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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2016

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Political Engagement: Young People

7. What plans the Government have to encourage more young people to engage with the political process. (903290)

The Government’s new online electoral registration system has made it easier and quicker for everyone, especially young people, to register to vote. The process now takes less time than boiling an egg. We are also working with groups such as Bite The Ballot on the national voter registration drive, which is an excellent initiative to persuade more people to register to vote that runs for the whole of next week, in which I encourage everyone to get involved. The British Youth Council’s Make Your Mark ballot led to nearly 1 million young people voting throughout the UK and informed the Youth Parliament’s debates in this Chamber.

I welcome the Minister’s support for next week’s national voter registration drive. Last year’s drive helped nearly 500,000 young electors to register to vote. Would he support repeating last year’s projection of an image of a ballot box on to the Elizabeth Tower? I understand that you, Mr Speaker, are a fan of that, as am I, so we need to persuade Westminster City Council to allow that.

My hon. Friend deserves top marks for creative marketing ideas, but after the use of the Elizabeth Tower for unauthorised projections, including of Australian cricketers and various bits of Gail Porter, I am told that the subject excites strong passions in Westminster council and, quite possibly, the House authorities, so I should probably urge her to discuss her proposals carefully with them.

When I visited Harris school in my constituency recently to talk to its pupils about the role of an MP, I met bright youngsters who wanted to learn more about how Parliament works. Does the Minister agree that getting more public figures to talk and answer questions in schools would be a great way of engaging young people with the political process?

I do. My hon. Friend has set a great example and shown that public figures—even MPs—can stimulate interest and engagement in democracy.

What further Government or private sector databases are the Minister’s Department thinking of using to boost registration among young people?

The hon. Gentleman raised this point with me a little while ago and asked about credit reference agencies, among others. We might be able to use other sources of data, but some base a lot of their information on the electoral roll itself, so we would need to ensure that the process did not become circular. There may be things that other people can add, however, and all sources of data offer potential ways to reduce the cost, and improve the quality and speed, of our registration efforts.

During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a huge number of young people became politically active and engaged in Scotland, but the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds will not have the opportunity to vote in the EU referendum, although they will have to live with its consequences for much longer than most people in the Chamber. Why do the Government not accept that the best way to encourage young people to vote is actually to give them the vote?

Since the general election, we have debated this particular question four or five times—perhaps more—and collectively decided against it, with healthy majorities, on every single occasion. We can go over this again, and I am happy to have further debates with the hon. Lady as needed, but the House has made its collective decision plain.

The Labour party’s initial analysis shows big drops in registered voters in many university towns. The figure for Canterbury is down 13%, while those for Cambridge and Dundee West are both down 11% on last year. Those universities that have enabled students to register to vote when they enrol have all seen high levels of student registration. Will the Government issue guidance to all vice-chancellors immediately to suggest that they adopt such a system in September?

It is not quite that simple, but I sympathise with the hon. Lady, in that several new approaches that are being trialled in universities throughout the country are extremely promising. We want to pursue those, so perhaps the hon. Lady and I can discuss that further at our meeting later today.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is mission critical to our plan to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation that it serves and benefits from talent in every part of Britain.

I welcome that answer. May I ask the Minister to give the House an update on research by the Bridge Group on social mobility in the fast stream?

We asked the Bridge Group to look into social mobility in the fast stream and the people who are joining the civil service, and it will report very soon. I can tell my hon. Friend the number of new apprenticeships in the civil service: 884 since we introduced the scheme in 2013—another part of broadening access to the civil service.

Many young people from working-class estates across the United Kingdom lack the capacity and training skills to join the civil service. What are the Government doing to ensure that they have the greater skills required to get on the ladder into the civil service?

Great training is available for people once they are in, but I want to broaden the number of people from different backgrounds coming into the civil service right at the start, which means people from all over the United Kingdom: from all parts, from all groups, from all ethnic backgrounds, men and women, to make sure that we make the very best use of the talent that is available.

I see that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor has his own mission critical approach to social mobility. His closest adviser got a 42% pay rise while most public servants got a pay freeze; he has five times the usual number of special advisers while 80,000 jobs have been cut in the civil service; and this week it was revealed by The Sunday Times that the permanent secretary in his Department has used a loophole to avoid paying tax on his pension pot. Is it the Minister’s view that that is an appropriate leadership approach in the civil service, and is it not true that when it comes to tax, the Chancellor’s friends in Google get special treatment, and when it comes to social mobility in the civil service it helps to be a friend of the Chancellor?

It is disappointing that we do not have a cross-party approach to improving access to the civil service—who comes into it—to make sure that we have the very best people working for the common aim of delivering the Government’s agenda to improve the lives of citizens whom we serve, because that is the job that we focus on.

National Citizen Service

The National Citizen Service is helping to build a more responsible, cohesive and engaged society. The latest annual figures show a 46% increase in participation, making it the fastest growing youth programme for a century. Every £1 spent on NCS generates nearly £4 of social benefits—something that everyone in the House and the country should be proud of.

What success has the National Citizen Service had in helping to counter violent and non-violent extremism as part of the Government’s wider counter-extremism strategy?

My hon. Friend will be aware that NCS was not specifically designed to tackle extremism in our communities. However, the programme plays a significant role in promoting tolerance by breaking down barriers between communities. NCS helps young people to learn about other cultures and creates positive bonds between people from different backgrounds. In 2014, 27% of NCS participants were from non-white backgrounds compared with 19% of the general population.

Through my involvement with NCS in Cornwall I have seen first-hand the truly life-changing experience that the programme provides. Will the Minister join me in thanking and congratulating all those people across the country who deliver the programme successfully, and does he agree that NCS is a clear example that this Government are truly a one nation Government?

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate of NCS in Cornwall, where 580 young people have recently benefited from a life-changing experience on the programme. A one nation Government helps everyone to reach their full potential. That principle is at the heart of NCS. We support everyone who participates regardless of background, and provide bursaries to those who need financial support. NCS achieves a diverse mix of young people, working together to develop new skills and giving back to their community.

The Minister will be aware that many Labour Members are great supporters of the programme, but can we be sure that the content has real, hard substance, such as democratic values and the equality of women in British life? Are those emphasised enough to young people on the programme?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman can be assured of that. According to the figures, 72% of participants felt more confident about getting a job after they had taken part in NCS. A year on, people are still benefiting from taking part in the NCS programme, according to the research.

11. In Cleethorpes and north-east Lincolnshire the NCS programme has been doing a lot of work in the local St Andrew’s hospice, which has had a great impact on young people. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lee Stephens, Graham Rodger and their team in north-east Lincolnshire, who do tremendous work? (903295)

Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the people in his constituency and across the country who take part in NCS. To date NCS participants have volunteered an estimated total of 8 million hours in their local communities, developing vital skills in the process. The programme benefits the participants and the local community.

Freedom of Information Act

6. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000. (903289)

The Government are committed to transparency and freedom of information. The independent commission on freedom of information was established to review the working of the Act and we will consider the report when it is received.

There are any number of instances that we can all point to where the publication of information that the authorities would rather have kept hidden has led to significant public benefits. The expenses affair in this place was one example. I do not know of a single case where the release of information through the Freedom of Information Act has caused any significant public damage. Does the Minister agree that any change to the Act should be designed to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to find out what the Government are doing?

The hon. Gentleman is a softly spoken fellow but I want to hear him very fully—louder in future.

I am happy to hear more from the hon. Gentleman because I am a great supporter of freedom of information and the Act, and of transparency. We have to make sure that its workings are accurate and we look forward to listening and seeing what the commission comes up with when it reports in due course.

Is it not the case that introducing fees for FOI requests would reduce opportunities for exposing injustice and bad practice? Will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out introducing any such fees?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall wait until the commission reports. We will respond in due course.

May I inform my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be scrutinising those proposals very carefully indeed? We want to make sure that the judges are interpreting the Freedom of Information Act as Parliament truly intended, but I can tell him that there is no going back on freedom of information.

Indeed. The Freedom of Information Act has brought to light many things that it is in the public interest to have in the public domain. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s Committee will scrutinise the proposals very carefully, not least to ensure that the will of Parliament is the law of the land. I look forward to working with him on that.

I did not have to use the Freedom of Information Act because I went on to the website to find out that the excellent Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, is now a non-executive director of the board of the Cabinet Office. May I say what a wise choice that is? What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that similar people are appointed to other Government Departments?

Crikey! Where to start? Mark Price is, indeed, an incredibly impressive businessman and I look forward to working with him on the Cabinet Office board. That information was published on our award-winning website, which has had billions of hits because there is so much good information to be found there.

Is the Minister aware that despite all his fine words, there are many, including me, who believe that the purpose of the review is to undermine the Freedom of Information Act introduced by a Labour Government? So many of the abuses that have been revealed have become known to the public only as a result of the Act. The Government should be defending freedom of information, not trying to undermine it.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I said that much information is in the public domain, and it is in the public interest that it is public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. That is my position. I look forward to hearing what the commission has to say about the operational working of the Act to ensure that it is working in the way Parliament intended.

It is confusing to hear the Minister claim to be such a fan of transparency, given that the Cabinet Office has set up a commission designed to weaken FOI—an ex-coalition Minister has described that as a “rigged jury”—botched the release of Cabinet papers, watered down consultation rules, and is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner for withholding thousands of items of spending data. If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, why has the Minister now abolished every single senior civil service post with responsibility for transparency?

As a matter of fact, we are the most transparent Government ever. What is more, the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that only this morning the Cabinet Office published further spending information to ensure that we keep that mantle.

Major Projects Authority

The Major Projects Authority—now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority—was set up in 2011 to establish the Government’s major projects portfolio and ensure high-quality project assurance and support. Since 2012 it has produced an annual report summarising progress and delivery of major Government projects.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office talks about the Government being the most open ever. Will the Minister without Portfolio sanction the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to release more information about which projects are green, amber or red so that taxpayers know what is going on?

The hon. Lady will know, because the Public Accounts Committee, which she chairs, recently questioned the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, that we do publish the information she mentioned. She should be excited by the new Infrastructure and Projects Authority, because it brings together the experience of the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, it saves taxpayers’ money, in the light of spending review priorities, and it brings under one roof support for major projects such as Crossrail and the Thames tideway tunnel, as well as major transformational projects such as universal credit.

Does the Minister think that it is a matter of regret that one can still become a permanent secretary without being directly associated with a major project?

As I have said, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority will make a huge difference, transform the way infrastructure projects are done in our country and save taxpayers’ money, and it will do a number of other things as well.

Transparency Agenda

This morning we published further spending transparency data, which the Cabinet Office is committed to do as part of our agenda to be the most transparent Government ever.

I thank the Minister of transparency for that response, but does he not agree that it is very difficult for him to lead by example on the transparency agenda when his own Department is being investigated by the Information Commissioner for refusing to publish routine spending data?

It sounds like the hon. Lady wrote her supplementary question before she got the previous answer, because we published that information this morning. What is more, we are publishing Cabinet minutes at twice the pace that we ever saw under the previous Labour Government.

Chilcot Inquiry

13. What recent discussions he has had with Sir John Chilcot on the final publication date of the Iraq inquiry. (903297)

With no Chilcot report, no lessons learnt and seemingly none the wiser, will the Minister agree that the constant delays are unacceptable and are an insult both to those involved in the conflict and to those who lost loved ones?

We have had this debate many times. The Chilcot inquiry is rightly independent, so it would not be right for me to comment on the timings, but a timetable has now been published, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency in reforming Government and helping the Prime Minister to deliver the Government’s agenda. This Government have made huge strides in transforming online services for the citizen. I am glad to tell the House that we are now embarking on an ambitious programme to change the culture of public services by using online complaints to deal with problems and sort them out quicker.

Will my right hon. Friend provide more information on the Government’s plans for digital government?

I am very happy to do that. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has recently had the opportunity to use the services, but the universal impression is that for the first time in our country’s history one can now quickly get hold of what one needs to online. The service is also hugely responsive and takes account of feedback—something from which previous Governments were not able to benefit.

T3. The Minister for transparency does talk some utter guff sometimes. How can he be the advocate-in-chief for transparency when his Department has the worst record in answering freedom of information requests? (903261)

We answer freedom of information requests all the time. What is more, we are not only publishing more information but making sure that it is published in a usable way so that people can benefit from it right across this country.

T2. Does the Minister agree that taking a public appointment is an excellent way for people across the country to play their part in shaping our society, and that it is important that people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to do so? (903260)

Right across the public sector, thousands of public appointments are made each year. It is vital that people from all backgrounds, from all ethnicities, and both men and women, from all parts of our country, put their names forward so that they can help in our great mission of improving the lives of the citizens of the UK.

T4. In the past year, one in seven peers did not speak at all in the other place, despite many of them claiming allowances. If the Government are so keen to reduce the cost of politics, why are they not doing anything about this? (903262)

The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise the invaluable role that the House of Lords still plays in vetting what we do in this House, reflecting on it, and sometimes forcing us to reconsider it. We want to maintain that valuable relationship.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Robert Holdcroft, who owns the McDonald’s in Redditch, for hosting “snack and chat” events in his restaurant that allow sixth formers to question their Member of Parliament and increase their interest in politics? Perhaps he might like to join me at one of these events. (903264)

I always love going to Redditch, and even more so if I can go with my hon. Friend. I pass on my congratulations to Mr Holdcroft and all the restaurants that hold “snack and chat” events. As for the idea of a McSurgery in a McDonald’s, I’m lovin’ it.

T5. Many people in my constituency have filled out one form for the whole household to register to vote, as happened under the old system. Their registrations are being processed, but will they be counted in the figures? (903263)

The hon. Lady will know that anybody who is not on the register as a result of the individual electoral registration exercise will have been approached on nine separate occasions to try to get them to register individually. Everybody now has the chance to register individually under IER on the rolling register in time for the elections.

T8. Will the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to further reduce their property portfolio? (903266)

We have been making significant savings in Government property, and the estate is already 20% smaller than it was in 2010. We have saved over £750 million in running costs, but there is much more to do. We have far more work to do to make sure that we are as efficient as possible in the use of property, and I look forward to leading that work.

T10. Does the Minister agree that the Cabinet Office could be far more effective in running the Government if it did not have in another Department a Chancellor who goes out and agrees pig-in-a-poke deals with Google, which everybody knows does not pay its fair share of tax, at a time when millions are filling in their tax returns?


The tax to which the hon. Gentleman refers was of course due from activities under a Labour Government. It was never paid under a Labour Government, but it has been delivered under this Conservative Government.

T9. Again this year, many tens of thousands of young people will benefit from the National Citizen Service programme. However, there are still too many young people who have never been introduced to the programme or had the opportunity to “Say yes” to NCS. Will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues from across the House to make sure that every young person has the opportunity to understand this project and can sign up for this summer’s programmes? (903267)

As my hon. Friend puts it, NCS is a fantastic opportunity for young people. It massively expanded during the last Parliament, and we have ambitious plans to make sure that every young person who wants to do so can benefit from NCS, which does so much to inspire and enrich people’s lives.

T7. New research has uncovered that there has been a greater fall in UK civil service employment in Scotland than in any other UK nation. Between 2011 and 2015, 5,000 civil servants working for UK Departments in Scotland lost their jobs. Will the Minister tell me and my constituents whether that is his definition of “better together”? (903265)

Of course we have had to make savings in the number of civil servants as we have reduced the deficit, but there are far more UK civil servants working in Scotland than civil servants working for the Scottish Government. It just shows that, for Scotland as well as for the rest of this United Kingdom, we are that much better together.

In supporting citizenship and volunteering, what lessons can be learned from the excellent Team Rubicon UK, led by my constituent General Sir Nick Parker? It involves recruiting veterans and ex-servicemen to do great work, notably during the recent flooding.

I want to pay tribute to Team Rubicon and all those who work with it. The role that veterans can play in shaping the future of young people and showing what it is to serve their nation is invaluable, and it is a lesson from which all of us can learn.

The Cabinet Office is responsible for the guidelines on Government proposals. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights discovered when we went to Scotland earlier this month, there is a strong feeling about the consultation on the Human Rights Act 1998. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that the voice of people in Scotland is heard, and that they will not be gagged by the fact that the consultation will be issued during purdah following the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament? Will he give such a guarantee?

As the right hon. and learned Lady will know, the consultation principles, which we have recently promulgated—I spoke to the Joint Committee about them recently—have the effect that every Department should make sure that all consultations are proportionate, and that we make due allowance for any time during which it would be difficult for people to respond so that we get a full and adequate consultation on every occasion.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will want to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day. It is right that our whole country should stand together to remember the darkest hour of humanity.

Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I said we would build a striking national memorial in London to show the importance Britain places on preserving the memory of the holocaust. Today, I can tell the House that this memorial will be built in Victoria Tower Gardens. It will stand beside Parliament as a permanent statement of our values as a nation, and it will be something for our children to visit for generations to come. I am grateful to all those who have made this possible, and who have given this work the cross-party status that it so profoundly deserves.

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

I echo the Prime Minister’s sentiments regarding Holocaust Memorial Day. We must never forget.

The North sea oil and gas industry, on which many people in my Waveney constituency are dependent for their livelihoods, is facing very serious challenges at the current time. The Government have taken steps to address the situation, but more is required if the industry is first to survive, and then to thrive. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he recognises the seriousness of the situation, and will he do all he can to get the industry through these very difficult times?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. I do recognise the seriousness of the situation. The oil price decline is the longest in 20 years and nearly the steepest, and this causes real difficulties for the North sea. We can see the effects in the east of England, of course across Scotland, particularly in Aberdeen, and in other parts of our country, too. We discussed this at Cabinet yesterday. I am determined that we build a bridge to the future for all those involved in the North sea. We are going to help the sector export its world-class expertise. We are going to help such economies diversify. We announced £1.3 billion of support last year for the North sea. We are implementing the Wood review. I will be going to Aberdeen tomorrow, where we will be saying more about what we can do to help this vital industry at this vital time.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the remarks the Prime Minister made about Holocaust Memorial Day. It is the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We have to remember the deepest, darkest days of inhumanity that happened then and the genocides that have sadly happened since. We must educate another generation to avoid those for all time.

Independent experts have suggested that Google is paying an effective tax rate on its UK profits of around 3%. Does the Prime Minister dispute that figure?

Let us be clear what we are talking about here. We are talking about tax that should have been collected under a Labour Government being raised by a Conservative Government. I do dispute the figures the right hon. Gentleman gives. It is right that this is done independently by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but I am absolutely clear that no Government have done more than this one to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance—no Government, and certainly not the last Labour Government.

My question was whether the Prime Minister thinks an effective tax rate of 3% is right or wrong. He did not answer it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer described this arrangement as a “major success”, while the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson only called it a “step forward”. The Mayor of London described the payment as “quite derisory”. What exactly is the Government’s position on this 3% rate of taxation?

But we have put in place the diverted profits tax, which means that this company and other companies will pay more tax in future. They will pay more tax than they ever paid under Labour, when the tax rate for Google was 0%. That is what we faced.

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have done. We have changed the tax laws so many times that we raised an extra £100 billion from business in the last Parliament. When I came to power, banks did not pay tax on all their profits—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories; investment companies could cut their tax bill by flipping the currency their accounts were in—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories; and companies could fiddle accounting rules to make losses appear out of thin air—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories. We have done more on tax evasion and tax avoidance than Labour ever did. The truth is that they are running to catch up, but they haven’t got a leg to stand on.

It was under a Labour Government that the inquiries into Google were begun. In addition, as a percentage of GDP, corporation tax receipts are lower under this Government than under previous Governments.

I have a question here from a gentleman called Jeff. [Interruption.] You might well laugh, but Jeff speaks for millions of people when he says to me:

“Can you ask the Prime Minister…if as a working man of over 30 years whether there is a scheme which I can join that pays the same rate of tax as Google and other large…corporations?”

What does the Prime Minister say to Jeff?

What I say to Jeff is that his taxes are coming down under this Government, and Google’s taxes are going up under this Government. Something the right hon. Gentleman said in his last question was factually inaccurate. He said that corporation tax receipts have gone down. They have actually gone up by 20% under this Government because we have a strong economy, with businesses making money, employing people, investing in our country and paying taxes into the Exchequer.

If, like me, the right hon. Gentleman is genuinely angry about what happened to Google under Labour, there are a few people he could call. Maybe he should start by calling Tony Blair. You can get him at J. P. Morgan. Call Gordon Brown. Apparently, you can get him at a Californian bond dealer called Pimco. He could call Alistair Darling. I think he’s at Morgan Stanley, but it’s hard to keep up. Those are the people to blame for Google not paying its taxes. We are the ones who got it to pay.

The problem is that the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister, and is responsible for the Government and therefore responsible for tax collection. Google made profits of £6 billion in the UK between 2005 and 2015 and is paying £130 million in tax for the whole of that decade. Millions of people this week are filling in their tax returns to get them in by the 31st. They have to send the form back. They do not get the option of 25 meetings with 17 Ministers to decide what their rate of tax is. Many people going to their HMRC offices or returning their forms online this week will say this: why is there one rule for big multinational companies and another for ordinary small businesses and self-employed workers?

All those people filling in their tax returns are going to be paying lower taxes under this Government. That is what is happening. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman, he can, if he wants, criticise HMRC, but HMRC’s work is investigated by the National Audit Office, and when it did that, it found that the settlements that it has reached with companies are fair. That is how it works. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is pointing. The idea that those two right hon. Gentlemen would stand up to anyone in this regard is laughable. Look at their record over the last week. They met the unions and they gave them flying pickets. They met the Argentinians; they gave them the Falkland Islands. They met a bunch of migrants in Calais; they said they could all come to Britain. The only people they never stand up for are the British people and hard-working taxpayers.

We have had no answers on Google; we have had no answers for Jeff.

Can I raise with the Prime Minister another unfair tax policy that affects many people in this country? This morning the Court of Appeal ruled that the bedroom tax is discriminatory, because of its impact—[Interruption.] I don’t know why Members opposite find this funny, because it isn’t for those who have to pay it. The ruling was made because of the bedroom tax’s impact on vulnerable individuals, including victims of domestic violence and disabled children. Will the Prime Minister now read the judgment and finally abandon this cruel and unjust policy, which has now been ruled to be illegal?

We always look very carefully at the judgments on these occasions, but of course our fundamental position is that it is unfair to subsidise spare rooms in the social sector if we do not subsidise them in the private sector where people are paying housing benefit. That is a basic issue of fairness, but isn’t it interesting that the first pledge the right hon. Gentleman makes is something that could cost as much as £2.5 billion in the next Parliament? Who is going to pay for that? Jeff will pay for it. The people filling in their tax returns will pay for it. Why is it that the right hon. Gentleman always wants to see more welfare, higher taxes and more borrowing—all the things that got us into the mess in the first place?

We have not had any answers on Google or the bedroom tax, but I ask the Prime Minister this. Shortly before coming into the Chamber, I became aware of the final report of the United Nations panel of experts on Yemen, which has been sent to the Government. It makes very disturbing reading. The report says that the panel has documented that coalition forces have

“conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees…civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques”.

These are very disturbing reports. In the light of this, will the Prime Minister agree to launch immediately an inquiry and a full review into the arms export licences to Saudi Arabia and suspend those arms sales until that review has been concluded?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have the strictest rules for arms exports of almost any country anywhere in the world. Let me remind him that we are not a member of the Saudi-led coalition; we are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations; and British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes. I will look at that report as I look at all other reports, but our arms exports are carefully controlled and we are backing the legitimate Government of the Yemen, not least because terrorist attacks planned in the Yemen would have a direct effect on people in our country. I refuse to run a foreign policy by press release, which is what he wants. I want a foreign policy that is in the interests of the British people.

Q2. The recent explosion of spurious legal claims against British troops, including those pursued by the law firm that has donated tens of thousands of pounds to the shadow Defence Secretary, undermine the ability of our armed forces to do their job. Will the Prime Minister join me in repudiating the disdain that this shows to our brave servicewomen and our brave servicemen? (903270)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we hold our service personnel to the highest standards, and it is right that we do, but it is quite clear that there is now an industry trying to profit from spurious claims that are lodged against our brave servicemen and women. I am determined to do everything we can to close that bogus industry down. We should start by making it clear that we will take action against any legal firm that we find to have abused the system to pursue fabricated claims. That is absolutely not acceptable.

I begin by associating the Scottish National party with the comments of the Prime Minister in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day, and commend Governments across the United Kingdom for supporting the Holocaust Educational Trust for the important work it does.

Does the Prime Minister agree that there is no justification for discrimination or unfairness towards women in the private sector or the public sector, or by the Government?

First of all, I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Holocaust Educational Trust. I remember as a new constituency MP meeting people from the trust and seeing the incredible work they do in my constituency. They work extremely hard around the clock but this day is particularly important for them. I urge colleagues who have not visited Auschwitz to do so: it is something they will never forget, no matter what they have read, films they have seen or books they have interrogated. There is nothing like seeing for yourself what happened in the darkest hour for humanity.

In terms of wanting to end discrimination against women in the public sector, the private sector, in politics and in this place: yes, absolutely.

I very much welcome what the Prime Minister says on both counts. He is aware of the state pension inequality that is impacting on many women, and that, on pension equalisation, this Parliament voted unanimously for the Government to

“immediately introduce transitional arrangements for those women negatively affected by that equalisation.”

What will the Prime Minister do to respect the decision of this Parliament and to help those women who are affected—those born in the 1950s—who should have had proper notice to plan their finances and their retirement?

First of all, the equalisation of the retirement age came about on the basis of equality, which was a judgment by the European Court. We put it in place in the 1990s. When this Government decided—rightly, in my view—to raise the retirement age, we made the decision that no one should suffer a greater than 18-month increase in their retirement age. That is the decision that this House of Commons took. The introduction of the single-tier pension at £155 a week will be one of the best ways that we can end discrimination in the pension system, because so many women retiring will get so much more in their pension which, of course, under this Government, is triple-lock protected, so they will get inflation, earnings or 2.5%, and never again a derisory 75p increase.

Q3. Our prisons can still be centres of radicalisation. Will the Prime Minister look at all measures, including those in the all-party parliamentary group for boxing report, for preventing troubled young people from falling into the jaws of those dangerously screwed up and predatory extremists? (903271)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very disturbing that, when people are in our care and when the state is looking after them, on some occasions, they have been radicalised because of what they have heard in prison either from other prisoners, or on occasion, from visiting imams. We need to sort this situation out. The Justice Secretary has put in place a review. I will look carefully at the report my hon. Friend mentions, but, if anything, we must ensure that people who are already radicalised when they go to prison are de-radicalised rather than made worse.

Q5. Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer took control of the public purse, he has utterly failed to get the deficit under control. To date this year, he has borrowed over £74 billion to plug the gap or—to use the vernacular his party is fond of using for a hypothetical independent Scotland—the monumental financial black hole in his books. Is he now likely to breach his own deficit reduction target for the year by somewhere in the region of £9 billion? Will the Prime Minister finally concede— (903273)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and the economic strategy the Government have pursued, has cut the deficit in half from the record level we inherited. Soon it will be down by two-thirds. We are meeting what we want to see in terms of debt falling as a share of our GDP. What a contrast with the situation Scotland would be facing if it had voted for independence. In just six weeks, we have seen a 94% collapse in oil revenues. Because we have the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom, the collapse in the oil price and taxation will not affect people in Scotland. Had Scotland been independent, it would be a very, very dark day indeed.

Q4. Recently, I held a mental health forum in my constituency. I brought service users and commissioners together to explore how we could improve mental health services in Dudley and Sandwell. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on increased funding for mental health services. Does he agree that, despite the fact we have more work to do, his commitments are a clear indication of our desire to have a revolution in mental health services in Britain? He has delivered some commitments on that. (903272)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. There is further to go, but the Government are investing more in mental health. We introduced the waiting times, most recently saying that young people suffering episodes of psychosis should be seen within two weeks. There is funding, there is parity of esteem, there is waiting time. There also needs to be a bigger culture change not just in the NHS but right across the public and private sectors, so that mental health conditions are given the attention they deserve.

Q6. From April, a woman who works full time stands to lose thousands of pounds in tax credits if she becomes pregnant with her first child. When will the Prime Minister stop attacking working people? (903274)

What we are doing for women like that is making sure that this year they can earn £11,000 without paying any income tax. If they are on low wages, if they are on the minimum wage, they will get a 7% pay increase because of the national living wage. For the first time, there will be 30 hours of free childcare for those people. That is what we are doing for hard-working people. Do we need to reform welfare? Yes, we do. If the hon. Gentleman had read the report into why his party lost the election—not the one it published, of course; the secret one we all read over the weekend—he would see that, by its endlessly arguing for higher and higher welfare, the British public rightly concluded that under Labour there would be higher and higher taxes.

Q8. I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s words on creating a national memorial to the victims of the holocaust. Tonight in Harrow, representatives of the whole community will come together to listen to the people who survived the holocaust. This is the only way we can preserve their memory. My right hon. Friend rightly alluded to the wonderful work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in allowing literally thousands of young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and to see it at first hand. Will he commit the Government to continue funding the Holocaust Educational Trust, so that many thousands more can see the horrors of the holocaust? (903276)

I can certainly make that commitment. We have funded the trust with over £10 million since I became Prime Minister. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it does excellent work. I also think there is a real need now as, tragically, the remaining holocaust survivors are coming to the end of their lives. Many of them—I will be spending some time today with some of them—are now speaking up in the most moving and powerful way. Recording their testimonies, which must be part of our memorial, is absolutely vital. Their description of what they went through and the friends and family they lost, is so powerful and moving we must capture it for generations to come.

Q7. In 2013, the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee recommended extending the retention of business rates to include new build nuclear power stations. The Centre of Nuclear Excellence is in my constituency, and the new build at Moorside is vital for our economic prosperity. Given the Government cuts to Cumbria’s councils, does the Prime Minister agree that if we are truly to build a northern powerhouse, our local authorities must retain all business rates from the nuclear new build in west Cumbria? (903275)

I will consider very carefully what the hon. Lady says. We are committed to the new nuclear industry, and we are obviously making good progress with Hinkley Point, but we need another big station to go ahead. I will consider very carefully her comments about business rates retention and business rates more broadly, but the most important thing is to have energy infrastructure that allows for the delivery of new nuclear power stations. That is the Government’s position.

Coastal Towns

Q11. What steps the Government are taking to help overcome the social and economic problems facing coastal towns. (903279)

The Government are absolutely committed to regenerating our coastal towns and ensuring that everyone, regardless of where they live in this country, has access to high-quality public services and the very best opportunities. I am happy to reaffirm that to the House today.

I do beg your pardon. We must hear from Mr Vickers first. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Let us hear from the hon. Gentleman.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I recognise the initiatives the Government have taken, but the Prime Minister will know that many coastal towns, such as Cleethorpes, suffer from poor educational standards. We have many high-performing academies trying to reverse that and ensure that our young people have access to sport, arts and culture at the highest level. The council is preparing a report with the private sector. Will he commit the Government to working with me and the council to deliver regeneration to Cleethorpes?

No one, Mr Speaker, could silence the voice of the Humber. That was not going to happen.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am happy to look at the proposal with him. We have to make sure we tackle both failing schools and coasting schools, and there are some in coastal areas of our country. One issue is making sure we get very talented teachers and leaders into those schools, and that is what the national leaders of education service is all about, but I am happy to talk further with him.

Déjà vu.

Rathlin island is the only inhabited coastal village or town in my constituency. No British Prime Minister has ever had the honour to visit that part of Ulster. When does the Prime Minister plan to visit this remote location, which has considerable economic needs and could generate more employment and tourism?

I have been the first British Prime Minister to visit many parts of our country—I was the first to go to Shetland for about 30 years—but I fear, if I went to this island, people might like me to stay. I will certainly bear it in mind, however, the next time I visit the Province.


Q13. Rugby is the fastest-growing town in the west midlands, and work is under way to provide 6,200 much-needed new homes at the Rugby Radio site. My constituents are keen to ensure that public services keep pace with those developments and to see more services at their local hospital, St Cross. Does the Prime Minister agree with the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, that district hospitals such as St Cross play an excellent role in the NHS? (903281)

I am a believer in district general hospitals, and I know what a strong supporter of St Cross my hon. Friend is and that there is a new dedicated children’s outpatient facility there, which is welcome. If we are to achieve our aggressive house building targets, more houses will be built in most of our constituencies, and it is important that we try, as far as we can, to welcome that and make sure that the infrastructure that goes with these necessary houses is provided.

Q9. Not everybody is as satisfied as the Chancellor with what for Google is loose change to cover its tax liabilities. On Monday, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) called on the Government to make companies publish their tax returns. In that way, we can all see how they make the journey from their cash profits to their tax bills. Does the Prime Minister agree? (903277)

I do wonder whether the right hon. Lady ever raised this issue when she sat in the Labour Cabinet when Google was paying zero tax. What we have is a situation where we make the rules in this House and HMRC has to enforce those rules. That is the system that we need to make work.

Q14. As cancer survival rates continue to improve and given that this is cancer talk week, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming a new state-of-the-art cancer information centre due to open at Royal Bolton hospital, and will he praise the collaboration of Macmillan Cancer Support, Bolton People Affected by Cancer, Bolton hospice and the Bolton clinical commissioning group, which are all making this happen? (903282)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in that. Everyone in the House knows someone or has a family member who has been touched by cancer, and many people have lost loved ones to cancer. The good news is that cancer survival rates are improving, and we need to ensure they improve across all types of cancer, not just the best known ones. What I think my hon. Friend is saying is that this is not just an issue for the NHS; it is also about all those big society bodies that want to campaign and act on helping cancer sufferers, which have such a big role to play.

Q10. In the summer of 2014 when I was the leader of Highland Council, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to join the Scottish Government and Highland Council in taking forward a city deal for Inverness. Highland Council has submitted a detailed plan on the theme of “a region for young people”. Will the Prime Minister now commit to giving this the green light in the coming weeks? (903278)

We are committed to examining the city deal with Inverness, just as we have made very good progress on the city deal with Aberdeen. I think these bring together the best of what the Scottish Government can put on the table, but also the best of what the UK Government can put on the table. Without wanting to be too political about it, the two Governments working together can do even more.

I thank the Prime Minister for meeting the deposed Maldivian President Nasheed and his legal team in No. 10 on Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work towards an international consensus on targeted sanctions, so that the Maldivian regime might reconsider its appalling human rights record and its record on democracy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It was an honour to meet former President Nasheed, who I think did an excellent job for his country in cutting out corruption and turning that important country round. He suffered terribly from being in prison, and it is good that he is able to get out to seek medical treatment, but we want to see a change in behaviour from the Maldivian Government to make sure that political prisoners are set free. Yes, we are prepared to consider targeted action against individuals if further progress is not made. Let us hope that the diplomatic efforts, including by the Commonwealth action group, will lead to the changes we want to see. Britain and its allies, including Sri Lanka and India, are watching the situation very closely.

Q12. Forty-six per cent. of five-year-old children in Bradford suffer from dental decay, compared with just 28% across England. Fewer than half of the children living in the Bradford district have seen a dentist in the last two years. Given that the cost of treating tooth decay far exceeds the cost of prevention, will the Prime Minister look at the lack of availability of NHS dentists in Bradford South as a matter of urgency? (903280)

I am happy to look at what the hon. Lady says. If we take a view across the country, before 2010 we had those huge queues round the block when a new NHS dentist turned up because there were not enough of them. We have seen a very big— [Interruption.] Labour Members may shake their heads, but that is what happened, and some of us can remember it. We have seen a big increase in NHS dentistry since, but I will look carefully at the situation in Bradford.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the peninsula rail taskforce is set to deliver its report on a resilient railway to Devon and Cornwall. Would he be willing to meet me and a number of colleagues to ensure that Network Rail and the taskforce have enough funding for the two studies into the electrification of the line and the necessary reduction of journey times?

I had an excellent meeting with the south-west peninsula rail taskforce, which has been working closely with the Government. I will make sure that we continue to liaise closely with it. Clearly, we need to find an answer and we need to find the funding to make it work. We cannot allow to happen what happened in the past when a problem on our railways led to the peninsula being cut off. We cannot see that happen again.

Q15. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my constituents Dominic and Rebecca from Mitcham on the birth of their daughter Alice. Like every parent, they want their daughter to have better opportunities than they had, but with average London house prices increasing by £40,000 in 2013 alone and the average house in London now worth more than half a million pounds, does he understand their fears that Alice will never have the chance they had to buy her own home in the area she was born in? (903283)

I want to help Alice, and many others like her in London, to get on to the housing ladder. That is why we are introducing shared ownership, which brings housing into the reach of many more people. It is why we have Help to Buy London, which is twice as generous as the Help to Buy scheme in the rest of the country. It is why we are selling off the most expensive council houses and rebuilding more affordable homes. All those measures have been taken under the guidance and drive of Zac Goldsmith, who would make an excellent Mayor of London. That is Alice’s best chance of a home: to have a Conservative Mayor and a Conservative Government working together, hand in glove.

Someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis and goes to A&E in desperation needs prompt specialist help. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of psychiatric liaison in his recent speech on life chances. Does he agree that the provision of 24/7 psychiatric liaison in A&E departments is an important step towards parity of esteem for mental and physical health in a seven-day NHS?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are seeing more mental health and psychiatric liaison in our A&Es. We are seeing it in some of them now, but we need, over time, to see it in all of them, because people so often arrive in a setting that is not the one in which they should be looked after. Whether we are talking about getting people with mental health conditions out of police cells, making sure that they are treated properly in prisons, or, crucially, making sure that they are given the right treatment when they arrive at A&E, that is very much part of our life chances plan.

I commend the Prime Minister for his remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day. In honouring the memory of those who were murdered by the Nazis, we provide the best antidote to extremism and anti-Semitism in our own age.

The biggest challenge facing Europe today is posed by the 3 million refugees who, it is predicted, will flee to our continent in 2016. Many of them will die along the way. Does the Prime Minister agree that the only way in which to challenge a crisis of that magnitude is to start to work with our European colleagues at the heart of a united Europe, and will he take this final opportunity to welcome in and provide a home for 3,000 unaccompanied children, as recommended by Save the Children?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of taking action to help with the refugee crisis. No country in Europe has been more generous than Britain in funding refugee camps, whether they are in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s view that the right answer is for Britain to opt into the EU relocation and resettlement schemes. Let me tell him why. We said that we would resettle 20,000 people in our country, and we promised to resettle 1,000 by Christmas. Because of the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, we achieved that. If we add up all that Europe has done under its relocation and resettlement schemes, we find that all the other 27 member states have done less than we have done here in the United Kingdom, because of those 1,000.

Yes, we should take part in European schemes when it is in our interests to do so, and help to secure the external European border; but we are out of Schengen, we keep our own borders, and under this Government that is the way it will stay.