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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
25 March 2015
Volume 594

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Procurement: Small Businesses

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1. What steps he is taking to support small businesses through public procurement. [908307]

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7. What steps he is taking to improve access to Government procurement by small and medium-sized enterprises. [908313]

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Over the past five years, we have implemented a wide range of measures to open up the way we do business to make sure that small companies are in the best possible position to compete for contracts. These measures include increasing transparency, making opportunities more accessible, removing unnecessary bureaucracy, improving payment terms and clamping down on poor practice.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware of the report of the Public Administration Committee that showed that at the time not enough was being done. Does he accept that there still needs to be a real culture change in the civil service to open up Government procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises?

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We have obviously made a lot of progress and there is more to do, but we intend to extend and embed the reforms that we have made over the past five years. I would just remind my hon. Friend that at the last general election, only 6.5% of direct central Government procurement spend was with smaller businesses, and we had no idea how much was spent in the supply chain, so we have made huge progress.

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The Minister omitted to say in his answer that nine out of 17 Departments spent less with SMEs in 2013-14 than they did in 2012-13. With just 10% of Government contracts going to small businesses, why have this Government been so poor when it comes to procurement from our SME sector?

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In 2010, the Government set an aspiration that by 2015 25% of Government procurement spend by value should go to SMEs directly and into the supply chain. In fact, we have exceeded our target, and a record 26.1% is now being spent with SMEs. That is a record to be proud of, and a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.

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May I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the measures that he and his colleagues have taken on this subject? I know that four businesses in my constituency are currently benefiting from their measures.

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I know my hon. Friend is a great champion of small businesses in his constituency. One of the wider benefits of this programme of commercial reform is that it enabled the Government to make the huge saving of £15 billion in the years 2010 to 2014. As I say, that is a lasting tribute to my right hon. Friend.

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The Minister might confess that it would help if he bought enough desks for civil servants. In answer to 11 parliamentary questions, Whitehall Departments have told me that they have more civil servants than desks. In the Department for Transport, there are 6,600 officials and 1,500 desks. This sounds more like musical chairs than hot desking. Is it the cause of all the chaos and confusion in this Government?

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I am not quite sure whether that is a serious question, because all modern companies and the modern civil service should be hot desking, which is exactly what is taking place.

Building Workers: Shrewsbury

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2. If he will expedite the review of papers held on people convicted in 1973 in relation to alleged incidents during the national building workers’ strike at building sites in the Shrewsbury area so that the review is completed as soon as possible. [908308]

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I am very grateful for that answer, and I wish I believed it. Sadly, it was confirmed in a debate yesterday afternoon that despite this House overwhelmingly agreeing on 23 January last year that the papers would be released—and that Ministers would assist in getting the papers released—they have not been. The campaign has consistently met blockages. I am calling on the Minister to bring forward the release of these papers as quickly as possible and to stop the 43-year cover-up, which will see innocent men going to their graves as convicted criminals to protect the Tory Ministers of 40 years ago. It is a disgrace.

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I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is unaware of the actual situation. The review of which he speaks is under way at present, but the papers—and the particular parts of those papers that were kept back on security grounds—have all been given to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has looked at them and is using them in the course of its review. There is no question of any injustice of the kind he describes occurring as a result of the lack of those papers being present. I, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that if I find myself in my current post after the election, I shall seek to expedite the review.

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The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) asked a serious question. This was an establishment stitch-up 42 years ago, and for 42 years it has been an establishment cover-up. Does the Minister not realise that there cannot possibly be any state security reasons why the records of an industrial dispute should not be made public?

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My hon. Friend is also suffering from a misconception. The bulk of the papers involved were released. The bits that were not released relate to security and make specific references to the security services and their activities. Those are being reviewed, and a decision will be made. He is absolutely right that the crucial point is that the people involved deserve justice, so the CCRC needs to see the unexpurgated version, and it has. It has been given full sight of all the papers.

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It is increasingly clear that there is simply no justification for the delay in the review or for the refusal to release the full papers about the case. The Minister may refuse to act, but a Labour Government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands. Justice delayed is justice denied. Why is he so determined to ignore the will of Parliament, ignore the public and ignore the urgency of the situation, and why will he not release the papers now?

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I am sorry that the shadow Minister wrote that question before she heard my previous answers. If, as I hope she will not, she finds herself a Minister after the election and has to make this decision—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] If she finds herself in that position, I hope that she will discover the truth, which I have already told the House—that the CCRC has already seen the papers, so there is no question of justice being either delayed or denied.

Government Digital Service

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3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the work of the Government Digital Service in implementing the digital-by-default programme. [908309]

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The Government Digital Service has created the award-winning, world-leading gov.uk, the single web domain for Government information and services, and 25 major services have been redesigned to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. That will not only provide savings to the taxpayer but improve delivery for the public, so that it is focused on user need, not Government convenience. In the next Parliament, we will deliver government as a platform, building common services such as a once-for-all payments platform.

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The Government Digital Service has been one of the current Government’s unsung success stories, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public services and saving the taxpayer money. Will my right hon. Friend, on the occasion of his final Cabinet Office questions, accept my congratulations on the fantastic revolution in public services that he has led over the past five years?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those kind words. There has been a great success with the Government Digital Service, which the Washington Post has hailed, stating that the UK has set

“the gold standard of digital government”.

The Obama Administration and the Australian Government have created their own analogous organisations, explicitly modelled on what we have done.

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I do not know what the Minister is eating for breakfast this week, but you do not seem to be able to keep him down, Mr Speaker —I half expect him to announce a U-turn on his intended retirement before the week is out.

Is not the secret success of the Government Digital Service the confidence that it has given Departments to develop solutions in-house with an agility that was simply impossible in the days of lengthy contractual negotiations with large IT companies?

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My hon. Friend is completely right. From a time when British government was synonymous with failed IT projects, we have moved to being the world leader in digital government. There is still a huge amount more to do, but I am grateful to him for his support for our work.

Trade Unions

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4. What savings have accrued to the public purse from the Government's reforms to trade union facility time. [908310]

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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 the taxpayer some £26 million in the past year, and we have reduced the number of taxpayer-funded full-time union officials from 200 in May 2010 to just eight today.

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While I generally support the principle of the union movement—[Interruption.] Why is that surprising? I generally support the principle, but it is not for the taxpayer to fund. What was the cost of giving trade union representatives in the civil service taxpayer-funded time off when this Government came to power?

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Part of the problem was that it was not monitored, but the information we put together showed that the cost was £36 million, which we have cut to less than £10 million. There is a perfectly proper role for union officials to be embedded in the workplace, as they can resolve disputes and grievances quickly, but the situation was completely out of control and we have brought it under control.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to thank those civil servants—mainly trade unionists—who have had to implement Government policies, particularly in the Department for Work and Pensions, such as referring people to food banks? Perhaps against their own judgment, they have had to implement austerity, which has done great damage to the people of this country.

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I point out to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that the need for austerity was caused by the huge budget deficit that we inherited from the Government of which he was a part. We would rather have not had to do that, but I give credit to civil servants across the country who have done a huge amount. The civil service is smaller than at any time since the second world war, but it is doing more than it was before and productivity has improved dramatically.

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The Paymaster General has spent the last five years attacking civil servants’ facility time and check-off. We now learn, a week before Dissolution, that he is inserting a gagging clause into the civil service code. Why is it so necessary and urgent to change the civil service code now?

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The change to which the hon. Gentleman refers simply makes clear what was already the case. There will be considerable concern about whistleblowing, and we will do whatever is needed to ensure that we continue to be much more open about things that have gone wrong. Things are much less suppressed than they were when the Labour party was in power.

Digital Inclusion

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5. What progress he has made on promoting digital inclusion. [908311]

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This is a devolved matter but in England and Wales more than 70 public, private and voluntary sector organisations now support activity under the digital inclusion charter, working together to help individuals, small businesses and charities to realise the benefits of being online. Later today the Government will launch the Digital Friends initiative that will call on civil servants to go out into their communities and teach digital skills to friends, family, neighbours, or colleagues who are offline.

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The Minister will be aware that, unfortunately, Glasgow has one of the highest levels of population who are offline. The Government have recently run a series of adverts on Glasgow radio stations about encouraging people to switch their electricity and gas suppliers, but they are asking people only to use the online route. What assessment has he made about how we can encourage digital inclusion and the appropriate way to target Government adverts?

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As I said, this is a devolved matter. The Scottish Government published their digital participation strategy in April 2014, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop MSP, and supported by a ministerial advisory group.

Civil Service: Job Reductions

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6. What assessment he has made of the effect on local economies of the reduction of jobs in the civil service. [908312]

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Although the civil service is now at its smallest size since the second world war, officials have helped to deliver efficiency and reform savings of £11 billion in this financial year to January against a 2009-10 baseline. I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of thousands of civil servants up and down the country.

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Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why he shut an office in my constituency that I fought long and hard to maintain, given that people have more than met the targets they have been given on every occasion in every year? Will he personally—he has not got long to go—have a wee look at that and perhaps write to tell me why he shut that office?

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I am not sure which department the office is in, but every department must look to its efficiency and many are transforming what they do and delivering more and better for less. We have shown that that can be done, but there is much more still to do.

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With the news this morning that HSBC is choosing Birmingham over Singapore or Hong Kong, and that Jaguar Land Rover is opening a new plant in the Birmingham area, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the civil servants who enabled that to happen in a new, clean, civil service that is lean and effective?

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I pay warm tribute to what my hon. Friend has done to support the bringing of employment to the west midlands. He is a hugely energetic local Member of Parliament. Yes, the civil service does these things extremely well. It is a smaller civil service, but it is more effective than it was. I think its leadership would agree that there is still much more to do.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) raised the issue of the Government closing down the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in his constituency. Why is the Minister closing down the HMRC office in my constituency, the Army recruitment centre in my constituency and the Crown courts in my constituency?

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As I said to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, every Department in Government has to look to its efficiency, make sure it can live within its means and do the job on behalf of the public. The civil service does not exist to provide employment; it exists to serve the public. We found that that can be done more efficiently and effectively, doing more and better for less. At the same time as employment in the public sector has fallen, it has risen in the private sector by 2.3 million.

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Does the Minister agree that in the parts of the United Kingdom where there has been an over-dependence on the public sector and large numbers of jobs in the civil service, such as in Northern Ireland where the Executive are trying to reduce the dependence on the public sector, central Government should support inward investment through the private sector?

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I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right to identify both the problem and the solution. The Northern Ireland economy will undoubtedly benefit from more private sector investment, from overseas or from within, with a smaller public sector.

Senior Civil Servants: Accountability

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8. What steps he has taken to increase the accountability to Parliament and the public of senior civil servants. [908314]

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The Prime Minister can now exercise choice in making permanent secretary appointments. We have introduced fixed tenure for permanent secretaries. We publish their performance objectives, as well as improved management information, to allow them to be held to account. We have revised the Osmotherly rules to ensure that senior responsible owners are directly accountable to Parliament for project implementation and to allow former accounting officers to be called to Select Committees.

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Will the Paymaster General update the House on the role that Ministers might have in the performance review of permanent secretaries?

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We have now instituted a formal process where formal input must be provided by Ministers to the Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service on the performance of their permanent secretaries. That input has to be taken into account as part of the end of year appraisal undertaken by the head of the civil service.

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Order. There are so many noisy private conversations taking place it is quite difficult to hear the Minister’s answer. Let us have a bit of order for the Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons.

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At what may well be my right hon. Friend’s last appearance in the House of Commons at the Dispatch Box, may I remark that his five-year term as Minister for the Cabinet Office in charge of civil service policy for the Government will have truly left its mark not just on the civil service but on this House? His tenacity, commitment and sincerity are of great credit to him.

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I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I pay tribute to him for the way in which he and his Committee have held us to account for what we do. He has done that consistently and persistently. It has not always been comfortable, but that is what the House of Commons is for.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908322]

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

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I would like sincerely to thank my right hon. Friend and neighbouring Member of Parliament for all his assistance and advice over many years., Can he estimate the amount of taxpayers’ money that has been saved through efficiencies in his five years in the Cabinet Office?

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In the course of this Parliament we have saved more than £50 billion through efficiency and reform savings. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the support he has given throughout the process. He is a completely brilliant local MP, and I am confident he will be back here after the election.

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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, given that this is likely to be his last appearance in this place. He has a long record of public service, which he has always pursued with principle, dignity and drive. Even when it has not served his own career, he has never been afraid to speak out, and I have always respected him for having a clear agenda. He is a moderniser and impatient for reform, and despite our disagreements, I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to pay tribute to his distinguished career.

Looking to his future, I wonder whether he wants to follow in the footsteps of his friend Michael Portillo. If so, I am happy to arrange some practice sessions for him cosying up on the sofa with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I wish him well with his future plans, albeit with me taking his place in the Cabinet Office, and I wondered whether he wanted to take this opportunity to tell us some of his fondest memories of this place.

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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind and warm words; they are hugely appreciated. We have pursued a difficult and often controversial agenda of reform, but one of things that has given it strength has been the robust support from her and her predecessors. Whatever the result of the election—I hope it will not be the one she foresees—this programme of reform must continue and be followed through.

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T2. In joining the tributes to my right hon. Friend for his sterling public service, may I ask what else he could have achieved in the past five years had he been a member of a real Conservative Government? [908323]

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That is a tempting question, but actually we have achieved a huge amount. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has worked closely with me and my officials on driving through this programme. It is hard to see how we could have done much more in that context.

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T4. Does the Minister agree that one of the great failures of this Government has been their inability to check the quality of private companies engaged to deliver our people’s public services? Has that not been one of the fatal policy weaknesses of this Government? [908325]

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We have improved the quality of the commercial directors and teams across Government so that we can monitor much better what is done than was the case under the hon. Gentleman’s Government, and I announced yesterday some principles for transparency that will take this process yet further. It is much better than it was, but there is still a lot to do.

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T3. My right hon. Friend has been an outstanding Minister on cyber-security. He recently visited Pakistan and met the chief of general staff in the Pakistan army. Did they discuss greater co-operation between our two countries on cyber-security and sharing the good practice he has developed in this area? [908324]

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. Yes, we had a fruitful visit to Pakistan and are collaborating and co-operating with the Government of Pakistan in several important areas.

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T5. What assistance is the Minister for Civil Society giving to the National Citizen Service to maximise the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who participate in it so that they can play their full part in a programme that would benefit them more than those from more affluent areas? [908326]

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The hon. Gentleman’s interest in the NCS is welcome and I know is reflected in his constituency, where demand for the programme is high among pupils at Bulwell academy and Bluecoat Beechdale academy. I am delighted that the latest independent evaluation found that in 2013 16% of NCS participants were in receipt of free school meals, compared with about 7% of 16 and 17-year-olds in the general population.

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T6. The Cabinet Office has been relentless in reducing waste from public services. However, does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the hidden cost to the taxpayer, as well as the lack of local accountability, from doing away with the shire fire and rescue services and trying to create a national fire service as Labour proposes would be considerable? [908327]

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I share my hon. Friend’s view that the local accountability that comes with local fire services is extremely important. I would be very loth to see that change.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 March. [908292]

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I know the whole House will wish to join me in offering our deepest condolences to the families and friends of all those killed in yesterday’s Airbus crash in France. It is heartbreaking to hear about the schoolchildren, the babies and the families whose lives have been brought to an end. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is very likely that some British nationals were involved. At this stage, three British nationals have been identified as having been on the flight. The Foreign Office is working urgently to establish whether any further British nationals were among those on board. We are providing consular assistance and will give further information as it becomes available. Our ambassador to France is at the crash site today. I spoke to Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Rajoy last night and made it clear that the UK is ready to offer any assistance we can. I expect to speak to President Hollande later today.

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.

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May I join the Prime Minister in expressing sympathies to all the families affected by yesterday’s tragedy?

In 2014, the number of people working on zero-hours contracts increased by 19%, unsecured borrowing rose by 9%, and the percentage living in relative poverty was at the highest level since 2001. Does the Prime Minister agree that on his watch the future of our young people is only getting darker?

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What has happened on my watch is that 174,000 more people are employed in Scotland. Zero-hours contracts account for one in 50 jobs, and it is this Government who have outlawed exclusivity in zero-hours contracts—after the 13 years of inaction from the Labour party. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, the claimant count has fallen by 32% since the election. That is evidence that our economic plan is working in Scotland, as it is throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

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One of the most disturbing scandals has been the infection of thousands of people across the nation with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood. Today Lord Penrose publishes a report that follows nearly 25 years of campaigning by Members on both sides of this House to address the scandal. Will the Prime Minister, as the last act of his Government, ensure that there is a full apology, transparent publication and, above all, proper compensation for the families terribly affected by this scandal?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, with the Penrose report being published today. I can do all of the three things he asks for. I know that many Members on all sides of this House have raised the question of infected blood, and I have spoken about how constituents have been to my surgeries. While it will be for the next Government to take account of these findings, it is right that we use this moment to recognise the pain and the suffering experienced by people as a result of this tragedy. It is difficult to imagine the feelings of unfairness that people must feel at being infected with something like hepatitis C or HIV as a result of a totally unrelated treatment within the NHS. To each and every one of those people, I would like to say sorry on behalf of the Government for something that should not have happened.

No amount of money can ever fully make up for what did happen, but it is vital that we move as soon as possible to improve the way that payments are made to those infected by this blood. I can confirm today that the Government will provide up to £25 million in 2015-16 to support any transitional arrangements to a better payments system. I commit that, if I am Prime Minister in May, we will respond to the findings of this report as a matter of priority.

Finally, I know that Lord Penrose was unable to present the findings of his report today because of illness. I am sure the whole House would want to send him our very best wishes.

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Let me first say that I fully associate myself with the remarks that the Prime Minister has just made about the victims of infected blood. We undertake today to act on those recommendations as well. I also join the Prime Minister in offering my condolences to the families who lost loved ones in the devastating plane crash yesterday, especially remembering the three British victims. Our thoughts are with all the victims, their families and their friends.

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced his retirement plans. He said that it was because he believed in giving straight answers to straight questions. After five years of Prime Minister’s questions, that was music to my ears. So here is a straight question: will he now rule out a rise in VAT?

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In 43 days’ time, I plan to arrange the right hon. Gentleman’s retirement. But he is right: straight questions deserve straight answers, and the answer is yes.

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No one is going to believe it. No one is going to believe it because of the Prime Minister’s extreme spending plans, because his numbers do not add up, and because he promised it last time and he broke his promise. Now, if the Prime Minister is in the mood for straight answers, let us try him with another one. Can he confirm that a spending cut—[Interruption.]

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Order. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard. If we overrun, so be it; it does not matter to me. The right hon. Gentleman will be heard, and the Prime Minister will be heard, and every other Member will be heard.

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Can the Prime Minister confirm that the spending cuts that he plans in the next three years will be even greater than anything seen in the last five?

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The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about that, but look: straight answer from me, straight question to him. I have ruled out VAT. Will he rule out national insurance contributions? Yes or no?

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The Prime Minister will have plenty of time to ask questions after 7 May—and I am afraid to say that his own Office for Budget Responsibility has referred to

“a much sharper squeeze on real spending…than anything seen over the past five years”.

Next question, and this should be an easier one. Five years ago, the Prime Minister promised to cut net migration to tens of thousands. Straight answer to a straight question: is that a broken promise? Yes or no?

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Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a second chance. I answered a very simple question about VAT. I ruled out an increase. Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again: will he rule out an increase in national insurance contributions?

We all know that this is Labour’s jobs tax. This is Labour’s tax of choice. This is what Labour clobbers working people, families and enterprises with. So let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again—straight question, straight answer—will he rule it out?

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There is only one person who is going to raise taxes on ordinary families, and that is the Prime Minister—and he is going to cut the national health service. Moreover, he did not answer the question. Let me now ask him a question about the NHS. Five years ago, he promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Now, this is an easy one: can he confirm that that is a broken promise? Yes or no?

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I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is happening in the NHS. There are 9,000 more doctors, 7,000 more nurses, and 20,000 more bureaucrats. But we have heard it now: a clear promise on VAT from this side of the House, and no answer on national insurance from that side of the House. And it goes to a bigger point. The right hon. Gentleman has had five years to come up with an economic plan, he has had five years to work out some policies for the future of this country, he has had five years to demonstrate some leadership, and he has failed on every count.

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Nobody believes the right hon. Gentleman’s promises on VAT and nobody believes his promises on the national health service because he has broken his promises in this Parliament. Now, let us try him on one more: three years ago he cut the top rate of income tax. Can he rule out, under a Tory Government, a further cut in the top rate of income tax?

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The richest in this country are paying more tax under this Government than they paid under the last Government. We have set out our plans for tax cuts: if you are young and you work hard, you will get an apprenticeship; if you are a family, we will take you out of tax until you earn £12,500. I do not want to see middle-income families drawn into the top rate of tax. We have made our promises. Now, let the right hon. Gentleman make a promise: will he increase national insurance? Yes or no?

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Nobody believes the right hon. Gentleman’s promises. He has had five years of failing working families, with worse to come—more spending cuts, more tax cuts for the richest, more betrayal. This has been a Government of the few for the few. It is time for a better plan. It is time for a Labour Government.

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Well, we have seen it all: absolutely no ability to answer a question. This is a country where unemployment is falling; the economy is growing; the deficit is coming down; in our NHS, the operations are going up; there are more good school places for our children; living standards are rising; inflation is at zero; and there are record numbers in work—all of this could be put at risk by Labour. That is the choice in 43 days’ time: competence and a long-term plan that is delivering, instead of the chaos of economic crisis from Labour.

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Q3. Thirteen months ago, my constituent Leigh Smith tragically lost her three-month-old baby Beatrice due to a rare heart condition. In an effort to help other families avoid the grief and despair of losing a child, Mrs Smith wants all schools to install defibrillators and to teach life-saving skills. Will the Prime Minister offer his support to this vital cause? [908294]

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First, let me say to my hon. Friend and his constituent that there is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child and we should do everything we can to help with this. The Chancellor announced in his Budget £1 million for defibrillators, including putting defibrillators into schools. I want to see a situation where community buildings, schools, pubs, village halls—all of them—have defibrillators, because we can save lives in this way, and particularly when we are saving such young lives, as in my hon. Friend’s constituent’s case, we must do better.

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Q4. May I start by expressing my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the tragic Germanwings air crash?There are not any in the Prime Minister’s constituency, there is just one in the Home Secretary’s seat, and yet there are 680 people seeking asylum in Rochdale, more than in the entire south-east of England. We are all proud of the assistance that this country offers to those in need, but public services in Rochdale are already stretched and this uneven dispersal of asylum seekers is not helping the situation. Does the Prime Minister accept that this is not fair on Rochdale, and what does he plan to do about it? [908295]

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I think the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, that what we inherited was completely unacceptable. The numbers of asylum seekers are down by a third from the peak they reached under Labour. We are fast-tracking more cases and we are resolving more cases more quickly, but I have to say to him that the legislation governing the distribution of asylum seekers was put in place under the last Labour Government.

I have been following what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. He has sent some very good dispatches from the front in terms of knocking on doors in Rochdale, and this is what he says:

“Any Labour politician that says to you they knock on a door and Ed Miliband is popular are telling lies.”

He says that about his own side. He says:

“You know, this north London elite view of the world just doesn’t play in Rochdale, Rotherham, Runcorn or anywhere else beginning with an ‘R’ outside the M25.”

I would like to encourage him to do more interviews, because he could add Reading, Redditch, Redruth, Reigate, Rochford, Romford, Romsey, Rossendale, Rushcliffe, Rutland, Rye—and probably Rosyth too the way they are going.

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SNP gain!

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Q5. I don’t think so love. In May 2010, unemployment in South Derbyshire, an ex-mining area, stood at 1,540. Today it is almost a third of that, at 580. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the strong Conservative Government and a Conservative district council with a long-term economic plan are able to succeed in bringing jobs and growth where the Labour equivalent failed to do so? [908296]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; in South Derbyshire, since the election, the claimant count—the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—is down by 68%. Those are the statistics, but every one of those people is someone with a job, with a livelihood and with a chance to provide for their family. That is what this election is going to be about: for young people who want jobs, we are offering apprenticeships; for young families who want homes, we have got homes with Help to Buy; and for pensioners who want security, we have got the pension and the pension benefits guarantee. That is what is on the ballot paper and that is what I think people will choose at the next election.

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Following the publication of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs report on the disgraceful on-the-runs debacle yesterday, it has now been revealed that the man who went about distributing these letters to IRA fugitives, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein, has actually received the royal prerogative of mercy for certain crimes. Will the Prime Minister now list in the Library of the House all those other Sinn Fein members and leading republicans who have likewise received a royal pardon, so that republicans in Northern Ireland can know which of their great stalwart leaders have begged or asked for, or received, probably on bended knee, such a royal pardon and secondly, so that everybody in the country can know which Governments have been involved in such nefarious activities?

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I will look very carefully at the question the right hon. Gentleman asks and what more we can do to be transparent, because this Government, not least by holding the on-the-runs review, have been transparent. What I would say to him is that Governments in the past have had to make difficult decisions with respect to Northern Ireland to try to bring parties together and produce the peaceful outcome that we have today. That has involved difficult compromises and things that he and probably I have found, at times, deeply distasteful. None the less, sometimes, in the pursuit of peace, some of these things have to be done.

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Q6. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department for Transport on their securing a £50 million rail infrastructure improvement scheme in South West Trains, which feeds my constituency? However, we still need better infrastructure—additional track; flyovers and power supply—if we are to get longer trains and faster journey times to Weymouth and Portland. Will he meet me to discuss this further to see whether we can further boost the economy in South Dorset? [908297]

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I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these issues. I believe this Government have done right by the south-west, not least with the announcement the Transport Secretary has made of an additional 57,000 seats on South West Trains every week from December and 1,400 extra car parking spaces at train stations across the region. We can have this strong transport investment, not just in the south-west, but right across our country, only because we have a long-term economic plan that is delivering the growth this country needs.

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Has the Prime Minister not put himself on a fixed-term contract? Is he not now concerned that it will be a zero-hours contract after 8 May?

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It is very simple what I have said. I answered a very clear question, and perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will have to answer some clear questions. It is very simple: two terms, 10 years and one kitchen.

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Q7. Is my right hon. Friend as alarmed as I am— Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. Is my right hon. Friend as alarmed as I am that Alex Salmond is planning to impose a series of demands on the UK Government? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will have nothing to do with such demands? [908298]

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As far as I can see, Alex Salmond has taken the entire Labour party hostage, and today we have got the ransom note. The ransom note is very clear. It says, “Higher borrowing, uncontrolled immigration, unfettered welfare, higher taxes and weaker defence.” That is what is being demanded, and the British people have only one way of saying no to this appalling hostage situation, which is to vote Conservative on 7 May.

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May I ask the Prime Minister about the continually dire position at London Bridge station, which is a cause of major concern? Is he aware of the abysmal service and the chaotic scenes that have accompanied Network Rail’s latest stage of development? Will he instruct the Secretary of State for Transport personally to take responsibility for resolving the debacle and for bringing forward an early straightforward compensation scheme for the many tens of thousands of commuters who have had their lives so seriously disrupted?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that matter. Anyone who has seen the pictures of what has happened some mornings at London Bridge station knows that the pressures are immense. What we need to do is ensure that Transport for London and the Department for Transport are working together—as they are—to bring about the best possible solution. People cannot criticise this Government for failing to invest in London’s transport infrastructure. The Crossrail scheme, which I visited again a couple of weeks ago—[Interruption.] Labour Members say, “We did that”. They did not. They left an enormous bill, but it was this Government who put in the money and got it built. It is one thing to promise something, but another to put the diggers in the ground and to get it done, which is what we have done.

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It is very easy to say the words, “long-term economic plan”, but in Brighton, Kemptown, the past five years have seen sharply falling unemployment, huge increases in business start-ups, and a massive £480 million investment in the new hospital. Does the Prime Minister think that the sun will continue to shine on Brighton?

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First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been a real champion for Brighton. He has campaigned so hard for the extra investment and the rebuilding of the hospital, and I am glad that the redevelopment of the Royal Sussex county hospital will take place. I also note that, in his constituency, the claimant count has gone down by 52% and the long-term youth claimant count by 50% since the last election. On that basis, I think that we can say that the sun will continue to shine on Brighton.

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Q9. I agree with the Prime Minister that the sun shines on Brighton; it shines bright green on Brighton Pavilion. The Brighton Argus recently revealed that, in the space of a single month, nearly 1,700 trains between Brighton and London Victoria ran late, but, to add insult to injury, unfair train company rules meant that passengers could claim compensation on just 59 of those 1,700 journeys. Will he join me in backing The Argus newspaper campaign for a fairer compensation system that puts money back into passengers’ pockets? [908300]

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I should have said in my previous answer that the only place in Brighton where the sun does not shine very brightly is where the local Green council is incapable of emptying people’s dustbins. We need a Tory gain there as well. But the hon. Lady is right to raise the case of rail compensation. We are looking closely at The Argus campaign and at what can be done to make the compensation scheme simpler and easier to deliver for people.

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Q10. Thanks to funding from this Government, thousands of constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire now enjoy access to superfast broadband. That is helping to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas. It is also helping small businesses in rural areas to benefit from our “long-term economic plan”—I had to say it once. However, getting broadband rolled out for the remaining properties in East Riding will be particularly difficult. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other East Riding MPs to ensure that we can get the delivery out as quickly as possible? [908301]

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I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend who is a real champion for his constituents. He is right to put this issue of rural broadband front and centre in his campaign. As he knows, we are investing around £780 million to get superfast broadband to 95% of UK premises by 2017. That programme is going well. Every day, our roll-out reaches another 5,000 homes and businesses. [Interruption.] The Labour party complains, but broadband roll-out has doubled under this Government. That is what has happened because of the work that we have put in. We are investing extra money to ensure that we can get to the most hard-to-reach premises, and that will include subsidising the cost of installing superfast satellite services, which will give access to those in the hardest-to-reach areas who currently have the slowest speeds.

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Michael Connarty.

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SNP gain!

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Q11. A young couple in my constituency—[Interruption.] [908302]

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Order—on both sides of the Chamber. It is a gross discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents. The hon. Gentleman’s question will be heard.

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A young couple in my constituency were persuaded by Mr Steven Macsporran of the Advice Centre for Mortgages to put a legacy they had into a flat to rent in Turkey. He was an agent for ROPUK. They got no flat and lost £47,000. The Financial Ombudsman Service said that it could not give any advice because it was unregulated advice. Does the Prime Minister agree that that company, and companies like it, should not be allowed to advertise themselves as being regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority if they give such advice, and is it not time we dealt with this rip-off Britain problem?

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First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is standing down at the election. He has been a Member of Parliament for—[Interruption.] He is not?

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I am not.

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I am sorry. Let me rephrase that. [Interruption.] I want to defend my team, because this is my 146th appearance at the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions, and they normally get these things right. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman anyway and wish him luck in the current battle he has in his constituency.

We have all heard such cases in our constituency surgeries, from people who put their money into timeshare schemes with companies that subsequently turned out to be disreputable. We have all then had the challenge of getting those companies properly uncovered and regulated. I will look into the specific case and write to him, either in his capacity as an MP or whatever it is after the election.

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Q12. The Prime Minister knows that I have often been unhelpful to the Government in the Health Committee, but as a member of that Committee it is my duty to be impartial. Does he share my concern that the objective scrutiny role of the Select Committee system has been fundamentally undermined by Labour’s refusal even to discuss a draft report, having heard evidence of decreased administrative costs since the health reforms, privatisation slowing since 2005, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership not posing a threat to the NHS, no charges or top-ups introduced, and no plans to do so, and does he agree—[Interruption.] [908303]

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Order. The remainder of the question—I know that it is finishing very soon—must be heard.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Committee heard evidence of no charges or top-ups being introduced, and no plans to do so, and does the Prime Minister agree that refusing even to discuss that flies in the face of our public—[Interruption.]

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Prime Minister.

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That Select Committee report has been held back because Labour Members of Parliament do not want to tell the truth about our national health service; they are only interested in trying to weaponise it. The fact is that there are more doctors and more nurses and more operations are being carried out. That is the truth, and it is disgraceful that Labour is trying to cover it up, just as it did in office.

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No SNP gain here. This is, in fact, my last Prime Minister’s questions after 23 years in this place, but I hope that my very good friend the former Member for Banff and Buchan will be rejoining this place in May. Can the Prime Minister please tell us which causes him more anguish: his imminent return or my imminent departure?

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I was quite looking forward to missing you both, but obviously that is not going to be—[Interruption.] I have sat in this House for 14 years, and all the time that the right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament, I remember some very passionate speeches, not least on the Iraq war. I remember some very passionate speeches about civil liberties in our country and making sure that we respond in the right way to terror. He has always stood up for his constituents, he cares passionately about Wales, he cares passionately about rugby, and he will be missed by everyone.

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Q13. On the very last day before the 2010 general election, the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, visited Montgomeryshire. It was a joyous occasion which led to my presence in the House today. Will the Prime Minister make another visit to see for himself the dramatic improvement in business confidence and the dramatic falls in unemployment that have taken place in Montgomeryshire as a result of the Government’s long-term economic plan? [908304]

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It was a huge pleasure to go and visit my hon. Friend just before the last election. I thought it was a bit of a long shot, but none the less he made it here and he has been a fantastic Member of Parliament, standing up for his constituents. In Wales since the election we have 22,000 more small businesses, employment in Wales going up by 52,000, unemployment coming down and private sector growth. We see a real recovery in Wales and it needs my hon. Friend back here, standing up for his constituents and for Wales in the House of Commons.

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I have here a cutting from The Press in York on 24 April 2010, which says:

“David Cameron last night dismissed claims the Tories would put up VAT if they win the election”.

That was at the last election. Why should the public believe promises that he makes at the coming election?

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I have given the straightest possible answer, and this time in government we know what needs to be done—we know the changes, and both sides of this House have voted for a £30 billion adjustment. Those on the Labour Front Bench voted for it too. We have set out what needs to happen with departmental spending, welfare and tax avoidance. The Labour party has said that half of the £30 billion must be raised in taxes, so we know it: there is a tax bombshell coming from Labour, and it is going to be, we learned today, a jobs tax bombshell. They wanted to do it before the last election, and they want to do it after the next election. It would wreck our economy and put up taxes for working people, and there is only one group of people who can stop it.

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Q14. Many hundreds of households in Amber Valley still suffer from noise from the A38 through my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that measures to reduce the noise should be brought forward, and that where development takes place which uses the advantages of being near the A38, the developers should use their profits from those sites to fund noise reduction measures? [908305]

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Today is a good day to discuss noise pollution. It is probably appropriate that we quieten down and think about the subject for a minute. My hon. Friend has consistently campaigned on this issue. He is quite right to do so—it is a big concern to his constituents. We are providing £75 million for noise mitigation on our national road network. We are resurfacing 80% of that network with low noise surfacing. That can make a real difference, and I will look carefully at what we can do for my hon. Friend’s constituency.

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Last week some of the rougher elements of the House chose to refer to the Prime Minister as “chicken”. I hope we have moved on. However, does the Prime Minister agree that it is entirely fair now to refer to him as a lame duck?

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I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is a lame duck—trying to get into Downing street on the back of Alex Salmond’s coat tails. The Opposition now know that they cannot win the election on their own, so they are preparing to answer the ransom note. Higher taxes, more borrowing, weaker defence, breaking up our Union—that is what we have to stop. Never mind talk of ducks; I am looking at Alex Salmond’s poodle.

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Q15. On Friday, together with local businesses and the local enterprise partnership, I will be launching a new campaign, Gateway to Growth, calling for a link road from the M4 to the Avon ring road that will help to deliver millions of pounds of extra investment and new jobs to the Bristol region, and provide the Kingswood area with the access to the motorway it needs. As part of his long-term economic plan, will the Prime Minister look closely at the campaign and the case for an M4 link? First of all, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his very hard work for people in Kingswood and in Bristol more generally. He is absolutely right that we do need to see better transit schemes in Bristol, and I know that the Transport Secretary will be happy to look at the campaign and the case he makes. It is also of note—and I am sure that, as a great historian and, indeed, someone who has written about Richard III, my hon. Friend would want me to say it—that we should not let this day pass without noting that of course Richard III will be buried tomorrow. That is worth remembering. It is the last time that someone did in one of their relatives to get the top job and the country ended up in chaos.

Bill Presented

Protection of Children (Removal of Police Discretion)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Barry Sheerman, supported by Sarah Champion, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Meg Munn and Liz McInnes, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to remove the discretionary decision-making power afforded to police officers in charging individuals with rape in cases relating to acts of sexual intercourse involving persons aged under 16; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March 2015, and to be printed (Bill 195). [908306]