The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Religious Organisations (Charitable Status)
I have not received any representations recently from religious organisations on charitable status. More than 25,000 registered charities involve the promotion of religion. They play a hugely important role in our communities and support those in need. I pay tribute to their excellent work. They are often first in and last out of some of our toughest communities.
The Minister may recall the campaign that some of us waged on behalf of the Plymouth Brethren to retain its charitable status. It must have been for love, because they refused to vote on principle. We eventually won that campaign, but there is a worry on the part of many religious groups that increasingly so-called British values will trump faith values. Can the Minister assure faith groups that in the context of toleration for others they will be allowed to have space to teach their own faith?
My hon. Friend will know that the Charity Commission is independent of the Government and the Cabinet Office. It already respects the diversity of religious views, registering hundreds of new religious charities from a range of faiths every year, but it is fair to say that the Charity Commission did need to improve, as the National Audit Office said. It is now well on its way to doing that, but he can be assured that the Charity Commission has learned its lessons from the case he raises.
This is not about the Plymouth Brethren, but about a tiny sect of the Plymouth Brethren known as the Hales Exclusive Brethren. It is practising cruelty, I believe, in many ways against its own people. This is a dangerous sect. Rightly, the Charity Commission withdrew its status. The sect then had a campaign, which spent £2 million, to convince the Charity Commission that it had changed, and it changed its deeds. It is quite clear that this is what it calls “spoiling the Egyptians”, a process to deceive the Charity Commission. It is not abiding by its new status.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the Charity Commission looked at this matter in detail and that religious group retained its status. Public benefit has always been a defining element of charitable status. That is what is unique about charities and what distinguishes them from private enterprises. We have no plans to change that.
Does my hon. Friend accept that British values have been forged in large measure by this nation’s Christian heritage? It is very important that our Christian heritage should be put at the forefront of our concerns. Will he make sure that the Charity Commission understands that there is widespread concern that Christian values are being treated on a par with other faiths, and that Christian values must be pre-eminent? There is a particular threat in our schools, where Ofsted is not taking the right view.
I completely understand what my hon. Friend says, but I have been assured that the Charity Commission has learned the lessons of the Brethren case. The commission is currently undergoing a major change programme to address the recommendations of the National Audit Office and become a more focused, robust and proactive regulator.
The case exhibited a deal of interest among the media, but the Brethren people went out of their way to ensure they provide a public good, in particular in schooling in my part of Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Will the Minister maintain the stance that that public good far outweighs any perceived evil on the other side?
In January this year, the UK was ranked top of a list of 86 countries on the World Wide Web Foundation’s open data barometer for the second year running. In addition, last year the 2014 Global Open Data Index again ranked the UK No. 1 out of 97 countries. There are now 19,000 data sets published on data.gov.uk and our national information infrastructure sets the framework for how we manage hugely valuable open data.
I have a local issue to which I would like the Minister to respond. In Hull, 1,000 people applied for the first 14 jobs that Siemens recently advertised. Until 2013, MPs got constituency-based figures on the number of jobseekers going after each job vacancy. I would like to know why this was stopped under his Government. I have never had a clear explanation, and I do not think it is aiding transparency in this country.
Another aspect of the transparency agenda is showing how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Does the Minister agree that that is the best way to safeguard against the massive waste and wild spending we have seen in the past and to avoid ballooning deficits and flat-lining public sector productivity in the future?
I am proud that the UK is now ranked as having the most transparent Government in the world. It undoubtedly has an effect in driving efficiency and savings. The ability to benchmark and compare spending in different parts of Government is a hugely powerful driver of efficiency and savings, and we intend to continue down that path.
Can we perhaps have a bit more transparency with respect to ministerial interests? This week, we saw Ministers hobnobbing at the black and white ball, although I noticed that the Paymaster General was sadly excluded from the Cabinet auction, and we saw new analysis showing that in the past 12 months Tory Ministers have made 168 ministerial visits to marginal Tory-held constituencies. In the interests of transparency, will the Minister now provide a full list of all ministerial visits and the reasons the locations were chosen, and will he publish the ministerial list of interests?
It sounds like the hon. Gentleman is getting a little concerned about the result of the upcoming election. The Government are disclosing more about what Ministers do than any Government have ever done before, and enormously more than the Government whom he supported before 2010.
Public Sector Mutuals
The Government are committed to supporting the growth of public service mutuals, which deliver benefits to front-line staff, commissioners and service users. There are now more than 100 live mutuals delivering well over £1.5 billion of public services, and more than 35,000 staff have themselves taken the decision to join a mutual.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but with the flagship mutual, Hinchingbrooke hospital, in special measures, will the Minister say whose idea it was to write to all the foundation and NHS trusts asking them to be pathfinder mutuals, and how many people have replied?
Mr Speaker, the
“failure of Circle at Hinchingbrooke hospital…where the company very nearly managed to remove an operating loss inherited from the public sector, was due to the failure of the NHS to deliver its side of the bargain”—
not my words, but the words of Tom Levitt, the former Labour MP for High Peak. Yes, a lot of NHS trusts have applied for the Department of Health and Cabinet Office mutual pathfinder programme, and all of that is progressing very satisfactorily. There are huge benefits for patients in this movement. We should all be concerned with that, not with an outworn, outdated ideology.
May I say how sad I was to hear that my right hon. Friend would be standing down at the next election? Singlehandedly, he has done more than anyone to reform the home civil service. What companies has he been in contact with to advise him on how public service mutuals might work better?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind remarks. This will be the second time I have left the House of Commons—the first time was not entirely consensual—and I shall be sorry to leave, although I think I have one more outing this time before the House dissolves.
Many businesses in the private sector operate as mutuals—John Lewis prominent among them—and they have been generous in their support for this programme because they think that employee ownership and control also benefit service users, which should be our overriding concern.
Government Digital Service
The Washington Post hailed the UK as
“setting the gold standard of digital government”,
and the Obama Administration have created a digital service modelled on our own. The Australian Government announced the same in January this year. The New Zealand Government have taken the source code from gov.uk and used it for their own online presence. Last October, we celebrated the 1 billionth visit to gov.uk.
The Government Digital Service has been one of the unsung success stories of the Government, and it has been introduced smoothly and successfully. There have been none of the mess-ups that occurred on previous IT projects, which has meant that it has not had the public attention it deserves. What further services does the Minister foresee digitising to save taxpayers’ money and improve services for the public?
We have already saved a great deal of money and improved services for citizens, and we are beginning to roll out much better technology in government, so that civil servants are helped by the technology they have rather than hindered by it. There is much more to do. We inherited some extremely expensive, cumbersome and unwieldy IT contracts, and for one of them the Department had to pay £30,000 to change one word on a website. That is not acceptable; it is no way to treat taxpayers’ money; and it is going to change.
The Government Digital Service is a very talented group within the Cabinet Office and is internationally recognised, so it is unfortunate that the Minister has prevented the group from working with local government. On Monday, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy said that he agreed with me and Labour’s independent digital government review that this expertise should not be barred from working with local authorities. Will the Minister now concede that GDS should be allowed and encouraged to work more closely with councils, so that we have digital services that work for everyone—locally and nationally?
The hon. Lady is completely right to flag up the huge scope for improvement in online services in local government. GDS’s focus has had to be on central Government, but in the document on efficiency and reform that we published at the time of the autumn statement, we flagged up that we expect this to be available across the wider public sector. The focus for the time being has to be on finishing the job in central Government, but helping to build an equivalent to support local government is a very high priority for us.
The central Government’s direct spend with small businesses increased from 6.5% in 2009-10 to 10.5% in 2012-13, and small and medium-sized enterprises have benefited from a further 9.4% of indirect spend through the supply chain in that same year. I shall be publishing figures for 2013-14 shortly. We have moved a long way towards our ambition and aspiration that a quarter of Government procurement should be with SMEs.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised this point about supporting businesses in the Isle of Wight; he has been a huge and doughty champion of businesses in his constituency. We have made public procurement more transparent and accessible. We have published tenders and contracts through the contracts finder website—and we shall be launching a much-improved version of that very soon. We have simplified how procurement takes place to take away some of the bureaucracy that looked like it was designed to stop small businesses competing for, and winning, business. There is much more we can and will do.
12. Reading through the UK Statistics Authority booklet, I am struck by the number of times that the Government have been rebuked for giving false information in their statements. The Prime Minister is twice rebuked for giving the wrong facts about the debt, saying that it is falling when it has in fact been rising. Could the Cabinet Office get together with the UK Statistics Authority and agree to deal with facts, rather than fiction, in Government statements for the next three months? (907566)
As was the case under the last Government, appointments to public bodies are made on merit by Ministers after a fair and open selection process regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We have taken unprecedented steps to open up the public appointments process to new talent, slimming down the application process, placing an emphasis on ability rather than prior experience, and increasing awareness. In the first six months of the current financial year, 44% of new public appointments made by Whitehall Departments were women, compared with about a third under the last Government.
The Minister knows that, following the fiasco of the Home Secretary’s attempt to appoint a chairman of the inquiry into child abuse allegations, there is a sense that there is a black book or a secret list, dominated by the metropolitan elite. They are all from London, they all know each other, and they all went to school together. When will the Government open up the secret list, and let us know how people get on it?
As I have said, we have moved significantly towards our aim of ensuring that 50% of public appointments are of women. I recently hosted events organised in Birmingham and Leeds to encourage people from outside London to express interest and apply for such roles, and I am delighted to say that there was a huge amount of interest. We will continue down that path. [Interruption.]
Cross-Government Planning and Implementation
That is a question on which the Public Administration Committee has focused for a long time, and very welcome it is too.
The creation of the implementation unit in the Cabinet Office has done a great deal to increase implementation capabilities throughout the Government, and I am glad to say that we have launched a series of other initiatives to bring Departments together. We have created the better care fund, the stabilisation unit, the international energy unit and the troubled families programme, and we intend to continue the process.
During the inquiry that we conducted on future challenges facing the machinery of Whitehall, we found that, so far, the Government have been very good at imposing departmental spending limits, but there is a capability deficit when it comes to cross-departmental financial planning and management. How do the Government propose to address that?
I agree that it needs to be tackled. I think that the most signal example is the relationship between local authorities—in particular, adult social care departments—and the health service. We are now focusing on that above all, and trying to prevent circumstances in which a failure to pool budgets leads to worse results for patients. I think that we shall then have a model that we will try to use in many other areas.
Does the Minister have any discussions with other Departments about the closure of offices? Offices are being closed in my constituency, and that would clearly not be happening if efficiency were the criterion. What co-ordination does the Minister apply to the closure of offices in the areas that need them most?
In recent years, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has had the unique distinction of having made public services more efficient by finding vast efficiency savings, which have amounted to some £20 billion a year in the current Parliament. Had the last Government followed such a lead, we might not have been in the dire situation in which we found ourselves in 2010, and the need for our long-term economic plan might not have been as great as it was.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (907582)
My responsibilities are for efficiency and reform, civil service issues, public sector industrial relations strategy, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.
Today’s National Audit Office report on late payment says that the Government’s policy to pay invoices more quickly risks boosting the working capital of the main contractors rather than benefiting small businesses down the supply chain. Why then did the Government on three separate occasions refuse to adopt amendments I tabled ensuring that small businesses all the way down the supply chain would have been paid on time?
We have gone infinitely further than any previous Government ever did to ensure that payment is speeded up through the creation of project bank accounts and inserting into main suppliers’ contract terms a requirement that they pay quickly as well, because the concern is a very real one. Small businesses can end up being starved of cash and it is not acceptable, so we are driving much better practice through these legal obligations. The situation is better than it was, but there is much more still to do.
T2. May I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend on having secured a 4.3% increase in public service productivity in the first three years of his watch, by contrast with the zero growth over the previous 13 years? What further measures does he plan to take to increase public sector productivity? (907583)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. There is much more to do. According to the Office for National Statistics, public sector productivity remained flat throughout the Labour years and it has started to increase, but there is much more that we need to do. We have said further savings and reductions in the cost of delivering public services can be made while the quality of the service increases. We have shown over this period that we can do more for less, but we are going to need to continue with redoubled effort in the future.
Given his laudable aims to improve access to Government contracts for small business, is the right hon. Gentleman as disappointed as I am about revelations in The Independent today that Capita faces allegations of using a major Government contract to short-change small companies, forcing many out of business? He described this contract as a model of how to open up the public sector, yet it has catastrophically failed. Given his championing of the Maude awards for failure, will this contract be a winner of such an award, and what lessons has he learned from this contract?
We have learned a lot of lessons from this contract, and I absolutely am as disappointed as the hon. Lady. It should not be working like this. I am aware of the concerns and we are investigating them very rapidly to get remedial action; it is not acceptable.
T3. The framework agreement for public procurement of infrastructure in the south-west provides that the bidder that gets closest to the average tender price, not the cheapest, gets the job. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter, because it seems to me that this is wasting taxpayers’ money? (907584)
I am not familiar with the precise issue my hon. Friend raises, but it sounds very odd to me, and I will investigate it. Of course everyone who spends public money procuring services, goods or infrastructure needs to ensure the money is spent as well as it possibly can be, and I will look urgently at the case my hon. Friend raises.
T4. The Geoffrey Dickens dossier was distributed across the Central Office of Information in the early ’80s, with one special archive suddenly emerging. How can we be certain there is not another special archive in the Cabinet Office that needs to be handed over to the police immediately? (907585)
The Central Office of Information had nothing to do with any of this. That is a completely different, and now defunct, organisation. I am ensuring that officials in my Department are going through all the files thoroughly to make sure that they are organised, that they know what is in them, and that any files that are at all relevant are submitted immediately to all of the inquiries that are under way. There is no excuse whatsoever for these files not being surfaced.
T5. Will the Minister join me in praising the vibrant charity and social enterprise sector in west Norfolk for all its superb work, especially the two charities chosen by this year’s mayor, Barry Ayres, namely the Prince’s Trust of King’s Lynn and the west Norfolk Kandoo club? (907586)
Social enterprises and charities make an invaluable contribution to our economy and society, and I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking those charities in Norfolk and others across the country for their work. We are investing about £470 million over the spending review period directly to support charities and voluntary groups.
T7. At Prime Minister’s questions in November last year, the Prime Minister said that “there are 1,000 more GPs across the country than there were in 2010.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 822.]According to the UK Statistics Authority, however, there were actually 356 fewer. That is just one error. The UKSA recently revealed that, since May 2010, it had had to investigate the Government more than 200 times for the use of dirty statistics. When will this Government stop their fiddling? (907588)
The Prime Minister was asked—
Does my right hon. Friend recall the general election of 1983? It resulted in a Conservative landslide win in which I and 100 other Conservatives were elected for the first time. At that time, unemployment stood at 3 million; today it is 2 million. The rate of inflation was 8%; it is now under 2%. The work force numbered 24 million; today it is 30 million. There were 9 million women in the work force in 1983; today there are 14 million. Does he agree that those comparisons, coupled with the trump card which he and Baroness Thatcher shared, in the form of a left-wing Opposition leader who has lost control of his own party, will put Britain on course for another Conservative landslide?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was not a voter in 1983, but it is true to say that this Government are cutting unemployment and that every Labour Government always puts up unemployment. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 55% since the last election. This also speaks to a bigger picture, which is that this Government have created 1,000 jobs for every day that we have been in office. We all remember the prediction from the leader of the Labour party that our plans would cost 1 million jobs. With unemployment tumbling, perhaps today is the day he should apologise.
An hour ago, we learned that linked to the HSBC tax avoidance scandal are seven Tory donors, including a former treasurer of the Tory party, who between them have given the party nearly £5 million. How can the Prime Minister explain the revolving door between Tory party HQ and the Swiss branch of HSBC?
I saw that list just before coming to Prime Minister’s questions. One of the people named is the Labour donor, Lord Paul, who funded Gordon Brown’s election campaign. I am very clear: people should pay their taxes in our country, and no Government have been tougher than this one in chasing down tax evasion and tax avoidance.
Let us talk about the difference between the Prime Minister and me. None of those people has given a penny on my watch, and he is up to his neck in this. Let us take Stanley Fink, who gave £3 million to the Conservative party. The Prime Minister actually appointed him as treasurer of the party and gave him a peerage for good measure. Will he now explain what steps he is going to take about the tax avoidance activities of Lord Fink?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman about the difference between him and me. When people donate to the Conservative party, they do not pick the candidates, they do not choose the policies and they do not elect the leader. When the trade unions fund the Labour party, they pay for the candidates, they pay for the policies, and the only reason that the right hon. Gentleman is sitting there today is that a bunch of trade union leaders decided that he was more left wing than his brother.
He did not just take the money; he appointed the man who was head of HSBC as a Minister. It was in the public domain in September 2010 that HSBC was enabling tax avoidance on an industrial scale. Are we seriously expected to believe that when he made Stephen Green a Minister four months later, he had no idea about these allegations?
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has brought up the issue of Stephen Green, who was a trade Minister in this Government. This is the same Stephen Green whom Gordon Brown appointed as the head of his business advisory council. This is the same Stephen Green whom Labour welcomed as a trade Minister into the Government. It is the same Stephen Green whom the shadow Business Secretary, who is looking a bit coy today, invited on a trade mission as late as 2013. We know what happens: every week the right hon. Gentleman gets more desperate. He cannot talk about the economy and he cannot talk about unemployment, and so he comes here with fiction after fiction. Let me deal, while I have a moment, with the fiction we had last week. He came here and, if you remember, he talked about something called intermediary tax relief. It turns out—[Interruption.] We have as long as it takes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Labour leader asked me six times about the tax treatment of hedge funds. Now it turns out that the treatment he is complaining about was introduced in the autumn of 1997 by a Labour Government. It further turns out that it was extended in 2007. Who was in power in 2007? It was Labour. Who was the City Minister in 2007? I think we’ll find it was Ed somebody.
I know the Prime Minister does not care about tax avoidance, but on this day of all days he is going to be held accountable for answering the question. He is pleading ignorance as to what was happening with Stephen Green, but today we discover that the Minister in charge issued a press release in November 2011 which referred to the investigation into the HSBC Geneva account holders. Does the Prime Minister expect us to believe that in Stephen Green’s three years as a Minister he never had a conversation with him about what was happening at HSBC?
Why did Labour welcome Stephen Green as a trade Minister? Why were they still booking meetings with him in 2013? My responsibility is the tax laws of this country, and no one has been tougher. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman about what we found: hedge funds cutting their taxes by flipping currencies—allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories; foreigners not paying stamp duty—allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories; and banks not paying tax on all their profits—allowed under Labour, banned by the Tories. Those two in the Treasury were the friends of the tax dodger. We are the friend of the hard working tax payer.
The Prime Minister is bang to rights, just like his donors. And doesn’t this all sound familiar? The Prime Minister appoints someone to a senior job in government. There are public allegations but he does not ask the questions, he turns a blind eye. Isn’t this just the behaviour we saw with Andy Coulson?
It is desperate stuff. The Opposition cannot talk about the economy because it is growing; they cannot talk about unemployment because it is falling; and they cannot talk about their health policy because it is collapsing. What have we seen this week? They cannot even go in front of a business audience because they have offended every business in the country; they cannot go to Scotland because they are toxic; they cannot talk to women because they have a pink bus touring the country; and they have even offended Britain’s nuns. No wonder people look at Labour and say that it has not got a prayer.
For 13 years, Labour sat in the Treasury and did nothing about tax transparency, nothing about tax dodging, and nothing about tax avoidance. This Government have been tougher than any previous Government. That is why the Opposition are desperate and that is why they are losing.
At the weekend, graduates of Bournemouth university and the Arts university, Bournemouth, enjoyed yet another year of success at the BAFTAs. Last week, Bournemouth was named as having the fastest growing digital economy in the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain remains a world leader in the creative industries because of the talent of our people combined with our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our creative industries are a vital part of our economy and our country. When we look at the great results at the BAFTAs and the high hopes that we have for the Oscars, it is clear that British television and British film are conquering the world. Bournemouth university plays a very important part in that, because its training of some of our digital effects specialists and of many of our creative people is a key part of this vital and growing industry.
Q2. Last week at Prime Minister’s questions, I warned the Prime Minister about falling wages. This week, he said that Britain needs a pay rise, so I am glad to see that he is waking up to reality. Does he now agree with me that the people who most need that pay rise are the families who have lost £1,600 a year under this Government, and not those at the top to whom he has given massive tax cuts? (907568)
The hon. Lady will find that the wages in the public and private sectors are growing ahead of inflation, which is good. As we have raised to £10,000 the amount of money people can earn before they start paying taxes, they are better off. In Scotland, there are 175,000 more people in work today than when I became Prime Minister. As a result of growth in the jobs market, growth in wages, cuts in taxes, and an increase in the minimum wage, things are getting better for families in Scotland.
For years, the supermarket chain Aldi has been sitting on an empty supermarket that it acquired in the centre of Eston in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that the supermarket chain should be forced to release assets that it does not need rather than allow them to be a blight on the community?
What we need to see is successful development going ahead and brownfield sites being used. If those sites cannot be used for retail, they should be made available for other uses. One change we have made is to liberalise the use classes in planning so that we do not have the long-term planning blight of development not going ahead in towns and cities where houses, jobs and investment are needed.
Q3. Given the Prime Minister’s new-found concern that employers should give their staff decent pay rises, can he explain why he did not apply that principle to his own Government when they decided not to implement the recommended 1% pay increase for NHS staff? (907569)
What we have done with NHS staff is ensure that the lowest paid are getting a pay rise. In the NHS, there is progression pay, so everyone will get at least a 1% rise, but many people, because of progression, will get a 2%, 3% or 4% pay rise. Alongside that pay rise, they will be paying less in tax, council tax in many areas has been frozen, and diesel and petrol prices are coming down. People’s standards of living are rising because we have a long-term economic plan and we are sticking to it.
Q4. More than ever before, businesses, students and commuters in Hampshire use the trains to get around, but they are increasingly frustrated that our trains are stuck in the analogue age. Access to the internet can be really difficult and very limited. Will my right hon. Friend consider that important issue and see what the Government can do to help commuters and others get access to wi-fi on our trains?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. It is vital for businesses and for individuals to be able to access wi-fi, do their work and make other contacts while they are on trains. I am pleased to announce plans that will see the roll-out of free wi-fi on trains across the United Kingdom from 2017. The Government will invest nearly £50 million to ensure that rail passengers, who make more than 500 million journeys every year, are better connected, with the four rail operators—Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern; Southeastern; Chiltern; and Arriva Trains Wales—all benefiting from that investment.
The Motability car that my severely disabled constituent, Mark Francis, has had for 11 years is being taken from him in two weeks. Born with hereditary spastic paraplegia and unable to walk without crutches or sticks, he is sadly deteriorating by the week. I have been told that his case will be reconsidered, yet the Department for Work and Pensions is punitively and callously snatching his car from him on 25 February. Will the Prime Minister immediately rectify that heartless and disgraceful injustice?
As ever, I am very happy to look at the individual case raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, with the replacement of disability living allowance by the personal independence payment, the most disabled people will be getting more money and more assistance, rather than less, but as I say, I will happily look at the case.
Q5. Given the widespread cynicism about politicians’ promises and claims, will my right hon. Friend remind people, however long it takes, that this Government have presided over the creation of more than 2 million additional private sector jobs, which is far, far more than we ever promised? Does not that discredit the claims of the Opposition that our efforts to cut the deficit would destroy jobs? (907571)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures are clear: we have created 2 million additional private sector jobs, and if we look at the number of extra people in work, public and private sector combined, it is 1.75 million more people. Behind those statistics are families who now have a pay packet and a job, and the chance to have a more secure future, and all that at a time when the Leader of the Opposition was very clear: he warned that our policies would cost 1 million jobs. He was 1 million per cent. wrong, and it is time that the Opposition withdrew what they said and apologised for all those statements.
In November 2012, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, said that there were a dozen prosecutions in train in relation to the HSBC case load. None of them have come to court yet. Can the Prime Minister explain why?
First, on prosecutions for tax evasion, the figures are that they have gone up fivefold under this Government since 2010—2,650 cases, leading to hundreds of years of imprisonment, taken as a whole. That is what has happened, but there is an important point here, which is that, in our country, the tax collection agency, HMRC, is independent of Government and independent of Ministers, and it has to raise the taxes, carry out the investigations and order the prosecutions. It is very important in a free country that Ministers are not given the details of who is being investigated and what the prosecutions are. This does not happen in other countries, and we have a word for that: it is called corruption, but it seems to be the path suggested by the Labour party.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My constituents in Montgomeryshire are not able to see a GP as quickly as they should. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to train more GPs to take forward our plans for surgeries to be open seven days a week and in the evenings, and will he press for similar hours of opening to be available to my constituents in Wales?
I will certainly press for that change, because we now have 1,000 more GPs operating in England, and we have made the commitment that we are going to have seven-day opening, from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. That is already available now to some 4 million people. We are going to spread that across the country. I would urge the NHS in Wales, even at this late stage—and, more to the point, the Labour Government in Wales, because their decision to cut the NHS has landed the NHS in Wales with those difficulties—to reverse that policy and look at how we can expand access to GPs in Wales, because that is the right policy.
On Monday, the launch of the second major report of the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Speaker and others. Will the Prime Minister meet a group from that committee, because although the report is a work plan for the next Parliament, the issue of the security of synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings is too urgent to wait until May?
First, I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work that he does in fighting anti-Semitism. I know that he takes a very prominent role, both inside and outside the House, with the work that he does. It is vital to reassure Jewish communities at this time, particularly after the heightened tensions because of what happened in Paris and other issues. I have met with the Jewish Leadership Council; I regularly discuss the issues with it. We make support available, and I have made sure that the police have contacted all the relevant organisations to try and work with them, but I am very happy, as ever, to sit down with Members of Parliament and hear their views, too.
Q7. Local enterprise partnerships covering Harrogate district have awarded 14 grants from the business growth fund totalling over £1.7 million. This has led to the creation of 158 jobs, many in manufacturing—part of the 60% fall in unemployment that we have seen locally. Will the Prime Minister commit to further investment in northern manufacturing, as it is key to rebalancing our economy? (907573)
I am very glad that my hon. Friend sees a manufacturing revival taking place in Britain. We have seen manufacturing investment and manufacturing output increase. That is happening in all the regions of our country, which is worth while. We will be playing our part by investing £10 million in the development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in south Yorkshire. These and other catapults can make a real difference by backing the revival of manufacturing in our country.
As I remarked earlier, I have been reading the report of the Statistics Authority. The fact is that the Labour Government prosecuted more companies for corporate tax evasion than this Government have done. It is a major scandal in this country that many, many people who make money from our consumers do not pay their tax in this country. What is the Prime Minister doing to plug these gaps?
When we chaired the G8, we put at the head of the agenda the issue of tax transparency, tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, and we now have 90 countries automatically sharing their tax information, including Switzerland, so the events that we are discussing—events and allegations of crimes—all took place when Labour was in power. Were this to happen again, we would not have this situation, because we have the automatic transparent exchange of tax information, something that this Government put on the agenda. Labour started talking about it only after we did that.
Q8. According to a recent survey of 40,000 patients carried out by the Care Quality Commission, the accident and emergency service at our county hospital in Dorchester is the No. 1 in the country. Will my right hon. Friend praise all the staff who work there, and reassure the hospital that as it prepares to integrate its services for south, west and north Dorset, the money will follow that good work? (907574)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Its work shows what can be done when we better integrate health and social care, and also when we look at how we can treat frail elderly people in the community, often people who have more than one difficult condition that needs treatment. What is best for them is often not A and E, but treating them in community hospitals, looking after their ailments and helping them to do better at home. That is what we should be focused on, and that is Simon Stevens’ plan for the NHS; we have already come up with the money to get the plan well under way.
Q9. Did the Prime Minister have conversations with Lord Green about tax avoidance at HSBC—[Interruption.] (907575)
When I appointed Stephen Green, every proper process was followed. I consulted the Cabinet Secretary and the director for propriety and ethics, and of course the House of Lords Appointments Commission now looks at an individual’s tax affairs before giving them a peerage. I made the appointment, it was welcomed by Labour, and three years later, it was still holding meetings with him.
Q10. Jordan Bates is a mother of two from Redditch who works hard to give her children the best start in life. What does my right hon. Friend think she needs: measures to reward those who work hard, get on and do the right thing; or cheap, patronising, pink stunts? (907576)
I think that what Britain’s families need most to help them get on is the security of a good school place, which we are providing, the security of a good job, which we are providing, and the security of a safe community, which we are providing. On Labour’s campaign, I would say that the wheels are falling off the wagon, but I think that they are falling off the bus. We now know that it is not going to be driven by anyone on the Front Bench. Surprise, surprise, it is going to be driven by Unite.
Q11. The Prime Minister may have been briefed that the Care Quality Commission yesterday published its report on Hillingdon hospital, my local hospital. It found that we have an extremely dedicated, hard-working and professional team of staff, but patient safety is being put at risk by critical staff shortages and by the fabric of the building, which one of the report’s consultees described as being like something from the third world. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my parliamentary colleagues in Hillingdon to look at how we can secure the funds to make our constituents safe? (907577)
The CQC’s findings are clearly disappointing, but the trust seems to be taking immediate steps to address the issues that have been identified: raising standards for infection control and cleanliness; enhanced and more frequent training; and recruiting more permanent staff. I think that this relates to a bigger point, which is that for years in our NHS, when there was a problem with a hospital, it was swept under the carpet, rather than the hospital being properly examined, inspected and, if necessary, put into special measures and then corrected. That is what is happening now in our health service, and that is all to the good. It is important to say that on the day Sir Robert Francis published his report on how important it is to listen to whistleblowers in the NHS. Unlike the Labour party, we are determined to listen to the Francis report and to whistleblowers. I will certainly ensure that the Health Secretary meets the hon. Gentleman, his parliamentary colleagues and others in Hillingdon to make sure that the hospital gets the attention it deserves.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that from President Monroe onwards it has been generally acknowledged by leaders of great powers that, for the avoidance of war, it is often wise to acknowledge the concept of traditional spheres of authority and power; and that although Ukraine is of absolutely no significant strategic importance to Britain, Greece most certainly is; and that unless western statesmen show rather greater skills than they have in recent years, Greece will pass into the Russian sphere of influence without a shot being fired?
It is difficult to answer the Father of the House without a long, historical exegesis, but I would argue that, when it comes to Ukraine, it does matter on our continent of Europe that we do not reward aggression and brutality with appeasement; that would be wrong. That is why it is right to have the sanctions in place, right to keep the European Union and America together on the issue, and right to stand up to President Putin. On Greece, of course there is a British interest, which is that we want stability and growth on the continent of Europe. The eurozone crisis has held that growth and stability back; we want those concerned to come to a reasonable agreement so that Europe can move forward. It is good that the British economy is growing and jobs are being generated, but we have to recognise that our largest market at the moment is still relatively stagnant, and the situation in Greece does not help that.
Q12. There are adverts in Newcastle exhorting my constituents to report benefit fraudsters. May I ask the Prime Minister why he does not feel as strongly about tax avoidance? Will he report whether he had a conversation with Lord Green about tax avoidance? (907578)
I do feel strongly about tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. Let me tell you, when it comes to income tax, some of the things people used to get away with. Under Labour, people avoided paying tax by calling their salary from their company a loan: allowed under Labour, banned under the Tories. Businesses could avoid paying tax by paying employees through trusts: allowed by Labour, banned by the Tories. Time and time again, it is this Government who have come along and cracked down on tax evasion.
Q13. I am a proud Yorkshireman, and when I come to London I am proud that the glass pods on the London Eye are made by Novaglaze in Lockwood, in my patch, proud that the red carpet used for the royal wedding at Westminster abbey was made in Huddersfield, and proud that the upholstery in Boris’s Routemaster buses was made in Meltham in my patch. I wonder if they do upholstery for pink vans, by the way. There was more good news last week, with £2.9 million— (907579)
I am afraid, Mr Speaker, that the truth is that you cannot fit all the good things happening in Yorkshire into one question; it is impossible. My hon. Friend could have added the medals won at the Olympics, or he could have talked about the cricket team—there is no end of things. The point is that the long-term economic plan that we have announced for Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire sets out plans for transport investment, investment in science, helping universities, and getting behind the industries that are growing the fastest. That is what another Conservative Government would do: success for Yorkshire, security for families in Yorkshire.
We followed every procedure that one should, and this appointment was welcomed by the Labour party. More to the point, between 2010 and 2014 we passed law after law cracking down on tax evasion and cracking down on aggressive tax avoidance, and saw more prosecutions—all the things that Labour failed to do over and over again.
Sixth-form colleges such as Hills Road and Long Road in Cambridge do an excellent job in educating our young people, but they struggle to get by because, unlike school or academy sixth forms, they have to pay VAT of over £300,000 each. Will the Prime Minister listen to voices across this House and scrap this tax on learning?
New Magna Carta
We should be proud that in Magna Carta our country established rules of justice and freedom that, 800 years later, still inform our constitution and resonate around the world. While there is a long-standing debate over the issue, there are no plans at present for a written constitution.
I note that the Prime Minister says “at present”. Does he agree, though, that there are unacceptably high levels of voter disengagement, with more people staying at home than voted Labour and Conservative at the last election? Would he commit his Government, now, to preparing an all-party constitutional convention, in order to give every UK citizen a copy of our society’s rulebook—either a statute of the Union or a written constitution—as a part of electors feeling once again that they own our democracy?
Obviously, I always look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions very carefully, because he has made a number of sensible cross-party interventions over recent years, but I have my doubts as to whether another talking convention is the answer. I think we need to look at some of the constitutional issues that leave people feeling left behind, not least English votes for English laws, and make sure that we put those things in place. The disappointment I have with the Labour party is that it is prepared to talk about all-party talks on Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but when it comes to empowering English people and making sure that they have rights in this House, it is completely absent from the debate.
Article 39 of Magna Carta contains the origins of our right to trial by jury. In a recent report, Sir Brian Leveson, not satisfied with undermining the right to a free press, wants to restrict the right to trial by jury. Will my right hon. Friend, as long as he is Prime Minister, defend our historic rights?