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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 7 January 2015

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

London-based Civil Servants

1. What plans he has to reduce the number of London-based civil servants; and if he will make a statement. (906843)

As part of our long-term economic plan to save taxpayers money and to pay off the deficit, this Government have reduced the size of the civil service like for like by 21%—that is after adjusting for machinery of government changes. That has increased productivity and saved the taxpayers £2.4 billion last year alone compared with spending in 2009-10. The reduction includes a substantial cut in the number of London-based civil servants.

I thank the Minister for his positive answer. Given the pace and scale of devolution in the UK, is there not more scope for merging and moving London-based Departments?

There is a lot of scope for us to get out of properties that we do not need and we have done that already. We have released a huge amount of property into the private sector where it can be used for the purpose of creating jobs, and there is more that we can and will do in that respect.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that an outstanding example of civil service dispersal is the Department for International Development in East Kilbride. As long as Scotland remains in the UK, which I believe it will for a very long time, can such an example be emulated?

I completely share the right hon. Gentleman’s hope about the United Kingdom, and wish to add my thanks and congratulations to the civil servants at DFID who do such a fantastic job in Scotland. There is scope for civil servants to work in many places other than central London and we will continue to pursue that.

Although transferring civil servants to other locations and downsizing are necessary, do they not make the whole business of managing the personnel in the civil service much more difficult? Will my right hon. Friend give full backing to the new chief executive of the civil service to strengthen the data held by the Cabinet Office on the skills and capabilities among civil servants so that we do not disrupt the training and career paths of the people on whom we depend?

As my hon. Friend well knows, the quality of data in central Government that we inherited was not good. It is getting better, but there is much more that needs to be done. The new chief executive of the civil service, who has got off to a terrific start, has a lot of experience in the management of big, complex dispersed organisations from his business background and I am sure that he will want to discuss that further with my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister not aware that there is a great deal of disillusionment in the civil service? Is it not our job in this House to support really good people with the highest level of skills coming into the civil service so that they are happy and motivated in their job? What will he do about morale in the civil service?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to support the development and skills of civil servants and to provide them with rewarding jobs. Obviously, the purpose of the civil service is not to provide jobs but to serve the public. I am happy to tell him that morale in the civil service, as measured in the annual people survey, has held up very well—it has certainly not fallen since the last year that his Government were in office—despite the very considerable demands made on it and the downsizing to which I have referred.

Jobs are lost from rural communities under the shared services project, as has happened at Alnwick. Can we have a more determined cross-Government effort to relocate out of London work, such as archives, that could be done in rural communities?

The right hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that in the Chamber before, and I completely understand his concern, particularly about the shared service staff in Alnwick. The machinery is not always as simple as it might be, but there is more that we can and should do to ensure that jobs are located in places where they can be undertaken efficiently and effectively with good results for the taxpayer and the citizen.

Miners Dispute (Outstanding Documents)

2. What progress his Department has made on releasing outstanding documents relating to the miners dispute in 1984-85. (906844)

The documents, other than sensitive or personal papers, were released in the usual way under the law that was passed by the previous Government.

What have this Government got to hide with regard to the miners strike, because only 30 out of 500 digitised documents relating to the strike were released last week? There was no mention of Orgreave, but there was an admission that the Government tapped National Union of Mineworkers members’ phones. When will the documents that have not been released be released, and will they be released unredacted?

I really have nothing to add to what I have already said and what has been said on previous occasions. The same considerations were applied to these papers as apply to the release of Government papers generally, which means that those that are personal or sensitive are not released in the normal time scales. I know that there are very strong feelings about this. I was a Member of Parliament for a coal mining constituency during the mining strike, and the mining community was deeply divided during that period. I am well aware of the sensitivities of that period.

Will my right hon. Friend note that the appetite for everything to be disclosed is shared by some Government Members, most particularly because I can recall the unlawful killing of the taxi driver David Wilkie and the recent revelations from the former right hon. Member for Pontypridd that following the event a number of papers at the NUM offices in south Wales were deliberately burnt and destroyed?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am a strong supporter of transparency and am proud of what this Government have done to make us the most transparent Government in the world. There is a concern, and that was a very bitter period in our nation’s life, but the normal considerations about the protection of personal papers must be followed in this case as in others.

Is not the whole subject of these papers embarrassing to the Government and to the Minister? At the beginning we argued that 75 pits were to be closed, and the Thatcher Government said at the time that there were only 20. They lied continually in the House of Commons, repeating that figure, and then the Cabinet papers revealed that it was 75 after all and that the miners had been right. He is embarrassed to reveal other papers simply because that Government decided to attack the NUM and Britain’s manufacturing base, and that has been carried on by the Tories ever since.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s case would be stronger if at that time he had made the case for the National Union of Mineworkers to have a proper ballot of all its members so that they could decide whether they wanted to be brought out on strike, rather than being bullied and intimidated into it.

I was elected in the middle of the miners strike in 1984 and know exactly what happened: we were lied to by those in authority. They said that our pit, Tower colliery, was uneconomic. We kept it going because the miners put their own money into it for another 10 years. There are lots of things that have not yet been revealed publicly, and I think that it is high time the truth came out.

As I say, the papers have been released, subject to the normal considerations about protecting sensitive and personal documents. Again, I do not recollect—the right hon. Lady and I were elected on the same day and were Back-Bench Members of Parliament during that period—hearing her voice being raised to support a proper ballot of mineworkers on whether they wanted to go on strike at all.

Why have not all the papers and memos between the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, and the chief constables and magistrates courts been published?

I can only repeat what I have said already: the papers have been released, subject to the normal considerations about protecting sensitive and personal documents, with the same considerations that are applied to all Government papers.

Big Society Network/Society Network Foundation (NAO Report)

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the findings of the report from the National Audit Office entitled “Follow-up: grants to the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation”, HC 840. (906845)

I welcome the NAO report into the matter, which found that there were no issues with Cabinet Office processes and, as a result, did not make any recommendations. Therefore, I do not feel that there are any wider implications for the policies of my Department.

The Minister clearly must have read a different version of the report. Voluntary sector organisations in my constituency tell me that they are struggling to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable as a result of this Government’s polices, yet the NAO report shows that millions of pounds of public money was wasted on failing projects as a direct result of prime ministerial interference and ministerial decisions taken despite

“concerns raised about financial sustainability and weak performance”.

Is not that truly shocking? When other charities are struggling to survive, how does the Minister justify it?

I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I disagree that we should avoid funding new and innovative approaches, despite the risks that come with doing so. I note that according to the Charity Commission, the number of registered charities went up from 162,000 to 164,000 between 2010 and 2014, and the total income of all registered charities has grown from £54 billion to £64 billion in the same period.

One of the lessons for us all to learn is the transformative potential of social enterprises encouraged by the Treasury—social enterprises such as the Cinnamon Network, which does everything from running food banks to helping people when they are released from prison. Social enterprises have the potential to make a real change in our society.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. Supporting social enterprises has been a huge priority for this Government, which is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased social investment tax relief, raising the cap to £5 million. We are the party of small business, but we are also the party of social enterprises.

Will the Minister explain why his Department, which is supposed to be responsible for Government transparency, has refused to release any minutes or attendance lists of meetings between his advisers, the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation, and why over six months he has refused to answer 76 parliamentary questions on the subject? Some £3 million were wasted, there were two damning reports from the National Audit Office, thousands of charities are in crisis, and the only beneficiary from the big society has been a Tory donor’s bank account. Is it any wonder that the Minister does not want to answer questions about it?

As the hon. Lady knows, it has long been the convention in this and previous Administrations that the minutes of ministerial meetings are not routinely released, but all the information pertinent to this issue was shared with the NAO in the course of its investigations. As for the Tory party donors that she mentioned, it is not the case that any of the trustees gained financially from the Cabinet Office funding. The matter has been investigated by the Charities Commission and the NAO twice, and which both found no evidence of what she suggests. Furthermore, the trustees of the charities have invested significant personal resources into them.

Trade Union Facility Time

4. What assessment he has made of the use of trade union facility time by civil servants; and if he will make a statement. (906846)

At the time of the last general election there was no proper monitoring of trade union facility time in government. We now have controls in place that have saved taxpayers £25 million in the last rolling year to date, and have reduced the number of taxpayer-funded full-time union officials in central Government from 200 in May 2010 to fewer than 10 now.

I am sure everybody in the House believes that employees in whatever sector should be given both the right and the opportunity to be properly represented with their employers, be it by trades unions or others, but the majority of my constituents and, I suspect, the majority of people in this country would still be quite shocked and unhappy to discover that we are still funding public servants, who should be working for the public service, to support trade union activity that has nothing whatever to do with what they are paid for. Will my right hon. Friend bear down on the remaining members given facility time in the public service?

As I say, the amount of facility time has been reduced significantly. There is a perfectly proper use of facility time for trade union duties in resolving grievances and dealing with disputes locally and effectively, and we support that, but there was also a huge amount of unmonitored and out-of-control, paid-for activity supporting trade unions, including in many cases paying for civil servants to attend seaside conferences of trade unions at the taxpayers’ expense, and that seemed to us to be wrong.

When he carried out an assessment, did the Minister consider speaking to Opposition Members who have experience of being employed under facility time arrangements, where we spent the vast majority of our time helping management to manage the service we were working in, particularly when management was faced with cuts, redundancies and redeployment forced on it by central Government?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the proper use of a trade union presence and the use of facility time on trade union duties, as defined by law, can be very beneficial, and we support it, but what was going on went way, way beyond that. It was completely out of control, and it was quite right that we should bear down on it by first monitoring it and then reducing it. We have now reduced the amount of money spent on it to less than 0.1% of the pay bill in the civil service, and that was quite right.

National Citizen Service (Colne Valley)

Next year will again see NCS programmes taking place in every local authority across England. I know that my hon. Friend has seen at first hand the transformative effect that the NCS has had on participants in and around Colne Valley, where about 500 young people took part in it last year. The NCS will continue to grow this year, and I urge all MPs to visit a programme near them.

As the Minister said, I saw at first hand the benefits of the NCS when last year I attended a tea party with Moor End academy students at Astley Grange nursing and care home that brought together many different generations and people from different ethnic backgrounds. Does he agree that the NCS has also been very effective in promoting community cohesion?

Yes. Independent evaluations of the NCS have shown that participants feel more positive about people from different backgrounds and have a greater sense of responsibility to their community. The last evaluation also demonstrated that parents believed their children had a better understanding of their local community after taking part.

Will the Minister agree to hold discussions with relevant Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to see whether there would be an appetite for extending the National Citizen Service there?

Of course we would welcome discussions. This is a devolved matter and it will be for local devolved Assemblies to make a decision on it. We are already pursuing increased numbers in Wales and having discussions there, so further discussions with other countries, including Scotland, would be welcome.

Digitising Government Services

As part of our long-term economic plan, we are moving a first wave of 25 public services online. Our future plans are to secure further savings by digitising more public services and moving to a “Government as a platform” model, building common digital infrastructure for services that improves the user experience and saves money by building common services only once.

How are the Government working with the private sector and voluntary sector in Thurrock and Basildon to ensure that my constituents have the relevant training to be able to access these services?

Britain already has a high level of digital inclusion, and it is rising, but we are determined to go further and get more people online. We are working closely with almost 70 organisations from the private and voluntary sectors that are signed up to our digital inclusion charter. I have no details of exactly what is going on in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I would happily share them with him.

Digitising public services creates vast amounts of data that can be used further to improve services and accountability, transforming the relationship between citizens and Government—a subject dear to your heart, Mr Speaker. However, each Government Department has a different approach to handling data, and there is total chaos among officials and Ministers about what is allowed, with, consequently, deep distrust among the public. In government, we will instigate a review to set out a coherent and ethical approach to data sharing. Will the Minister join us in committing to the principle that people own their own data and it is for them to say what happens to it?

I am happy to welcome the hon. Lady to the movement for open data. Under the coalition, the UK Government have become the world leader in open data. There is more that can be done with sharing data, but it is very sensitive and difficult. We are determined not to make the mistake that her party made in government when it had a train wreck in trying to move data sharing too fast. We have a lot of ongoing work on this, and I would be very happy to share the thinking with her.

Topical Questions

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

The Minister for the Cabinet Office stated in October 2010 that public bodies would be made more meaningfully accountable. Specifically, what new mechanisms has he put in place to make public bodies more meaningfully accountable to this House and, indeed, to the public?

Our concern with public body reform has always been to ensure that accountability is improved. A number of functions have been brought within Government to make them directly accountable to this House through Ministers. A number of other activities have been discontinued completely. The number of public bodies has been reduced by about a third. When we came into office, there were no data about the actual number of public bodies. In addition to increasing accountability, we have also saved the taxpayer very considerable amounts of money.

T3. Given the recent cyber-attacks on the United States, what strategies are the Department and the Government putting in place to protect Britain and Britain’s corporations from cyber-terrorism? (906800)

This is a very real and live concern. Our cyber-security strategy—I reported to the House on its third year of operation in the last month of the year—has been backed with £860 million of new money. We take this very seriously, but much more will need to be done because the threats are moving on very quickly, as well as the need for the defences.

In February 2010, when he was shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the Cabinet Secretary to complain that in asking Treasury officials to cost Conservative party policy, Labour had

“compromised the impartiality of the Civil Service and used the taxpayer funded service for political attacks.”

What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about special advisers using civil servants to propagate political smears and fiction this week, and has he redrafted his letter to the Cabinet Secretary?

I am confident that the permanent secretary to the Treasury, who was the permanent secretary to the Treasury at that time, has followed exactly the same practice as he would have done then.

T4. Does my hon. Friend agree with Lord Winston that Labour’s mansion tax would have a devastating impact on the ability of charities to raise money from legacy giving? (906801)

Yes, I do. This real concern is shared by many in the sector. Most notably, the Wellcome Trust has voiced fears of the impact it would have on legacy giving. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations reckons that 10,000 charities get legacies each year, to a value of about £2 billion. Lord Winston, who is a widely respected Labour peer, has been joined by Charles Clarke, the former Labour Home Secretary. As they have both added their voices, I hope that the shadow Chancellor will rethink this wrong-headed policy.

T2. Earlier in this Parliament, Ministers flirted with the possibility of a politicised senior civil service. That danger seems to have receded, but will the Minister now reaffirm a Government commitment to the historic principle of political impartiality in the civil service, specifically in matters relating to the European Union? (906799)

I did not catch much of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I will happily look at the transcript and come back to him with a detailed reply.

I cannot really add to what Sir John Chilcot has said. That independent inquiry is under the control of the inquiry members. I can say that we have responded to every request for extra resources; none has been turned down. I would just add that if the previous Government had launched the inquiry at the time it was requested, it could have been finished and could have reported long ago.

T8. In the debate on food banks just before Christmas, the Minister for Civil Society kept saying that the reasons for food bank use were complex and overlapping. He would not go beyond that. Will he join me in condemning the Tory councillor who said that the only people who use food banks are those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, and will he acknowledge that the top two reasons for food bank use are due to the failings of this Government’s welfare system? (906805)

I think the thing to say about food banks is that I and Government Members commend Britain’s very strong tradition of volunteering and community action, which sees people coming together to support those in need. Food banks are just one example that I come across on a daily basis.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure the whole House will want to join me in condemning the barbaric attack this morning on an office of a magazine in Paris, in which it is reported that 10 or more people may have been killed. While details are still unclear, I know that this House and this country stand united with the French people in our opposition to all forms of terrorism, and we stand squarely for free speech and democracy. These people will never be able to take us off those values.

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 saw the problems at Gloucestershire hospitals last week at first hand after an elderly relative phoned 111 and we ended up waiting more than four hours for her to see a doctor in Cheltenham A and E. Then she was promptly discharged. The local trust seems to be blaming patients for making bad choices, but will the Prime Minister find out why so many 111 calls end in A and E, why trusts such as ours route so many unplanned admissions through A and E and why emergency doctors cannot be provided at night in Cheltenham, all of which seems calculated to make normal winter pressures worse?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the last quarter, the NHS has faced some unprecedented challenges. There have been more than 5.5 million people going to accident and emergency units, which is an increase of a quarter of a million on the previous year. Gloucestershire has had £3.6 million of the £700 million of winter pressure money that we have produced, and it should use that money to make sure it provides the best possible service it can.

On the NHS 111 service, it is important to see what is actually happening. The number of people using it has almost doubled over the last year. Of those who use it, 27% say that had it not been there, they would have gone to accident and emergency, but in the event of using 111 only 7% are going. So I think it is a good service, but I am sure it can be further improved.

Recognising the pressure on the NHS, I am sure everyone in this House will want to say a thank you to our hard-working doctors and nurses and other hospital staff for all the work they do this winter.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing horror and outrage about the unfolding events in Paris. We stand in solidarity with the people of France against this evil terrorist attack by people intent on attacking our democratic way of life and freedom of speech. We are united in our determination to defeat them.

Doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are doing a valiant job, but over 90,000 people in the last quarter waited on trolleys for more than four hours, at least 10 hospitals have declared major incident status in recent days, and one had to resort to Twitter to appeal for medical staff. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that our NHS is facing a crisis?

Our NHS is facing huge pressure this winter, particularly on its A and E units, but the point that it is important to make is this: the NHS is facing this winter with more doctors, more nurses and more money than it has ever had in its history. What is important is that we recognise the pressures that are there and put in place plans for the short term, the medium term and the long term, and that with the massive increase in the number of people going to A and E, any health system in the world would struggle to cope with some of this pressure.

In June 2011, this was the Prime Minister’s solemn promise:

“I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A&E…So let me be absolutely clear: we won’t.”

Will he now apologise to patients across the country for having broken that promise?

I deeply regret it when any patient does not get a good service, but let us be absolutely clear about the numbers of people accessing A and E. Today, compared with four years ago, over 2,500 more patients are seen within four years—within four hours compared with four years ago. That is what is happening. We knew there was pressure on our NHS, and that is why, over the last year, we have seen 1,800 more doctors in our hospitals, 4,700 more nurses in our hospitals and 2,500 more beds in our hospitals. There is more that we need to do, but let us recognise that the health service in every part of our United Kingdom faces these challenges. We must go on giving it the money, the resources and the people so that it goes on providing a great service.

As far as I can see, the Prime Minister is not apologising to patients; he is blaming the patients. The pressures on A and E are not just happening on his watch, but are a direct result of decisions he has taken. When he decided to close almost a quarter of walk-in centres, was it not blindingly obvious that if people could not go to a walk-in centre, it would have a big impact on A and E?

We have 1,000 more doctors in A and E, and we are spending £13 billion more on the NHS, when four years ago the shadow Health Secretary said that it would be irresponsible to spend more money. What is interesting is that here we are, question No. 3 on the NHS, and the Leader of the Opposition has no solutions to put forward. That only says to me that while the Government are interested in improving the NHS, he simply wants to use it as a political football.

This is about politics—it is the Prime Minister’s politics, and they have failed. No answer on walk-in centres, so let us try him on another decision he has made that has been a cause of the crisis. When he decided to reduce the availability of social care services, so that 300,000 fewer older people are getting the help they need, was it not blindingly obvious that if people could not get the care they needed at home, it would have a big impact on A and E?

Again, absolutely no solutions—presumably, if the right hon. Gentleman had any solutions, he would have implemented them in Wales. He raises the importance of social care, and I agree. That is why from 1 April we are putting £5 billion more into social care via the better care fund. Up until now, the Labour party has told us not to introduce the better care fund. I assume that it now supports that important investment.

There is one very simple solution: get rid of this useless Prime Minister. No answer on care for the elderly, so let us consider the next thing he did. When he decided to ignore the pleas of doctors, nurses and patients, and plough ahead with his damaging top-down reorganisation, was it not blindingly obvious that if £3 billion is diverted out of patient care, it will have a big impact on A and E?

Our changes have cut bureaucracy and saved £4.9 billion. That is why there are 9,000 more doctors, 3,000 more nurses, and 6 million more people getting in-patient appointments—[Interruption.]

Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber from both sides of the House. The Prime Minister’s answers must be heard.

You can see this as plain as you like: the Leader of the Opposition apparently said to the political editor of the BBC, “I want to weaponise the NHS.” That is what he said, and I think that is disgraceful. The NHS is not a weapon, it is a way we care for our families, it is a way we care for the elderly, it is a way we look after the frail. Perhaps when he gets to his feet he will deny that he said he wanted to “weaponise” the NHS—a disgusting thing to say.

Order. I said a moment ago that the Prime Minister’s answers must be heard. The Leader of the Opposition’s questions must be heard as well. It is very simple.

I will tell him what is disgusting—a Prime Minister who said that people could put their trust in him on the NHS. He has betrayed that trust. He is in denial about the crisis in the NHS. This is a crisis on his watch as a result of his decisions. That is why people know that if they want to get rid of the crisis in the NHS, they have to get rid of this Prime Minister.

If ever we wanted proof that they want to use this issue as a political football, we have just seen it. If Labour has an answer to the NHS, can it explain why it cut the budget in Wales by 8%? That is where Labour is in charge. All parts of the United Kingdom face a health challenge, but the real risk to the NHS is the risk of unfunded spending commitments bringing chaos to our economy, which would wreck our NHS. That is the risk and that is why the choice at the election will be to stick with the people with a long-term plan, not a Labour party that would wreck our economy and wreck our NHS.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister agree with my constituent, who contacted me at the weekend asking to join us, who said that the only people fit to run our economy are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? The surprise was that the gentleman was the ex-chairman of Ilford North Labour party. (906769)

I am sure that that is the first of 4 million conversations my hon. Friend will be having at the coming election. It sounds like this one is going quite well. There is an important point here: there is no strong NHS without a strong economy. With our economy, we can see the deficit cut in half, 1.75 million more people in work and the fastest growth of any major economy in the west. That is the record, and that is what will enable us to fund our NHS, to fund our schools and to provide the public services our country needs.

Q3. With patients being told to pretend that they are camping, the symbol of the Prime Minister’s NHS is of patients being treated in tents outside accident and emergency. When he promised a bare-knuckle fight against accident and emergency service closures, did he intend to mislead the electorate? (906770)

All our health services right across the United Kingdom face a challenge. Actually, the English NHS that I am responsible for is performing better than the Welsh NHS, the Scottish NHS and the NHS in Northern Ireland, but the facts are these: compared with four years ago there are 2,500 more people every day seeing a doctor or a nurse within four hours. Why is that happening? Because we put the money in; and when we put the money in, the shadow Health Secretary said it was irresponsible. Presumably that is why Labour cut the NHS in Wales.

I thank the House for that reception, which more than compensates for my having been made neither a duke nor an earl.

Later today, the second edition of the booklet, “The Party of Opportunity” will be launched. Does my right hon. Friend agree with what the former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, has written in the booklet, which is that national wealth eases poverty, pays for social care and creates jobs? That is exactly what this Conservative-led Government have been doing.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The first duty of a Government is to produce a stable, strong and growing economy that can fund the defence and the public services we need. On this side of the House, we understand that. On the Opposition Benches, they have learnt absolutely nothing in the past four years. They would borrow and spend and tax, and put us back exactly in the position of crisis and chaos in which we found the country in 2010.

Q4. The one thing that was clear about the referendum in Scotland was the amount of young people getting involved, not just in voting but getting out there campaigning and being part of it. Is it not time that we got the rest of the country on board and got votes for 16 and 17-year-olds? (906771)

The referendum campaign in Scotland did switch a whole lot of people on to politics and political issues, because the question being asked was so important. We have said that we should respect the views of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament, and we will devolve powers on voting age. In this House, I am very happy for us to have a vote. Personally, I think the right age is 18, but I am very happy to listen to the debate, to listen to the arguments and to put them forward.

For more than 50 years, thalidomiders have been campaigning for justice, particularly from the German manufacturers Grünenthal. Now that more than 150 MPs have signed an open letter to the German Chancellor, would the Prime Minister add this to his busy agenda today so that we might get a decent and fair settlement for all concerned?

I have raised this issue on behalf of a constituent, not only through the European Parliament but with the German authorities, and I shall certainly reflect on what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Q5. The price of oil has now fallen to $50 a barrel. While this is good news for motorists, it is bad news for Scotland’s oil industry and thousands of workers. It comes just weeks after Nicola Sturgeon said we were on the verge of a second oil boom and after the independence White Paper said the price would be $113 a barrel. This is a serious issue—jobs depend on it—so will the Prime Minister agree to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), a cross-party delegation, industry leaders and workers to see what support can be provided? (906772)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman on all three grounds. First, North sea oil is a vital industry for the UK and one of the biggest investors in our country, so we should do everything we can to help it. Secondly, and for that reason, we took steps in the autumn statement to improve the taxation regime for North sea oil. Thirdly, as we said during the referendum campaign, it makes the case that North sea oil is better off with the broad shoulders of the UK standing behind it, because we never know when the oil price is going to be more than $100 a barrel or, as it is today, around $50. It makes the case for the strength of the UK and the utterly misguided nature of the SNP, which thought it could base its entire budget on such a high oil price.

Q6. The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that youth unemployment in Crawley is at its lowest level since records began, but of course we need to do a lot more. What further policies are the Government pursuing to ensure that businesses in Crawley and across the country generate even more employment as part of our long-term economic plan? (906773)

I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend. The youth claimant count in Crawley has fallen by 42% in the last year alone, and the long-term youth claimant count—long-term young unemployed people—is down by 71%. He asks what more we can do. We are cutting the jobs tax on small businesses and charities by £2,000; we are abolishing national insurance contributions for those who employ under-21s; we are extending the doubling of small business rate relief; we have cut corporation tax, including for small firms; and start-up loans are being offered right around the country, including to those in Crawley, who are taking them up. This Government can claim to be the most friendly to start-ups, entrepreneurs and small businesses this country has ever seen.

Q7. Throughout the Christmas period, NHS staff worked tirelessly to see as many patients as they could, but increased waiting times at GP surgeries have forced more and more people to use A and E. Why does the Prime Minister not accept that Labour’s plan to employ 8,000 additional GPs is desperately needed and would make a real difference to the lives of my constituents? (906774)

From what I have read over the past 24 hours, Labour’s plan is to tax people in London and spend all the money in Scotland. I look forward to hearing how he explains that to his constituents in Ealing. There is a serious point to the hon. Gentleman’s question. The health service has changed in Ealing: Hammersmith and Central Middlesex hospitals both have GP-led urgent care centres that are open 24 hours a day and are seeing more than 400 patients a day, 99% of whom are seen within four hours; and we also have the expansion of the A and E unit at Northwick Park hospital. We need to ensure that the 111 service is helping to spread the information so that people who need care know where they can best get it.

Q8. The Government have repeatedly highlighted the importance of northern Lincolnshire and the wider Humber area to the offshore renewables sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent announcement of the establishment of a national college for wind energy, a university technical college in Scunthorpe and further expansion of existing local training facilities cement the opportunities for local people to benefit from the industry, boost the local economy and highlight the importance of northern Lincolnshire to the northern powerhouse? (906775)

My hon. Friend is a real champion for north Lincolnshire and for Humberside in general. We are determined that this recovery is going to be different from previous recoveries and that we are going to see growth in jobs and investment right across our country. That is why he and others with me have been working hard to bring investment to the Humber, including of course the vital Siemens plant, and why we have seen employment go up and unemployment come down. Because of the local growth deals agreed in July, the Humber local enterprise partnership has over £100 million for local projects, which should create up to 9,000 jobs and allow more than 5,000 homes to be built, so we are determined to see recovery embedded right across the country.

Q9. I am proud of the NHS in the north-east, but not one hospital trust is meeting the Government’s own scaled back targets for treatment in A and E—not one—yet the Prime Minister prefers to focus on a top-down reorganisation of the NHS, breaking it up for the benefit of his buddies and putting competition before care and profit before people. Does he really imagine we will trust him with our NHS? (906776)

Let me tell the hon. Lady what is actually happening in the NHS in Newcastle. Since 2010, there are 191 more doctors and 698 more nurses. Last week over 3,000 patients went to A and E, and all but 190 were seen within four hours. If getting rid of the bureaucracy in the NHS, which we did in England, was such a bad idea, why is the NHS in England performing better than other parts of the country that did not take those steps?

Q10. The recent final report of the Alderley Park taskforce highlights how around 300 jobs have been brought to the site in the last 18 months, with a healthy pipeline of new businesses looking to locate there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this helps to highlight why the Government are right to put in extra growth deal funding to help further strengthen the life sciences sector in the north-west, which is vital? (906777)

My hon. Friend has been a real champion for life sciences in general and for life sciences investment in the north-west of England, which is an absolutely crucial part of the improvement and expansion of that part of our country’s economy, and that obviously includes Alderley Park. The local growth deal announced last July is going to establish a £40 million joint life sciences fund across Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Warrington, which will support the sector right across the north-west. That will include Alderley Park. This is the first Government to have a proper life sciences strategy, because this is a vital industry for our country’s future.

Those of us who opposed the Iraq war, for very good reason, and many, many other people outside this place are very concerned about the inordinate delay in publishing the findings of the Chilcot report. May I please ask the Prime Minister: where did this bizarre notion that if it is not published before the end of February, we cannot see it until after the election come from? What about the month of March?

In many ways I share the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration: I would love the report to have come out already. Indeed, he and I voted together against the last Labour Government over and over again, saying, “Please can you get on and set up the independent inquiry that’s needed?” If they had got on and set up the independent inquiry, it would have been published, debated and dealt with by now, so I find it immensely frustrating, but it is not a matter for me. I am not able to order the publication of the report. It is independent: it is up to Sir John Chilcot when he publishes his report. He will make the decision, not me.

Q11. Youth unemployment in Skipton is down by over 70% since 2010. City growth deal funding for the Skipton flood alleviation scheme will unlock a further 500 jobs. Is there anything the Prime Minister can do to make that happen? (906778)

I will look very carefully at this, because, as my hon. Friend says, not only the claimant count but the long-term youth claimant count has fallen—it has fallen by 50% in his constituency in the last year alone. I know how much his constituents want to see work on the Skipton flood defence project, which is a very high priority for York, North Yorkshire and the East Riding local enterprise proposal. We will make an announcement about this in the coming weeks.

Q12. In Wigan recently, my local nurses granted a dying grandma’s fairly remarkable last wish when they wheeled her hospital bed into the car park so she could be reunited for one last time with her much loved horse, just hours before she died from cancer. Those brilliant nurses sum up everything that is great about our national health service, but in a recent poll only 4% of them said they thought the Prime Minister was doing a good job. Can he tell us why? (906779)

I am full of praise for nurses in Wigan. I think they work extremely hard to provide a good service. I particularly applaud the nurse in Wigan who chased the Health Secretary down the corridor and told him a thing or two about how to run the health service. If we are judged on our record, however, there are 9,000 more doctors and 3,300 more nurses in our NHS because we made the decision to protect the funding of the NHS, which Labour told us was irresponsible.

Q13. Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting the Perpetuus tidal energy centre, a public-private partnership that will, from the Isle of Wight, give the world its first grid-connected tidal array test facility? This will put the UK at the forefront of tidal energy technology, protect existing jobs and create several hundred new ones. (906780)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, because the UK is now the most attractive market in the world for investment in offshore wind and marine renewables. We want to maintain that world-leading position, harness the economic and environmental benefits it brings and see local centres of expertise. From what I can see, the Perpetuus tidal energy centre sounds exactly the sort of exciting initiative we should support.

Q14. Nearly half of all London ambulances called out to critical cases do not arrive within their target eight-minute response time. Is that what the Prime Minister had in mind when he told us that the NHS would be “safe in his hands”? (906781)

The NHS would not have been safe if we had followed Labour’s proposal to cut the NHS. We rejected that advice and put more money into it. The London ambulance service has launched a national and international recruitment campaign and has already hired 400 new members of staff. We are providing £15 million of extra money for the NHS ambulance service in London. That is why it met its target in 2013-14, attending over 460,000 patients with life-threatening illnesses. That is what is happening in our NHS because we made the decisions to reform the NHS, cut its bureaucracy and put the money in—decisions opposed by the Labour party.

Reverting to the subject of the Chilcot report, about which I have questioned the Prime Minister in the past, did my right hon. Friend note that our distinguished colleague Lord Hurd said in the House of Lords yesterday that it was an absolute disgrace that it had not been published—a view that I certainly hold? Since it is absolutely well known by the cognoscenti that the report was completed many months ago, who—if the Prime Minister is helpless on this subject—is blocking it? Is it the Cabinet Secretary or Sir John Chilcot, or is it the White House?

I say to the Father of the House that I understand that the report is largely finished, but with every report such as this there is a process: we have to write to the people who are criticised and give them an opportunity to respond. This is now the process for all these reports, irrespective of which Government they are launched under. It is known as the Salmondisation process—although I am not quite sure why, as I do not think it has anything to do with the former First Minister of Scotland. It is not within my power to grant the publication of this report. It is independent and under Sir John Chilcot, and the process has to be finished—then the report will be published.

Q15. I ask the Prime Minister once again: will he apologise to all those who have suffered and continue to suffer in A and E departments across the country, due to his mismanagement of the national health service? (906782)

I could not have been clearer. I regret it when every single person who goes to hospital does not get the treatment they deserve, but our responsibility is to put in the money, which we are doing; to provide the extra staff, which is happening; to have a proper plan for joining up health and social care, which we are doing; and then to fund the Simon Stevens plan, which is the right long-term answer for our health service. People around the country will have been able to see that there is one part of this House of Commons working to improve our NHS for all its users, but that another part wants to “weaponise” the NHS—the most disgusting phrase I think I have heard in politics—and treat it like a political football. I know that they will reach the right conclusion.

Home care workers do a fantastic job in caring for some of the most frail people in our society, yet more than 200,000 of them are not even paid the national minimum wage. Will the Prime Minister talk to the Chancellor about ensuring that HMRC properly pursues and prosecutes the cowboy care agencies that are exploiting those people?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is far more that we can do to prosecute and chase down organisations that do not pay their staff properly. That is why we are bringing into the Home Office organisations that can help to make that happen. Whether the organisation concerned is the Gangmasters Licensing Authority or, indeed, the National Crime Agency, all the powers are there to enable us to go after those who do not pay the minimum wage when they should.

On Monday I listened to residents of Mendell Court, an extra care facility in Bromborough in my constituency, as they told me of their serious worries about social care. For the good of all who need care and all NHS patients, will the Prime Minister go further to integrate health and social care?

Through the better care fund we are producing £5 billion, which is money that health authorities and local authorities can spend together. Up to now, the Labour party has opposed that fund and said that it should not be established; but I am afraid it is worse than that. The shadow Secretary of State for Health has been wandering around the television studios today, telling anyone who is prepared to listen that he would increase funding for social care. There is only one slight problem with that. The shadow Chancellor said on the news as recently as 5 January that

“there will be no additional funding for local government unless we can find money from somewhere else”—[Interruption.]

Ah—we are! If Labour Members had waited until the end of the quotation, they would have heard this:

“but we have not been able to do that in the case of local government.”

So there we are: total and utter chaos. One of them is going around saying that there will be extra money, another is saying that there will not be any extra money, and there are £20 billion of unfunded commitments that would lead to total chaos in our economy and a total breakdown in our health service.

Will the Prime Minister update the House on the future arrangements for the upkeep of the Royal Air Force memorial chapel at Biggin Hill, the iconic former Battle of Britain airfield?

I can absolutely confirm to the House that that chapel will be preserved for future generations, as we have always recognised its importance and its rich heritage. I think it possible that of all the great moments in British history, the Battle of Britain 1940 stands out as one of the most important times that there have been. So we will protect the chapel, and will do all that we can to protect it for future generations.

Will the Prime Minister take action immediately to clear up the shambles at the Home Office? A constituent of mine who applied for a fast-track passport before Christmas was promised that it would be delivered to him by courier on new year’s eve, but has still not received it. As a result, he has had to cancel a trip that he was due to make yesterday, at great personal cost and great damage to his personal life. Will the Prime Minister ensure that that man is able to travel this week, and will he clear up this mess?

I shall be happy to look at the individual case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. However, I think that we have made huge strides in dealing with potential passport backlogs, and I think that the Home Secretary is doing a fantastic job.