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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2013

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Democratic Republic of Congo

May I take this opportunity to welcome the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) and his colleagues to their Front-Bench roles in International Development? I also offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today. She is visiting Uganda to see what more DFID can do to improve the lives of the millions of people living with disabilities in the developing world.

I am deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For that reason, last week DFID agreed an additional £5 million of UK funding. That funding will provide life-saving interventions to more than 130,000 people and support protection for girls, women and children affected by the conflict.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the DRC. Does she agree that the UK should therefore seek to play a leading role in the humanitarian effort, including the opening of a DFID office in the east of the country?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we are the single largest contributor to the common humanitarian fund, which does precisely what I think he wants us to do—provide the humanitarian support needed by so many people affected by the conflict. Alongside that work, we have an additional fund for emergency response; that focuses particularly on providing for people’s health and sanitation needs. As I have explained, I have extended that by a further six months. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely playing a leading role in that regard.

A large amount of money is involved and a significant amount is, rightly, being spent on the crisis. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that her Department gets the full support and co-operation of the DRC Government? Does she also agree that it is equally essential to have the total engagement and commitment of the President of the DRC? In the past, that has not been fully forthcoming.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ultimately, we need a political solution to the conflict, and that has to be led by President Kabila. The solution also has to be regional if it is to be sustainable. Furthermore, Mary Robinson, the special envoy appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General, can have a key role in bringing together the various countries that must be brought together if we are finally to achieve long lasting and long overdue peace.

Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the mobile phone companies that source some of their rare minerals in Democratic Republic of Congo, thereby financing the warring parties? If she has not, may I suggest that she does?

I very much take the hon. Lady’s point on board. A lot of DFID’s work is in addressing corruption, and that includes illicit flows of money. As part of the G8 this year, for example, we led the way on challenging the leading economies of the world to up their game on tax, trade and transparency. Illicit flows of money were a core part of that. I assure the hon. Lady that I take her point on board and will follow it up.

Is it not the case that diarrhoea caused through poor sanitation is one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the developing world, and that in the Congo it results in the second highest rate of infant mortality in Africa? How many people will benefit from Britain’s investment in the water and sanitation system in that benighted country?

We have delivered life-saving support to 2.1 million people in DRC. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we look at the millennium development goal on child mortality, we see that one of the reasons it has not had more success is the continued fatal effect of diarrhoea. He is right to highlight that. It is one of the things we particularly work on in DRC, and it is why sanitation is so key.

The Secretary of State will know that 46% of people in DRC are under the age of 14, and reports say that youth unemployment is nearly 90%. Will she say a little more about the long-term plans for DRC? What conversations has she had with colleagues in the international community about getting those children to school and giving those young people a future?

I very much welcome that question. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that one of the key challenges in DRC is to blend together what we are doing from a humanitarian perspective with the country’s longer-term development needs. That is why we are keen to see a long-lasting peace settlement there. I can assure her that alongside the work on the humanitarian effort we are looking at what we can do with partners on the development effort, including in education.

Syria

The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. Since the start of the conflict, over 100,000 people have been killed, 2.1 million have become refugees, and nearly 7 million people within Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Let me declare an interest as a member of the International Rescue Committee’s policy and advocacy committee. Given that 60% of Syrian refugees are living outside refugee camps, what steps are the Department taking to ensure that there is adequate support for urban refugees and the communities that are supporting them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that for some countries the total is possibly in excess of 70%. In Jordan, for every refugee who is in the Zaatari camp, there are four outside it. We are therefore working very closely with Governments such as Jordan’s through the World Bank trust fund that we helped to set up—we launched it when I was at the World Bank just a couple of weekends ago—to make sure that we have the investment in infrastructure and public services that the host communities need to be able to support not only their own day-to-day lives but those of the many people who have arrived in their midst.

In order to try to reduce the terrible humanitarian crisis not just in Syria but throughout the region, with the prospect of conflict in Lebanon, does the right hon. Lady agree that the non-governmental organisations are right to seek to work with local organisations, and will she encourage them in that objective?

We are encouraging NGOs to work with grass-roots organisations, and they, too, understand that they need to do that. This is vital if we are to maintain the support of the host communities, who have been incredibly generous in accepting refugees. I should also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that one of the challenges is making sure that we can work with NGOs, which have the breadth and capacity to be able to work across the piece and across communities but are absolutely working on the ground with existing civil society organisations.

May I thank the Secretary of State for the comprehensive evidence session that she gave to the International Development Committee yesterday? I welcome the leadership role that the UK has played in committing these funds, but will she urge other countries such as those in Europe and the middle east also to step up to the plate and ensure that the UN appeal is fully funded and Britain is not left in front without followers?

I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. Britain has done exactly the right thing in playing a leading role in the humanitarian response. It is absolutely right for the Syrian refugees, but right for us too, to try to do what we can to keep stability in the region. However, we cannot do that on our own, and it is now time, in the run-up to the next donor conference in January, for other countries in the international community to ask themselves what more they can do alongside the UK in making sure that the next UN donor appeal, unlike the last one, is fully funded.

Some 58,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan since the onset of the civil war. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are aiding those displaced individuals with the basics to live. What more can Governments do to help charities such as the Red Cross?

We need to do a number of things. First, we need to make sure that the financing and resources are in place so that not just the life-saving work, but the broader work on educating the 1 million children who are now refugees can take place. As I have said, we also need to work with host Governments—such as the Jordanian Government, who have been incredibly generous—to make sure that they are well placed to be able to cope with this huge, unprecedented number of refugees.

9. Mindful of the impact on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and mindful of the fact that this is an international humanitarian crisis, what international co-operation are we receiving with regard to the refugees in those countries? (900651)

As I have said, it is deeply concerning that the United Nations donor appeal is only half funded. Having said that, as a result of the Prime Minister’s leadership, since the G20 we have managed to get an additional $1 billion of funding. The key test for us all will be whether the donor conference in January can be successful so that we can meet the needs of the UN agencies that are working so hard.

This refugee crisis is the greatest since that in Rwanda and the Secretary of State has our support in trying to get aid to those civilians, including 1 million refugee children. If the violence continues at its current ferocity, what is her Department’s assessment of the likely refugee numbers by the end of this year and of the capabilities of neighbouring nations to absorb them without destabilising their politics and economies?

Some non-governmental organisations would assess that the number of refugees could reach the 3 million mark by next spring. That is deeply concerning and it is one of the reasons why, alongside all the humanitarian work we have done on the ground, the UK has brought together top donors and UN agencies to make sure that they can work together effectively as a single team on a single strategy for not just supporting refugees outside Syria, but, critically, reaching those in need in Syria.

We look forward to the Department’s assessment of possible refugee numbers by the end of the year. Refugees are not just scampering across borders; they are also clambering on to small boats in order to seek safety by travelling across the Mediterranean. The tiny dot of an island, Lampedusa, has become a checkpoint for people seeking refuge from north Africa and Syria. Sadly, 300 people have drowned on that journey. Does the Secretary of State accept that the international community has to do more to prevent those desperate people from dying in such dreadful circumstances as they flee civil war only to drown in the Mediterranean?

What we have seen is shocking and it is one of the reasons why international development is so important. We need to make sure that we can work with developing countries so that they can provide people with opportunities, prosperity and a future so that they can pursue their lives with their families where they grow up. Surely that has to be the best thing and surely it is sensible to help Governments tackle instability and conflict on their own territory, rather than allow it to spread to ours.

Nepal (Elections)

Our budget of £14 million for Nepal’s elections will cover items such as £5 million to the United Nations Development Programme for the electoral roll, £8 million to the Election Commission of Nepal for the administrative costs of the election itself, and a further £1 million to cover independent observers.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that so many years have passed since an election last took place in Nepal, is he confident that the assistance he is providing will contribute to a successful outcome?

I know that my hon. Friend has in his constituency a Nepali community to which he pays a great deal of attention. Nepal has faced a bit of a logjam for a number of years, in that it has needed elections to approve a constitution and a constitution to approve elections. We hope that the November elections will take place with full participation and no violence.

What work is the Department doing to stop any violence between competing parties in the November elections?

The UK is at the forefront of engaging with politicians of all parties in Nepal. My right hon. Friends in the Foreign Office and we in the Department for International Development visit them regularly and have urged all of them to participate. When I visited in April, I was very robust in urging some of the smaller Maoist parties to participate when at the time they were minded not to do so.

Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative

4. What contribution her Department is making to the implementation of the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative. (900646)

The UK will co-host a call-to-action event in November with Sweden, which will focus on protecting women and girls from all forms of violence in emergencies. That work builds directly on the G8 Foreign Ministers’ declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which was led so ably by the Foreign Secretary.

I am grateful for that response. In Burma, reports of rape and sexual violence against women by the army have increased. Given the level of aid that we send to Burma, will the Secretary of State encourage the Burmese Government to sign our declaration and ask her colleagues to raise the matter in Europe and at the United Nations?

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about what is happening in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi is in the country and I will be meeting her today. I will be sure to raise those issues with her. I am sure that she takes them as seriously as this House.

As a means to encouraging the wider implementation of the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, the Council of Europe launched a campaign in February to encourage its member states to have their municipal and regional authorities sign a pact to stop sexual violence against children. Will the Secretary of State say whether she is aware of that campaign and what contribution her Department can make?

I am not aware of that campaign. The Department sets a lot of store by the work that it does to protect children, whether in Syria or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only today, I announced £2 million to take care of the Syrian children who are turning up in Iraq unaccompanied. I will write to my right hon. Friend to respond more fully on the campaign that she mentioned.

Gaza

5. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the levels of food, fuel and medical supplies entering Gaza each day. (900647)

Although the supply of food in Gaza is adequate, prices are rising fast. The level of fuel and medical supplies has dropped, exacerbating an already precarious humanitarian situation and threatening the basic needs of ordinary people in Gaza.

The Minister has recognised in his reply that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly fragile. The impoverished Palestinian population is reliant on the tunnels for affordable goods. The tightening of restrictions by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities is resulting in shockingly high prices for fuel and basic commodities. With access to, and the affordability of, food becoming a huge problem, will the Government acknowledge that the blockade of Gaza is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and constitutes collective punishment?

There are extremely serious matters of life and death in Gaza. Let us hear the questions and the Minister’s answers.

I recognise exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. We would far rather see free movement and access for trade and economic activity in Gaza than an economy that is channelled through tunnels in a way that benefits Hamas. Israel’s plan to expand the capacity of the Allenby crossing between the west bank and Jordan is a welcome example of the sort of steps that can be taken to improve trade.

The truth is that the international community and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will have to continue supporting thousands of people in Gaza and the west bank until a two-state solution is found or until Gaza and the west bank are incorporated into de jure Israel. Permanent occupation is a perpetual hell for thousands of people. When will the international community find a long-term solution for Gaza and the west bank?

I hope that the efforts that are under way will lead to exactly the kind of agreement that my hon. Friend is seeking. The efforts of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, in particular in working with the US Administration, will hopefully lead to a two-state solution and a long-lasting agreement that lead to peace and security between the two countries.

The Minister will be aware that the price of fuel in Gaza has almost doubled in recent weeks. What steps is his Department taking to assist small businesses in Gaza, particularly fishermen, who have been hit hard by that increase?

The hon. Lady makes a very fair point. The amount of fuel that enters Gaza via the tunnels has halved from about 1 million litres a day in June to about 500,000 litres this month. The Gaza power plant is operating at half its capacity, triggering electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours a day, exacerbating the already difficult economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Topical Questions

During the past month I have attended the UN General Assembly, meetings at the World Bank and I have put in place a new £30 million “Lost Generation” initiative to provide protection, counselling and basic educational supplies to children affected by the Syrian crisis. I have announced a £1 billion commitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the Department is committed to transparency, results and value for money. I am proud that in procurement in DFID, despite competition from the public and private sectors, my departmental procurement team recently won the annual award for best international procurement from the Chartered Institute for Procurement and Supply.

The Batwa, who were evicted from the forests to allow tourists to trek gorillas, are the most socially excluded group in east Africa. Will the Secretary of State look at her programmes to ensure that they too do not exclude the Batwa?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look into the specific point he raises. Human rights run through all DFID programmes, and when dealing with Governments we have partnership principles that also include human rights.

T3. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to promote the business skills of developing countries so that they can promote their own economies? (900635)

I know that my hon. Friend was involved in excellent work on business mentoring in Burundi over the summer, and last week I met the Institute of Chartered Accountants—of which I am a fellow—to discuss accounting and auditing standards in the developing world. I hope the UK’s excellent professional services will play a role in driving standards and skills in the developing world over the coming months and years.

T2. What progress has been made since the G8 in curbing illicit financial flows from developing countries by revealing more information about the beneficial ownership of companies? (900634)

I am pleased the hon. Lady raises that issue. This country played a leading role in using the G8 to raise the issue of illicit flows, and ensure transparency alongside our efforts on tax and trade. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is now consulting on beneficial ownership, which the hon. Lady referred to, and that is a key route through which we can help developing countries ensure they get the tax takes they are due.

T5. When I visited India two weeks ago with my local gurdwara from Hounslow, I had a useful discussion in the Punjab with ActionAid and other organisations about female feticide, which I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees is a disgrace to humanity. What can she do through her Department to improve the way that women are valued, so that they are protected worldwide? (900637)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Female feticide is shocking, and I pay tribute to organisations such as ActionAid, and others that work and campaign on that issue. In too many parts of the world, women are treated as chattels or assets and are bought and sold, often through early forced marriage or trafficking. The lack of basic human rights for women underpins much of what my Department works on.

T4. Many billions of pounds of taxpayers money have rightly been spent investing in schools and community centres in Afghanistan. What proportion does the right hon. Lady believe will remain open after the departure of our troops next year? (900636)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that a huge amount of work through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund has gone into education and building schools, including in Helmand. Given the work that is taking place in the run-up to the troop draw-down and beyond, I hope not only that those schools will continue, but that more schools will join them and extend education to more Afghan children.

T6. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what progress has been made since the G8 on cutting illicit financial flows from developing countries, and on setting up a public register of the beneficial ownership of those companies? (900638)

I reiterate that a consultation on beneficial ownership is under way. Since taking up this role I have increased the amount of funding that my Department gives to the Met police to track down and prosecute those involved in illicit illegal flows, and they are doing an excellent job.

T8. Will the Secretary of State say what discussions she has had with the Israeli Government about the price of petrol for the Palestinians? (900640)

The Department is in regular discussions with the Israeli Government, and as mentioned earlier, we are particularly concerned about the limitation that exists on fuel in Gaza. We fully understand that those pressures exist, and we make representations whenever we can.

T7. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that ethnic conflict in Burma is brought to an end? Otherwise, it threatens both the stability and the development prospects of that country. (900639)

The Department is working hand in hand with the Foreign Office to play its role in improving governance and accountability, not only at regional and governmental level, but at community level, where, clearly, so many of the root causes of that situation lie.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died in Afghanistan. It is clear from the tributes that he was a highly talented and professional soldier. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his colleagues at this very difficult time. He has made the ultimate sacrifice, and we must never forget him.

On a happier note, I am sure the House will join me in celebrating the christening of baby Prince George later today.

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

I join my right hon. Friend in his tribute to Lance Corporal Brynin. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and comrades in 14 Signal Regiment. I also join the Prime Minister in his applause for the christening of Prince George this morning.

Does my right hon. Friend believe it is a good time for an apology from those regional branches of the Police Federation who so traduced our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and from the Leader of the Opposition?

Let me start by saying on behalf of all hon. Members that we should put on record what an incredible job the police do on our behalf every day. I see that at very close hand, and the Leader of the Opposition and I saw it at the police bravery awards last week. However, as I said last week, my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip gave a full explanation of what happened. The police in the meeting said that he gave no explanation. It is now clear, reading the Independent Police Complaints Commission report, that the police need to make an apology. The officers concerned and the chief constables are coming to the House today. I hope they will give a full account and a proper apology to the Home Affairs Committee. It is a moment for all hon. Members to consider what we said at the time. I hope the Leader of the Opposition does the same.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was a brave, professional soldier. I send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.

I also join the Prime Minister in celebrating the christening of Prince George later today and send best wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The Prime Minister has said that anyone who wanted to intervene directly in energy markets was living in “a Marxist universe”. Can he tell the House how he feels now that the red peril has claimed Sir John Major?

We are intervening—[Interruption.] I am not surprised the right hon. Gentleman wants to quote the last Conservative Prime Minister and forget the mess the people in between made of our country. Let me be absolutely clear that I believe in intervening in the energy market. That is why we are legislating to put customers on the lowest tariff. John Major is absolutely right that bills in this country have reached a completely unacceptable level. We need to take action on that. We need to help people to pay their bills, and we also need to help to get bills down. This is where we need a frank conversation about what is putting bills up. The Government are prepared to have that conversation; the Leader of the Opposition is employed in cynical ploys and gimmicks.

Of course, John Major was a Conservative Prime Minister who won a majority, unlike this Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has said something rather interesting. He obviously now agrees with Sir John Major that the energy price increases are unacceptable. If we agree that they are unacceptable, the question is: what are we going to do about it? The former Prime Minister said that,

“given the scale of those profits”,

we should “recoup that money”. He wants to do it through a windfall tax; I say we need a price freeze. What does the Prime Minister want to do to “recoup that money” for the consumer?

Let me answer that question directly. We need to roll back some of the green regulations and charges that are putting up bills. We all know who put them in place. [Interruption.]

Order. The House is very over-excited. I want to hear the answers. Let us hear the Prime Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about John Major winning an election, and he is right. He beat a weak and incredible Labour leader. Is that not rather familiar? The first thing that John Major said is that Labour’s policy is unworkable, and he is absolutely right. What we need to do is recognise that there are four bits to an energy bill: the wholesale prices, which are beyond our control; the costs of transmission and the grid, which are difficult to change; the profits of the energy companies; and the green regulations. It is those last two that we need to get to grips with. So I can tell the House today that we will be having a proper competition test carried out over the next year to get to the bottom of whether this market can be more competitive. I want more companies, I want better regulation and I want better deals for consumers, but yes, we also need to roll back the green charges that the right hon. Gentleman put in place as Energy Secretary.

The Prime Minister really is changing his policy every day of the week. It is absolutely extraordinary. His Energy Secretary, who is in his place, says this has nothing to do with green taxes, and 60% of green taxes were introduced by him. Who is the man who said, “Vote blue to go green?” It was the Prime Minister. I will tell him what is weak: not standing up to the energy companies. That is this Prime Minister all over.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the big six energy companies. Who created the big six energy companies? When Labour came to power there were 17 companies in the market, now there are just six. I can help Opposition Members, because I have the briefing that Back-Bench Labour MPs have been given about their own energy policy. In case they have not read the briefing, they might want to hear it. Question 7:

“what would stop the energy companies just increasing their prices beforehand?”

Absolutely no answer. Question 6. [Interruption.] No, let me share their briefing with them. Question 6:

“How will you stop companies just increasing their prices once the freeze ends?”

Here we have the great Labour answer:

“the public would take a dim view”.

A dim view—how incredibly brave. Let us have question 9, because this says it all. This is what Labour’s briefing says:

“Ed Miliband was Energy Secretary in the last government - isn’t he to blame for rising bills?”

We all know the answer: yes, he is.

I will tell the Prime Minister what happened. When I was Energy Secretary, energy bills went down by £100. Since he became Prime Minister, they have gone up by £300. Let us clarify where we are. The Prime Minister says these price rises are unacceptable. He says he wants to act. He is the Prime Minister—I know he can sometimes forget that, but, heaven help us, he is the Prime Minister, so he can act. I have a suggestion: he should implement Labour’s price freeze. The Energy Bill is going through the other place. We can amend it and bring in the price freeze right now—two parties working together in the national interest. Let us do that—

I think the right hon. Gentleman has been following his own advice too much: wearing too many woolly jumpers and getting overheated. Let us do it—we can bring the price freeze right now.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well it is not a price freeze; it is a price con. He admitted it was a price con the very next day, because he could not control global gas prices. The truth is that prices would go up beforehand, he would not keep his promise and prices would go up afterwards. It is a cynical ploy from the Energy Secretary who wrecked the energy market in the first place.

I will tell the Prime Minister what is a con: telling people last week that the answer was to switch suppliers and that that would solve the broken energy market. What does he say to someone who took his advice last week to switch from British Gas, only to discover that npower was raising its prices by 10%?

It is worth people looking at switches—they can save up to £250 if they switch—but we want a more competitive energy market. The right hon. Gentleman left us a market with just six players, and we have already seen seven new energy companies enter the market. We need an annual audit of competition to make this market more competitive—something he never did in office—and to roll back the costs imposed on people’s energy bills, part of which he was responsible for. One of the first acts of the Government was to take away the £179 that he was going to put on to energy bills through his renewable heat initiative. He put bills up and is trying to con the public; we will deliver for hard-working people.

John Major said what we all know. We have a Prime Minister who stands up for the energy companies, not hard-pressed families. Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating. These are the ordinary people of this country whom this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.

The difference is: John Major is a good man; the right hon. Gentleman is acting like a conman. That is what we are seeing. He is promising something he knows he cannot deliver. He knows he cannot deliver it because he never delivered it when he was in office.

Q2. In the town of Colne, where I live, unemployment is down and small businesses are flourishing, but serious traffic congestion is holding back the economic growth of the area. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the start of a six-week consultation on a Colne bypass that would address this problem and boost job creation in Pendle and east Lancashire? (900619)

I very much welcome what my hon. Friend says. He is absolutely right about the need to build bypasses and roads in our country, which is why we are spending £3 billion over the Parliament on major upgrades. I welcome the consultation on the Colne bypass. As he says, it comes at the same time as very good news on unemployment and employment, with 1 million more people in work in our country.

On this day 20 years ago, the Provisional IRA brutally murdered innocent men, women and children on the Shankill road in Belfast. Will the Prime Minister join me and my right. hon. and hon. Friends in ensuring that no one in a civilised society will ever equate innocent victims with guilty murderers?

I join the hon. Gentleman in commemorating the appalling act and loss of life that day. We all remember it. Of course, no one should ever glorify, in any way, terrorism or those who take part in terrorism, but he and I know that everyone in Northern Ireland has to try to come together to talk about a shared future and to try to leave the past behind.

Q3. Rural post offices are vital, but they need more government work to survive. They must continue to pay pensions and benefits and are ideally placed to handle universal credit applications, provide banking and identity check facilities and act as a front office for government. Will the Prime Minister encourage all his Ministers to give more government work to post offices? (900620)

We all want to see the post office network survive and thrive. Unlike the last Government, who saw nearly a third of the rural post office network close, we have committed that no post office will close in this Parliament. I absolutely hear what my hon. Friend says. The current arrangements for collecting pensions and benefits at post offices will remain in place at least until 2015, and the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office are discussing an extension to 2017.

Q4. A total of 1.5 million people in the UK are addicted to the benzoates diazepam and “Z drugs”. I know of one individual who has been on those products for more than 45 years—a total life ruined. They are not drug misusers; they are victims of the system of repeat prescriptions. Will the Prime Minister advise the Department of Health to give some guidance to the clinical commissioning groups to introduce withdrawal programmes in line with the advice from Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle university, who is the expert in this field, to give these people back their lives? (900621)

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned strongly on this issue over many years. I join him in paying tribute to Professor Ashton, whom I know has considerable expertise in this area. He is right to say that this is a terrible affliction; these people are not drug addicts but they have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers. The Minister for public health is very happy to discuss this issue with him and, as he says, make sure that the relevant guidance can be issued.

I know that the Prime Minister is very well aware of the concerns that many of our people have about rising energy prices. Will he therefore act to reduce the effect of Mr Huhne’s unfortunate legacy by cutting the carbon reduction policy, elongating the targets and relieving the burden on both consumer and business man?

My hon. Friend makes a good point; as I say, this is why we have to have an honest discussion about this, because the fact is that on our energy bills is £112 of green taxes and green regulations. We need to work out not only what is necessary to encourage renewable energy and what is necessary to go on winning overseas investment into the UK, but how we can bear down on people’s bills. It simply is the politics of the conman to pretend that you can freeze prices when you are not in control of global energy prices. The proper approach is to look at what is driving up bills and deal with it. [Interruption.]

Order. I let it go the first time, but the word “conman” is, frankly, unparliamentary; the Prime Minister is a man of great versatility in the use of language and it is a bit below the level. We will leave it there.

Q5. Yesterday, The Independent reported the Government’s failure to close the quoted Eurobond tax loophole, which could be losing the Exchequer £500 million a year. Has the Prime Minister ever been lobbied on the loophole? Will he now pledge to close it immediately? (900622)

To my memory, I have never been lobbied on this particular issue. I looked at it this morning. The Treasury has listened very carefully to the arguments and has made the decisions for the reasons that the hon. Lady knows.

More than 300,000 new businesses have been registered in the United Kingdom over the past three years—that is a record figure. The key priority in supporting those businesses over the difficult first few years of trading is to make sure that we bear down on regulation. Much has been done through the red tape challenge, one-in, one-out and other measures. What more can the Government do to support these risk-takers at this difficult time?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The news out today is that we now have the largest number of companies we have ever had in our country, and over the past three years we have seen 400,000 extra companies established. What we have to do is help them in every way we can. The most powerful thing we are doing is cutting the national insurance that they will have to pay by £2,000, starting next year. That will be a real boost to small businesses. On the red tape they are currently throttled with, we are dealing with that at every level, including at the European Council coming up this week, where I have organised a meeting for our businesses to explain their proposals for cutting red tape to fellow European leaders from Finland, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. It is an agenda right across the board to help small businesses grow our economy.

Q6. New research shows that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are trapping low-earning aspirant parents on benefits. His benefit cap is hitting vulnerable children, stopping parents working and costing the taxpayer—is it not time for a rethink? (900624)

We know that the Labour party is against the benefit cap. It wants unlimited benefits for families. It is no longer the Labour party; it is the welfare party. That is very clear from the questions Labour Members ask. We think it is right to cap benefits so that no family can earn more out of work than they would earn in work. The early evidence is showing that this is encouraging people to look for work. For a party that believes in hard-working people, that is good news. Presumably for the welfare party it is bad news.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the business model of Welsh Water Dwr Cymru, which is a not-for-profit company that is responsible to its consumers rather than to shareholders. Does he agree that such companies would introduce real competition in the energy supply sector?

We want more competition in the energy sector, whether it comes from private businesses, from co-operative businesses or, as the hon. Gentleman says, from charitable enterprises. We want an open energy market, but the fact is that we were left with the big six by the party opposite. We were also left an Ofgem in which the Leader of the Opposition had appointed five of the nine people. The reason that the energy market is not working properly lies largely at his door.

Q7. Wigan and Leigh Housing estimates that it will take approximately seven years to rehouse the 1,400 tenants who wish to downsize because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. Would the Prime Minister advise those tenants to move to private rented accommodation, thereby increasing the housing benefit bill, or should they try to save money by turning off the heating and wearing a jumper? (900625)

What is fair about removing the spare room subsidy is that it makes the situation fair between private rented accommodation and council sector rented accommodation. It is that sort of fairness that we want to see in our country. The Labour party has opposed every single welfare reduction that we have proposed; it would have to find £85 billion to fund its opposition to every single thing that we have done to help this country get back on track.

The positive outlook for Osborne Construction in my constituency this year, with its increased turnover and a strongly increased forward order book, is mirrored in the real economy all over the country. Will the Prime Minister undertake not to be diverted from the long, hard slog of righting the public finances and reducing the burdens on business, so that plan A can continue to enable businesses in my constituency—Osborne and all the others—to put our economy right for the long term?

I am very glad to hear that Osborne Construction is working in my hon. Friend’s constituency, just as it is around the rest of the country. That is very worth while. I shall take this opportunity to pay tribute to him, as a constituency MP, for standing up for people and businesses in Reigate and for knowing that what Reigate needs is what the country needs, which is to stand up for hard-working people and to get more businesses, more jobs and more investment turning our country around.

Q8. Fixed-odds betting machines allow the user to stake £100 every 20 seconds for up to 13 hours a day. They have transformed the local bookies from places where people went for a flutter on the horses into high street digital casinos. Will the Prime Minister consider banning these addictive machines, as has recently happened in Ireland? (900626)

This is an issue on which I have been repeatedly lobbied by people across the House and more broadly—[Interruption.] I do think that it is worth having a proper look at the issue to see what we can do. Yes, we want to ensure that bookmakers are not over-regulated, but we also want a fair and decent approach that prevents problem gambling.

In Mid Bedfordshire last year, 130 parents, teachers and staff were very disappointed when their free school application failed. That application was managed by the Barnfield Federation, which is now under investigation by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Will the Prime Minister please use his good offices to ensure that the failed free school application in Mid Bedfordshire is incorporated into that inquiry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her suggestion. Obviously, we need a proper policy of ensuring that proposals for free schools are ready to go ahead before they go ahead. It is worth making the point that two thirds of the free schools in our country have been judged to be good or outstanding, which is a higher proportion than for schools in the state sector. It is therefore worth not only continuing with this policy but putting rocket boosters on it so that we see many more free schools in our country.

Liverpool City Region (Ministerial Visit)

I visited Liverpool earlier this year to launch the city’s international festival for business 2014. While there, I discussed with mayor Joe Anderson the prospects for the city in overseas investment and the importance of the international festival. I also met Hillsborough families, and I am sure I will visit the city again soon.

I am grateful for that answer. Does the Prime Minister accept that Government support to local government should be related to need? If so, how does he explain the fact that households in my region have lost £40 over the last two years, whereas households in his constituency have gained £6?

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. We need to look at spending power per dwelling, which is the combination of grant plus council tax. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area, the spending per dwelling is £3,122 whereas it is £1,872 in West Oxfordshire. I fully accept that the need is much greater in Knowsley than it is in West Oxfordshire, but I would argue that that provides a relatively fair balance between the two.

Engagements

Q10. Following decades of underinvestment and hollow promises from previous Governments, the coalition’s early decision fully to dual the A11 is driving investor confidence in Norwich and East Anglia. May I urge the Prime Minister to continue to look east, as a powerhouse for economic growth, and to back the opportunities available for investment in the great eastern main line? (900628)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stand up for Norwich and for Norwich’s economy. The £100 million we are investing in the A11 is an important part of that. It will be completed in 2014, and it will cut congestion on the route between Cambridge and Norwich. For once, I have said something that the shadow Chancellor agrees with, because I know that he wants to go and watch the Canaries. Now we will be able to get him there a little bit quicker. There is no end to my munificence in trying to help the shadow Chancellor.

Two weeks ago, the head of the Security Service warned about the extent of Islamist extremism. This week, two individuals have been charged with serious terrorist offences. What is the Prime Minister going to do in January when, as a result of his Government’s legislation, some of those whom the Home Secretary has judged to pose the greatest threat to our security are released from the provisions of their terrorism prevention and investigation measures?

We have put in place some of the toughest controls that one can possibly have within a democratic Government, and the TPIMs are obviously one part of that. We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force—it met again yesterday—setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites. Now that I have the opportunity, let me praise Facebook for yesterday reversing the decision it took about the showing of beheading videos online. We will take all these steps and many more to keep our country safe.

Q11. Following the reckless handling by The Guardian of the Snowden leaks, will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the women and men of our intelligence services, who have no voice but who do so much to keep this country safe? (900629)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one of the greatest privileges of my job to work with our intelligence and security services and to meet some of the people who work for them. He is right to say that they do not get thanked enough publicly because of the job they do, but I am absolutely convinced that the work that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 do on behalf of our country helps to keep us safe. We have seen that again this week with the arrests that have taken place. Once again, this came from brilliant policing work and brilliant intelligence work, helping to keep our country safe. We cannot praise these people too highly.

Q12. The realities of work for millions of people—low pay, short time, zero hours, agency exploitation—were exposed on Channel 4’s “Dispatches” this week. Did the Prime Minister see it? If not, will he use catch-up, so that he can watch it and then wake up to real life in Britain? (900630)

Everyone in our country wants to see living standards increase, more people in work and for people to keep more take-home pay. That is why we have cut taxes for the typical working person—by £705 if we look at what will be in place next year. Let me make a point about zero-hours contracts. The proportion of people in employment on zero hours in 2012 was the same as it was in the year 2000. The number of people on zero hours increased by 75% between 2004 and 2009—when that lot were in government.

Q13. Businesses in Crawley are creating hundreds of jobs, and as a result unemployment fell to 2.7% last month. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way to raise living standards is to increase and continue the policies of economic growth rather than the Labour party’s discredited policies of debt? (900631)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we see in our country is business confidence rising and consumer confidence rising. Our exports are increasing, construction and manufacturing are up, and we are seeing a good growth in employment: there are a million more people in work in our country than when we came to office. Of course we want to do more to help people to feel better off by reducing their taxes, which is exactly what we are doing. All that would be put at risk if we gave up on reducing the deficit and having responsible economic policies. The Labour party would give us a double whammy of higher mortgage rates and higher taxes, and that is just what Britain’s hard-working families do not need.

Does the Prime Minister think it fair that a sacked pregnant woman will now have to pay £1,200 to take a maternity discrimination case to an employment tribunal?

It is very important for people to have access to employment tribunals, and they do under this Government. One thing that we have done is ensure that people do not earn such rights until they have worked for a business for two years, and I think that that is the right approach.

Q14. Thanks to the Chancellor’s economic policies, unemployment in Burton and Uttoxeter fell by 10% last month, and is now at its lowest since September 2008. Many of the new jobs were created in small businesses which now have the confidence to invest. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to supporting those small businesses, to help us to “grow” the economy? (900632)

My hon. Friend is right. Unemployment in the west midlands fell by 14,000 during this quarter. However, my hon. Friend does not just talk about helping people back into jobs; he has also set up a job fair in his constituency, which has done a huge amount to bring businesses large and small together with those who want jobs. That is the sort of social action in which Conservatives believe: not just talking, but helping.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 8 May about the possible involvement of Lynton Crosby in public health matters. I raised his failure to reply on 19 June at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and again during the summer Adjournment debate on 18 July. I have served under four previous Prime Ministers who replied to Members’ letters—[Interruption.]

Order. This question will be heard with some courtesy, which is what I expect in the case of all questions. That is very simple and very straightforward.

I have served under four previous Prime Ministers who replied to Members’ letters. Why will this Prime Minister not do so?

I will certainly reply to the right hon. Gentleman’s letter, but let me give him a reply right now. Public health responsibility is a matter for the Department of Health. Lynton Crosby’s job is the destruction of the Labour party, and he is doing a pretty good one.