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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Digital Service

We have designed and created the award-winning and world-leading, the central web domain for Government information. We are redesigning 25 major Government services to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. That will not only provide savings to the taxpayer, but improve delivery for the public, focused on user need, not Government convenience.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that individuals who are not digitised, many of whom live in rural constituencies such as mine, are not disadvantaged if they cannot access digitised public services or can do so only at low speeds?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When, on the recommendation of Baroness Lane-Fox, we adopted the digital-by-default approach—if it can be done online, it should be done only online—we stressed that there must be an assisted digital alternative for those who are not online, and we will ensure that that is the case.

May I congratulate the Minister on much of the innovative work he has done in the digital area, thanks to Martha Lane Fox, the Cross-Bench Member of the House of Lords? Will he, however, take on board the fact that older people in this country find it very difficult to make the transition from the traditional to a digital way of communicating with the Government?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliment. We are trying to make a lot of progress, and the British Government are now regarded as world leading, after having been, frankly, a byword for failure in Government IT. Other Governments are now using the source code for, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Baroness Lane-Fox leads the Go ON UK charity, which is dedicated to getting more people online, which is the key purpose. When we provide the assisted digital option, we ideally want to frame contracts so that they incentivise the provider not just to provide a service, but to use it to help individuals to get online so that their lives are enriched more widely.

In answer to the very good question from my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), the Minister responded that those, like many in my constituency, who have no access to computers and are not online will be given something called an “assisted digital alternative”. Will he perhaps tell us what that is?

It can take many forms, but the point is that the service is provided or the transaction is conducted digitally—it is conducted online—although not necessarily by the citizen themselves. For example, it could be done in a library, where someone sits alongside the citizen to help them to input data or conduct the transaction, or it could be done on the telephone, with someone on the other end to put data into the web service. There are a lot of different ways of providing it, and they will be fashioned around the needs of the user, not the convenience of the Government.

In the spring, the Minister announced his digital inclusion strategy to exclude 5 million people. In the summer, he told pensioners to get online or lose access to Government services. In the autumn, farmers found that they needed a credit reference from Experian to apply for common agricultural policy grants. The list of people he is excluding grows day by day. Next week, a report for the Labour party will highlight the impact of his policies on the most vulnerable, and how a Labour Government will change that. How many more people does he intend to exclude from public services before he is voted out of office?

I invite the hon. Lady to dream on, on that front. Her party is ill-equipped to criticise us. The last Labour Government’s definition of an online service was enabling people to download a form from the web, print it off, fill it in by hand and send it off by post. They regarded that as an online transaction—they were not quite in the modern world. We are glad that she is catching up, but she still has a long way to go.

Charities (Legislation)

2. When he next plans to meet the Charity Commission to discuss the operation of legislation relating to charities. (906074)

I met the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, and its chief executive officer, Paula Sussex, last month, shortly before we published the draft Protection of Charities Bill. I will continue to meet them on a regular basis.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his well-deserved appointment. Does he agree that, under its new leadership, the Charity Commission is proving to be a much more effective regulator than it was a few years ago? Does he agree also that any organisation that encourages extremism of any kind should lose its charitable status and that, although the Charity Commission is getting tougher, it needs to get tougher still?

I do indeed. In the past, the Charity Commission was rightly criticised for regulatory failings. It now has new leadership, as I mentioned, with a strong board and a new chief executive officer. The Prime Minister has just given it an additional £8 million, and it will hopefully get new powers through the draft Protection of Charities Bill.

I think that my hon. Friend was referring to the concerns that were expressed on the front page of The Times this week about the threat from terrorism and extremism. The House needs to recognise that there is a threat to charities of abuse for terrorism purposes. For example, three men were convicted in 2013 for fraudulently using Muslim Aid charity logos to collect £14,000. I am right behind the Charity Commission in its efforts to ensure that it is a strong and robust organisation.

I am glad that the charities Minister will meet the Charity Commission. As a matter of urgency, will he also meet Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and his colleagues in the Treasury to sort out the nonsense whereby smaller charities in particular find it difficult to set up the gift aid system? That is a correct tax relief, but it is not going to many charities because of the red tape involved.

I will be happy to meet HMRC. I would say that we have the autumn statement coming up, and the hon. Lady might like to look out for anything that might appear in it.

In his discussions with the Charity Commission, will the Minister see how it can encourage the development of charitable community funds that tap into the desire of local people to support local charities?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does. I hope that he and people in his constituency will support Giving Tuesday, which is on 2 December. That is a great opportunity for smaller charities to raise substantial sums of money and I hope that he will support it along with me.

Youth Services Provision

We are working to offer practical support to the youth sector at a time when local authorities continue to make difficult decisions on how to deliver services. Our support focuses on promoting delivery models for innovative services, including mutuals, and better measurement of the impact of youth services on the lives of young people.

Last week, BBC Look North revealed that more than £30 million had been cut from youth services across Yorkshire—deep cuts that had been forced on councils by the disproportionate reduction in local authority funding for areas with the highest need. What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in other Departments about the impact of those cuts on young people?

I am slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms, because I did not notice his campaigning in Sheffield on the cuts made by his local authority and I could not find a single letter that he has written to the Department about those cuts. Sheffield city council is one of 10 local authorities that are co-operating with the Government to transform youth services using the new delivery models that we are talking about. I would add that we are working with the youth sector to launch the centre for social impact, which will make it much easier for the youth sector to justify the things that it does and to get the buy-in of local authorities to keep those services going.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gavin Pardoe and his team, who have accessed finance from the Charity Bank, Sport England and many other sources to build a magnificent new skate and BMX park in Stourbridge that opens next week?

I do indeed join in congratulating Gavin Pardoe and the able team that supported him. I understand that it is a state-of-the-art skate park that will draw in people from right across the west midlands. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her role in bringing it about. It sounds like a wonderful facility for young people in the area.

The Minister will know that youth provision is not statutory provision, and that it is therefore vulnerable to local authority cuts. He will perhaps have seen the early-day motion that has been signed by Members from throughout the House, suggesting that there should be positive discussions now about making youth services a statutory provision.

I have seen the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion, and we believe in supporting a statutory position, but it is important that local authorities have the right to make decisions about their local area. The Government do not wish to be too prescriptive in directing local authorities on what they should and should not do. For that reason, we do not support his early-day motion.

In my constituency, the Cedars youth centre, which is a partnership between Watford football club, Harrow council and the Government, is an extremely successful example of how youth services can be transformed. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a service is the way forward for youth services, and would he like to visit the centre and see for himself the excellent work that is being done?

I can feel a number of visits to hon. Members’ constituencies coming on. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on the work that it is doing. It is possible to innovate and make youth services even better and more efficient, so we do not have to accept the Opposition’s counsel of despair.

11. The National Audit Office has said today in a report on local government funding cuts that the Government fail to monitor the impact of funding reductions on local services. The report into the exploitation of girls in Rotherham cited youth workers as repeatedly having raised serious concerns—they were often the only people to do so—which shows that youth workers are often the only dependable adult in vulnerable children’s lives. Will the Minister assure me that he will monitor carefully the impact of local government cuts to youth services and the effects on child safety, and report his findings back to the House? (906084)

Obviously the Rotherham child sex abuse case is complex, and most of the responsibility for the matter lies within the Department for Education, but the hon. Lady makes a good point. It is important that we all learn lessons across Government, and the Cabinet Office is as keen as any other Department to do so.

SMEs (Government Procurement)

4. What recent steps he has taken to address barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (906076)

Central Government spend with SMEs increased from £3 billion in 2009-10 to £4.5 billion in 2012-13. They benefited from a further £4 billion in indirect spend through the supply chain, so we are on track to deliver our ambition that 25% of Government’s direct and indirect spend should be with SMEs. In addition, we are implementing further changes to procurement rules that will benefit small businesses.

The majority of local authorities are still not using the Government’s Contracts Finder, resulting in local SMEs losing out on opportunities. What are Ministers doing to ensure that more local authorities submit their procurement opportunities to the website?

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that a new and greatly improved version of Contracts Finder will be launched early in the new year. It is a massive opportunity for local authorities to procure better and cheaper, but also to be able to support local businesses. There are now more than 1,000 suppliers on our G-Cloud framework, 87% of which are SMEs, a number of them based in Bolton. They are all now able to provide services directly to public sector purchasers, which helps growth and jobs as well as providing better value for the taxpayer.

What is being done to encourage innovative SMEs to get in on public procurement, and will the Minister update the House on the effectiveness of the mystery shopper tool?

We have enabled suppliers who suspect that a procurement is being done in the old-fashioned way that we inherited to raise it directly with my officials in the Cabinet Office, who can then intervene with the public sector procurer-commissioner to ensure that it is done in the modern way, which does not exclude small businesses from supplying to government in the way that was routinely the case in the past. We have made a huge amount of progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Trade Union Subscriptions (Civil Service)

5. What his policy is on the deduction of trade union subscriptions from payroll in the civil service. (906077)

I am interested in the Minister’s response because I understand that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been writing e-mails and letters to other Secretaries of State, asking them not to write off. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct, and will he make clear all correspondence between him and other Liberal Democrat Ministers concerning their opposition to this Tory attack plan on worker representation?

I can do no better than quote a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union—she is just identified as June—who said that direct debit is

“the easiest way of paying my union subs. You know then that it’s going to get paid because you’re not dependent on your employer taking it from your wages. I think it’s better.”

I agree with June.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the relationship between trade unions and their members ought to be direct and not intermediated by the civil service?

As the PCS said in the document from which I quoted, check-off is an archaic way of operating that pre-dates the existence of bank accounts and direct debits. Most civil service unions use direct debits, not check-off, because they think that is the modern, direct way for an organisation to have a relationship with its members.

The Department for Work and Pensions estimated that the cost of ending check-off across Departments was £1 million. The Minister denies that, so will he tell the House exactly how much it will cost to implement what is a political attack by the Conservative party, rather than a policy worthy of Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point and she is completely correct to say that an official produced the figure of £1 million. However, when asked for the workings and calculations that underpinned that number they were unable to produce them, and it turned out to be a completely fictional number. The correct calculation of the cost is more likely to be a negative number and a saving to the taxpayer, as well as being a measure that enables the PCS to do what its members now prefer and have a direct relationship with them.

The Paymaster General has reiterated his support for getting rid of check-off, even though the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has written to Departments saying that there could be legal costs associated with that. A leaked HMRC memo talks about marginalising the unions, which could lead to industrial action among civil service unions. Does that show that Ministers are playing irresponsible party politics with the trade unions, and that the right hon. Gentleman should abandon his plans to get rid of check-off?

It is always reassuring to find that the old truths turn out to be enduring and that Labour speaks for its paymasters, the trade unions.

Topical Questions

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

The right hon. Gentleman is also responsible for the list of Ministers’ interests, and it is some time since that was done—I wonder when it will be. I am interested to know whether his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is still a honorary member of the Irvine Burns club, and whether the Minister still lists the Blind Trust as part of his financial interests, and whether we can see where we are going on this subject.

I have no idea what that was all about, but I am sure it can be pursued through different channels.

T3. My constituents Callum Brogan and Parvathi Thara have been selected as National Citizen Service leaders for 2014-15, and have told me how much the NCS means to them. Will my hon. Friend tell me his future plans for the NCS? (906115)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with his local NCS, and all Members across the House who also take an interest in the programme. I wish his two constituents the best of luck next year as NCS leaders. The programme has consistently demonstrated, through independent evaluations, that it delivers more capable, confident and engaged young people, and up to £6.10 in benefits for every £1 spent. It continues to grow and it saw its 100,000th participant this summer.

It is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister this morning talking up family-friendly working, but what is the right hon. Gentleman doing to ensure best practice on family friendly across the civil service, in particular on access to high-quality and high-level part-time and flexible opportunities? Is it not about time that the Government showed leadership, instead of lecturing others on what they are not doing?

I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I have slightly lost count, but on my reckoning she is the fifth incumbent of the shadow post and I am sure the best. I look forward to a warm relationship with her over the coming period.

On the hon. Lady’s valid point about the need for the Government to exercise leadership in providing family-friendly opportunities for flexible working, I very much agree that we should do that, and we are already doing that. We are providing more opportunities and we think there are significant productivity improvements in enabling people to work more flexibly. However, it is always to be stressed that it is not an entitlement; it has to be according to the needs of the business.

T5. What assessment has the Minister made of Labour’s proposals for a mansion tax on legacy giving, which is so appreciated by our charities? (906117)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I did notice that the Leader of the Opposition had a very compelling economics lesson on TV the other evening, when Myleene Klass said:

“You can’t just point at things and tax them.”

That is hardly a thought-through strategy. We have heard voices within the Labour party itself—

Order. The Minister should resume his seat. His answer suffers from one principal disadvantage: it has absolutely nothing to do with his important responsibilities as a newly appointed junior Minister, with which of course we wish him well.

T2. Several Ministers, including, it has to be said, the Prime Minister, fail to handle data with a certain amount of precision. Indeed, two weeks ago the Prime Minister told the House that there were 1,000 extra GPs when in actual fact there are 36 fewer. Will the Minister, who is responsible for consistency and co-ordination across government, clamp down on these bad practices and perhaps help the Prime Minister to correct the record today? (906114)

We are really not going to take any lectures on this kind of thing from the party that brought the whole idea of fiction writing into dispute during its time in office.

T8. Like the Minister I, too, have seen at first hand the benefits of the National Citizen Service and believe that every young person would benefit from taking part in the programme. Will he tell the House how he intends to increase both participation and the availability of the programme across the whole UK? (906120)

I thank my hon. Friend for the efforts he is making in his constituency to support the NCS. He spoke this year at the regional awards and promotes the programme in local schools. I am delighted that the NCS has taken part in every local authority across the country this year. There are projects now in Wales and Northern Ireland, and my officials are in discussions with the Scottish Government to explore the possibility of a pilot in Scotland.

T4. During this Parliament, the National Statistics Authority has repeatedly had to write to Ministers to ask them to correct misleading or false statements on the growth of the national debt, the amount the Government spend on flood protection and much else, and to ask the Government in future to publish the figures as quality assured official statistics. Do the Government agree it is now time to change the law? (906116)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that all correspondence to the UK Statistics Authority is publicly available on its website, but he will also know that it has responded to both the Government and the Opposition on the issue of statistics, such as when it wrote on 24 July concerning incorrect employment figures used by the Leader of the Opposition and a shadow Business Minister—

Order. We are going to get one more question in because we want answers about Government policy. The Minister will learn gradually.

I have previously praised the important role parish councillors play during national emergencies, as they did in my constituency during the flooding last year, but the picture nationally remains patchy in terms of parish councils with emergency plans in place. May I urge the Minister, ahead of this winter, to push again to ensure that parish councils take up their responsibility for emergency planning?

My hon. Friend, who works hard in this area, makes a valid point, and I will ensure it is taken onboard and acted on.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning the senseless attack in a synagogue in West Jerusalem this week, in which five people were killed. One of the victims was a dual Israeli-UK citizen, Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, and we send our deepest condolences to his family and friends, as well as to the families of the other victims. This was an appalling act of terror, and we condemn all acts of this kind.

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

I think the whole House will echo the Prime Minister’s comments regarding the incident in Israel. It is a tragedy that we are all deeply concerned about.

How confident is the Prime Minister that he will not see further defections to UKIP?

There is only one way to secure an in/out referendum on Europe, and that is to back a Conservative victory at the next election.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

In 2007 the Conservatives gained control of North West Leicestershire district council following 30 years of Labour maladministration and inherited the worst quality council housing in the country. I am pleased to announce that by the middle of next year all the homes in North West Leicestershire will be up to the decent homes standard. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Conservative group, and does he agree that it is another demonstration of the fact that Labour does not fix the roof when the sun is shining?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating North West Leicestershire district council on the work it has done. It is vital that we bring poor quality housing up to standard, and the results it has achieved are good, but it is also important that we get Britain building, and that is now well under way.

Let us see whether they are still cheering on Friday, Mr Speaker.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, who was murdered in the horrific terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and to the other victims. It was an appalling act, and all my sympathies are with their families and friends.

Will the Prime Minister tell us why he is so in favour of the bedroom tax but so against the mansion tax?

First, I make this prediction: the people behind me will still be cheering the right hon. Gentleman on Friday.

On the views of close colleagues, it is worth listening to what the new shadow Cabinet member in charge of the election, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), said about the Leader of the Opposition. She said there was a

“wider concern in the public whether he has the leadership qualities to lead his own party, let alone the country.”

I knew we had moles in the Labour movement; I just did not know they were that high up.

The spare room subsidy is a basic issue of fairness: people do not get the subsidy if they are in private sector rented accommodation, so in our view they should not get it in public sector rented accommodation. It is as simple as that.

In case he has forgotten, two of the people behind the right hon. Gentleman have jumped ship—and the others are waiting for the result to see whether they should follow.

The Prime Minister tries to defend the bedroom tax. Let me tell him that on the bedroom tax the Government are today going to court against a victim of domestic violence who has been raped, assaulted, harassed and stalked by her ex-partner and is going to be charged the bedroom tax on her panic room. She is one of 280 victims of domestic violence in this category. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind us why that is the right thing to do?

This is why we have a discretionary housing payment system with money made available for council after council, and up to date that money has been underspent.

Order. The answers from the Prime Minister have not always been fully heard and they must be, and the questions from the Leader of the Opposition have not always been fully heard and they must be. I remind the House that that is what our voters, the electorate, would expect—some decent behaviour, and robust but courteous exchange.

The Prime Minister does not know the facts. Many of these victims of domestic violence are not getting the hardship payment, and protecting the victims of domestic violence should not be a matter of discretion; it is a matter of principle. Nothing better illustrates the contrast of values between those on this side of the House and those on that side of it.

Now let us talk about the mansion tax—[Interruption.] Yes. A penthouse in Hyde park recently sold for £140 million. Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying that someone living in that penthouse should pay the same annual property tax as someone living in a house worth a fraction of that value?

We have made sure that the richest in our country have made a contribution by putting up stamp duty. We put up stamp duty on empty properties, and we are properly charging foreigners who come and invest in our country. The point is that we need a growing economy that is providing the jobs and the livelihoods for our people. That is what we are getting, whereas what the right hon. Gentleman has had in the last week is a pasting from a pop star.

That is exactly what I expect from this Prime Minister. He feels the pain only of people struggling to find a £2 million garage. That is this Prime Minister. Let me tell him why we need a mansion tax. It is because the NHS is going backwards on his watch. Will he explain why it was announced this morning that the NHS has missed its cancer waiting time target for the third quarter in a row, meaning that 5,500 people waited more than 62 days for treatment?

We are certainly not seeing a Klass act opposite. In the last week, the right hon. Gentleman has been called useless, hopeless, out of his depth, does not cut it and an absolute disaster—and that is just what his Front Benchers think. He asks about cancer standards, and the number of people treated for cancer is up 50% under this Government. We have put £12.7 billion extra into the NHS—money he thought was irresponsible—and we are meeting nine of the 10 cancer standards.

The right hon. Gentleman has absolutely no answer on the NHS. This is a target that he pledged to meet, and Cancer Research UK— [Interruption.] I know they do not want to listen to Cancer Research UK. It says:

“This isn’t just about missed targets…thousands of patients are being failed.”

He is missing his cancer targets—[Interruption.] No, actually, they are doing a better job on cancer targets in Wales than they are here. He is missing his cancer targets and he is missing his A and E targets. Let me put it to him in terms that he might be capable of answering. On his visit to Rochester and Strood, has he had time to explain to people why over the last three months nearly 4,000 people waited more than four hours for A and E, and more than 700 people waited more than four hours on trolleys?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in the NHS. The number of nurses is up by 2,500 under this Government, and the number of doctors is up by 8,000 under this Government. Millions more patients are being treated, all because we put in the extra money that Labour said was irresponsible.

The right hon. Gentleman made a point about Wales. Let me just give him the facts. The last time A and E targets were met in Wales was March 2008. The last time the urgent cancer treatment target was met in Wales was 2008. What is the difference between Wales and England? In England the Tories are in charge, putting more money in and reforming our NHS. In Wales Labour is in charge, cutting the NHS and missing targets.

The truth is that the NHS is going backwards on the Prime Minister’s watch, and the British people know it. We are going to campaign on the NHS between now and the general election, because the Prime Minister has failed—he has failed on the NHS. We all know why this Prime Minister thinks the bedroom tax is great and the mansion tax to fund the NHS is terrible. If you have big money, you have a friend in this Prime Minister. If you have not, he could not care less.

I think it fair to say that the right hon. Gentleman’s week has not got any better. This was the week in which Myleene Klass wiped the floor with him in a television programme, and this was the week in which an opinion poll in Scotland showed that more people believe in the Loch Ness monster than believe in his leadership. The only problem for the Labour party is that he does actually exist.

You are all very kind.

The impact of excessive second home ownership on rural communities is that it removes demand from GPs’ surgeries, village schools, rural bus services and post offices, and those services often close as a result. Will the Prime Minister agree to allow an increase in the council tax on wealthy second home owners in order to create a ring-fenced fund to support those vital rural services?

We have allowed councils to charge more tax on second homes, and many have taken advantage of that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to build more houses to ensure that the village school, the village post office and the village pub are given the support that they need, and under this Government that is happening.

Q2. The Jarrow NHS walk-in centre, which sees more than 27,000 patients a year, is due to close. The management tell me that that is because of cuts that they have to make. Will the Prime Minister refute that? Alternatively, will he intervene with the reckless management up in the north-east who are cutting the NHS in his name, and stop this stupid closure now? (906059)

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what is actually happening in the NHS in south Tyneside. Clinical commissioning group funding is going up by 2%, and is more than £225 million this year. As for the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, according to the figures more than 50,000 patients attended South Tyneside general hospital A and E, of whom 60% did not require treatment. That is why new investment is going into the urgent care hub that is being proposed by the local managers and clinicians in his constituency.

Q3. In Salisbury and south Wiltshire, unemployment has fallen by 60% since the Government took office. Youth unemployment is down by two thirds, and across the county of Wiltshire the number of young people in training and employment is set to exceed pre-recession levels. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are on a clear path to improving living standards further for all, and that the Labour party would put that into reverse? (906060)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we have seen in the last year is the biggest fall in unemployment since records began. We have more people in work in our country than ever before in our history. We have seen the first rise in the minimum wage ahead of inflation since Labour’s disastrous recession, and today we are taking further steps by banning exclusivity in zero-hours contracts.

Our plan is working, and the British people are seeing the results. There are still warning signs out there about the global economy, but we need to stick to our plan, and deliver wealth and prosperity for our people.

Q4. Across the United Kingdom, there are two Governments redistributing wealth from the poorest to the richest. The Labour alternative is to have a 50p tax band and a mansion tax to provide money for our vital public services and a bankers bonus tax to provide a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people—policies opposed by both the Tories and the shouting Scottish nationalists. Does that not tell us that in Scotland we face a clear choice in May: you go to bed with the Scottish National party, you wake up with this man as Prime Minister? (906061)

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. In this year alone, 500,000 more people are in work. There have been cuts in unemployment and fewer people claiming benefit in his constituency. That is what is happening. I know that it is not convenient for the Labour narrative but the fact is that inequality is down; child poverty is down; the number of people in relative poverty is down. Those are the facts. Labour Members do not like them but they cannot hide from them.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker—I had not spotted the opportunity.

The Prime Minister will know that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was built on the twin pillars of equality and support for marriage. Will he now put a rocket under the Ministry of Justice to ensure that, under this Administration, we can deliver the same rights for those who want to celebrate their marriage as humanists?

We said at the time of the debate in the House of Lords that there would be consultation on this issue and that is exactly what is happening.

Q5. Northwick Park hospital, which serves my constituency, has seen an unprecedented increase in the numbers going to A and E, given the closure of Central Middlesex A and E department and the continuing weekday closure of Alexandra Avenue polyclinic. Given that the hospital management believe that an extra 120 medical beds are necessary and local people want the clinic to be fully reopened, will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State for Health to address those concerns urgently? (906062)

Of course I will discuss that matter with the Secretary of State for Health, but I will do that in the context of what the hon. Gentleman knows, which is that, in his constituency, the A and E unit at Northwick Park hospital is getting a £21 million upgrade and is due to open in December. That is because our long-term economic plan is working and we are putting money into the NHS. This goes to a bigger truth: we can only have a strong NHS if we have a strong economy.

Q6. The Prime Minister has gone further than his predecessors in recognising our nuclear test veterans, but actions speak louder than words. Given how poorly they have been treated compared with veterans in other countries and the fact that one in three of their children has a serious medical condition, with 20% of conceptions ending prematurely, and in the hope that this PMQ will be third time lucky, will the Government make an ex gratia payment of £25 million to a charitable fund to help those veterans and descendants in need? After all, we only had to ask them once to do their duty and stand in front of a nuclear bomb. (906063)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been dogged in pursuit of this very important cause. There is a very important ruling out today that has serious implications and it is right that we consider our response carefully. I have asked the Defence Secretary to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the implications for the nuclear test veteran community. I listened very carefully to what he said about the ex gratia fund. This Government have taken the time to deal with some of the difficult issues, such as war widows, which we effectively solved last week, and the long-term injustice of there not being medals for Arctic convoy veterans and the clasp for Bomber Command veterans. I am determined that we deal with this issue. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me while we have further discussions, but I do want us to try to seek a resolution to the issue.

Given the Prime Minister’s observation that red lights are flashing on the dashboard of the world’s economy, does he agree that, in relation to Northern Ireland’s economy, he could take two positive measures very soon: first, to devolve corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and secondly, to put pressure on energy companies to reduce the price of home heating oil as well as petrol and diesel because of the very high dependence in Northern Ireland on that type of energy? Will he take action on those two fronts immediately?

The right hon. Gentleman makes important points. On off-grid heating oil and the costs, more needs to be done to put pressure on companies not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK. On the issue of corporation tax, I maintain the commitments that I have made before about what we will be saying and when we will be saying it, but as we address this issue we are also going to have to look carefully at the Northern Ireland budget, and to ensure that the budget is working and that the Government of Northern Ireland are working, because that is an important part of the overall picture.

Q7. This week I am launching my latest small business awards in Chester, ahead of small business Saturday on Saturday 6 December. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating small businesses that have helped generate our economic recovery and will he commit to shopping small and shopping local on Small Business Saturday? (906064)

I can certainly make that commitment and that is what I will be doing on Saturday. Small business Saturday is an excellent initiative, and I urge all hon. Members to get behind it. In terms of helping small businesses, it is worth noting that we are cutting the jobs tax of businesses and charities by up to £2,000, we are abolishing national insurance contributions for under-21-year-olds, we are extending the doubling of small business rate relief and we have cut corporation tax to small business. Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and they know that in this Government they have got a true friend.

Q8. Is the Prime Minister aware that the hateful bedroom tax will be remembered just like the Tory poll tax, which destroyed Margaret Thatcher’s premiership? He should be ashamed that such a notorious tax came in on his watch. (906065)

What the hon. Gentleman and others on the Labour Benches have to explain is why it is right that people in private rented accommodation who are claiming housing benefit do not get a spare room subsidy but they think people who are living in council housing should get a spare room subsidy. The second question they are going to have to answer is: why did they oppose £83 billion of reductions in welfare which has helped us to maintain spending on health and schools, while taking 3 million of the poorest people out of tax altogether?

Q9. Earlier this year 20-year-old Hollie Gazzard was one of two girls murdered in my constituency by former partners. Her father, Mr Nick Gazzard, has since set up the Hollie Gazzard Trust, one of the objectives being to promote the teaching of personal, social, health and economic education in schools. That is mentioned in the new national curriculum but the trust feels it needs to be compulsory for all schools and that it needs to be taught by external specialists. Will the Prime Minister help with this? (906066)

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. First, I would like to send my deepest condolences, and those of the whole House, to Hollie’s family, following her brutal murder. I would also like to pay tribute to the Hollie Gazzard Trust, set up by her family, for its high-quality programme of classes aimed at educating young people about domestic abuse. What we have said is that sex education should always include relationship education as well, and that goes for all schools.

Q10. Rents are sky-high and house prices in Brighton rose 13% in the last quarter alone. Nurses’ wages were recommended to go up by 1% yet the Prime Minister’s Government are blocking even this tiny rise. How does he expect hospitals like the Royal Sussex to be able to recruit enough nurses if they simply cannot afford to live in the area? (906067)

First, we are making a huge investment in the Royal Sussex hospital and that will have its effect, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that she says house prices are rising and are unaffordable, but I have never come across a Green party politician who is in favour of building houses anywhere for anyone.

Q11. During his recent visit to Warrington the Prime Minister will have seen at first hand our increasingly severe traffic issues. I thank him for ensuring that the local growth deal will deliver a new crossing near the town centre, but may I say that what we really need is a new high-level crossing, something that has been planned but not delivered for nearly 30 years now? (906068)

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. I enjoyed my visit to his constituency, and he is right: I could see the problems of congestion, but I could also see how the long-term economic plan is working in his constituency in terms of jobs and growth. He is also right about the local growth deal, which for Warrington and Cheshire is worth over £140 million in terms of Government funding, and that does include support for the new swing bridge, which will help to tackle the congestion as well as unlock important building sites.

Q12. The people of Northern Ireland welcome the success of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, assisted by secret recordings made by the British intelligence services, in bringing seven suspected terrorists, including terrorist godfathers, to court on charges of serious violent republican activity. Customs officials close an illicit fuel plant in Northern Ireland every 10 days. The profits from those operations have bankrolled republican terrorists for years and cost the economy millions, but there is anger that not one person has been jailed for such an offence in the last 12 years. Why are those terrorists and gangsters immune from prosecution? Does the Prime Minister agree that that is an intolerable situation, and will he intervene to enable the immediate full operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland? (906069)

First, no one who commits crimes in Northern Ireland should be immune from prosecution. The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the PSNI, which, over the past few years, has shown just what an extraordinarily capable police force it is. We should remember the conditions in which it was built. He also makes an important point about the National Crime Agency. It is proving itself in operation after operation, not just here in the United Kingdom but right around the world, and it should be playing a part in Northern Ireland. That is a discussion that we need to have with all the parties in Northern Ireland, and I hope that over time we can get everyone to see the sense of having that important organisation there for Ulster.

Q13. Christians and others are being murdered for their faith in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and many other countries. Elsewhere, it is a crime to believe anything other than what the state sanctions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our United Kingdom stands, above all, for freedom of speech, thought and belief, and that we must do all in our power to protect the persecuted and stand up to the persecutors, whoever they are? (906070)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend; he is right to make this such a cause, and to pursue it in the House and outside it. Britain has a proud record of political and religious tolerance—and, of course, of freedom of speech. In our dealings with other countries, we should always make it clear that we believe that to be the right approach. There is an appalling amount of persecution of religious minorities around the world, and some now say that Christians are more persecuted than other religions in too many countries, some of which my hon. Friend has named. We should make sure that this key issue of religious tolerance is at the heart of our foreign policy.

Two Ofsted reports released today show that local authorities are not equipped to deal with child sexual exploitation. In addition, South Yorkshire police officers are being investigated for failing victims of abuse. I raised all these issues in April. I have raised them with Ministers and at PMQs. What will it take for this Government to help vulnerable people?

First, let me commend the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this issue. It is important that we learn the lessons from what happened in Rochdale—and, indeed, in the city of Oxford, near to my constituency, and elsewhere. The report released today is important, because the most important lesson that it draws is that we have to get every agency—whether it is the police, social services or schools—working together. That is not happening in enough of our towns and cities, and it needs to. In terms of what this Government are doing, the Home Office is leading this important effort and getting Departments to work together. I am convinced that we will make good progress.

Q14. On the subject of immigration, Greencore—a large sandwich-making company in my constituency— is already employing 1,100 people. It is now expanding massively, thanks to this Government’s long-term economic plan. However, there were reports last week that it was looking to hire staff from Hungary. Labour wants untrammelled immigration, and that is what it gave this country for 13 years, but is not the message for the people of Northampton—and of Rochester, for that matter—that it is thanks to this Government that there are jobs in this country for the people of Northampton? Would we not be a bacon butty short of a sandwich platter if we forgot that? (906071)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The case of Greencore shows that we need not only proper immigration controls within and outside the EU but also welfare reform, so that it is not an option for people to live on welfare when they could work. We also need to implement education reform, as we are doing, so that young people can leave our schools and be able to take on the jobs that are available. It also means sanctioning those people who are on unemployment benefit who will not fill out a CV, will not attend a job interview and will not take a job when it is offered. A proper sanctions regime is actually part of a strong immigration policy.

In December last year, the Prime Minister visited Bolton and promised that there would be 200 extra seats on key morning commuter trains to Manchester by the end of this year. Last week, I met the train operator, who said that they did not know how many seats there would be or when they would be available, but that they would certainly not be available by the end of the year. Can the Prime Minister explain why his promise has been broken?

We are making huge investment in rail services in and around Greater Manchester, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. On the specific case he raises, I will write to him with the details.

Q15. Is the Prime Minister aware that over the past year unemployment in North West Norfolk has fallen by a very welcome 770? Does he agree that one should look behind the statistics and see nearly 800 families who now have a new breadwinner and a brighter future? Is this not yet another vindication of the tough stances he and his Chancellor had to take? (906072)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In North West Norfolk the claimant count is down by 50% since the election and the youth claimant count is coming down by 52% in the last year alone. The figures released today show that people who have been in work for a year or more have seen their wages go up by 4%—more than twice the rate of inflation. And of course that is their wages before the tax reductions this Government have made because we have been a careful steward of the nation’s finances. What we would get with Labour is no growth, no jobs and higher taxes.

The Prime Minister apparently admits that his top-down reorganisation of the national health service and the Act that imposed it were mistakes. My Bill on Friday is an opportunity for him to put right some of those mistakes and repeal the parts of that Act that imposed privatisation on our NHS. The Bill is backed by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison, Unite and the GMB—who represent the workers. Never have so many people been united against the Government about an Act that imposed so much on the national health service. Will he back my Bill on Friday and tell people that the national health service is not for sale—not now, not ever?

At least we now know who is paying for the hon. Gentleman’s Bill—that is one thing. Let me make a couple of points to him. Independent providers made up 5% of the NHS under Labour and they now make up just 6% of the NHS. The Government who had the sweetheart deals with the independent sector were the Labour Government, who handed it money in return for contracts. This is what we see in the NHS: 2,500 more nurses; 8,000 more doctors; and more patients being treated. We see an NHS that is succeeding because we made the reforms and we put in the money.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In 2009, Burnley was classed as an unemployment blackspot. In 2014, unemployment has fallen to 3.5% and we are no longer a blackspot. May I advise my right hon. Friend that the economic plan of the coalition Government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is working in Burnley?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. May I also commend his leadership on fighting for more apprenticeships, more skills and more training for young people in Burnley? The long-term economic plan is succeeding in Burnley, as it is in the rest of the country.