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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2014

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society

We have given communities more power through the Localism Act 2011. We have invested in volunteering, which has risen after years of decline. We have invested to support charitable giving, which has held up in difficult times. Some 70,000 young people have taken part in the National Citizen Service. I am very proud that this country leads the world in supporting social enterprise and investment.

That is not a situation I recognise in Hyndburn, I have to say. Archbishop Vincent Nichols recently said:

“The Big Society hasn’t helped… Charity isn’t an alternative to public service… there are now families with nothing”.

Will the Minister finally admit that the big society project is in fact a big failure?

No, I will not. I think the cynics have got it entirely wrong. Some of the changes we have introduced are irreversible, not least in terms of giving communities more power and information, which they are not going to give back. We recognise that charities are going through a very difficult time, like lots of organisations, but this Government are actively supporting them to help them to adapt and improve their resilience, while Labour MPs continue to scaremonger.

I thank my hon. Friend for her long-standing support for the National Citizen Service and all initiatives to encourage young people to get involved in volunteering. We are enormously ambitious for the National Citizen Service this year. As I have said, to date over 70,000 young people have taken part, and we expect the same number to take part this year alone.

Will the Minister explain why the newly announced £40 million fund to help struggling charities will only come into force in 2015? Many charities are saying that they will not survive another six months because of this Government’s policies. Is this not a case of too little, too late?

No, I do not accept that. The hon. Lady ignores the fact that the Government have already provided almost £200 million in transition funding for front-line charities and infrastructure organisations to help them through difficult times. We have managed to secure some additional money in the 2015-16 Budget to support more transition work, particularly for middle-sized charities, which we think is needed. She is ignoring all the help we have given so far.

Our country once enjoyed a rich and vibrant tapestry of organisations between charity and the state, such as co-operatives, friendly societies and other mutuals. Does the Minister share my dismay that the left has abandoned its own traditions?

Those are not of course the only traditions that the left has abandoned over the years; it is very hard to see what is left. I am very proud that Government Members are leading the work to encourage more mutualisation, particularly in relation to encouraging people to spin out the services they currently offer inside the public sector, and to offer them and improve them as public sector mutuals.

Civil Service (Outsourcing)

In common with the previous Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported from time to time, the current Government do not have a dogmatic view on outsourcing, either in favour of it or against it.

For the past 10 years, shared services has been one of the major job successes in providing more than 1,000 decent jobs in my constituency, at great value to the taxpayer. Why is the Minister trying to wreck a winning team?

We are actually seeking to build on what is good. It is now 10 years since Sir Peter Gershon, under the previous Government, proposed a fast move towards genuinely shared services. That did not happen for eight years. Since 2012, we have made significant progress in genuinely creating a handful of shared service centres for Government. They are building on the shared service centre in Swansea and others. If we create genuinely successful, highly efficient organisations there, they have every opportunity of winning other business and therefore of creating new jobs and new prosperity in those areas.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the revelations in the Liverpool Echo last week that Government computers were used to access and change Wikipedia pages relating to Hillsborough. What action is he taking to investigate those accusations and to prevent misuse of Government computers, whether they are outsourced or not?

Everyone in the House will have been horrified and sickened by those edits on Wikipedia. I have been in close, daily contact with the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who has a highly deserved reputation as a campaigner for the Hillsborough families, and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Hillsborough disaster. We are undertaking a rapid investigation, which is being led by my excellent permanent secretary, Richard Heaton. The first stage is to establish the facts as best we can and we will then deal with the matter. If this horrible issue is prolonged and there is no closure, it will be very unsatisfactory and distressing for the families, particularly at this time, when the events are fresh in their minds.

12. Some 239 civil service jobs that have been outsourced to Shared Services Connected Ltd are being lost in my constituency. The people who may lose their jobs were presented with a new staff structure just a week ago, were given only until today to decide on voluntary redundancy and are not being given proper opportunities for redeployment. Will the Minister press SSCL, which is part-owned by the Government, to extend the voluntary redundancy deadline, and will he ensure that all Departments offer opportunities for redeployment? (903761)

I shall certainly look at the last point that the hon. Gentleman made. Nobody takes any pleasure in job losses. We have had to lose jobs in the public sector. The civil service is 17% smaller than in 2010 because, sadly, we inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. We have to make economies and do things better. I hope that the new venture, SSCL, will emerge as a vibrant business in the private sector that can win more business and thereby create more jobs. However, it does need to restructure to begin with.

What proportion of civil service jobs was outsourced at the start of this Parliament in 2010 and what proportion will be outsourced at the end of it in 2015?

That is a very good question. It is difficult to be precise because when business is outsourced to the private sector, it is hard to know which of the jobs in a business that provides services to Government and to other organisations relate to Government business. It is therefore hard to know what the baseline is. A larger number of activities will be carried out outside the public sector, many of them through the spin-outs of public service mutuals, which are a way of delivering much greater job satisfaction—

Order. I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. He is plodding on to the best of his ability, but I say to him politely that perhaps he could write to his hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister boasted in a speech in Davos that under his Government

“there is a chance for Britain to become the ‘Re-Shore Nation’.”

However, the chief executive of Steria has said that offshoring jobs is “on the agenda” for outsourced civil servants working for Shared Services Connected Ltd, in which the Government retain a 25% stake. Does the Minister share my concern that up to 1,000 jobs might be offshored? Will the Government use their stake in the joint venture to argue that those jobs should be kept in the UK?

We will take the same approach as the Government the hon. Gentleman supported—I think he was an adviser to the last Government—when they set up NHS Shared Business Services, which is also a joint venture with Steria. A number of jobs were offshored, but Britain has benefited because that entity has also created more jobs in the UK. We take the same approach as his Government took.

I will cheerfully take up your sensible suggestion, Mr Speaker, of writing to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

Social Finance

I am proud that Britain leads the world in developing social investment. The hon. Gentleman is a tireless champion of its power to support early intervention. A new tax relief has gone live this month. There are now 15 social impact bonds in operation. I hope that he will welcome our announcement today of two more funds to support social impact bonds, which we believe will generate better outcomes for young people who are at risk of not being in education, employment or training.

There is an important judgment from the European Court of Justice today on the Robin Hood tax, which will have a big influence on civil society and the big society. However, that will be minuscule compared with the potential impact of a serious social impact bond market on early intervention, which the Minister mentioned, and on council projects. It is two years since Big Society Capital was established, so is it not time to review the working of the Act that set it up to see whether we can take it further?

I am very proud of Big Society Capital as an institution. I have seen the impact that its investments are having on the ground. It has committed £149 million and has done important work to build this important market. It is just two years in and is about to publish its second annual report. We are always looking to ensure that it succeeds. I am more than happy to pass that question on to the Big Society Trust, which is its governing body, and get its response.

Are not credit unions a great example of social finance, and is it good news that there are now 500 of them in this country, not least a new one in Plymstock in my constituency? More than 1 million Brits are now members of a credit union. Are the Government pleased about that?

Credit unions are an enormously important part of the landscape in communities around the country, and many do extraordinarily valuable work. We are looking at the degree to which we can support their capitalisation. They are fragmented and under-capitalised, and we are discussing with Big Society Capital, and others, what ideas are out there for using the power of social investment to strengthen the capitalisation of that important movement.

I was the Minister who got going the first social impact bond at Peterborough. Would the Minister like to say what the experience of that first experiment has been?

I wholly acknowledge the role that the right hon. Gentleman played in that groundbreaking social impact bond at Peterborough. Its early results are extremely encouraging, and reoffending among short-sentence prisoners who receive support through the bond has fallen by 11%, while nationally that figure has risen by 10%. It was the first ice-breaking social impact bond, and I think its impact on the wider movement and the work happening across the country, with at least 15 social impact bonds live, cannot be overestimated.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we all need to do more to make voluntary organisations and charities aware of the benefits of the growing social investment market of Big Society Capital, and of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012?

I wholly agree and I am clear about what we are trying to do. Over time—it will take some time—we are trying to build a third pillar of funding for our social sector to sit alongside philanthropy and the public sector, and we lead the world in doing that. The Public Services (Social Value) Act was groundbreaking legislation that requires commissioners to think very seriously about how they can maximise the social and environmental benefit of every pound of public money they spend.


In 2011 we launched the national cyber-security programme, which was the first centrally co-ordinated programme of cyber-security funding by the Government. Up to 2016 we are investing some £860 million in overall cyber-security funding, as a tier 1 national security priority.

The Home Affairs Committee is concerned that there appears to be a black hole where low-level e-crime is committed with impunity, and we know that is costing businesses £800 million a year. What is the Minister’s assessment of whether the move to IPv6 will help, and what he is doing to make that happen?

The majority of cyber-attacks and cybercrime can be prevented by basic internet hygiene, and by individuals and businesses ensuring that their cyber-security and internet protection is up to date and that all the latest patches are installed. We estimate that something like 80% of attacks can be prevented by that. The level of awareness is much higher than it was, but we have some way to go.

Given the amount of money that the Minister said is being and will be spent, what level of co-ordination across Departments is taking place to ensure that cybercrime is, if not eliminated, significantly reduced over the next year?

We are doing much more to co-ordinate than has ever been done before, and last month I launched CERT UK, which includes the cyber-security information sharing partnership that some 400 companies now belong to. The sharing of information, which was very inhibited before, is now taking place to a much greater extent. There is more we need to do, but Britain overall is not in a bad place on that. However, we need to move fast because those who wish to undertake cybercrime and cyber-attacks are moving pretty fast too.

Civil Service (Waste)

The Efficiency and Reform Group was set up after the 2010 general election to tackle wasteful expenditure in the public sector. We have supported Departments in achieving savings in 2010-11 of £3.75 billion, a further £5.5 billion the following year and more than £10 billion in 2012-13. In June we will announce the figures for the year just finished.

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome the progress to date. With the stronger language requirements for visas introduced by the Home Secretary to promote integration, what scope is there to reduce the high cost of translation across the public sector?

There are some central contracts and some scope for us to do this much better, although we need to be confident about quality. Through the Crown Commercial Service we can now aggregate demand to a much greater extent, but what we do not want to do is exclude smaller translation companies from this market as they can often provide a much more cost-effective service. The issue is kept under constant review, and there is definitely scope for further savings.

9. Will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made on commercial reform in the civil service to make it more savvy in its dealings with the private sector, to get a better deal for the taxpayer? (903758)

We are reforming the way we do that. We identified a lack of commercial capability in Government and we are acting to remedy that, although there is still some way to go. The Government have been a very bad customer: we should be the best customer suppliers have, because we have scale and good credit and we pay quickly. We need to use that scale to get the best pricing, and we were not doing that. We have saved hundreds of millions of pounds by doing much better and by dealing with our biggest suppliers as a single customer, but there is much more that we still need to do.


We have created hundreds of thousands of new volunteering opportunities, not least through the National Citizen Service. We have invested in the important infrastructure that supports volunteering and we have reformed barriers such as Criminal Records Bureau checks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that volunteering has risen after years of decline.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Margaret Hayes, who recently worked her final shift after 31 years of volunteering to support patients at Barnsley hospital? Volunteers such as Margaret make a much valued contribution to our society, and it is welcome that the number of volunteers is increasing. What more can the Minister do to encourage volunteering among people of all ages and backgrounds around the whole country?

I wholly support that vision. It is massively important to the country. I join the hon. Gentleman in recognising the work of that extraordinary individual and remind him that the Prime Minister has launched a new initiative that will announce daily the Points of Light awards to reward outstanding volunteers. I ask Members of Parliament on both sides of the House to think about nominating individuals in their constituencies for that award.

One way in which we can encourage volunteering is to thank those volunteers who work hard. Will the Minister join me in thanking the volunteers in my constituency at the play and resource centre PARC, Braintree Foyer, the Archer centre and Rethink Mencap? Does he agree that it is the volunteers who work for the various charities and community groups in all our constituencies who form the backbone of our society and deserve our collective thanks?

I wholly endorse that and join my hon. Friend in his recognition of and congratulations to his local volunteers. Few Governments have done more to actively encourage volunteering, and I reiterate my encouragement to colleagues to step forward and nominate individuals for the Points of Light awards.

Civil Service

I very much support the Minister’s efforts to reduce costs and increase efficiency in the civil service. Can I tempt him to go further on this particular issue and completely rule out the transfer overseas of any jobs currently undertaken by civil servants in the UK, which I believe would be a step too far?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I reiterate what I said earlier. The approach we take is the same as the last Government: we need to be efficient and jobs should be undertaken in the place where they can best be done. Normally that will be in Britain, and the more efficient we are, the more jobs we will create in Britain.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingency, civil society and cyber-security.

Contrary to responses earlier, it was recently reported that the Cabinet Office has spent £30 million on staff redundancy packages and another £30 million to plug the gap created by hiring agency staff. Given that the Cabinet Office is supposed to be responsible for efficiency savings, why has the Minister wasted so much money?

I think the hon. Gentleman may be a little confused. There is no correlation between jobs lost and jobs replaced. We need to have the skills in the civil service to do what needs to be done to serve Britain today so that we can win in a very competitive world. That means that some jobs become redundant, but some new capabilities are needed. No Government or organisation I have ever come across think that they sit in a steady state and never recruit new people. [Interruption.]

Order. I can scarcely hear the mellifluous tones of the Minister. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I am sure that both the House and the nation will wish to hear Mr Philip Davies.

T3. In 2011-12, the TaxPayers Alliance found that trade unions received a subsidy from taxpayers of £113 million a year through direct grants and facility time. Does the Minister agree that any part-time or full-time union work should be paid by the unions rather than the taxpayer? Will he update the House on the progress made to reduce that unnecessary cost to the taxpayer? (903775)

We have made considerable progress. In the civil service alone, some £30 million of taxpayers’ money was being spent on subsidising union representation. That is perfectly proper if duties relate to employment, but this was going way, way beyond. We have reduced significantly the number of full-time representatives. There were 250 in central Government. That is now down by nearly 170.

Following the launch of Labour’s digital government review, which is focused on empowering people, and after four years of this “digital by default” Government, with 16 million UK citizens lacking basic digital skills, the Minister has finally announced a digital inclusion strategy. The digitally excluded are vulnerable to cybercrime, but are punished by this Government for not using their digital services. Will the Minister explain why his inclusion strategy excludes 7 million of our fellow citizens from the digital future?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady takes that view. For one digital service that we provide—the lasting power of attorney—the assisted digital for those who are not online is provided by a number of groups that specifically help elderly people. Where there is a digital service, we are insistent that there is an assisted digital service for those who are not currently online. We want to do much more to increase digital inclusion, so that more people are online.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress that has been made in reducing the running costs of the Government estate? (903777)

We have made very considerable reductions. No leases can be signed anywhere in Government, nor any break point passed, without my agreement. That has enabled us to reduce significantly the amount of property occupied by central Government. We also have a big programme that is making significant progress in co-locating all parts of the public sector in one place in more and more towns around the country.

T2. As the Minister responsible for propriety in Government communications, was the Cabinet Secretary consulted on the Prime Minister’s recent letter to 2 million people, which used language borrowed directly from the Conservative party’s website? How much did that cost? (903774)

It is perfectly proper for Government Ministers to use the same language in Government communications as they use in their political communications. Ministers do not suddenly not become politicians when they speak as Ministers. It is just possible that I may have used today some of the same language as I would use in a purely political environment.

T6. Brilliant social enterprises such as the Oxford student hub propeller project can lead the way in finding innovative solutions to social problems, but they struggle to find sustainable funding. Can the Minister tell me what progress is being made on increasing the availability of social impact bonds, which could make all the difference? (903778)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: we have fantastic social enterprises in this country and they need easier access to capital. This country leads the world in developing social investment. Today we are launching two new funds that will unlock more social impact bonds to deliver what we expect to be better results for thousands of young people at risk of becoming NEET.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Thomas Clarke of the Army Air Corps, Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of Joint Helicopter Command, RAF Odiham, Acting Warrant Officer Class 2 Spencer Faulkner of the Army Air Corps, Corporal James Walters of the Army Air Corps, and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps, a reservist who also worked as a research assistant to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). These tragic deaths remind us of the continued commitment and sacrifice of our armed forces, and I know that our deepest sympathies are with their families at this very difficult time.

I am sure that the whole House will also want to join me in paying tribute to Ann Maguire, who was stabbed to death in her Leeds classroom on Monday. It is clear from the tributes paid that she was a much-loved teacher who had worked at the school for over 40 years. She cared so much about her pupils that she would come in on her day off to help prepare them for exams. Our thoughts are with her family, her friends and the entire school community in Leeds, who have been left devastated by this truly shocking and appalling tragedy. A criminal investigation is under way, and everything that can be done to get to the bottom of what happened at the school will be done.

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.

I very much associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to the servicemen who lost their lives in Afghanistan last week, and to Ann Maguire who lost her life in the classroom.

May I ask him about something different? Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that the Government’s decision to treble tuition fees will cost taxpayers more than the system it replaced. Is this disastrous policy a symbol of the Government’s long-term economic plan?

What the policy has enabled is another expansion of higher education. That is what we are seeing under this Government. All the forecasts from the Labour party—that fewer people would apply to university, for example—were wrong. We were told that people from low-income backgrounds would not apply to university—those forecasts were wrong. Unlike other countries, we have put in place a system for tuition fees, which means that we can expand our universities and go on winning in the global race.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister—and, indeed, the whole House—for paying tribute to the five men who recently died in Afghanistan. In particular, I pay tribute to Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas, who worked for me in Westminster. He was an outstanding young man, who was well liked and held in such high regard by everyone who knew him and worked with him. The loss bears particularly heavily on his parents and family and, indeed, on his friends who grew up with him in Brecon and Kington. I am sure the Prime Minister will want to join me in praising all our reservists who, like Oliver, face all the risks that our armed forces experience—and sometimes, sadly, pay the ultimate price.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas. It is a reminder of the sacrifices we have borne in Afghanistan. This looks as if it was a tragic accident but we will get to the bottom of what happened. He is absolutely right, too, to mention how our reservists in all three forces serve alongside their regular colleagues and take all of the risks. In Afghanistan, the reservists have proved again and again that they are people of huge quality, ability and courage. As we go forward and expand our reserves, I hope that everyone in our country—particularly businesses, the public sector, local councils and others, including the civil service—will do everything they can to make sure that reservists are welcome in their businesses and supported in the vital work they do for our country.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Thomas Clarke of the Army Air Corps, Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of Joint Helicopter Command, RAF Odiham, Acting Warrant Officer Class 2 Spencer Faulkner of the Army Air Corps, Corporal James Walters of the Army Air Corps, and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps, who were tragically killed. Those deaths are a tragic and poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by our armed forces, including reservists, in serving our country with bravery and distinction. All our thoughts go to the friends of those whom we lost, including the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). We share his loss, and our deepest sympathy goes to the families of those who were killed.

Let me also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the teacher, Ann Maguire, who was murdered in her classroom on Monday. That was an appalling tragedy. It is clear from the testimonies of those who have spoken out since she died that she was an inspiration to those whom she taught. All our thoughts are with her family and friends, and with the teachers and pupils at the school.

Yesterday, for the first time, we learnt the names of some of the 16 investors, including hedge funds, which were given preferential access to Royal Mail shares and sold one third of them. How were those lucky few chosen?

What we are talking about is an exercise in privatising Royal Mail that has been a success for our country. A business that lost £1 billion under Labour has now paid money back to the taxpayer, and is making profits. The people whom we should be praising are the 140,000 employees of Royal Mail who are now, under this Government, shareholders in the business for which they work.

We have had no answer to the question, Mr Speaker. The Royal Mail share price is currently 50% above the level at which it was sold. Only the Prime Minister would want to be congratulated on losing the taxpayer £1 billion.

Each of those chosen few investors was given, on average, 18 times more shares than other bidders, on the basis that, in the words of the National Audit Office, they would provide

“a stable long-term… shareholder base”,

and would not be—in the words of the Business Secretary—“spivs and speculators”. Can the Prime Minister tell us what assurances, in return for their golden ticket, those investors gave us that they would hold the shares for the long term?

First, the right hon. Gentleman says that people were given shares. They paid for shares. Secondly, he again raises the issue that there was some sort of agreement. There was no agreement.

At the end of the day, the right hon. Gentleman should recognise that a business which lost money, and which he tried to privatise in government but failed, is now in the private sector, making money and succeeding for our country, and its employees are now shareholders. Is it not interesting that, given the growth in our economy, the fall in unemployment and the reduction in the deficit, he is reduced, like old Labour, to complaining about a successful privatisation?

No, Mr Speaker. I am raising an issue about a rip-off of the taxpayer, which the British people know when they see it. The reason this matters—[Interruption.] The reason this matters—[Interruption.]

Order. The orchestrated barracking is very predictable and also incredibly tedious, but it will not stop us getting through Prime Minister’s questions; it just means that it will take a bit longer. Members should calm down, and take a tablet if necessary.

The reason this matters is that the sale was grossly undervalued. Shares that were sold for £1.7 billion on privatisation are now worth £2.7 billion, and who cashed in? Twelve of the 16 so-called long-term investors made a killing worth hundreds of millions of pounds within weeks.

Yesterday, the representative of the bank that sold the shares said there was an “understanding” with those investors. [Interruption.] That is what it says on the record, Mr Speaker. He said that there was an understanding with those investors about their long-term commitment to Royal Mail. So why were they allowed to make a fast buck?

We are being given lectures on taxpayer value from the people who sold our nation’s gold at the bottom of the market. The right hon. Gentleman talks about ripping off the taxpayer, but it was he who left an 11% budget deficit after the biggest banking bail-out in Britain’s history.

These are exactly the arguments that Michael Foot made about the privatisation of the National Freight Corporation. They are exactly the same arguments as Neil Kinnock made about British Telecom and British Airways. It pleases the Back Benchers, it excites the trade unions, but it is utterly meaningless. Is the right hon. Gentleman recommitting to renationalising the Post Office? No, of course not. He is just playing to the gallery because he cannot talk about the success of our economy.

The Prime Minister should listen to Members on his own side. What did the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) say yesterday? He said that this privatisation had “let people down”. He said:

“The interests of the taxpayer were not taken into account”.

He has also called it “unethical and immoral”.

He is nodding his head. That is what the Prime Minister’s own side think of it. He talks a lot about the postal workers, so this is very interesting: there were no conditions on the hedge funds, but there were conditions on other groups such as the postal workers. Can he explain why postal workers were told they could not sell their shares for three years but hedge funds were told they could cash in on day one?

The Post Office workers were given their shares, and it is right that they were given their shares—let us celebrate the popular capitalism. I thought the right hon. Gentleman believed in empowering workers. We now have 140,000 workers who have got those shares. On the risk to the taxpayer, he ought to reflect on this—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. Ms Mactaggart, you are an illustrious product of the Cheltenham ladies’ college. I cannot believe they taught you there to behave like that.

You are right, Mr Speaker, that there is a lot of history in this shouting, because of course in the past with all these privatisations we had the shouting of the Kinnocks, the shouting of the Prescotts and the shouting of the Straws. Over Easter, I was looking at Labour’s candidates and I saw that son of Kinnock is coming here, son of Straw wants to get here and son of Prescott wants to come here. It is the same families with the same message—it is literally the same old Labour. That is what is happening.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about taxpayer value, and here is what the National Audit Office said:

“Privatisation has reduced taxpayer risk to support the universal postal service”.

This is a good deal for taxpayers because this business was losing £1 billion and it is now making money, paying taxes and gaining in value—this is good for our country but bad for Labour.

The Post Office was actually making a profit when the Government privatised it. What have we discovered today? It is one rule for the postal workers and another rule for the hedge funds. Who runs these hedge funds? The Government have been very coy about who runs these hedge funds. None other than the Chancellor’s best man runs one of them. It is one rule if you deliver the Chancellor’s best man’s speech and it is another rule if you deliver the Chancellor’s post.

What this shows is that the right hon. Gentleman cannot talk about the deficit, because it is falling; he cannot talk about the economy, because it is growing; and he cannot talk about jobs, because there are 1.5 million more people in work. So he is painting himself into the red corner by talking only about issues that are actually successes for the Government but which appeal to the trade unions, the left wingers behind him and the people who want to play the politics of envy. That is what is happening in British politics, and everyone can see it. He has nothing to say about the long-term economic plan which shows Britain is on the rise and Labour is on the slide.

What we know is there is a cost of living crisis in this country—[Interruption.] Oh, they do not think there is a cost of living crisis. Why not? Because they stand up for the wrong people. The more we know about this privatisation, the bigger the fiasco it is: a national asset sold at a knock-down price; a sweetheart deal for the City; and the Government totally bungled the sale. Everything about this privatisation stinks.

Six questions and not a mention of GDP; not a mention of what happened to employment figures while we were away; and not a mention of the fact that the deficit is getting better. We know that the right hon. Gentleman has a new adviser from America. It is Mr Axelrod, and this is what the right hon. Gentleman has been advised to say. Let me share it with the House as it is excellent advice. It is that

“there’s a better future ahead of us”—

but we must not—

“go backward to the policies that put us in this mess in the first place.”

I do not know what Labour are paying him--

In response to that question, the Prime Minister has finished, and he can take it from me that he has finished.

From the cyber-attack on Estonia to the invasion of Georgia and the recent events in Crimea, we have seen a clear pattern of behaviour from the Kremlin, and the west has allowed wishful thinking to take the place of critical analysis. Given that defence exports from the EU to Russia have amounted to about €700 million in the past three years, not counting the €1.2 billion order for French warships, is it not about time that they were targeted for EU sanctions?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on that issue. We have set out a clear set of sanctions as a result of Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine. We have taken a series of steps so far in terms of putting asset freezes and travel bans on named individuals. We have taken a series of diplomatic and other steps, and we have set out the so-called stage 3 sanctions that should be taken if further incursions and further destabilisation of south and eastern Ukraine are set out, and restrictions on arms sales should certainly be part of that.

Q2. The Prime Minister promised that by the end of this Parliament a third of his Cabinet would be women. We know that the former Culture Secretary had to go, but now only three of his 22 Departments are run by women. Does he agree with the new Culture Secretary that that is because Government appointments should always be made on merit? (903734)

What I said was that I wanted to see a third of my Front-Bench Ministers being women at the end of a Conservative Government. We have made some important progress on the numbers of people on the Front Bench. With respect to my coalition partner, I have to say that, in terms of Cabinet numbers, the Liberal Democrats need to do a bit more to pull their weight on that issue, but I hope to make further progress.

Reverting to the subject of Royal Mail, as the leader of the stockbroking team that brought British Gas to the market and as the author of the phrase “Ask Sid”, may I tell the Prime Minister that the Opposition’s questions about, and their criticisms of, the way in which the Royal Mail launch was handled show their total ignorance of City markets? The fact is that when one tries to make an immense sale, one has to take infinite trouble to find people to underwrite it, and they are not able to prophesy what stock markets will be like a week ahead. Therefore, the prudent way in which this sale was handled was very sensible—[Interruption.] Do stop waving. You are waving goodbye.

Order. People should not gesticulate at the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he is nearing his completion.

The Father of the House makes an important point: when state-owned industries are privatised, if they are sold for less than the price set out, that is written off as a failure, and if they are sold for anything more than the price, you are accused of undervaluing the business. That has always been the way and, as I said, that is what Labour said about British Airways, British Telecom and British Aerospace. Labour opposed every single move to build a strong, competitive private industrial sector in our country and that continues today.

Q3. Mr L from Mitcham would like to be a policeman, but he only works part time and cannot afford the £1,000 bobby tax he needs to pay to apply to join the Met. His mum and dad are foster carers and would give it to him if they had it. May I ask the Prime Minister why, if my constituent is capable of passing the academic, fitness and testing requirements of the police, his bank balance should stop him? When did becoming a Metropolitan police officer become an aspiration for the few rather than the many? (903735)

The hon. Lady has asked questions about what she calls the bobby tax. Let me make three points. First, it is not a tax; secondly, it is not a barrier to recruitment; and, thirdly, recruitment is taking place in the Metropolitan police. That is what is happening: we are seeing people being recruited. As is happening, people who want to join the Metropolitan police can get assistance with the qualification that they now require.

Q14. Last week, we marked the bard’s nativity, four hundred years and fifty ere the swan of Avon breathed his first. Stratfordians on Saturday processed through their town, bearing rosemary in memory of their immortal son, and here in your apartments last night, Mr Speaker, young Stratford scholars staged a scene from Shakespeare’s works—amazed a noble multitude with their art. Mr Speaker, could this right honourable man, the captain of our state, lend his help to make our national poet’s birth a national day? Could he too disclose before the House what Shakespeare means to him? (903747)

I thank my hon. Friend for that beautifully and brilliantly crafted question about the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. It is a moment of celebration not just here in Britain but across the world, where Shakespeare’s works are gaining a wider understanding and distribution. I will not attempt quotes such as those that my hon. Friend brought out in his question, but I would say to any politician that if they read Henry V’s speech before Agincourt and it does not inspire them and drive them on, I cannot think what will.

Q4. When will the Prime Minister publish the regulations to introduce standard packaging for tobacco products and ban smoking in cars when children are present? (903736)

I cannot pre-judge the Queen’s Speech, but we have said that we want to take action on this front and we will.

Q13. Textile, engineering, and food and drink manufacturing is booming in Huddersfield and Colne Valley. For example, Camira Fabrics from Meltham is producing the upholstery for Boris’s Routemaster buses, which have been very busy this week. The company is creating jobs and apprenticeships. Will the Prime Minister praise Camira Fabrics and the other local firms that have agreed to attend my first ever jobs fair in Holmfirth on Friday 20 June? (903746)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for holding these job fairs. A number of Members of Parliament have taken that approach and have seen real benefits in their local areas as businesses come forward to pledge apprenticeships and to take people on, and are brought together with people who are looking for work. Since the recess, we have seen a series of figures on our economy: growth is now running at over 3%, 1.5 million of our fellow countrymen and women are in work since this Government came to power, inflation is at a five-year low and business confidence is at its highest level since the early 1970s. There is still a lot of work to do and there is absolutely no complacency. The long-term economic plan is not complete, but it is well on its way.

Q5. Before he was elected, the Prime Minister said that “if they’d let me” he would put a wind turbine on No. 10 Downing street, making use of the cheapest and most developed form of renewable energy. Last week, he announced that his party wants to end support for onshore wind even though the Government’s own survey this week showed that 70% of the public now support it. What changed his mind? (903737)

What is changed is that we have seen a massive increase in onshore wind generation in our country. We will achieve, through what is in the planning system and under construction, the provision of approaching 10% of our electricity demand through onshore wind. The question is then whether it is right to continue to overrule local planners and local people and whether it continues to be right to put taxpayers’ money in after we have built out that onshore wind provision. I do not believe that it is, and the Conservative manifesto will make that very clear for local communities. Other parties will have to make their own choices.

In the past few weeks in Eastbourne, over £160 million of private investment has been announced; we have had 3,000 new apprentices since the general election and unemployment is almost 20% down on this time last year. In short, in Eastbourne we are coming through tremendously successfully from the difficult economic downturn. Does the Prime Minister agree that where Eastbourne goes, the UK follows?

I am glad to hear that Eastbourne is leading the way, particularly on apprentices; 1.6 million apprentices have started under this Government. Our target is 2 million. We want to see a particular expansion of the higher-level apprenticeship schemes, but it is a major part of delivering our long-term economic plan.

Q6. I am sure that the Prime Minister has read last week’s excellent report by the all-party group on ticket abuse, which set out how consumers are getting a raw deal from the secondary market. The question is, whose side is the Prime Minister on—that of his new Culture Secretary, who praised ticket touts as “classic entrepreneurs”, or the millions of ordinary fans who are sick and tired of being ripped off? (903738)

I have not seen the report that the hon. Lady mentions. I will have a look at it and I will discuss it with the Culture Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who I welcome to the Cabinet. I noticed that Labour seemed to criticise his appointment—I am not quite sure on what basis. I think he will do an excellent job for our country and I am very happy to study the report that the hon. Lady mentions.

Q12. The number of unemployed jobseekers in Bristol North West has fallen by 25% in the past year, but there is obviously still much more to do. I am also hosting a jobs fair this Friday, to try to make that number even lower. In the light of the Chancellor’s welcome commitment to full employment, what else are the Government doing to make that ambitious aspiration a reality? (903744)

Already 1.7 million new private sector jobs have been created, far outstripping the loss of public sector jobs, so there are 1.5 million more people in work altogether. We have seen an increase in full-time work, which is very welcome because people often want to work more hours than they are currently able to work. In terms of driving further employment growth, the clear message to businesses is that they have the £2,000 off their national insurance bill, which can help people to take on new employees; there is the cut to business rates for many shops in our high streets, which is also very welcome; and from next year, businesses will not have to pay any national insurance contributions at all in respect of anyone under the age of 21. We want to see more people in work, and to raise even further that level of aspiration in our country.

Q7. Nuclear power is a very important component of the UK’s energy mix, because it produces large amounts of electricity with very little CO2. This Government call themselves “the greenest government ever” but have ceded control of our nuclear energy policy to foreign companies. What will the right hon. Gentleman’s Government do to ensure that nuclear power stations such as Hinkley Point C, which is already five years behind schedule, are brought on line on time? (903739)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman has a constituency interest in this, because the north-west has very important energy assets for our country. The last Labour Government were in power for 13 years; they never built a nuclear power station, nor made any progress on moving towards doing so. Under this Government, we have got Hinkley Point going ahead. We have got the exciting developments at Wylfa in Anglesey. I believe there is the opportunity of more to come. That is what we are doing: putting our money where our mouth is and ensuring that we have nuclear power providing a high-quality base load power which is carbon-free.

Q8. The Peterborough effect is back. Business confidence is returning, unemployment is falling and more new jobs are coming to my constituency. Much of that new prosperity relies on infrastructure spending financed by private pension funds. Does my right hon. Friend share my regret that Labour’s raid on company retirement funds, the brainchild of the shadow Chancellor, estimated last week by the Office for Budget Responsibility to have amounted to £118 billion, not only wrecked private pensions but hobbled vital private sector infrastructure investment in our country for a generation? (903740)

I am delighted to hear about the Peterborough effect—employment rising, unemployment falling, more people taking on apprenticeships, and businesses expanding. That is what we see across our country and it is fascinating that, 29 minutes into Prime Minister’s questions, not a single Labour Member of Parliament has mentioned GDP or unemployment, growth in our country or our economic plan. They do not want to talk about our economy because they can see it is getting better under this Government.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister make representations in relation to the cases of Princesses Sahar and Jawaher, who have been held under house arrest in Saudi Arabia for more than 10 years and have been refused access to food for more than 40 days as a result of speaking to the western media? Does he agree with me that human rights and women’s rights should be our priorities in our relationship with Saudi Arabia? (903741)

I read the report, as the hon. Lady did; I share her concern about the case and I will certainly look into it further. In our relations with all countries, we give proper priority to human rights and the rule of law, and we raise those issues with all countries we meet with.

Could I gently tell the Prime Minister that Liberal Democrat women not only pull their weight, but are perfectly ready and willing to punch above their weight?

I recently hosted the premiere of “The Honour Diaries”, a hard-hitting film about the honour culture and what can be done to girls and women in its name. I know that issues of female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage are hugely important to my right hon. Friend, so will he please consider viewing the film and showing it at the girls summit on those issues, which he is hosting in July?

First, I thank the hon. Lady for the work she does, particularly on women in enterprise with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is vital. The point I was making is merely that I know that all parties in this House want greater gender equality in terms of representation, presence in Government and the rest of it, and all parties have made progress. My party has made progress, but there is more that we want to do.

On the specific concerns about FGM and preventing sexual violence in conflict, we are taking huge steps this year in raising the profile of those issues, and I pay tribute to the leadership shown by the Foreign Secretary. As a country that has met the target of 0.7% of GDP going in aid, we are able to push this item right up the agenda, which we will do during the course of the year.

Q10. Yesterday, Ukrainians in Scotland wrote to Alex Salmond expressing disgust and astonishment at the First Minister’s statement that he admired President Putin. Will the Prime Minister support the Scottish Ukrainian community and Labour in condemning those statements in support of a regime that oppresses its own minority groups and silences its critics? (903742)

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. I think that what Alex Salmond said was a major error of judgment and that all of us in this House should be supporting the Ukrainian desire to be a sovereign, independent country and to have the respect of the international community and party leaders for that ambition.

This morning, I met Joe’s Jumpstart, a charity campaigning for defibrillators in schools. It is excellent news that the Government are making progress on that. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate North Lincolnshire council, which has worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and me and is this year committing £75,000 to a programme of up to 50 community public access defibrillators, which will save lives?

That sounds like an excellent campaign. We have, as a country, taken a lot of steps forward in making sure that that sort of equipment is more readily available, because if people who have suffered a heart attack are found quickly, in the golden minutes or golden hour after it strikes, their lives can be saved. It sounds like an excellent idea and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to North Lincolnshire council.

Q11. Over the past 12 months, the use of food banks in Knowsley has increased by 93%, and social landlords report that rent arrears have gone up by 8.4%. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government’s own policies are driving up debt and poverty in places like Knowsley? (903743)

What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that the best route out of poverty is work, and we should welcome the fact that there are 1.5 million more people in work. Looking at the figures, of course, yes, he is right that food bank usage has gone up, not least because food banks are now properly advertised and promoted, not only by Jobcentre Plus but by local authorities.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to deal in facts, the OECD has shown that the proportion of people struggling to buy food in the UK has actually fallen since before Labour’s great recession. I know that Opposition Members want to make this argument about poverty and inequality in Britain, but the statistics do not back them up. Inequality has fallen compared with when Labour was in office; there are fewer people in relative poverty, and fewer children in relative poverty. The picture Labour Members want to paint—because they cannot paint one of an economy that is not growing, or one of people who are not getting jobs—is wholly false.

With the service, manufacturing and construction sectors all growing at 3% plus, does the Prime Minister agree that the economy is well on the road to recovery and rebalancing as well?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. Recent figures showed that manufacturing was one of the faster-growing sectors of our economy, which I welcome, but what the Chancellor said so powerfully in his Budget is that we are not resting on our laurels or saying that the job is done. There is more work to address the fundamental long-term weaknesses of the British economy: we need to manufacture more; we need to export more; we need to save more; and we need to invest more. Unlike the Labour party, we have policies that promote all those things.

I will allow some injury time, because there has been so much noise.

Not on this occasion from her seat, but on her feet, I call Fiona Mactaggart to speak.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Has the Prime Minister seen the survey showing that two thirds of local councils are either dimming or cutting their streetlights at night? Does he think that women are feeling safe in their local communities at night under his Government?

I have, like all hon. Members who take part in election campaigns, been lobbied on this issue on both sides of the argument. It is an issue for local determination. I want to see good street lighting, but we should also listen to the arguments from the police and others about the effect that this has.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Chancellor on the long-term economic prosperity that has come forward. In areas such as St Albans, barely one house is worth under £250,000. Can I make a plea through the Prime Minister that we consider stamp duty thresholds around that limit to help young people to get on the housing ladder?

We are very happy to look at the issues that my hon. Friend raises, but the weapon that we have used to try to help young people who do not have rich parents but who can afford mortgage payments is Help to Buy, because it helps them to get together a deposit of 5%, rather than a 15% or 20% deposit. Labour Members are shouting about this; they should be welcoming this scheme, which is expanding aspiration and growth in our country. That is what they should be promoting and that is the approach that we will take.