minister visits Bradford as soon as possible. It is instructive that in Bradford politicians of every party—including Respect—apart from Labour are backing free schools. Why is it that Labour stands out against them?

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I call Theresa Pearce. Not here.

Unqualified Teachers

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5. What his policy is on the use of unqualified teachers in schools. [900162]

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Head teachers are best placed to make staffing judgments in individual schools.

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Under Government changes, more than half of all secondary schools can now employ unqualified teachers on a permanent basis, yet the Tory manifesto of 2010 stated:

“The single most important thing for a good education is for every child to have access to a good teacher. We will take steps to enhance the status of the teaching profession”.

Is it not now clear that the Government are going in precisely the opposite direction?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to point out that the proportion of postgraduate trainees in every subject, including non-target subjects, who have a 2:1 or higher degree, or a comparable overseas degree, has risen in each of the last three years. Teachers in our state schools are better qualified than ever.

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I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust answer. Does he agree that the people who are qualified to teach maths might in fact be those with good maths degrees, rather than teaching qualifications, and will he commend the university of Oxford for including teaching in schools as a possible module in its maths course?

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The hon. Gentleman’s natural modesty prevents him from pointing out to the House that he is himself a distinguished mathematician, but that is now a matter of record.

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My hon. Friend is a very distinguished mathematician and Member of this House, and he is absolutely right: we need to ensure that gifted mathematicians, both recent graduates and those who are changing career, have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation are introduced to the wonder and beauty of mathematics.

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Does the question the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) just asked not emphasise the point that we need highly trained teachers? We need to get the best out of teachers. They might be good at their academic subjects, but I believe that teachers are made, not born. Is that not right? Will the Secretary of State disassociate himself from the statement by the head of Brighton college, who thinks the reverse?

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It is difficult for me to disassociate myself from anything the headmaster of Brighton college says, because he was at the same college as me, in the year ahead, and is a much smarter guy. I owe almost everything I learnt at university to cribbing off him. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The whole point about teacher training is that it is not just a matter of one year of postgraduate study; it is a matter of continually refining one’s craft and profession collaboratively with other great teachers.

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I recall enthusiasm being expressed in the past for retiring members of Her Majesty’s armed forces being recruited as teachers. Can the Secretary of State indicate how many people retiring from Her Majesty’s armed forces have become teachers?

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I do not have the numbers in front of me, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figures. Our Troops to Teachers initiative has ensured that a growing number of those officers, both non-commissioned and commissioned, who have left the armed forces are now entering teacher training.

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I can assure the Secretary of State that I wish him no harm, but if later today he was taken ill and rushed to an accident and emergency department, would it be enough for him that the doctors and nurses were outstanding and talented individuals? Would he not expect them also to be qualified?

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I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman wishes me no ill. The one thing that I would take comfort from would be if the school had been ranked good or outstanding by Ofsted. I am pleased that the national health service is adopting our method of grading schools and applying it to hospitals, and I am pleased that under this Government, according to the chief inspector today, we have seen an unprecedented rate of school improvement.

GCSE Results (South Essex)

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6. What assessment he has made of the 2013 GCSE results in the south Essex area. [900163]

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There have been some very good results at GCSE in south Essex. In common with the rest of the country, we have seen a big rise in the number of students doing core academic subjects, thanks to the English baccalaureate. We have seen a 16% rise in modern languages and a record number of girls taking chemistry and physics as GCSEs.

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So will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Belfairs academy in my constituency on a staggering 21% increase in the number of pupils obtaining more than five A* to C grades and a 23% increase overall? Will she congratulate all Southend West schools on their wonderful results, which underline why Southend should have been named city of culture 2017?

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I congratulate the students and teachers at the school, and across Southend, on their excellent results. I hope that some of those students will be the upwardly mobile political giants that my hon. Friend wants in the House of Commons in future.

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19. Does my hon. Friend agree that exam results would improve even more in Essex and across the country if further education college students who were eligible for free school meals, got them? [900178]

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We are rightly ensuring that all students who do not achieve a C in English and maths at GCSE continue to study them at FE colleges and beyond, so that they get the results that they need for their future careers.

Academies

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7. What his policy is on academies; and if he will make a statement. [900164]

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I am in favour of academies.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. Academies have had freedom over the curriculum that they teach for some time. When is he going to extend that to all schools—and if he is not going to, why not?

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It is perfectly possible for any school to apply for academy status, but we need to make sure that the leadership team are capable of taking advantage of all the freedoms. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing academies; I wish that more of his colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is no longer in his place, would do so.

I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) will recognise, as I and academy sponsors do, that it is not only freedom over the curriculum that matters, but freedom over staffing and freedom to pay good teachers more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning the strike by the NUT and the NASUWT, which his Front-Bench colleagues have so conspicuously failed to do.

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Academy sponsorship is transforming education in Hastings. The Hastings and St Leonards academies have just been rated good by Ofsted, which represents the long journey they have been on. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming ARK, which has taken over the sponsorship of two of our other secondary schools in Hastings?

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I am absolutely delighted that the number of sponsored academies is increasing in areas where educational performance has been too low for too long. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for being such a doughty champion of the children of Hastings, who were let down under the last Government and are being rescued under this one.

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Further to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) earlier, I put it to him that the reason for the spiralling costs of school uniforms is that new free schools and academies are requiring branded items available only from special shops. That is the problem.

At one Manchester academy, the back-to-school costs were £302. I should say to the Secretary of State that, following last week’s question to the Prime Minister, I received feedback from all across the country that the issue was a problem. It could become a barrier to parents’ choice of schools. What action is the Secretary of State going to take?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for directing me towards the Family Action report, which I found interesting and sometimes sobering reading. The report identified 13 schools; they are not a representative sample. Those with the most significant additional costs for uniform tended to be voluntary aided schools rather than academies or free schools. There is no evidence that academies or free schools impose any additional uniform costs over maintained schools and there is no evidence that the overall increase in uniform costs has run out of kilter with other costs that families face. However, the Department is renewing its guidance to make sure that schools make the right choice for parents.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that it is particularly exciting for the academy programme when primary and secondary schools are brought together in the same academy structure, such as the Montsaye academy in Rothwell and the Kettering Buccleuch and Kettering Science academies in Kettering itself?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northamptonshire has been one of the counties most transformed by academies involving a range of sponsors. I thank my hon. Friend for the energetic work that he has done on behalf of the children of Kettering, making sure that standards and expectations are increased.

NEETs

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8. What proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds were not in education, employment or training in (a) the UK and (b) Isle of Wight constituency in the latest quarter for which figures are available. [900166]

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Some 9.1% of 16 to 18-year-olds in England were not in education, employment or training in April to June 2013. This is a fall of 1.4 percentage points on the same period last year and the lowest figure in a decade.

Some 4.7% of 16 to 18-year-olds in the Isle of Wight were NEET at the end of 2012. That is a fall of 0.5% on the same period in the previous year. The progress is good, but there is much more to do.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he clarify whether schools and colleges are required to get young people a GCSE in English or maths at level C or above or whether that is an aspiration? What sanctions will be imposed on those that fail to achieve it?

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It is a requirement on schools and colleges that students who have not achieved a C in English and maths GCSE will continue to study those subjects. From next year they will lose funding if they do not, because English and maths are the most important skills. They must study towards GCSEs but can take interim qualifications, such as functional skills, as a stepping stone.

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Surely if we want post-16-year-olds to stay on in education, young people of that age who attend further education colleges should be eligible for free school meals in exactly the same way as if they were at school.

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The question of free school meals post-16 is very important. However, schools are not funded to provide them after the age of 16, so making sure that we have a level playing field requires that we get the funding organised as well.

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Ahead of tomorrow’s Ofsted report on careers guidance in schools, does the Minister agree on the importance of careers advice in schools? Does he also agree that it is not working well and that it would be much improved if the National Careers Service were funded to provide support and a challenge for schools in fulfilling their duty?

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As my hon. Friend well knows, I am a passionate supporter of the inspiration and mentoring of children in schools and adults of all ages. It is important to make sure that the right people—pupils and students—get the right advice. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Ofsted report. We will respond and make it very clear what we are going to do to ensure that as many people as possible have such inspiration, mentoring, support and advice.

Free Schools

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9. How many free schools are open in England. [900167]

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One hundred and seventy-four.

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My right hon. Friend is aware that I am a huge fan of free schools, which not only offer extra school places but massively increase choice. As he will also be aware, there is great pressure on school places in Ealing. This week an application is going to his Department for a new free school, Ealing Fields, which has the support of the parents of 1,200 pupils, and counting. Does he agree that that application should be considered positively and favourably? We are all keeping our fingers crossed.

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Of course we will look at this application as we look at all applications. Every time my hon. Friend has recommended that I meet a head teacher from Ealing, whether Lubna Khan or Alice Hudson, I have been overjoyed to do so. I am delighted that outstanding head teachers working in our schools are being celebrated by my hon. Friend, and that people such as Alice Hudson are providing the opportunity to open new free schools so that more children can benefit.

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The Secretary of State and the shadow Education Secretary have visited and praised Cuckoo Hall academies in Enfield. Does my right hon. Friend share the frustration felt by me and by parents in my constituency that when there is the opportunity to spread the excellence of free schools in my constituency—for example, in the old Southgate town hall—it is repeatedly blocked by the Labour council?

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I do share my hon. Friend’s frustration. It is incumbent on Labour Front Benchers to show leadership and to call out the local authorities, from London to the north-east, that are standing in the way of opportunity. Until they do so, I am afraid that we will have to conclude that Labour is still too weak to govern.

Achievement Levels

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11. What recent assessment he has made of the relative achievement levels of boys and girls. [900169]

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Girls outperform boys at key stage and at GCSE by about 10%, except in the subject of mathematics, where boys slightly outperform girls. As everybody is aware, that is the subject with the highest earnings premium. Girls are also less likely to study the high-value subjects of physics, maths and chemistry at A-level.

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Our biggest educational problem is the long tail of underachieving boys in the system. What measurable progress, compared with international standards, have we made with this very stubborn problem?

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Ultimately, schools are best placed to improve the attainment of low-performing students. From 2012, we have given schools extra information about the gap in performance between boys and girls so that they can address it. The introduction of the phonics check at age six means that we can identify boys, in particular, who are struggling with reading and give them extra help. The introduction of more focus on arithmetic in primary schools, with times tables and better testing, means that we can make sure that girls get up to the standard they need to be at before they reach secondary school.

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The Children’s Commissioner has shown that black Caribbean boys are three times more likely than white pupils to be excluded from school. What is the Minister doing to understand the reasons for that disparity in school exclusions and to make sure that no injustice or unfairness is seriously impacting on the performance of those boys?

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As I said in my previous answer, it is up to schools and teachers to identify underperforming students and groups. The important thing is that we focus on this as early as possible. That is why we are focusing on improving quality in early-years education in order to make sure that students get the basics in terms of vocabulary and counting, which will lead to better performance later on.

Study Leave

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12. If he will make an assessment of the effects of the provision of study leave for students in years 11, 12 and 13 on exam performance. [900170]

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On analysis of the absence data, we have found that when schools use study leave sparingly and ensure that students are doing the right thing, it can be beneficial for academic outcomes.

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Study leave before key exams can help high-performing students reach their potential, but can be to the detriment of lower to middle-performing students. Some schools are therefore cancelling study leave for all students. Will the Government advise schools to tailor their study leave policy so that students who would benefit from study leave are able to do so?

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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that some students benefit from greater independent study and that others need more support at school. The Department’s work indicates that teachers are making those decisions. They are offering supported study, learning opportunities and drop-in sessions at school for some students, while others have the benefit of study leave. We issued advice to schools in August to make that clear to them.

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Study leave may well allow some pupils to develop independent study skills, but does my hon. Friend agree that ultimately it is for schools to decide the best policy for their pupils with regard to studying for exams?

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Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is the responsibility of schools. It is also in a school’s interest to make sure that students are given the best possible study opportunities. We think that schools should use study leave sparingly and make sure that there are opportunities to study at school when students do not have a home environment conducive to study.

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When the Secretary of State said recently that every child should have a room of their own in which to study, was he deliberately undermining the Government’s bedroom tax policy or was he using his platform as Education Secretary to push back the frontiers of ignorance a bit further by giving us a practical demonstration of the concept of irony?

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My Secretary of State was making an absolutely clear case for a better planning system in order to ensure that we have the homes we need across the country. As I have said, there should be opportunities available, both at school and in the home, for children to study.

Child Guardians

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13. What assessment his Department has made of the role of child guardians and their effects on the length of court proceedings in public law cases. [900171]

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The length of care proceedings and the role of the children’s guardian were examined as part of the family justice review by David Norgrove. Factors such as the early appointment of a guardian to a case can be particularly important. Performance on this continues to be closely monitored. I am pleased to report that appointments are consistently taking place within the agreed two-day target, with the average appointment taking place in half a day.

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In my experience it is often the case that, despite the best intentions, children’s guardians add another layer of complexity to an already cumbersome court process, causing delay and introducing children to yet another unfamiliar face. What action is the Minister taking to improve the effectiveness of guardians in putting the interests of children first?

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I spent the best part of a decade working in the family courts on exactly these sorts of cases, and many people, including myself, value the independent voice that the guardian gives to children who are in care. We know from the public law outline, which has recently been updated, that since the publication of our Children and Families Bill the length of care proceedings has already fallen from 56 to 42 weeks and that the quality of the reporting from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has continued to improve, as has its timeliness. I will listen to what the hon. Lady has to say about the role of the guardians, but at the moment I believe they play an extremely important role.

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I am aware that the Government are trying to reduce the length of the court proceedings for care orders, but is my hon. Friend mindful of the fact that when a parent wishes to maintain custody of the child and there are circumstances that the court has to investigate, the case will take as long as it takes?

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Our reforms to the family courts system do nothing to undermine the discretion of the judiciary in ensuring that cases are considered justly. No decision is made without the best interests of the child being at the forefront of their minds and that will continue to be the case. I reassure my hon. Friend that the issue that she raises has been very much addressed.

Young Apprenticeship Starts

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14. How many young apprenticeship starts there were in the latest period for which figures are available. [900172]

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There were 129,900 apprenticeship starts by those aged under 19 in 2011-12.

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Given that the number of young apprenticeships is going down, has the Minister given any thought to the proposal of the Institute of Directors that there should be an adjustment in favour of young apprenticeships to take account of how difficult the job market is for under-19s?

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The number of apprentices in that age group is 10% higher than it was. I saw that report and it makes an attractive argument. We pay twice as much for the training of apprentices who are under the age of 19, but I will certainly pay regard to that report.

Sure Start

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15. What plans he has for Sure Start children’s centres. [900173]

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The Department issued guidance in April to make it clear that the core purpose of children’s centres is to support families and improve outcomes for children. We want to see a greater emphasis on evidence-based policies. Ofsted has also sharpened its focus on outcomes for children.

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I thank the Minister for her response. However, the Government’s own figures show that there are 562 fewer children’s centres than at the time of the last election. How many more community assets does the Minister want to see lost?

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The reality is that the vast majority of those centres have been merged or have seen their management restructured. Only 1% of children’s centres— that is 45 children’s centres—have closed outright. The hon. Gentleman is using a misleading figure. The fact is that Labour Members would rather have bureaucracy and management than outcomes-based front-line work. Are they seriously saying that they would reintroduce the managers and the bureaucracy?

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That is 562 fewer children’s centres already. [Interruption.] Those are your figures. Another 23 children’s centres are scheduled to go in Tory Kent. According to last week’s report from the Children’s Society—[Interruption.] The Children’s Society is rubbish—is that what he has just said? According to the report by the Children’s Society, which is anything but rubbish, there will be a budget cut of more than 50% over this Parliament. While millionaires enjoy their tax cuts, vital public services such as Sure Start are left to wither on the vine. When will these Ministers admit that their choices will cost all of us much more in the long run and apologise to the parents who have lost such valued services?

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I do not think that the hon. Lady listened to my previous answer. Those centres have not closed. The Government and local authorities have been saving money by reducing bureaucracy and management and running things more efficiently, which is what Conservative-led Governments do. She will be pleased to hear that our recruitment of early-years teachers is above trajectory, so there will be even more quality personnel in our children’s centres and nurseries.

Care System

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16. If his Department will publish a strategy setting out plans for children in the care system; and if he will make a statement. [900174]

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Early last year, Ministers considered whether to develop an overarching strategy for children in care. It was decided that, as there was general consensus about what needed to improve, it would be better simply to get on and drive a programme of change. Since then we have set in place reforms to ensure that all children have strong and stable placements, achieve good educational outcomes, and receive ongoing quality support when they leave care.

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On strong and stable placements, when children in care are in social housing, foster carers still have to pay the bedroom tax. The Secretary of State says that he wants children to have a room to study in, but that just cannot happen however many houses there are and however strong the planning system. Will he urgently encourage his colleagues to provide an exemption from the bedroom tax for all children in foster care?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that, prior to taking on this position, I worked closely with the Fostering Network to ensure that the exemption already in place for foster carers came to fruition. I reassure him that, through the work I am doing across Departments with Lord Freud and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, we will continue to review the matter carefully through a proper evaluation of the impact that the measure may be having. I have that reassurance and will continue with that work.

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I am grateful that the Minister is getting on with doing things rather than writing reports. One thing the Government could do for child victims of human trafficking who go into local authority care is identify them as victims of trafficking, so we can see whether they are re-trafficked. That is a flaw in the system at the moment.

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As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about a problem that still blights too many children, and which continues in our communities, often under the radar when it needs to be more prominent. I will look carefully at what he says and I am happy to discuss the matter with him further to see what more we can do.

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Ministers’ plans to outsource children in care placements to private companies such as Serco were recently blocked by the House of Lords after an evaluation of similar trials under the previous Government raised serious concerns about the impact on children, questioning the continuity of knowledge, skills and care in the private sector. Will the Minister tell the House in whose interest he is pressing ahead with these plans, and say why he does not consider it reckless to remove at the same time essential independent checks on those companies?

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We must be honest about the fact that the current system is failing too many vulnerable children, and it cannot continue. The previous Government introduced in legislation exemptions to the status quo to allow social work practices to develop, which is outsourcing some of the children’s services functions. We think that that is an encouraging way to look at innovative ways of bringing people into working with vulnerable children, so that they get the best possible care. The hon. Lady should look carefully at what we are doing, because it is in the interests of children. That is why we need it to go forward.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900198]

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Today Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools reported that his inspectors have recorded a rate of improvement in our schools that was “unprecedented” in Ofsted’s 21-year history. He said figures show that 600,000 more children

“are now getting at least a good standard of education”

when compared with the beginning of the last academic year. He records his thanks to the best generation of head teachers ever for that improvement in our schools, and I would like to record my thanks as well.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. To give

“every parent access to a good school”

was the Tory party manifesto commitment to parents, but the reality could not be more different for many of those parents, given the Secretary of State’s crisis in primary school places. Given his obsession with spending money on free schools in areas where there are already enough school places, meaning that class sizes are at bursting point in other parts of the country, does he accept that that policy is denying many children the good start they deserve?

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The chief inspector’s words stand by themselves. Never in the history of Ofsted over the past 21 years have so many children been enjoying a good education. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would have wanted to congratulate teachers on that.

The other point is that we are spending more than twice as much on providing new school places in primary schools as the previous Government. They were warned repeatedly by Conservative Members of Parliament, but they did nothing because they were recklessly committed to a programme of spending and borrowing in a wasteful fashion, which betrayed a generation. Now Opposition Members may mewl and puke as they wish, but I am afraid the guilt is written all over their faces and is there in the National Audit Office report.

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T2. I was shocked to learn that the London School of Economics made only four offers to students in the entire borough of Dudley this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that secondary schools should be doing more to encourage students with academic potential to choose courses at GCSE and A-level that will enable them to apply to our top universities with a reasonable chance of success? [900199]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I was delighted to visit an outstanding sixth-form college in her constituency that is leading the way. In a spirit of bipartisanship, her commitment to higher standards in education is shared by the Labour Member of Parliament for Dudley North, Mr Austin, who has worked hard with her and with Chris Kelly to ensure that we can persuade children to read the subjects in university that will give them a better chance to get great jobs. That is why the English baccalaureate, which Labour Front Benchers so denounced, has been such a good thing.

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Order. The Education Secretary’s study will be complete when he recognises that it is not appropriate to name Members in the Chamber. I know he has been here only eight years. He will get there eventually.

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Nearly 1 million young people are unemployed in this country and school leavers are desperate to make the right decisions about their futures, yet, as the Chair of the Education Committee has pointed out, the Government are overseeing the destruction of professional careers advice for 14 to 16-year-olds. Why does the Government’s National Careers Service make 17 times as many interventions for adults as it makes for young people? Does the Secretary of State really believe that his careers strategy is delivering for today’s schoolchildren?

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May I give the hon. Gentleman some careers advice? When his boss’s job is under threat and in jeopardy, asking a question of that kind is ill-advised. The truth is that more young people than ever before are studying subjects—physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics—that guarantee a great future for them. The single most powerful intervention to ensure that young people are studying the right subjects was the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which he supported, but which all the other Labour Front Benchers opposed. They are divided on aspiration and, I am afraid, weak when it comes to rigour.

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T3. The Government have introduced a variety of initiatives to support small and medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices, which are welcomed by Lowestoft college in my constituency. However, there is a concern that a postcode lottery is developing, in that a number of different schemes and levels of support are available across the college’s catchment area. Is the Minister aware of that, and does he agree that local enterprise partnerships could have a role in co-ordinating such schemes? [900200]

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As my hon. Friend knows, I am a passionate supporter of small businesses and of apprentices in them. The majority of apprentices are in small businesses and the Government do what we can to encourage that. In some places, local authorities top up the support we give. I am thrilled when they do so, but if we can do more to ensure that provision is consistent across LEP areas, we should do it.

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T8. Both the Minister for Schools and the Secretary of State completely failed to address the question they were asked about free schools policy. Fifty-one per cent. of all free schools have been built in areas where there are surplus places while there is a crisis in primary school places elsewhere. Is not the point that free schools policy has failed to deal with the shortage of places where they are most needed? [900206]

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No, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The vast majority of places in free schools are in areas of basic need. As I indicated earlier, of the recent free schools announced, around half are in the London areas where the pressure is greatest, so the figures he gives are simply inaccurate.

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T4. In the past four years, Windsor high school, Earls high school and St Michael’s high school in my constituency have opened excellent sixth forms, adding to the excellent work done at Ormiston Forge academy and the local further education college. What is the Secretary of State doing to allow high- performance schools to set up sixth forms and to give them the necessary resources to expand? [900201]

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I welcome all schools that wish to set up sixth forms. One of the easiest ways to do so is to acquire academy status.

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The Schools Minister was confident that the money set aside by the Government to meet rising demand for primary places will be sufficient, but parents in Lewisham do not share his confidence. Will he meet me and a representative from the borough to explore the significant shortfall it has identified in its primary capital programme?

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I would be delighted to do that. I just gently point out to those in local authorities who have been raising fears recently, that the statistics they put out a few days ago included projections of future increases in the primary population, but without giving consideration to the additional places that will be created beyond 2012 from the additional capital we have allocated. Local authorities need to be very careful with the information we have given, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

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T5. It was recently reported that the Government taskforce on tackling extremism was looking at encouraging Muslim soldiers to visit schools to improve community cohesion. How far has the scheme got? [900202]

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This is an excellent idea put forward by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi. We want to ensure that we use the commemorations of the beginning of the first world war, in which so many empire and Commonwealth soldiers fought so bravely, and other opportunities in which we can affirm the strength of modern multicultural Britain, to do what she has outlined.

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Further to the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), and the recent report that one in four parents are having to borrow to pay for school uniforms, the Secretary of State will be as shocked as I was to learn today that food banks, including in Liverpool, are now having to distribute uniforms to parents who cannot afford them. I listened carefully to his responses earlier concerning the report and guidance, but what more can he and his Government do to ensure that no students turn up to school embarrassed because they do not have the right clothes?

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The hon. Lady and her colleagues raise an important point. I had a look at the Family Action report, which details some of these concerns. As I said, the examples it used were not entirely representative. I had the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency on Friday. I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures. Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances. We need to ensure that support is not just financial, and that the right decisions are made.

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T6. I listened carefully to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in response to a question from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who raised the issue of Sure Start children’s centre closures in Kent. One of those centres is Woodgrove children’s centre in one of the most deprived areas of Sittingbourne. Will my hon. Friend take steps to reassure herself that Woodgrove’s closure is justified, and will she persuade Kent county council to change its mind if it is not? [900203]

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Ultimately, it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that parents get the support they need and that children get the right outcomes. We are refocusing the system on outcomes and quality, and that is what Kent county council should be looking at.

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How many civil servants at the Department for Education are working on the free schools programme?

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More than 100 civil servants are working on the free schools programme—a testimony to its popularity. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to talk to them and share a drink—in my case, apple juice—to congratulate them on their work. I was overjoyed to discover that this has been one of the most successful and inspiring things they have done in their distinguished careers in public service.

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T7. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the extra costs of funding rural school places. Will he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that school places in Lincolnshire are adequately funded? [900205]

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My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. For too long Governments have been aware that there is not fair funding of schools throughout the country, yet in the past no action was taken. That is why the Chancellor announced in the spending review that we will be holding a consultation into a fair national funding formula for schools, which will deal with precisely the issue my hon. and learned Friend raises.

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Given the further squeeze on the funding of education for 16 to 19-year olds, is it not now the time for the Government to give sixth-form colleges the same freedom on VAT that is enjoyed by universities, technical colleges, free schools, academies and maintained schools?

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I am highly aware of the pressures on sixth-form college budgets, and of the work they do to ensure standards are very high. I am in constant dialogue with sixth-form college leaders to explore all options to ensure that they can continue to deliver the very high standards they achieve today.

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T9. A recent National Audit Office report showed an encouraging 10% rise in adoptions. What is being done to help even more potential adopters to have the confidence to come forward and to support them through what can be a trying process? [900207]

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the encouraging rise in the number of people who want to adopt coming forward and the number of adoptions taking place. However, we still need to do more to ensure there are no barriers in the way of anyone who wants to come forward and give a child who needs the best possible start in life that permanent future, and we are determined to see it through.

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The Secretary of State said last week that poor children who do not have their own room to do their homework in do not achieve their full potential. Can he explain the policy implications of that statement, and can we assume that he will be arguing against the bedroom tax?

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The policy implications are clear: every Member of this House should support the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), in his planning reforms, which will ensure that the price of houses falls and that more big family houses are built. It is shameful that the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has taken the Labour party into a position where it is the party of nimbys, the party opposed to opportunity and the party opposed to growth and development. That is an example of how weak the Labour party is: it blows with every wind instead of standing up for the next generation.

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Last week, I had the pleasure of welcoming to Parliament Brad Hodgson from BAE Systems, who is currently north-west young apprentice of the year. Does the Minister agree that driving up the quality of apprenticeships is every bit as important as increasing the numbers, if they are truly to have parity with universities?

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Next week, I am looking forward to going to see BAE for myself, because it has one of the best apprenticeship systems in the country. A higher quality of apprenticeships is undoubtedly just as important as the number of people going through them, and that is what we will continue to focus on.

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The youth service has always been the fourth arm of education. Now that responsibility is transferred to the Cabinet Office, how will the Secretary of State ensure a robust educational curriculum in the youth service and youth work?

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I am absolutely delighted that my gifted colleagues, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), are now leading on youth policy. The huge success of the National Citizen Service, which has seen more and more young people from every community working together in the spirit outlined by the Prime Minister, shows that the right men are leading the right policy for our country. What a pity that Labour will not back it.

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The patience and politeness of the hon. Lady are now rewarded: I call Annette Brooke.

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Support for bus travel is not available to my constituents in sixth forms or similar in rural Dorset—a problem added to when they now stay on for an extra year—which is placing a great burden on hard-working parents. Will the Secretary of State discuss that issue with Ministers in the Department for Transport?

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I have received representations from the hon. Lady on that issue. Ensuring that the costs of transport are represented in the bursaries available to young people is an important issue that we are looking at closely. I will ensure that the right representations are made to the Department for Transport, and I am happy to meet her to take that forward.

G20

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G20 summit in St Petersburg. The meeting focused on two vital issues: the crisis in Syria and the core business of the G20, which is the future of the global economy.

Let me take Syria first. The G20 was never going to reach unanimity on what action is needed on Syria, but the case made by those countries who believe in a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons was, I believe, extremely powerful. Britain supported a statement, sponsored by the US and signed by 12 members of the G20, that condemns the horrific chemical weapons attack, points to the clear evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility for that attack and calls for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules. This statement from St Petersburg was reinforced on Saturday, when the 28 EU Foreign Ministers unanimously condemned the chemical weapons war crime and called for a strong response that demonstrates that there will be no impunity for such crimes.

I am clear that it was right to advocate a strong response to the indiscriminate gassing of men, women and children in Syria, and to make that case here in the Chamber. At the same time, I understand and respect what this House has said. So Britain will not be part of any military action, but we will continue to press for the strongest possible response, including at the UN. We will also continue to shape more urgent, effective and large-scale humanitarian efforts, and we will work for the peaceful, political settlement that is the only solution to the Syrian conflict. Let me just say a word about each of those three.

On chemical weapons, we will continue to gather evidence of what happened and make it available so that those responsible can be brought to account. Along with 11 other G20 countries, we have called for the UN fact-finding mission to present its results as soon as possible. We support efforts by the United States and others to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and we will continue to challenge the UN Security Council to overcome the paralysis of the last two and a half years and to fulfil its responsibilities to lead the international response.

In terms of the humanitarian response, Britain is, I believe, leading the world. This is the refugee crisis of our time. A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds. That is 240 fleeing during the hour of this statement alone. Inside Syria, 6.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. At the same time, aid convoys simply cannot get through to areas under siege because of the fighting, and most major routes between large populations are too insecure to use.

So in St Petersburg, I organised a special meeting with the UN Secretary General, the EU, Japan, Turkey, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and America. We agreed to work together through the UN to secure unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria. We agreed to increase the focus of that humanitarian assistance on dealing with the dreadful impact of chemical weapons, including providing medicines and decontamination tents. And we challenged the world to make up the financial shortfall for humanitarian aid by the time the United Nations General Assembly meeting takes place later this month. Britain, Canada, Italy and Qatar have made a start with contributions totalling an extra £164 million.

Syria still needs a political solution, however, and that requires the Syrian opposition to stand up for the millions who want democracy, pluralism and freedom from terror and oppression. So we will continue to assist the moderate Syrian opposition with political support, non-lethal equipment, technical advice and training. The Foreign Secretary convened a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in London last week to continue this work, and he has discussed all these issues with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, today. As I discussed with several G20 leaders, including President Putin, Britain will also lead efforts to get both sides to the table to shape a political transition, building on last year’s agreement in Geneva. That is because, as I have said, a political settlement is the only way to a stable, inclusive and democratic Syria.

Let me turn to the global economy. When I went to my first G20 summit as Prime Minister in Canada three years ago, Britain had the most indebted economy, the most indebted households and the most damaged banking system of any country around the table. We had also fallen out of the top 10 places in the world for the ease of starting a business. I vowed then that this Government would take the tough action necessary to deal with our debts, repair our broken banking system and, most importantly, help to deliver a private sector-led recovery.

Three years on, that is exactly what we have done. We have cut the deficit by a third, and cut the structural deficit by more than any other G7 country; we have reformed our banks so that they serve the economy, rather than the other way round; and we have delivered that private sector-led recovery, with the OECD forecasting that Britain will be the fastest-growing G7 economy in the fourth quarter of this year and the International Monetary Fund predicting that we will have the strongest growth of any major European economy in 2014.

This G20 summit recognised our progress and explicitly singled out Britain’s return to growth in the communiqué. More importantly, the G20 has endorsed our priorities for economic recovery. All 20 have signed up to the St Petersburg action plan, which contains all the features of the plan that we have been following in Britain since the coalition Government came to office. In particular, it emphasises the importance of dealing with our debts, the role of monetary policy to support the recovery, and the need for long-term reforms to boost growth and trade, and cut the red tape that too often holds back the business investment and job creation that we need in our country.

The summit also took forward the agenda that I set at the G8 in Lough Erne on what I call the three Ts: tax, transparency and trade. On tax, the whole G20 adopted the Lough Erne vision of automatic sharing of tax information, with a single global standard to be finalised by February next year. On transparency, the whole G20 is now taking forward international standards on company ownership. This means that companies will know who really owns them and that tax collectors and law enforcers will be able to obtain that information easily, so that people will not be able to avoid taxes by using complicated and fake structures. Britain has led this initiative, and let me welcome the progress made by our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, each of which has now published an action plan.

On the third of the three Ts—trade—we also made some good progress, not just maintaining the commitment to resist protectionist measures, but extending it by a further two years to the end of 2016. This is a vital and hard-fought achievement, which opens the way to more British exports, more orders for British companies and ultimately more British jobs.

Finally, strong global growth also depends on helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty, and the G20 welcomed the vision for eliminating world poverty set out in the report from the UN high-level panel that I co-chaired together with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia.

From humanitarian aid in Syria to the plans for growth right across the G20, and from tax, transparency and trade to the fight against global poverty, Britain—now an economy turning the corner—made a leading contribution to this summit. As I said, we may be a small island, but we are great nation, and I commend this motion to the House.

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I thank the Prime Minister for his characteristically modest statement this afternoon. We can certainly agree that we are a small island, but a great nation—it is just a shame about the Government.

Let us start with the G20 discussions on the global economy. We agree on the importance of trade, tax and transparency, and we welcome the final communiqué recommitting the world’s leading economies to free trade. We also welcome the commitment to strong global growth and the importance of helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty.

On the issue of transparency, what is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that other countries follow through on their G8 commitments to introduce a register of real owners of companies and make these public? Can they be extended to the rest of the G20? When is he going to consult on making the register public in the UK?

On the economy, the Prime Minister mentioned that the communiqué talks about the UK’s return to growth, but he did not mention the rest of what the statement said about the overall economic situation, which was that

“unemployment, particularly among youth, remains unacceptably high…recovery is too weak, and risks remain tilted to the downside”.

It goes on to talk of a

“need for more inclusive growth in many economies”.

For 1 million young people out of work in Britain and millions more who see their living standards falling, the G20 communiqué is absolutely right. Does this not suggest that, rather than the Chancellor claiming to have saved the economy, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should be far less complacent and far more focused on how we prevent this from being a recovery just for a few people at the top of our society?

On Syria, the vast majority of the international community rightly shares the widespread revulsion of all Members of this House at the use of chemical weapons there. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the likely timetable for the reporting by the UN weapons inspectors to the UN Security Council, and on whether he expects a further resolution to be tabled at the UNSC?

On the UK role, we agree that it is right to use all the humanitarian, political and diplomatic means at our disposal to help the Syrian people. Nobody doubts that this is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises the world has seen. For this reason, I welcome the vital extra funding to which this Government committed during the G20 summit. Indeed, in his remarks after the summit, the Prime Minister echoed the remarks of Ban Ki-moon that the relief fund set up by the UN has only 40% of the money it needs. What does the Prime Minister believe are the prospects for other countries to meet their responsibilities, and will he tell us how he believes we can use the UN General Assembly later this month not just to expand humanitarian aid, but to expand the vital humanitarian access to those who need it?

Let me also ask the Prime Minister about the enormous pressures that the large Syrian refugee populations are placing on neighbouring countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—which are seeing their populations grow by hundreds of thousands of people. What actions beyond humanitarian aid were agreed at the G20 summit to help those countries? While humanitarian aid is essential, it is insufficient to end the suffering. As the Prime Minister said, the only long-term solution is a political and diplomatic one, to which our energies must be directed.

On the prospects of a political solution, there will be deep concern about the comments of the joint special representative for Syria, who has said:

“Geneva II is now in danger”.

Will the Prime Minister update the House on discussions that took place at the G20 to progress the timetable for the vital Geneva II peace process? Will he also say something about what came out of the Foreign Secretary’s discussion with the Syrian National Coalition regarding its involvement in the Geneva II summit, which is absolutely essential? In the light of the obstacles in the way of Geneva II, will he now back the establishment of a Syria contact group including countries that are sponsoring the Assad regime on one hand and the rebels on the other, with the aim of renewing pressure for a peace process?

Whatever disagreements were revealed at the G20, attempts must continue to build the strongest possible international coalition in order to ensure that every diplomatic effort is made to end the violence and push for that political solution in Syria. That is ultimately the only way to end the bloodshed and the mounting horrors faced by the wider region. Over the past few months, the Prime Minister has failed to carry the House on the issue of arming the rebels, and again, 10 days ago, he failed to carry the House or the country because people were not willing to go along with a rush to war. However, he will undoubtedly carry the House and the country as he takes the necessary diplomatic, political and humanitarian action that is needed for a long-term solution to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria.

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Let me deal first with the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about Syria. We do not have a date for the inspectors’ report, but we are pushing for an early report. I think that that would be useful. We should not overestimate what the inspectors can do, because they are not there to apportion blame but simply to add to the picture of what we already know, which is that a war crime took place.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the prospects of further humanitarian aid between now and the United Nations General Assembly meeting. I think that they are good. The European Union, the United States and others are all seeking to increase their contributions, in the knowledge that at present we are fulfilling only—I think—44% of what the UN has said is necessary. Britain wanted to get the ball rolling, and that is why we ensured that some money was pledged at the meeting in order to get things going in time for the UN General Assembly meeting. As for access to humanitarian aid, if it is necessary to sponsor a UN Security Council resolution, we can consider that in the weeks ahead.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the neighbouring countries: the pressure is immense. The increase in, for example, the Lebanese population is the equivalent of 15 million people coming here to the UK. We are providing aid and support; for instance, we are providing support for the Lebanese armed forces and sending to Jordan specific pieces of equipment that it has requested.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what was discussed about Geneva II at the G20. In the margins of the dinner that took place, there was a general debate about Syria. Obviously there is enthusiasm for getting the process going, and I think it encouraging that in spite of the different positions that countries took on the immediate chemical weapons crisis, the support for a Geneva process is very strong. He also asked about the opposition. They are, of course, in favour of political transition and the steps that are necessary.

The right hon. Gentleman asked again about the issue of a contact group, neighbouring countries and the role of, I suspect, Iran. Let me remind the House that Iran has not yet signed up to the principles in Geneva I. I think it is important for people to remember that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the economy, and specifically about transparency. He asked about the follow-up from the G8 and the G20. All the G8 countries agreed to have action plans on beneficial ownership in place, and they are all doing that. The G20 has now endorsed the overall approach on transparency, an issue that the G20 had never really considered properly before. We will be consulting shortly on whether to make a register of beneficial ownership public.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to make a few remarks about the economy. He said that the recovery that was taking place in the UK was simply for the few. I would say: what about the 1.3 million private sector jobs? What about the fact that there are almost a million extra people in work? What about all the small businesses that are being set up? What about all those people who are in apprenticeships? The fact is that under this Government, growth is up, exports are up and manufacturing is up. What is down and out is his economic policy and reputation.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite the most harrowing aspect of the humanitarian crisis is the impact on children? When he goes to the General Assembly of the United Nations in a few weeks’ time, will he put the alleviation of the suffering of the children of Syria at the top of his priorities?

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My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. When you visit one of the refugee camps, as I have, in Jordan and see the children being taught in enormous temporary classrooms under canvas in tents, you realise that their whole childhood, in some cases, will be spent in these camps. We have to alleviate their suffering and we have to help them, but above all we need a political solution as well.

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May I ask the Prime Minister about the tax and transparency conclusions of the G20? They are welcome, but does he agree that so long as Austria and Luxembourg refuse even to sign up to the EU tax guidelines, the work of the G20, welcome as it is, will be undermined from within the EU itself?

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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For many years, Luxembourg and Austria have held up progress on this issue. They have often tried to get round that by pointing to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies of the UK, which have now put their house in order, so we can turn back to Austria and Luxembourg. They are under a huge amount of pressure, because the agenda of tax and transparency is growing fast. They have made some moves in the European Union, but we need to do more.

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The Russians have been stalling for some time on Geneva II peace talks. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is revealing that faced with the threat of military action, Russia is now calling for diplomatic negotiations? Far more importantly, the BBC is reporting that the Russians are saying that the Syrians are now prepared to attend such talks. Can he confirm the accuracy of that report?

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My hon. Friend is right that minds have become much more focused in recent months. There is an argument, which the Russians make, that the Syrian regime would be content to attend talks, but it is very important that we have some things set out about what those talks aim to achieve. In order to have proper transition, there is a need to know what we are going to get out of those talks. We need to know who is going to take part and who could be part of a transitional Government before those talks begin. Those issues are as important as an in-principle agreement to turn up.

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Can I take it from the Prime Minister’s statement that he now agrees that the Syrian civil war can only be ended not by military action but by a negotiated settlement, however difficult, involving the Iranians, the Russians and, yes, Assad too? Will he use his influence with the opposition forces, which have so far been unwilling to come to such a negotiation, to say that they must have ceasefires locally and access to humanitarian relief, and nominate people who will serve as Ministers alongside existing Government Ministers in a Government of transition to prepare for elections?

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We would certainly encourage all parties to take part in the Geneva II talks when a date is set and they get moving. It is obviously in all our interests to see that political process work. The only point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that at the same time it is absolutely right for the British Government and other like-minded Governments to stand up for the millions of people in Syria who want a future free from terror—a future free from Assad. We need to make sure that there is a Syrian opposition who are strong enough, both on the ground as well as diplomatically and politically, to do that.

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I congratulate the Prime Minister on the lead that he has taken on the humanitarian effort in Syria and neighbouring countries. Is he aware that Save the Children is struggling to get aid to people suffering in Government-controlled parts of Syria, and what, if any, reaction was there from Russia to this despicable state of affairs?

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My hon. Friend makes an absolutely key point. Having the available resources is part of the solution, but it is no good unless we can get the aid to the 6 million people in Syria who need it, which requires access. As I have said, if that requires us to go to the UN and seek a Security Council resolution, that is an option that we can undertake. The Russians say that they want to see this aid go through, but we need them to put pressure on the regime to make sure that access is granted.

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On the day of the recall, it was the will of the House, surely, that the issue of Syria go to a full United Nations examination, rather than an early military intervention. Why has that not been the emphasis of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary since? The Prime Minister appears, while saying that we will not be a participant, to continue to urge the Americans to get on with it?

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The motion that we put before the House spoke specifically of there being a UN vote—a UN process—and not then some sort of rush, as the right hon. Gentleman likes to say, to military action. It specifically mentioned that there would have to be another vote, but he voted against that motion. It did say that there would be another vote, but the point he makes is important. Of course we always favour taking things to the United Nations, but in the end we have to make a decision in this House and the Opposition have to make a decision too: do we think it is right to confront those who use chemical weapons? I think it is.

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I read reports that the Prime Minister had a very welcome meeting with the German Chancellor to discuss member states of the EU having more control over economic migration and benefit systems. Is this true, and is there any news about the timetable for this welcome work?

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I have many discussions with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. At the G20, most of our discussions were about Syria rather than about reform of the European Union, but we have had good discussions about the reform of the European Union. The stance that the German Government have taken is very helpful and I will continue to discuss that with her.

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Surely it is time to obtain unfettered access in Syria and for the international community to bite the bullet and start speaking positively with Iran? On humanitarian aid, with the honourable exception of Kuwait and Qatar, some of the richest countries in the world—the Gulf states—have markedly failed to step up to the plate. Given that the Government are continually saying that those countries are our friends and allies, will the Prime Minister use his best offices to encourage them to put their hands into their exceptionally deep pockets?

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To be fair to Gulf countries, we can add to Qatar and Kuwait, which have been generous donors, Saudi Arabia, which has given $345 million. We are leading by example and we encourage all countries to step up to the plate and help to fill in the shortage of money. On the Opposition’s seeming obsession with Iran, of course we should strive for good, strong, positive relations with all countries around the world and we do, but I ask the Opposition to remember that Iran has not signed up to the Geneva peace principles. Also, it is currently funding, helping, supporting and arming Assad.

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Given that the core purpose of the G20 is the global economy, will the Prime Minister confirm that the agenda for global free trade is of extreme and first importance at this time, and that he will work within the G20 to promote that agenda beyond 2016?

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I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right. One of the important aims of the G20 is to maintain clear rules for the success of the global economy. Nothing is more important on that front than maintaining free trade. The G20 has had a prohibition year after year on further protectionist measures, and this time we managed to push that from 2014 out to 2016. The next G20 chair will be Australia. I am sure the House will want to welcome the election of Tony Abbott, and I am sure Prime Minister Abbott will want to lead the charge for free trade.

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Is it not a bit premature to be talking about the real recovery? Does the Prime Minister not realise that that is insulting to those 4 million people who do not have a full-time job, all those people on zero-hour contracts, and those people without money who are borrowing from Wonga, which is lending more money than many of his beloved banks? This Government would not recognise the truth if it was sprayed on their collective eyeballs.

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I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot welcome the 1.3 million extra private sector jobs, the fact that almost a million more people are in work, and the record number of small businesses. If he is so against zero-hour contracts, he might want to have a word with all the Labour councils that currently provide them.

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This country has contributed more in humanitarian aid to Syria than the rest of Europe put together, and in the world is second only to America. I am glad to learn that the Prime Minister has had some success in persuading other G20 countries to step up to the plate. Can he estimate what the shortfall will still be once those commitments have been made?

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To be fair to the European Union as a whole, it is the largest donor, with over $1.1 billion; the USA is next, with $1 billion. We are the second largest bilateral national donor. UN appeals are currently only 44% funded, so even with the extra money that was pledged at St Petersburg we are still about that amount short.

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Among the G20, was there any discussion about or condemnation of some of the terrible atrocities carried out by the rebels in different parts of Syria, particularly at the weekend, where Christians were thrown out of areas that had just been taken over by the rebels, or is everyone just obsessed with Assad?

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There was a very robust discussion at the G20 dinner of the Syrian situation, and many people raised atrocities carried out by the opposition. Let me put on the record that an atrocity is an atrocity. It is as serious if carried out by one side or the other side. As I said in the debate, if the opposition was responsible for such large scale chemical weapon use, I would be condemning it from the Dispatch Box and urging others to take action. This was discussed, but we should be focused on the millions of Syrians who want a free and democratic future, so we should support those parts of the opposition, and the Syrian National Council does support those people—those people who speak up for them.

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My right hon. Friend has rightly taken a lead in calling for unfettered humanitarian access to Syria. When does he anticipate it will be possible for the United Nations to agree a resolution to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access, and can he think of any justifiable reason why any country, either at the General Assembly or on the Security Council, could possibly oppose a motion to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access to Syria?

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I would very much hope that countries would not oppose such a motion. Baroness Amos gave an extremely clear message when she visited the region recently. She set out the specific things that needed to change for proper access to take place. Let us see how the authorities in Syria or on the borders respond to her very clear message, and if there is no success we will have to look at the next action, which, as I said, could conceivably be a Security Council resolution.

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I congratulate the Prime Minister on raising LGBT rights with Vladimir Putin —that must have been an interesting conversation. We are coming up to the fourth anniversary of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, who was working for a British bank, and far from the Russians pursuing those who murdered him, they have pursued him in the courts in a posthumous trial, which is preposterous. Did the Prime Minister make it clear to Putin that we object to this, and that the people who were involved in Magnitsky’s murder and the corruption that he unveiled are not welcome in this country? If he did not make that clear last weekend, will he make it clear now?

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I certainly commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistency in raising these cases with me. I hope that he will commend my consistency—

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The hon. Gentleman did.

—in raising these cases with the Russian President. On this occasion, we did have a discussion about lesbian and gay rights in Russia and the concerns that many people in this country, including me, have about the lack of freedoms and about potential discrimination against lesbian and gay people in Russia. On this occasion, we did not raise all the other cases, many of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in the past, but I believe that the British-Russian relationship is strong enough to mention all these problems and issues, but at the same time to recognise that it is in both our countries’ interests to have a good and strong bilateral relationship. That is what I hope to achieve.

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The Prime Minister is absolutely right to talk about a political settlement, but I urge him to go the extra diplomatic mile. It is precisely because we do not agree with the Iranians and that they are participants in this conflict that we need to engage them in any forthcoming peace talks. Will he update the House on the extent to which our reluctance to engage with the Iranians is matched by that of other countries within the G20?

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As I explained to the House during last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, we have effectively reached out to the Iranian Government after the recent elections, and I have written to President Rouhani, so we are prepared to start trying to have a relationship with them. My hon. Friend talks about the reluctance of some countries, but there is a slight holdback on our behalf because we still really have not had proper redress for the fact that they smashed up our embassy and residence. So we do have to enter these talks and discussions with a clear head. But my hon. Friend is right to say that a long-term peace solution for Syria has to involve everybody, including all the neighbours. No one for a minute denies that, but we have to get the process going in the right way.

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Why, when 492 out of 577 Members of this House supported, or did not rule out, the potential use of force in Syria, has the Prime Minister been so categorical in ruling it out, including refusing even to contemplate bringing the matter back to the House, whatever the circumstances?

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The figures the right hon. Gentleman gives are interesting. The point I would make is that I put into the Government motion the fact that we should listen to the weapons inspectors, have a process at the United Nations and have a second vote before action. I included everything that his Front Benchers wanted—every single thing—so the fact that they did not vote for it shows me that they are not serious about the issue; they are serious about political positioning. As Prime Minister, it is very difficult to deal with that. That is why I believe the House spoke quite clearly.

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In the discussions, did the Prime Minister get the impression that President Putin was speaking as a mouthpiece and defender of the Assad regime, or that he was prepared to use Russia’s immense power and influence over Assad to persuade him to come to the table and enter into serious negotiations for transition?

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From all my discussions with President Putin—not just at St Petersburg, but at Sochi, No. 10 Downing street and the G8 summit at Lough Erne —I believe that he wants to see a stable Syria and a stable middle east. He is very concerned about instability and terrorism. We have a profound disagreement about the role the opposition could play and, obviously, about what happened with the chemical weapons, but there is some long-term commonality of purpose: wanting a peaceful and stable Syria for the future. That is what we have to work with.

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When the Prime Minister discussed the Syrian refugee camps, was there any agreement that all leaders should visit them to see for themselves the unfolding horrors?

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There was not an agreement on that front, but certainly those of us who have been to the camps referred to them, and a number of other leaders made exactly that point too.

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I congratulate the Prime Minister on ensuring that the vote does not mean that we are somehow abandoning our moral obligation to the Syrian people. I encourage him to ensure that Britain now takes the lead in developing and expanding international conventions on chemical weapons, encouraging emerging countries, such as Brazil and India, to play a more vocal role, and thus protecting not just the Syrian people, but other populations worldwide.

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I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. I think that he is absolutely right that these conventions, and ensuring that everyone lives up to them, are directly in the British interest. If any good could come of these ghastly events, it is to wake the world up again to the importance of rules against the use of chemical weapons and to encourage more countries to take them seriously.

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There was an interesting article in The New York Times over the weekend outlining how the Assad regime had amassed its chemical weapon arsenal. Central to the strategy has been the purchase of precursor chemicals from various states around the world. During the G20 summit, did the Prime Minister make the case for global action to limit the export of those chemicals to despotic regimes, and will he be investigating why his Government awarded licences to the Assad regime before and after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about precursor chemicals. In this country we have a very strict licensing regime for the export of those sorts of chemicals, and on this occasion it worked effectively. When the arms ban on Syria was brought in, we were able to revoke those licences, so from what I have seen to date our system worked well.

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Are international banking and other financial sanctions in place to prevent the Assad regime from acquiring further weapons of mass destruction or “ordinary” weapons? If there is none, is that not something we should be thinking about?

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My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. There are obviously international agreements made about not selling arms to Syria, but tragically the regime has been able to get hold of weapons, not least from the Russians and the Iranians, and that is one of the problems we face today.

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I welcome the announcement of additional humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees. Was there any discussion at the G20 about the situation in Yemen? Since the Prime Minister appeared at the Dispatch Box to discuss Syria, there has been an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Yemen. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and Ministers have done a great deal of work to have face time with the Yemeni authorities. We must not allow Yemen to slide into civil war because our focus is on Syria.

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The right hon. Gentleman makes important points about a country that has deep problems, and it is in our interests that it resolves them and that we secure a stable Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be chairing the Friends of Yemen group in New York in a couple of weeks’ time. Britain continues to engage diplomatically, and in terms of humanitarian aid and advice, with the Yemeni Government.

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In the margins of the G20, did the Prime Minister manage to collar the representative from Spain to have a word about Gibraltar and the representative from Argentina to have a word about the Falklands, and make it clear to both that those territories are British and will remain so?

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I did not need to have those two meetings because I do not think the President of Argentina or Prime Minister of Spain are in any doubt about my views.

Specifically on Gibraltar, I am sure that everyone in the House will want to welcome the fact that it will be Gibraltar national day tomorrow; I know that a number of colleagues will be there to celebrate 300 years of great relations between Britain and Gibraltar and the fact that we share a sovereign and a future together. On the issue of Gibraltar, I did meet the Spanish Prime Minister to try to look at issues where we can try to de-escalate the war of words that has taken place. We have not made any progress, but we should not only continue to defend absolutely to the hilt Gibraltar’s right to decide its own future; we also want to see good and strong relations in the region as well.

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The Prime Minister’s narrative seemed to suggest that the two motions before the House over Syria were broadly the same. In the interests of clarity, will he confirm that there was no reference to a vote in the Security Council in the Government’s motion, in stark contrast to the Opposition motion?

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I am very happy to read the hon. Lady the Government motion. It said this:

“Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing”—

from the weapons inspectors—

“and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken”.

The fact is that Opposition Front Benchers are wriggling and quibbling because they know they had a choice. They could have done the difficult thing and the right thing for the country; instead, they chose the easy and simple thing that was politically convenient. They have to live with the consequences.

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Was there an opportunity at the summit to discuss the emerging evidence that sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war in Syria?

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Many of the issues around the appalling nature of the Syrian conflict were raised. The Foreign Secretary has taken international leadership on the issue that my hon. Friend speaks about, to say how unacceptable the use of sexual violence is as a conflict weapon.

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During their meetings with President Obama and Secretary Kerry, did the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary have an opportunity to say to Secretary Kerry, “Stop spending all your energies flying desperately around Europe and north Africa looking for allies in a war that nobody wants. Instead, put them into bringing about a diplomatic peaceful solution that must include Iran, Russia and all the neighbouring countries, most of whom do not support a war anyway”?

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I would make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, it is hard to think of anyone who has made greater efforts than Senator Kerry to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. He has worked incredibly hard to do that. He knows something else—if chemical weapons are used on that scale and the Americans have drawn a red line, not to act would send an appalling message to the world.

I also pick up the hon. Gentleman on another point. This whole language of saying “start a war” is put about by some to try to paint the American or other positions into something like Iraq. This is not about starting a war; it is about responding to the appalling use of chemical weapons. When we see on our television screens children being gassed by chemical weapons, that is the outrage that we should feel.

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I very much welcome the strength of the moral stance that my right hon. Friend has taken on the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. I was glad that Pope Francis made an intervention on world leaders calling for peace; it is not the first time that, as a member of a different denomination, I have been of one mind with the Pope. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Pontiff’s intervention? Just as it is idealistic, it must surely, ultimately give us the route to a peaceful and lasting settlement.

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We should always listen to and respect faith leaders when they make these statements, and they should always make us consider and think about the consequences of actions, but we also, as politicians, have to think of the consequences of non-action and try to be guided by what the outcomes will be if we either act or do not act. Examining the morality of those decisions will provide us with the best answer.

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Apart from his comments on Syria and on growth, the Prime Minister singled out action on the three Ts—trade, tax and transparency—but why was there no mention of the three Es: environment, clean energy and energy efficiency? What further action will be taken to make sure that there is a phasing out of fossil fuels?

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Those issues are addressed in the summit communiqué, which points to some progress on important areas such as climate change. Also, the high-level panel that I chaired has at its heart the idea of sustainable development being the way that we increase the world’s resources. As I say, the focus of the meeting was largely around the rules of the global economy, but if the hon. Lady looks at the communiqué, she will see that there is further progress on the issues she raises.

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I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s announcement of more money for humanitarian aid in Lebanon and Jordan and assistance to the armed forces there, who are holding an increasingly fragile ring. May I urge him to consider, as a small part of that assistance, providing more places on an affordable basis at Sandhurst and the staff colleges?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion with which I have a huge amount of sympathy. Our staff colleges for the Royal Navy, the RAF and the British Army are some of the greatest assets we have in our country. Many other countries want to send young men to train in them, and we should make sure that we put them to best use.

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Is the Prime Minister proud to be the first Prime Minister since the Vietnam war to present a wholly independent British foreign policy? Will he, in future, refrain from trying to make our country punch above our weight militarily, which has resulted in Iraq and Helmand and in our spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities?

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I just do not share the hon. Gentleman’s world view. I think it is good that Britain, with a brilliant diplomatic network and with fantastic armed forces, is able to punch above our weight in the world. Why? Not for any sort of vanity project or for any particular view of how the world ought to look, but because it is in our national interests. We are a trading nation. We have British people living in countries all over the world. It matters to us whether the middle east is stable and whether markets are open in China. So punching above our weight is exactly what we should aim to do, not, as I say, for some grand role in the world, but because it is in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine.

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In the Syria debate I and many colleagues attempted to remind the House and the Leader of the Opposition of the importance of unity in this place and the damage done to our national interest by playing party politics. Did my right hon. Friend receive any questions from our allies about the curious position of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition?

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I did have a few questions about what happened in the House of Commons, but some manoeuvres are very difficult and get lost in translation.

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I genuinely welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is playing a lead role in humanitarian aid in Syria. Have the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary had specific talks on practical steps to set up humanitarian corridors? Will he indicate the time scales for the United Nations to sanction this, because we want to see more medicines and medics, not mercenaries, in Syria?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Let me be clear about humanitarian access as opposed to humanitarian corridors. Humanitarian corridors might require, according to some, wide-scale military action to bring them about, so that is not under consideration. What is under consideration is what Baroness Amos set out, with her role at the UN, about what is necessary to get aid to the Syrians who are in need. That is about reducing border checks, reducing bureaucracy, making sure that there can be pauses in the fighting, and making sure that major cities can be accessed. Those are the things that need to be put in place, and that is what we are putting the pressure on for. As I say, if we have to go to the UN for further action, we will.

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Given that our country is having to borrow the money required to meet the arbitrary target of spending 0.7% of our GDP on international aid each year, was my right hon. Friend able to discover when the other members of the G20 plan to meet their target?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Britain is alone among G20 countries in meeting its aid promises. I see that as a source of national pride rather than of national embarrassment. We made a promise to the poorest of the world and we have kept it. If we look at the argument in a different way, I would argue that if we care about getting things done in the world that are in Britain’s interests as well as those of the poorest, keeping such a promise and using our aid budget to demonstrate that Britain can get things done is good from that point of view, too.

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All 10 tax havens among the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies committed at the G8 to sign the multilateral convention on mutual and administrative assistance in tax matters. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the timetable is in place yet and, if so, how many have signed?

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They all agreed to take the necessary action on tax exchange with the UK, international tax co-operation and beneficial ownership, all of which was set out at the meeting I had with them. I cannot recall the exact timetable off the top of my head, but I will make this point: I do not think it is fair any longer to refer to any of the overseas territories or Crown dependencies as tax havens. They have taken action to make sure that they have fair and open tax systems. It is very important that our focus should now shift to those territories and countries that really are tax havens. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories, which matter so much—quite rightly—to the British people and Members have taken the necessary action and should get the backing for it.

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Parliamentarians on both sides of the House will be extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for recalling Parliament and giving Members a vote on the Syrian question. In my opinion, the last two weeks have been the Prime Minister’s finest hour so far. Does he share my concern that, given that the Opposition’s amendment was so close to the Government’s motion, the Leader of the Opposition, who is a very honourable man, had not the statesmanship to put his disagreements aside and support the Prime Minister?

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The Leader of the Opposition will have to give his own explanation. All I can say is that what I tried to do was put a motion before the House that included all the issues that had been raised with me. I wanted to bring the House together. The Opposition chose not to do that. I think that is a matter of regret, but the Leader of the Opposition will have to offer his own explanation.

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Given President Hollande’s recent indication, if the UN Security Council votes in favour of military action, could the Prime Minister tell us whether he has ruled out giving the House a vote on whether to go along with such a decision?

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As I have said, I have absolutely no plans to bring a vote back to the House of Commons about British participation in military action. I have explained what was in our motion with regard to the UN Security Council, but let me make this point: so far, we have been frustrated for two and a half years, even with regard to motions in the Security Council that repeat the language of, for instance, Lough Erne on the need for talks and dialogue and everything else. The idea that there is some magical way of proceeding without the Russians delivering a veto is, I think, very unlikely.

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On the economy, did the Prime Minister find any support in the G20 for changing the course of the recovery and pursuing plan B?

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I can confidently say that I do not think the idea of plan B was raised at any time during this meeting. It is interesting that Britain, Japan and America were all singled out as delivering stronger growth than expected and that is welcome for the world economy.

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Does the Prime Minister accept that, although the vast majority of the British public want him to strain every sinew in humanitarian and diplomatic effort, they do not support military intervention in Syria and therefore welcome his correct judgment that the House of Commons has spoken and that he will not be bringing the matter back for a second vote?

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As I have said, I have absolutely no intention of bringing the matter back in terms of British military action. I think that what happened in the debate is that a lot of Members of Parliament had listened to their constituents who were hugely concerned about the situation in Syria. Clearly, the British public are deeply sceptical about getting more involved in the Syrian conflict, but as politicians I think we all have a responsibility to try to separate from that, for a moment, the issue of chemical weapons and point out the dangers of not upholding that international taboo. Inevitably, however, all these subjects get meshed together.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK Government have provided more than £400 million of humanitarian and non-lethal aid in response to the Syrian crisis, and that that is the greatest level of support that has been provided to a humanitarian crisis in the history of our admittedly small but great nation?

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I believe that that is the largest amount that we have contributed in response to a humanitarian crisis, but then this is the largest humanitarian crisis since Rwanda and it has been unfolding over a longer period. One of the remarkable and terrifying things about this humanitarian emergency is that, although it looked dreadful a year and a half ago, it has got much worse over the subsequent period. With things such as the use of chemical weapons, it is likely that the number of people fleeing their homes and needing help will only go up.

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On tax and transparency, the Prime Minister said that people should not avoid tax by using complex structures. How is it that Vodafone has received £53 billion in the biggest share sale this century and not paid a penny in corporation tax? What is he going to do about that?

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Obviously, specific cases have to be examined between the Inland Revenue and the company concerned. We are putting in place not only greater transparency, but an agreement on the sharing of tax information between countries so that it is more difficult for companies—I am not saying that Vodafone did this, because I do not know all the details—to put in place complex proceedings to avoid tax. I think that that is important.

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I thank the Prime Minister for the morality that he has shown with regard to Syria. I am proud of our aid programme in that country. Was there any discussion at the summit of the effect of the conflict on the rising cost of oil? Will there be any action from Governments to mitigate the effect of the rising cost of oil on the public around the world?

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I do not believe that the conflict has had that big an impact on oil prices so far. We look at the situation that people are facing at the petrol pump all the time. Under my hon. Friend’s perpetual, aggressive and entirely correct lobbying, we have taken action to keep prices down. We will obviously keep that issue under review.

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I am very proud that the UK is taking a lead on humanitarian aid. Will the Prime Minister say whether Russia is contributing its fair share of humanitarian aid?

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The hon. Lady makes a good point. Looking at the donor table, the EU is the largest contributor, Britain and America are the two largest country contributors, and the rest of the top 10 reads Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Italy and France. I cannot see Russia on the table, but perhaps I could write to her when I get hold of the number.

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I have heard the answers that the Prime Minister has given, but will he tell the House whether the prospect or the opportunity of drawing Iran into a regional approach to peace in Syria was discussed at the G20, especially given the notably less belligerent and partisan remarks recently attributed to President Rouhani and former President Rafsanjani?

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Of course the Syrian issue was discussed, but the principal avenue of discussion was chemical weapons and the right response to their use. There were countries that supported the US motion and countries that did not. There was not an extensive discussion about how the Geneva II process could work, but all the countries around the table are broadly supportive of it.

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The Prime Minister has said that he will respect the view of the House on military action. All of us are eternally grateful for that. However, does he not feel bound by this House, given that this is a parliamentary democracy? Will he assure me and the rest of the nation that he will do nothing to compromise the very clear view of this House with respect to military action?

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I am accountable to this House. The motion that I put to the House was defeated and the Leader of the Opposition’s motion was defeated. My interpretation of the House’s view was that British military action clearly was not favoured. As I have said, I respect that outcome.

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The Prime Minister has led the way in hustling other world leaders for aid pledges to Syria. I welcome the £160 million that was announced on Friday. However, China and Russia are paying peanuts towards the humanitarian effort. What prospect is there of persuading them to do more?

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary will be very persuasive in New York at bashing heads together and getting people to contribute. Everyone can see the tragedy unfolding on their television screens, and even where there is such deep disagreement between Britain and Russia, for example, or Britain and China, about the right steps to take on the Syrian crisis, the one area of agreement is the need for humanitarian aid, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will be successful.

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The Prime Minister has outlined the British Government’s contribution to much-needed humanitarian assistance in Syria. Will he please say what additional support is being given to those countries surrounding Syria that are affected by the appalling refugee crisis?

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I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. In some cases it is money—we have put in money for humanitarian aid to Lebanon, Jordan, and some limited resources to Turkey. As I said, however, it has also been about directly providing the Jordanians with specific pieces of equipment they have asked for. We have helped the Lebanese army, given quite a lot of advice, and we stand ready to help as we can. In the long term, it is untenable for countries such as Lebanon to see an increase of, effectively, a quarter in their population. We need a solution to the crisis so that people can go home.

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On the economy, the Prime Minister spoke of repairing our broken banking system. Does he agree that the creation and expansion of regional and local banks are key reforms of this Government that will provide finance for small and medium-sized enterprises, address payday lending problems, and reinvigorate local community banking?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as looking at the big banks and how we nurse them back to health—some good progress has been made there—we also need to encourage what are called “challenger” banks, and new lenders into the British economy. Those can be crowdsource funders as well as new start-up banks, or businesses such as supermarkets that are getting into banking. We should be encouraging all those things for a more competitive sector.

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Staying with the economy, those who moved their bonuses to April to take advantage of the cut in the top rate of tax undoubtedly feel that there has been a recovery. Does the Prime Minister understand that for people on zero-hours contracts, or wages that are £1,500 lower than they were three years ago, there has been no recovery? Where is the good news from the G20 for the vast majority of ordinary people in this country?

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Of course I understand that times have been incredibly tough for people, many of whom have not seen an increase in their wages yet they have seen prices rising. The key is that if we want a proper recovery in living standards, we have to see three things: a growing economy, which we now have; reductions in personal tax rates, which we are doing by lifting the allowance; and we must keep inflation under control so that we get low interest rates and low mortgage rates. All three of those things are happening under this Government, but if we had listened to the Labour party, I do not think that any of them would be happening.

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What discussions did my right hon. Friend have at the G20 to crack down on tax avoidance by trade unions?

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When I was at the G20 I was not aware that Britain’s leading trade unions were dodging their taxes, as well as all the other things that they do, and I got home from the G20 to read that in the Sunday newspapers. I am sure that when the Leader of the Opposition goes to address the brothers in Bournemouth —he always seems to have some problems with brothers—he will sort it all out.

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Given the Prime Minister’s very encouraging interpretation of the St Petersburg action plan, what does he think the senior official who briefed Reuters could have meant when he said that there was no agreement on post-2016 targets, and that numbers merely reflected the best guess for future budgets?

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If the hon. Gentleman looks at what the G20 agreed in terms of 2016 targets, the target it set was that of no new protectionist measures until 2016. That was a success for the G20.

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Does the Prime Minister agree that the tax agreements that were entered into are not just a milestone against international tax avoidance, but send a clear message to any tax-dodging company, trade union or political party in this country that it is time for it to face up to its responsibilities and pay a fair share of tax?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are trying to deal with tax evasion, which is illegal, and that will be helped by these international agreements and by greater transparency of beneficial ownership. We are also trying to deal with aggressive tax avoidance where people go to huge measures not to pay their taxes. That includes the Labour donor whom we discussed a lot before the summer recess. I think he has still not had his money paid back, although I am sure they will get round to it.

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Following the G20, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has today said that he has called on President Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the international community so that it can be responsible for their destruction. Does the Prime Minister support that, and if he does, is he willing to work with countries such as Russia, Iran and the US to make it happen?

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I only recently heard that announcement. If that were to be the case, it would be hugely welcome. If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision, that would clearly be a big step forward and should be encouraged. We must be careful to ensure that this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something other than the problem on the table, but if it is a genuine offer, it should be genuinely looked at.

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I welcome the excellent work that the Prime Minister is doing on Syria. Every single hon. Member has welcomed the work of the UN inspectors, but will he remind the House how they got into Syria? The G8 summit, which he chaired, made Russia agree to UN inspectors going into Syria for the first time. The Russians would not agree to that previously, so that was an acutely significant moment.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that. It was a breakthrough at Lough Erne to get that unfettered access for inspectors. However, we must remember that they are not able to point the finger of blame. All they can do is build additional evidence. I hope they are successful and that they make their report, and that the report adds to the already bleak picture we can see.

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The leaders declaration is right to say that too many people are not sharing in any global economic recovery. Given that, under this Government, one in five people in work earn less than the living wage, and that we have fifth-worst levels of low pay found anywhere in the OECD, what advice did the Prime Minister take at the G20 on his wages policy?

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It is perfectly obvious to see what the Opposition want to do—they want to change the question. First they said there would not be a recovery, but there is now growth in our economy. They then said there would not be any more jobs and predicted millions more unemployed, but there are more jobs. Quite understandably, they are changing the argument, but the point is this: if we want rising living standards, as I do, we need a growing economy, we need to cut people’s personal taxes, and we need to keep inflation and mortgage rates down. That is what this Government are delivering.

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Further to the Prime Minister’s answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), will he confirm that British diplomatic staff in Russia will do everything they can to help British lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women who could either be caught up in the rise of homophobia in the country or caught inadvertently by the new anti-gay laws?

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I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As I have said, we had a good discussion on that important issue. I was given certain assurances by President Putin that there would be no discrimination, but I am sure the British embassy will do everything it can to help people.

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Does the Prime Minister accept that Labour’s amendment in the Syria debate included a time limit on parliamentary authority for military action to avoid any open-ended commitment, and that his motion did not?

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In the end, the hon. Lady can find whatever wriggling reason she wants not to do the right thing, but the fact is that the Opposition asked for the weapons inspectors to report, which we granted; for a proper resolution at the UN, which we granted; and for a second vote, which we also granted. Why did they not vote for the Government’s motion? I will tell the House why: because they wanted to play politics rather than serve the national interest.

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The Prime Minister will be aware of concerns expressed by many hon. Members and many of my constituents about the impending closure of, or restrictions on, global money transfer services, largely as a result of changes in US regulation. Was he or the Chancellor able to have conversations with the US Administration and other world leaders on that at the G20? If not, will he commit to having such conversations to try to find a solution?

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I was not able to have those discussions, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely right that this is a serious issue for people who want to send remittances back to the countries from which they originally came or where they have relatives. It is an important issue that we need to sort out.

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The Prime Minister rightly noted in his statement that the situation in Syria has created the refugee crisis of our time. Is he aware that last week Sweden relaxed its asylum policies for Syrian refugees? What thought has he given to the possibility of the UK doing something similar?

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We are not planning to do that. Britain already has a very generous asylum system that operates under the rule of law. People who are genuinely fleeing persecution cannot be returned to those countries, but it is right that people should seek asylum in the first country that they flee to.

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The global economic outlook remains fragile and the Prime Minister mentioned the role of monetary policy to support the recovery. What discussions has he had on the impact on the global economy and on international investment should the world’s leading economies—specifically the USA—move away from their standard monetary policies of providing easy money and low interest rates too soon?

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The hon. Gentleman raises one of the questions that lay behind a lot of the discussions and debates on the global economy. What has happened in American markets recently, with a rise in long-term interest rates, has taken a lot of money out of developing countries and contributed, they would argue, to some instability. A year ago at the G20, the question was rather different. The argument was that because of accommodative monetary policy, the west was trying artificially to reduce its exchange rates. I understand the concerns of India and others. I think what it argues for is the importance of getting the economic fundamentals right, and that is what all countries have to take notice of.

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I am most grateful to the Prime Minister and to colleagues. Fifty-nine Back Benchers were able to question him in 52 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. We can do it when we try.

Birth of Prince George of Cambridge

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I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty offering the congratulations of this House to Her Majesty, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of Prince George; and signifying to Her Majesty the great pleasure given to the House by this happy event.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the message on the birth of Prince George of Cambridge.

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Many generations in the House of Windsor have been welcomed by many generations in this House of Commons, and we are delighted to do so again today. Of course, in centuries past things were slightly different. When a royal birth of this significance took place, the entire Cabinet would assemble at the birthplace and the Home Secretary would actually be in the room at the time of the birth. [Interruption.] One of my hon. Friends says, “Quite right.” I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that this was not seen as appropriate on this occasion.

The birth of Prince George was a national moment—a time to recognise, once again, what a vital part of our national life the monarchy is. In the past few years we have seen a surge of affection for our royal family, from the royal wedding to the diamond jubilee and coronation celebrations. This summer, millions cheered the news of the royal birth.

We must remember, however, that this birth has been not just a national event, but, first and foremost, a private and family event. It is right that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been given the space and privacy to get to know their new son. In the coming years they must continue to be allowed that space.

For now, I know the whole House will join me in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and in wishing Prince George a long and happy life at the heart of our nation.

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May I second the motion in the name of the Prime Minister, and associate myself and my party entirely with the sentiments he has expressed? I congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of the new Prince George.

As the Prime Minister said, there has been an opportunity for the House, over many generations, to express its happiness at the birth of a royal prince or princess. Every new arrival represents the continuity of our royal family, and reminds us of the unique service that our monarchy renders to the British people at home and abroad. As the Prime Minister also said, each occasion reflects the generation in which the prince or princess is born. In 1688, King James II’s son was born with more than 80 witnesses in attendance. I think we can all agree that it is right that times have moved on, and, to coin a phrase, we are pursuing traditional values in a modern setting.

On this occasion, I think we will all have been struck by the informality and joy of the new royal parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Any parent will have recognised the emotions of excitement—and, indeed, a bit of trepidation—about the new world of parenthood into which they were arriving. In their case, with the eyes of the world on them, they carry a heavy sense of responsibility. I am sure I speak for Members of the House when I say that they carried it off absolutely brilliantly—as did Prince George, with what was generously interpreted as a first royal wave, when he appeared in front of the cameras. I am sure the House will unite in offering our congratulations to Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh, and to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. We wish the new prince and his parents health, happiness and a long life.

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I should like on behalf of myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends to endorse completely the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The pleasure and pride of the duke and duchess has been plain for all to see, although there seemed to be a hint of realism about the responsibilities of parenthood when, in the course of a television interview, the duke described his new son as a “bit of a rascal”.

The birth has given great pleasure, but nowhere has it given more pleasure than in St Andrews and, in particular, St Andrews university, where the duke and duchess first met and where they graduated on the same day. The university is engaged in its 600th anniversary celebrations, which have been much enhanced by the unqualified support for the duke and duchess, but St Andrews is not alone: the whole nation congratulates the duke and duchess and wishes them and their son well.

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It is a pleasure to follow the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) in supporting the motion. We are marking the very happy news for the Earl and Countess of Strathearn on the birth of Prince George of Cambridge. As we have heard, few places have a stronger connection for them both than St Andrews, where they both attended and met at what is the oldest university in Scotland. That joy is shared across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, as it is in all 16 realms and across the Commonwealth.

The arrival of baby Prince George is clearly a tremendous joy for the parents and both their families, but for Her Majesty, the birth of Prince George equals the remarkable record of Queen Victoria, who during her lifetime also had three contemporary, following generations of heirs to the throne. Just as much has changed during the reign of our current monarch, much more perhaps will change before Prince George ascends to the throne—one imagines, in the second half of this century. We wish him, his parents and extended families every success and happiness.

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This is indeed a joyous occasion. It is somewhat bizarre that we are paying tribute to a five-week-old baby who is blissfully unaware of all our plaudits, but that is rather fine in many ways. For somebody such as me, with my beliefs, it sums up the virtue of the monarchy.

This is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves again why the monarch is so popular. Why is something that is, in many people’s view, an essentially irrational institution so popular, when it is clearly not democratic? There are no doubt many clever five-week-old babies—highly intelligent, young Ed Milibands and David Camerons—who could never get the job, but the young prince will one day be our Head of State. I think that is a rather fine thing. We have to ask ourselves why the monarchy is so popular. I think it is mainly because of what the Queen has been doing. She is so popular precisely because she never asked for the job—she never campaigned for it. She just sees her role in terms of duty—not to be popular, but just to do her job well.

The other thing about the monarchy and what it can teach us is that there are limits to the inevitability of reason and democracy, but the monarchy modernises itself in a way in which the essential structures are always kept. I was reminded of that when I went to Portsmouth the other week and looked at HMS Victory. The ship is seemingly the same as on the day of the battle of Trafalgar, but not many people know that in fact the masts are made of steel and virtually every plank has been changed. In the same way, the monarchy is constantly changing and modernising itself. No doubt the monarchy will be very different indeed when Prince George becomes King, but it will still be essentially the same. That is why it remains enduringly popular.

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I have no wish to oppose the motion, and I am sure that we all send our congratulations to those involved as stated in the motion moved by the Prime Minister and supported by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. As we are discussing one child, however, I think that it would be relevant to point out that it should concern the House that at least 3.5 million children in this country are still living in households in which poverty exists after housing costs have been met. I should also mention that, according to the latest available figures, nearly 7 million children in the world die before reaching their fifth birthday, and that two thirds of those deaths could be prevented if modern medical facilities were available. I just hope that by the time the subject of this motion becomes 18—or better still, well before then—it will no longer be necessary for a Member of Parliament to stand up in this House and cite such figures.

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I am so glad that this debate has gone on long enough to allow at least one hon. Member to sound a dissenting voice, because debates in this Chamber would not be complete without a variety of voices being heard. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) has underlined the point that this young child has been born into a family with responsibilities, and that that family would not enjoy the extraordinary support that they do if they did not show the same sincerity and concern for the least fortunate in society that he has demonstrated in his speech.

It is also worth remembering that this child is going to be a prisoner of public life for his whole life. Even if the monarchy were abolished, he would remain a public figure. In some respects, children born into the royal family are the least fortunate in society. Every one of us in the House chose to be in public life, but he will have no choice. It is an illustration of the extraordinary self-sacrifice of the royal family that they accept their duty with alacrity; that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) an explanation of why the royal family remain so enduringly popular, even though they have had their ups and downs.

Much has been said about continuity. The constitutional value of the royal family is the uncontroversial continuity provided by the continuation of the monarchy. Other countries look with jealousy at the stability of our system of government and at how it has remained stable through general strikes, world wars and economic depressions while others have strained to remain democratic. This is one of the things that we owe to the continuation of our monarchy, and that is why it is appropriate that a democratic Parliament should choose an occasion such as this to pay tribute to the institution.

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It is a pleasure to add my congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son, Prince George. In doing so, I shall unashamedly promote my constituency, the beautiful Isle of Anglesey, which provided the first home for the royal couple. Before their wedding, in February 2011, Prince William and the then Miss Middleton undertook their first public engagement together in my constituency, when they launched the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s new lifeboat, the Hereford Endeavour. That event received worldwide attention through not only BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Wales and various local television channels, but Sky News, CNN and Australia’s Channel 9, among others. All those broadcasters saw the good side of Anglesey, which Prince William and Kate were proud to share. Also, a few days ago, they undertook their first engagement since the birth of Prince George. That, too, was on the Isle of Anglesey, where they set off the Anglesey ultra-marathon, the Ring O’Fire, around the island. Their public engagements have been well documented but, as the Prime Minister said, they have had time as residents of Anglesey to have a private life as well. There has been mutual respect between the royal couple and the people of Anglesey in that regard.

The Duke of Cambridge coined the term “Anglesonians” to describe the people of Anglesey. We are all Anglesonians now. He promoted the Isle of Anglesey a few weeks ago at the Anglesey show when he said:

“I know that I speak for Catherine when I say that I have never in my life known somewhere as beautiful and as welcoming as Anglesey. This island had been our first home together, and it will always be an immensely special place for us both. Catherine and I look forward to returning”

some day. I hope that they will bring Prince George with them. I add my congratulations to them and wish them “Iechyd da” or good health.

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On behalf of all my constituents, I warmly congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their new son, Prince George, and wish him a long and happy life. The royal family provide our nation with stability and an example of service and commitment to us all. I know that the new prince and his parents will be given a very warm welcome, should they have occasion to visit Bury, Ramsbottom or Tottington.

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I would like to add my congratulations on the birth of Prince George on behalf of all my constituents, many of whom, because it was so near, stood outside the hospital for many hours. That occasion showed the huge interest of the international press and of people from all around the world. This shows just what a privilege it is to have a monarchy in this country. I am an unashamed monarchist, and I genuinely feel that the stability and continuity of our country have been greatly dependent on the monarchy, even if there have been some ups and downs, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said.

I was in Northern Ireland when the birth happened. I have just seen in their place someone representing Northern Ireland, but I wanted to say what a wonderful reception the birth received in Northern Ireland, too. In all parts of the United Kingdom, we share in the joy of the parents. Very few of us will be around when Prince George becomes King. A few might hope to be, but I doubt that. We are nevertheless taking part today in a bit of history. That is why I wanted to add my congratulations to the whole royal family.

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I apologise for not being in my place at the beginning of this debate. I also apologise on behalf of my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, the Alliance party and the Social and Democratic Labour party. We have not decided to absent ourselves, to a man and a woman, this afternoon. In fact, there is a most unusual meeting taking place: the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is meeting in the Senate Chamber in Stormont. It is good for the people of Northern Ireland to see their MPs, of all parties, in action there. However, I wanted to put on record our very good wishes. As the only Independent MP from Northern Ireland here, it is wonderful to be able to speak for those from other parties and to send our congratulations to the wonderful Queen, her wonderful husband and to the parents of Prince George. We are delighted with Prince George’s safe arrival in this world.

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Any birth is a joy, and this is a joy for the people of this country. I am particularly happy because a great grandfather in the duchess’s family was a coal miner in the area where I worked for 20 very happy years. I hope that the inherent spirit and generosity of miners and their care for others will flow through this child’s blood, so that he can play his part, along with whoever takes over from us in this House in years to come, to prevent such things as I heard about on Saturday morning: a 13-year-old girl in my constituency who has just had a spinal operation is sleeping in a camp bed, because of over-overcrowding, in her grandmother’s house. I hope that whoever takes over from us will be able to work together, along with the royal family, to make something like that a thing of the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty offering the congratulations of this House to Her Majesty, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of Prince George; and signifying to Her Majesty the great pleasure given to the House by this happy event.

Ordered,

That the said Address be presented to Her Majesty by such Members of the House as are of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council or of Her Majesty’s Household.

Resolved, nemine contradicente,

That a Message be sent to Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to offer the congratulations of this House on the birth of Prince George and expressing the warm wishes of the House for his good health and happiness.— (The Prime Minister.)

Ordered,

That the said Message be presented to Her Majesty by such Members of the House as are of Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council or of Her Majesty’s Household.

Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill

[Relevant Documents: The Seventh Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 601, and the First Report from the Committee on Standards, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 638]

[1st Allotted Day]

Considered in Committee

[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]

Clause 1

Prohibition on consultant lobbying unless registered

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I beg to move amendment 2, in line 5, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 76.

Amendment 5, in line 8, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 7, in line 12, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 48, in clause 2, page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘(1) For the purposes of this Part, a person carries on the business of lobbying if in the course of a business and in return for payment—

(a) the person makes communications within subsection (3), or advises another person on the making of communications within subsection (3), and

(b) none of the exceptions in Part 1 of Schedule 1 applies.’.

Amendment 8, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, leave out ‘on behalf of another person or persons’.

Government amendment 77.

Amendment 9, in clause 2, page 2, line 4, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

‘(b) in return for payment the person advises others how to make communications within subsection (3).

(c) in return for payment the person arranges or facilitates a formal or informal meeting within subsection (3).’.

Amendment 161, in clause 2, page 2, line 4, at end insert—

‘(1A) A person carries on the business of professional lobbying if—

(a) the person is directly employed by a non-lobbying business to perform the role of making communications within the meaning of subsection (3);

(b) the person is contracted to perform the role of making communications within the meaning of subsection (3) by a non-lobbying business; or

(c) in addition to other duties within their business, they make communication within the meaning of subsection (3).’.

Amendment 52, in schedule 1, page 50, line 18, leave out paragraph 3.

Government amendment 91.

Amendment 17, in schedule 1, page 50,  line 18, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 18, in schedule 1, page 50, leave out lines 19 to 24 and insert—

‘(a) the person is a constituent contacting or communicating with their Member of Parliament;

(b) the person is making communications solely on his or her own behalf;

(c) the person is responding to a government consultation exercise;

(d) the person is responding to an invitation to submit information or evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee or Public Bill Committee;

(e) the person is acting in an official capacity on behalf of a government organisation;

(f) a person is making communications without remuneration;

(g) the person is responding to or complying with a court order,’.

Government amendments 92 to 95.

Amendment 19, in schedule 1, page 50, line 25, leave out sub-paragraph 3(2) and insert—

‘A person is carrying on the business of professional lobbying if they are acting—

(a) on behalf of a client, or

(b) on behalf of an employer.’.

Amendment 20, in schedule 1, page 50, line 30, leave out sub-paragraph 3(3) .

Amendment 21, in schedule 1, page 50, line 33, leave out sub-paragraph 3(4) .

Amendment 22, in schedule 1, page 51, line 8, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Government amendments 96 and 97.

Amendment 24, in schedule 1, page 51, line 21, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 25, in schedule 1, page 51, line 43, leave out paragraph (7).

Amendment 26, in schedule 1, page 52, line 10, leave out paragraph (8). Amendment 27, in schedule 1, page 52, line 16, leave out paragraph (10).

Amendment 30, in clause 3, page 2, line 35, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Government amendment 98.

Amendment 32, in clause 4, page 2, line 38, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 33, in clause 4, page 3, line 12, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 38, in clause 6, page 4, line 25, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Amendment 39, in clause 9, page 5, line 12, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Government amendment 81.

Amendment 41, in clause 12, page 6, line 22, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

Government amendments 82 to 85.

New clause 5—Definition of consultant lobbying

‘(1) In section 1 “consultant lobbying” means activities which are carried out in the course of a business for the purpose of—

(a) influencing government; or

(b) advising others how to influence government.

(2) Activities are to be taken as having the purpose specified in subsection (1) if a reasonable person would assume, having regard to all the circumstances, that the activities were intended to have the effect described in subsection (1)(a) or (b).

(3) In this section “government” includes, within the United Kingdom—

(a) central government, devolved government, local government;

(b) members and staff of either House of Parliament or of a devolved legislature;

(c) Ministers and officials; and

(d) public authorities (within the meaning of section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998).

(4) Subsection (1) does not include—

(a) anything done in response to or compliance with a court order;

(b) anything done for the purpose of complying with a requirement under an enactment;

(c) a public response to an invitation to submit information or evidence;

(d) a public response to a government consultation exercise;

(e) a formal response to a public invitation to tender;

(f) anything done by a person acting in an official capacity on behalf of a government organisation; or

(g) an individual who makes representations solely on his or her own behalf.

(5) In subsection (1) “influencing” includes informing, but making information or opinions public (for example, by way of advertisements or attributed articles in a newspaper) is not the provision of lobbying services.

(6) In this section—

(a) “business” includes any undertaking, including charitable and not-for-profit undertakings; and

(b) services provided by or on behalf of an undertaking are provided “in the course of a business”, even if the persons providing the services are acting on a pro bono, volunteer or not-for-profit basis.

(7) Subsection (1) applies whether a person is acting—

(a) on behalf of a client;

(b) on behalf of an employer;

(c) as a volunteer on behalf of a charitable or other organisation; or

(d) on the person’s own behalf (subject to subsection (4)(g)); but the Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument permit persons who provide lobbying services on behalf of an organisation (in any capacity) to rely on the organisation’s registration.

(8) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument provide that a person does not contravene section 1 by providing lobbying services without being registered, provided that the person becomes registered within a specified period beginning with the first date on which those services were provided.’.

Amendment 44, title, line 2l, leave out ‘consultant’ and insert ‘professional’.

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Let me welcome you to the Chair, Ms Primarolo, for the start of this very important Committee stage. We all look forward to your wise advice as we proceed with detailed scrutiny of the first part of this absolutely dreadful Bill—a Bill which no single stakeholder of any importance has endorsed. Part 1 is in need of major change, and it is only as a result of the unfortunate abbreviation of the time available that we shall not be pressing every single one of our amendments to a vote. We will see how far we get. I do not intend to speak for too long, because there are so many important matters to be dealt with this afternoon. I apologise to the Committee for needing to slip out for a few minutes at some stage; I have a long-standing engagement.

I want to make three points. First, there is a need for a universal register of all lobbyists, to which amendment 2 and further consequential amendments refer. Secondly, we strongly object to the Government’s tabling of amendment 76, for reasons that I shall explain shortly. Thirdly, amendment 9 and amendment 48—tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—widen the definition of “lobbyist” to ensure that all activities are properly registered.

The Government frequently claim to be the most transparent Government in history. That is a large claim. However, when it comes to making a choice between their commitment to transparency and the protection of vested interests, they always come down on the side of vested interests at the cost of transparency. That much is clear from the very first clause of the Bill, which needs to be amended.

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Earlier this year, a private health care company, Hospital Corporation of America, was awarded a contract to treat NHS brain tumour patients. That happened after the same company had donated £17,000 to the Conservative party. Does my hon. Friend agree that such transactions are the ones that the public want to get to the bottom of, and that the Bill does nothing to achieve that?

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My hon. Friend has made a powerful point about the way in which the Bill that became the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was prepared. As we know, the private health industry operated substantially behind the scenes in preparing the ground for that Bill. We also know that the legislation has led to a variety of actions that seem to have introduced an increasing amount of engagement in the NHS by the private sector, but that is not the point that I am addressing this afternoon.

The Government’s decision to limit the register to consultant lobbyists will lead to a narrowing of the register, because it excludes nearly all the lobbyists who are working professionally in our country today. Indeed, it would deepen the shadows that many people believe fall wherever the industry practises. Our amendments will seek to make the register universal and transparent and make what the lobbyists are doing transparent, by bringing the whole of the professional industry into daylight.

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I am a little puzzled as to the distinction drawn in the hon. Gentleman’s amendments between the terms “consultant” and “professional”. Can he explain the difference?

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I will explain it, but it is not too difficult to understand. I have met and consulted representatives of the whole of the industry, and they have told me that only a tiny proportion of the industry are so-called consultant lobbyists—third-party lobbyists or, as it were, hired guns. Professional lobbyists who work in-house will not be covered under the definition in the Bill, which is why we feel the use of the term “consultant lobbyist” narrows the Bill’s scope.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful explanation. I do not know whether he is aware of these comments made by Cameron Penny, a financial services lobbyist, on ConservativeHome:

“In a ludicrous reduction in the level of transparency to which I currently submit, the Bill wouldn’t mean I’d have to register as a lobbyist. As an employee who lobbies on behalf of an employer whose business is lobbying; they would have to register, I wouldn’t.”

I therefore urge Members on both sides of the Committee to support Labour’s amendment, so that we ensure that we establish a lobbying register that includes all lobbyists, not just a very narrow 1%.

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I met all the representative bodies of the lobbying industry only two or three weeks ago, and I asked them how many of their members would have to register under the definition of “consultant lobbyist”. They knew of nobody—not one single person—who would be both a consultant lobbyist and registered under the definition of lobbying in the Bill.

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rose

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I am going to make some more points on this matter in a few moments, and I may take some interventions then.

Our amendment would secure a register that includes in-house lobbyists as well as lobbying consultants and sole traders, all of whom are excluded under this Bill.

We should remember that in previous debates many Members reiterated the view that there is nothing wrong in principle with lobbying. In fact, lobbying brings life to our democracy and we, as Members of Parliament, frequently gain important information from being lobbied. Therefore, nothing I or any of my colleagues say today will suggest that there is anything wrong in principle with lobbying. That activity should, however, take place in the full light of day, not in the shadows.

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Is my hon. Friend aware that a leading tobacco company employed 161 people to lobby MEPs? Would all 161 of them be registered?

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I assume she is saying that the 161 individual lobbyists were employed by the tobacco company. If that is the case, under this Bill not one of them—not a single one—would be required to be on the register. That is why when she intervened on me I was saying that we want all lobbying activities to be brought into the full light of day, not remain in the shadows.

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Has the hon. Gentleman discussed his proposals with leading national charities, because they might not wish to have to register their people, who are legitimately campaigning for their charitable purpose?

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I have—but I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has done so. He might be well advised to meet them first, before asking a question like that. Yes, I have met the leading charities. I have also met representative organisations of the leading charities, and I have made two things clear to them. First, if they employ lobbyists according to the definition that we want to introduce, they will have to be registered. Even the large representative organisations say that that is the right thing to do. We are talking about professional lobbyists. Throughout the country, in every neighbourhood and constituency, there is much excellent community and charitable work that is undertaken voluntarily, and that is not professional lobbying. We do not expect people who lobby us at our surgeries with a particular problem in their neighbourhood to have to register. However, if a large organisation such as a charity—I can think of some that spend £300 million a year; that is their turnover—has parliamentary consultants working for them or for third party organisations that are lobbying Parliament in the material interests of that charity, that should be registered. The register will take only a few moments to fill in—it is not a particularly arduous task—and it is right that anyone who lobbies Parliament should be on it.

That is not my view alone, and it is not the view simply of the Opposition. I have met, as I have told the Committee, all the representative organisations of the lobbying industry. I have met many chairmen, chairwomen and managing directors of the larger lobbying companies and, almost without exception, they think that the Bill is too weak and does not go far enough, so they oppose it. I have also met all the lobbying transparency campaigners. One would not think that the people who campaign for lobbying and the people who campaign to constrain lobbying would inevitably share the same point of view but, in this case, without exception, both sides say that the Bill is simply inadequate.

The Bill is simply not up to the task, and it is likely to make lobbying more opaque, rather than more transparent. By suggesting that the register should include only consultant lobbyists, the register would exclude—these are important figures; they are not mine—99% of meetings between lobbyists and Ministers; 80% of lobbyists; and 95% of lobbying activity. Much of that activity and those lobbyists are already registered on voluntary registers. More likely than not, they will deregister if the Bill is introduced. We will know less about the industry and its activities than we do now.

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Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that private meetings, private lunches and any contact that seeks to influence or give guidance to people on how to influence is not covered by the Bill?

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That is a powerful point, but I do not want to stray too far down that track because you may rule me out of order, Ms Primarolo; the issue is not relevant to this group of amendments. However, the hon. Lady is quite correct—as a whole, the Bill completely excludes 99% of lobbying activity. Consultant lobbying does not include, for example, lobbyists who work in-house—a point that I have made in response to the Government. People who work for big tobacco companies or those who operate in law firms as lobbyists would not have to register.

I shall give the Committee an example. The right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was revealed to have texted Mr Fred Michel, the in-house lobbyist for News Corporation, about matters that pertained to News Corporation’s business, but those exchanges would not have to be registered if the Bill became law, because Mr Michel was an in-house lobbyist, not a consultant lobbyist. One of the big scandals of this Parliament would simply be missed by legislation that is meant to clean up lobbying once and for all.

Even the Leader of the House conceded to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the definition of consultant lobbyist was narrow. He said—bear in mind that a Minister said this, not us—“It is not that we believe consultant lobbyists are the only ones lobbying. Clearly they are a minority.” The Leader of the House makes the point more effectively and with fewer words than I am. The point is that a very small minority of lobbyists and lobbying activity will be covered the Bill.

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As Members of Parliament, we expect to be lobbied by people who are lobbying in their own interests. In that respect, a company is a person. In legal terms it is just another person. We expect to be lobbied by our constituents and by other people who are not constituents in respect of matters of national interest. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why such lobbying is corrupt? What would be corrupt—[Interruption.] Excuse me. What would be corrupt is Members of Parliament receiving payment or being influenced by anything other than argument. Otherwise, I cannot see why he wants to capture so many people in a lobbying register. Will he explain that?

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I will briefly make several points. First, there is a Government amendment before the Committee this afternoon that excludes companies from having to register, yet the hon. Gentleman points out that in law companies are individuals—they are legal persons. On corruption, I have not made the case that the lobbying industry is wholly corrupt. Not at all, but there is a huge gap between the population and the political and commercial elite in our country.

Too many people believe that decisions are made in secret, in the quiet rooms around here—smoke-filled rooms, perhaps. Nobody knows how those decisions are made or on whose behalf. It would be better if the general public understood how decisions were made, who was pressing for those decisions and in whose interests they were made. The Prime Minister himself said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We should introduce legislation that would make sure that all lobbying activity was registered and properly accounted for. People would then know how decisions were made.

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On the scope of the clause and the limitations on who is covered by it, Members of Parliament are lobbied, but will the public think it morally right that at least 58 Members of Parliament on the Government Benches have current or recent directorships or consultancy activities with private health care firms from which they benefit personally? That is not covered at all by the terms and scope of the Bill.

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I thank my hon. Friend. My views on MPs’ second jobs are well known. They were debated in the House not too long ago.

The Leader of the House accepted that consultant lobbyists are a tiny minority. The Government have constructed a straw man argument in order to give the appearance that they are taking action on lobbying transparency, whereas in reality they are doing no such thing. Why is a register of consultant lobbyists proposed in the Bill? In my view it is because the Government merely want to be seen to be doing something while in fact doing very little.

We, the lobbying industry and the lobbying transparency campaigners, as well as the Select Committee, all want to act to achieve greater lobbying transparency for the good and the health of our democracy. We want to suggest something different to the Government. We want lobbying transparency because in a 21st century democracy it is only right that people can see how their Government are being influenced and by whom—which commercial forces lie behind particular decisions. That requires a register of all professional lobbyists. All lobbyists would then have to meet the same high standards, not only to create a level playing field within the industry, but to make sure that big money can no longer buy more influence than the rest of the population by using underhand techniques.

Instead of ensuring high standards in the lobbying industry, however, the Government would make the situation much worse. That is not simply my view. Mr George Kidd, acting chair of the UK Public Affairs Council, the body that runs the largest voluntary register of lobbyists, said that

“there is a risk that in doing something we do harm rather than good. We may end up with a less transparent system than we currently have if the definition is unchanged and”—

listen to this—

“we have a statutory register with very few names, if any, on it. People will be able to construct their business never to be on it.”

He suggests that we may have a register with no names on it—no lobbyists at all—and a register that is so full of loopholes that it is possible for anybody, with the smallest amount of ingenuity, to find a way to avoid getting on to the register. It would appear that the word “transparency” in the Bill’s title is a total misnomer.

If all that were not bad enough, Government amendment 76, in the name of the Leader of the House, rather remarkably succeeds in achieving what many think is impossible: making a bad Bill even worse. Despite comprehensive and uniquely united criticism and a consensus against the Bill, the Government have decided in their wisdom further to amend it, not in order to strengthen it, as lobbyists and experts have recommended, but rather further to weaken it. Rather than including companies and organisations that employ lobbyists on the register, as happens currently with the voluntary register, the Government have chosen to seek to limit the scope of the Bill further with this amendment by removing the need for a lobbyist’s employer to register. This is an important point, so I hope that the Committee is following the argument. For a register to bring meaningful transparency to the lobbying industry and to allow public scrutiny of lobbying, it must surely include, at the very least, all those who are doing lobbying. That surely must include the individual lobbyist’s employer. Yet that is precisely what the amendment seeks to avoid. Without the information on who is employing a particular lobbyist, it will be impossible to know which organisations or companies are lobbying at all, let alone what they are lobbying about or how often they are lobbying. The amendment is a retrograde step.

I have highlighted before how the Bill is weaker than the existing voluntary code, and the Government amendment is a case in point. The public or an organisation seeking the services of a lobbyist can currently search the voluntary registers in a way that discloses an organisation or employer’s client list, but the Government’s new proposals will remove that ability. The amendment removes the necessity for the lobbyists’ employers to be registered. We would know who the lobbyists were if they were consultant lobbyists, not if they were professional lobbyists, but we would not know who they were working for. We would not know who their colleagues were. Nor would we know which clients were being served by their colleagues. Nor would we know which other clients were employing the same company. We would not know the identity of the directors of the company. I would argue that knowing the names and identities of the directors of the company is quite important. Arguably, a company director may not themselves be a lobbyist, but it would be of interest to know who the directors of the company were which employed the lobbyists who were then on the register, and the amendment would exclude such a possibility.

Finally, we would not know who the shareholders of the company were, which leaves a massive opportunity for opacity. We would not know who the directors are or who owns the company, the name of the company or its registered address; we will be able to know simply that a lobbyist, Mr M. Smith, or whatever his name may be, is working out of Wimbledon. We will have no idea who his colleagues are, what company he works for, what its registered address is or who its shareholders and directors are. It really is a very bad and dangerous amendment. Rather than opening up the lobbying industry, the Government’s proposal would allow companies and organisations to hide behind the legislation.

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The point about identifying who works for whom must be complicated by the fact that some consultancies are employed by a number of different companies. Could they disguise the fact, using zero-hours contracts, that they are not working exclusively for one employer?

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Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The truth is that we will have no idea whom they are working for. We will know who their clients are, because that is required on the register, but we will have no idea who employs them. That seems to me to be a rather critical question to ask. For those people now on the voluntary register and operating to an ethical code, we know who their clients are and whom they work for, and the companies they work for also register. If the amendment is made, we will have no idea whom they are working for or who their other clients are. It seems to me that those on the Government Front Bench—I look to the Minister—should reflect on the amendment carefully before deciding whether to press it. It is very dangerous.

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Why does the hon. Gentleman think that those dangers would arise as a result of the proposed amendment? The word “person” would apply equally to an individual as to a company, so

“A person must not carry on the business of consultant lobbying unless… the person… is entered in the register”

could mean either a company or a human being. Indeed, it is likely to mean both, because if the person is carrying on business on behalf of an employer that is a company, he should register not only himself, but the company. I do not understand his objection, unless he has seen something in the Bill that I have not.

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Let us look at the clause concerned. Clause 1 currently states:

“A person must not carry on the business of consultant lobbying unless—

(a) the person, or

(b) if the person is an employee, the person’s employer,

is entered in the register of consultant lobbyists.”

Amendment 76 would exclude paragraph (b), so I deduce from that that the Government do not wish to have on the register the employer of the person who is being registered. If I was incorrect in my interpretation, no purpose whatsoever would be served by that deletion, or by its inclusion in the Bill in the first place.

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Is that not the entire point? There would be no need to specify the person’s employer if they could stand alone. If a person is included, what was the point of putting that in the Bill in the first place? It is being deleted specifically to exclude the corporate entity. It is as plain as a pikestaff.

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