Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 10 September 2014

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society Network

1. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. (905293)

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. (905295)

I take this report seriously. I am satisfied that the issues raised concerned adherence to process, and therefore do not feel that there are any implications for the policies of my Department.

First, I welcome the Minister to his place. When it seems pretty clear that the National Audit Office had some pretty damning conclusions regarding the mismanagement of over £2 million of public money to the Big Society Network, and when, in my own constituency, the SWEET project, which got a big society award, ends up having money cut by the Government because it does precisely the innovation work that it got the award for in the first place, what exactly, in this day and age, does the big society mean? While he is at it, will the Minister look into the circumstances surrounding the cuts to the SWEET project?

I shall certainly look into that matter, as the hon. Gentleman has asked. We welcome the NAO’s report and have learned the lessons from this experience. There are no conclusions that the Cabinet Office did anything untoward in this regard. All the report says is that we did not adhere to the guidance we issued for this particular programme on a couple of points.

Is it true that the Prime Minister’s flagship Big Society Network is now being investigated by the charity commissioners over allegations of misuse of Government funding and inappropriate payments to directors, including a Tory donor?

None of us could let that go. Thanks to the National Audit Office’s report, we now know that the Government’s big society lies in tatters. We have since learned that the charity the Prime Minister personally launched at No. 10 Downing street is not only under investigation by the Charity Commission, but is under investigation for moving Cabinet Office funding to its parent company, which is chaired by a major Conservative party donor who also earned hefty consultancy fees from it. Was the Cabinet Secretary aware that Government funding was being transferred not to the thousands of legitimate charities in this country, but to the bank account of a Conservative party donor?

This allegation has been investigated by the grants manager, and appropriate action to recover any funds not spent in line with the grant agreement is being taken.

Political Activity (Charity Commission Guidance)

2. What assessment he has made of the scope of the Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activity; and if he will make a statement. (905294)

Charities play an important role in shaping Government policy. Indeed, Departments are working on the development and implementation of many our policies. However, it has long been the case that the law and Charity Commission guidance prohibits charities from party political campaigning and activities. I believe that that is the right position.

Does the Minister nevertheless agree that it would be right to return to the Charity Commission guidance of 2004, which ensured that charities focused on social justice and helping people in need on the front line, not on big marketing budgets and playing party politics?

The Charity Commission’s guidance is clear about what charities can and cannot do and reflects the commission’s view of the underlying law. The guidance was last reviewed in 2009. The Charity Commission has said that it keeps all its guidance under review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date, but it has no immediate plans to amend its guidance on campaigning and political activity.

Since 1921 the Royal British Legion has undertaken political campaigns for the benefit of military veterans and their families. Will the charities Minister please affirm the right of charities to undertake political campaigning in line with their charitable objectives? If he cannot say that loud and clear, could he please get back to his knitting?

I take the hon. Lady’s point and I was expecting a question along those lines, so I have stitched together a response for her. Charities, with all their expertise, have long been at the forefront of helping to tackle some of the country’s biggest social challenges and have an important role to play in helping shape a Government policy, but they must stay out of party politics, which has been a long-standing requirement by charity law—[Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is chuntering, saying that her party seeks to change the law?

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) for tabling the question. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who, when in government, commissioned the report that changed the Charity Commission guidelines, which are giving so many people so much concern?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I want to stick to the main point. Charities have enormous expertise and can contribute to shaping Government policy. I want to make it clear that political campaigning by charities is absolutely right, but it is important that they steer clear of party politics.

Over the past few weeks it has been absolutely embarrassing to see a number of Conservative MPs come out of the woodwork and attack some of this country’s best charities. Would it not be better for the Minister and his team to get behind those charities and allow them to comment and campaign on issues relating to their work?

As I have made clear time and again, and as somebody who has spent more than 30 years of his life in the voluntary and charity sector, I say that it is absolutely right that charities have the right to campaign on the issues that they feel strongly about. The only point I have been making is that they should steer clear of party politics. Campaigning is absolutely right and they must continue to do that.

Government Reform (Savings Programme)

4. What progress he has made on his programme to achieve savings from greater efficiency in and reform of central Government. (905296)

On 10 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I announced savings through efficiency reform of central Government of £14.3 billion for the last financial year, measured against a 2009-10 baseline. These savings include both recurring and non-recurring items, and include £5.4 billion from procurement and commercial savings, £3.3 billion in project savings and £4.7 billion from work force reform and pension savings.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he able to quantify the specific savings to the taxpayer from Government Departments and agencies now being required to share buildings, rather than having their own stand-alone premises?

We have got out of a huge number of properties. We have reduced our office estate by the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace, raising £1.4 billion in capital receipts and saving £625 million in running costs. Our One Public Estate programme, which is working very closely with a number of local authorities, is saving even more money and releasing property for the private sector to create jobs and growth by local government, central Government and indeed the wider public sector co-locating, which both saves money and is more convenient for the public.

Cost-effectiveness is of course something that all of us should aim for, but does the Minister agree that in trying to achieve that it would be better if best practice was shared right across the United Kingdom, including Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

We try to promulgate good practice as best we can. We are, however, localists. We believe that the wider public sector—those who have responsibility and are accountable for the way in which the wider public sector operates—must be responsible for their own decisions. I have had very productive conversations with Ministers in the devolved Northern Ireland Government. There is much that we can learn from each other, and much that we can gain, as in the One Public Estate programme, from working together.

Why has the Cabinet Office increased spending on consultants and agency staff to over £50 million in the last year?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the amount of money spent by the Government on consultants and contingent labour has been cut very dramatically from the grossly swollen levels that we inherited from the Government of whom he was a supporter. [Interruption.] It will sometimes go up a little bit, and it will sometimes come down a bit.

Actually, we sometimes need to get the right skills that do not exist in government, and by and large we will make sure that we have the right skills available on the right terms. [Interruption.] I was grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, for the support he expressed for our efficiency and reform programme in a very robust speech earlier this week.

Social Enterprises

We are committed to supporting social enterprises, and we are leading the world in growing the social investment market to provide social enterprises with access to the finance and advice that they need. I am particularly pleased that we are working with Social Enterprise UK to deliver the first ever Social Saturday this Saturday to encourage more people to buy from social enterprises. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent Sebastian Huempfer, who yesterday won the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award for his work with soap recycling social enterprise CLEAN SL8.

Oxfordshire is a hotbed of social enterprise and tech expertise, as the Minister for Business and Enterprise discovered when he visited the outstanding social enterprise Oxford Launchpad at the Said Business School yesterday. Does the Minister for Civil Society agree that the middle-stage funding gap is acting as a barrier to UK social tech achieving its full potential, and that raising the cap on the social incubator fund is the right response to this problem?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are working closely with key stakeholders to ensure that social ventures can access the support and finance that they need throughout the different stages of development. Following the support provided through the social incubator fund, there are now a number of opportunities for social ventures to access support.

I see that you are wearing a slightly pinkish tie today, Mr Speaker, but pinkness seems to be absent from the Government Front Bench. Today is “wear it pink” day, which is the national campaign day for breast cancer.

Social enterprise is a very important sector and it is getting more important by the day. Has the Minister seen the wonderful picture of Mrs Thatcher’s face with Che Guevara’s beret, which launches the new manifesto for the social enterprise sector? That is important, because it marks the conjunction of social enterprise, social enterprise investment and crowdfunding. We would be very grateful if he put his weight behind it.

The image is visible in Westminster station and doubtless elsewhere, as I am sure the Minister is aware.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was coming into Parliament, the image struck me as a cross-party approach to campaigning. We lead the way on social impact bonds. The UK is also leading the charge through the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which contributes to the Government’s ambition to reform public services to ensure that they not only achieve maximum value for money but contribute to their local communities.

SMEs (Government Procurement)

7. What recent steps he has taken to remove barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in government procurement. (905302)

In response to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I think that my tie is at least as pink as yours, Mr Speaker.

The direct spend of central Government with SMEs increased from £3 billion in 2009-10 to £4.5 billion in 2012-13. SMEs benefited from a further £4 billion in indirect spend though the supply chain. We are therefore well on track to deliver our ambition that 25% of Government spend through the supply chain should be with SMEs. However, we are still not satisfied, so we are taking forward a number of the recommendations of Lord Young of Graffham on creating an SME-friendly single market in, among other things, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.

I thank the Minister for his reply. However, with £36 billion owed to small businesses in late payments, will he ensure that the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill requires companies to demonstrate that they will pay all their suppliers promptly in order to be on the Government’s approved supplier list?

The hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner on this front and I commend her for it. The policy of central Government is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down the supply chain as a condition of contract. The situation is therefore improving. We encourage our prime contractors to pay more quickly than the 30-day commitment on a voluntary basis. We have tasked Departments with managing their contracts in a way that ensures that that happens. We also encourage SMEs that are not being paid by the prime contractor sufficiently quickly to let us know so that we can investigate.

Public Service User Satisfaction Data

8. What progress he has made on the commitment in the “Open Public Services” White Paper of July 2011 to publish public service user satisfaction data on all providers from all sectors. (905303)

I am delighted to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the progress in that incredibly important area has been considerable. The friends and family test, which is our main user feedback mechanism, is used in all hospitals and maternity wards. By March 2015, it will be extended to the rest of the NHS. It is already used in further education, it has been used in the National Citizen Service since August and it will be used in Jobcentre Plus from March next year. The intention is to roll it out right across the public services.

I am heartened. The Government’s Work programme is a good example of a public service where user satisfaction data would be extremely valuable, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has steadfastly resisted their introduction. Will the Minister have another go at persuading the Secretary of State to introduce the use of such data in that service?

I am grateful for that suggestion. I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend about it. He recently agreed to introduce the data in Jobcentre Plus and we have had to work through the details of that. I will certainly open discussions with him about the Work programme and will have discussions about other programmes across the rest of Government.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are efficiency and reform, civil service issues, the public sector industrial relations strategy, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does he agree that, contrary to some suggestions that have been made, the chief executive of the civil service will be best placed to accelerate the pace of reforms in the civil service in this country?

We do believe that the new post will play a vital role in embedding the programme of efficiency reform that we have driven. I appreciate the support of Labour Front Benchers for that approach, so that there will be consistency whatever the result of any election. He—or the new chief executive officer, whether a he or a she—will work closely with the Cabinet Secretary and myself in supporting the performance management of permanent secretaries, but will also line manage the heads of the cross-Government corporate functions. That will increase the focus on driving efficiency.

Last week, the Minister for Civil Society made his first, stunning intervention as the new Minister responsible for charities by saying:

“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting”.

When so many charities and people who work for them do such a magnificent job in every part of the country, was that not the most condescending, patronising, inept, out-of-touch and just plain wrong thing for the Minister to say? Will he finally now apologise?

Already?

As I have made abundantly clear, charities play an important role in shaping a Government policy, and indeed, with their expertise, they should be doing that. What I made absolutely clear was that charities should not get involved in party politics, because that is the law.

T2. As part of our long-term economic plan, the Government have disposed of more than 1,250 properties since 2010. What is the Minister for the Cabinet Office doing to release more Government properties so that we can reduce costs and become more efficient? (905270)

As I said earlier, we have already reduced our office estate by the huge amount of 2 million square metres since 2010, the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace. The strategic land and property review being led by my officials in the Government Property Unit will enable sites worth at least £5 billion, and potentially much more, to be released over the next five or six years.

T3. Small businesses in my constituency have long since given up trying to jump through the hoops that they face in even bidding for Government contracts. They certainly do not recognise the description that the Minister gave of the opportunities for Government procurement. Is not the truth that despite all his talk, it is almost impossible for small businesses to get Government contracts? (905271)

In that case, it is remarkable that the amount of Government business being given to small and medium-sized businesses has risen to nearly 20% and is on course to rise even higher. Under the arrangements left in place by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, a lot of small businesses were simply frozen out because the process was so bureaucratic and clunking that they could not even get into the starting gate, let alone have a chance of winning the race. Now they can, and increasingly they do.

T5. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire Community Development Trust on the work it does to help the people of Weaver Vale to get into work? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of social action that should be used as a template to unite communities across the country? (905273)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the important work that Cheshire Community Development Trust does to support people in Weaver Vale. Through our social action work, we are supporting communities across the country to take a more active role in shaping their neighbourhoods and working together for the good of others.

T4. On user satisfaction data, does the Minister accept that the Public Accounts Committee was right to say that the position is currently far short of the ambitions in the White Paper? How long will it be before user satisfaction data are published for all services and all providers? (905272)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and so was the Public Accounts Committee, to say that we need to go much further. The ambition is to cover all public services. I am currently conducting a review of the complaints procedures across Government to see how we can mine them for user satisfaction data. I hope that that, combined with the expansion of the friends and family test, will lead to increasing fulfilment of our ambition, but the House should be in no doubt that it will take some time to fulfil it completely.

T6. In the previous financial year more than £85 million was spent by the taxpayer on full-time trade union representatives. Is that a fair figure, and what is the Minister doing to reduce it? (905274)

At the time of the last general election there was no monitoring whatsoever of the volume of taxpayer-funded trade union facility time in the civil service. We now have controls in place that saved £23 million last year, and we have already reduced the number of full-time taxpayer-funded union officials from 200 in May 2010 to fewer than 10 this summer.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Scotland today to listen and talk to voters about the huge choice they face. Their message to the Scottish people is simple: from the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we want you to stay in the United Kingdom.

I join the Prime Minister in the tribute he paid on Monday to Jim Dobbin who died at the weekend. He was a proud Scot, and a hard-working and principled parliamentarian who was respected on both sides of the House. He will be very sadly missed, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.

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

I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to our very good friend Jim Dobbin. He was a kind and thoroughly decent man and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Pat and their family.

The bedroom tax is discriminatory, damaging, and it is not even working. Last Friday the House was very clear. Will the Government now listen? Will they scrap that wretched policy, because if they will not, we will?

This is a basic issue of fairness. For someone who lived in private rented accommodation and received housing benefit, these rules applied throughout the whole of the last Labour Government, and we had a situation in which neighbouring households could be treated unequally. The hon. Lady asked about the private Member’s Bill. The proposals in that Bill could cost the country up to £1 billion. Because we have introduced a cap on overall spending, making those changes would mean finding savings elsewhere. I have not heard any suggestions on that from the Labour party.

Assuming there is a no vote in the Scottish referendum, who in the Government will represent England in the new devolution settlement? Who speaks for England, because we need a voice and a new deal?

Well, there are many of us. Having represented Yorkshire for 25 years, I can claim to speak for England from time to time—Yorkshiremen are always keen to speak for a far bigger area than they represent. All these debates are to be had once the referendum is concluded.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words about our good friend and colleague Jim Dobbin, and add my tribute to him after his sudden and tragic death at the weekend. He was, as has been said, a thoroughly decent man who always stuck to his principles. At a time when it is fashionable to say that politicians are in it for themselves and out of touch, he was the absolute opposite of that. Our deepest sympathies are with Pat and their children, and we will miss him greatly.

“Historic” is a much overused word in politics, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in just eight days’ time the people of Scotland will make a truly historic decision? This is their vote, but I want the message from the Labour Benches to be heard loud and clear: we want Scotland to stay.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady. That is a clear message from the Opposition and, despite our differing political perspectives, from the Government parties as well. I hope, therefore, that the message the people of Scotland will hear from the House, where Scottish parliamentarians have made an immense contribution for generations, is that we want to stay together and cannot imagine life on these isles without them. She is a London MP and speaks for millions in what she just said; I am a Yorkshire MP who has served as Secretary of State for Wales, and we are all proud to be British, combining those identities. There is no doubt we would all be diminished if Scotland was separated from the people of the rest of the UK.

The roots of our party run deep in Scotland. We delivered devolution and the Scottish Parliament, but we need to go further. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be further devolution and that a Scotland Bill setting out new powers will be published in January?

As the right hon. and learned Lady knows, the three main party leaders have come together to agree to develop a programme for change. The right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) has set out a process for how that change could be delivered to a tight timetable, and all three main parties have endorsed that timetable. It means immediate action the day after the referendum to start the legislative process; it means a Command Paper, including proposals, at the end of October, with a full draft Scotland Bill published by the end of January; and it means the introduction of a Bill after the general election, regardless of who forms the Government. That is a clear timetable and it shows that Scots can have change without irreversible separation and without such risks to jobs and their future.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the clarity of that answer. As we set about devolving further powers to Scotland, does he agree that the time has also come to devolve further power to Wales and, crucially, to the great cities and regions of England too?

As we all know, the decision next week is a matter for the people of Scotland, but the implications will be felt by all the people of the United Kingdom. We are already steadily devolving increased powers to parts of England and Wales. Under this Government, Wales has received more primary law-making powers and we are moving towards devolving tax and borrowing powers. We want to see devolution in Northern Ireland succeed. In England, the Localism Act 2011 devolved power over business rates to local authorities, and city deals have given local areas more of a say over their governance. One of the greatest strengths of the United Kingdom is that it is not a rigid union; it is a living, flexible Union.

For Labour Members, a fundamental principle of our politics is solidarity. We want the UK to stick together in the cause of social justice. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong to set the different countries of the UK against each other, whether on workers’ rights or corporation tax?

The right hon. and learned Lady makes a powerful point about solidarity in the UK. For 300 years, we and our predecessors have sat in the House with Scottish parliamentarians and their predecessors. Since the 18th century, they have sat together to implement a great range of progressive causes, from the abolition of the slave trade to our pursuit of human rights and sound development across the world today. We have often led the way at times of world crisis and been an inspiration to democratic peoples elsewhere. The next 300 years could easily be as turbulent and dangerous as the last 300 years, so to tear apart a union so proven, so precious and so valuable would be a tragic mistake for all our peoples.

People in Scotland can now be certain that with a no vote, there would be change and more powers for Scotland. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that posed against that certainty is the uncertainty that a yes vote would bring on so many issues, including jobs, pensions, mortgages and the currency?

The uncertainty it would bring is impossible to list in answer to one question, but a letter signed last week by more than 120 job creators from across a range of Scottish business concluded that the business case for independence had not been made. It said:

“Uncertainty surrounds a number of vital issues including currency, regulation, tax, pensions, EU membership and support for our exports around the world; and uncertainty is bad for business.”

The Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday that sovereignty and a currency union were “incompatible”, and he is right—many of us have pointed that out for many years in relation to another currency. Be certain of this: this is not an opinion poll where you can change your mind the next day; it is not an election where you can reverse the result four or five years later; it is a permanent decision that will affect generations. Therefore, the votes cast next Thursday will probably be the most important votes that can be cast in any country at any time, and the voters must weigh that vote heavily.

While jobs, pensions and taxes are important, next week’s decision, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is about much, much more than that. For sure, there must be change. We must have that, and we will, but not by tearing this country apart. We must stay as family, not become foreigners to each other.

The right hon. and learned Lady puts it extremely well. We all want the best for Scotland, just as we all want the best for our own constituents, from all parts of the UK, in this House. The people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland believe that Scotland is better off in the UK and the UK is better off with Scotland in it. This referendum is the most important choice the people of Scotland will ever make: a choice between the opportunity and security of staying in the UK, and leaving for ever, without the pound and without the UK’s influence in the world. With Scotland as part of the UK, we have the best possible situation and a great future together in the United Kingdom.

Since 2012, my right hon. Friend and I have been supporting the policy of the Government not to offer so-called devo-max as a consolation prize in the event of a no vote in the Scottish referendum. If this is no longer the policy of the Government, when and why did it change, and what opportunity has there been for this House to express its view?

It has been the policy of the Government for some time to be open to further devolution—I gave examples of what we have done in Wales, for instance, during the lifetime of this Government. The statements by the party leaders made on this in the last few days are statements by party leaders in a campaign—not a statement of Government policy today, but a statement of commitment from the three main political parties, akin to statements by party leaders in a general election campaign of what they intend to do afterwards. It is on that basis that they have made those statements.

Q2. In 2012, the Chancellor set himself a target to double exports to £1 trillion by 2020. I wonder whether the Leader of the House would confirm that his Government are on course to miss that target by a massive £330 billion. (905279)

Of course, nobody can claim to know what the figure will be in 2020, since we are only in 2014. A great deal of work has to be done, but we have greatly intensified the promotion of British exports. That is why I, in my time as Foreign Secretary, opened nearly 20 new embassies and consulates, including many that the Labour party closed when it was in power, and why we have revamped UK Trade & Investment. We have huge increases in exports to countries such as China, India and Brazil. Everybody, of all parties and businesses, must join in making a success of that by 2020.

Q3. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are rightly campaigning today for the future of our Union. With Gatwick in my constituency, I see on a daily basis the strong family and business links between my local airport and Scottish airports. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree with me that our great kingdom is better together as a united Britain? I say that as somebody with proud Scottish ancestry. (905280)

Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. What he can see at Gatwick airport and what we all experience around other parts of England and Wales is a very good example of his point. In fact, two thirds of Scottish exports are exported to the rest of the United Kingdom—twice as much as to the rest of the world put together. Why would anyone choose to place an international border where those exports are going, and to do so unnecessarily? My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.

The Leader of the House is, of course, right: next Thursday, the Scots go the polls to make what is undoubtedly the most historic, important and momentous decision we have ever had the privilege to consider. It is a process that has galvanised and energised every community in Scotland. Will the Leader of the House join me—I know we want different things from the outcome—in congratulating the Scottish people on the way they have gone around conducting this incredible debate?

The hon. Gentleman is right: it was a gentle understatement that we want different things from this process, but of course we applaud the people of Scotland for taking such an immense interest on all sides, and it is very important that there is a high turnout in any such referendum. I absolutely congratulate the people of Scotland, but I do not congratulate those such as the hon. Gentleman’s own party who have failed to be straight with the people of Scotland; who have never explained what money Scotland will use and what its value will be; who have never explained how long it would take to rejoin the European Union and on what terms; who have never explained how they would fund schools and hospitals when there would be a £6 billion black hole in their finances; and who have not explained that their threat not to pay debts would be disastrous for Scotland’s long-term future. They are passionate about Scotland and passionate about separation, but they are not passionate about telling the truth to the people of Scotland.

Q4. Embracing three centuries, the garrison town of Colchester has welcomed thousands of Scottish soldiers, many with their families. We wish that to continue. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Defence Select Committee that if Scotland ceased to be part of the UK—and we have the best armed forces in Europe—this would pose serious security and defence risks for a separate Scotland without the capacity to defend itself? (905281)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He sees the participation, work and sacrifices of members of the armed forces from Scotland when they are deployed in Colchester, and I see that in Catterick garrison in my own constituency. He makes an important point about the security of us all, which is of course important for Scotland’s security as well. We have to bear it in mind that, for instance, Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde is the largest employment site in the whole of Scotland, and it is going to get bigger with the deployment of all our submarines there. Those things are put at risk by a campaign for separation, which also puts at risk the security of all of us.

Q5. Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at Beighton in my constituency, at which the doctors in the Beighton and Sothall practice were consulting their patients on how to deal with a budgetary cut of 22% to 24% by 2018. They have been officially notified of that cut by NHS England. Will the Leader of the House confirm that, if the Conservatives are in power after the general election, these are the cuts that my constituents can expect? (905282)

I can confirm that this Government have raised the NHS budget in line with inflation, which the hon. Gentleman’s party was not committed to doing at the last general election. I know that the Secretary of State for Health will want to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the details of the local situation, but I hope he explained to those at the meeting that overall, since the last election, the number of nurses is up 3,700; the number of doctors is up 6,500; the number of people who say they are treated with dignity and respect is up 10%; and that we have now been ranked, according to the Commonwealth Fund, as the top health system in the world, moving from seventh in the world four years ago.

Will my right hon. Friend applaud the initiative of Prince Harry in creating the Invictus games, and welcome all the participants to this country on our behalf?

Absolutely. This is an extremely important continuation of the developing, immense and proud sporting history that we have in this country. We are now established again as one of the great sporting nations of the world, and we are also a country that thinks deeply about the welfare of service veterans. His Royal Highness Prince Harry has been one of the great champions of that, and we wish him, and everyone involved in the games, very well.

Q6. In 2012, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to see economic growth that would mean rising living standards for all. Can the Leader of the House tell us, then, why Britain has seen one of the largest falls in real wages among the European Union countries, beaten only by Cyprus, Portugal and Greece? (905283)

The hon. Gentleman may remember that there was a debt-fuelled, deep recession, which came about under the last Government. That, of course, has to be paid for, but now, after four years of the disciplined policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we have the fastest growth among the G7 economies, we have employment nearing a record high, and we have nearly 2 million new apprenticeships which have been started during this time. That is a remarkable economic turnaround from the catastrophic situation that we were left.

Q7. Does the Leader of the House agree that Scottish independence is not about getting one over on Westminster, not about embarrassing the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition and not about defeating the “auld enemy”, but it is about Scotland turning its back on 300 years of successful union, and rejecting so much that this country has done to make us all so proud of being part of Great Britain? (905284)

My hon. Friend is right. It is not about any individual or party or election; it is a far more long-term decision than that. In my experience all over the world, other nations regard the United Kingdom with admiration, and sometimes even with envy. If Scotland voted yes, people all over the world who share our values and count on our contribution to peace, stability and human rights would be disappointed, while those who do not share those priorities and beliefs would be quietly satisfied. That is another thing that we must all bear in mind.

At the end of last month, my constituent Mr Krishna Upadhyaya was “disappeared” in Qatar. He had been arrested by the secret service there because he was investigating the human rights abuses of workers who were building the infrastructure for the 2022 World cup. I thank the Foreign Office for its help in securing his release, but what action will the right hon. Gentleman take to speak to the Qatar ambassador about the disgrace of his having been arrested in the first place, and about the treatment of those who are preparing those facilities?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important case. He is right to say that the Foreign Office has pursued it and has achieved some success in doing so, as we will do in any parallel cases in the future. I know that the embassy and the Foreign Office will want to follow up these matters, but that is for my successor as Foreign Secretary to determine, so I will draw his attention to the hon. Gentleman’s question, and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Q8. Given mounting evidence of an innovative, vibrant and growing real economy, especially in manufacturing and engineering, does the First Secretary of State agree that Scotland should remain with us, first to share in the fruits of that success and secondly to give us a bigger footprint in global trade? (905285)

Yes, I do. That is another very good point. The economic turnaround that has been brought about in the United Kingdom means that employment in Scotland is now at a record high. There have been seven consecutive quarters of economic growth in Scotland, and there are a quarter of a million more private sector jobs in Scotland than there were four years ago. That is a reminder of the potential if we continue to work together, and that is the message that I again repeat to the people of Scotland today.

Q9. I welcome suggestions that the Prime Minister will attend the crucial climate summit at the end of this month. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will go, and will he tell us what bold new initiatives the Prime Minister will be taking with him, because that is what my constituents in Brighton say they want? They want to protect what they love—[Interruption.] They want urgent action on climate change. (905286)

Order. Can I just say for future reference that it is disorderly to display images in that way, and I say with all courtesy to the hon. Lady, whose principles and commitment I respect, that if everybody did that on every cause it would make a mockery of this place? I ask the hon. Lady to take a view much wider than her own immediate preoccupation.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will attend the UN General Assembly later in September. We have not yet issued, or finally decided, his precise schedule, but of course we are looking at attendance at the meeting the hon. Lady refers to, and Britain will continue to play a leading role in the world in bringing about legally binding agreement on climate change. The next 15 months is a very important period, leading up to the meeting in Paris at the end of next year. We are one of the most active countries in the world in climate change diplomacy, and the Prime Minister and other Ministers in New York will be fully conveying that, whoever attends the meeting.

Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House why, with the possibility of a yes vote, finance is leaving Scotland and many businesses are thinking of leaving Scotland? Surely if the economic arguments were so good for the yes campaign, the reverse would be happening?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. The anxieties of businesses are very clear to see. While we can understand people doubting the word of politicians about economic events, it is very important to listen to what businesses say they will do with their jobs, with their headquarters and with their investments, because a country that has separated itself from the fastest growing economy of the G7, that has put itself outside the European Union without thinking about the implications of doing that, and that has ended up with no central bank and unsure which currency to use, would of course find it difficult to attract new business to its shores.

Q10. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership leaves the health service vulnerable to some of the worst possible outcomes of this Government’s privatisation programme. Private investors will be able to haul the Government and devolved Administrations through the investor-state dispute settlement tribunal. In that respect, how can the Leader of the House guarantee that the health service, including the health services in the devolved Administrations, will be exempt from the TTIP? (905287)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has been dealing with these matters and has held a briefing about them, so I have no doubt we can furnish the hon. Lady with more details on these issues, but it is very important to maintain a commitment to free trade, which has been a characteristic of the United Kingdom over many centuries, and which has invariably brought greater prosperity to the people of the UK, as well as to people all over the rest of the world. The TTIP is another major opportunity to boost free trade across the world.

Q11. A vote next week in favour of an independent Scotland will have major, damaging implications for Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my fellow Welsh citizens who care about the future of our Welsh nation should be hoping and praying for rejection of the break-up of the United Kingdom? (905288)

Yes, absolutely, and I think they are. I regularly consult at least one Welsh citizen, and on the evidence of that the Welsh are very much hoping and praying that the UK will not be broken up. My hon. Friend, I know, speaks very well for his constituents in mid-Wales. All of us in the United Kingdom would be diminished by the break-up of the United Kingdom. We are something greater than the sum of our parts, and that is well understood across the UK. The impact on Wales would be unmistakable.

The Patients Association has found that six in 10 people cannot get a GP appointment within two days of needing one. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why his party will not support Labour’s proposal to guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours?

Professionals in the health system have said that going back to that kind of target would be counter-productive. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the number of people treated by GPs has increased by many millions over the past four years, and that trend is continuing. Of course we are always trying to seek further improvements, but reintroducing the old, failed targets of the last Government is not the way forward.

Q12. When I travel abroad and I am asked where I come from, I am proud to say that I am British. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can be proud to be British but still have our own identity of being English, Scottish, Welsh or from Northern Ireland, and that we should all remain together and continue as Great Britons? (905289)

I do not think anyone could have put it better. My hon. Friend definitely has his own identity, in so many different ways, and he has expressed it beautifully, including his identity with the United Kingdom. That is how so many of us think in Britain, and let us hope that it will be possible to continue to do so.

May I support the visit of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to speak directly to the people of Scotland? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I, speaking on behalf of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, want the United Kingdom to stay together, and it is my hope that some of those who are crowing today might be disappointed after the referendum.

That is certainly my hope as well. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been able to make that point, because it means that in this short Question Time we have heard the very clear message from Members from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the people of Scotland that we want them to stay.

Q13. My parents will soon celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. My mother was born in Aberdeen, and my father in Cambridge. Is my right hon. Friend reassured that there will be no need for any senior politicians to come to their anniversary event, because my parents know in their heads and in their hearts that in their union, as in the other Union, they are happier and better together? (905290)

I extend the congratulations of Her Majesty’s Government, and indeed of the whole House of Commons and all the political parties—even, perhaps, the Scottish National party on this occasion—to my hon. Friend’s parents. They are an example to us all, particularly after 60 years, and I hope that it is an example that will continue to be heeded and respected all over the UK.

Contrary to what has been said by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), this campaign has been fraught by fear and intimidation. It is somewhat ironic that the majority of the Scottish separatists have turned out for today’s Question Time, given that fewer than half of them turned out for our debate on an important element of welfare reform last Friday. That demonstrates that their priority is to come here to whinge rather than to debate.

I do not need to add anything to the hon. Gentleman’s description of the Scottish National party.

Q14. My Scottish pro-Union friends have reminded me that the middle east peace envoy and GQ philanthropist of the year award winner has reportedly said that he welcomes the publication of the Chilcot report. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when we can expect that report to be published? (905291)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the work continues, and that Sir John Chilcot has said that he intends to publish the report as soon as possible. I do not have a fixed date that I can give to my hon. Friend. I can only observe that, had that inquiry been set up when I and others first called for it and voted for it, back in 2006, it would have reported long ago. It was set up late, and it is therefore reporting late, but we look forward to it.

Q15. Is it acceptable for young people to be fed takeaway pizza at lunchtime because the Government have failed to prepare schools properly for the introduction of free nutritious meals? (905292)

To put that into perspective, I think the latest figure is that 98.5% of schools are now providing a hot meal to infants as they were intended to do, and it is going up all the time. There are, of course, Government funds to help schools that need new facilities to do that, so I think it would be right to welcome the entirety of the picture, rather than try to find fault with one small aspect of it.

Bills Presented

Mobile Phones and Other Devices Capable of Connection to the Internet (Distribution of Sexually Explicit Images and Manufacturers’ Anti-Pornography Default Setting) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Jessica Morden, Mrs Siân C. James, Chris Evans, Mr Mark Williams and Nia Griffith, presented a Bill to prohibit the distribution of sexually explicit images via the internet and text message without the consent of the subjects of the images; to provide that mobile phones and other devices capable of connection to the internet be set by manufacturers as a default to deny access to pornography; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November, and to be printed (Bill 92).

House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Peter Lilley, supported by Mr Clive Betts, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, David Mowat and John Thurso, presented a Bill to consolidate and amend provisions about the House of Commons Members’ Fund.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed (Bill 91).