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Commons Chamber

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

House of Commons

Wednesday 5 March 2014

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pacific Islands

The Department for International Development does not provide direct support to Pacific island countries. However, we provide direct support to Pitcairn, a UK overseas territory in the Pacific. In 2013-14, it was approximately £3 million.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Given that many small island states in the Pacific face severe threats from climate change and will fail to meet millennium development goals on education and health, and given that this year sees the once-a-decade small island developing states conference, will she take a lead on the Government’s involvement in that conference, and will she ensure that the House is kept updated on what this Government can do to support such countries, which are suffering?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I will write to her with fuller details, but, in summary, we do a significant amount of work in supporting Pacific islands. She mentioned climate change, and we in fact fund the World Bank group that is doing a pilot programme on climate resilience; we are a major donor to it. We also provide support through the European development fund and the Commonwealth. If I write to her with more details, perhaps she will get the reassurance she seeks.


2. What recent reports she has received on the humanitarian situation in and around Syria; and if she will make a statement. (902820)

The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. The UN now estimates that 9.3 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid in Syria. At least 6.5 million people in Syria have been forced to flee their homes to other areas of the country, and there are now more than 2.5 million refugees in the region.

Two key issues now face children in Syria: first, polio is rife, and vaccination levels are extremely low; and, secondly, UNICEF confirmed to me only yesterday that 2.5 million children in Syria or in refugee camps are receiving no education whatsoever. I know that those are major challenges, but will the Secretary of State tell me what the British contribution might be on those issues?

We have already been part of the effort to vaccinate more than 200,000 children against polio in Syria—I think that I am right to say that—as part of the emergency support. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight that issue. In relation to education, the UK has played a leading role in designing the no lost generation initiative, which is all about making sure that we do not forget the impact of this terrible crisis on children, not least the lack of education.

The UK contribution to humanitarian relief in the middle east has been unparalleled. Indeed, the United Nations would have had difficulty coping without it. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge, however, that it is difficult to sustain, and what is she doing to ensure that other countries, including France, make comparable contributions?

We regularly raise our concerns about the lack of full funding for the UN appeal in relation to the Syrian crisis both in the European Union and more broadly internationally. My right hon. Friend is right to say that the UK has played a leading role: we are the second largest bilateral donor after the US, and we have already committed £600 million of funding to provide the vital humanitarian services and supplies that people need.

Nobody can fail to have been affected by the heartbreaking scenes from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus last week. Will the Secretary of State update us on the situation now, as I understand that the ceasefire has broken down and the risk of starvation is very real?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to flag up the terrible situation in Yarmouk, which has been under siege for many months. He will be aware that since 18 January, UNRWA has been able to deliver just over 6,000 food parcels, which have provided some support. I was also shocked by the scenes that I saw. I assure him that one of the most important things to work on now is to make sure that the Security Council resolution on access is adhered to by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by the opposition.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent Project Maja trip, which some of us took part in, to the Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey. The wonderful and formidable Ali Gunn was a key player in making that trip happen. Sadly, Ali died recently. She was trying to ensure that there were books in Arabic for many of the children and young people in such camps. Would it not be a wonderful tribute to her if we were able to do that and, at the same time, help those refugees?

I would like to pay tribute to Ali’s work not only in organising that visit, but more broadly in this whole area. Turkey now has more than 600,000 refugees, many of whom are children. As part of the work that we are doing with UNICEF, we are focusing on making sure that the children affected get education, including by funding textbooks in places such as Lebanon.

The Secretary of State, like everyone else, will not want the understandable focus on the political crisis in Ukraine to result in a lack of focus on the situation in Syria. It is three years since that dreadful conflict began and I will be travelling to Jordan and Lebanon next week. She rightly says that there are 2.5 million refugees. What is her assessment of the capability of neighbouring countries to continue to absorb those refugees? Parliament sensibly agreed that there should be a UK resettlement programme so that a small number of refugees could come to the UK. How many refugees have been resettled as part of that programme?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, he is right that one of the biggest challenges we face is the flow of refugees over the border to neighbouring countries. We must help those countries to cope with the refugees who are in camps and, critically, those who are in host communities, which is the overwhelming majority of them. We are doing our best to work with countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to ensure that they can cope.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, we are getting the vulnerable person relocation scheme up and running. We will be working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ensuring that we target the most vulnerable refugees whom we can support.

We look forward to hearing news of the first refugees arriving in the UK.

As the Secretary of State knows, food is being used as a weapon. That is not an innovation, but it is utterly unacceptable. There is news this morning that people in Yarmouk are resorting to eating cats to survive. What is being done to ensure the passage of humanitarian supplies and food into the cities that are under siege? Women and children have been allowed to escape from Homs, but men are being detained for further questioning. What is her assessment of those who have been freed from the sieges?

It is deeply concerning. The passing of the UN Security Council resolution was potentially a major step forward. It is now incumbent on all people who are involved in the crisis to work alongside that resolution, not least the Syrian Government and opposition. I spoke to the head of the World Food Programme, Ertharin Cousin, only yesterday about what progress she thinks can be made now that the resolution has been passed. It is critical that we seek access to provide humanitarian support where it is needed, including in places such as Yarmouk.


The Department for International Development is working closely with the Foreign Office to support the democratic process in Tunisia. Through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, UK funding is being used to train parliamentarians to better represent their constituents, and to support civil society in holding its Government to account.

Although the Arab spring has, in part, been disappointing, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are signs of hope and encouragement in north Africa, not least in Tunisia, where, as he has just said, democratic development is taking root and progressing? Is not reinforcing such success the sort of thing that this country should be doing?

Yes. May I acknowledge all the work that my hon. Friend has done over the years for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? Through the WFD, we supported the drafting of the new Tunisian constitution, which was adopted on 26 January. The constitution protects freedom of expression and the rights of women, and is considered to be one of the most progressive in the Arab world.

In a bleak region, will the Minister commend the work of Mr Mustapha Ben Jafar in securing the constitution to which he just referred? Does he accept that Tunisia can be a beacon across the region as a broad, inclusive democracy that can achieve real progress?

I fully agree with the good sense expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Tunisia is a beacon and is well ahead of many other countries. I am delighted that DFID and Her Majesty’s Government have played a strong part in helping it on that journey.

The Arab spring started in Tunisia, so what can my right hon. Friend do, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, to embed democracy through local elections, as well as through national elections, in such countries?

We are actively working on the electoral processes, primarily through the United Nations Development Programme and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, to support the independent electoral commission and the Government of Tunisia to implement free and fair elections this year.

The Minister will be aware of the massive displacement, disadvantage and persecution of Christians in the north African region. In his discussions with the Tunisian authorities, will he ensure that that country’s role as a beacon extends to fair play and democracy for Christians to encourage their liberation in other countries that are close to the Tunisian people?

The hon. Gentleman is right that in a proper liberal democracy everyone should be treated equally and fairly. That includes people of different religions, including the Christian communities to which he refers.


4. How much her Department gave in aid to Mali in 2013; and how much it plans to give to that country in 2014. (902822)

The UK gave £23 million of bilateral aid to Mali in 2013, supporting some 650,000 people. We also pledged £110 million over four years for long-term resilience work in the Sahel region. The UK provides assistance through multilateral contributions, and we are considering additional bilateral funding for 2014.

I welcome the fact that the Government are considering additional funding. To date, most of the money has been used for humanitarian relief because of the political weakness and the terrorist threat not just in Mali but across the region. Should we not now put money into development to provide livelihoods for young people, so that they do not turn to the terrorists and can make a future for themselves in their own countries?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Livelihoods and jobs are a key focus for DFID, and we are doing a great deal of work on them. Some of the money that we are providing is built into resilience work, because the problems in the Sahel are about drought and climate change. It is what we can do for the long term that matters most.

Does the Minister agree that although Mali is not within our normal sphere of influence, it is critical to the future stability of the Sahel? Is she aware that there was a lot of devastation to agriculture during the recent civil war? What can DFID do to help multilateral organisations that are working to help communities there?

We put a great deal of our money through multilaterals right across the Sahel, and we have committed £83 million in humanitarian support through the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and international non-governmental organisations across five countries—Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

Flooding (UK)

5. What consideration she has given to making funds from her Department’s budget available to people in the UK affected by flooding. (902823)

The Government fully understand the need to help those in the UK affected by recent flooding, but Britain does not need to make a false choice between spending money to tackle flooding in the UK and spending it to save lives overseas through the aid budget. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pledged that all immediate practical support and assistance will be provided to deal with the floods in the UK.

When natural disasters take place in other parts of the world, the Government are always quick to respond. At a time when money is tight and the Department’s budget is the only one not under any financial pressure, surely if people in the UK need aid following a natural disaster, the aid budget should be made available to them. Charity begins at home, and the Government should not treat people abroad more favourably than people in this country.

I quite understand what my hon. Friend says, and I fully share his wish to give proper assistance to those in the UK affected by flooding. The international development budget, within our 0.7% of gross national income commitment, has to be used for official development assistance as defined by the OECD. It is not possible for us to redefine ODA in a way that would allow it to be transferred immediately to domestic purposes. The assumption in his question is therefore a false choice. I am pleased to say that the Government can help flood victims at home as well as abroad.

We know that the greatest risk that the UK faces from climate change is flooding, but the developing world will be hit even harder, so we all need a global climate deal. Will the Minister commit the Prime Minister to attending Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in September, as other world leaders will, and to pushing for a stand-alone climate change goal in the post-2015 process?

The hon. Gentleman strays ever so slightly from the question on the Order Paper, but I understand his point. I am not privy at this stage to the Prime Minister’s diary, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the priorities that we set in our overseas aid programmes focus on climate change to a large extent and are doing an enormous amount of good.

The clue is in the name—overseas aid. I am sure the Minister agrees that organisations such as Tearfund, of which I am a vice-president, that work with flood-prone communities to build capacity can help to save both lives and livelihoods at home and abroad.

I have no doubt that Tearfund is lucky to have my right hon. Friend as its vice-president. I can confirm that a lot of expertise can be shared by countries across the world, and I like to think that the Department for International Development is very much in the lead in ensuring that flood defences and preparations and emergency response are of the best sort.

The coalition Government should be proud of having finally achieved 0.7% of gross national income going to international development. Alongside that, instead of having false arguments such as this, could we look, with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, at the £30 billion tax gap and do even more to clamp down on tax evasion?

I understand the issue, and we have addressed it on many occasions in this House. Part of our activities abroad is to ensure that we build up the tax base of impoverished countries, so that from their own resources they can ensure that their rich people pay a fair share of their income, and so that they can help their own poor people.

Bost Agri-business Park and Airfield

The Bost airfield and agricultural business park project was designed and approved in 2009 at a time when Ministers did not approve any spend under £40 million. In 2012 it became clear that the business park would not be completed within the original time frame or effectively, so to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, I decided that further UK funding would be cancelled.

This is my 35th question on this subject since February 2013. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has given me a little bit of information today, but it is not unreasonable for the House to know who was responsible, how much taxpayers’ money was wasted in total, what when wrong, and whether anyone will be held accountable. Would the Secretary of State care to say what she and her officials are so desperate to cover up?

I can say that the hon. Gentleman’s Government were responsible because they designed the project. Indeed, Ministers failed to sign it off because they did not sign off projects of less than £40 million. The only money we are spending on it now is in answering his 30-odd parliamentary questions, which have so far cost the taxpayer £5,000.

Syrian Refugees

7. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the UK’s programme of support for Syrian refugees. (902826)

The UK has allocated £265 million to support refugees in countries neighbouring Syria, providing food for more than 320,000 people per month, 71,000 medical consultations, and an improved water supply for more than 40,000 people. We are working closely with Governments, the UN and others to ensure that the overall international response builds resilience and is implemented effectively.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Syrian refugees about their hopes of returning to Syria?

I have had many discussions, not least in my most recent visit to a UNHCR registration centre in Lebanon earlier this year, which is handling 1,000 refugees a day. Those I spoke to are determined to go back and rebuild their country, and they want to get their lives back on track. The work that we are doing both with humanitarian support and in pushing for a political settlement will help them to do that eventually.

Given that the Assad regime has been targeting journalists, aid workers and medical staff, are we getting a full picture of what is going on in Syria and the refugee system?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, access has been incredibly difficult when getting humanitarian support to refugees, and we therefore do not have a full picture. What we do know, however, is shocking and horrific, which is why it is great news that we finally have a UN Security Council resolution to get access after many months of trying. I assure him that the UK will be at the forefront of ensuring that we help people affected by this crisis.

Topical Questions

In the week of international women’s day, I offer warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), whose International Development (Gender Equality) Bill completed its progress through Parliament yesterday. The Government have been proud to support that Bill. Since the last session of International Development questions I set out a new approach to economic development in a keynote speech at the London stock exchange. Yesterday, in a speech hosted by Plan UK I set out the UK’s determination to play our role in tackling early and forced marriage, alongside female genital mutilation. [Interruption.]

Order. It must be quite difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to hear the Secretary of State, and it is discourteous. Let us have some hush for the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley).

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what she is doing to ensure that economic partnership agreements prioritise development, and that if developing countries do not meet the EU deadline of October this year, they will not lose preferential access to the EU market?

I assure my right hon. Friend that we are working extremely hard to make sure that we achieve as much progress as possible on the EPAs before the deadline he mentions. We have been influencing stakeholders on both sides of the negotiation. He will be aware that some progress has been made in parts of Africa, but there is a long way to go. He is right that it is critical to get this work successfully concluded.

T4. Ahead of international women’s day, could the Secretary of State explain the cuts to maternity services and primary education for girls, detailed in DFID’s mid-year report? (902852)

I can assure the hon. Lady that work on the maternal health millennium development goal means that it is at the centre of what we do, and we put a huge amount of resources into it. In fact, as I set out yesterday in my speech at the south bank centre about early and forced marriage, having a holistic approach to tackling women’s rights, health and education is key.

T2. Nothing has undermined popular support for international aid more than the perception that aid has been given to countries too wealthy to need it. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give us that that will not happen in the future? (902850)

When we came into government, we had a bilateral programme with 43 countries. We have now targeted that on 28. My hon. Friend will also be aware that I have announced the ending of our financial aid programmes to both South Africa and India.

T8. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), will the Government support the inclusion of a specific target to increase women’s participation and influence in public life in the post-2015 international development framework? (902856)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister co-chaired the high level panel that did a huge amount of work in that area and produced what could be a draft framework. It had much more focus on women and girls, and significantly develops the original MDG on gender equality. We will fight to make sure that we get as many specific targets on women’s rights and participation as we can.

T3. HIV and tuberculosis co-infection is a priority for action for the Government. Ministers will be aware of the 12 World Health Organisation recommended collaborative TB-HIV activities, but will they ensure that these are systematically integrated into all DFID HIV programmes in countries with high burdens of both HIV and TB? (902851)

Yes, we can make sure that over time we integrate all those guidelines into our programme, and it is a key priority for us to make sure systematically that we do so.

The Burmese Government are preventing Médecins sans Frontières from providing health services in Rakhine. What is the Secretary of State doing, especially as the Rohingya Muslims are now left with practically no access to health services?

We are urgently discussing the situation with Médecins sans Frontières, the UN and other donors, and we have made our concerns very clear at senior levels of the Burmese Government. The health situation in Rakhine state is already on the brink of crisis and there must be no deterioration in the provision of health services of which MSF was a crucial part.

T5. For Britain to succeed in international upstream engagement, humanitarian missions and stabilisation missions, does my right hon. Friend agree that DFID must co-operate strategically and tactically with the MOD, and this must include allowing the MOD to claim back all funds spent that meet official development assistance criteria? (902853)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that DFID and the MOD work closely together on upstream conflict prevention, humanitarian relief and stabilisation, as seen in our response in the Philippines. Only last year we completed a joint analysis with the MOD to make sure that there was full recognition of the MOD’s contribution within the internationally agreed official development assistance definition.

While the Government are rightly focused on supporting development in Somalia, can the Secretary of State assure me that DFID will continue to support effective and impactful development in Somaliland?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and of course the UK has historical links with that part of Somalia. We have put in place the Somaliland development fund, and I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman more details of that. I had the chance to discuss the fund with the Somali community in the UK when I went to an event in Ealing recently.

T6. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much of her Department’s annual expenditure she estimates is wasted, poorly targeted, goes on corruption or is siphoned off by Governments and dictators? (902854)

As I said earlier, when I see waste, I am determined to cut it. We have targeted our bilateral programme on fewer countries and we are taking aid out of countries that we think can afford the development themselves. On corruption, only 5% of our bilateral aid goes as budget support direct to Governments, but if I have concerns about corruption I stop that budget support, as I have done in Uganda and Malawi.

A news report today states that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads because they are not available, and that a school drop-out has invented a sanitary pad that can be made in communities. What support is the Department giving to women’s health across the world?

The MDG relating to maternal health, in particular, is critically important. We know that investing in women’s health, whether family planning, antenatal or post-natal, gives an extremely good return on investment. It can help women to have a more productive life, perhaps enabling them to go out to work and reinvest their income in their homes and communities. That is absolutely key and the hon. Lady is right to raise the issue.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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

Rushden Lakes is a major retail leisure park, which will create 2,000 new jobs. “Yes to Rushden Lakes”, local Conservative councils, the Northamptonshire Telegraph, Councillor Tom Pursglove’s Listening campaign and my listening campaign have all supported this proposal. In nine years in Parliament, I have never known a development to have so much public support. Will the Prime Minister use his best efforts to ensure that the outcome of the public inquiry is announced as soon as possible?

I know my hon. Friend campaigns vigorously for his constituents, for local businesses and for job-creating developments such as this one. As I am sure he is aware, I am not able to get involved in specific planning decisions, but I understand that a decision on this application will be made as soon as possible. Of course, that will mean the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government taking into account all the representations he receives, including those from my hon. Friend.

The whole House and the whole country have been watching events in Ukraine with great concern. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that Russia’s actions in surrounding Ukrainian military sites and violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are completely without justification? Does he further agree that these actions deserve to be condemned unreservedly across the international community?

First of all, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that what Russia has done is completely unacceptable. We should be clear about our national interest and our aim in all of this. Our national interest is that we have a strong interest in a world where the rule of law is upheld and territorial integrity respected. Stability is a vital part of our long-term economic plan. We should be clear that our aim is to deter further Russian military action and to de-escalate this situation. He is completely right to say that the action by the Russian Government should be condemned by the whole world.

I am sure we agree that there needs to be continuing pressure on the Russian Government, and I will come to that issue. All Members will welcome the talks going on as we speak between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Given the fragility of the situation on the ground, does the Prime Minister believe that one important outcome from these talks would be if they led to direct high-level talks between Russia and Ukraine?

In order to de-escalate this situation, the most important thing that should be arranged is a forum for discussions in which the Russians and the Ukrainians can speak to each other. There have been some contacts between Russian Ministers and Ukrainian Ministers. This morning there are meetings taking place in Paris covering other issues as well. There has been some progress in putting together a contact group—an idea I proposed to the Polish Prime Minister back in January—to start having a group of countries around Russia and Ukraine to encourage such dialogue to take place. That is the single most important thing that could help to de-escalate the situation.

Clearly, we all hope for a good outcome from those talks, but the EU also has a crucial role to play. Does the Prime Minister agree that the EU, at the leaders’ summit tomorrow, must show that it is up to the task of dealing with the biggest security crisis on this continent since Kosovo? Given the issues raised about the UK’s position from the leaked Downing street document, what specifically will the UK be tabling at the summit tomorrow, including keeping open the prospect of trade sanctions?

It is important for the European Union to show a unity of purpose and have a clear voice at the leaders’ meeting tomorrow. We need first to be absolutely clear that the status quo with which we are faced today, in which Russian troops are outside their bases in Crimea, is unacceptable, and, as I have said, costs and consequences need to follow from it. That is why we have, for instance, suspended preparations for the G8 meeting—indeed, in the current circumstances it is hard to see how a G8 meeting could properly go ahead—and have withdrawn royal and ministerial visits to the Sochi Paralympic games. There are further steps that we should consider even as we look at the current status quo, but we also need to consider what extra steps—what extra, as I have put it, political, economic and diplomatic steps—can be taken to discourage Russia from itself taking further steps in terms of dismembering and disrespecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

I entirely share the Prime Minister’s view about the G8 and the other matters that he has mentioned. Let me raise one other specific issue with him. When he was Leader of the Opposition in 2008, at the time of the invasion of Georgia, he said this:

“Russia’s elite value their ties to Europe—their shopping and their luxury weekends…Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges.”

Does he agree that if we do not see the required action from Russia, we should consider asset freezes and travel restrictions on designated individuals, so that Russia is clear about the consequences of its actions?

As I have put it, when we consider the diplomatic, economic and political steps that we can take, nothing should be off the table. We have already taken some important steps in ensuring that the assets of the corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs are properly dealt with, including any assets that may be here in the United Kingdom. We should not rule out other things for the future, but, as I have tried to explain today, I think that there are steps that we need to take in respect of the current unacceptable situation, and that we should agree with our European and American partners—I shall be speaking to President Obama this afternoon, and will meet Angela Merkel and President Hollande before the European Council tomorrow—what additional steps should then be taken.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will push for as broad an agreement as possible at the European Council, and we welcome that. Let me ask him about the Ukrainian Government, and about support for them. Does he agree that part of the way forward is giving the Ukrainian Government that support, while also making it clear to them that they need to be inclusive and protect the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine? Does he further agree that there is no reason for Russia to believe that the strengthening of ties between Ukraine and the EU need be at its own expense?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, it is important for this not to be seen as a tug of war between the European Union and Russia, but we should be in favour of the Ukrainian people being able to choose their own future. In my view, this has been as much about the Ukrainian people’s wanting to lean towards a better relationship with the European Union as about their wanting to get rid of the appalling levels of corruption that they have had to put up with in their Government. That is the key thing.

I think it extremely welcome, and right, that the Foreign Secretary was the first international leader to go to Kiev and meet the Ukrainian leaders. He made two important points to them. One was that they must ensure they have an inclusive set of institutions, rules and laws in Ukraine, and do not discriminate against minorities or Russian speakers. The other was that we stand ready, as members of the European Union and as leading players in the International Monetary Fund, to help Ukraine in its hour of need. There are all sorts of steps that the new Ukrainian Government will have to take in order to make that possible, but if they can do that, we should stand by them in their hour of need.

I welcome that, and the provision of all necessary support for the Ukrainian Government. Let me finally say that we all recognise that this is a delicate and dangerous moment for international security, and that a combination of diplomacy, resolve in the international community, and support for the Ukrainian Government and Ukrainian self-determination provides the best hope of our securing an end to this crisis. I can assure the Prime Minister that, in the pursuit of that goal, the Government will have our full support.

I am very grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said this morning. Tomorrow we shall need to hear a voice of unity and clarity from the countries of the European Union—which is not always easy when there are 28 different nations around the table—but it is very welcome that such a clear and unified voice is going out from this House, saying to the Russian Government “What you have done is wrong, what you have done should not be allowed to stand, and there will not only be costs and consequences from what has been done already, but further costs and consequences if you take this further.”

Last week a judge sentenced a Gosport man to nine years in prison for causing the death by dangerous driving of two teenage girls. Given that that amounts effectively to four years per life, does the Prime Minister agree that it is high time we looked again at the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving?

May I first of all congratulate my hon. Friend on her happy news at the weekend? I am sure that Members across the House will want to join me in that. The issue of death by dangerous driving was raised at Prime Minister’s questions last week, and as I said then, I think it is important that the Lord Chancellor and his Department look carefully at what more we can do to make sure we send the clearest possible message about the unacceptability of this crime.

Q2. Last July the Prime Minister rightly promised legislation banning internet rape porn, so will he explain to parents why clause 16 of his Criminal Justice and Courts Bill does not ban simulated child abuse or staged rape online? (902834)

The hon. Lady has a long track record of arguing about these issues, and I think it was very welcome that we made the announcement to ban rape porn and that is being carried through. I will look very carefully at the measures and issues she is raising now. I think we have a good record on putting in place stronger internet filters, working with the industry to make sure searches for unacceptable terms cannot be made, and separate legislative steps like banning rape porn, but I will look very carefully at the specific proposals she makes.

Q3. In 2009, 610 18 to 24-year-olds in Chester were out of work and claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Last month that number almost halved to 330. As this week is national apprenticeship week, will the Prime Minister congratulate employers who are creating apprenticeships, creating jobs and creating opportunities for young people, so we never again see the massive waste of young talent that occurred in the 1990s? (902835)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise national apprenticeship week, which is a really important moment to advertise to businesses large and small the advantages of taking on apprentices. What we are going to see during this Parliament is 2 million apprenticeship starts. That is what we are aiming for, and there have already been some 1.6 million. As my hon. Friend says, unemployment in his own constituency has fallen, as has the claimant count, but we want to see many more apprentices and we also want smaller firms to come forward and take on their first apprentice.

In 2006, 7-year-old Christi Shepherd and her little brother Bobby died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty boiler at their hotel in Greece. Their father Neil and his partner Ruth narrowly escaped with their lives and after seven agonising years the inquest into their deaths is about to begin, but the Legal Aid Agency has refused the family funding to be legally represented at the inquest, and on Friday Thomas Cook tried to prevent the inquest from even taking place. Will the Prime Minister meet me and the parents to hear why it is imperative that the parents are legally represented at this inquest so the full facts surrounding their children’s deaths are learned, and so that no other British family suffers a similar tragedy when they take their children on holiday?

I do remember this absolutely tragic case and it is appalling that it has taken so long for the inquest to take place. When you have lost a child, you want answers and to know why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and that lessons will be learned for the future. I am very content to arrange the sorts of meetings the hon. Lady talks about to help in this case and to make sure that the Foreign Office, which does an excellent job in helping people when they are dealing with issues overseas, is doing all it can to help her constituents.

In Braintree, unemployment has dropped from 3.4% to 2.3% and, equally importantly, youth unemployment has dropped from 6.3% to 4.4% since 2010. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Chancellor’s long-term economic plan is working, and following the recent success of the Braintree youth jobs fair, will he join me in thanking Braintree district council, Jobcentre Plus and Ignite for all the hard work they are doing in encouraging local businesses to hire young people?

My hon. Friend has a very strong track record of campaigning and fighting on these issues—he co-founded the Million Jobs campaign. Let us recognise that we have created more than 1 million new jobs under this Government. One of the things my hon. Friend was pushing for was for under-21s not to have to pay national insurance contributions when they are employed; that was brought in in the autumn statement, and I think it will make a huge difference. The Braintree youth jobs fair has also made a big difference locally. Opposition Members seem to groan as soon as falling unemployment is mentioned, but the fact is that it is falling across the country and that is a very welcome sign that our long-term economic plan is working.

Does the Prime Minister share my astonishment at a decision announced yesterday that First TransPennine Express, whose train services cover the whole of the north of England, is to lose one in eight of its trains, which are to be transferred to Chiltern Railways for the greater comfort and convenience of commuters in the south of England? [Interruption.] Is he aware that First TransPennine Express services are already among the most overcrowded in the country? [Interruption.]

Order. This is quite a simple issue of courtesy. The right hon. Gentleman will be heard, however long it takes. So the quicker people remember their manners, the better.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This may be a laughing matter to Government Members, but it is certainly not a laughing matter to people in the north of England. Could the Prime Minister bear it in mind that this decision has been made without the agreement of the train operating company, but by Porterbrook and the leasing company? [Interruption.]

I will look carefully at the point the right hon. Gentleman raises. Of course, we have announced plans to electrify the trans-Pennine railway line, which will make a big difference. We are also going ahead with the northern hub, which will also make a difference. So these are big steps forward. I hope that he will not find it too cheeky if I point out that the line that both he and I use, the Cotswold line, which includes Charlbury railway station, has also received a lot of extra investment under this Government and he now enjoys a double-track line when he makes his journey from my constituency into London.

Q5. May I put on the record my thanks to the Prime Minister for all the efforts that he personally puts into securing Typhoon export orders? However, may I ask for his assurance that his Government will leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of Typhoon exports to support apprenticeships and highly skilled jobs in Warton in my constituency, as part of this Government’s long-term economic plan? (902837)

It was a huge pleasure to visit Warton with my hon. Friend and see the quality of the apprenticeships that BAE Systems is offering in building the Typhoon aircraft, an absolutely superb aircraft. I can give him my assurance that I will go on banging the drum for British exports, including defence exports. We had very good progress with the order from Oman, which will secure and safeguard jobs in his constituency. I was criticised by the Labour party for taking defence contractors on trade missions overseas; that party does not think it is appropriate, but I think it is. I think we should be standing up for our defence industry and defence jobs.

Will the Prime Minister end the speculation over the future of the Hunting Act 2004 by confirming that he does not intend to use a statutory instrument to repeal or amend the Act by removing the limit on the number of dogs that can be used to flush an animal to guns?

This will quite properly be a matter for the House of Commons. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a group of Welsh and other Members of Parliament have looked at a particular problem of pest control in upland areas of Wales and other parts of the country. They are making a proposal, which will be properly examined by the Department and, in the end, the House of Commons will be able to decide.

Q6. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) and during national apprenticeship week, we should celebrate the fact that in the past year half a million people began an apprenticeship, which is nearly double the number who started in 2009-10. However, we should not rest there. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should do more to incentivise schools, promote apprenticeships and get employers to come forward with apprenticeships, particularly for young people? (902838)

My hon. Friend speaks about this matter with great commitment because of his chairmanship of the Education Committee. The point that he and I have discussed, which is very important, is that we need to ensure that we are giving the clearest possible information to our young people in schools about the choices they can make. The academic path of A-levels, UCAS and universities has been well set out and well understood, including by Britain’s teachers. We need the opportunities for vocational education and apprenticeships to be at least as well understood, not least because a person does not have to choose long term between the two; people can carry out an apprenticeship and a degree, earning and learning at the same time.

This is the EU year of tackling food waste. Given the absolute scandal of up to 40% of our food being wasted in this country and the huge numbers of people who have to go to food banks because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families, will the Prime Minister throw his weight behind this initiative and support efforts to reduce food waste in this country?

It is important to tackle the issue of food waste. A number of important debates on the issue have been held in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall. When it comes to helping people with weekly budgets, the most important thing is to make sure that we keep growing the economy, getting people back to work and creating jobs. Also, if we keep people’s taxes down, they will have more of their own money to spend as they choose.

Q7. Over the past few months in Somerset, we have had a deluge of press, media and film cameras, which has now ebbed and receded and is now barely a trickle, but the floods are still with us. This week, we will have produced the local strategy, which shows that long-term local management of the rivers cannot be met within the constraints of local government finance. Will the Prime Minister commit to me that whatever needs to be changed will be changed in order to give us sustainable management for the future? (902839)

I commend all the Somerset MPs for working together extremely well, bringing together the local agencies, including the Environment Agency, local councils, farmers and others to try to come up with the right long-term solution for the people of Somerset. I agree that the cameras and the press have now departed, but it is important that we do not take our eye off the important issue of draining the Somerset levels. I am getting regular reports, and I look forward to seeing the report from my hon. Friend and other colleagues about what needs to be done.

Q8. We have known for months that our A and E departments in our hospitals are in trouble, but now we find that almost 30,000 ambulances have been stuck in queues outside our hospitals. Does the Prime Minister regret not having got a grip on that issue a bit more quickly? (902840)

The point I would make is that we have met the A and E targets more times this winter than when the shadow Health Secretary was sitting in the Cabinet with responsibility for the NHS. I commend what our doctors, nurses and A and E departments have done, because they are coping with around 1.2 million more A and E attendances every year than when we came to power in 2010. They have done magnificent work, and they are doing it on the basis of having not only many thousand more doctors but 2,000 more nurses than in 2010. That is more nurses in our NHS than at any time since Nye Bevan stood at this Dispatch Box back in the 1940s, and that is a record of which the Government can be proud.

The village of Barrow in the Ribble Valley has fewer than 300 houses. The local authority has given permission for just over 100 new houses there, but the planning inspector has overturned a refusal of the local authority and will impose 504 more houses on that village against the wishes of the local MP, the local authority and the local people. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the workings of the Planning Inspectorate to ensure that from now on the planning inspector puts the wishes of local people at the heart of the Localism Act 2011 as he intended?

I will look carefully at the specific incidents that the hon. Gentleman brings to the House. Under the Localism Act, local authorities are able to produce a local plan and get that agreed, which will give local people greater control over what is built and where. In the meantime, things are judged against the national planning policy framework, which does have protections for green belt; it does insist on going ahead with brownfield developments and it does take into account pre-existing local plans. If that needs to be clarified, then clarify it we will.

Q9. First, the Government told northern councillors to stop doffing their caps in the hopes of a handout. Then, the High Court ruled that Government cuts in European funding for Liverpool and Sheffield were illegal. What does all this say about the Government? (902841)

Of course, Liverpool—the city that the hon. Lady represents—has huge funding needs, and I believe that the funding it gets reflects those needs. Spending in Liverpool for 2014 is £2,595 per dwelling. Now, obviously, the needs of her constituency are much greater than the needs of my constituency, but that is a full £700 more per dwelling than is spent in my constituency. So I do not believe that the people of Liverpool are being short-changed. They are properly funded for the services that they need.

Q10. Last year, I met the surgeon, Tim Underwood, who leads the outstanding oesophageal cancer team at Southampton general hospital. He explained that oesophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers in the west but also one of the hardest to treat. Surgery is gruelling and incredibly painful. Many people are unaware that persistent heartburn and difficulties swallowing can be symptoms of oesophageal cancer. Will my right hon. Friend commit to raising much-needed awareness of this terrible disease and ensure that the NHS has the resources to diagnose it earlier? (902842)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of how we increase awareness of cancer, because that has an important effect in terms of early diagnosis. NHS England is currently running a pilot in the north-east and north Cumbria to raise awareness about oesophageal and stomach cancers, as part of its Be Clear on Cancer campaign, and we are committing more than £450 million of additional funding to support this early diagnosis. The absolute key is making sure that more people have their cancer discovered from trips to the GP and from their own inspections and self-awareness, rather than finding out these things in an emergency, often when it is too late.

Q11. There are almost 1 million young people unemployed here in the UK. There are more than 1 million people on zero-hours contracts. In my constituency, people are £1,811 worse off since 2010. How has the Prime Minister the audacity even to suggest that his party is the worker’s party? (902843)

Let me just give the hon. Gentleman the figures for the north-east since the last election. There are 24,000 more people in work in the north-east since the last election. There are 40,000 more private sector jobs since the last election. Unemployment has fallen—[Interruption.] He is shouting because he does not want to hear the answers about the long-term economic plan.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be shouting. He has asked the question. Let him hear the answer.

The hon. Gentleman could be asking about the massive expansion at Nissan in Sunderland, providing jobs in the north-east. He could be talking about the new Hitachi train factory that will be built in the north-east. All this shows that the plan is working, and frankly, more important than these figures is the fact that every job means another family with a pay packet, with stability, with security and with the peace of mind that this Government are all about.

Q12. This Friday, I am visiting SPR Trailers in Felixstowe—a small family-run business that is taking on apprentices—and with the excellent EDF scheme at Sizewell and the announcement by BT that it is creating 100 new apprenticeships at Adastral Park, does my right hon. Friend agree that earn-while-you-learn is great for young people in Suffolk and that they are building the skills vital to delivering our long-term economic plan? (902844)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the big companies in Britain—BAE Systems, BT, British Airways—are taking on apprentices in larger and larger numbers, which is hugely welcome. The challenge is now to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises in Britain to take on apprentices too. We need to make it simpler—we have done that—and we need to make sure that it pays, and we have done that. We need to advertise to promote to these companies what a great job apprenticeships can do for them and for the country.

To coincide with today’s launch of the new all-party group on youth unemployment, figures have been published by the House of Commons Library that show that, despite the figures that the Prime Minister has just cited, the dole queue for under-25s still reaches from London to Edinburgh. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he thinks that that reflects the success of his policies, and will he commit to meet the all-party group to discuss long-term solutions to this complex problem?

Of course there are still too many people unemployed in our country, but there are 1.6 million new private sector jobs, 1.3 million more people in work, big cuts in unemployment, big reductions in the claimant count, and almost half a million fewer people relying on out-of-work benefits. That is what we want to do, and we have not forgotten the record of the Labour party. Unemployment rose by nearly half a million, female unemployment rose by 24%, and youth unemployment went up by 45%. Instead of giving lectures, the Opposition should make an apology.

Q13. In recognising British success at the Oscars, would the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Bournemouth university and the Arts University Bournemouth, as over 50 of their graduates helped with the design effects for that amazing British film, “Gravity”? Does that not prove that Bournemouth leads the way in digital media, is a great tourism destination, and does amazing party conferences as well? (902845)

As ever, my hon. Friend is right about all those things. Bournemouth university has excellent courses that have helped to build up the British post-production and facilities industries, which are busy helping to create blockbuster films. It is very good news not only that are we winning Oscars for British films but that British studios are full to bursting point making movies. The facilities and post-production industries are leading the world. We need to go on backing that industry, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken steps with things like helping the computer games industry, helping high-end television, and continuing to back the very important film tax credits that have worked so well.

Q14. Recently, East Coast Ambulance Service, a private company, has gone bust, owing thousands of pounds in wages to hard-working staff. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to protect patients, staff and national health service resources is to extend freedom of information to private companies bidding for NHS contracts and stop the invasion of our NHS by predatory private health care companies? (902847)

Obviously, I will look carefully at the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raised, but this Government are putting £12.7 billion into the NHS. I do not believe that we should say that other organisations cannot help to deliver NHS services. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridge is now providing much better services because of the changes that we have made. I shall look at what he said about freedom of information requests, but it is important that we have a health service that can access the best of public, private and voluntary.

It is good news that the Prime Minister has apparently resuscitated plans for a recall Bill, but will he confirm that he intends to push ahead with a genuine system of recall, not fall back on the Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill, which has been widely discredited, is recall in name only, and would not empower voters in any meaningful sense at all.

I fear that it will be difficult to satisfy my hon. Friend on that point. We should proceed by taking the draft clauses as the starting point for what I think would be an excellent reform, which we committed to in our manifesto, and which was committed to in the coalition agreement. If Members of Parliament are in serious breach of standards and judged to be so, they should not have to wait for a general election to receive the verdict of their constituents.

Vocational Qualifications

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the publication of our reform plan for vocational qualifications, which will significantly simplify and streamline the adult skills system, alongside apprenticeship reforms.

This is national apprenticeship week, when we celebrate the onward march of apprenticeships, their rejuvenation and expansion. We want it to become the new norm for young people to have the choice of going either to university or into an apprenticeship. We have set out reforms to drive up the quality of apprenticeships and to introduce new apprenticeships in areas from space engineering to nursing. Today we set out plans to reform adult skills more broadly. They build on the foundations laid by our reforms to schools, the introduction of tech levels and Doug Richard’s work on the future of apprenticeships—I pay tribute to him for that work.

The vocational qualifications system had grown too complicated, bureaucratic and hard to understand. Even with the action taken so far, there are some 15,800 regulated qualifications in England, 11,000 of which are eligible for Government funding. By November, our reform plan will have removed more than 6,500 qualifications not valued by employers from Government funding, allowing nearly £200 million to be redirected towards more effective qualifications. The reforms will also: give employers greater ownership of qualification design and standards; attract funding only if the qualifications are valued by employers; and offer learners meaningful progress in employment or further learning. At the same time, Ofqual will review the way vocational qualifications are regulated.

We support vocational qualifications that help people into work, so we must focus support on those that employers value. As a result of these reforms, qualifications in subjects such as self-tanning, balloon artistry and instructing pole fitness will no longer attract Government funding. We will examine the current system to see whether more flexible approaches, such as payment by results, might work better, particularly when dealing with unemployed people returning to education.

The reforms will also make the qualifications system easier for learners and employers to understand. A new system will be developed to allow people to see what is available. Funded qualifications will need to set out their purposes clearly and in non-technical language, and new qualifications will need to demonstrate that they have business support. We will monitor their track record over time to ensure that they are delivering employment and progression, and we will support only those qualifications that actually deliver for learners.

High-quality apprenticeships and adult qualifications are vital to our long-term economic plan and allow all people the chance to reach their potential. I commend this statement to the House.

It is nice that we have the chance to have this exchange during national apprenticeship week. It allows me to say how proud the Opposition are of our country’s apprentices, of the National Apprenticeship Service and of national apprenticeship week, which we are grateful this Government have continued.

I am glad that the Minister is with us today to spell out how he plans to implement Nigel Whitehead’s excellent review, and I am grateful to Nigel Whitehead for briefing me on the plans yesterday. However, I have to be honest with the Minister and say that we are a little disappointed that today he has merely announced but a fraction of the change we need. Most Opposition Members are scratching our heads and asking ourselves, “Is that it?”

The Minister is presiding over a Department that is cutting skills spending by half a billion pounds over the next couple of years. We know that difficult decisions are needed, but that is why comprehensive reform should have been announced today, not just a bit of reform. We heard nothing about how to raise employer demand for apprenticeships, although 92% of firms in this country do not offer them. We heard not a word about how the Government plan to raise the quality of courses taught in further education or the quality of teachers.

The Minister instructed the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to vote against Labour’s plans, which were debated in the Deregulation Bill Committee yesterday, to raise the quality of apprenticeships by 2020. The Secretary of State for Education has downgraded training requirements for further education teachers so that they no longer need English and maths even to a basic level. We have heard nothing today about licensing colleges as specialist centres of technical education.

I am not saying that the Minister is a road block to reform, but I am increasingly concerned that he is a straw in the wind, powerless to deliver the change that the skills system needs. His hon. Friends know that he likes a good plot in Parliament; I am worried that he has lost the plot in his Department.

When will we see plans to raise the quality standards for apprenticeships? When will we see plans to raise and support the quality of further education teaching? Where is the plan to use public procurement to raise apprenticeship numbers? Finally, given that the Minister has refused to tell me how big the head count cuts in the National Apprenticeship Service will be in the next year or two, will he tell the House this afternoon exactly how many people will go?

There is a big plank of consensus between us in the House. We, too, believe that good skills are crucial if families are to earn their way to a better standard of living and escape the cost of living crisis in which the Government have trapped them. Frankly, we needed a bigger plan from the Minister this afternoon.

Well, Mr Speaker, it all started well. The consensus on support for the growth of apprenticeships is welcome. I also welcome the support from the Opposition Front Bench on the moves we are driving through to increase the quality of apprenticeships. Unfortunately, after a reasonably good start, the right hon. Gentleman’s speech went a bit haywire. It is pity that he suggested nothing constructive or positive. Instead, he just sniped. I, too, pay tribute to Nigel Whitehead, who has put together an impressive report on which the reforms are based, but for the right hon. Gentleman to complain about English and maths when we are putting through one of the largest ever programmes to increase English and maths requirements in vocational learning is a bit of a surprise.

We are introducing elite colleges to ensure that when we build HS2 and new nuclear power stations, local people will have the training to get those jobs, but there was not a word of support for that. It is a pity to hear the sniping, but it is welcome that in national apprenticeship week there is support from both sides of the House for the big growth in apprenticeships. They have been a big coalition success, with the number of participants doubling, and they are critical to give young people the chance to succeed instead of being on the scrap heap where the Labour party left them.

I welcome today’s statement. Vocational qualifications need attention, and they needed to be sorted out. As chairman of the Select Committee on Education, I try to be dispassionate, but the truth is that under the last Government we had the diploma, a massive expansion of useless vocational qualifications and, even in the boom years, young people left on the dole. It does not have to be that way. Other countries in Europe show that getting vocational education right and improving careers advice and guidance—the Government have more work to do on that—means that young people will not be destined to a life on the dole, which was their fate too often under the last Government.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work. He said that we have more work to do, and I agree wholeheartedly. We have made improvements, but bringing together the worlds of education and employment is a long-term task involving a change of culture. I welcome the fact that, in figures published last week, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training hit a record low, but every NEET is one too many and we must do more.

I welcome some aspects of the Minister’s statement, especially engagement with employers. However, may I tell him, on this first day of Lent, that he should resolve over the next 40 days to do something every day to engage the staff, the principals and the whole community of the further education sector? He will not deliver improvements in vocational qualifications unless he has the FE sector on his side, and the recent cuts to post-18 education are not helping at all.

The FE system is an amazing asset to this country in driving up quality and ensuring that we tackle low quality. It is important to highlight the fact that it does a brilliant job of turning around lives. That is why we are introducing new FE colleges for the first time in two decades. I am a wholehearted supporter of the FE system and entirely agree about its importance. The hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), complains about the fact that we live in tight financial times and must take uncomfortable decisions, but we all know why that happened.

I congratulate the Minister on his statement, with which I agree wholeheartedly. I also welcome his saying, at a conference I attended a couple of days ago, that we will introduce proper careers advice in schools. Careers advice has been desperately needed over the past few years and was destroyed by Labour Members when they were in control. I am delighted that we are finally offering our young people real careers advice about the apprenticeships that are now available instead of university.

That is some careers advice for me. Careers advice is yet another Labour mess that we are having to clear up. It is vital that careers advice gives people inspiration as well as information. We will shortly introduce new statutory guidance to strengthen the requirements on schools to deliver on that, and I will keep a close eye on how well that progresses.

I share the concern about the quality of careers advice at the moment. Kids need their eyes and minds to be open to the options that are ahead. The Government’s current approach of leaving it all to schools is not providing the best advice for children or best value for taxpayers’ money because it is so dissipated. Will the Minister seriously look again at this? If kids do not know about the options, it does not matter how great they are, because they will not grasp and take them.

The best people to give careers advice are those who are enthusiastic about the careers that they themselves are in, and that is the direction we are taking. Although schools obviously play a vital part, we have also introduced the National Careers Service, which was not there for 13 years under Labour. This is a partnership between Government, schools and companies that can show young people the careers that are available.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. I would like to assure the House that in Erewash this week I am busy meeting a number of apprentices from a range of sectors to mark national apprenticeship week. Does he agree that the two key points are, first, to remind employers of the support available and encourage them to appreciate the value of apprenticeships, and secondly, to tell young people, as I frequently do, “Get smart—get an apprenticeship”?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work. I would say to all Members of the House that having an apprentice not only gives somebody a chance but is very motivating for oneself, as I have found out. I not only recommend all Members to take on an apprentice but commend the House of Commons for having started an apprenticeship scheme. I have met some of those apprentices, and very impressive they are too.

I am a member of the Deregulation Bill Committee, where I voted for and spoke strongly in favour of Labour’s excellent amendments and was disappointed when they were not successful. One concern I expressed was about the fear that the switch in funding for vocational training from further education colleges to employers will weaken provision, as cash-strapped companies with cash-flow problems will not necessarily spend the money on vocational training. What does the Minister say to that?

In the reforms, the money will have to be spent on apprenticeship training. It is vital that we ensure that the training delivered is that which employers need, so it needs to be not only rigorous, but responsive. This country has had not just a skills shortage, but the wrong training, as demonstrated by some of the qualifications we have today announced we will be no longer funding. We have to support the training that employers need and bring together education and employment, so that young people learn skills that will help them get a job and get on in that job.

Am I right in thinking that the Leitch review envisaged 250,000 apprenticeship starts a year by 2020 and that we now intend to ensure that the figure will be at least 360,000 a year? It is good news that employers are creating new apprenticeships, but is it not also important to ensure that 15 and 16-year-olds in school are aware of the range and quality of the apprenticeship opportunities open to them?

That last point is very important, but I can go one better: in the past year, more than 500,000 people started an apprenticeship. We made a commitment in our manifesto to increase the number by tens of thousands and we have more than delivered on that target. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who oversaw the start of this expansion. We also have to drive up the quality of the apprenticeships.

I also welcome the Minister’s statement and the fact that employers will now have a greater input into, and have a better partnership role in, apprenticeships. Does the Minister agree that we cannot get complacent? There are still a lot of people out there who want to get into apprenticeships, and relationships with FE colleges must be strengthened even further.

I agree. A culture change is needed across this country so that when young people leave school they will look to go either to university or into an apprenticeship. Our job is not to make the mistake of forcing people one way or the other—sometimes against their wishes, as has happened before—but instead to make sure that there are two high-quality options available and that people can choose what suits them.

I very much welcome today’s statement. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Cornwall apprenticeship service, which has created 1,000 new apprenticeships in a year? That, with his Department’s support, is enabling micro-businesses such as Feritech in Penryn to take on apprentices.

I pay tribute to the Cornwall apprenticeship service. In fact, I have visited Cornwall college twice as skills Minister and have seen the work it is doing, particularly on building links with employers so that the training it provides is what they need. I pay tribute to its work.

I have a positive suggestion for the Minister, since he has asked for one. Why do the Government not introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for every under 25-year-old? Labour has done something similar in Wales and not only have thousands of young people got into jobs, but 80% of them have got into jobs with private sector employers and full-time employment. That is a positive suggestion, isn’t it? Just say yes.

When I last visited Cornwall college, I was with the hon. Gentleman. The Welsh Government have obviously done better than the previous national Labour Government did, because under their scheme—I have heard about this and seen the evidence—more than 90% of the jobs were unsustainable jobs in the public sector. Our employer-led approach is leading to a fall in youth unemployment and, as I have said, record low NEETs among those aged 16 to 18. This is about real, sustainable jobs and more security for people’s incomes.

Apprenticeships have been a major success of the coalition Government, with many thousands of businesses taking on an apprentice for the very first time, but many thousands of businesses have not. Has the Minister made an assessment of what barriers remain for those businesses and what further action the Government can take to make a success story even better?

I am always vigilant to making it easier for employers to take on apprentices. That is a very important part of the programme. We have introduced a simple three-step process for employers to take on an apprentice. It appears to be working, because more than half of apprentices are in small and medium-sized enterprises. I am absolutely sure that there is more that we can do to simplify the process and make it as easy as possible.

As we celebrate national apprenticeship week in its seventh year, will the Minister steal Labour’s plans to make companies employ apprentices as part of the procurement process, which is another positive suggestion?

Crossrail, which is the biggest construction project in Europe and is happening under this Government, has a rule on the number of apprentices involved in procurement. That has had a very positive impact and we are building the FE college that will ensure that we provide such apprenticeships for HS2 as well.

I was disappointed by the curmudgeonly approach of the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, to the great success of apprenticeships under this Government. In my constituency of Gloucester, the impact of the increased funding for apprenticeships means that there are now more than three times the number of apprentice starts every year than there were in 2009, and youth unemployment fell by 45% last year alone. When the hon. Gentleman said that he was scratching his head, I was not surprised, because when the shadow Chancellor came to Gloucester he said that he was concerned about the level of youth unemployment. There is always more to do, but it is 20% lower than it was under Labour’s watch. Today, can we celebrate—

I had more than a dollop when I visited Gloucester with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). The fact that youth unemployment has fallen by 20% since he was rightly elected is in no small part thanks to the enormous hard work he does with his magnificent jobs fairs and apprenticeships fairs, and what he does to promote apprentices to employers, which I have seen first hand.

For the greater part of my life, apprenticeships were greatly valued, with two to three years of craft training, indentures and a job at the end of them. One in five of Tory apprenticeship scheme entrants say that their period lasts for less than six months and they have no training at all. Has not an increase in the number of apprenticeships been bought at the cost of a degradation in their status and value?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that needs to be addressed. The system we inherited had a lot of short-term apprenticeships, but we have introduced a minimum of a year for apprenticeships and are driving up the quality. I think those measures have cross-party support, but it is certainly true that we have had to improve on the 2010 apprenticeship scheme.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he join me in congratulating Ann Webb, head of Eaton Bank academy in my constituency, on holding an apprenticeship event last Friday, which I was pleased to attend, that directly promoted to students opportunities for, and the importance of, apprenticeships? Will he encourage other schools to follow that innovative lead?

I certainly commend such action to promote apprenticeships as an option, alongside higher education, for young people. It is undoubtedly true that, while university is right for some people, it is not right for everybody. Giving people options that can also lead them to further higher study is valuable. In the law, for example, someone can become a fully qualified solicitor through an apprenticeship that is equivalent to post-degree level study. It is very important that such options are made available to young people.

I was pleased to hear that the Minister has signed up to the youth friendly employer badge run by Youth Employment UK, a charity based in my constituency that works nationwide. Corby is a place where there is excellence. Lots of people are being placed in apprenticeships through Tresham Evolve and the Northamptonshire Industrial Training Association Ltd. Will the Minister look at the quarterly funding arrangements, which have at times created uncertainty in the business planning of those organisations placing people in apprenticeships?

The hon. Gentleman will probably not be surprised to hear that I have made many visits to Corby and learned a lot during them, including about the funding arrangements. It is necessary to have arrangements that ensure that the funding gets to those people who are expanding their apprenticeship programme. That means that it has to be allocated in-year. I know that causes discomfort to some of the providers and I always keep an eye on the situation to make sure it does not get out of hand.

It is welcome news that 43% of employers are more likely to offer an apprenticeship than two years ago. However, too many busy businesses are still not aware of the fantastic opportunities and benefits of the apprenticeship scheme. Will the Government take forward plans to promote apprentices through the annual business rates mailer that we already pay for?

That is a really important point. Big businesses that have a graduate recruitment round are increasingly moving to having a graduate recruitment system alongside an apprenticeship recruitment system. On Monday, I was at the BBC, which is doubling its apprenticeship intake, and it announced the goal of an apprenticeship intake of the same size as its university intake. The civil service is doing the same in moving towards having both, and all large companies should look at whether that is the right option for them.

It is good to hear the Minister speak about quality in FE. My experience is that most middle-class parents would still prefer their children to go on to A-level and university, with vocational options left for everybody else. Until the issue of quality is addressed, parents will guide their children in that way. How will downgrading training, so that teachers no longer need a teaching qualification, help?

We are upgrading training to make sure that people who have skills in the workplace can easily transfer them into FE colleges. Making training relevant to what now goes on is a very important part of making sure that provision is high quality. I agree with the hon. Lady that tackling low-quality provision is very important in showing parents that the existing provision for their children is high quality. That important thrust is behind why we are tackling low-quality provision, as well as celebrating high-quality provision where it exists.

This morning in Colchester, I launched a campaign for local businesses to recruit 100 apprentices in 100 days. The campaign is supported by the Colchester Institute, the Colchester Daily Gazette and the National Apprenticeship Service in the part of the country that the Minister and I represent. Will he welcome this Colchester success story, which follows a fall of more than 600 in the town’s unemployment figures from January 2013 to January 2014?

Yes, I absolutely will. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in reaching 100 apprentices in 100 days, and I suggest that he take on an apprentice himself.

Small and micro-businesses in Oldham have told me that they find the process for recruiting apprentices cumbersome and bureaucratic. Given that nearly half the work force are employed in small businesses, what more can we do to engage businesses and make the process to recruit apprentices much simpler?

One thing that the hon. Lady could do to make the process simpler is to support the measures in the Deregulation Bill that is going through the House. We are taking a whole series of measures, but if she has specific examples of bureaucracy getting in the way, I would be very keen to look at them.

In each of the past two years, more than 1,000 people in Worcester have started an apprenticeship, more than doubling the uptake since the end of the previous Labour Government. I am very glad that that is happening, along with an increase in the quality of apprenticeships. With new research from the Association of Accounting Technicians showing that each apprenticeship in Worcester adds £2,229 to the local economy, does the Minister agree that more businesses in our area should take on apprentices?

Yes, I agree. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work to bring exactly that benefit to the attention of employers in Worcester and across the country.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign from some quarters to push for a focus on STEAM rather than STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. The A is for arts subjects. Will the Minister assure me that he values the importance of arts training, particularly for a city such as Bristol, where there are so many jobs in the creative industries, and that he does not regard subjects such as animation as providing Mickey Mouse qualifications?

Far from it—spreading apprenticeships to cover the whole economy, including the creative industries, is extremely important. In fact, I was at a breakfast this morning with representatives of the UK music industry to promote music apprenticeships, precisely because we must make sure that the training we support on behalf of taxpayers is needed by employers and reflects the modern economy, including the creative industries in Bristol.

I congratulate the Minister on today’s announcement. Will he congratulate the brilliant leadership shown by Fiona Kendrick, the chief executive of Nestlé, which wants to have 1,000 apprentices? That will benefit enormously the factory in Hatton in south Derbyshire, following a £200 million investment.

I pay tribute to Nestlé. I also pay tribute to members of the 5% Club, who have committed to having 5% of their work force as apprentices and graduate entrants. That will make sure that we can give jobs, as they become available, to young people in this country.

I am a beneficiary of vocational training, as a former apprentice brickie. Is the Minister aware that the figure he gave of 12 months for the minimum length of stay is only 11 months, according to BIS? Does he believe that short-term vocational programmes, rather than apprenticeships, damage the apprenticeship brand?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that driving up quality is very important. I pay tribute to him, not least in that for all potential apprenticeships watching, he stands as an example of where apprenticeships can get people.

Three years ago, I became the first MP to hire an apprentice to work in my office. Having qualified, Jade Scott is still with me, and is now my office manager in Hexham. I can assure the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) that he should do exactly the same.

Does the Minister agree that although apprenticeships have doubled in the north-east, we need to encourage not only larger companies that have groundbreaking programmes, such as Egger and Accenture, but smaller SMEs to kick in and provide the jobs and apprenticeships that we need?

Yes, I do agree, but I would caution that more than half of apprentices are in SMEs, and we must make sure that SMEs—as well as us in this House—know about the value of apprentices.

I appeal to the Minister not to forget the needs of NEETs. I thank him for meeting the Employability Trust, which is based in Peterlee; he may recall meeting Bill Marley. Will he commend its excellent work and the need to support its activities?

I remember the meeting very clearly, and I commend the trust’s work. It is vital to tackle the problem of NEETs—those aged 16 to 18 not in education, employment or training—but we must also recognise that their number hit a record low last week, and we should all celebrate that fact.

I commend my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for vocational learning and his plan for reform. What more can he do to enthuse schools to improve their links with businesses so that we can maximise the opportunities available to young people?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and I very much look forward to visiting his local college some time soon to see the work that is happening on the ground. Stronger links between businesses and schools and between employers and schools are really important in making sure that when people leave school, they have what it takes to get the jobs that are available.

As my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary set out this week, the barrier between academic and vocational learning is breaking down, because in the modern economy, people need the knowledge, the skills and the behaviour to succeed. Academic subjects are becoming more vocational, and vocational subjects are becoming more academic. Instead of seeing them as two completely separate areas, we must make sure that young people can get the skills, knowledge and behaviour they need to be able to perform in the workplace.

In Pendle, we have seen a stonking increase in apprenticeships. The outstanding Nelson and Colne college told me yesterday that it currently has 22 apprenticeship vacancies with small and medium-sized local employers around my patch. Will the Minister visit Pendle to look at the work of Nelson and Colne college, and the new one-stop apprenticeship shop created in Nelson town centre?

There will be a wide welcome for today’s statement, and for the success that the Government have achieved in spreading and increasing apprenticeships, but nowhere is the success of apprenticeships more important than in Wales. What discussions has the Department had with the Welsh Government about liaison and the spread of knowledge, expertise and experience, so that we ensure success in Wales and, in a general sense, ensure that we make devolution work for Britain?

I am grateful for that question. I meet my Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish counterparts regularly. I plan to go to Cardiff later this year to meet them to ensure that we learn from best practice. As my hon. Friend knows, the Education Minister in Wales recently apologised for the state of Welsh education. Wales is working to improve the system and to learn lessons from the education systems in the other devolved Administrations and in England. An important part of our work is to drive up standards for everybody.

In commending the statement, I suggest that the Minister visit Leeds, where there was a 38% increase in the number of apprenticeships between 2012 and 2013. Last night at the Leeds apprenticeship awards, the Leeds city region apprenticeship challenge, which aims to get 1,000 more firms taking on apprentices, was launched. Will he support that challenge? Does he agree that the key is that the public sector, the private sector and the further education sector must work together to make it a success?

Yes. I have visited Leeds to see what it is doing. It is using Government support to tackle its skills shortages. Again, further education institutions—in fact, all education institutions—and employers must work together to ensure that what is taught is what is needed.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will have heard the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) refer a moment ago to the fact that he had seen the evidence on the future jobs fund, which was cancelled in 2010. The convention and courtesy in this House is that if a Minister prays in aid a piece of information, he makes it available to the whole of the House. The Minister served his apprenticeship working for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so I can only assume that he knows that fully to be the case and that he is, therefore, desperate to publish that information in the Library of the House later this afternoon.

The countenance of the Minister gives no indication of his awareness or unawareness of that convention. I confirm that it is a convention. The Minister is champing at the bit. He will not be silenced, and nor would we want to silence him.

I was quoting from publicly available evidence that shows that the proposals that were brought in by the Labour Government did not lead to sustainable jobs. Of course, we know the result because Labour left office with youth unemployment up, unemployment up and employment falling. This morning, we found out that the inactivity rate in Britain is at its lowest level since 1992, which shows that we are turning that problem around.

We cannot have a continuing debate on the matter. I simply say, in a spirit of trying to bring the matter to an amicable close and to serve the interests of the House, that it would be helpful, if the Minister was quoting from publicly available material, if he wrote to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) quoting chapter and verse, and referring him to the particular statements or paragraphs that he has in mind.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I informed the relevant Minister that I intended to raise this point of order, as is the protocol. I would welcome your guidance on the mechanisms that are open to me to have the record corrected, following my exchange on Monday with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). In responding to my question about the unfair cuts to the budget of Liverpool city council, he made serious allegations and may have inadvertently misled the House. I am seeking guidance from you, Mr Speaker, on what I can do to have the record corrected by the Minister, so that the smears against Liverpool will not be repeated outside as facts that have been raised in this House.

The Minister, in common with every right hon. and hon. Member, is responsible for the veracity or otherwise of the statements that he makes in the House. If he has made an error—I say if, because I have no way of knowing off the top of my head whether it is so—he is responsible for correcting the record. The Chair cannot engage in a regular series of debates between Members about whether the House has been misled. If it is a matter of political contention, it might be best for the hon. Gentleman to seek to resolve it first through correspondence with the Minister. That is my advice to him and let us see where it gets us. If he needs to come back to me, doubtless he will require no encouragement.

I am saving up the point of order from the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), because I think that it is a rather juicy one. I mean no disrespect to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether you will categorise this as juicy, but it will certainly be juicy back home in Northern Ireland. It relates to the revelation that there was an administrative scheme for on-the-run people in Northern Ireland. That came as a bolt out of the blue to people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the House. Careful perusal and examination of the parliamentary record going back over a number of years indicates that there were occasions on which the House may have been misled by ministerial statements, whether oral or written. Will you advise the House on what can be done, now that there can be a thorough examination of how the matter was handled by Ministers in their public utterances in this House? What action can be taken to correct the record, to put the facts before the House and to ensure that the matter is thoroughly aired?

My initial response to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is open to the Northern Ireland Office, which will be privy to all the material, to correct the record if it judges that to be necessary. I do not think that I can add anything to that statement at this stage and we will leave it there for today. I thank him for his point of order.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may recall that in November last year, I raised a point of order to express my concern that Dato Makudi had been given leave to take to the Court of Appeal his action for defamation that related to remarks made by Lord Triesman to the Football Association, in which he merely referred to statements that he had made to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport about possible corruption in FIFA. Those remarks were, of course, made under privilege.

At that time, I expressed my concern that the action represented a significant threat to the privilege conferred on Members and, indeed, on witnesses who appear before Select Committees of this House, and that it could have the severe effects of preventing us from exposing truth and giving witnesses the impression that they do not enjoy the protection of parliamentary privilege. You were sufficiently concerned, Mr Speaker, to make a submission to the Court of Appeal.

As you may be aware, Mr Speaker, the Court of Appeal has reached a judgment in which it is clearly stated that Lord Triesman’s remarks were covered by article 9 of the Bill of Rights. I believe that that is a significant re-establishment of the rights of this House. I wonder whether you would like to make a statement in the light of that.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he rightly says, I shared his grave concern, not principally on behalf of Lord Triesman, but on behalf of the House, that a threat to parliamentary privilege and, therefore, to Parliament was entailed. I did, as I indicated to the hon. Gentleman was my intention, cause representations to be made to the Court of Appeal. It was, of course, a matter for the court and I am absolutely delighted that it found in favour of Lord Triesman. That was a victory not just for Lord Triesman, but for the precious principle of parliamentary privilege and for Parliament itself. It was a very important day, and the hon. Gentleman is right to celebrate it and to give me the opportunity, on behalf of the House, to do the same.

Business without Debate

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Francis Report

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Health Committee, on After Francis: making a difference, HC 657, and the Government response, Cm 8755.]