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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 577: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2014

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Trade Union Subscriptions

1. What his policy is on the deduction of trade union subscriptions from payroll in the civil service. (902978)

The civil service has used check-off for the last 30 years. Indeed, large companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce use it as a very efficient way to deduct trade union subscriptions from salary. Is this not just another ideological attack? Removing check-off from the civil service payroll will cost many times more than running the current system for hundreds of years.

As I say, it is a matter for Departments to decide for themselves. A number of trade unions take the view that it is much better to have a direct relationship with their members than to have it intermediated through the employer—it is a rather more modern way to run things.

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is fair on hard-working British taxpayers that their money is used to subsidise the administration of trade unions rather than going to front-line services?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for the use of facility time to be much better regulated. We inherited from Labour a position in which very large amounts of public money were being spent on subsidising 250 full-time officials in the civil service alone, let alone in the wider public sector. I am happy to tell her that we have got that under control.

The Minister says that this is a matter for individual Departments, but the private secretary in his Department has written to every Department in Whitehall asking them to review check-off. We know that the Government, for political reasons, want to scrap check-off, and I have seen a copy of an official letter from the Department for Work and Pensions, which was subsequently withheld by Ministers, that states:

“The department has concluded that the figure for the financial implications of ending check-off should be disclosed…The information held states: ‘We estimate that implementation costs could exceed one million pounds’.”

In the light of that revelation, will he agree, in the interests of transparency, to publish the full financial implications of this misguided policy?

I am happy to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date. The DWP has subsequently said that that was a speculative and inaccurate figure—

Well, with respect, I have seen more recent correspondence than the hon. Gentleman has seen. The truth is that Ministers—as he will recall from his time in government—are sometimes given figures for the cost of making a change that turn out not to be true. This is such a case.

Public Bodies

The Government have reduced the number of public bodies by more than 250. By 2015, there will be a third fewer public bodies than in 2010, ensuring increased accountability and efficiency, with continuing efficiency savings of £900 million a year.

Many quangos are unaccountable, unelected and have great power over people’s everyday lives. They are incredibly expensive to run, with questionable outcomes. Will the Minister please consider another round of the bonfire of the quangos to continue our march towards a leaner and more efficient Government?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s encouragement. Our quest for a leaner and more efficient Government has already yielded savings of more than £10 billion in the last financial year. Labour did nothing on that whatever, which is part of the reason why we inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. We have more to do, and for the first time we have instituted a round of triennial reviews so that every three years we look at the status of every public body to decide whether it still needs to exist or whether it can be trimmed back. We find that there is scope for much more progress yet.

Will the Minister confirm that the abolition of the UK Film Council and its amalgamation with the British Film Institute will ensure that we continue to make the most of British talent, in that wonderful creative industry?

I am confident that that will be the case. My colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport examined this question very carefully before making the decisions they did. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of the film industry in this country: it is a very bright star indeed, and we should certainly ensure that we do nothing that jeopardises that.

13. Sadly, one of Tony Blair’s lasting legacies was the creation of a huge number of unelected, unaccountable, highly paid quangos, which has ruined this place and taken power from it. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me by telling me what efforts he is making to return power and accountability to the House of Commons? (902992)

A major part of the programme of public bodies reform has been bringing policy functions back to the Government in a way that provides direct accountability to Parliament through Ministers. That is a big part of increasing accountability, but the secondary purpose of the reform of public bodies has been to save money, and I am glad to say that it looks as though the savings will, if anything, exceed our expectations.

The Minister has told us about the reduction in the number of quangos. Will he now tell us what progress is being made in increasing the cost-effectiveness of those that remain?

That is a continuing process. There is much more to be done to increase efficiency. As I have said, we saved more than £10 billion across central Government last year, and we expect the saving to exceed £13 billion in the current financial year, which will end this month. There is much more to be done on quango reform, but as I have said, we expect to save £900 million a year, and have already saved about £1.6 billion.

In the course of his ongoing work on public body and quango reform, will the Minister consider adjusting the responsibilities of the Major Projects Authority? Among its options, the authority has the responsibility to

“require publication of project information consistent with the Coalition’s transparency agenda”.

That is not happening. The Government have suppressed the MPA’s detailed report on HS2, hiding behind a summary. Is it not about time that we were given an accurate description of public bodies, or that the Government published the report?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we are publishing much more detail about the Government’s major projects than has ever been published before. The role of the Major Projects Authority has ensured that, for the first time, consistent oversight and assurance are being applied to the Government’s major projects portfolio, and as a result, having inherited a position in which only about a third of major Government projects were delivered on time and on budget, we now find that the proportion is more like 70%. We are making a great deal of progress, but I hear what my right hon. Friend says.

Speaking about public body reform in 2012, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said that

“the Cabinet Office must get to grips with the programme’s overall costs, benefits and key risks”.

However, a recent National Audit Office report showed that those failings were still in place. When will the Minister get a grip?

It is a bit surprising that the hon. Gentleman should raise that point, given that the last Government did absolutely nothing on this front. We inherited a position in which the Government did not even know how many public bodies there were, but by the time of the next election, we will have reduced the number by a third and cut the costs significantly: we will have cut the cost of quangos by £2.6 billion. I hope that, at some stage, the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the poor record of his own Government. We would be willing, at that stage, to accept his congratulations on what we have done.

Charitable Giving

Three quarters of British people give money to charity, and on that measure, we are the most generous of all the G8 countries. Collectively, in 2010-11 we gave £16.5 billion to charity through direct and indirect donations, and with active Government support. I am delighted to say that the amount of giving appears to have remained constant since 2010, despite difficult times. I am sure that that is something that the whole House will welcome.

Indeed it is. The Minister will be aware of the good things that we can achieve through “round the pound” schemes, and I know that he, like me, is a fan of the organisation Pennies. Will he therefore back my “Winchester penny” idea? The aim is to support the third sector in my constituency by encouraging local businesses, including those that are part of national chains, to join Winchester’s efforts to ensure that we keep it local and support those who are most in need.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend’s initiative. I know that he is a great champion of the voluntary sector in Winchester. We are great fans of Pennies, which is one of the organisations that we have supported through our innovation in giving fund, and which is modernising the way in which we can make micro-donations. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has launched his initiative in Winchester. I congratulate him on his leadership, and congratulate all the businesses that he has so far succeeded in signing up to what seems an excellent initiative.

More and more younger donors are choosing to make their charitable donations by text, yet this group of people are being woefully failed in terms of Gift Aid. Will the Minister look into this, so that Gift Aid support is available for donors who give by text?

I wholly understand the hon. Lady’s point. People are giving in new ways, harnessing the power of new technology. One of the challenges we face is how we can help to make giving easy and compelling in the modern age. She will be aware that we work very hard with our colleagues at the Treasury to try to modernise Gift Aid, such as by making it easier to claim Gift Aid on small donations, and she will be aware that there is an active consultation on how we modernise Gift Aid in the digital world, including how we can harness it to support text-giving.

Public Bodies: Appointments

The Minister will recall that when in the 1980s the then Conservative Government abolished the metropolitan county authorities, the Government were scrupulous in making arrangements for the successor joint boards to recognise the rights of minority groups on the local authorities as well as the majority groups. Such arrangements do not pertain to the new combined authorities that I see from today’s Order Paper we are bringing in. Why is that?

I will look at the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. The truth is that in the last year for which the commissioner for public appointments has published figures on public appointments, actually slightly more appointees declared a Labour party affiliation than a Conservative party affiliation, but for appointments generally we seek people with some commercial experience of running large organisations who can bring to bear the same desire for efficiency and eradicating waste as we are showing in central Government.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that the rather artificial and silly row about Conservatives being appointed to public bodies has now thankfully come to an end? Also, I inform him and the House that the Public Administration Select Committee is going to have a look at the relationship between public bodies and their sponsoring Departments, to see how they perform in bad times as well as good, how they deal with crises and how accountability should be improved.

I of course welcome that inquiry. This is an important issue that should be kept under considerable review. Where the Executive and Parliament forgo the ability for a public activity to be directly accountable to Parliament, we need to understand very clearly how that responsibility is being executed.

I am not sure that the row has come to an end, because in recent weeks we have learned that a Tory donor has been made chair of Natural England, that a former Tory Member of this House has been made chair of the Care Quality Commission, and indeed in the Cabinet Office an impartial civil service post, heading up the appointments unit, has gone to a former member of Conservative central office. So can the Minister, who is of course a former Tory party chairman, explain why an exemption was agreed to give Laura Wyld that Cabinet Office post?

One has to admire the gall of the hon. Gentleman, given that the Government of whom he was a supporter relentlessly stuffed public bodies full of Labour donors and Labour lickspittles. It was the most appalling abuse of power. We are running things in a substantially better way, as the statistic I have just disclosed illustrates. Further, I can inform the hon. Gentleman that the number of women appointed to public appointments is now up to 45% for the last period, which is significantly better than anything his Government ever even began to achieve.

Procurement (Savings)

5. What assessment he has made of the level of savings resulting from procurement and commercial reform across central Government since May 2010; and if he will make a statement. (902982)

Through a range of very overdue commercial and procurement reforms across central Government, the efficiency and reform group set up by the Minister for the Cabinet Office has delivered savings of £3.75 billion in 2010-11, a further £5.5 billion in 2011-12 and an additional £10 billion in 2012-13.

What a shame the Labour party did not do that, and did not mend the roof while the sun was shining. Nevertheless, there are still things that we need to do. My hon. Friend will know that there have been problems at the Ministry of Justice with G4S and Serco. What lessons has he learned from that, to prevent such problems from happening again?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is worth reminding the House that the Labour Front Bencher who had the opportunity to realise those savings but failed to deliver them now leads the party. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, the review that we launched after the Ministry of Justice found irregularities with contracts let under the previous Labour Government underscored the need to strengthen the commercial capability of the civil service, which was long overdue.

In Rotherham, small and medium-sized charities are struggling to keep afloat because of moves towards larger-scale procurement. Does the Minister agree that, while such procurement can make savings, it can also cause suffering?

This Government are extremely committed to trying to open up the public service so that more, and more diverse, organisations can help us to deliver better value for the taxpayer. That explicitly includes charities, social enterprises and public service mutuals. Yesterday, we announced a publication that updates the House on our progress. We are making progress. We are not yet where I want to be, as this involves a quite profound cultural change, but we are committed to seeing this through.

Government Websites

So far, we have closed an astonishing 1,789 Government websites. We are in the process of moving the remaining 200 on to by July 2014. In that process, we are not just saving £42 million but providing, at long last, a single source of consistent, clear information on Government policies.

I welcome the action that my hon. Friend is taking. Will he update the House on the progress that is being made on digitising the apprenticeships application process, and tell us when it will be available on

That is a very important service, for reasons that the House understands, and it is a priority for us. We have built a prototype, which will be tested with users over the coming months, and our hope is that a version of this important service will be available from October this year.

Will my hon. Friend tell us what best practice local authorities can take from this central Government initiative?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. There is a huge opportunity to harness best practice across local government, and that is why we have partnered with the Local Government Association and other sector partners to establish a local digital alliance. We are collaborating with and supporting local government to design and deliver local public services online. That will allow them to offer value for money and to maximise the opportunities presented by digital tools.

The Big Society

I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in celebrating the fact that volunteering has risen since 2010 after years of decline, and that almost 2,000 young people in Bristol and the immediate surrounding area will have the opportunity to take part in the National Citizen Service this year.

I am sure that the Government are embarrassed by the fact that food banks have now become by far the most visible sign of the big society in action and have now, de facto, become part of the welfare system. Jobcentres are being told to signpost them, rather than refer people to them, in order to mask their connection with benefit sanctions and delays. Is this a sign of the success of the big society: food banks feeding the starving because of the failures of the welfare system’s safety net?

Food banks are an impressive civil society response to a need that, as the hon. Lady knows, emerged before the last general election. We have supported a number of them through our social action fund. I hope that she agrees that they are not a long-term solution to the complex issue of food poverty. There are no simple answers, despite what Opposition Members claim, but a large part of the solution is a recovering economy and the long-overdue reform of the welfare system, and that is what we are delivering.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best example of the big society is people power, and that the best example of people power is an in/out referendum on the EU, which those on the Opposition Benches oppose?

I wholly support my hon. Friend. He is a great champion of the big society and is entirely right that a large pillar of that is giving more power to the people. As we have learned today, there is only one party that will give people the power to make that important choice.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Civil Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice have all delivered damning verdicts on the Government’s big society recently. They have shown that people are being thrown on to charity, because the state has failed; that there are three times as many charities in affluent neighbourhoods as in deprived ones; and that while volunteering is thriving, it is not in the places where it is needed most. Was it the intention of the big society that some would swim while others would sink?

In fact, the excellent Centre for Social Justice report actually highlighted how much progress this Government have made in doing what we said we would do, which is transferring power to people, opening up public services so that more and more organisations can come in to help us to deliver better services, and encouraging social action. As I said, giving in this country has remained constant since 2010 and volunteering has risen, which I hope the hon. Lady would welcome.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector Efficiency and Reform Group, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

The Wilson doctrine is a convention whereby Government agencies do not intercept communications with Members of Parliament without explicit approval from the Prime Minister. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) in 2012, the Minister told him that the Wilson doctrine did not apply to metadata, thereby exposing whistleblowers to risks from which parliamentary privilege should protect them. Will he review this policy, discuss it with the Prime Minister and report to the House?

I absolutely understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes and I will undertake to look at this with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

T4. The Minister has a bit of a reputation as a pyromaniac, trying to have bonfires of regulations, quangos and much else. If that is the case, why is he allowing the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce a new code that will inhibit crowdfunding and local people in their communities in raising money through social media? Why do we have this new regulation? (902996)

I accept the compliment that the hon. Gentleman pays me—gracefully, I hope—but the issue he raises is not one with which I am familiar. I am sure that my right hon. Friends in the Treasury will want to look at it. It is a great pleasure to have representation from the Opposition about excessive regulation. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many excessively noisy private conversations are taking place. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Mel Stride.

T2. My right hon. Friend will know that the Public and Commercial Services Union, which stood up with such militancy against his pension reforms, has discovered that it has a £65 million black hole in its own pension scheme. Does he agree that the union should spend more time looking after its members and less time politicising Government reforms? (902994)

All organisations that run a pension scheme have to live in the real world. I am sure that the leadership of the PCS will take pleasure in the fact that its members in the civil service continue to enjoy a pension scheme that is significantly better than the one that the PCS offers to its own staff.

T6. There is huge concern about the Government’s proposals to sell or part-privatise the Land Registry, putting 400 civil service jobs in Durham at risk. It works and even turns a profit for the Treasury. Why fix what is not broken? Has the Minister discussed this with his Department for Business, Innovation and Skills colleagues, and if not, why not? (902999)

I have indeed discussed this with my colleagues in BIS. I do not take the gloomy view that the hon. Lady takes, that any involvement of the private sector means that the Land Registry will be less effective or have less opportunity to grow. A lot of what the Land Registry does is excellent, and there is a real opportunity for it to grow. If that involves bringing in a private sector partner, or private sector capital of one form or another, I hope that she would support that.

T3. May I welcome the Minister’s plans to improve accountability for senior civil service appointments? To ensure transparency and the scrutiny of appointments, may I also urge him to consider making the shortlists for appointments for the heads of quangos, Whitehall Departments and international courts the subject of prior scrutiny by Select Committees? (902995)

My hon. Friend’s latter point is constantly reviewed, and it will come as no surprise to him that his urging is supported by many Select Committees. On his first point, for the first time all permanent secretary appointments are for a fixed tenure of five years. We publish the objectives of permanent secretaries, and all this is beginning to be more accountable than it has ever been before.

T7. This week concerns were expressed in the media about the move to a shared network for emergency services. Why are the Government refusing to share the risk assessment, saying that it will prejudice the procurement process? (903000)

I am not familiar with the particular issue that the hon. Lady raises, but I will happily look at it and get back to her.

T5. What would be the administrative consequences for government if patients languishing on long waiting lists in Wales were given access to the far higher quality services delivered by the coalition NHS in England? (902997)

As my hon. Friend knows, I was in Wales last week, and the deficiencies of the health service under Labour guidance in Wales were a subject of constant discussion.

T8. Last weekend I was searching for a V14 form to return a tax disc, I did a search on Google, and a copycat website came up offering services that cost money. What efforts are being made by the Government to work with the advertising agencies to try to deal with copycat websites that are ripping people off? (903001)

My colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and I had a meeting with Google and others last week to address exactly this issue. We are taking urgent steps, with Google and with the Advertising Standards Authority, to address it. It is a real concern, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it and we are on the case.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is visiting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Sapper Adam Moralee from 32 Engineer Regiment, who tragically died in Camp Bastion on 5 March. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends, and our deepest sympathies are with them at this time.

On a happier note, I am sure the whole House would also like to join me in paying tribute to our first Team GB winter Paralympic gold medal winner, Kelly Gallagher, and her team mate, Jade Etherington, who has won silver and bronze medals at the Sochi games. I, of course, wish to send the best of luck to the other Team GB competitors.

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.

May I, too, send my sympathies, thoughts and prayers to the family of Sapper Moralee and my congratulations to Kelly Gallagher, from Northern Ireland of course, who competed and won the first gold medal?

Given rising racism and xenophobia, including recent racist attacks in my constituency, what more can the Government do to ensure that the public debate on issues such as European Union membership and immigration is more balanced and celebrates the huge positive contribution made to the social, cultural and economic life of the UK, particularly in the run-up to the European elections?

Of course I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to strike the right balance, explaining to the public that we are running a tough but firm immigration system where it needs to be tough and firm, but one that is open to those who want to come here, make a contribution, pay their taxes and contribute to our way of life. I was deeply saddened and shocked to hear about the incidents and what had happened to members of the Polish and Chinese community in her constituency, and even more so to hear about what has happened to her colleague Anna Lo, Member of the Legislative Assembly. I understand that she is the first Member of Chinese descent in any legislature in Europe, but she, too, has been subject to terrible abuse by bullies and racists. I rang her a few weeks ago to express my support for what she is doing to stand up against that terrible treatment.

Q2. Since a £700 tax cut, free school meals and the pupil premium will improve the opportunities and lives of many of my constituents, even though these ideas were not entirely welcome to some among our coalition partners, will my right hon. Friend welcome the fact that coalition government and the compromises that go with it can deliver sound policies? (902964)

Yes, I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, especially on those policies. One of them, as he will know, is in the papers this morning, because of the slightly inexplicable views of an entirely unknown if highly opinionated ex-party adviser to the Conservative party about free school meals. Free school meals, when they are delivered for those in infant school in September, will save families money, improve the health of children and improve educational outcomes. Instead of denigrating that policy, we should be celebrating it.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Sapper Adam Moralee from 32 Engineer Regiment. We honour his bravery and service, but above all send our deepest condolences to his family and friends who mourn him.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister, too, in congratulating our Paralympic medal winners, and wish all Team GB the best of luck in the rest of the games.

At the last general election, the Deputy Prime Minister said that local people should have more control over their health services. Will he explain to the House and the public why last night he voted against that?

Actually, we voted for measures that will ensure that there is local consultation. [Interruption.] I am intrigued by the right hon. and learned Lady’s line of inquiry, given the Labour party’s record on the NHS. We do not need to go any further than what is happening in Wales, where the NHS has not met its target since 2009. It was the Labour party in government that entered into a succession of sweetheart deals, with the covert privatisation of large parts of our NHS. I really do not think that, after the Francis report and all the other revelations of what happened in the NHS under Labour, it has much to stand on.

The right hon. Gentleman is even prepared to justify what he voted on last night. The truth is that the Health Secretary broke the law that gave local people a say, so decided to change the law. The Lib Dems could have stepped in and stopped it, but oh no, here is what they did instead. First, they said that they were against the change, then they put down an amendment, then they sold out to the Tories—and the Tories got their way again. Is there any logic to how the Lib Dems vote other than self-interest?

This from a party that spent £250 million on sweetheart deals for the private sector, which led to operations and procedures that did not help a single patient; a party that now rants and rails against competition in the NHS, but actually introduced it; a party that suffers from collective amnesia about the terrible suffering of the patients in Mid Staffordshire and other parts of the NHS mismanaged by it.

Hospitals are under threat and they want a say. People will remember what the Deputy Prime Minister has said in the House today.

At their spring conference last week, Lib Dem Ministers were falling over themselves to denounce Government policies, and even their own departmental colleagues, describing them variously as “unfair”, “absurd” and “hated”, yet they keep supporting them. Take the bedroom tax. The right hon. Gentleman’s own party president says that the bedroom tax is wrong, unnecessary and causing misery, but they voted for it. Now they say they want to abolish it. Are they for the bedroom tax or against it? Which is it?

There are 1.7 million people on the housing waiting lists in our country and there are 1.5 million spare bedrooms. That is a problem that we inherited, like so many problems, from the Labour party. We are trying to sort out the mess that it created. If it is incapable of taking any responsibility or expressing any apology for the mess that it has created, why should we take any of the right hon. and learned Lady’s questions seriously at all?

The Liberal Democrats are for the bedroom tax—only Labour will scrap it.

The Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that cutting the top rate of tax would be “cloud cuckoo land”. If the Lib Dems were against this tax cut, why did they vote for it?

Guess what the top rate of tax was under Labour. Anybody? Was it 50p or 45p? Anybody? It was 40p for 13 years, and now the right hon. and learned Lady is complaining that it is 5p higher. Honestly, if she is going to try to make consistency a virtue, how about this? This week, the Labour party has been talking about the need to give young people job opportunities. Last week, it tabled an amendment to the Deregulation Bill which would tell half a million young people on level 2 apprenticeships that they are no longer apprentices. Worse than that, it issued a report a few months ago that said that hundreds of thousands of youngsters on level 2 apprenticeships are—get this—dead weight. What a kick in the teeth for the young people we should be helping on to apprenticeships.

We will have a bankers’ bonus tax for youth jobs because youth unemployment has doubled—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. and learned Lady. When both principals have been at the Dispatch Box, there has been far too much noise. People ought to be able to hear the questions and answers. Whether or not Members respect each other, they ought to respect the public.

Long-term youth unemployment has doubled under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. With so many people struggling to make ends meet and many even driven to relying on food banks, it is an absolute disgrace that the Lib Dems voted through a tax cut for the richest.

On Sunday, the Deputy Prime Minister shared with us everything that he loves about Britain. He loves his cup of tea, he loves the shipping forecast and he loves flip-flops—not so much footwear for the Deputy Prime Minister, but certainly a way of life. With his broken promises and posturing, does he not realise that he might love Britain, but Britain does not love him back?

The punchline was a long time in the delivery and it was not really worth waiting for. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady does not want the facts to get in the way of a pre-prepared joke, but how about this? Youth unemployment is lower now than when we came into office. In her last year in office, 1 million more people were in relative poverty than there are now; half a million more children were in relative poverty than there are now; 150,000 more people were unemployed than there are now; and 25,000 more young people were unemployed. What we know is that Labour is the party of a 40p top tax rate, of sweetheart deals for the private sector in the NHS and of Fred Goodwin—and now they are the party against apprenticeships.

What the Deputy Prime Minister has shown is that he is siding with the Tories and is totally out of touch. Whatever was said last weekend, no one is going to be fooled by the Lib Dems’ phoney rows with the Tories when week in, week out they are justifying policies at the Dispatch Box and trotting through the Lobby with the Tories. They used to talk about two parties coming together in the national interest; now they are two parties bound together by a mutual terror of the electorate.

However the right hon. and learned Lady wishes to characterise things, she has a record that she needs to defend: of boom and bust, of sucking up to the City and of presiding—[Interruption.]

She has a record of an increase in relative poverty, an increase in unemployment and an increase in youth unemployment, and of bequeathing to a generation the country’s worst peacetime deficit ever. Is that really a record that the right hon. and learned Lady is proud of? As ever, we are clearing up the mess that she left behind.

Q3. The Government’s response to the recent storm damage, to help fishermen and to restore the link at Dawlish is very much appreciated, but the severe damage to Penzance-Scilly and the vital lifeline transport links to the Isles of Scilly has largely gone unnoticed, and it is not something that local authorities can resolve entirely on their own. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that a delegation from my constituency can meet the appropriate Ministers and officials, so that we can seek the support necessary to find a long-term and resilient solution to the problem? (902965)

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency to see the damage done to many communities by the terrible floods and extreme weather of recent times. I know how long he has been campaigning on the issue. I will ensure that that meeting takes place with the relevant Minister in Government.

This week, it is surely right to extend condolences to the family and friends of Bob Crow.

The Secretary of State for Defence has issued a ministerial correction in which he corrects the falsehood that there was no measurable change in the radiation discharge at HMS Vulcan near Dounreay. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Ministry of Defence should be fully answerable to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency?

I also express my condolences to the family and friends of Bob Crow. Whether one agreed with him or not, he was someone with forthright views, and he always worked tirelessly for what he believed in and for the people he represented.

On the issue of Dounreay, the Ministry of Defence sought to be as open as possible. It is important that all of us work together to ensure that the nuclear deterrent is managed and maintained safely, and that is exactly what everyone seeks to do.

Q4. We now know that the Leader of the Opposition is opposed to an EU referendum and will not deliver one. The Deputy Prime Minister is opposed to an EU referendum and will not deliver one. The leader of the UK Independence party wants an EU referendum but cannot deliver one. The Prime Minister wants an EU referendum and will deliver it by 2017. Will the stand-in Prime Minister tell the House which of the party leaders trusts the British people and is a real democrat? (902966)

As ever, it is a pleasure! I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has fans on the Labour Benches. As he mentions my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, let me quote what he said at this Dispatch Box just a couple of years ago when we voted together on this very issue. He said:

“My clear view is that it is when this Parliament proposes to give up powers that there should be a referendum. That is the guarantee that we have written into the law of the land…It is important that we try to establish clear rules for the use of referendums in a parliamentary democracy, and I absolutely believe that rule 1, line 1 is: ‘If you’re giving up powers that belong to the British people, you should ask them first.’”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 33-39.]

I entirely agree. That was the Government’s position then, that was what we legislated on and that remains my view.

A recent survey of the TUC reckoned that 67% of hard-working people in private industry will not be getting a rise this year. How does that square with the fat cats in the City and the bankers getting their big bonuses?

The richest in society are paying more in every year of this Parliament than they did in any year under Labour. It was the hon. Gentleman’s party that let the bankers run amok. It was his party, the party of Fred Goodwin, that went on a prawn cocktail charm offensive to suck up to the bankers in the first place. It wiped off so much of the value of the British economy—it amounts to £3,000 lost to every household in the United Kingdom. Is that a record that he is proud of?

Q5. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the measures that have been announced so far have had no impact on President Putin and the Russian Government, who are refusing to negotiate with the Ukrainian Government and continue to strengthen their hold on Crimea? Will the Government now press for targeted economic sanctions against senior members of the Russian Government and their supporters in order to reinforce the message that the annexation of Crimea is unacceptable and wholly in breach of international law? (902967)

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for everyone in all parts of the House when he says that we should seek to do everything to deter the Russians from making the situation any worse and to de-escalate. That is why it is terribly important that we work together with our American allies and with countries across the European Union and use the collective economic and political clout of the European Union to set out, as we have done, a ratchet of sanctions, which can and will be deployed if de-escalation does not happen. I hope that that will start very soon with Russian agreements to enter into a contact group so that direct talks can start between Kiev and Moscow.

On his party’s recent defeat by the Bus Pass Elvis candidate, could not the electorate’s message to the Deputy Prime Minister be summarised by paraphrasing the words of a song by the original Elvis—“You ain’t nothing but a lapdog”?

At least we are not the lapdog of the bankers, which is what Labour was in office. At least we did not crash the British economy. At least we did not cost every household £3,000. At least we did not preside over an increase in relative poverty. At least we did not preside over an increase in youth unemployment. We are creating the stronger economy and fairer society that the Labour party failed to create.

Q6. The Deputy Prime Minister will have been encouraged to hear that the economy is growing faster than expected, showing the value of this Government’s long-term economic plan. Does he share my satisfaction that that is being achieved through a resurgence in manufacturing? In my constituency, Automotive Insulations, suppliers to the motor industry, has more than doubled in size over the past three years and is investing in a new 65,000 square feet factory in Rugby. (902968)

I strongly agree. By sticking to the plan, despite all the overtures from Opposition Members to abandon it, we have provided the stability and growth to the British economy that otherwise would not have taken place. We have seen spectacular success in the automotive sector. A vehicle rolls off a British production line every 20 seconds. We are producing more cars than ever before. Of course, the Labour party presided over a decline in manufacturing three times greater than that which happened in the 1980s.

Q7. Last week my constituents in Clifton North elected a new Labour councillor. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that it was his party’s support for the bedroom tax, the trebling of tuition fees, unfair cuts to the poorest families or the betrayal of the NHS that led my constituents to put the Buss Pass Elvis candidate ahead of the Liberal Democrats? (902970)

Putting Buss Pass Elvis aside for a moment—I admit that it was a novel experience for us, as it no doubt was for the people of Clifton—did the Labour candidate admit that Labour cost every household in Clifton £3,000? Did it admit that Labour allowed the bankers to run amok in 2008? Did it admit that Labour was the party that crashed the British economy? Did anyone on the doorstep apologise to the people of Clifton for what the Labour party did to this country?

Q8. The Cotswolds is a very special place because of stewardship and planning, yet in the past year that has been threatened by thousands of applications for new houses. Localism seems to have gone out the window and the area of outstanding natural beauty is simply not being protected. What can my right hon. Friend do to help resolve that? (902971)

I know that my hon. Friend feels very strongly about this. There are strong planning protections in place for areas of outstanding natural beauty, which are some of this country’s most important treasures, as he rightly said. The national planning policy framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving areas of outstanding natural beauty, which have the highest level of protection. He might be interested to know that we announced only last week that areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks will be excluded from new legislation allowing agricultural buildings to be converted into housing without the need for planning applications.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that if the independent review body on health service staff pay recommends an increase the Government will accept that advice; or will they freeze the pay of some of the lowest earners in the NHS for yet another year?

We will make the announcement on our views of the pay review body’s recommendations shortly, but what we want to do is protect what is now the highest number of nurses employed in the NHS since it was founded. We need to ensure that the NHS continues to employ more clinical staff, rather than fewer, as happened under Labour, to ensure that patients get the best possible treatment under the NHS.

Q9. On Monday, South Korean newspapers said that North Korea was due to execute 33 people for having had contact with a Christian missionary. Given that a quarter of a million people are in North Korean prison camps, will the Deputy Prime Minister urge the BBC World Service to use its existing transmitters to broadcast into North Korea, especially as more and more North Koreans now have access to radios? (902972)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. As he knows, our embassy in Pyongyang continues to engage critically with the North Korean regime and tries to ensure that there are as many opportunities for dialogue as possible, including information coming into the country. The BBC World Service is of course operationally, editorially and managerially independent. I understand that at the end of last year it decided, following a review, that it could not continue to offer an effective and affordable Korean language service. That is of course a matter for the BBC World Service itself.

Victoria Liggatt of Staveley died after GPs missed several chances to spot her cancer. She is the most serious victim of the failure of the Holywell Medical Group in Chesterfield. Yet she and the 20,000 other patients there who are desperately trying to get an appointment are also victims, are they not, of the Deputy Prime Minister’s shameless, spineless capitulation to the Tories on the NHS?

The hon. Gentleman might not know this, but as I pointed out earlier, it was his party that wasted a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on sweetheart deals with the private sector to undermine the NHS on tariffs that the NHS could not meet for operations that were not delivered. While he is asking a question, why cannot he tell the House why, only last week, he tabled an amendment to tell 500,000 youngsters that they can no longer be called apprentices? We stand up for fairness, we stand up for a strong NHS, and he does not.

Q10. Has the Deputy Prime Minister read the testimony of Mariana Robinson—a victim of the Labour-run NHS in Wales—in yesterday’s Western Mail? Does he have sympathy with all those suffering on longer waiting lists and with less access to drugs? Does he agree that it is time to give them the opportunity to access the far better services that are being delivered by this coalition Government for NHS patients in England? (902974)

I was appalled, and I am sure everybody would be appalled, by the experiences of one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In Wales, where the NHS is run by Labour, 33%—a third—of patients wait more than eight weeks to access diagnostic services. In England, only just over 1% of patients wait longer than six weeks for the same services. I think the comparison speaks for itself.

Q11. This week marks three years since the bloodshed began in Syria. More than 2.5 million people have fled the country, and the dead can no longer even be counted. We must all bear responsibility for our shameful failure to intervene, but the Government are supposed to be the ones running the country. So what renewed effort will the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government make to end the slaughter before all hope fails? (902975)

The hon. Gentleman knows my own views. I felt that there was a case for intervention at the time when we voted on this. Of course, his party voted against it, but if he now wants to speak to his own party leadership on that matter, he is more than welcome to do so. I agree with him. The humanitarian catastrophe there is on an unimaginable scale, and we must do everything we can to help. That is why—I think I am right in saying—our humanitarian effort there is now the largest that this country has ever delivered. It is also why the Home Secretary and others in Government are now administering, in conjunction with the United Nations, a new programme whereby we allow the most destitute and desperate refugees some refuge in this country.

During the recent floods, the Prime Minister rightly announced grants of £5,000 for people in the homes flooded to put in flood defence measures. The Deputy Prime Minister can therefore imagine the disappointment of people from the 1,000 homes in Calder Valley who were flooded only 18 months previously but got no such support. Will he agree to look at this policy with the Prime Minister to see whether the same grants can be made available to those people in Calder Valley who were flooded as well?

Of course I will. As someone who witnessed the terrible flooding in my own constituency some years ago, I know that flooding can hit different parts of the country in different ways. As we adapt to this new, very difficult reality, we must make sure that we build up resilience in all parts of the country and provide assistance as fully and consistently as we can across the country.

Q12. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) agrees with me that the hated bedroom tax is causing misery for those affected. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the president of his party or with his friend the Prime Minister? (902976)

I think, and everybody thinks, that we need to deal with the mismatch between large numbers of people on the housing waiting list—something the hon. Lady’s party never did anything to address in 13 years—and with the fact that there are large number of spare bedrooms that are not being used. Her Government presided over the change—which we are now delivering in the social rented sector—in the private rented sector. She needs to explain why they want to support the change in one part of the housing system and not in the other.

Q13. Portsmouth football club made history by becoming the UK’s largest, 100% community buy-out. Today, many much-loved clubs face an uncertain future owing to lack of financial transparency, opaque football authority rules and a structure that promotes irresponsibility in business and, if the team in question happens to be a women’s team, that does not promote sporting excellence. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need to learn the lessons from Portsmouth, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report and the work of Supporters Direct, and act to protect the interests of clubs, their fans and, ultimately, the national game? (902977)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend—as, I am sure, will football fans across the country—that this is a really important issue. We cannot have big money hollow out the game that everybody loves. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is looking at the issue on an ongoing basis, and I strongly urge my hon. Friend to take it up with her. It is certainly something that we need to keep a close eye on so that sports clubs large and small can thrive in our country.

There are reports that the Department for Work and Pensions is proposing to stop paying benefits into the Post Office card account. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support that policy?

I do not think that is true. I will certainly confirm that for the hon. Gentleman, but it is not something that I am aware of.

Last Thursday, 16-year-old Sam Mangoro from Romsey collapsed in a school PE lesson. One of the reasons he is still alive is that the excellent Mountbatten school already had a defibrillator. It has ordered two more. What steps is my right hon. Friend prepared to take to encourage more schools to make sure that they have defibrillators, and will he commend the work of the excellent Oliver King Foundation, which has been leading the way on this issue?

I and, I am sure, many other hon. Members have also come across this issue in schools, sporting clubs and other recreational facilities in our constituencies. There are some great organisations—my hon. Friend mentioned one of them—that are promoting the need to make defibrillators more available, and I certainly think we should all work with those campaign groups to raise the profile of this important issue.

A report out last week showed that the average nursery cost is now higher than the cost of the average mortgage and that child-care costs have risen five times faster than wages since the election. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister’s long-awaited tax-free child-care scheme will be announced soon, what discussions has he had about the scheme’s relationship with universal credit and the cliff edges it creates, and what assessment has he made of the scheme and its impact on price inflation?

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. As it happens, child-care costs are finally starting to come down in England, but they continue to go up, of course, in Labour-run Wales. We must do all we can to help parents and families with these costs. That is why we are delivering 15 hours of free child care and pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds and, for the first time ever, to two-year-olds from this country’s the most deprived families. The hon. Lady is right: of course we need to do more. That is why we will announce shortly the details of the tax-free child-care offer, which will benefit many families across the country who face very high costs.