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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
23 January 2014
Volume 574

House of Commons

Thursday 23 January 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

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1. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902128]

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12. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902143]

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14. What steps he is taking to encourage more people to become engineers. [902147]

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The Government are working with employers, professional bodies and higher and further education institutions to implement the Perkins review of engineering skills and boost careers in engineering, particularly for women. In September we announced a £400 million boost for STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—teaching in universities.

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In a recent Science and Technology Committee report “Educating tomorrow’s engineers”, we recommended that

“learned societies, professional engineering institutions and trade bodies put an obligation on their members to systematically engage in promoting engineering and technology as a career through a structured programme of educational engagement.”

What progress, if any, has been made in making that come to fruition?

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There is a recognition of the seriousness of the shortage of engineers, and we are trying to address that in a variety of ways. On the particular programmes that my hon. Friend has described, we are working with the professional associations on work experience for students and industrial placements for teachers, because we have to change the perceptions of young people in schools.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initiatives to encourage more people into engineering. I founded the Isle of Wight Technology Group to help engineering and technology companies work together on training, recruitment and other issues. Will he say how many new engineers are being grown on the island, and will he come to the Isle of Wight to see for himself the good work that technology companies are doing?

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I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise number, but I know that a depth of engineering talent is arising from the island’s successful companies, both in the maritime sector and in aerospace. We want to build on that, and I would be absolutely delighted to meet him and his engineers on the Isle of Wight—I always enjoy a walk on Tennyson down.

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As my right hon. Friend knows, Devonport dockyard is the only naval dockyard in the country that refits and refurbishes our nuclear submarines. How have the Government helped—and how can we help—to make sure that we protect Britain’s nuclear engineering skills base and ensure that the work force are not lured away to Hinkley C, just up the peninsula?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that in an environment where there is an acute shortage of professional engineers and craftsmen, there is a tendency to poach skills. We see that happening in other sectors, like the motor car industry, oil and gas and so on. The answer is to produce more engineers, and he will be aware that in his constituency, or certainly in the city of Plymouth, we have the 600-place university technology college, which is growing with support from the Government. That is a very positive step forward, and I am sure he will be pleased with it.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s good news from the automotive sector should encourage more people to become engineers, but that there is still a real issue to address to ensure that the automotive supply chain gets the engineers it needs and that young people are encouraged to go into it? Does that not involve doing more to ensure that training meets the needs of the supply chain and that small businesses in that sector get the investment they need, which requires a different approach from finance houses?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the key challenge now faced by the car industry, which is a great success story, is to progress the success of OEMs—original equipment manufacturers—which are expanding, down through their supply chains, which were hollowed out in earlier years. We are addressing that issue through the Automotive Council and the industry strategy. That is progressing well, but it does need a great deal of support for the training base and the training of engineers, which is what we are doing through our apprenticeship programme.

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Young people across Plymouth are telling me that they feel as though they are little more than walking pots of money when it comes to careers advice and that schools are almost harassing them at times to keep them in school. That obviously militates against some of them going to do engineering apprenticeships, as my neighbour the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has pointed out. What more can the Secretary of State do to set up an independent careers advice arrangement, so that these young people can get broader advice, not specific and closed advice from their schools?

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Yes indeed. The all-age careers service that we have put in place is now generally acknowledged to be giving successful advice through the age range. On schools, we recognise that there is an issue to address on the career paths of the non-academic—the more vocationally trained. We shall shortly be issuing guidance to schools on how to access independent advice.

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The aerospace industry has shown marked improvement in the past few months. Just last week, Magellan Aerospace in Belfast announced a new job contract through the Prime Minister, and jobs and opportunities were created. Is it now time for higher education and for industry, particularly aerospace, to work together to make sure that those jobs are taken by young people from universities and colleges at this time?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was in Belfast recently and met a combination of Northern Ireland universities and industry. They are working together and realise that a recovery is taking place, despite the problems of the traditional industries around Belfast. Such work requires the kind of collaboration he has described.

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Will the Secretary of State reassure me that he regards the excellent John Perkins review of engineering skills as the irreducible minimum necessary to address the urgent shortages in engineering skills in our country, and that his Department will remain open to ideas better to market engineering to young people, and to address the appalling gender stereotyping that is frustrating so many women’s ambitions to get into engineering?

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Yes, it is an exceptionally good report. The challenge is a massive one. There is an acute shortage of engineers, and the problem is particularly serious among women. I believe that something in the order of one in 10 professional engineers is a woman, and about one in 20 in advanced apprenticeships. We are actively seeking to address that with the professional institutions.

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I too wish to ask the Secretary of State about the engineers of the future. The mismanaged free-for-all that gave private students unfettered access to the student loan system has now cost his Department so dear that big cuts are being discussed. On top of the huge cuts for educating 18-year-olds in college, we now hear rumours that the student opportunity fund that helps poorer future engineers will be completely axed. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to promise the House that he will not sacrifice social mobility to pay for the chaos in his Department’s budget?

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The right hon. Gentleman could perhaps do a little better than rely on rumours that have very little foundation. The substance of the matter is that in the autumn statement, we were committed to additional investment of £400 million in STEM teaching to provide modern facilities that were neglected during the years he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Apprenticeships

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2. What steps he is taking to ensure that apprenticeships respond to employers’ needs. [902129]

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Our apprenticeship reforms are responding to the needs of employers by putting them in the driving seat. Trailblazers, led by employers and professional bodies, is leading the way in developing new standards in a wide range of sectors.

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Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 300 in 100 campaign in Cornwall on its aim to get 300 new apprenticeships in 100 days? I participated in the campaign in St Mellion a few weeks ago along with many employers in my constituency.

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I would love to congratulate my hon. Friend, who has teamed up with other MPs across Cornwall, including my hon. Friends the Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for St Ives (Andrew George) and many others. Many Members of this House have been part of the 100 in 100 campaigns to get 100 apprentices in 100 days, and Cornwall is taking it just that bit further.

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The number of apprentices in the 16-to-18 age group is dropping at the moment, with serious implication for our long-term skills base. Will the Minister look again at the proposals of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to use public procurement contracts to ensure a certain level of recruitment for that age group in the way in which the previous Government did and local authorities are doing?

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Of course, Crossrail, which is the biggest public construction project in Europe, has in it exactly what the hon. Gentleman describes. He will have seen last week that we announced 2,000 new apprentices as part of High Speed 2. I entirely agree about the need to drive up the number of apprentices. We introduced a rule that every apprenticeship had to be a minimum of a year, and the number of apprenticeships for those aged between 16 to 19 lasting a year or more has gone up sharply. We must be careful to consider the reason for the numbers. Apprenticeships of under a year, in many cases without a job attached, are not really apprenticeships at all.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of increasing the skills of apprenticeships is the creation of pre-apprenticeship schools, otherwise known as university technical colleges? Will he look at expanding the Government’s programme of 24 UTCs, one of which will be in Harlow, so that there is one in every town across the country?

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I absolutely support my hon. Friend in his enthusiasm for UTCs, not only the one in Harlow, for which, I know, he is a great campaigner, but those across the country.

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But why have Ministers failed to match their rhetoric with action? Something like what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) suggests in his Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill would create thousands of new quality apprenticeship opportunities by requiring all major suppliers on large public projects to offer apprenticeships.

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As I said, we do that on some of the largest procurements. If we are talking about action, the fact that a record number of people are in apprenticeships is action that we should support, and the fact that 1.5 million people across the country have started apprenticeships since 2010 is also action we should all be proud of.

Exports

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3. What recent assessment he has made of the level of UK exports. [902131]

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The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, released on 9 January, show that UK exports totalled more than £494 billion in 2012, the highest level on record. Exports in the first 11 months of 2013 were in excess of £40 billion a month.

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I am grateful for that answer. It has been very encouraging to hear a number of businesses in my constituency, including the Hainsworth mill in Stanningley, reporting increased exports in recent months. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the performance of UK exports in some of the newer growth markets?

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In spite of tough trading conditions, British exports of goods have increased under this Government—to China by 98%, India by 56%, Russia by 110% and Brazil by 45%.

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The Minister will be aware of the importance of Airbus to UK exports. Is he as concerned as I am about the billions of pounds of subsidy to Boeing that has been announced by Washington state and sanctioned by the US Government?

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These are issues I discuss with Airbus from time to time. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of action under the World Trade Organisation on two cases, one involving subsidies to Boeing and the other involving alleged subsidies to Airbus. I hope that some of those issues can be resolved in discussions on the transatlantic trade partnership.

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In Germany, the Mittelstand leads the way in exports. What steps are the Government taking to target our mid-sized businesses, particularly for emerging markets?

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I recognise the enormous amount of work my hon. Friend did when he served in the Department before me. We have a target of assisting some 1,500 mid- size businesses by 2015. My noble Friend Lord Livingston yesterday announced a major enhancement of the programme that will see an expanded regional network of advisers in UK Trade & Investment, with some 28 advisers in place across all nine English regions, specifically targeted to drive up the number of mid-sized businesses that might be deciding to export for the first time or to increase their performance.

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Given the recent comments from Nissan and other manufacturers about the importance of Britain’s staying in the EU, does the Minister agree that it is vital that Britain stay in the European Union and that the current uncertainty about Britain’s future membership that we see in some quarters is damaging to the future of British job prospects?

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What is important for car manufacturers from overseas, such as Nissan, and for all foreign investors in Britain is that the single market is strengthened and available to them. One of the purposes of our reform programme in Europe is to ensure that the member states that do not wish to become enmeshed in the eurozone can still enjoy the full protection and opportunities of the single market.

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May I warmly congratulate UK Trade & Investment on its work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promoting the food and drink sector and also the GREAT Britain campaign, which is, I think, genuinely great? Will my right hon. Friend set aside a small promotional budget to support our presence at international food fairs? We are outgunned by other countries, and a pavilion that showed off the best of British produce would bring dividends.

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I shall certainly see what more we can do in that regard. I know that food and drink exports will be one of the themes of our commitment to Expo in Milan later this year and I shall be discussing our pavilion in Milan this evening and tomorrow.

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I detect a real note of complacency in the Minister’s remarks. Let us not crack open the imported champagne just yet. The Secretary of State’s trade and investment White Paper of 2011 stated:

“The UK now needs to rebalance its economy…toward increased exports and investment.”

Yet the value of exports fell in the last quarter and net trade acted as a drag on GDP growth for much of 2013. Given that the trade gap remains persistently high and is growing, manufacturing as a share of our economy has fallen under this Government, and investment has continued to flatline, will the Minister now concede that an export-led recovery has not materialised?

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I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman should talk down British exporting and British manufacturing at precisely the time we see a renaissance not only in our automotive industry but in our aerospace and other industries. Of course trading conditions are tough, not least with problems in the eurozone and elsewhere, but exports are up and we continue to help drive increased export performance through supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and mid-sized businesses.

Royal Mail Shares

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4. What assessment he has made of the value for money achieved for the public purse through the recent sale of shares in Royal Mail. [902132]

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question together with Question 5.

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Unfortunately not. It is perfectly reasonable for the Minister of State to seek to do so, but the attempted grouping falls because I fear that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) is not present in the Chamber.

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I was hoping there would be some interest in this question.

We believe that value for money should be assessed over the long term and should consider not merely the proceeds from the initial sale but the value of the taxpayer’s retained stake in Royal Mail and the reduced risk to the taxpayer and the six-day-a-week universal service of a stable company with access now to private capital.

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Given the botched and imprudent sale of the first tranche of Royal Mail shares by this Government at the expense of taxpayers, the public will be concerned about the emerging reports that the Government intend to sell off the remaining family silver before the next election. Will the Minister confirm whether those reports are accurate?

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I can confirm, first, that the sale of Royal Mail was a success. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am delighted that the shares have risen in value, reflecting Royal Mail’s interim trading results and the long-overdue agreement with the union. Any decision on a sale of the remaining stake is still to be taken.

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One of the hidden values for money is the fact that of the 150,000 eligible hard-working postmen and women who could take up their free allocation, only 368 said no. That means that as the company goes from strength to strength, those who directly work for Royal Mail will now financially benefit from that. Is not that a very good thing?

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Yes. I would have thought that Labour Members would welcome this extension of employee share ownership. I am delighted that 99% of Royal Mail’s employees took up the offer and now have a stake in the success of that company as it moves forward.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) said, the fire sale of Royal Mail has cost the taxpayer in excess of £750 million, but it has not taken it long to enjoy its new privatised status. Reports in the media suggest that the board of Royal Mail is about to propose a significant pay increase for the chief executive to bring her in line with those in other FTSE 100 companies. The Business Secretary says that he will use the Government’s remaining stake as the largest stakeholder to veto the proposals. Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State, his boss, or is this just froth?

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If this were a fire sale, it would certainly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has said, be one of the longest fire sales in history, given that Governments have been trying to sell Royal Mail for over 20 years. I think we should salute Moya Greene’s achievement in transforming a loss-making public corporation into one of Britain’s top 100 companies and congratulate her, as one of all too few female chief executives, on her award as business person of the year. We have yet to receive any proposal from the remuneration committee.

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When I last visited Stroud sorting office just before Christmas, I noticed that the much-needed modernisation programme was being started. Does the Minister agree that that has been made possible by the sale of shares and that it represents a Government success?

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Yes. The purpose of the sale was to enable Royal Mail to have access to private capital so that it would not be dependent on the taxpayer for ensuring the successful delivery of the six-day-a-week universal service on which we and all our constituents rely.

Women in Business

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6. What steps he is taking to support women in business. [902135]

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This Government want to see as many women as possible going into and progressing in business. We commissioned the Women’s Business Council to look at what barriers prevent women from reaching their potential and how to maximise their contribution to economic growth. We work closely with Lord Davies to increase the number of women on boards. Women now account for 20.4% of board members in FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5% in February 2011.

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Last week I met a woman called Adele who has set up a child care business. A few years ago her bank refused to lend to her because, in her view, it just did not understand her business plan. Such was her belief in her business that she remortgaged her home and her business has now expanded to look after 300 children. Given the lower levels of finance being offered to British female entrepreneurs compared with their European counterparts, does the Minister support Labour’s proposal for regional banks, which could be better placed to understand and support local small and medium-sized enterprises?

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The Government are doing quite a lot to ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to finance, and it sounds as though the hon. Lady’s constituent is a very good example of that. The Government Equalities Office offers child care grants to men and women, but primarily to women, who want to set up businesses in that particular area. The Government also support the Aspire fund, which aims to get equity into businesses run by women. The Start-Up Loans Company has offered 12,500 start-up loans and well over a third of them have gone to women to help them set up businesses that I hope will be as successful as that run by the hon. Lady’s constituent.

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Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating those women in rural businesses, primarily farms? Women are the backbone of the farming community and have taken the opportunity to diversify locally. Examples include Shepherds Purse cheese makers, Get Ahead Hats and countless other business opportunities for women.

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The hon. Lady highlights some extremely important businesses, and similar examples can be found across the whole of the UK and in a lot of our rural areas. Women are extremely good at identifying new opportunities to diversify businesses in more remote areas. They are often incredibly business savvy and can make a real success of it.

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17. Many women see their careers stall when they become pregnant. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is carrying out a welcome, if belated, inquiry into pregnancy discrimination, but it will be many months before we have the findings. In the meantime, is the Equality Advisory Support Service monitoring the number and nature of pregnancy and maternity-related queries so that the Minister can take early action on systemic patterns of discrimination? [902150]

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As the hon. Lady undoubtedly knows, it is about 10 years since the last research was done to look properly at the rate of discrimination against women as a result of pregnancy. That 2005 report showed that about 30,000 women had lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy. As the hon. Lady has said, the Government have commissioned the EHRC to do a proper piece of research to identify what the situation is now, and we hope that will give us a good idea of what needs to be done. It is clear that discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy is completely illegal, and it also makes terribly bad business sense for businesses across the country. This Government want to do something to ensure that we get rid of that type of discrimination.

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Will the Minister join me in congratulating a constituent of mine, Jennifer Davies, who has set up a small company called Get Customised, which produces a range of customised products? She is going from strength to strength, not simply because of her determination and dedication, but because of the benefits she has received from a Government-backed start-up loan.

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I am very glad to hear of the success of some of the start-up loans provided by this Government, and that the right hon. Gentleman has been able to identify an example in his constituency. Businesses across the country are going extremely well as a result of support from this Government. Another scheme that the Government are doing to help women in particular is the Get Mentoring scheme, into which we have put nearly £2 million. More than 40% of the mentors already trained are women. The scheme is designed to try to get more women to start up businesses and to be as successful as his constituent.

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Will the Minister set out how, in her quest to have more women on boards, she intends to ensure that we do not just see the same women on more boards or, indeed, more women on fewer boards?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in rejoicing at the fact that the FTSE 100 now has only two companies with all-male boards. A couple of years ago, the figure was 24 boards, so there has been significant progress. To increase the number of women going on to boards, we are doing everything we can to improve the pipeline, which means that more women below board level can get the support, mentoring and advice that they need to make themselves ready for and to get into board positions. We are doing what we can to increase the number of women on boards and to increase the flow of women, so that we can bring new blood on to the boards of Britain’s businesses.

Bank Lending

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7. Whether net lending to businesses by banks has risen in any of the last 24 months. [902136]

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The answer is yes. The most recent data from the Bank of England show that net lending to small and medium-sized enterprises was positive in March, June and November, and the Bank of England’s most recent “Trends in Lending” and “Credit Conditions” reports show that confidence is beginning to return, helped by interventions such as the British business bank.

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According to the chamber of commerce, unemployment in the north-east has gone up by 1,000 in the past quarter and by 16,000 in the past year, of whom 13,000 are women. We agree that small and medium-sized businesses should be driving the economy up and unemployment down, but I am told that many in my region see confusing Government schemes and the banks as failing to give them the help and resources they need. What specific things will the Secretary of State do to help people in the north-east and let our people share in the so-called upturn?

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Anybody who looks at yesterday’s employment figures will realise that we are in a very positive trend on employment—far in excess of what was predicted. Specifically in relation to the north-east, the hon. Gentleman will know that the main mechanism the Government use to support jobs and companies is the regional growth fund, and I think that the north-east has received more regional growth fund support than almost any other part of the country.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that as businesses expand and get more sales, they generate more cash, so we would not necessarily expect net lending to go up?

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That is certainly a factor. Indeed, many individual companies—quite apart from the banks—have become highly risk-averse, but I do not doubt that the supply of credit is a serious problem. That is why we have made interventions, such as the British business bank, that are already making a significant difference.

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19. May I tell the Secretary of State that in Yorkshire, too, small and medium-sized businesses in particular find it difficult to borrow money from conventional banks, which is why they increasingly look to crowdfunding for finance? Has he seen that Nicola Horlick has set up a new organisation to get into the crowdfunding market, because she too believes that conventional banks do not respond fast enough or efficiently enough? [902152]

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Indeed, one of the more encouraging signs over the past year is that unconventional forms of lending, such as crowdfunding, are becoming increasingly common. The Government are supporting two of the main schemes that operate on a peer-to-peer lending basis. Lending is expanding very rapidly in that sector for the small and medium-sized companies that need it.

Life Sciences Sector

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8. What support he is providing to the life sciences sector. [902139]

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We are supporting this key sector through our life sciences and agri-tech strategies, which back research and development and promote manufacturing. Since the Prime Minister launched our strategy two years ago, industry has announced investment of £2 billion, which is a vote of confidence in what we are doing.

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I welcome the Government’s commitment to encouraging the nation’s agri-tech industry and to recognising the importance of food security. The Minister and the Secretary of State will no doubt be aware of York and north Yorkshire’s huge potential to become a global leader in food manufacturing, agri-tech and biorenewables industries. As such, will the Minister clarify whether there are any plans to announce further catapult centres in this field?

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There is a lot of interest in our new centres for agricultural innovation. We expect to announce the bidding process for the first one in the spring and we will consult on themes for the other centres. I congratulate my hon. Friend on reminding us of the case for York as a possible centre. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was brought up there, but we will try not to allow that to affect our decision.

Small Businesses

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9. What steps he is taking to support small businesses. [902140]

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We are passionate supporters of small businesses. More than 12,000 start-up loans have been approved; over the past year, UK Trade & Investment has helped more than 30,000 businesses to export; and, in April this year, a new employer allowance will cut £2,000 from the national insurance bill of every company in the country.

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Located at the crossroads of the UK motorway network, Rugby is a great place to do business. Our excellent small businesses can benefit from the initiatives that the Minister has outlined. What would he say to small businesses that want to grow as the economy expands, but are unable to find larger premises because many of the older buildings have been demolished and speculative development of the type they need has not taken place?

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Ensuring that the commercial property market works effectively is an important part of reforming the banking system and getting it back on its feet after the crisis. That market is one of the main routes through which we can open up more development and ensure that there is more capacity, so that when small businesses want to expand, they have the physical space in which to do so.

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Small businesses on Worcester’s high street are looking forward to the employment allowance and to the generous rebate on business rates that was announced in the autumn statement. Will the Minister join me in urging Worcester’s Labour-led city council not to put up parking charges by 10%, which would be a kick in the teeth for the high street?

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Ensuring that any agency of Government or any council can live within its means is a crucial part of good governance in these difficult times. The approach that the Government have taken is to do that through making savings, difficult as it is. That is clearly working and I recommend it to the Labour-led council in Worcester.

Manufacturing

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10. What assessment he has made of innovation in the UK manufacturing sector. [902141]

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Manufacturing businesses are among the most innovative in the UK. In 2012, they spent £12 billion on research and development. We are investing in R and D alongside them. In particular, we are backing eight great technologies that are shaping the industries of the future.

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The Government focus a lot on labour productivity, but what support are they giving to innovation in resource productivity, which accounts for two thirds of the costs in manufacturing?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the interesting and imaginative work she is doing on this subject with other hon. Friends. Through our support for R and D—notably but not solely through our catapult centres—we are rewarding innovation that ensures that businesses operate with lower overheads.

National Minimum Wage

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11. What his policy is on the national minimum wage. [902142]

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15. What his policy is on the national minimum wage. [902148]

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Our aim is to maximise the wages of the low paid without damaging their employment prospects. We fully support the work of the independent Low Pay Commission in framing the pay rate recommendations for 2014. I have also asked it to consider the conditions that would be needed for faster, above inflation, increases in the national minimum wage.

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I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of his support for raising the national minimum wage, which would be of huge benefit to the lowest paid in Burton and Uttoxeter, and across the country. Does the Secretary of State accept that it would also place extra costs on business, particularly on small business? Will he consider what could be done to reduce business taxes and regulatory burdens to help those businesses pay for an increase in the minimum wage?

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Yes, of course we are conscious of the extra cost that would fall on business. That is why the Low Pay Commission tries to make a balanced judgment between the impact on employment and the increase in earnings for workers. It must be left to make its judgments and its independence must be respected. On the tax implications, given that the Chancellor is now heavily involved in this proposal and supportive of it, I am sure that he will be helpful on that front as well.

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Some 14 million people are on the minimum wage, most of whom work in retail, hospitality or cleaning. They earn just over £12,000 a year and are hard-working people. It is rightly the ambition of the coalition to make work pay more than benefit. Does my right hon. Friend imagine that anyone thinks that an above-inflation increase in the minimum wage would not pay for itself and should not be available to help those who are working hard?

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My right hon. Friend reflects the thinking that framed the advice I gave to the Low Pay Commission. Indeed, such thinking is not merely attractive in that it gives an incentive for people to work and improve their earnings, but it has positive implications for public finances.

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The Government would have us believe that they are now great supporters of the national minimum wage, yet we know that many sitting on the Government Benches today voted against it in 1997. If the national minimum wage is so important to the coalition, why have the Government allowed its value to fall by 5% since the election?

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The real value of the minimum wage started to fall under my predecessors in the wake of the financial crisis, and on each occasion, I, like my Labour predecessor, have followed the advice of the Low Pay Commission. The levels that have been set reflect that independent advice.

Female Entrepreneurs

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13. What recent estimate he has made of the number of female entrepreneurs. [902144]

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There are now a record 4.9 million businesses in the UK, and we estimate that 880,000 of them are led by women, which is 18% of the total. That demonstrates the opportunity for this country, should we manage to get that proportion up.

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Evidence shows that companies with more women in positions of power outperform their rivals. Does the Minister agree that we cannot afford not to make progress in securing more women in positions of power? If so, what will he do about it if companies do not hear him asking them nicely?

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I, too, have seen the research showing that companies with women at the top tend to perform better than those that have only men. That balance in the boardroom is vital, and I am a strong supporter of the agenda the hon. Lady promotes. More than 4,000 start-up loans have gone to women, and we are bringing in a new partner directed precisely at people who are returning to work after having children. For the bigger picture, ensuring that we have more women on boards is a campaign we are working on across the Government.

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The start-up loans scheme has been the most monumental success, but many female entrepreneurs ask me for more focused sectoral mentoring as part of that scheme. May I encourage the Minister to promote that as he develops the scheme further?

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A scheme exactly like the one my hon. Friend calls for is coming his way very soon.

Apprenticeships (Minimum Wage)

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16. What recent estimate he has made of the number of apprentices being paid at a rate below the apprenticeship minimum wage. [902149]

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The Government have zero tolerance for employers who break the law, which is why we have introduced a range of enhanced enforcement measures to crack down on rogue employers. HMRC prioritises apprentice enforcement cases, and the Government have overseen one of the most successful expansions of apprenticeships with around 1.5 million apprenticeship starts in England since 2010.

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Does the Minister agree it is worrying that the proportion of apprentices who are not being paid the apprentice minimum wage has increased to more than one in four? What action is she taking to clamp down on rising non-compliance of employers with the apprentice national minimum wage, which is increasing under her watch?

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The hon. Lady is right and the Government are also concerned about the level of non-compliance. Since 1 July, HMRC has been prioritising complaints from apprentices about non-payment of the national minimum wage, and we are ensuring that every single case is investigated. We also started an awareness campaign in November that targets schools, colleges, jobcentres and so on, so that those starting apprenticeships are aware of what they are entitled to. From 1 October the skills Minister has been writing to all apprentices starting a Government-funded scheme to ensure that they know what they are entitled to and that businesses know what they must pay, so that we reduce non-compliance.

Reshoring

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18. What assessment he has made of the potential for reshoring and import substitution in the UK economy. [902151]

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There is great potential for business reshoring to Britain. We surveyed manufacturing small and medium-sized enterprises and found that 11% have reshored some production to the UK in the past 12 months. The Automotive Council has identified £3 billion of additional sourcing opportunities. Businesses are bringing activities back to Britain as we become a more flexible and competitive economy.

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I believe there is more we can do to help reshoring, for example by making cash contributions to regional growth funds, cutting business rates locally for manufacturers bringing back jobs and adding reshoring to the UK Trade & Investment job description. Does the Minister agree that on import substitution there is a real opportunity to encourage supply chains to get local suppliers to compete for business? For example, Gloucestershire-based ADEY Professional Heating Solutions recently gave a £1.5 million contract to Future Advanced Manufacture, business that was previously being done in China.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are, of course, an open economy and we export and welcome companies from abroad that invest here, but we can do more to support our supply chains so that more prime manufacturers in Britain also purchase from SMEs across the country. Indeed, I remember visiting the company to which he refers. It is an excellent example of what we are talking about.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [902153]

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My Department is concerned with the promotion of growth, recovery and a rebalanced economy.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Bee Design Consultancy, which I visited last Friday in my constituency? In the past few years, it has gone from having two employees to 19, and it now exports its skills all over the world, recently to Lamborghini in Italy. I invite him to come to Redditch to visit the company next time he is in the west midlands.

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I would be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency and share that success. It is not just about mainstream car producers, but specialists, as she describes.

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The Secretary of State talked about the importance of strengthening the national minimum wage, which Labour established in office to secure a fairer deal for workers. With that in mind, does he agree that for an employer to mislead workers into purchasing personal accident insurance, the charges for which would take workers’ pay under the minimum and the purchase of which is not necessary given employers’ own insurance cover, would be completely indefensible and possibly unlawful?

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Yes, I agree that that would be indefensible and I think it is unlawful. I have been advised that this practice has happened. The relevant body, the employment agency standards inspectorate, is investigating individual cases and will take enforcement action. If it proves to be a widespread practice, there will clearly be a case for a broadly based inquiry.

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I asked the question because it is precisely what employment agencies employing workers on, or close to, the minimum wage appear to have been doing. I have been passed evidence that suggests Blue Arrow, Staffline, Acorn, Taskmaster, Randstad and Meridian, employment agencies employing more than 100,000 workers, have been mis-selling personal accident insurance to workers which they arguably do not need and from which those agencies have been profiteering. There is even a company, Gee 7 Group, which specialises in putting together these dubious arrangements for agencies. Further to my questions on this topic since October last year, will the Secretary of State now commit to holding a full inquiry into this shabby practice?

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I will commit to ensuring that we have proper enforcement procedure. The hon. Gentleman has listed more companies today. We will investigate them and that may well merit a more broadly based inquiry. I will say that the information he has made available, which I think has already been publicised, depends on the information that has been obtained from a whistleblower in a company. The Government’s reforms will strengthen the rights of whistleblowers and put them and others in a stronger position. The hon. Gentleman has identified a legitimate case of abuse and I recognise that we have to deal with it.

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T2. Will the Minister outline the work the Government are doing to increase the number of engineers who will be needed to work in the energy sector in Suffolk and Norfolk, and to build on the excellent work being done by Lowestoft college? [902154]

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Yes, I am a great supporter of Lowestoft college, which it was a pleasure to visit last year with my hon. Friend. It has a centre for the promotion of engineering and training in the offshore industry, which is so important to the town, and I will do everything I can to support it.

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T4. Blacklisting is a scourge of any civilised society. Will the Secretary of State guarantee to the House that the confidential documents currently being withheld by the Government relating to the Shrewsbury 24 dispute in 1973 do not include extensive details relating to individuals who have been blacklisted and the companies operating this very sharp practice? [902157]

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We have debated this issue in the House before—I think the hon. Gentleman spoke on it, and I responded—and we take it very seriously. I have had conversations with the Information Commissioner to ensure that the injustices of the past are properly dealt with, and as I have said to the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition spokesman, if Members have more concrete evidence that has not been properly investigated, they should bring it directly to me.

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T3. Suppliers to top-tier Government contractors still complain that payments made under the prompt payment code are not forthcoming. What more can the Government do to improve the situation and release billions of pounds back into the economy to support our long-term economic plan? [902155]

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The problems of people failing either to make prompt payments or to honour payment terms—two related, but slightly different points—need to be addressed. They are largely problems that negatively affect small companies, and we are currently consulting on how radical we need to be to get the balance right and address them.

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T7. Will the Secretary of State confirm that business investment has flatlined over the last year and that this is one of the major causes of Britain’s worsening productivity problem? What are he and the Government going to do about it? [902160]

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As everybody acknowledges, business investment has been badly hit since the financial crisis, but with the economy rapidly recovering, I think we all expect—and the surveys suggest—that there will be a movement forward in terms of business investment, once capacity has been fully utilised.

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T5. The number of students coming from India has dropped by 25% since the new restrictions were introduced, which means we have fallen below the United States as destination of choice. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we attract the brightest and the best to our universities for the best education in the world? [902158]

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There are of course no caps on the number of legitimate, properly qualified students who can come to study in Britain, and I take every opportunity to visit India, as does the Prime Minister, to communicate that message there. Properly qualified Indian students are welcome here.

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T8. The Financial Times this morning quotes a Treasury spokesman as saying that an interest rate rise is “not something we are worried about” and a “sign of success”. Does the Secretary of State concur with that view? [902161]

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Fortunately, my many responsibilities do not include the setting of interest rates. I am happy to leave that to the Governor of the Bank of England, who has made an admirable impression.

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T6. Did the science Minister hear the excellent Radio 4 programme about Malvern’s cyber-security hub, and will he clear his diary to come and open the private sector-led national cyber-skills centre in Malvern? [902159]

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My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the Malvern cyber-security hub, and I do indeed very much hope to visit it. I am sure it is well worth a visit.

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T9. Is the Secretary of State aware that all the new oil and gas platform construction projects for this year have been either cancelled or postponed, which will have a devastating effect on employment in my constituency and others in the north-east, as well as those in Scotland? Will he, together with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, take immediate steps to address this matter? [902162]

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There is an enormous amount of investment in the North sea—about £13 billion last year, which was a big increase. One of my and my colleagues’ objectives, through the industrial strategy, is to ensure that as much of the supply chain as possible originates in the UK, and we are working with the industry on that. I frequently meet oil companies and fabricators to try to progress that.

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I wholly support the Government’s move to increase the education leaving age to 18, but while the Department for Education budget is protected, the further education budget, which comes under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and which will now be educating far more people up to 18 than schools, is not. This will put a huge strain on FE budgets. Will the responsible BIS Minister talk to the Secretary of State for Education to ask for assistance?

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I frequently talk to the Secretary of State for Education. The change to funding for 18 year olds was not one made lightly; dealing with the deficit requires difficult decisions. We published the impact assessment on the consequences, which show that disadvantaged students are not affected disproportionately. If we did not have a budget deficit of £100 billion, life would undoubtedly be easier.

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Queen Victoria was on the throne when the Dunlop Motorsport factory first produced wooden wheels and then rubber tyres in Erdington. Now, 125 years of history and 300 highly skilled jobs are at risk. Jaguar Land Rover needs the land for its welcome expansion. Birmingham city council has identified an alternative site about three miles away. But the global board, based in Ohio, has yet to commit to Birmingham and Britain—with only nine months left before the lease runs out. In thanking the Secretary of State for the welcome steps he has already taken, may I ask whether he will convene a top-level meeting with Goodyear Dunlop, involving both him and me, so that we can get a decision made that a great piece of our manufacturing history remains part of a great manufacturing future in this country?

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I am well aware of this issue and its importance to British manufacturing, and, indeed, to Birmingham. I would be happy, as I am sure would the Minister of State, to meet the key people in order to make sure that we get the right decision.

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Given the enthusiasm of both the public and employees for buying shares in Royal Mail, will the Secretary of State look at what other assets in the public sector could be successfully transferred to the private sector?

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Asset sales are an important part of Government economic policy. They have been very successful in raising cash and enabling the Government to invest more than would otherwise be the case. We approach this on a practical basis, aiming to get value for money for the taxpayer.

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Will the Secretary of State update us on his latest decision on article 7 of the proposed EU consumer products safety regulations on origin marking, which, if agreed, would mean that quality ceramics made in Stoke-on-Trent would be labelled “Made in the UK”? Is it not time that we put an end to misleading consumer product marking?

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I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the potteries who have been to see me about this specific issue. Apparently, there was a meeting of what I think is called COREPER on Monday, but no agreement was reached. There is a divided view on the role of mandatory regulation to deal with this problem. I take a close interest in this matter, and I will follow it up.

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For the 150,000 posties who are now shareholders in Royal Mail, will the Secretary of State or the Post Office Minister tell us what the average value of their individual shareholdings was at flotation and what their average value is now?

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It has undoubtedly increased, and we should all welcome that, particularly the commitment of Royal Mail employees to the future success of the company. Perhaps I shall write to my hon. Friend with the exact information he requests.

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The Minister confirmed just a few minutes ago that women who become pregnant can and do face discrimination at work. Why, then, are the Government going to charge those women £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal?

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I am disappointed that this figure is being bandied around yet again. It does not cost women more than £1,000 to go to a tribunal. It costs only £250 to start a claim, and most cases are finalised well before a hearing. For those who end up going to a hearing, fee remission applies in many cases, and if the women win their case, costs are often awarded against their former employers. It does not cost what the hon. Gentleman suggests, it is scaremongering by Labour Members, and I am concerned that this will put women off taking cases against their employers when they have been unfairly discriminated against.

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On the Secretary of State’s undoubtedly enjoyable trip to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), will he break his journey in Wellingborough so that I can show him the success of local businesses? More importantly, this would not cost the taxpayer a penny because both Wellingborough council and East Northamptonshire council have free car parking, which encourages local business. If possible, I look forward to seeing him soon.

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I should be delighted to go to Wellingborough. Indeed, I should like to make the visit a political one as well, and, on behalf of my Department, to express my appreciation of someone who has given so much support to the coalition. [Laughter.]

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Last year, Sheffield Hallam university received £6.9 million as part of its share of the student opportunity fund. That not only helped it to recruit 30% of its undergraduate intake from low-income households—a commendable achievement—but to engage in critical retention work with the most disadvantaged learners. Yesterday, in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Secretary of State agreed with me that the fund’s work would be damaged if its resources were cut. Can the Minister reassure the House that that will not happen?

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We certainly understand the value of the work of the student opportunity fund. Indeed, I have visited Sheffield Hallam university and have seen the excellent work that it does.

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As the Prime Minister’s recent excellent trip to China has shown, there are phenomenal opportunities for Britain to trade with the Chinese. May I urge the Department to continue to lobby for the simplification of visas for Chinese visitors and entrepreneurs?

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Yes, and we will do so. I understand that my colleague the Home Secretary has already introduced a revamped system which is much faster and which gives those who have secured British visas speedy access to the Schengen countries. We are very conscious of the importance of Chinese visitors, and we will do our best to make it clear that they are welcome.

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Two able pupils at a Hackney secondary school in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency have been offered a place at a good university on condition that they secure two As and a B in their A-levels. The university is willing to negotiate on those grades, but will not discuss their C grades in GCSE maths: they will need B grades. If they were foreign students, they would be given coaching by the university. Will the Minister meet me, and some of the people in Hackney who are concerned about the matter, to discuss how we can tackle it and ensure that there is proper social mobility in this country?

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I should be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter, but let me make two things clear. First, universities decide their own admissions criteria, which is right, and secondly, as we increase the number of students and remove artificial caps, it will be possible for universities to recruit all the students who are qualified to benefit from going to university.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House please give us the suddenly changed business for next week?

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The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 27 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by a general debate on the law on dangerous driving. The subject of the general debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 28 January—Second Reading of the Consumer Rights Bill.

Wednesday 29 January—Opposition Day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on the UNHCR Syrian refugee programme, followed by a debate on teacher qualifications. Both debates will arise on an official Opposition motion, and will be followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 30 January—Remaining stages of the Immigration Bill.

Friday 31 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include the following:

Monday 3 February—Second Reading of the Deregulation Bill.

Tuesday 4 February—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 5 February—Opposition Day (20th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject to be announced.

Thursday 6 February—A general debate on Scotland’s place in the UK, followed by a general debate on international wildlife crime. The subjects of both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 30 January and 6 February will be as follows:

Thursday 30 January—A debate on the manifesto “The 1001 Critical Days” and early childhood development.

Thursday 6 February—A debate on the third report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, “Community Budgets”, and the Government’s response, followed by a debate on fire sprinkler week.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing yet another agenda that is jam-packed with thrilling Government business. I wonder what on earth he will do with all the endless spare time when the Backbench Business Committee has used up its allocation of 35 days.

I note that the elusive Immigration Bill has made a sudden and dramatic reappearance this morning. After nine weeks of radio silence, we now have an eleventh-hour change to Government business, which The Spectator seems to have managed to find out about before anyone else. I know the Leader of the House is an expert at pausing and rewriting Bills, so the House could be forgiven for thinking the Immigration Bill will look very different when it finally reappears in the Chamber next week. I hear that rebel amendments are already being tabled, and the Government’s highly unusual decision to table the Bill on a Thursday means a maximum of only four and a half hours will be available for that crucial debate. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is the case, and tell us whether the amendments mean that they have done a behind-the-scenes deal with their rebels? Will he also guarantee that Labour’s important amendments and new clauses on private landlords, on the minimum wage and on abolition of appeals tribunals will have time to be heard in that shortened debate?

Last week the Leader of the House refused to rule out scheduling the Queen’s Speech during pre-election purdah, giving the impression that the Government are still considering ignoring conventions and politicising the Queen’s Speech. Is the Leader of the House finally willing to rule that out, or is there another reason for him being so coy? Some reports have suggested the state opening might be delayed until well into June because the coalition parties have no idea what their legislative programme will be for the final year of this Parliament. Could the Leader of the House tell us what is actually going on? Does he now regret the Government’s rush to legislate for a five-year Parliament, and why did the Government settle on five years as the appropriate length for a fixed term given that it is obvious that they have nothing to do in the final year but fight and fall out?

This feels increasingly like a zombie Government marking time to the next general election. We all know this coalition of convenience is heading rapidly towards an inevitable and messy divorce. After all if they are not fighting each other, they are fighting among themselves. Last week 95 Tory Back Benchers signed a letter demanding that the Prime Minister deliver an impossible veto on all EU legislation. This week they were denounced as “thick” by an unnamed Tory Minister, and The Times claimed to have uncovered a fifth column of Tory MPs who want the Prime Minister to lose the election. On top of that, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), a Treasury Minister, complained that the Tory message was far too negative, confirming what we all know already: the nasty party is well and truly back.

By comparison, the Liberal Democrats have been having a quiet time. The Deputy Prime Minister has been denounced by one of his most eminent colleagues for acting like a mixture of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un rolled into one, and Liberal Democrat peers seem to think the party is in need of a truth and reconciliation process similar to that used in post-apartheid South Africa. It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister has no authority over his own party, so can we have a debate on whether he is capable of helping to run the country?

Not only have this Government run out of ideas for future business, they are running out of ways of hiding their record, too. This week alone we have learned that they are sitting on a report on EU migration because it does not support the nasty caricatures demanded by Lynton Crosby to fit in with his nasty election campaign plans. We have had to correct their misleading figures on flood defence spending. The crime figures have lost their kite mark because they cannot be trusted. This morning the National Audit Office has said the NHS waiting list figures cannot be trusted either, and there is still no sign of the reports on food banks, on garden cities and the risk assessment for Help to Buy. This Government have been ticked off for fiddling the figures more times than the Chancellor has had to amend his plans to balance the books. They have sat on more reports than the Liberal Democrats have sat on fences, and they have flip-flopped so many times that I keep thinking summer has come early—although if I listen to UKIP’s flood warnings I now realise why summer will never come for me.

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I am grateful to the shadow Leader for her response. I am sure that the sun shines in many places in this country, contrary to the views of at least one member of UKIP.

It is curious—the shadow Leader asked me last week and the week before to bring forward the remaining stages of the Immigration Bill; this week I have done it and she complains. We are just bringing forward Government business. I explained previously that we have been dealing with other Bills and now we are proceeding with the Immigration Bill. I am afraid she chose rather a bad day to make a speech written in advance saying that the Government lacked ideas for future business when today we are publishing the Consumer Rights Bill and the Deregulation Bill and I have announced that we will debate those two Bills and the Immigration Bill next week. I am afraid that her prior argument has been thoroughly disproved.

The hon. Lady asked about the Queen’s Speech—

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What about the rebel amendments?

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I thought I had answered the point on the Immigration Bill. We have a running commentary from the silent one. Sometimes on days when we have remaining stages we lose time as a consequence of urgent questions or statements, but we will endeavour to do whatever we can to avoid any additional statements beyond the business question next Thursday. Of course, there will be opportunity through the usual channels to discuss the timing of debates. As the Opposition will know, we always attempt to ensure that subjects can be debated properly.

I told the shadow Leader of the House last week that last year I announced the date of the Queen’s Speech on 7 March. We are still in January; we are before the point at which on recent precedent the date of the Queen’s Speech is announced. When I can, I will tell the House the date of the Queen’s Speech. All this speculation is literally nothing more than that.

The shadow Leader of the House will understand that I will not comment on her points about the Liberal Democrats. I do not know whether she was commending Thomas Cromwell. Having read “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, we have not reached the point yet at which Thomas Cromwell became the Lord Privy Seal and, speaking as the Lord Privy Seal, I am quite looking forward to that moment for a little potential guidance. It might give me some forewarning of the point at which I might be the subject of what we might term my own Henry VIII clause.

The shadow Leader of the House did not tell us anything much about the recent good news. She might have asked me for a debate on some of the forecasting issues. It is quite interesting. We have heard the IMF forecast that Britain will be the fastest-growing major European economy this year. The OECD forecasts likewise. Business confidence, according to a Lloyds TSB survey this month, has reached its strongest level since January 1994. British Chambers of Commerce referred to manufacturing confidence and intentions being at their highest for several years. This week we had the unemployment data: unemployment is down to 7.1%, down 0.8 points since the election. The employment level is above 30 million. It would have been interesting for the shadow Leader of the House at least to have suggested a debate about forecasting since it contrasts with the forecast of the Leader of the Opposition that our economic plan would lead to the disappearance of a million jobs. On the contrary, we can see that it has led to the success of our economic plan and of enterprise in this country.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about crime stats and NHS waiting data. The crime stats this morning show that crime levels are down to the lowest level for 32 years. The shadow Leader knows perfectly well that in addition to those crime statistics, the British crime survey shows a similar substantial reduction in crime, which shows that our police reforms are working and crime is falling. As for NHS waiting times, she will recall that at the time of the last election 18,458 people had waited over a year for their treatment. Now that number has come down to 218. We have dealt with the people who are waiting the longest. We have reduced by 35,000 the number waiting beyond 18 weeks, and the average time that people wait is still low and stable.

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The Secretary of State for Transport has not made a statement today on the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment relating to HS2, which many people will find surprising. An important aspect of that judgment pertains to the legislative supremacy of Parliament, which is being carefully examined at the moment. In that context, will the Leader of the House consider giving time to my own Bill, the United Kingdom Parliament (Sovereignty) Bill, in order to resolve those questions?

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The Supreme Court handed down its judgment on those cases yesterday. It found unanimously in favour of the Government and rejected the challenges to HS2, both in relation to the strategic environmental assessment directive and on the question whether the Bill process breached the environmental impact assessment directive. So the Government won both those cases.

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Given that next week’s Back-Bench business has been moved at extremely short notice, will the Leader of the House work closely with the Members affected to ensure that their debates can take place as soon as possible, and perhaps look into giving them time on a day other than a Thursday as compensation?

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I am very happy to discuss that matter further with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, although I am sure she is aware that we have made a day available for Back-Bench business each week recently. We are also increasingly adopting the approach of trying to identify occasions on which there is scope for holding a Back-Bench-led debate on other days in the week, even though it is not the principal business on that day. That has been quite successful in recent weeks.

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The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently reported on rural communities and highlighted the importance of bus travel in those areas. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on any legislative changes that might be required to allow bus travellers—especially concessionary fare travellers—in rural areas to contribute to the cost of their bus service rather than losing it completely following the withdrawal of the bus subsidy?

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I cannot offer an immediate opportunity for a debate on that subject, although I recognise that it is an important one. We have recently had a more general debate on rural communities, in which my hon. Friend was involved. I will none the less raise the issue with my colleagues at the Department for Transport, in the hope that they will be able to discuss it further with her.

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Many people were shocked by the recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which showed that the majority of the people living in poverty in Britain were in working families—6.7 million people. Is it not time we had a debate on the need for real action on low pay, as Labour is proposing, given that, under this Government, employment no longer appears to be a route out of poverty?

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I think we all agree that the principal route out of poverty is through work. The number of workless households has gone down to its lowest ever level, and the number of people in work is now above 30 million. People who are in work but low paid are increasingly seeing their tax burden coming down, because the personal tax allowance is now taking some 3 million people out of tax altogether.

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The Leader of the House will know of the importance of rural broadband. May we have a debate on that issue? Also, does he share my surprise that Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council has rejected the Government’s proposed co-funding for broadband in the area, given that Conservative-led Shropshire council has embraced it, helping local residents and businesses?

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I completely concur with my hon. Friend on the importance of rural broadband, and I am surprised by what he says about the attitude of Telford and Wrekin council. In my own constituency and elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, the Connecting Cambridgeshire campaign has a contract and is aiming for 98% superfast broadband coverage by the end of 2015 or early 2016. Such coverage is tremendously important in rural areas, particularly for supporting the new enterprises that are setting up there.

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Two weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House to make a statement on when the Government would publish their report on food banks. Given the fact that it has still not been published, may we have an urgent statement to tell us when the report will be made public?

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I confess that I do not have a publication date, but I will, of course, speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and if he can update the House, I am sure he will.

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May we have a debate on the housing targets used by local authorities? The housing targets used by Leeds city council are being challenged, including by Dr Rachael Unsworth at Leeds university and Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development. May we debate whether the targets are accurate before we see huge swathes of north Leeds and Wharfedale being built on?

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What my hon. Friend says is interesting. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to look at it. One of the essential things for local authorities to do, as part of the national planning policy framework, is to ensure that they meet five years’ demand for housing in their areas. So what that demand is and what the targets ought to be are important questions, but of course, they can be challenged on appeal to the inspectorate if someone thinks that a local plan is inaccurate.

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Just before the Offender Rehabilitation Bill was considered on Report, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), met the Liberal Democrat group and warned them not to vote for any piloting of the procedures because they were too far advanced. At the end of last week, he slipped out a written statement to say that the timeline has been set back two months. May we now have a debate in Government time on the Government’s lack of candour and complete incompetence with regard to the Bill?

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The House has just debated the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and these issues were discussed. My recollection is that, in particular, the issue was not a lack of time, but that the related piloting—for example, in Peterborough—has illustrated the benefits of the approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

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Will my right hon. Friend find time in the programme for a discussion on provision for young people with dyslexia? The Government have gone a long way, and we are publishing a new code of practice, but the issue is how things are working in schools and getting early intervention to help those with dyslexia to be able to perform adequately in schools.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that these are important issues. Indeed, there are often opportunities—I hope that they will continue—through the Backbench Business Committee to discuss them. Of course, in the wider sense for children with special educational needs, the Children and Families Bill contains important new provisions. It is in the House of Lords now, so to that extent, we have debated it here. Some amendments might come from the House of Lords in due course that will afford an opportunity to debate some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and I hope that he has that chance.

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May we have an urgent debate on the complete failure of Capita in relation to personal independence payments? Many people have been waiting six or seven months for their assessments to get from Capita to the Department for Work and Pensions. The DWP helpline for MPs is in despair. The Capita website, contact e-mail and telephone numbers do not respond. What is happening to desperately ill people is awful. The Secretary of State has said that his policies are about changing lives, not just saving money. They are changing lives, but not for the better, and he is certainly saving a lot of money from desperately ill people.

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I cannot offer an immediate debate on that, and the hon. Lady will know that questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are—

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I asked a question during DWP questions.

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Yes, exactly. Therefore, the next questions are some way off. To be as helpful as I can to the hon. Lady, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to address her specifically on the points that she raises.

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Yesterday, we had a debate in Westminster Hall about the situation in Somerset. People are now looking at setting up gold command, which is one stage below a major incident. Surely, the time has come to have a debate in the House on the Environment Agency and flooding throughout the United Kingdom. We cannot go on, year on year, having a situation where emergency services are stretched and local councils are getting more stretched, yet we cannot get them to dredge rivers and live up to the job that they should be doing.

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My hon. Friend rightly raised this issue last week, and I was glad that the business gave him the opportunity to raise it in Westminster Hall, as he says. I cannot offer him an immediate prospect of a debate, but I know that we will discuss this matter with the Backbench Business Committee, because, as I said last week, Members from across the House will want to debate it in the light of the exceptional weather conditions. I should say that in many cases they will want to do so not least to express their appreciation of the success of the Environment Agency and emergency services, as well as to identify where more needs to be done.

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May we have a debate in Government time on the operation of, and criteria for inclusion in, the rural fuel rebate scheme, because, amazingly, despite Northern Ireland having the highest petrol and diesel prices in the UK—prices are the highest in Europe in some parts of the Province—no part of Northern Ireland qualifies under the scheme? It would be worth exploring that, if the Leader of the House could see his way to having a debate on the matter.

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I cannot immediately promise a debate, but the right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue. I know that my Treasury colleagues will always be willing to discuss it with him, and I will encourage them to respond to him on that subject.

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As the number of people in employment rises and the number of claimants falls—such progress has been made in my constituency that it now has just 95 young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance—may we have a debate about how we further target the benefits system to support people in getting back into work?

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I would welcome such a debate, and my hon. Friend is right to seek one. It would give us an opportunity to examine how the Work programme has, according to industry figures, brought 444,000 people into work; to look at how the youth claimant count has been reduced by 114,000 since the election; and to celebrate the one and two-thirds million more private sector jobs created in this country since the last election.

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We warned what the consequences would be of cutting more than 10,000 front-line police officers. Today’s figures show that theft was up in 24 of the 43 force areas, shoplifting was up in 28 and sexual crime was up in 40. Given those disturbing trends, taken together with today’s revelations that last year half a million crimes were screened out and not even investigated, will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the growing consequences of the Government’s actions, as the thin blue line is stretched ever thinner?

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I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is just in denial, as his party so often is on so many subjects. Both the crime statistics and the crime survey show that crime has fallen by more than 10% under this Government, which makes us the safest we have been for decades. It shows that the Government’s reforms are working and that police forces are rising to the challenge of delivering savings while reducing crime.

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Empire, Golcar, Hand Drawn Monkey, Magic Rock, Milltown, Nook, Riverhead and Summer Wine are all microbreweries in my constituency. They employ dozens of people, and export to Australia and eastern Europe. We had a debate earlier this week on pubcos, but may we please have a debate on the role that microbreweries are playing in our booming food and drink exports?

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It would be a joy to have a further debate; it seems that the Opposition day debate on pubcos the other day, for which we are grateful, has not assuaged the thirst for such discussion in this House. My hon. Friend makes a good point, because microbreweries are doing a fantastic thing in bringing innovation into an industry and really responding to customer preference. It is now such a joy for beer drinkers as compared with the time when I was but a lad; I recall taking Watneys Red Barrel to a party, but that was a day in the past.

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I very much welcome today’s short Backbench Business Committee debate on Holocaust memorial day. However, given continuing holocaust denial and increasing anti-Semitic discourse, including the Anelka incident, may we have a debate on these issues in Government time?

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The House is grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling a debate this afternoon. As I said last week, the recent European report highlighting the number of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe does give rise for concern, and it is something that we should continue to debate. However, although one incident is one too many, we can take some comfort from the fact that there is a relatively low number of such incidents in this country. That means that communities here can feel relatively confident compared with those in other European countries.

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I have been contacted by several constituents who were the victims of theft, so will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on whether the Government will consider the introduction of digital monitoring of blue badges as part of a drive to tackle misuse and assist genuine users?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will recall that the Disabled Persons' Parking Badges Act 2013, which was piloted through this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), secured its Royal Assent about this time last year. The reforms to the blue badge scheme are now delivering some comprehensive changes, which will include a national shared database of all blue badge holders. That will enable enforcement officers anywhere in the country to use handheld devices to check badge details in real time against that nationwide database. I hope that will help in the issues my hon. Friend raises.

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Now that both coalition parties are in favour of new nuclear and offshore wind, may we have a debate in Government time on transmission and the national grid, so that the new connections can be looked at fairly and objectively when we are considering subsea, underground and overground proposals? That is a serious issue to which the Government have not given much time or attention.

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Yes, it is an important matter. It should be noted that this Government are now making progress on the new nuclear build. About 10 years ago, the Trade and Industry Committee, of which I was a member, asked the previous Government for such a debate, but it did not happen. They kept saying then that they were keeping the door open, but skills, opportunity and investment were leaving the country. Now they are coming back. It is an important matter, especially at Wylfa in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I will, if I may, discuss it with my colleagues. Of course the grid and planning are partly an issue for the Welsh Assembly Government as well. None the less, I will raise it because I know how important it is to his constituents.

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May we have a debate on the state of Britain’s roads because they appear to be getting worse, especially in Lancashire and the Ribble Valley? Annually, local authorities pay £30 million in compensation to motorists, so motorists themselves end up paying £2.8 billion in repairs because of the number of potholes and craters in the roads. A debate would enable us to focus on how much money is spent on the roads and to ensure that the money is spent equally in counties such as Lancashire, including in rural areas such as the Ribble Valley.

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My hon. Friend knows that this Government have made available additional resources to assist highways authorities to deal with potholes, and I hope that that is making a difference. None the less, it is a constant effort, not least because of some of the exceptional weather conditions we have experienced this winter and the previous one.

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The Leader of the House may recall that during the recent industrial dispute at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, the Prime Minister, from the Dispatch Box, described as a rogue the then Unite union convenor, Stevie Dean. Since then, and following a police investigation, Mr Dean has been cleared of all the allegations levelled against him. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to come back to the Dispatch Box and apologise to Mr Dean and his family?

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Perhaps in the first instance the Labour party would like to publish its own internal report relating to the events in Falkirk and then we will see where we go from there.

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Tomorrow, stakeholders from across the south-west are meeting to discuss once again the future of the A303. Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a statement to confirm that the work will expedite a solution as quickly as possible, take advantage of the studies that have been undertaken over the past 20 years and ensure that Stonehenge and the stretch of the A303 around it will not be forgotten or decoupled from the work?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter with me again. As he says, a meeting is due to take place tomorrow with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to consider the issue. I can tell him—I will ask my colleagues to follow up on this with him and other interested Members—that we recognise the need to find solutions to the issues on the A303/A30/A358 corridor. We commit to identifying and funding solutions in the future and to ensure that we build on previous and recent work, including that done by Somerset county council and others, rather than starting from scratch.

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Earlier this year, my local former Scottish National party MSP, Mr Bill Walker, was convicted of 23 counts of domestic abuse and one charge of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head. He was sentenced to the maximum sentence available, which was only one year, so the Scottish Parliament did not have the power automatically to expel him. Will the Leader of the House ask the Cabinet Office to consider the outdated rule that someone must have a jail sentence of one year and one day before they can be disqualified from this place or any of the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments?

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Of course, these are matters for me. As regards this House, I would want to proceed on the basis of an understanding of consensus and I will be glad to discuss the question with colleagues, the shadow Leader of the House and others. In this House, we have already seen—I hope that this would be reflected in other Parliaments—that when Members are convicted of serious offences, even if they have not necessarily been given a sentence of more than 12 months, they have either resigned from the House or action has been taken against them on a recommendation from the Standards Committee.

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Wolverhampton central youth theatre is one of many organisations that will have its funding cut if Wolverhampton council moves £1.6 million from the voluntary sector budget. Given that last night Wolverhampton council deferred the decision, may we use this pause to have a debate on the importance of voluntary sector organisations and wider civil society?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point for his constituents, but there is a general point, too. In many cases, local authorities are making effective decisions about how they can reduce costs, increase efficiencies and maintain services for their public, but they should never take the easy route out. They should always look for the opportunity to reduce their costs while maintaining their ability to support the services and expenditure that are of most importance to their constituents.

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There was a deeply disturbing report on the “Today” programme this morning concerning Oakwood prison in Staffordshire, the largest prison in the UK. In my constituency of Wrexham, an even bigger prison is planned by the Government but many major decisions concerning it have not yet been made. May we please have a debate so that we can consider prison capacity and the effectiveness of Oakwood prison and so that we know what the Government have planned for my constituency?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports the decision made by this Government to establish a large new prison in Wrexham. On the specific question of HMP Oakwood, he knows that the incident there was resolved successfully in the early hours of 6 January. I cannot comment further on that particular issue, but he will know from what my colleagues have said that large category C prisons elsewhere in the prison estate often operate very successfully. The number and type of incidents Oakwood has experienced over the past six months are not notably different from those experienced by other such prisons.

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Tomorrow, as the Leader of the House travels to Corby to support the excellent Conservative candidate, Tom Pursglove, he will have to drive through my constituency. As he does, will he reflect on the fact that when Labour left power 2,757 people were unemployed and now fewer than 2,000 are unemployed? Would it be possible to ensure that there is not a debate on the economy next week so that the Opposition are not embarrassed?

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I often drive through my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I look forward to doing so to visit Corby in east Northamptonshire tomorrow evening. Of course, the Opposition had an Opposition day available to them next week but chose not to debate the recent economic good news, so, as he correctly observes, they are not willing or keen to be embarrassed.

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May we have a statement on what plans the Government have to support the north-east economy, in particular? Yesterday we saw that the north-east still has the highest level of unemployment in the country, with too many young people out of work and rising levels of long-term unemployment. I wish Portsmouth well, but who in Government is going to get to grips with the challenge that we face in the north-east?

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They do not care.

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I hear the sedentary comments from the Opposition. Let me make it absolutely clear that we do care. That is why we are pursuing a long-term economic plan which, among its many benefits, is getting many more people into work, with 1.68 million private sector jobs. We were left with an enormous deficit and we have had to deal with that. We said at the outset that that would necessitate a reduction in public sector jobs. Labour Members and the Leader of the Opposition said, “It will never happen. Jobs will be lost in the public sector but the private sector could not possibly create equivalent numbers of jobs.” There are now four private sector jobs for every public sector job lost. The hon. Lady and other north-east MPs should be on their feet extolling the successes in the north-east. This week, Nissan, with a new Qashqai model coming off its production lines, is a fantastic example of the potential in this country and in the north-east to produce world-beating manufacturing.

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Many local residents and members of Medway council have raised concerns about the proposed closure of A block, based at Medway hospital and run by Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, which provides in-patient mental health care facilities. I know that the Government have done a lot on the provision of mental health care facilities across the country, but may I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on such provision across the country, looking at levels of in-patient and community-based treatment?

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My hon. Friend asks his question at a good moment, not least because earlier this week my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister published the Government’s update of the mental health strategy, with some important further commitments on the availability of mental health services, especially the ability for services to become more seamless at the point at which young people are treated as adults, which makes a big difference. My hon. Friend raises an important local point. When the Secretary of State for Health decided on 20 November last year to support the Independent Reconfiguration Panel’s recommendation, he made it clear that the matter should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible. Knowing my hon. Friend’s local hospitals, I think that, for example, there is a very good in-patient unit at Darent Valley. I hope his constituents will appreciate that there continue to be high-quality in-patient services locally.

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Today The Daily Telegraph reports the plight of my former constituent, Mrs Afsana Lachaux, who is stranded in Dubai having being abused by her former husband and who is now threatened with jail by the Dubai police and authorities. I have bid for an Adjournment debate on this matter, and I am seeking a meeting with the relevant Minister at the Foreign Office. In the interim, may we have a statement from the Foreign Office on the outcome of the representations that have been made by our consular officials in Dubai to Foreign Office staff?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman might have some success in his quest for a debate, because this is clearly a distressing matter for his constituents and their friends and families. I will of course talk to my ministerial colleague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who will be in contact with the hon. Gentleman. I hope, too, that if there are wider issues the Minister will take whatever opportunity he can to update the House.

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Farmers in Staffordshire and other parts of the country who have seen their pedigree herds slaughtered as a result of bovine TB face a double loss: the loss of their herds, into which they put so much effort, and a loss of compensation, because they are compensated at an average level. May we have a debate on fair compensation for farmers who lose their cattle as a result of this terrible disease?

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My hon. Friend will know that we are doing everything we can to try to reduce the high incidence of bovine TB. This is a very important issue and whenever we debate the mechanisms of the badger cull we should never forget that it meets a very important purpose. I understand my hon. Friend’s point about compensation. I will raise it with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ask him to respond to my hon. Friend.

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For some time I have been working with the pensions Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—and the Yorkshire Post to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to the Carrington Wire pension fund saga, which affects hundreds of pensioners in Yorkshire, including in my constituency. The case is important because it represents the way in which the Government protect UK pension holders. I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our laws and regulations properly protect the public, but the longer this particular matter takes to be resolved, the less likely that appears to be the case. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we get the opportunity to debate the matter?

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I will, if I may, talk to my hon. Friend the pensions Minister so that he can update me. I cannot promise a debate, but I will, of course, make sure that if there is anything we can do to assist in the matter that the hon. Gentleman has rightly raised, we will try to do so.

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Could we have a long debate in Government time on jobs and growth? It would allow hon. Members on both sides of the House to highlight some of the remarkable statistics in the current numbers, such as the fact that workless households are at a record low, that the number of children in absolute poverty is at a record low, that the number of professional science and technical jobs are growing very fast, that long-term unemployment is coming down and, above all, that, unlike the previous Government, this Government are creating British jobs for British workers.

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I thought that was an excellent application for a debate and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for it. Without repeating what she has rightly said is the basis for such a debate, it would, if we could find time for it, afford an opportunity to take particular note of her last point that, under the previous Government, in the five years up to the last general election the number of British people in a job dropped by 413,000, while the number of foreign workers in employment in this country went up by 736,000. By contrast, in the three years after the election, the number of British people in a job has risen by 538,000 and the number of foreign workers by 247,000. That trend is, if anything, accelerating. According to the most recent figures from 2012-13, 90% of jobs went to UK nationals, meaning 348,000 more British people in work and 26,000 additional foreign workers.

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For more than two years I have been meeting Ministers and industry experts to look in detail at the issue of internet trolling. Just this week we have seen further evidence of the inadequate response of social media sites to online racist and misogynist abuse. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on internet trolling so that Parliament can send a message to Facebook, Twitter and others that we are watching what they are doing and that thus far we are not impressed?

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I cannot immediately offer a debate, but a lot of people have rightly been concerned about the character of internet trolling. I will, if I may, talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The House has had some opportunities to discuss the issue. We have focused in the past on the danger to and exploitation of children, but there are wider issues such as balancing freedom of speech with the general legal basis on which people have a right not to be abused.

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Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 974?

[That this House recognises that Harlow Mecca Bingo is one of the biggest bingo clubs in the country, with 54,000 members; notes that their staff are second-to-none; further notes that Harlow Mecca Bingo provides an important role in Harlow’s community; acknowledges that despite being recognised as a soft form of gambling that plays an important social role within many local communities in the UK, bingo is subject to a gross profits tax of 20 per cent, as opposed to the 15 per cent charged on other forms of gambling; and therefore urges the Government to reduce this tax to 15 per cent in line with other forms of gambling, to ensure that Harlow Mecca Bingo continues to have a strong future.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Harlow Mecca Bingo club has 54,000 members, that 100,000 people have walked though its doors over the past year and that it has 10,000 active members? Will he do what he can and arrange a debate on the “boost bingo” campaign, so that we can secure a future for bingo clubs such as that in Harlow and ensure that they are on a level playing field and not taxed at 20% when other forms of gambling are taxed at 15%?

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Yes, I have seen early-day motion 974, in which my hon. Friend makes a point about Harlow Mecca Bingo, whose fame has spread far and wide. I suspect that there are probably even people in South Cambridgeshire who go to Harlow to enjoy bingo. Before the 1997 general election, when you and I first entered the House, Mr Speaker, the Bingo Association asked me whether I wanted to call the numbers at a bingo club in my constituency. Unfortunately, there was no bingo club in my constituency, so I lost out on that one, and my hon. Friend therefore has the advantage on me. I note that the fame of Harlow Mecca Bingo is so great that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) has signed the early-day motion, so the campaign is a national one. The question of duty is of course a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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Government spokesmen now say that they intend to increase economic security for the average household. May we debate that so that I can answer my constituents who are wondering which is the better indicator— 25 people off the claimant count, or the fact that a place such as Birmingham, Selly Oak is now in the top 20% of constituencies for unemployment?

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It is very important to give people a greater sense of security and peace of mind, and that is what we have set out to do. The fact that the number of households in which nobody is in work is at a record low makes an enormous difference. The fact that the latest data show that inflation is at 2%—it has come down to its target level—also gives people a sense of security. The fact that we are dealing with the deficit is not just some debate at a global or national level, but a practical matter: if we stick to the long-term economic plan to bring down the deficit, that will increasingly allow us to do what we have done with the money available, which is to relieve the tax burden, not least on the low-paid.

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On Monday, we had the welcome news that Harrow council and the Department for Education are conducting a feasibility study with the aim of putting a brand new Hindu free school on Whitchurch playing fields in my constituency. May we have an urgent debate on the principle of religious schools, particularly in relation to their impact on Britain, so that Britain’s 1.6 million Hindus have the right to provide an education of their choice for their children?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I wish him well with the plans that his constituents are putting together. As he will know, our view is that there is a valuable long-standing tradition of faith schools in this country, and we support the contribution that they make. They are often high-performing schools that are popular with parents, and many of them are therefore over-subscribed. Two Hindu free schools have thus far been established—the Krishna Avanti primary school in Leicester and the Avanti House school in London, which opened in 2012. I hope that this continuing trend of support for faith schools will be sustained.

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The Leader of the House has rightly commended the work of the emergency services in tackling flooding, and I particularly draw attention to the fire service. My local firefighters are somewhat bemused that they do not have a statutory duty to attend flooding incidents. May we therefore have a debate on the implications of there being no statutory duty, so that we can ask the fire Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), to explain why that is still the position?

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I will gladly raise that point with the Minister with responsibility for fire services, and he may like to reply to the hon. Lady. I have to say that I do not think that fire services would generally regard themselves as in any way constrained by their statutory responsibilities in attending whenever they felt there was a public need for them to do so.

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Last week, Thales UK won a £120 million export order to Indonesia, securing important aerospace jobs. That is just one example of the importance of the Government strategy to rebalance the economy by supporting manufacturing, promoting apprenticeships and exporting to high-growth countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the strategy’s most important consequences is the opportunity for young people, and that it is one of the major reasons why youth unemployment in my constituency fell by 45% during 2013? Does he agree that this is a good moment for a debate on youth unemployment to see what more we can do to maintain this encouraging momentum?

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My hon. Friend is right. The rate of youth unemployment is lower than at the time of the election and the youth claimant count has fallen for 19 months in a row. That is a reflection of the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan. We can see practical benefits from that plan, not least for our young people, but it is also about businesses. We should always reflect on the success of enterprise and on the hundreds of thousands of new businesses that are being established. In particular, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made clear in questions, we must support small businesses and increase the proportion of small businesses that are exporting, particularly to the fast-growing economies around the world, because that will drive growth in the future.

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I urge the Leader of the House to arrange an early debate on the welfare state. The welfare state in this country has provided wonderful support for tens of millions of people. It is a wonderful creation. In the light of the Channel 4 programme, “Benefits Street”, I suggest that everyone in the House reads Caitlin Moran’s article in The Times on the benefits that the great welfare state has brought to tens of millions of people as preparation for that debate. The welfare state in this country is something to be proud of, not to be derided.

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I suggest that Members would be better advised to read the speech that is being made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. They will find that we are returning to the original intention of the welfare state, which is to encourage people to be in work and to help those who are most in need, not to create the opportunity for a lifestyle of living on benefits. People must contribute the most that they can not only to society, but to their own family by taking up the opportunities for work that the economy is creating.

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Although I fully recognise the need to invest in flood defences, I understand that the Environment Agency put a spade in the ground two weeks ago to start work on flood defences for Exeter—a part of the world that my right hon. Friend knows well, having been to university there—which could have a significant impact on the railways from Exeter to Plymouth and onwards to Cornwall. May we please have a debate on that matter?

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I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I can tell my hon. Friend that Network Rail has identified 10 projects to improve flood resilience on its western route. That programme might take several years and the funding mechanism is still to be determined, but it will be important to him. Network Rail is liaising closely with the Environment Agency and will continue to do so.

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At the beginning of the year, the Cabinet Office released documents under the 30-year rule relating to the miners’ strike. The documents clearly show that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and senior Cabinet Ministers interfered greatly in the miners’ strike, deliberately misled the country and potentially misled Parliament. May we have a debate on that matter?

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I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of 1984. I was a civil servant at the time, so I was completely non-partisan in those matters, but I remember them. I remember well that the Government were making absolutely sure that the economy of this country was not held to ransom. That was really important.

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Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) whether it was fair that a woman who is discriminated against at work because she is pregnant has to pay £1,200 to enter a tribunal. The Minister said that that was not true. Given that it is true—this is not a point of order, Mr Speaker—may we have an urgent debate on how the Government’s decision to introduce fees for employment tribunals is choking off access to justice?

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I think the hon. Gentleman should simply have listened to the reply given by my hon. Friend earlier today.

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In Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, average weekly gross pay has fallen by 32.5% since 2010, and the number of under-25s who have claimed jobseeker’s allowance for more than 12 months has increased by 223% since December 2010. May we have a debate on the cost of living, and on yesterday’s news that the unemployment count in the north-east went up by 1,000?

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There were regional variations in the employment data yesterday, but having predicted the loss of 1 million jobs, it ill behoves the Labour party not to celebrate the fact that there are one and two-thirds million more private sector jobs in this country than there were at the general election. I am afraid the Labour party is in complete denial about the inevitable fact that, as a consequence of its policies, the deepest recession this country has experienced took the equivalent of about £100 billion from the country’s wealth. It is not possible for everybody in a country to have more money at the same time as it has been made £100 billion poorer.

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A young man in my constituency has a zero-hours contract, but when he has worked he impressed his employer who offered him a six-week training course, leading to a permanent job. I am sure the Leader of the House will want to join me in celebrating that young man’s success—except for the fact that he has been told by the job centre that he has not been on the Work programme long enough and cannot take up the offer. May we please have a debate on the mess that is the Work programme, which—not for the first time—has denied one of my constituents a proper job with real prospects?

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It is the Government’s intention to support young people back into work, and that is what the Work programme and our Youth Contract are all about. It is the largest such programme to support young people, and as a consequence 114,000 fewer young people are among the claimant count. If the hon. Gentleman sends me the particular circumstances of his constituent, I shall of course ask for a response from my hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions.

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One supermarket in my constituency offers free newspapers and coffee, another has opened a new carwash and dry cleaner as it competes for customers, and that of course has a significant effect on local independent retailers. May we have a debate on the balance needed between the actions of the supermarkets and the need to look after our small shopkeepers, and on how we provide support for local independent retailers?

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It is important for the hon. Gentleman to recognise that competition is, as they say, the tide that lifts every boat. In his constituency, as elsewhere, competition will in the end deliver the best consumer benefits.

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Everybody wants this country to maintain its economic improvement, but may we have a debate about cuts to local government education budgets? It seems contradictory to demand an increase in skills to compete with the world, while also cutting education at its source.

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Notwithstanding the fact that we had to deal with the largest deficit of any country in the OECD, this Government made the commitment—among others—to protect school budgets, which we have done. The hon. Gentleman should celebrate the fact that, together with our coalition colleagues, we have put about £2.5 billion into the pupil premium to ensure that schools with some of the most disadvantaged children have additional resources to help them achieve success in future.

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In September I asked the Prime Minister whether he would adopt a similar approach to that of Sweden and other European countries in accommodating Syrian refugees. He dismissed me, simply saying, “No, we are not going to do that.” Will the Leader of the House assure me that should the Government have a change of heart in the next few days, the Prime Minister will come to the Chamber to make any announcement?

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I hope the hon. Lady was in her place yesterday and able to hear the Prime Minister make it clear that this country is making the second biggest contribution to meeting the humanitarian needs of refugees from Syria, and proportionately we are doing more than anybody else to support those refugees. We are responding to and fully meeting our commitments to those seeking asylum, and as she knows, last year there were around 1,100 asylum applications from Syrian refugees. The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that we will look at individual cases, but we will not do what some other countries have done who think that taking a relatively modest given number of refugees away from refugee camps somehow meets their obligations to the millions of refugees who want to be supported in their camps, and not to leave and give up hope of returning to Syria soon.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) called for a debate on welfare. We had a debate on welfare just 10 days ago, when the House of Commons voted by a majority of 123 in favour of a commission of inquiry into the Government’s welfare reform policies. When I asked the Leader of the House last week when he was going to establish the commission, he rather derisively told me that he had no plans to do so. The House voted for a commission. Will he to agree to set up such a commission, or is it the Government’s policy that Back-Bench motions are ignored and to be of no account whatsoever in this House?

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I think the hon. Gentleman imputes a motive to me that certainly was not there. He asked the question last week and I will repeat my answer today. The Government consider carefully all motions approved by this House. As I told him last week, I was not in a position to advise him that we had any plans to establish such a commission.

Armed Forces Restructuring

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the final part of the armed forces redundancy programme. As the House will be aware, following the decisions set out in the 2010 strategic defence and security review, the first such review for 12 years, we have been significantly restructuring and reshaping our armed forces to ensure we can sustain their world-class capabilities in the future. As we move from more than a decade of enduring operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as we bring our troops back from Germany, we are constructing a new force, Future Force 2020, to protect this country against future threats.

Restructuring the armed forces has required us to transfer personnel and resources between regiments and trades to ensure that we can invest in new areas of priority, such as cyber and ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. We have also needed to ensure that our armed forces retain the right age profile and skills as they reduce in size. Achieving that outcome has, unfortunately, required a limited redundancy programme.

Today, the armed forces are announcing the specialist areas from which they will select personnel to be made redundant in this, the fourth and final tranche. By strongly encouraging transfers between different parts of the Army in particular, we have deliberately sought to keep the number of redundancies to an absolute minimum. Hon. Members will no doubt have seen recent speculation in the press about the size of the final tranche. As a result of the steps we have taken, I can confirm that the overall number of redundancies required is considerably lower than that predicted in some recent press articles and lower than in each of the three previous tranches. It will comprise up to 1,425 members of the Army, up to 70 medical and dental officers and nurses from the Royal Air Force, and up to 10 from the Royal Navy.

Tranche 4 will apply the same selection principles within the eligible cohorts as were used in the last three tranches. Selection for redundancy will be based on three criteria only: performance, potential and employability. This is viewed by the individual services as the fairest methodology to all who fall into the redundancy bracket. Individuals will be informed of the outcome of the selection process on 12 June 2014. Applicants for voluntary redundancy will leave six months later and non-applicants 12 months later. As with previous tranches, there are a number of important exclusions from eligibility for compulsory redundancy: those serving on specified operations any time between today and the date of notification of selection for redundancy, 12 June 2014; and those who, on the date of notification of selection for redundancy, have been warned for specified operations commencing on or before 12 December 2014.

Unlike tranche 3, those who volunteer for redundancy having been formally warned for specified operations deploying before 12 December 2014 may still be directed to deploy by their chain of command. This is to ensure that their places do not have to be backfilled at short notice owing to the notification period occurring over the handover between the Herrick 19 and Herrick 20 deployments. The redundancy programme will not impact adversely on current operations in Afghanistan. Personnel assessed as being permanently below the level of fitness required to remain in the forces will not be considered for redundancy and will instead leave through the medical discharge route at the appropriate point in their recovery.

As a way of reducing still further the number of personnel to be made redundant, we will continue to encourage personnel to transfer from areas of surplus to areas of shortage. Specific vacancies have been identified across all three services and those identified as at risk of redundancy will be encouraged to transfer to areas for which they have appropriate skills and will be offered retraining, as necessary. The chain of command will continue to inform these personnel of the transfer opportunities available to them at all stages of this process.

I have also instructed the services to seek to maximise the number of volunteers in order to minimise the number of compulsory redundancies. However, noting that 84% of personnel made redundant in tranche 3 were applicants, it is likely that the percentage of volunteers overall in this final tranche will be lower owing to the low historical level of volunteers among Gurkhas—one of the fields eligible in this round—and the fact that a number of specialist fields will face 100% selection, meaning that there is little or no incentive to volunteer.

Throughout the whole redundancy programme since 2010, approximately 500 Gurkhas have been transferred to other parts of the Army, significantly reducing the requirement for Gurkha redundancies. However, there remains a surplus of personnel in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which is due largely to the changes in their terms and conditions in 2007 that aligned their service periods with that of the Regular Army—from 15 years to 22 years—and a raised recruitment level to compensate for some soldiers’ previous long periods of leave in Nepal. Gurkha personnel now serve on the same terms and conditions as the rest of the Army and are therefore eligible for the redundancy programme, like other personnel currently employed in areas of surplus.

I fully recognise the challenges for servicemen and women of transition to civilian life. My Department has worked hard throughout this programme to ensure that all those selected for redundancy receive not only an extensive redundancy package but comprehensive resettlement support to help them find work and settle into life outside the armed forces. The career transition partnership, which provides briefings, advice and guidance on such issues as housing and obtaining future employment, is highly successful in assisting service leavers to find work, and our latest figures indicate that approximately 90% of service leavers seeking employment find it within six months of leaving the armed forces—a better result than for the population in general.

To support service people leaving the armed forces still further, I can announce an additional measure today. Last year, we announced a new £200 million Forces Help to Buy scheme for service personnel. Ownership of a family home provides security and peace of mind and will help to smooth the transition to civilian life. I have therefore extended the scheme to allow personnel leaving in tranche 4 who do not own a home to apply for a loan in advance of their redundancy package to allow them to purchase a home during the period between notification of redundancy and the actual date on which they leave the armed forces and receive their lump sum redundancy payment.

As an organisation that is fed from the bottom up, the armed forces are always recruiting, and this must and will remain a priority. There is a constant need to replace with new talent those who are promoted or who complete their service. The armed forces require a constant flow of young, fit recruits to maintain the structure required. That is why a major multi-media Army recruiting campaign began earlier this month for both regular and reserve recruits, which we are confident will raise awareness of Army recruiting and provide the backdrop to a reinvigorated recruitment effort at all levels over the next couple of years to deliver the numbers required to man our future structures, both regular and reserve.

For the men and women of our armed forces, I know that this has been a painful process, but completion of this final tranche will mark a turning point. With the bulk of our troops back from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and coming back from Germany over the next four years, as we build Future Force 2020 they will be able to enjoy the peace of mind that comes from belonging to armed forces that have put a period of change and restructuring behind them and are focused on building their skills and capabilities for the future.

After a decade of unfunded promises and shortages of key equipment under the previous Government, our personnel will have certainty about the future size and shape of our armed forces, and confidence that they will have the kit, equipment and platforms they need. Just as important, the country can have confidence that its armed forces will not only be affordable and sustainable, but among the most battle-hardened, best-equipped and best-trained forces in the world, able to ensure that Britain remains safe and secure in the future. I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement and for early sight of it, which I appreciate.

Have we not come a long way since the Conservative party said before the last election that they would have a bigger Army for a safer Britain? What happened to, “Put simply, we need to have a larger Army and we need more infantry”? When did that change? It changed when the party entered government; it was a broken promise. There were more broken promises from them even in government. After his Government’s defence review, the Prime Minister said in 2010:

“we will retain a large, well-equipped Army, numbering around 95,500 by 2015—7,000 fewer than today.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 799.]

Why did that change? Will the Secretary of State accept that this Government have let down the armed forces and their families?

No one underestimates the challenges of reconfiguring our armed forces and at the same time maintaining the British military’s reputation as the best in the world. Withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the presence in Germany means that there is, of course, a need for an appropriate reduction in personnel across all three armed forces. That is sensible and fair, and we support it. Is it not the case, however, that the Secretary of State is failing to approach this with the strategy required for the good of the country and the sensitivity required for the good of the individuals involved and their families? Let us not forget: this is about people.

The Secretary of State has simply not made a convincing case for further redundancies in the armed forces or for reducing capability at an even quicker rate. Does he accept that there are real concerns that by pressing ahead with these redundancies, the Government are taking risks with Britain’s safety and security? It was clear last year that the required uplift in the number of reserves—the 10,000 new recruits to replace the 30,000 regulars—was not happening at anywhere near the speed required. The Government hardly met a third of their own targets. We said then, as did Members from across the House, that the Government should pause their reductions in Army numbers until it was clear that their reserve recruitment was on track. That is still the case today.

On this specific round of redundancies, will the Defence Secretary tell us how many of them will be compulsory and from which regiments and squadrons the redundancies will be drawn? Does he not agree with me that this is a shocking way to repay the dedicated service that these people have given their country? Is he concerned about a loss of skills, particularly on pinch points, and what is he doing to address the problem? Will he confirm at least that no one will be made redundant in a way that affects their pension entitlement? Is it true that a small number of military personnel have been made redundant just days before they meet a service requirement for a pension to which they are entitled? If that is the case, it is not fair. Will the Secretary of State say more about the support he will give those who are leaving the service and making the transition to civilian life?

The Gurkhas are one of the finest fighting forces in the British Army. Does the Secretary of State accept that they have been affected disproportionately by cuts in the Army? In 2011, more than half the redundancies fell on the Gurkhas, and in the second tranche of redundancies in January 2012, when the rest of the infantry lost only 500 men, they lost 400. Does the Secretary of State think that that is fair? What does he think about the public perception that those redundancies are a result of the increased cost of the Gurkhas following their rightly successful campaign for better pay and conditions?

The sense that I have today is one of amazement. How does the Secretary of State do it? A recruitment campaign started last week amid great fanfare, but was followed a day later by the revelation of an IT crisis that had prevented people from signing up, and now by a parliamentary statement announcing redundancies. If the Secretary of State were a football referee, the crowd—and it would have to be a charitable crowd—would be chanting, “You don’t know what you’re doing”—and they would be right.

The Government are letting down our armed forces and their families, and taking risks with our country’s safety and security. The Secretary of State’s story is one of failure, on procurement, recruitment and redundancies. He is getting it wrong and he knows it, and today’s statement only reinforces that.

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Dear oh dear! Let us start from the beginning. The hon. Gentleman trotted out some well-known lines that he has used before, and I shall respond to them as I have done before.

The hon. Gentleman began by asking when the Government had changed their aspiration to have larger armed forces. Perhaps some of my hon. Friends can help me with that, but I would guess that it was at about the time when Labour was wrecking our economy, and we were recognising that we would have to recalibrate our ambitions in all sorts of areas in order to govern the country responsibly. We understand, above all else, that a strong defence of this country can be built only on a strong economy. We must first repair the damage that Labour has done to our economy and then repair the damage that it has done to our society, after which, hopefully, we shall in due course be able to afford to put more money into our armed forces as our economy and our public finances recover.

The hon. Gentleman said that we had let the armed forces down. I say that it is Labour, through its wrecking of our economy, that has let our armed forces down, as it has let the rest of the country down. As for the hon. Gentleman’s comments on this particular tranche of redundancies, what I hear from him is total confusion. He accepts the need for downsizing and restructuring of the Army, but says that we have not made the case for using the redundancy process to do that. He is talking nonsense. We have set out a structure for our armed forces in “Future Force 2020”. They will be smaller than they have been previously, but, crucially, they will have a different structure, relying on reserves, on civilian support and on contractors in some specialist areas. As a consequence, the redundancy process needs to address the structural imbalance in the Army, taking out areas of capability that we no longer need in our regular forces.

As the hon. Gentleman will understand if he listened to my statement, I cannot tell him in advance what percentage of the redundancies will be compulsory; that will depend on how many people volunteer. However, I have been very upfront with the House. As there will be a significant number of Gurkha redundancies and Gurkhas traditionally do not volunteer for redundancy, and as the fact that 100% of the numbers in some fields of redundancy will be made redundant, giving little incentive to volunteer, we expect the overall percentage of volunteers to be lower in this final round of redundancies than it has been in the past.

The hon. Gentleman made two points about fairness. First, he asked whether I thought it was fair that people approaching their immediate pension point—the point at which they can leave the Army and draw an immediate annual cash pension—should be eligible for redundancy. We have thought very carefully about this over the period of the redundancy programme. The truth is that wherever we draw the line there will be somebody just on the other side of it who feels hard done by, and understandably so, but we concluded that it would be unfair to take into account length of service—proximity to immediate pension point—as a criterion for redundancy and we have stuck to that position throughout all four tranches of redundancy. Given the nature of the fields we are looking at in this tranche, we expect the number of people potentially at risk of redundancy who are within a year of their immediate pension point to be very small compared with previous tranches.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Gurkhas and raised again the question of fairness. He asked explicitly whether the increased cost of Gurkha service was driving these redundancies. The answer is no, but it is the change in their terms and conditions. Previously Gurkhas served under different terms and conditions. The size and level of recruitment to the Brigade of Gurkhas was designed around 15 years of service. We now have to deal with the bulge caused by a change in the terms and conditions so that Gurkhas serve for 22 years. That is a structural challenge in the Brigade of Gurkhas. We have also seen a change to the terms and conditions of service, which no longer provide for Gurkhas to take long periods of leave to return home to Nepal. That was previously covered through an over-manning by about 370 individuals in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which allowed for those periods of extended leave at home that are no longer available now that the terms and conditions of service are standardised across the Army. So what we are seeing here is not an unfairness; we are seeing the consequences of a decision to apply fairly the terms and conditions of service to the Brigade of Gurkhas as they are applied to the rest of the Army.

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My right hon. Friend has said this is the final tranche; well, thank God for that. What commitment can he give that this is the very last of these unwelcome statements for many years to come?

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I can tell my right hon. Friend that the resizing of the Army announced as an outcome of the strategic defence and security review 2010 will be achieved by the redundancies that have been announced over the last three tranches and the redundancies that will be announced in this tranche. This will deliver us the size of the armed forces we need for Future Force 2020. I cannot predict or predetermine the outcome of the next SDSR, which will take place after the general election in 2015.

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The Secretary of State recently confirmed in a written answer that we have deployed military personnel in a US base in Djibouti. Please will he tell me what their role is? Are they involved in the drones programme in Yemen, and will they be affected by this cuts announcement?

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I can tell the hon. Gentleman that personnel deployed on overseas operations will not be affected by the redundancy announcement I have made today.

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While many will remain baffled at this Government’s priorities in increasing overseas aid by £2.5 billion this year and continuing to inflict these long-planned cuts on the Army, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless accept that had it not been for the fact that the Ministry of Defence was starved of its share of the increase in public expenditure under the last Government, the base from which we would have had to restructure the MOD under this Government would have been a jolly sight better than it has been?

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My hon. Friend has a good point. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) lectures me from the Opposition Front Bench, but it is noticeable that during that long period after 2001 when there appeared to be no limit to the scale of public spending and no limit to the level of taxation and borrowing and spending that the then Government were prepared to engage in, the armed forces did not share in that cornucopia and the consequences are here for all of us to see today.

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The Conservative party continued to promise a larger Army even once the scale of the challenge facing our public finances and the country was known. Does he accept that that did a disservice to the British public and the armed forces on whom we rely?

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I know that Opposition Members do not like this, but the truth is that we discovered a black hole in the finances of the Ministry of Defence that had to be dealt with if we were going to have sustainable armed forces in the future and eliminate our armed forces being asked to deploy without the equipment and protective personal equipment that they required to do so safely. We had to put that right. That has meant that some tough decisions have been made, but my understanding is that the Opposition accept the restructuring and resizing of our armed forces and that we have to have an Army of 82,000 going forward. If I am wrong about that, I should be happy to be corrected from the Front Bench and to have an explanation of how the Opposition propose to pay for a larger Army.

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When the withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, the RAF will have only about four aeroplanes and a few hundred people deployed abroad, yet it retains 220 combat jets, 650 support aircraft and 36,000 men. It is not clear to me what these are for, given that there is no discernible air threat to the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend be a little less timid and have a close look at how military aircraft assets are held in this country and set about some vastly needed and urgent reform?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his suggestion. The balance between the different arms and the focus that we put on different parts of our defence infrastructure is quite properly reviewed in the strategic defence and security review process. I am glad, and I am sure he will be too, that we have now placed this on a firm quinquennial footing so that the issues can be reopened and re-examined regularly. It is quite proper to do so.

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Is not the failure of the Army recruitment strategy the reason the redundancy numbers are smaller than originally envisaged?

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We constantly look at all the levers—as the Army calls them—of manning. The levers are recruitment levels, voluntary outflow—people leaving the service before the last possible date—and redundancy, which is always the last resort. There is a constant rebalancing. We had already reduced intended recruiting numbers to minimise redundancy, but we cannot do the whole restructuring through the recruitment lever alone because in some areas we have to take personnel out of the structure in order to deliver Future Force 2020.

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Some people suggest that there will not be much support for expeditionary warfare among the public again. In my experience, the public can be very fickle, especially when events and horrors happen. With this tranche of redundancies, we now have the smallest armed forces we have had for a long time. May I ask the Secretary of State to say what everyone in this House feels—that our armed forces will now be up to any challenge that they are asked to meet within their small numbers, and that our people should rest assured that they will do that extremely well when called on to do it?

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My hon. Friend observes that we shall have the smallest Army for a number of years when we have completed this restructuring, but we might also remind ourselves that we still have the fourth largest defence budget in the world and, on any fair and objective assessment, the second most capable expeditionary armed force capability in the world after the United States. The public can rest assured that our armed forces will do their duty and protect this country wherever, whenever and however called upon to do so.

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I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. The UK Government have acknowledged that personnel reductions in Scotland have been disproportionate. The right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor confirmed that there would be cuts of 27.9% in Scotland, compared with 11.6% across the UK. Will the Secretary of State confirm that personnel numbers are at a record low in Scotland, at around 11,000? That is significantly lower than the level of 15,000 planned by the Scottish Government for after independence.

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I was thinking about how to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but he has just given me the solution. The Scottish Government’s so-called plans for the future Scottish defence force exist in cloud cuckoo land. Their numbers simply do not add up, and our analysis shows that they would require about 30% more than they are proposing to spend to deliver the full structure that they have outlined in their White Paper. I look forward to coming to Scotland in due course and deconstructing, yet again, the rubbish coming out of the Scottish National party.

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Can my right hon. Friend confirm for my constituents that we still have a well-equipped, properly staffed and professionally led defence force that is capable of meeting present and future challenges and defending our nation?

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Yes. Future Force 2020 will be able to deliver the outputs specified in the strategic defence and security review, in which we set out clearly what we expect our armed forces to do and how we expect them to work, frequently in partnership with allies. I am confident that they will be able to deliver those outputs for the benefit of our nation.

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What can the Secretary of State tell us about his longer-term recruitment plans for the Gurkhas, or is this just the beginning of the end for them?

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No, we maintain recruitment of Gurkhas, but we have to deal with the structural imbalance caused by the changes made in 2007. Once we have done that restructuring, the pattern of sustainment in the Brigade of Gurkhas will require continued recruiting as we move to a normal pattern of 22 years’ service for Gurkha servicemen.

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The Prime Minister’s approach to defence is the most complacent I have known in my lifetime. A few days ago, the former US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said:

“With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we’re finding is that it won’t have full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.”

Does the Secretary of State accept that assessment from someone who knows what he is talking about?

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister. I wonder whether he remembered the previous Prime Minister’s attitude to defence when he made that sweeping assertion. I have a great deal of respect for former Secretary Gates, but he has been out of office for a couple of years now. I also noted that, in the interview in question, he seemed distinctly vague about some of the details of our defence policy. He could not even quite remember what our position was on aircraft carriers, and it seemed to have completely passed him by that we were building the two largest ships in the Royal Navy’s history right now, not only to replace the carrier capability but hugely to enhance it. I absolutely reject his suggestion that we will not be able to be a worthy and preferred partner for the United States in the future. Just last week, I met the commander of the United States fifth fleet, who told me specifically that the Royal Navy was, and will remain, the fifth fleet’s partner of preference and that, in their joint operations in the Gulf, the dividing line between the Royal Navy and the fifth fleet was invisible. That is the way we want it to be, and that is the way we will ensure it remains.

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Does the Secretary of State agree—he will not like this—that the great British public are not stupid and cannot be fooled and that we know, our allies know, our enemies know, our admirals know and our generals know that, today at the Dispatch Box, he has run up a flag that tells the world that we are no longer a serious world power? [Interruption.] That is the truth, and he cannot disguise that fact.

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Well, I have heard some rubbish in my time. Although we might disagree, the hon. Gentleman could have tackled me on a range of issues about the impact of the changes that we have made in the structure and funding of our armed forces, but this final tranche of redundancy today—about 1,500 people across the armed forces—is not a big structural change and certainly does not warrant the accusation he has made.

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Does my right hon. Friend accept that the unpalatable and difficult decisions that he has had to take on manpower were an absolute requirement to enable us to fund the rebuilding of the fleet, which has always traditionally been, and should remain for a country that is an island dependent on trade, our No. 1 defence priority?

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My hon. Friend makes the good point that, as we look to the challenges of the future, we must be prepared to take difficult decisions to flex how we spend the budgets and resources that we have available. Even half a decade ago, no one was talking about investing in cyber-warfare. Now, it is the No. 1 issue on everyone’s agenda. As our defence budgets are not getting larger, to invest in this critical new area, we have to disinvest in other areas. That is the nature of the difficult challenges we face, and we will continue to take those difficult decisions in Britain’s best interests.

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Clearly, as we draw down the Regular Army, the plan is to increase our reservist capability. All the people in the Army Reserve whom I talk to say that we must still do more to persuade particularly small and medium-sized employers to support their employees serving as reservists. What more can the Government do to support them in releasing their people to serve?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, and he is right: a big part of getting the reserve recruitment agenda right, and for that matter the reserve retention agenda right, is engagement with employers. Engagement with large employers, including public sector employers, is well advanced, but he is absolutely right to put his finger on the fact that engagement with smaller employers is, first, more difficult and, secondly, crucial to the success of this project. The Defence Reform Bill, which is in the other place, which I am not supposed to call the other place any more—currently, in the House of Lords—

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Where did that happen?

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In the Procedure Committee, I believe. The Bill contains provisions that will allow us for the first time to pay bounties to small and medium employers when their reservist employees are mobilised. That is not perhaps a differentiator in itself, but it sends an important signal to small and medium employers that we recognise the cost burden that they take on when they allow a member of their staff to become a reservist.

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As the British Army rebalances its Regular-reservist ratio, will the Secretary of State confirm that, once the Defence Reform Bill becomes law, the large pool of reservists will be considered for all future operations on equal merits as the regulars and that the call-up process will be a lot simpler and without fear of financial loss to the reservists?

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Well, there were a lot of multiple questions in there. First, I should like to make it clear that the restructuring of the Regular Army is predicated on a number of things. The growth of the reserves is one of them, but an increased use of civil support and contractors to provide some of the support functions is also an important part. Once we have built the reserve force to the level that we have set out by 2018, there will be certain areas where we use reservists routinely on operations because we only hold those capabilities in the reserve force. But of course, a core function of the reservists will always be to provide resilience and reinforcement for an enduring deployment of the nature of what we have been doing in Afghanistan.

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Does the Secretary of State not recognise the public’s disillusionment that the cost of being the fourth highest spender on defence in the world has been the loss of the lives of 626 British soldiers in two avoidable wars? Does not punching above our weight militarily always mean dying beyond our responsibilities?

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I do not think the hon. Gentleman is doing a great service to the families and memories of our brave servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the two campaigns that he refers to. I do not think that many hon. Members or, indeed, many of the British public think that it is either right or in our interests to turn our backs on the world. We are an open nation and a trading nation that depends on the maintenance of the rules-based system of international law and trade. We should remain fully engaged in the future, and our armed forces are but one—a very important one—of the many levers that we have available to maintain our influence in the world.

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The armed forces recognise, as does everyone else, what had to be done to clear up the mess that the last Labour Government left the country in, but they want, as we all do, some stability and certainty in their lives, so will my right hon. Friend reiterate and make it clear to the House that, once this last tranche of redundancies has been completed, that is it—this is the final tranche—so that everyone in the armed forces knows that they have some stability and certainty?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and that is exactly what I want to convey today. This has been a difficult time: a period of uncertainty and change, and no one likes uncertainty or change. The armed forces will now be able to concentrate on the future and on building the skills and capabilities that we have set out for Future Force 2020, knowing that we have completed the draw-down in size and the major restructuring that we have undertaken. That provides a very robust base to build for the future, with armed forces that will remain one of the most experienced combat-hardened and capable armed forces in the world.

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Will the Secretary of State clarify whether personnel who are serving on operations will be accepted or refused if they apply for redundancy?

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I am happy to clarify that for the hon. Lady. Personnel who are serving on operations are, of course, eligible to apply for redundancy if they wish to do so, but if they are serving on operations at any point between now and the announcement date on 12 June, they will not be eligible for compulsory redundancy. So if they do not volunteer, they will be exempt from redundancy.

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Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the reinvigorated recruitment effort that he told the House about? In particular, will he be open to different methods, so that we can see more of what works?

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As my hon. Friend might well imagine, Ministers and senior officials are vigorously examining different approaches that have been tried in different areas and different parts of the country to see what works best. What is clear to me is that, as I said in the House last week, we must focus back on using front-line reserve units as the principal tool of recruitment to the reserve. We can support that with national campaigns and a nationally managed IT platform, but we must rely on front-line reservists recruiting their fellow reservists. Everything that I have seen reinforces that, and it will be one of the driving requirements in how we manage this campaign.

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May I clarify that the Secretary of State is promising the House that RAF redundancies will be confined to a maximum of 70 medical and dental officers and nurses?

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I can confirm that.

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The plan to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists is beset with problems, including more than £50 million wasted on a botched IT system, missed recruitment targets, cancelled reserve courses and a widening capability gap. Given that the previous Secretary of State recently confirmed in this House that the original plan was to hold the regulars in place until the reservists were able to take their place, can this Secretary of State inform the House why and when that plan changed?

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First, my hon. Friend continually asserts, and I continually rebut, the idea that we are trying to replace 20,000 regular soldiers with 30,000 reservists— that is not what we are doing. We are restructuring the regular force; the regular force will be smaller. We will use civilians in a different way from how we have used them in the past. We will use contractors more effectively, learning the lessons, particularly from the US experience of using contractors to support combat operations. We will also use reservists, but it is simply wrong for him to suggest that this is a straightforward swap of 20,000 regulars replaced by 30,000 reservists. That is not how it works.

My hon. Friend knows very well the answer to the second part of his question: there is not the budgetary capacity to maintain the Regular Army at 102,000 while building the reserve to 30,000 by 2018. That simply cannot be done without imposing new and unwanted cuts elsewhere.

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I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say about individuals being made redundant just before their immediate pension point. What he failed to say, of course, was that for some long-serving officers this loss can amount to tens of thousands of pounds in forgone pension payments. Does he really believe that that scale of loss is consistent with the spirit of the military covenant?

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Let me just be clear about what we are talking about, as although the hon. Lady may understand this, perhaps not all hon. Members do. When people reach their immediate pension point they can leave the Army, notwithstanding the fact that they may be only in their 40s, and take an immediate pension. When somebody is close to, but has not reached, their immediate pension point when they leave the Army through a redundancy, they receive an enhanced lump sum redundancy package to reflect that fact and they still, of course, retain their pension rights when they reach their pensionable age of 60 or 65, depending on what pension scheme they are in. We have looked at the alternatives and concluded that all of them would deliver at least as much unfairness to other groups, and that this is the fairest and most appropriate way to proceed.

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We were told, understandably, that the armed forces had to take their share of pain through the time of recession. Surely, by the same coin, as the economy is growing they can take their share of the gain. If the reserve recruitment programme does not go as well as we all hope it will go, can we at least keep the door open—I am not asking for a commitment now—to once again recruiting more for the Regular Army in the future and increasing it to meet our commitments as they arise?

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I can say two things on that to my hon. Friend. First, unfortunately, the scale of the damage to our public finances is such that, as the Chancellor set out a couple of weeks ago, although the economy may be recovering, we have not yet dealt with the structural deficit we inherited from the Labour party, and it will take some years yet to correct the fiscal imbalances that we face in this country. However, he is right to say that we should never say never, and one of the key drivers in our restructuring of the Army is to ensure that we retain a capability to regenerate force, so that if at some future point our public priorities change or external circumstances force us to change them, we will have the capability within our armed forces to expand again and regenerate that capability.

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How many Gurkhas will lose their jobs? What percentage of such redundancies will be voluntary?

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I can tell the hon. Lady that the expected number of redundancies in the Gurkha areas are: 71 in the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment; 28 in the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers; 246 in the Royal Gurkha Rifles; and nine among Gurkha staff and personnel support functions. On voluntary versus compulsory redundancy, all I can tell her is that historically the uptake of voluntary redundancy by Gurkhas has been very, very low. Therefore, on a pessimistic projection, I have to assume that the majority of those redundancies will be compulsory.

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My right hon. Friend has already confirmed that the UK has the fourth largest defence budget in the world. Will he also confirm that the UK, along with the United States and, ironically, Greece, is one of only three of the 28 NATO members to be achieving the 2% of GDP level on defence expenditure?

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I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend, as my colleague the Estonian Defence Minister would never forgive me for not mentioning this, that Estonia has joined the elite band of countries that meet the 2% of GDP defence spending target. Just four countries in NATO meet that target.

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I am sure that members of the RAF will feel the shock that I felt at the announcement that 70 medical and dental officers and nurses are to be made redundant. In evidence to the Select Committee on Defence, those were identified as “pinch trades” in some aspects of the armed forces. The Secretary of State has talked about the ability for people to retrain. Will he say something about the support given for people to leave one branch of the armed forces and move into another branch, where there may well be vacancies they can fill?

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First, I reassure the hon. Lady that nobody will be made redundant in a pinch-point trade; these redundancies are happening only in areas where we are carrying surpluses. As a result of restructuring, a change in the way we deliver the service means that the posts of 16 RAF dental officers, nine RAF dental nurses and five RAF dental technicians are no longer required. She is right to raise the issue of retraining, and I recall that she raised it in respect of previous tranches of redundancy. We have put in a lot of effort in this tranche to make sure that we put even more emphasis behind the opportunities for retraining. Where people have the skills and the willingness to retrain, they will be fully supported through the chain of command to retrain and redeploy within the armed forces. We have no wish or ability to lose talent and skills that we have, so long as we can deploy them in a way that is usable within the new structure that we are putting together.

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What impact will this announcement have on Devonport-based ships and the Royal Marines based in my constituency? Will he ensure that we can recruit more doctors and dentists, bearing in mind that we have one of the finest medical schools in the country?

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As I have been at pains to point out, the fact that we are making people redundant in certain areas does not always mean that we will not be continuing to recruit in those areas. The armed forces are bottom-fed organisations, and we have to get the correct rank structure within each of the specialisms. My hon. Friend will have heard me say that the maximum number of Royal Navy redundancies will be 10, all of which will be in the medical and dental field. I expect the impact on the Royal Navy to be very limited. We will, however, have smaller medical and dental services in the future, to reflect the way in which we provide those services to our armed forces in peacetime.

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Will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the scale of the financial challenge faced by the MOD in 2010 compared with that in other nations? Will he also tell the House what steps are being taken to ensure that we do not face such challenges again?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I know that Opposition Members do not like it being said that we inherited a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. We have dealt with that and we have put in place a balanced equipment plan that is fully funded with a contingency of £4.5 billion in it. More importantly, we have put in place mechanisms to ensure that projects do not get signed off willy-nilly by politicians when the resources are not in place to pay for them. That ensures that we have a coherent defence budget and that we never again find ourselves in the position of the former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Hutton who, for the want of £300 million over two years, was forced to delay the aircraft carrier project and drive £1.6 billion of additional costs into that programme. We will not get ourselves into that position.

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Some of my constituents have been alarmed by recent reports of unfilled vacancies in key roles such as intelligence officers, radiologists and electronic warfare system operators. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the announcement today will take account of the need to maintain all capabilities and avoid expensive short-term replacements from outside the armed services?

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As I said in an earlier reply, we will not be making any redundancies in those pinch-point fields. We face, across the armed forces, a number of areas in which we directly compete with very highly paid civilian occupations. I am talking about engineering of all types—nuclear, aircraft and airworthiness speciality skills. In those areas, it is a constant challenge to recruit and retain staff, but those are challenges that the single services manage extraordinarily effectively in the circumstances.

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How many of those currently working at the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, many of whom are constituents of mine, will be affected by this programme? Will the Defence Secretary confirm that all those made redundant will receive a generous compensation package and help with housing and new jobs? We need to work closely with counties such as Gloucestershire, which have signed the military covenant, and to emphasise to the young of our county and my city that there are still real opportunities to join the Army and learn skills, for example as bricklayers and electricians.

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Those opportunities do indeed remain, and the purpose of the current marketing campaign is to emphasise to people that all areas of the military—the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and the Marines—are recruiting and open for business. However, we are conscious that the inevitability of a redundancy programme sends out a somewhat mixed message. I can also confirm that military redundees receive generous compensation packages. I have announced today help with housing purchase, and there is an excellent programme in place for supporting people to acquire the skills they need for dealing with the civilian world, including employment search. I am confident that we have done everything we can to make the transition from military to civilian life as smooth as possible for those who will be affected by the programme.

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A question has been raised about the armed forces covenant. Will the Secretary of State clarify and confirm that it was brought about by this Government in 2011, helping armed forces personnel and their families. Will he also clarify whether, following the post-2014 restructuring that will take place after Afghanistan, the United Kingdom will retain all its Reaper drones, and whether those drones will play a part in our long-term strategy?

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I can confirm that it is this Government who have enshrined the armed forces covenant in law and have very positively driven the armed forces covenant programme since that time, creating the community covenant and the corporate covenant, which now play an important part in the overall programme. My hon. Friend also asked me about Reaper drones post-Afghanistan, stretching the statement on redundancy to its maximum limit. None the less, I say to him that we expect unmanned aerial vehicles to form a permanent and significant part of our future aerial capability.

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If 18 medical and dental posts are to be lost from the RAF and the Royal Navy, what efforts are being made, and what incentives are being provided, to ensure that such experienced and dedicated personnel find new careers in the NHS where their skills are badly needed?

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Such people are inherently employable. Almost all of them will be absorbed pretty much immediately into the NHS. The priority challenge for us is to ensure that as they make that transition into the NHS, they join the reserves to continue playing a part in delivering Britain’s military capability.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] May I ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker—

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Order. If the hon. Gentleman is making a point of order, it has to be just that. It cannot be a question to a Minister, and I cannot answer questions on behalf of the Minister.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it not have been appropriate for the Secretary of State to make available to the House before the statement a document that broke down some of the numbers relating to the redundancies? For example, he referred to it in answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) about the Gurkha regiments.

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