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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Disaster Planning

1. What assessment he has made of current arrangements for disaster planning in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (900778)

The primary responsibility for emergency planning sits with local responders. The Cabinet Office works with other Departments, devolved Administrations and emergency responders to enhance the country’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.

The whole House will want to thank the emergency services, local authorities and the Met Office, who did a brilliant job working together to prepare effectively for and respond to the effects of Monday’s storm.

What specific mechanisms will the Minister put in place to ensure that the lessons highlighted in the forthcoming Hillsborough inquest will be incorporated in his Department’s policies and practice?

When the results of that come through, we will obviously look at them urgently. It was a profoundly tragic event, and many lessons will need to be learned from it. We will look at it seriously when it emerges.

In the Minister’s initial response, he praised responders and local authorities. Will he also praise parish councils—those unpaid heroes in many of our communities—which provide emergency responses, and encourage those that do not presently do so to create and implement emergency plans?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. A lot of the response needs to be done on an extremely local basis. Many parish councils take this seriously, with volunteers who rise to the occasion superbly—a huge amount of which happened on Sunday and Monday in preparation for and in response to the storm.

Senior Civil Service Staff (Reductions)

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on the functioning of government of reductions in the number of senior civil service staff; and if he will make a statement. (900779)

Since April 2010, the number of senior civil servants has reduced by 16% and the senior civil service pay bill has reduced by 20%. Last year, civil servants helped to deliver more than £10 billion in efficiency savings by changing the way in which Whitehall and central Government operate. We are determined to drive even greater value for the taxpayer while continuing to provide exceptional public services.

Is not the truth that Government cuts have seen many senior civil servants take early retirement, with an enormous loss of expertise and capacity, with increasing staff churn and work overloads, leading to problems like the west coast main line franchise chaos, delays in replying to Members’ correspondence and much else besides?

I wish to take this opportunity to praise civil servants for the work that they have done. With a civil service that is significantly smaller than that which we inherited in May 2010, productivity has improved markedly. The civil service is delivering at least as much as it was before, with fewer people. Engagement scores have stayed high, and I want to praise them rather than run down what they do.

I join my right hon. Friend in commending the senior civil service for operating in the way it does. Does he agree that its capability is not enhanced by the degree of churn in the top jobs in the civil service, and what will the Government do to address that?

There has been concern over a long period about senior civil servants—and not just senior civil servants—not staying in post long enough. We are seeking to address that, and I know that the leadership of the civil service takes the issue very seriously. One of the effects of moving to fixed tenure for permanent secretaries will, I suspect, be to lengthen the period they stay in post rather than, as some have feared, shorten it.

Have the Government yet worked out when we will reach the tipping point at which reducing further the number of senior civil servants will not improve the service they provide but will impinge on it?

As I say, there have been significant reductions. Productivity has improved and we believe that significantly more productivity can be gained. Current departmental plans show a continued reduction in the size of the civil service through to May 2015. We are finding different ways of doing things better with fewer people and at lower cost.

Is it not absolutely right that the effectiveness of public services is more important than the number of civil servants who are employed? What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to measure the productivity of civil servants so they can no longer be a drag on our economy, but enhance it?

At is best, the civil service is not a drag on the economy; it is an important component of the economy working successfully. The leadership of the civil service identified significant deficiencies in capability, which are now being addressed. Frankly, they had been left unaddressed for far too long. Urgent action is now being taken and we need to drive it through.

National Citizen Service

The National Citizen Service is growing fast and is proving enormously popular with young people. The research shows clearly that it helps to develop life skills that employers value, and that for every £1 of public money we invest, society is receiving £3 of value back.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I was privileged to attend a challenge network campaign day in my constituency, where social action projects were put into effective and lasting programmes across the constituency. What steps will the Minister take to roll out the National Citizen Service further and expand it, and will he join me in congratulating the efforts of Enfield youngsters?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Enfield youngsters and all youngsters across the country who have participated in the National Citizen Service on their efforts. He may be interested to know that to date the young people have contributed more than 1 million hours of their time to volunteer and do good work in communities. They get a huge amount out of that process, which is why we are ambitious to grow it and have said that we will make at least 90,000 places available next year.

Over the summer, I was delighted to see the excellent work of the National Citizen Service team in Chester, who were redecorating Blacon young people’s project. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the monetary value of the work that NCS volunteers do for their local communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for the keen interest he has shown in the NCS, and many other hon. Members who took the time to visit programmes over the summer. As I said, young people have to date contributed more than 1 million hours of their time to do good work in their communities. Part of the calculation of £3 back for every £1 we spend is the value attached to the voluntary time they are giving. The other part is their increased employability, which reflects the life and work skills they are gathering through participation.

Is the National Citizen Service not heading for that same graveyard of three-word prime ministerial gimmicks like back to basics, the third way, the citizens charter, the cones hotline and the big society?

Not for the first time, I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. NSC is proving its value across communities. Many Opposition Members visited the programme over the summer and Opposition Front Benchers have nice words to say about it. We are determined to embed it in the youth sector and for it to be part of the landscape of programmes that try to help young people achieve their full potential. We are extremely proud of it. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was gesticulating as though he was training to be an opera singer. I have no idea why, but let us hear from the hon. Gentleman.

The gesture was one of frustration and disappointment that some Opposition Members do not seem to understand how valuable the National Citizen Service is. Does my hon. Friend agree that what Gloucestershire college has been doing in my constituency to help people on to this wonderful course, which it is now replicating with a mini course for the new sixth form at the Gloucester academy, is an example of how the NCS can spread into the school curriculum too?

I could not agree more, in sharp contrast to my response to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend in Gloucester to see in practice what he is talking about. The NCS is growing fast. We are seeing schools and colleges embrace it precisely because they see the value to their pupils of participating in a programme that helps young people develop the confidence, self-esteem and skills that will be valuable to them in life.

Can the Minister confirm that Serco has cut the funding it makes available to charities under the National Citizen Service? What impact does the Minister think that will have on the charities delivering this important initiative?

Serco leads a consortium that includes many large and small charities. It is an important provider. We manage our providers very carefully, and when there are signs of underperformance, we take action to protect the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman would not know anything about that because he represents a party that over time has not represented the taxpayer sufficiently. In the case of Serco and that consortium, we took action to protect the taxpayer, and I am proud of that.

Last year, 6,000 places on the NCS summer scheme went unfilled, while youth services, which provided continuity, stability and a lifeline for many young people, disappeared. With one in three organisations that provide youth services facing closure, what has the Minister got to say to those young people?

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her promotion. I think she is the fifth shadow Minister I have faced across this Dispatch Box, and I hope she enjoys her time.

There is a serious point about cuts to local youth services by local authorities. We have taken over responsibility for youth policy and want to engage with local authorities to try to protect and enhance those services, but the hon. Lady misses a fundamental point about the NCS: it funds grass-roots youth organisations across the country to work with young people throughout the year—spring, summer and autumn—and therefore it is part of the solution.


We have committed an additional £210 million to the national cyber-security programme for 2015-16, underlining our commitment to tackling cyber threats. This year, we have launched the cyber-security information-sharing partnership and increased specialist capability in police forces, and we are currently setting up UKCERT, the national computer emergency response team.

Following the Snowden leaks in the US, where a contractor working for Booz Allen was able to cause untold damage to US and international intelligence services, what steps is the Minister taking to put in place restrictions on contractors and staff vis-à-vis access to this programme?

My hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this matter and made some extremely robust and helpful comments. We take contractor security extremely seriously, and following this breach, which took place in the United States, we are obviously redoubling our efforts to ensure that it is as secure as it can be.

When assessing the leaks from Edward Snowden and the reporting by newspapers, including The Guardian, will the Minister and the Government take clear account of the statement from President Barack Obama last week that some of the activities of the National Security Agency in the US raised legitimate questions for friends and allies?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would just like to make this point about GCHQ: it comprises very, very dedicated, hard-working Crown servants who do incredibly valuable work to protect our safety and security every day of the week, and they deserve solid support from right across the Chamber and from both Front Benches. I hope that that will be made absolutely clear.

The Government are rightly trying to tighten up on British cyber-security. Does the Minister share my concern that anybody who weakens encryption methods or puts in back doors exposes us all to greater risk?

My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable on this subject, and everything he says about it must be taken extremely seriously. Yes, there is a point there to which we need to have proper regard.

According to the Government’s own figures, 87% of small businesses experienced a cyber-security breach last year and were attacked, on average, 17 times, yet more than four fifths of the Government’s cyber-security budget goes on the intelligence services, big business and government, leaving small businesses and consumers to fend for themselves. Now we learn that the Minister has set up his own wi-fi network in the Cabinet Office to bypass all that expensive security. When will he stand up for small businesses and consumers and get a grip on cyber-security?

I am glad to say that the most recent rankings of countries in relation to cyber-security had the UK in top position, but we are not at all complacent; much more needs to be done. The hon. Lady is very interested in the wi-fi arrangements in my office, which were installed by the Cabinet Office IT supplier and are fully compliant. We take all this extremely seriously, but the threats are changing all the time and we need to be agile in how we respond to them.

Post Office

6. What recent discussions he has held with his ministerial colleagues on the use of the Post Office as a front office for Government services. (900783)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Post Office already delivers a number of valuable front-line services for the Government, and it has proved successful in competing for contracts. The Cabinet Office’s engagement at the moment involves conversations about how the Post Office and others might help us to give better support to citizens who are not yet online.

The Minister is correct: the Post Office already delivers a lot of Government services. It has the technology to enable it to back up the Government’s digital agenda and to be the front office for the Government. For example, people without internet access could make universal credit applications through it. Post offices are at the heart of our communities, and I urge the Minister to encourage all Government Departments to make more use of the Post Office.

I hear that message loud and clear. We are engaging with the Post Office and a number of suppliers about how they can help us with our agenda of encouraging more of our citizens to get online and become digitally capable—and to access Government services online, because that is the direction of travel that we are taking—as well as with the assisted digital programme, which will ensure that none of our citizens is left behind in that process.

One area of business that was taken from the post offices some time ago was the issuing of TV licences. Has the Minister had any discussions with his ministerial contacts about bringing that service back to the post offices? Many old people still do not have access to the internet.

As I have said, our conversation with the Post Office is about the broad agenda of digital by default, and about how we can get more of our citizens online. Some 11 million of them are estimated still to be offline, so that is a big challenge. Alongside that, programmes are necessary to ensure that people who do not want to be online can still access Government digital services. I am sure that the Post Office and others will be able to help us in that process.

Is the Minister aware that the National Federation of SubPostmasters has reported that the income generated by the Government services that its members provide is fairly small? I am all in favour of sub-post offices providing Government services, but the Government must surely be made to pay for that properly.

Obviously, if post offices are going to provide a service, they need to have the capacity to do that. I have had conversations with postmasters in my area. In the Pinner post office, for example, I have tried out the new technology that is helping citizens to get online and access services locally and to become more digitally capable, and I did not get a sense from that postmaster that there was a problem.

Procurement (SMEs)

8. What recent steps he has taken to reduce barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (900787)

This Government remain extremely committed to the process of trying to increase the participation of SMEs in central Government procurement, and we believe that at least an additional £1.5 billion has flowed into the SME sector through that process since 2010. That represents progress, but we know that there is still a lot to do.

The Minister has just claimed that direct spend with SMEs has increased since the last election, but will he confirm that the recorded rise in the Ministry of Justice since April 2011 is in fact down to his officials, including law firms, offering legal aid services? When is he going to correct those figures to remove that inaccuracy?

I am not going to take any lessons from the party opposite. What we inherited in terms of SMEs participating in public procurement was no ambition and no data. This Government are supplying the ambition and trying to ensure that the data are as good as they can be. We are not taking any lectures from the party that had no ambition and no data.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to support small businesses, but will he look at the systems in which small businesses are sometimes unable to bid? And may I see him after this Question Time to tell him precisely what I mean by that?

I am very glad to hear that extension to my hon. Friend’s question, and I certainly accept his invitation. We are absolutely determined to try to remove the barriers to small business participation. For example, we have recently announced the fourth supplier framework for the procurement of Government cloud technology services, and I am delighted to tell him that 84% of those suppliers are SMEs. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is unfair on the Members asking questions and on the Ministers who are trying to make their answers heard.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil services issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

Last Friday afternoon, the Cabinet Office snuck out details about special advisers, showing that there are more of them and that their cost has risen by more than £1 million last year. At a time when the Government are demanding cuts and claiming that they are necessary, is it right that such profligate spending by the Cabinet Office on special advisers is allowed to go uncontrolled?

The requirements of a coalition Government mean that there is more requirement for special advisers. Their cost is still only 2% of the cost of the senior civil service.

T2. What outcomes does my right hon. Friend hope to see from the Open Government Partnership summit being held in London tomorrow? (900794)

We are looking forward to welcoming to London the representatives of 62 Governments who have chosen to belong to this unique partnership both between Governments and with civil society organisations. Transparency is an idea whose time has come, and we will celebrate the progression of the open data and transparency agenda over these two days.

Last Friday afternoon, the Cabinet Office finally released some information, but the Government failed yet again to release the Prime Minister’s annual Chequers guest list, which has not now been published since July 2011—an interesting definition of “annual”. This follows repeated failures adequately to answer parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests about visits to No. 10 by the Prime Minister’s adviser, Lynton Crosby—despite the Government answering exactly the same questions about other individuals in other Departments. When are the Government going to release this information, including about that cigarette lobbyist running around at the heart of Downing street?

I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman was in residence in No. 10 Downing street in the last Government—when the degree of transparency was virtually nil—it would never have been disclosed, as it will be, that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) was at Chequers helping the then Prime Minister to plant a tree.

T4. This time last year, Ministers announced a radical overhaul of facility time. With Royal Mail, teacher and fire brigade strikes inflicting disruption on the public and with the appalling behaviour of Len McCluskey in Grangemouth, FOI data I have received show that the overall public subsidy from Whitehall to the unions has gone up, not down. What further action is my right hon. Friend taking? (900797)

The events at Grangemouth illustrate the problems that can arise when full-time union officials are paid for by the employer. I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the number of full-time union officials on the civil service payroll has halved and that the cost has more than halved.

T3. In response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the Minister said that he took very seriously the threat of cybercrime to small and medium-sized businesses. However, cybercrime has cost SMEs £800 million in the last year, yet the Government are giving only £5 million to spend on it across the board. What are the Government doing to tackle that problem? (900796)

I accept that awareness of cyber-threats by all businesses is still too low. As the rankings show, the threat is higher in Britain than it is in most countries, but awareness is not good enough and too many businesses have left themselves vulnerable. We are working hard to raise their awareness. My right hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are leading that work, but there is much more that we can and should do.

Will the Government support my private Member’s Bill on 29 November, which is intended to give charitable status to religious institutions? Will they support it?

I have already told my hon. Friend that we will not. I understand that there is a lot of concern on both sides of the House about the Plymouth Brethren case, on which we are all united in wanting to see a quick and speedy resolution to that issue.

T5. The coalition agreement pledged to limit the number of SpAds—special advisers. Given that the number has risen to 97, what limit do the Government actually want? (900798)

There is a limit, and we announced it last week. However, it will be subject to change from time to time.

When my right hon. Friend came to office in 2010, what cross-Government work had been done to tackle fraud, error and debt?

None. I now chair a cross-Government taskforce on fraud, error and uncollected debt, as a result of which, in the last year, we saved the taxpayer £6.5 billion that would otherwise have been wasted.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Under this Government, there are more than 1 million new jobs. That has happened with the help of companies such as Lantoom Quarry in South East Cornwall, which is investing in and training young people. We were told that the Government had a programme that would clearly lead to the disappearance of a million jobs. Is it not time for the Opposition, who said that, to admit that they were wrong and to apologise?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The British economy is on the mend. We see unemployment coming down and the number of people in work going up, and our growth rate is now forecast to be almost three times as fast as the German growth rate. The Labour party and the Leader of the Opposition told us that we would lose a million jobs, but the Leader of the Opposition was absolutely wrong, and it is time that he got to his feet and told us that he was wrong.

Having listened to the Select Committee hearing yesterday, will the Prime Minister tell us what is the difference between his—[Interruption.]

Order. May I just say to the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary that his role is to nod his head in the appropriate places, and to fetch and carry notes? No noise is required.

Having listened to the Select Committee hearing yesterday, can the Prime Minister tell us what is the difference between his policy on energy and that of the energy companies?

Not a word of apology for predicting that a million jobs would be lost! The Opposition got it wrong, and they cannot bear to admit it. [Interruption.]

Order. The questions must be heard and the answers must be heard, however long it takes. Some people need to get used to the fact that that is what the public would like to see from the House of Commons.

What we need in the energy market is more competition and lower levies and charges to drive profits and prices down, but what we have learnt in the last week is this: competition should include switching. At the Dispatch Box, the right hon. Gentleman said:

“I will tell the Prime Minister what is a con: telling people…that the answer was to switch suppliers”.—[Official Report, 23 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 295.]

However, what have we found out over the last few days? The right hon. Gentleman switched his supplier. Yes—he went for one of these insurgent companies to cut his bills. Is it not typical? The right hon. Gentleman comes here every week and attacks Tory policy; then he goes home and adopts Tory policy to help his own family.

The only thing that people need to do if they want someone to stand up against the energy companies is to switch the Prime Minister, and that is what they know.

Perhaps, as the unofficial spokesman for the energy companies, the Prime Minister can answer the question that they could not answer yesterday. Can he explain why, although wholesale prices have hardly moved since a year ago, retail prices are rising by about 10%?

Because we need both competition and rolling back the costs of charges. Switching is part of competition and the company the right hon. Gentleman switched to has this to say about his energy freeze. Let us listen to the people providing his energy:

“A policy like this is potentially…problematic for an independent provider…bluntly, it could put me under.”

That is the right hon. Gentleman’s policy: not listening to the people providing his energy, but having less choice, less competition, higher prices. It is the same old Labour.

The right hon. Gentleman had no answer to the question, and I will explain something quite simple to him: most energy companies do not want a price freeze and most consumers do. That is why the energy companies are against a price freeze. He is so on the side of the energy companies that we should call them the big seven: the Prime Minister and the big six energy companies. In Opposition, he said there was a problem in the relationship between wholesale and retail prices, and he went on to say, “The first thing you’ve got to do is give the regulator the teeth to order that those reductions are made and that is what we would do.” Why when it comes to the energy companies has he gone from Rambo to Bambi in four short years?

Who was it who gave us the big six? [Interruption.] Yes, when Labour first looked at this there were almost 20 companies, but, because of the right hon. Gentleman’s stewardship, we ended up with six players. The Opposition talk about a price freeze but down the Corridor they have been voting for a price rise. That is right: they voted for a decarbonisation target that everyone accepts would raise prices. If he wants a price freeze, why has he just voted for a price rise?

It is just so hard to keep up with this Prime Minister on green levies. This is what he was saying in January: believe it or not, he was boasting about the size of his green levies. He said—I kid you not: “ECO was many times the size of the scheme it replaced.” So when it comes to green, as short a time ago as January he was saying the bigger the better, and now he says the opposite. Here is the problem: on competition—[Interruption.] Here is the problem: he wants a review of energy policy, but that is exactly what the energy companies want—a long inquiry, kicking the problem into the long grass. How will a review that reports next summer help people pay their bills this winter?

We want a competition inquiry that starts straight away: that is our policy. On the point about voting for a price rise, the right hon. Gentleman has to answer, because this is what the former Labour energy spokesman Lord Donoughue said in the House of Lords. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to this because Lord Donoughue was their energy spokesman:

“I have never spoken against a Labour amendment in my 28 years in this House, but…I am troubled by the consequence…for ordinary people…The amendment will…raise the cost of living and is in conflict with a future price freeze.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. 1357-1359.]

That is it from Labour’s own policy spokesman in the past in the Lords. The fact is that the whole country can see that the right hon. Gentleman is a one-trick pony and he has run out of road.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about what people are saying—[Interruption.] If he wants to talk about—[Interruption.]

Order. Members should try to recover some semblance of calm. It would be good for their health and beneficial for their well-being. They must try to grow up, even after the age of 60.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about what people are saying, his own former Tory Environment Secretary, the man he put in charge of the Climate Change Committee, says his figures are false. That is what he says. Instead of having a review, the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to do something for the public next week. He has an Energy Bill going through Parliament. Instead of sitting on his hands, he could amend that Bill to institute a price freeze now. We will support a price freeze: why does he not act?

Because it is not a price freeze—it is a price con. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman is hiding behind this economically illiterate policy because he cannot talk about the economy, because it is growing; he cannot talk about unemployment, because it is falling; and he cannot talk about the deficit, because it has come down. He has got nothing else to say. He is just a weak leader with no ideas.

I will tell you who is weak—it is this Prime Minister. He is too weak to stand up to the energy companies. Nothing less than a price freeze will do, because that is the only way we can deal with the energy companies overcharging. It is time he started acting like a Prime Minister and standing up for consumers, and stopped acting like a PR man for the energy companies.

I will tell you what is weak: being too weak to stand up and admit to economic failures; being too weak to stand up to Len McCluskey, who tried to wreck Scotland’s petrochemical industry; and being too weak to stand up to the shadow Chancellor on HS2—[Interruption.]

Let us just examine what has happened on HS2 this week: the shadow Chancellor has been touring the radio studios, telling everyone it will not go ahead; and Labour local authority leaders have been begging the Leader of the Opposition to stand up for this infrastructure scheme. And what has he done? He has cowered in his office, too weak to make a decision. To put it another way: Britain deserves better than that lot.

Q2. Last year, businesses created three times as many jobs in the private sector as were lost in the public sector. So is it not high time that those who made duff mystic predictions that we would not be able to create as many private jobs as were lost in the public sector admit that they got it wrong? (900764)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Opposition should admit they got it wrong. Let us just remember what the Leader of the Opposition said as late as March 2012. He said that we were not going to be able to replace the jobs in the public sector quickly enough with jobs in the private sector. The fact is that we have now got 1 million more people employed in our country—1.4 million private sector jobs—but the Opposition are too weak to admit that they got it wrong.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister believe that the accident and emergency crisis in the NHS has anything to do with the fact that he has cut 6,000 nurses since coming to power? (900765)

What we see in the NHS is 23,000 fewer non-clinical grades—bureaucrats and managers taken out of the NHS—and 4,000 more clinical staff, including over 5,000 more doctors in our NHS. That is the change we have seen. Just imagine if we had listened to Labour and cut the NHS budget. We believe in the NHS and we have invested in it.

Q4. Hampshire chamber of commerce reports, in the last quarterly economic survey, real business optimism, with a rise in the number of local firms employing more staff, an increase in UK orders and a 10% increase in sales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is evidence that the Government’s economic plan is working and that the Labour party got it wrong? (900766)

My hon. Friend is right; we had to take tough decisions, but growth is there, unemployment is falling, the number of people in work is rising and we have 400,000 more businesses in this country. If we had listened to the shadow Chancellor, who said that we were in for a “lost decade” of growth, we would have higher debts and higher interest rates—it would be the same old outcome under the same old Labour.

Q5. In a recent uSwitch survey, 75% of people said that they switched their heating off on one or more occasions last winter. Does the Prime Minister expect that number to go up or down this winter due to his inability to stand up to the energy companies? (900767)

Fuel poverty went up under Labour. This Government have maintained the winter fuel payments; we have increased the cold weather payments; and we have increased the benefits that the poorest families get in our country. That is the action that we have taken, and we can afford to do that only because we have taken tough and sensible decisions on the economy.

A few days ago, I launched the business case for the electrification of the Harrogate and Knaresborough rail line, which will mean more trains, faster services and better rolling stock. As the previous Government electrified just 9 miles in 13 years, will my right hon. Friend continue to prioritise rail electrification?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The previous Government did just 9 miles of electrification in 13 years, an absolutely pathetic record, whereas we are putting £1 billion into modernising railways in the north of England. Let us look again at HS2: we all know we need cross-party agreement to make that important infrastructure scheme go ahead. What a pathetic spectacle we have seen this week. One minute the Opposition are for it, then they are against it, and the Leader of the Opposition is too weak to make a decision.

Q6. I have come across a very interesting interview given by the Prime Minister to The Times, during which he had to stop off at his constituency office as, in his words, he needed “to turn the heating on just so it’s a bit nicer when I get back this afternoon”.How many of my constituents does he think will be able to afford such niceties as we approach this winter? (900768)

What the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will understand is that Labour’s price freeze is a price con. Prices would go up beforehand, prices would go up afterwards and as the Leader of the Opposition himself has admitted, Labour would not be able to keep its promise because it does not control gas prices. That is why everyone knows that it is a con.

Q7. My 20-year-old constituent Liam Burgess, from Llansteffan in Carmarthen, left school involuntarily at 16 and was told that the only choice ahead of him was in which prison he might end up. Four years later, he runs and owns one of Wales’s best chocolate brands, nomnom. Does the Prime Minister agree that the record number of new business start-ups and the positive economic signs are as much down to people such as Liam Burgess as they are to the excellent work of the Chancellor? (900769)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his constituent for how he has turned his life around and is contributing to our economy. We see 400,000 more businesses up and running in our country—[Interruption.] Of course Labour Members do not want to hear about success stories. They do not care about enterprise; they do not care about small businesses. It is this enterprise and this small business that are turning our country around.

Q8. A new flat has just been launched in my constituency, which has been built partly as a result of public money under the Government’s affordable housing scheme, known as Share to Buy. It is a two-bedroom flat in Pear Tree court and it costs £720,000. Does the Prime Minister believe that to be affordable and, if so, to whom? (900770)

We need to build more houses in our country and that is why we are reforming the planning system, which Labour opposed, why we have introduced Help to Buy, which Labour opposed, and why we have put extra money into affordable housing, which Labour opposed. Labour is now the “build absolutely nothing anywhere” party and as a result housing will become less affordable.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in India and China. As those people have increased their living standards, their energy demands have increased, too. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to have sustainable, long-term and cheap energy, the innovative deal that the Chancellor heralded a few weeks ago through the Chinese initiative is crucial and much better than short-term political gimmicks?

That was an important step forward in encouraging inward investment into our country to help fund our nuclear programme. That means that we will have dependable supplies of low-carbon electricity long into the future. People might oppose foreign investment—it sounds now like the Labour party opposes foreign investment and with all the flip-flops the Opposition have done this week, I would not be at all surprised if they did not start to oppose nuclear energy, too—but getting that foreign investment means that we can use our firepower to build hospitals, to build schools, to build roads and railways and modernise our country.

Considering that Royal Mail in the past was losing billions of pounds, the whole country is far better off with Royal Mail in the private sector. I just talked about flip-flops and here is another from the Labour party. Who said that we needed to privatise Royal Mail in the first place? Anyone? Where is Peter Mandelson when you need him? Labour said that we needed private capital—I agree; they said we needed private management—I agree. It has taken this Government to deliver the policy.

With 1.5 million jobs created by business and 400,000 new businesses, last month’s figures in Worcestershire showed the biggest monthly fall in unemployment on record. Unemployment is now down more than 30% since its peak under Labour. Does the Prime Minister agree that by backing business and supporting businesses to grow, we can undo Labour’s legacy of unemployment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Whoever was in government right now would have to make difficult reductions in the public sector, and obviously that leads to the reduction of some public sector jobs, so we need a strong private sector recovery. That is what we have seen—1.4 million more jobs in the private sector, meaning that overall there are 1 million more people employed in our country. That is 1 million reasons to stick to our plan and reject the medicine suggested by the Opposition.

Q10. Current legislation to protect agency workers was designed to stop the exploitation of migrant workers and also to protect the wages and conditions of our indigenous workers. I know that the Prime Minister has been lobbied on this issue, but can he reassure the House that he will resist any temptation to dilute even further the protection for agency workers? (900772)

What I want to see are more jobs in this country, and that means making sure we keep our flexible work force. What the hon. Gentleman did not tell us, of course, is that he chairs the Unite group of Labour MPs. Perhaps he ought to declare that when he stands up. While he is at it, perhaps he could have a word with Mr McCluskey and say that we need a proper inquiry into what happened in Unite and a proper inquiry into what happened in Grangemouth, because we all know that the leader of the Labour party is too weak to do it himself.

Q11. The economy has grown 1.5% in the past six months, during which time in the Chippenham constituency the number of jobseekers has fallen by a fifth. Raising living standards requires greater productivity from a work force who are highly skilled, but in Chippenham hopes were dashed five years ago when the national college building programme ran out of money. Will the Prime Minister join me in backing Wiltshire college’s bid to the Skills Funding Agency to rebuild our Chippenham campus to make it fit for local students to gain the skills that employers demand? (900773)

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend says. We all remember the huge disappointment when Labour’s planned investment in so many of our colleges collapsed. I saw exactly the same thing at Abingdon and Witney college, and it is this Government who are now putting the money in to see that expansion and improvement and to put quality colleges in place. I am sure that that can happen in Wiltshire as well as in Witney.

Since two thirds of the green levies on people’s energy bills were established under this Government, why has the Prime Minister been attacking himself?

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. [Interruption.] The fact is that many of the green levies were put in place by Labour. Let me remind him that one of the first acts of this Government was with the £179 renewable heat initiative, which the leader of the Labour party wanted to put on the bill of every single person in the country—and we took it off the bill.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the work force at Toyota in my constituency, as well as manufacturers across the country, whose hard work has ensured that car production went up by 10% in the past year? (900774)

I certainly join my hon. Friend. I remember my own visit to Burnaston in Derby—[Interruption.] Again, Opposition Members do not want to hear good news about manufacturing. They do not want to hear good news about our car industry. The fact is that this country is now a net exporter of cars again and we should be congratulating the work force at Toyota. We should be congratulating the work force at Jaguar Land Rover. We should be praising what they are doing at Nissan. These companies are leading a re-industrialisation of our country. I was at the Cowley works on Monday, where the Mini, which is doing brilliantly, is leading to more jobs, more apprenticeships, more employment, more skills—all things that we welcome under this Government.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for launching our report on electoral conduct yesterday, which found some shocking examples of racism and discrimination during election campaigns. Will the Prime Minister back our call to get political parties, the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to work more pro-actively now in areas of tension so that the next general election can be a battle of ideas, not race hate and discrimination?

I very much welcome what the hon. Lady says and the report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct, which I will study closely. If there is anything we can do on a cross-party basis to ensure that we keep that sort of disgusting racism out of politics, we should certainly do it.

Q13. Thanks to the Government’s regional growth fund, £8.8 million is being spent reopening the Todmorden curve rail link, which will cut travel times between Burnley and Manchester in half. However, better rail connections to the south of England are also vital. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is absolutely outrageous for the Labour party to be challenging HS2 at the present time, putting in jeopardy jobs and investment in the north of England? (900775)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stand up for his constituents and for the north of England, because there is a real danger with Labour’s antics that it is letting down the north of England and the midlands. Let me remind the shadow Chancellor what he said about these transport investments:

“Nowhere is…consensus more essential than on our national infrastructure…successive governments…have ducked or delayed vital decisions on our national infrastructure, allowing short-term politics to”

get in the way. By his own words, he is found guilty of short-termism and petty politicking, rather than looking after the national interest.

I am surprised that the Prime Minister, along with the Justice Secretary, is prepared is gamble on his proposals for the probation service, especially given that the early tests and trials have been called to a halt. Is he prepared to gamble with the lives and daily safety of my constituents and others in this country, and will his gambling luck hold out?

What we want is a probation service that is much more focused on getting results on stopping reoffending and making sure that we give people rehabilitation services from the moment they leave prison, which does not happen today.

It is interesting that at 26 minutes past 12 we have not heard one question from Labour Members on the economy. They have nothing to say and nothing to offer. They are embarrassed that prediction after prediction was completely wrong.

Q14. Like my right hon. Friend, I welcome the fall in unemployment, which is down to 3.7 % in my constituency, but does he recognise, as I do, that one of the biggest problems is getting young people with special needs, particularly autism and Asperger’s, into work, and will he congratulate the London borough of Redbridge and the Interface parents group, where the project I initiated has now started and the first young people with special needs are in work? (900776)

I know of my hon. Friend’s close attention to this issue and his deep care about it. I certainly pay tribute to Redbridge and all those who help children with special needs. Through our reform of special needs, we have tried to focus the help on those who need it most to ensure that they get the help they need.

I have a question on the economy for the Prime Minister. Does he agree with his own advisers that the Government’s Youth Contract is failing to tackle

“the appallingly high levels of youth unemployment”?

What we have seen with the Youth Contract is thousands of young people getting work through our work experience scheme. It has been more successful than the future jobs fund but has cost six times less. Through the Youth Contract we have also seen more than 20,000 young people get work opportunities. That is why we see the youth claimant count coming down so rapidly in our country. There is still far more to do to get young people into work, but the fact that we have backed more than 1.5 million apprenticeships is a sign of how much we care about getting young people into work.

Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree with President Obama that additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence are needed and that we need to weigh the risks and rewards of our activities more effectively? Will he follow the President’s lead? (900777)

What I have said in the House and will repeat again is that obviously we will always listen to what other countries have to say about these issues, but I believe that in Britain we have a good way of having intelligence and security services, having them overseen by a parliamentary Committee, having their work examined by intelligence commissioners, and ensuring that they act under a proper legal basis. I take those responsibilities very seriously, but I believe we have a good system in this country and we can be proud of the people who work in it and of those who oversee it.

We have recently learned that energy security in this country is being outsourced to the Chinese and the French, that the lights may go out, that pensioners will freeze this year, and that we have no control over the big six. Does the Prime Minister have any regrets about the cack-handed privatisation of the utilities by the former Tory Government and the decimation of the most technically advanced coal industry in the world?

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman in terms of energy security is that he backed a Government who in 13 years never built a single nuclear power station. Oh, they talked about it—boy, did they talk about it—but they never actually got it done. In terms of Chinese and French investment, I think we should welcome foreign investment into our country, building these important utilities so that we can use our firepower for the schools, the hospitals, the roads and the railways we need.

In my constituency there are shortly to be more than 100 wind turbines and there are about 30 or 40 more in the planning system. These turbines are paid for by constituents but they are not constructed here or creating any jobs in my constituency. When the Prime Minister rightly reviews green taxes, will he ensure that the changes to green subsidies ensure that jobs in that energy sector are here in the United Kingdom?

I know how hard my hon. Friend has worked with other MPs on a cross-party basis right across the Yorkshire and Humberside region to try to attract investment into our country, and we should continue to target that investment.

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the positive role played by trade unions in the work of the Automotive Council, which has brought about the renaissance in the UK car industry?

The Automotive Council has been extremely successful. Where trade unions play a positive role, I will be the first to praise them, but where, frankly, we have a real problem with a rogue trade unionist at Grangemouth who nearly brought the Scottish petrochemical industry to its knees, we need to have a proper inquiry—a Labour inquiry. If Labour Members had any courage, any vision or any strength of decision making, they would recognise the need to have that inquiry and get to the bottom of what happened.