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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service (Union Facility Time)

1. What steps he is taking to control the amount of trade union facility time in the civil service. (901548)

4. What steps he is taking to control the amount of trade unions facility time in the civil service. (901551)

At the time of the last general election, there was no proper monitoring of trade union facility time in government. That has now changed, and paid time off for any trade union activities and full-time union officials now requires the specific consent of a senior Minister. We expect the cost to the taxpayer for paid time off for trade union duties to fall by 60% from the level we inherited.

I am very reassured by the Minister’s response, but will he outline to the House how much money has been saved as a result of those reforms?

So far, by reducing significantly the number of full-time union officials who are paid by the taxpayer as civil servants, we have saved more than £2.3 million just from that element of the reforms. Overall, we are on course to meet our benchmark of spending no more than 0.1% of the civil service pay bill on facility time.

Further to the kind answers that my right hon. Friend has given, will he tell the House how many civil servants were given paid time off to attend the Public and Commercial Services Union conference this year and last year?

In May this year, 651 PCS reps had paid time off to attend the PCS conference—fewer than half the number of the previous year. Next year, paid time off to attend the conference will be entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State or the Minister in charge of that civil servant’s Department.

This issue is a significant cost to the public purse. Will the Minister please advise the House how many taxpayer-funded trade union representatives there were in May 2010, and how many there are now?

It has taken some time to establish the facts about that because there was no proper monitoring. We believe, however, that in May 2010 in the region of 250 civil servants were full-time officers of their trade union and doing no work on behalf of the taxpayer. Several of them had been promoted in post while doing no work as a civil servant—and one of them had been promoted twice, which seems remarkable.

It is clear that the Minister has planted these questions in order to union-bash again, which seems to be something he relishes. Is he man enough at this point to say how beneficial trade unions are in the workplace in terms of the economy, the taxpayer and the employer?

I have always been at pains to say that there is benefit to the employer in having union representatives in the workplace. What is not acceptable, however, is having those representatives uncontrolled, unmonitored and growing like Topsy, to the extent that they were costing the taxpayer £36 million a year at a time of financial stringency caused by the grotesque budget deficit we inherited from the Labour party. That is completely unacceptable.

The Minister knows that I have a lot of time for him, and I congratulate him on winning a famous design award for his Department recently. However, I am a proud trade unionist and member of Unite, and I am a proud Co-operator. In a democratic society in which unions have an important part to play—as does the co-operative movement—why is there a feeling coming from the Government Benches that they are out to get us?

I am certainly not out to get the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have—if I may return the compliment—a great deal of respect. I have never said that there is no role for trade unions or for trade union representatives having paid time off in the workplace. I have always stressed that there is value for the employer in the ability to have disputes resolved quickly, effectively and at local level. What was going on in the civil service, however, was way out of line with any other workplace, even in the public sector. The taxpayer is entitled to expect that the Government will grip that issue, which, for the first time, is being done.

Shared Services Programme

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on small towns of outsourcing under the shared services programme. (901549)

Our assessment showed that any employment impacts arising from outsourcing are likely to be substantially mitigated through redeployment. I expect that additional new employment opportunities will be generated through what I hope will be a thriving UK-based service provider that will result from the joint venture we have created.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that offices in rural locations, such as the Alnwick DEFRA office, can be excellent locations for shared back-office services because they have good staff and low staff turnover? Will he therefore do all he can to encourage the public-private partnership company to make sure that the Alnwick location is used, either for its existing work or for alternative work in the field?

I absolutely take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. It is very well made. I know that the new joint venture company will look very carefully at all the implications. It will want to be able to do the work effectively and to create a new provider in the marketplace that has the opportunity to create more jobs rather than lose jobs. I know that he will talk to the new company and that it will want to hear his views.

Government ICT Strategy

We have created a world-class Government web presence. We believe that we saved £500 million in 2012-13 through better IT spend controls, and our digital by default strategy is transforming 25 of the most significant Government transactions by making them easier for users and cheaper for taxpayers.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the new Army recruitment contract with Capita is a shambles. Why did the Government not plan the ICT better so that the new recruitment processes and Ministry of Defence systems worked better?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the real world we inherited was an absolute shambles in terms of how Government managed IT transactions. His is the party that gave us tax credits and the NHS IT system. What we have done is to put in proper controls and create the conditions in which smaller and leaner organisations can come in and offer better value.

May I commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General for the excellent work they have done in ICT? But is it not still ludicrously impossible to get around the silly Treasury rules about recruiting, retaining and rewarding the necessary staff with the necessary expertise to be the single responsible owners with continuous oversight of projects? Does that not show that civil service reform has not gone nearly far enough, and that that justifies a commission on the future of the civil service that only Parliament can provide?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s consistent commitment to the idea of improving the capability of the civil service. However, I do not think I agree with his premise, and I invite him to visit the Government’s digital service because he will see a department that feels unlike any other in Government. It is full of extraordinary talent that has come in to work for Government, often at below market rates, because they want to make that difference.

The arrogant complacency of the Minister’s answers shows just how out of touch he is. Some 80% of Government interactions take place with the bottom 25% of society, but only 15% of people living in deprived areas use a Government service online. The promised assisted digital provision is still nowhere to be seen, locking our citizens out of his digital democracy. That is why Labour has announced a review of digital government, to make it work for the many, not the few. Is it not time that he did the same?

Again, we absolutely will not take any lessons from the Labour party about digital government. We are committed to the idea of transforming the great digital service. The feedback has been tremendous so far, and we have a hard commitment that every transformation will be accompanied by an assisted digital programme.

Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege of being a member, is having great difficulty in complying with the Cabinet Office protocols on e-mail traffic with local government. May I arrange a meeting with the Minister and a representative from the authority so that we can get this sorted out?

I have heard that from other sources, not least in my own local authority, so I am happy to take that matter up with my hon. Friend directly.


Our recent report encouraging social action set out what we have done to make it easier for people to give time and money, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the news that volunteering has risen sharply since 2012 after years of decline.

I hope the Minister will elaborate further. Only 9% of people are responsible for giving two-thirds of donations to charity. Will he elaborate on his previous answer?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and he is right to say that we rely on an extremely generous minority who do most of the giving. Britain has risen in the league table and is now the sixth most generous country in the world. Millions of our fellow citizens and constituents give time on a regular basis, and volunteering has risen since 2012 after years of decline. We think we have made a contribution to that.

May I add my support for the many people who volunteer to support charities? Does my hon. Friend agree that the investigation by the Public Accounts Committee into the pay of senior executives of charities is a good step in the right direction to ensure that volunteers are following people who are being reasonably paid?

I certainly agree that our voluntary sector relies on trust and integrity, and there should be transparency on administration costs and salary expenses. Individual salary pay is not an issue for Government; it is an issue between trustees and donors.

In any discussions the Minister may have with some of the main charities, will he debate with them the need for them to promote their work in a proactive way, while safeguarding against what some regard as assertive and over-aggressive actions by charity collectors who try to obtain direct debits on the street? There is concern about the level of assertiveness on the street.

We certainly do have those conversations with the chief executives of some of the largest charities. The activity the hon. Gentleman describes raises at least £100 million a year, so we cannot ignore that. We must, however, ensure that it is regulated effectively so it does not put people off and tarnish the brands of the charities we need to support.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the many people in my constituency who work for charities and who volunteer? Will he update the House on what is happening in schools to encourage the next generation of young people to work for charities and volunteer more?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of the voluntary sector in her constituency. I am delighted to place on record my appreciation of volunteers across the country. As she points out, it is vital that we inspire the next generation. That is why national programmes, such as the National Citizen Service and the cross-sector and cross-party campaign—Step up to Service—we support to double the number of young people involved in regular volunteering are so important. I hope she welcomes them.

Voluntary Organisations

6. What recent discussions he has had with charities and voluntary organisations on levels of demand for their services. (901553)

9. What recent discussions he has had with charities and voluntary organisations on levels of demand for their services. (901556)

I have regular discussions with charities and voluntary organisations. The anecdotal evidence is that many are experiencing higher demand for their services. It is a challenging environment and we all know that. However, I am encouraged that charity income appears to be steady, volunteering is up, giving has remained stable and social investment has risen. It is challenging, yes, but there is good news out there.

The Government expect charities and voluntary organisations to step in in many places where the state has pulled out. However, the Minister recently said:

“frankly I don’t think the government does understand civil society.”

Why did he say that?

Because for years, not least under 13 years of Labour, government and civil society did not mix or take the time to understand each other. Our commitment to open public service is not about replacing things but trying to create the space for charities and social enterprises to help us deliver better public services. There are different cultures and we have to take the time to understand each other better and make the process work better.

A recent survey by The Guardian’s voluntary sector network revealed that 47% of respondents had no confidence in the Government’s approach to the third sector. Rather than just yet another failed relaunch of the big society initiative, would it not be better if Ministers started to actually listen to charities, large and small, to find out what support they need?

I have spent a lot of my time listening to charities and voluntary sector organisations over the past five or six years, and I would point out to the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party, which continues to talk down the sector, that the sector’s greatest asset, the British public, continue to support it more and more. Charitable giving has been steady through difficult times and levels of volunteering and social investment have been rising. The Government have done a great deal to make it easier for charities through difficult times.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Essex county council is currently consulting on the future of youth services and that some difficult decisions lie ahead. He is meeting the Essex county councillor concerned. Will he give every support possible to youth services in Harlow and do everything he can to support Essex council so that we can protect our youth services?

My hon. Friend has written to me about this matter, and I congratulate him on his work. I am committed to meeting the decision makers at Essex county council, as I met with decision makers in Cornwall yesterday. There is a very real issue about the future of youth services and why they have been so easy to cut, and I remain passionately committed to young people having access to high-quality youth work.

Church leaders in Bedford have been instrumental in setting up and operating the food bank there. With demand for food bank services increasing across the country, will my hon. Friend join me in meeting representatives from local churches in Bedford to understand the complex reasons why demand for food bank services is increasing?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because the Labour party tries to make far too many political points about food banks. The underlying issues are complex and their number is growing, and the Government are supporting them with investment through our social action fund. Food banks are a magnificent human response to difficult times, and we should place on the record our recognition of the work being done to support them across the country in responding to need.

Government Efficiency

The efficiency and reform group supported Departments across Government to deliver savings of £5.4 billion in the first half of 2013-14, which was an increase of 73% on savings over the same period in the previous year. I am extremely proud of the hard work that civil servants across Whitehall have undertaken to achieve this success for the taxpayer.

Will the Minister tell me why the costs of the efficiency and reform group, which now employs 440 members of staff, have ballooned to £60 million? More importantly, will he tell the House today what he would not tell my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—how many people work there now and what is the cost?

A lot of this work simply was not being done under the previous Government, but the predecessor organisations employed more than twice as many members of staff as the efficiency and reform group now employs, and the simple fact is that in the last financial year it was responsible, with its colleagues across Government, for delivering savings of more than £10 billion by eradicating waste left by the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

We know that universal credit will not be delivered on time, that £40 million has been wasted, that £90 million will be written down and that the IT system Agile was deeply inappropriate. The Opposition have learnt that Agile was used on the insistence of the Cabinet Office, so will the Paymaster General, who boasts of his efficiency drives, give us a full explanation of his Department’s role in this debacle and publish all guidance the Cabinet Office sent to the Department for Work and Pensions?

Oh dear. Is that the best the hon. Gentleman can do? I suggest he read the report by the Public Accounts Committee on what went wrong with universal credit. The problems only came to the attention of the DWP because of a review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil society, cyber-security and civil contingencies. In that context, I would like to thank all those in the emergency services who did a brilliant job working to prepare effectively for and respond to the effects of last week and weekend’s storm surge. I am sure the whole House will want to send its best wishes to those adversely affected and our thanks to those who worked massively to prepare for it.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the open government partnership conference held in London last month and ask what plans there are for the open government partnership for the coming year?

We passed on our chairmanship of the open government partnership at the conference. I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks; it was very successful, with contributors and participants from civil society and from Governments right across the world. It was attended by a number of UK Ministers, including my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We hope that this will develop, with more Governments taking part and with a deepening of the relationship with civil society organisations in some countries where their life is not nearly as protected as the life of civil society organisations here. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister is providing serious answers to serious questions, but I am not sure that he is getting the serious attention that he and I would think those answers warrant. Perhaps we could have a bit of order.

It was revealed in a leaked letter yesterday that the Minister for the Cabinet Office tried to use emergency powers to block a freedom of information request for the Government to publish the HS2 project assessment review from 2011, which he did because of “political and presentational difficulties”. Those who support HS2 in principle know that public confidence is vital. Concerns have already been expressed about accelerating costs because of the Government’s failure to get a grip on the project. Questions have been raised by the National Audit Office about the economic benefits. Will the Minister now publish that project assessment review?

Under the last Government, when the hon. Gentleman resided in Downing street, information about the progress on major projects had to be extracted by force. Earlier this year, we published the ratings for all major projects. We did that voluntarily—the first time it has ever been done—and we will continue to do so. We are now the world’s leading Government on transparency, so lectures from the hon. Gentleman come pretty thin.

Given the continued funding pressures on youth services, will the Minister update us on how his Department is using the Positive for Youth policy to maximise resources for a better joined-up youth offer between local authorities, voluntary services and businesses to provoke young people’s engagement and a youth voice?

First, let me recognise my hon. Friend’s long-standing advocacy for young people and his authorship of the initial Positive for Youth programme. Yes, we are very concerned about cuts to youth services at the local level. The Cabinet Office is mapping exactly what is going on at the moment and stands ready to work with local authorities to help them comply with their statutory duty and work more creatively with other local partners in delivering fantastic opportunities for young people to develop themselves through access to high-quality youth work.

T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following the question on outsourcing from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), we have now passed £100 billion-worth of contracts to large companies that have absolutely no transparency. Is it not time to revisit the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to make sure that these companies do have the necessary transparency and are brought into the scope of the Act? (901569)

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who chairs the Justice Committee, presided over an inquiry into the working of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and did not recommend that any such change should happen. The hon. Gentleman refers to large companies taking part in outsourcing, but one of the things we have done is to reduce the Government’s dependency on large companies by opening up procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises across the country, which was not even measured under his Government. We have made big steps—though not yet enough—to open it up to many smaller UK businesses.

Last week’s tidal surge devastated hundreds of homes in my constituency when our flood defences were breached by the Humber, the Ouse and the Trent. During that emergency, the real heroes in communities such as Burringham and South Ferriby were—apart from the emergency services—our parish councils, which had in place emergency plans that ran 24/7. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to those parish councillors and urge other such councillors to ensure that they have proper community emergency plans in place?

My hon. Friend is completely right: there was an amazing community response to the emergency caused by the storm surge. He is quite right that parish councils, particularly in rural areas, play an incredibly important role in a completely voluntary way. I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I understand was out there in the small hours of the morning, working alongside his constituents to support them.

T3. Can the Minister tell us what proportion of the files subject to the 30-year rule the Department has released to the National Archives, and how many of them relate to Northern Ireland? (901570)

May I invite my right hon. Friend to visit Matrix SCM at Milton Keynes and see how it is helping local authorities to save an average of 17% on public procurement contracts, increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises winning those contracts, and speed up the payments process?

I shall be happy to do that. I know how much support my hon. Friend must have given the company in his constituency. We have opened up procurement, which was being run in a way that, in many cases, froze out SMEs and prevented them from doing work for councils and the Government, but, although we have made some progress, we still have much more to do.

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.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is as concerned as Labour Members are about the 42% increase in long-term unemployment among young women that has taken place on his watch. Will he confirm that the reason he does not support the No More Page 3 campaign is that, like his hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), he believes that at least page 3 provides jobs for the girls?

We have seen quite a rapid reduction in unemployment over recent months under this Government, and there are a million more people in work than when I became Prime Minister. Of course, there is a lot more to be done to get the long-term unemployed, in particular, back into work, but the Work programme is performing twice as successfully as some of its predecessors. I think that the hon. Lady should get behind such programmes, rather than making points such as the one she has just made.

Last Tuesday Joshua Folkes, aged 17, died in my constituency following a knife attack. Serious youth violence has fallen by some 19% in Enfield, and the Government have toughened knife laws, but what more can be done to rid the streets of Enfield, and those elsewhere in the country, of the carnage caused by knife attacks?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point in speaking on behalf of his constituent. As he has said, we have toughened the law, and I think that that has made a difference, but I think that the most important thing for us to do now is get rid of this dreadful culture of people carrying knives and educate young people about the dangers of carrying them. Those who carry knives often end up being stabbed themselves, and sometimes tragically die. It is to that work that we should now give priority.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, given the crisis in living standards that ordinary families are facing, Members of Parliament should not be awarded a pay rise many times above inflation in 2015?

I do agree with the right hon. Gentleman about this issue. I think that it would be wrong for MPs to be given a big pay rise at a time of public sector pay restraint. All three party leaders agree on that, and we have all made the point to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. However, we should be clear about the fact that what IPSA has said is not a final recommendation.

Let me briefly make three points. First, I think that the idea of an 11% pay rise in one year at a time of pay restraint is simply unacceptable. Secondly, I think that IPSA needs to think again, and that unless it does so no one will want to rule anything out. No one wants to go back to the system of MPs voting on their own pay, but we must have a process and an outcome that can build public confidence. Thirdly, I think that all this should be accompanied by a cut in the cost of politics.

I am glad that the Prime Minister agrees with me about this issue. Does he also agree that we should not let it hang around as an issue until after the general election, and hang over trust in politics? May I urge him to work with me, on a cross-party basis, to find a way of making IPSA think again, and to stop this package happening?

My door is always open to the right hon. Gentleman, and I am always happy to discuss this or, indeed, any other issue. Let me stress, however, that what IPSA has said is not a final recommendation. I think that if the three party leaders and others in the House unite in saying that it is not right to award this pay rise, that will be the strongest message we can give.

I agree with the Prime Minister, but I hope he agrees with me that waiting and seeing will not work and that we do have to get together to deal with this. The reason this is not the right time for this pay rise is that most people are going through the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation, and I want to turn to that cost of living crisis. Last Thursday, the Chancellor claimed living standards were rising. That just is not the case, is it?

Let me add one point on the issue of MPs’ pay. This Government have shown respect for the difficulties people face: when we came into office we cut Ministers’ pay by 5% and froze it for the whole of the Parliament. That is not something Labour did.

The right hon. Gentleman wants to get on to the economy and, frankly, after last week’s exchange I cannot wait to get on to the exchange on the economy. We discovered a new duo: red Ed and redder Ed. I am looking forward to discussing these things. I thought the Institute for Fiscal Studies put this very clearly. It said: we have had a great big recession. We have had the biggest recession we have had in 100 years. It would be astonishing if household incomes had not fallen and earnings had not fallen, but the fact is that is the legacy of what Labour left us. The right hon. Gentleman’s entire approach seems to be: “We made the most almighty mess, why are you taking so long to clear it up?” Well, we are clearing it up.

In case the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten, he has been the Prime Minister for three and a half years. But I think we are making progress, because last Thursday the Chancellor said that living standards were rising. [Interruption.] His own Office for Budget Responsibility says:

“Almost whichever way you look at it…average earnings, wages and salaries…the levels have been falling”. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Blenkinsop, you are yelling across the Chamber. Be quiet. Calm yourself. Take up yoga.

The OBR went on to say that it is “inconceivable” to suggest otherwise, but that is exactly what the Chancellor did last Thursday. Why will the Prime Minister not just come out and admit it: there is a cost of living crisis in this country?

Well, it comes to something when the right hon. Gentleman is being heckled from his own side. I do not know how you are going to keep us all in order, Mr Speaker.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what has been happening over these three years: we have got the deficit down by a third, we have got 1 million more people in work, we have got 400,000 more businesses operating in Britain, and we have got one of the fastest rates of growth now of any major western economy. But the truth about living standards and the cost of living is this: if we do not have a long-term economic plan to get our economy moving, we do not have a plan to deal with living standards. We have a plan. Our plan is to keep interest rates low, to get the country back to work, to cut people’s taxes, to boost business. Our plan is working. The right hon. Gentleman does not have a plan, as we discovered last week, apart from more borrowing, more spending, more taxes—all the things that got us into the mess in the first place.

Utterly complacent and out of touch with the country—that is this Prime Minister absolutely all over. Let us be fair to him: he does understand that some people are really struggling because today we learn of his plan to cut the top rate of tax further, from 45p to 40p. Can he explain why he is even contemplating a further tax cut for millionaires, who have received hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of tax cuts, when ordinary families are so squeezed?

The top rate under this Government is higher than at any time when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet, the Government or was working in the Treasury trying to wreck the economy in the first place. If he wants to talk about the cost of living, let us compare our records. The Labour Government doubled council tax; we have frozen it. They put up petrol tax 12 times; we have frozen it. They put up the basic rate of pension by a measly 75p; we have increased it by £15 a week. I am happy to compare our records any time of day, but the British public know this: if we want to sort out the cost of living, if we want to help families, we need more jobs, we need more growth, we need a long-term economic plan. We have got one; he has not.

Order. Members must calm down. I have said that before, but some people are slow learners. We will go on for as long as it takes. They can shout and scream and bawl in the most juvenile manner, but we will just keep going.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what happened. Under the last Labour Government, real earnings went up £3,600. Living standards went up: under him, they are down £1,600. Living standards are down under this Government. We have always known how out of touch he is, but he is now taking it to a whole new level. The Government are in denial about the cost of living crisis, and they are not satisfied with one millionaires’ tax cut—they think it is time for another. Once again, the Prime Minister proves that he stands up for the wrong people.

Oh, dearie me! At the end of six questions, we are back to denial and the record of the last Labour Government. I know that I have had a long flight, but I could not have written the script better if I had done it myself. The last Labour Government gave us the biggest budget deficit virtually anywhere in the world, and the biggest banking bust anywhere in the world. They created a giant mess that this Government are clearing up. That is the truth. Since the autumn statement, why cannot the right hon. Gentleman mention the fact that business optimism is up, manufacturing is up and the number of job vacancies is up? Pretty soon, we will be able to add two to that list.

Q2. Unemployment in my constituency is 21% lower than it was at the time of the last election. We have had a 90% increase in apprenticeship start-ups, manufacturing output is up and business activity is at a 32-month high in the west midlands. Does the Prime Minister agree that, due to the hard work of my constituents and people across the country, the Government’s long-term economic plan is working and delivering benefits to every region of the United Kingdom? (901579)

My hon. Friend is right. During the boom years, the number of people employed in the private sector in the west midlands actually went down, but we are now seeing better news. Employment is up 25,000 since the election, with private sector employment up 14,000 this year. The youth claimant count is falling in the west midlands. I know how much time my hon. Friend puts into things such as the apprenticeship fair that he held earlier this year. This shows that our long-term plan is the right plan, and that it is beginning to work.

Q3. What does the Prime Minister have to say to women across the country who are working full time and whose disposable incomes have fallen by an average of almost £2,500 since his Government came into office? (901580)

The first thing to say is that we welcome the fact that there are more women in work than at any time in our history. The second thing to say is that, because we are lifting the first £10,000 that people earn out of income tax, they will be better off by £705 next year. That is progress, but if the hon. Gentleman is asking whether it takes time to recover from the mess left by his party, the answer is yes it does, but we are going to do it.

Dementia is the disease most feared by the over-50s in this country. The Government are rightly doubling investment in dementia research during this Parliament, and the Prime Minister is hosting the G8 summit on dementia this week. Will he now lift the country’s and the Government’s sights by committing to doubling again this country’s investment in dementia research?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right to say that this is a real challenge facing not only this country, where there are 670,000 people suffering from dementia, but the whole world. We are having the G8 conference today in London to share intelligence, expertise and scientific research and learn lessons from each other. And yes, I can confirm that this Government are already planning to double research into dementia up to 2015, and we plan to double it again thereafter.

Q4. Given that the implementation of universal credit has become a shambles, how can the public have confidence in those who are responsible for it?


I think it is absolutely right that we introduce this benefits system in a very slow and deliberate way. I remember sitting in my surgery as a constituency MP when the tax credit system came in, in one big bang, and having case after case where people’s household finances were completely wrecked by the last Labour Government. I will not let that happen again. As we introduce this vital benefit, let us remember the fact that 480,000 fewer people are on out-of-work benefits and it is this Government who are making work pay.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to raise the living standards of my constituents is for the Government to stick to their long-term plan to rebuild this economy and not abandon it in favour of more borrowing and more taxes, as proposed by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The biggest hit to living standards would be if we let spending and borrowing get out of control and interest rates went up. That is what we want to avoid, which is why we got the deficit down, and we must continue with our difficult spending decisions. That has enabled us to cut the taxes of people working and living in Basildon. By next year, with the first £10,000 of income coming out of tax, people on the minimum wage who are working a full-time week will see their income tax bill come down by two thirds. That is real action on the side of people who work hard.

Q5. Is the Prime Minister aware that FTSE 100 directors now get £86,000 a week on average, while at the other end of the scale 5 million workers get less than the living wage and three quarters of a million people who cannot get a job and get sanctioned get nothing at all and are left to starve? Is there no end to the brutality and nastiness of Tory Britain? (901582)

I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who served in Labour Government after Labour Government with a 40p tax rate—it is now 45p—and a bonus bonanza in the City 85 times higher than it is now, that he has a lot of brass neck.

New figures show that the second largest pub company in this country, Punch Taverns, overcharged the British consumer in its pubs, on beer alone, by £4.3 billion over 10 years. Clear market manipulation is taking place, so will the Prime Minister commit to deal with this crony capitalism? Will he listen to the Federation of Small Businesses and back the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s solution to this problem?

I know of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in not only beer, but pubs and how pub landlords are treated, particularly by the pub companies. Let me look very carefully at what he said. I am a great believer in a healthy pub industry. Pubs are often the heart of the village and the heart of our communities, and I will look carefully at the beer report that he mentions.

Q6. During his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that “people should expect to spend…a third of their adult lives in retirement.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1106.]Given that life expectancy in some communities in my country is only 75, what does the Prime Minister think would be a fair retirement age in a Welsh context? (901583)

The point my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was making is that this should be assessed independently but it is right to set a guide—an expectation—rather than just having Ministers announce from time to time what retirement ages should be. If the point the hon. Gentleman is making is that we need to tackle health inequalities better in our country and that we need ring-fenced budgets for public health, as this Government have brought in, then I would agree with him.

Q7. Bomber Command veteran Stan Franks recently passed away at the age of 88. As a teenager, he flew some 31 missions, a staggering achievement for such a young man. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Thurrock RAF Association and the Thurrock Enquirer on their efforts in raising the funds to ensure that his passing is marked appropriately? (901584)

I would certainly praise all those in Thurrock who have raised money in this way. The story of Stan Franks is a truly remarkable one. He is believed to be the youngest airman to complete more than 30 missions—he did this in 1944-45, before he was 20 years old. It is a real reminder to our generation of just how much previous generations put in to make sure that we could live in freedom. One of the greatest privileges I have had in this job has been welcoming veterans of Bomber Command to No. 10 Downing street and making that announcement about ensuring that they have that clasp on their medal, which I know many value so much. As Winston Churchill rightly said in 1940:

“The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

We should never forget those brave crews in Bomber Command. So many now are coming to the end of their lives—so many who did so much for our country.

Q8. A great start.I thank the Prime Minister for saving my marriage. Carolyn was just about to sign the divorce papers when she heard the report that if we stayed together we would be in line for a sweet £150 a year tax break. If, as the Prime Minister says, marriage must be underpinned by the tax system, why is it that, since the married person’s tax allowance was abolished in 2000, the divorce rate has gone down? (901585)

I am delighted that happiness is maintained in the Harris household. I could put it another way. It was only when I started to talk about the married couple’s allowance that the Leader of the Opposition tied the knot. The tax system moves in mysterious ways.

In the light of the call by the Leader of the Opposition for urgent action in response to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s proposal for an increase in MPs’ pay, will my right hon. Friend immediately retable the Boundary Commission report, which would simultaneously pay for any increase and increase the workload of MPs? It would surely be hypocritical for the Leader of the Opposition or the leader of the Liberal Democrats to oppose that measure.

My right hon. Friend tempts me. The point I was trying to make is that cutting the cost of politics has a role to play alongside this argument—[Interruption.]

Order. Members must not shout at the Prime Minister. It is discourteous to keep gesticulating at the man. Let us hear the Prime Minister.

It is no good shouting from the Opposition Benches. Labour Members had the opportunity to reform the Lords, and they were the ones who stopped it.

Q9. The Prime Minister says that the G8 and his attendance at the investment conference advertised his commitment to Northern Ireland and its economy. However, his Whitehall is busy removing jobs from Northern Ireland in the Driver and Vehicle Agency and now also in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, with the proposal to close offices in Newry and Enniskillen and halve the office in my constituency of Foyle. How does the removal of jobs by Whitehall contribute to balancing both the economy in Northern Ireland and that region? (901586)

I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes his point. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary will meet him to talk about the HMRC issues. As for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Transport is still considering the results of its consultation. Let me make this point. Employment in Northern Ireland has risen by 32,000 since the election, and he knows, as I do, that the real long-term answer for the economy in Northern Ireland is a private sector revival. The public sector is very large in Northern Ireland. We need more small and medium-sized enterprises and more investment in Northern Ireland, and we need those jobs to come, which is what the G8 and the investment conference were all about.

Q10. My constituent Jack Scerri, who has recently completed the National Citizen Service programme, visited my surgery on Saturday with Lisa Farrell of Staffordshire NCS to let me know just how much the programme had given him personal confidence and a clear sense of what he wished to do with his future. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for enabling as many young people as possible to take part in that transformative programme that he has championed? (901587)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. It is a transformative programme. Some 66,000 young people have already been through it since 2010. It now forms part of what Prince Charles wants to see—a decade in which we encourage volunteering and we get 50% of all young people taking part in volunteering. I hope that Members from all parts of the House are having an experience similar to that of my hon. Friend, with people stopping them and talking about the NCS and what it has done for young people and their confidence. It really is a good programme, and I am delighted that it has all-party support.

As the Prime Minister is trying to come over all family friendly, can he confirm whether maternity and paternity pay will be included in the benefits cap announced in the autumn statement?

As the Chancellor announced at the time, what is out of the benefit cap is the basic state pension. I think that is important. On all other welfare spending, we need to ensure that we are distributing properly the different sorts of welfare.

Q11. Three hundred and thirty new jobs were created in my constituency in the past three months alone and I expect many more to be created over the next few months, particularly as housing and construction projects accelerate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that young people are not left behind and that abolishing the jobs tax on young people aged under 21 shows that the Government are serious about tackling youth unemployment? (901588)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. As the economy recovers, it is vital that it is a recovery for all—that it is a recovery for north and south, for young and old. There is always a danger in an economy that young people who are not in the work force will be locked out of it, and that is why the change that the Chancellor announced about abolishing the jobs tax on those young people to make it cheaper for employers to take them on can have a real impact on ensuring that young people participate in our growing economy.

Given the fact that the Work and Pensions Secretary was left alone on his Benches when he made his statement on universal credit, does the Prime Minister still have confidence in him and in the universal benefit changes?

I think the Work and Pensions Secretary has probably done more than anyone else in British politics to transform the debate about welfare. That is happening because of his dedication to the issue. We see fewer people out of work and the number of workless households at its lowest since records began. He is introducing a system that includes the benefit cap that Labour voted against and the household benefit cap that Labour voted against, and that is making work pay. We should be proud of that work.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister agree that in the long term the best plan to improve the living standards of my hard-working constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington is to continue to cut their income tax, which can only be achieved by a growing economy and by the Government cutting spending so that our country lives within its means and does not have to borrow every month to pay its bills? (901589)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. At the end of the day, you can talk all you like about how you want to help people with their living standards and to keep their tax bills—[Interruption.] Is it not extraordinary? After last week, and all that, the shadow Chancellor is at it again—heckling. We learned something last week: he can dish it out but he can’t take it—[Interruption.] I will tell the House what is going down: his career. That is what is going down. The simple point is that if we want to get people’s taxes down, we have to make difficult decisions about spending. That is what we have done. That is why we can cut taxes, whereas the Opposition would have to put them up.

In towns across the United Kingdom, there are parents in deep despair because they cannot afford a decent Christmas for their children. Why is that?

What is happening in our country is that we are recovering from the longest, deepest and most difficult recession in living memory. It takes time, but what we see is 1 million more people in work—that is a positive development. We see 400,000 more businesses operating in our country—that is a positive development. The growth rate in our country is now the second-highest of any major western economy. The job is not done yet; it is not halfway done yet. That is why we need a long-term economic plan, which is what we are dedicated to delivering. Frankly, we would get nowhere if the first thing we did was to increase spending, increase borrowing and increase taxes—all the things that got this country into the mess in the first place.

Q13. British Aerospace has 1,000 apprentices at any one time, and 221 in Samlesbury in the Ribble Valley and neighbouring Warton in Lancashire. What can the Prime Minister do to encourage other firms to follow the excellent example of British Aerospace and take on more apprentices, particularly in engineering and science? That would in itself encourage more youngsters to study those subjects in school and university. (901590)

I have seen with my own eyes what BAE Systems does in respect of apprenticeships, including higher level apprenticeships, and it is extremely impressive. We have to take action at every level. We have to make sure that more young people are studying science and maths subjects, and that is beginning to happen. We have to make sure that setting up apprenticeships is simpler. It must be less expensive. We need a culture where companies really want to get involved in this programme, including small companies, but we also need to attract more investment to our shores. That is why it is particularly good news today that GSK, one of the giants of the pharmaceutical industry, is announcing another £200 million invested into our country, because alongside engineering, life sciences is an area where Britain can win in the global race.

Q14. When the House debated Syria in late August, the estimate of dead in the conflict was around 100,000. Just over three months later the estimate is over 120,000. We cannot allow this to become a conflict in a faraway land that we do not know anything about. Is it not time for the Government and, indeed, the whole House to urge greater action by the international community and show that we do care about the suffering of the Syrian people? (901591)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, who has a long record of speaking out on this issue and believing, as I do, that Britain should be fully engaged in all the work to try to bring those involved in this dreadful war to the negotiating table, under the terms of the Geneva II process. At the same time, we must continue with the work that we are doing on humanitarian aid to help those who are suffering because of the conflict, but we should also, in my view and, I suspect, in hers too, continue to work with all those in Syria who want a free, democratic and pluralistic future. We must not allow the argument to develop that the only opposition in Syria is an extremist opposition. That will become the case only if we stop working with those who care about democracy in the future.

In Rochford and Southend, employment is up, the number of apprentices is up and small business numbers are up, largely owing to the impact of the expanding Southend airport. I know the Prime Minister is probably a bit sick of airports, having just come back from one, but would he consider coming to Southend airport in the new year to celebrate its success Essex-style, bringing the family, if he wants? I promise to buy them all a Rossi ice cream on the sea front.

Who could resist the idea of an Essex-style celebration in the new year—although I might need to find out a little bit more of what it involves before I fully commit? We should not underestimate the importance of airports in driving regional growth. Clearly, that is the case in parts of Essex.

Q15. Despite the Government’s savage cuts, next year Liverpool will host the international festival of business. Why will the Prime Minister not commit to attending the event? Will he ensure that the same level of support that Boris would enjoy is afforded to the mayor of Liverpool? Will he tell his green-eyed bête noir that despite a short sleepover in London, the Beatles are and always will be made in Liverpool? (901592)

Having happily visited the Beatles museum many years ago and enjoyed being there, I can confirm what the hon. Gentleman says. I have never had any problem working with the mayor of Liverpool and enjoyed appearing on a platform with him to advertise the brilliance of that city, and I will continue to co-operate with him in all the work that he is doing to attract investment into the city.

Abolishing roaming charges is one of the big wins for British consumers that we might get from remaining in the European Union. Has the Prime Minister had the opportunity to discuss international mobile phone usage with any other European Heads of Government in the past day or so?

You could say I have, in a roundabout way. It should be remembered that the television cameras are always on, but in my defence I would say that Nelson Mandela played an extraordinary role in his life and in his death in bringing people together, so of course when a member of the Kinnock family asked me for a photograph, I thought it only polite to say yes.