Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service: Progression

1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds can progress in the civil service. (903980)

2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds can progress in the civil service. (903981)

We want to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation it serves and benefits from the widest pool of talent in our communities and from every part of Britain. We have made considerable strides to increase diversity already, and we will shortly publish our strategy for social mobility, in which we will set out how we will further increase social diversity in the civil service.

As my hon. Friend knows, Plymouth is a low wage, low skills economy, but it is also the home of the seventh-largest university in the UK. What opportunities are there in the civil service in Plymouth for people who do not have university degrees?

My hon. Friend reminds us that there is big talent in Plymouth, and we want to make the most of it. Over this Parliament, as part of our broader commitment to 200,000 apprentices across the public sector, we will invest in more than 30,000 new civil service apprenticeships, which will offer a range of rewarding opportunities for people without university degrees, including opportunities already available in Devon and Cornwall. I am delighted to say that I have an apprentice in my private office. I hope that one of our apprentices will one day be Cabinet Secretary—and if that person is from Plymouth, so much the better.

I welcome the news that the Government have recently introduced name-blind recruitment across the civil service. What are they doing to prevent unconscious bias at later stages of the process?

Name-blind recruitment has been implemented in 75% of the civil service. We are working with other major workforces across the public sector further to embed name-blind recruitment. In addition, all civil service recruiters are required to undertake mandatory training to avoid unconscious bias before they embark on any recruitment exercise, and this includes panel members involved in sift and interview for fast stream apprenticeship schemes and executive recruitment.

I welcome what the Minister says, but does he agree it is important to recruit civil servants who will be lifelong servants of the state and the public and whose sole commitment is to public service?

Of course, and obviously we want to attract the best talent possible into the civil service. That is why we commissioned the Bridge Group report, which found that the fast stream, in particular, was deeply unrepresentative. We are taking considerable action to change that, however, including, as I just said, with name-blind recruitment, by publishing the pay ratio between the median and highest-paid employees and by creating over 200,000 apprenticeship opportunities in the public sector for young people.

What efforts is the Cabinet Office making to deal with the requirements of women who, unlike their male counterparts, might face difficulties because of the pressures of family life?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which follows International Women’s Day yesterday. More than half of civil servants are women and more than a third of top civil servants in positions of leadership are now women, which compares favourably with, for example, FTSE 100 companies. However, there is much more to do to increase female representation in senior leadership roles, and we have introduced a number of initiatives, such as measures to increase gender diversity; a better system of entitlement for shared parental leave; more tailored support before and after maternity leave; and greater encouragement for job sharing.

I am pleased that the excellent Minister says there is no bias in the civil service—except, in terms of social background, if someone happens to want to leave the EU. How does he square that with neutrality?

My hon. Friend is ingenious in getting the EU into the question. Everybody in the civil service will, in the future, have an equal opportunity to get on in life.

One way of helping people from all social backgrounds to progress in the civil service is to move many more jobs, especially senior civil service jobs, out of London and into the regions, particularly areas such as the north-west. At the moment, someone has to come to London to progress in the civil service.

The hon. Gentleman is right; there has been a London bias to some extent within the civil service. We are therefore opening regional hubs. We will open one additional assessment centre in the north this year, with more regional assessment sites to follow. We will ensure that the fast stream is as attractive to people in all regions as it is to those in London.

In 2014, 718 people from working-class backgrounds applied for the civil service fast stream: eight succeeded. Is the Minister outraged by that, or is he wondering “How on earth did eight working-class kids sneak in?”?

If the hon. Lady is saying that we have a lot more work to do, I absolutely agree with her. Almost one in three people in Britain today are in working-class occupations, compared with a mere 4.4% of those who receive offers to fast stream, making the civil service significantly less socio-economically diverse than the University of Oxford. We know there is a lot more to do, but we are taking the necessary action.

Digital Government

Good morning, Mr Speaker. Our plan is to make people’s lives easier by reforming digital technology across government. We have now published over 24,000 open datasets, and are transforming more and more public services.

I thank the Minister for that response. Effective and secure data sharing is critical for 21st century government. Charities and research bodies have struggled for decades to access and evaluate data effectively, which has often slowed down world leading research. Does the Minister agree that the consultation on better use of data in government could lead to long-term complications around information governance in government being resolved?

I do. The better use of data consultation is about maximising opportunities for proportionate, secure and well-governed data sharing, including allowing world-leading research and statistics greater access to datasets as part of a wider programme to modernise and simplify the UK’s data landscape.

While our population is rising, voter registration is going down. As part of the digital government programme, what further databases will the Minister use in support to boost voter registrations?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are using links to local government databases actively to work, through digital and other means, to ensure that everybody who has the right to vote gets the opportunity to do so.

Whether it be patient data or voter registration, it is vital that the Government have a coherent overarching digital strategy. Will the Minister update us on the digital strategy?

My hon. Friend has enormous experience in this area, and I look forward to publishing the update of the digital strategy very soon. In the meantime, we are getting on with implementing it.

Under the requirements of .gov, the language choice button on each government page has to appear at the bottom right—and in very small letters. That means that many Welsh speakers do not realise that the language choice is open to them, as it is in so many Government documents now. Will the Minister look at moving the language button to the top of the page and making it rather more prominent?

I am an enormous supporter of the Welsh language, and we are working hard to make sure that Government documents are always, where needed, translated into Welsh. I shall certainly look at the location of the button on the page, but we do a lot of user-friendly research to work out where the buttons ought to be.

Trade Union Bill

4. What assessment he has made of the applicability of the provisions of the Trade Union Bill to officials of the devolved Administrations. (903983)

Our assessment is that since employment and industrial relations are reserved matters under the devolution settlement with Scotland, and are not conferred on Wales, the laws that govern them are decided collectively here in Westminster for the whole of the UK. This means that they will apply to all employers in the UK, including those in the devolved Administrations, as part of our country’s single market in goods and services, which has successfully enriched our intellectual, cultural and economic life for centuries.

Restricting facility time is likely to limit the Scottish Government’s ability to work effectively with trade unions on a range of issues, because they will not have the capacity to engage. The Scottish Government have already voiced concerns about the Bill. Will the Minister now listen and restrict its applicability so that it does not apply to public sector employees in Scotland?

The Trade Union Bill includes primarily an approach to try to make the facility time settlement transparent. It aims to publish data on facility time costs and expenses to allow politicians and voters to understand what the costs are and to see whether they are being spent efficiently. I think that that should be applied and welcomed right across the UK.

Since the SNP Government came to power in Scotland in 2007, the number of industrial disputes has fallen by 84%. I note this on a day on which junior doctors are yet again on strike and on the streets in England. I think that the public will draw their own conclusions about who can best manage industrial relations.

Given the Minister’s last reply, what sanctions does he intend to take to compel the Governments in the devolved Administrations to implement the draconian measures in the Trade Union Bill?

I hope the hon. Gentleman did not mean that the law makers in the various devolved Administrations are considering becoming law breakers. I am sure he did not. All of us here are involved in creating, and amending, laws for the United Kingdom as a whole, and I think it would set a very dangerous precedent for all of us to start saying that we will disregard those who do not please us.

Civil Service: Policy Making

Departments determine their workforce needs, and the civil service has a significant United Kingdom-wide presence. We are considering new Government hubs and strategic locations outside London as a way of further consolidating our office estates. I know from my own area that parts of Public Health England, for example, are moving from London to the east of England, which means £500 million of investment and thousands of jobs.

The Government have decided to close the office of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Sheffield and move it to London, and we have now learnt that the vast majority of policy makers for the northern powerhouse are based in London as well. We in Newport have benefited hugely from the location of civil service jobs in, for instance, the Intellectual Property Office and the Office for National Statistics. Given the Government’s recent woeful track record, will the Minister make it clear today that those jobs are valued, will be protected, and will remain in Newport?

The northern powerhouse is about devolution, not about jobs in London. The Government have a passion for Newport, and for Wales in general. Not only did the NATO summit encourage investment, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the Friars Walk regeneration project means more jobs and finance. When my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General visited the ONS office recently, he expressed huge admiration for the work of its staff, and committed himself to its long-term future. Only this week, it was announced that the ONS was recruiting 30 economic researchers to graduate posts. It is developing a skills base that will enable it to become a centre of expertise for data handling, and the hon. Lady should be celebrating that in her constituency.

When Labour lost power in 2010, there were 181 Government-owned buildings in central London. The equivalent number today is 54, because the present Government have got rid of 130. How much further will this go, given that it indicates a wish to move jobs out to the regions?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the figure should be about 20 by the end of the decade. It is worth noting that the number of civil servants based in London has fallen by more than 7,500. As my hon. Friend says, the number of buildings in London has fallen from 181 to 54, which has meant savings of more than £2.8 billion for the taxpayer.

The Minister suggested it was Government policy to try to ensure that civil service employment opportunities were spread throughout the United Kingdom. Does he agree that it is a good idea—on the grounds of value for money, and on other grounds—for everyone to get out of the London and Westminster bubble and out into the real world on a more regular basis?

I could not have put it better myself. As I have said, there are 800 civil service buildings outside London. We have important targets for developing important strategic hubs for the civil service all over the country, and more people who get out of the Westminster bubble, the better.

We know that the Minister’s friend the Paymaster General is very close to the Chancellor, and that he therefore likes to insert the words “northern” and “powerhouse” into every speech he makes. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), 98% of senior jobs in the northern powerhouse department are now based in London, and—with no sense of irony—Sheffield policy-making jobs in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been moved to Whitehall. The test for the Minister, when he finally gets the promotion that he has been seeking and that he so richly deserves, will be whether he has more senior and policy-making civil servants in London or fewer. Does he have it within him to live up to our expectations?

I genuinely cannot understand the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. She should be proud, as are councils in the north of England, that the northern powerhouse is devolving powers right across the region. We are one of the most radical Governments when it comes to devolution. Her councils in the north support it, and I am sad that she does not.

Infrastructure and Projects Authority

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority since its establishment as a merged entity. (903985)

As the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has been in existence only for the past two months, it is a little early to give the House an evaluation of its effectiveness. However, I am completely confident that by combining Infrastructure UK and the Major Projects Authority, we will be better able to monitor from beginning to end the projects that the Government are engaged in.

Following Infrastructure UK’s success with Crossrail, does my right hon. Friend think that the pooling of expertise in the new merged body bodes well for Crossrail 2, which will have a positive effect for people in Hertfordshire?

Broadly, yes. Of course, the final decision on Crossrail 2 will be made only following the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission chaired by Lord Adonis, but I am confident that when we get there, and if Crossrail 2 does occur, the fact that the IPA will be in there from the beginning right until the last moment will improve the project’s prospects of being delivered to schedule and on budget.

Freedom of Information Act 2000

We announced our response to the independent commission on the freedom of information last week. The commission did not make a formal recommendation about extending the coverage of the Act, but we will take action to extend pay transparency across the public sector.

I am pleased to note that the Government appear to have retreated from their plan to introduce fees for freedom of information requests. Does the Minister agree with me and many of my constituents that it is in the public interest for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to cover private companies when they are contracted to provide public services?

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, I am a strong supporter of freedom of information, and I want to record my thanks to the commission, which did hard work and made sensible suggestions for improvements. The issue that the hon. Lady has raised is a complex one. For instance, we do not want to deter small businesses from supplying into government. We will consider what was written by the commission, even though no formal recommendation was made.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the commission’s conclusion that it would be inappropriate to introduce further charges for requests under the Act? Can he reassure my constituents that the Government have no plans to do so?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As we said last week, we will not introduce fees because we think that it is important for people to use freedom of information to find out what is going on inside public bodies, including local authorities and more broadly, to ensure, rightly, that taxpayers’ money is spent better because the people who are spending it are held to account.

12. The Minister has just talked about extending the Act to cover private providers doing public service contracts, and he mentioned small businesses. Clearsprings runs a Home Office contract in my constituency relating to asylum seekers’ accommodation, but it is failing the taxpayer and the thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers living in its accommodation, safe from the scrutiny of the Act. Will he confirm that the Act will be extended to cover large companies such as Clearsprings? (903991)

I cannot give the hon. Lady that assurance, not least because, having considered this question and listened to representations from both sides of the argument, the commission did not make a formal recommendation on this matter. I can tell her, however, that FOI can be used to scrutinise those who set up the contracts that businesses, large and small, supply into.

Topical Questions

The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office remain much as they were last month. We continue to ensure that the Government fully and effectively implement their programme across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

Will the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made to ensure that every serving member of our armed forces, wherever they are in the world, will be entitled to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum? Will he guarantee that they will receive their ballots in good time, and will he please confirm how we will ensure that every vote is counted?

My hon. Friend has been completely tireless in her attempts to ensure that armed forces personnel can vote in the referendum, and rightly so. I can confirm the Prime Minister’s commitment given to her that we will enable all the armed forces to vote. I am happy to tell her that the chief counting officer for the referendum has now directed that postal ballots will be sent to the armed forces between 23 and 27 May to ensure plenty of time for their votes to be counted.

When the Government introduced new gagging clauses on charities in receipt of Government grants last month, they credited a report published by the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which the policy was a key recommendation. Just four months prior to that, the Minister for the Cabinet Office received a £4,000 donation from the chairman of the IEA, Neil Record. That is surely just a coincidence, but in order to avoid any misunderstanding will the Minister, who has said that he is committed to freedom of information, publish all communications between the IEA and his Department as well as all the submissions and advice that he received from the civil service?

I did not have any discussions with the IEA on this. It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying Government. It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that recording laws on vellum is a millennium-long tradition and an important part of our unwritten constitution? The House should look to preserve it. (903999)

I certainly do. Keeping a record of our laws on vellum is a long-held tradition, and we should safeguard our great traditions. I am looking forward to the debate on this tomorrow. In 1,000 years, I want people to be able to look at the laws that we pass in this House, so I hope to see a strong turnout in support.

T2. The Government are finally reviewing Atos contracts after several National Audit Office and Select Committee reports going back four years have highlighted poor performance and a lack of value for money for taxpayers. In addition, there have been devastating impacts on disabled people. Why have the Government taken so long to do that? Will the Minister also confirm that the anticipated savings have not been made? (903996)

The hon. Lady simply ignores the fact that the Government have taken the action, which should have been taken long ago and which the previous Labour Government completely failed to do, to deal with contractors who are not up to scratch. We are dealing with contracts that are necessary to improve matters and are improving them so that people get the services they deserve, which is why all our welfare programmes are now back on track.

T8. A constituent of mine who works for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Shipley has contacted me after being told by his managers that he is unable to help the campaign to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum and even to deliver leaflets in his own time. Given that Government Ministers are free to campaign in a personal capacity to leave the EU, why are the Government not extending the same courtesy to civil servants? (904002)

My hon. Friend’s constituent should follow the rules set out in section 4.4 of the civil service management code, which shows in what circumstances civil servants can engage in political activity. The Government of course have a clear position on the referendum: we want to stay in a reformed European Union. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to say that it is only because of our Prime Minister’s munificence, tolerance and generosity of spirit that Ministers are allowed to disagree in public with the Government position at all.

T3. The anti-advocacy clause has been widely condemned by civil society and is now subject to an e-petition in this House about its impact on academic grants. Will the Minister explain why it was brought in with no scrutiny in the House, and will he urgently review it in the light of the public outcry? (903997)

The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby Government. Those who argue against the clause are arguing that the taxes paid by hard-working people should be on spent on lobbyists. I disagree. The clause has been in operation for over a year in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where it was found to be working well, which is why have expanded it across the whole of Government.

T10. Given that there is now a presumption in favour of building first on brownfield sites, will Ministers work with local authorities in Norfolk to help identify suitable sites? (904004)

Yes, we will indeed. We are also taking steps to make sure that we release the greatest possible amount of public sector brownfield land, so that in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine we see building in places where people welcome and accept it, to provide homes for our people, to the benefit of the taxpayer.

T6. In the last Parliament, the Government’s departmental plans set clear policy targets and the date they pledged to achieve them by. This time, no dates are given and the aims are as vague as “continue to be the most transparent government in the world”.Are the Government deliberately preventing the public from holding them to account or do they genuinely not know what they are doing for the next four years? (904000)

I am sorry that the hon. Lady obviously has not read the items on the website; a multitude of specific dates for specific programmes are given, and we will continuously update this as we go through the Parliament. It is true that we are the most transparent Government ever in this country and one of the three most transparent Governments in the world. Maintaining that is quite a good goal, and I would have expected her to welcome it.

T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Almost two thirds of people in Scotland want to see charities speaking up for those affected by Government policies, which is why the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are against the new anti-advocacy clause. Will the Minister commit to assessing the impact it will have on Scottish charities? (903998)

Once again, we have a request from the SNP for hard-working people to pay their taxes and for those taxes then to be used to lobby the very Government that are giving out the grants. That is wrong in principle. We have been using this clause in practice for more than a year and because it was working well we have extended it across government.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

People in Bristol South look forward to their share of the Government’s promised 3 million apprenticeships but they question how this is going to happen. On the eve of National Apprenticeship Week, can the Prime Minister tell us: does he have a delivery plan or is he making it up as he goes along?

We achieved 2 million in the last Parliament, we are confident of achieving 3 million in this Parliament and we do have a delivery plan. It is based on large companies continuing with their plans for apprenticeships; we want small companies to do more; we want the public sector to join in with larger apprenticeship plans; and we regularly review progress towards the target.

Q7. Many of my constituents get the train into central London every morning for work and they are concerned about the terrorist threats posed by Daesh here in the capital. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made in tackling the source of that threat in Iraq and in Syria? (903971)

I totally understand what my hon. Friend has said, and it was very striking what assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said last week about the dangers we face. What I would say is that domestically we are protecting counter-terrorism policing, and investing in our intelligence and security services, as we did in the last Parliament. On Iraq and Syria, we are making good progress at pushing Daesh back. So this is something we need to do both domestically and overseas. I have to say that I was completely appalled to see yesterday that the Labour party has readmitted someone to the party who says that the 9/11 suicide bombers “must never be ‘condemned’” and who belongs to an organisation that says:

“We defend the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq”.

Those are appalling views and I hope the Leader of the Opposition will throw this person out of the party, rather than welcoming him in.

I hope the Prime Minister will join me in mourning the death today of the fifth Beatle, George Martin, who gave us wonderful music that will last for all time.

Last week, the Prime Minister told the House that we had

“a strong economy with a sound plan.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 941.]

If the economy is so strong, why this week has he forced through a £30 per week cut hitting some of the poorest disabled people in the country?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in what he said about George Martin, as he was an absolutely massive figure, a giant in popular music, and responsible for some tunes that will live on for ever more.

I find it disappointing that the right hon. Gentleman cannot comment on the point that I made earlier, as it seems to me that, as party leaders, we have a responsibility for our own parties. He asked about the strength of the economy. We do face an uncertain international environment, and all the experts are warning about the dangers that we face, but, as we speak today, we have inflation at 0%, unemployment at 5%, our economy is growing, wages are growing and we are cutting the taxes that people are paying. That, combined with reforming welfare—and we are reforming welfare—is the way to get our deficit down, continue with growth and help deliver for working people in Britain.

I do not believe that the majority of people in this country are content to see someone diagnosed with cancer today and unfit to work next year reduced to poverty because of the cuts that this Government are putting through.

In the summer Budget last year, the Chancellor found another £6.6 billion to reduce corporation tax for big business. That was despite the fact that our corporation tax is already lower than in any other G7 nation. Today, Action for Children, the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau show that local authority spending on children and young people has been cut by £2 billion—71 %. Does that not demonstrate a wrong choice by the Prime Minister?

Let us look at what has happened to corporation tax receipts since we cut corporation tax. That is the question, because the point of setting tax rates is to raise money rather than to make a political point. The fact is corporation tax receipts are up by 20% under this Government, so we have more money to spend on children, children’s services and education, whereas if we put up tax rates, as the right hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting, we would get less money in; that is the result. The Opposition care about making a political point; we care about raising revenue and providing good services.

I ask the question: if there is more money available to be spent on children’s services, why are there another half a million children living in poverty in Britain because of the policies of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government? If we really do have the strong economy that he claims, why did the Chancellor warn last week that

“we may need to make further reductions”?

Who will those reductions fall on—the disabled, pensioners, young people or women? Will he rule out attacking those groups?

The right hon. Gentleman will hear the Budget next week, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has an excellent record in steering this nation’s economy, stands up to give it. The right hon. Gentleman just made some remarks about child poverty. Let me tell him what has actually happened since 2010. There are 680,000 fewer workless households. Let us think about what that means. It means 680,000 households where someone is bringing home a wage, putting food on the table, and, under us, paying less taxes. There are 40,000 fewer households where no member has ever worked, and there are 480,000 fewer children living in workless households. That is real change for those children. That is about tackling child poverty by having a growing economy, growing real wages, falling taxes, and increased childcare—all things never delivered by Labour.

The problem is the number of households that are suffering from in-work poverty because of insecure jobs, because of zero-hours contracts and because of low wages. As the Prime Minister well knows the poorest have paid the most for the cuts, and women have paid for 81% of those cuts.

On 99 previous attempts to ask questions of the Prime Minister, I have been unclear or dissatisfied with the answers, as indeed many other people have. On this auspicious 100th occasion, may I ask the Prime Minister to help out a young man called Callum? Last week, the Prime Minister told the Engineering Employers Federation that we have a skills shortage—a good admission. Callum, a bright young man who wants to make his way in the world, asks, “Will the Government acknowledge”—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Prime Minister does as well. Callum asks:

“Will the Government acknowledge the importance of Sixth Form Colleges and post-16 education services in Britain?”

First of all, let me congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting to 100 not out—I am sure that will be welcomed across the House.

What I would say to Callum is that we are introducing in our country a situation where we uncap university places so as many people who want to go can go, and that we will be introducing, in this Parliament, 3 million apprentices. That, combined with better funded sixth forms and better funded further education colleges, means that we have actually got a proper education system that can really drive opportunity in our country.

Let me just come back once more on child poverty. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures: 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty than in 2010—300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than in 2010. That is the Labour measurement used, so when he gets to the Dispatch Box, he can tell us he was wrong about child poverty.

The Prime Minister seems to be answering the last question but one, so could I kindly bring him back to the question I asked from Callum, and point out to him that there has been a 10% cut in real terms in sixth form and further education, and adult education has been cut by 35% during his time as Prime Minister?

Construction output in Britain has shrunk for two consecutive quarters now. Surely that is a matter for concern. Is this not really a bit of a sign that this economic recovery is being constructed on sand?

First of all, let me just confirm we have protected 16-to-18 education in this spending round. The right hon. Gentleman talks about construction; of course, we want to see every part of our economy growing, and our economy is growing, unlike so many in what is a difficult and dangerous world right now. But if you look at our construction plans, you will see that, because we have got a strong economy, we are able to commit to HS2, we are able to commit to the biggest road programme since the 1970s and the largest rail programme since Victorian times, together with huge infrastructure projects in energy and in other areas. Those things are only possible because we have got a strong and growing economy. We know what Labour would do: his spending plans are a risk to the nation’s finances, his tax plans are a risk to every family in the country, and we know from Scotland what he wants to do, which is to put up taxes on people earning over £20,000. That is their plan, and it would wreck the country’s finances.

We have a construction industry in recession at a time that there is an acute need for new housing. Construction apprenticeships have fallen by 11% since 2010. We have the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s—almost 100 years ago. Will the Prime Minister look again at this issue, stop the cuts to skills training and cuts to investment that are holding back our country—holding back the skill ambitions of so many young people—and invest in them and in our future?

I do have to pick up the right hon. Gentleman on his statistics, because we have seen a massive boost to apprentices and apprenticeship funding under this Government—2 million in the last Parliament, 3 million in this Parliament.

On housing, let me just give him the figures: house building under Labour fell by 45%. Since then, it has increased by two-thirds. Over 700,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010. If you look at what is happening now, completions are up, housing starts are at their highest level since 2007—last year housing starts were nearly double the low point of 2009. They wrecked the economy, they created that instability; we have been building a strong economy—that is what we have got to stick with.

Q8. Unemployment in Sherwood has halved since 2010. Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his Budget statement next week, can the Prime Minister assure the House that he will continue to support quality education, employment generation and infrastructure to get to jobs, so maintaining a Conservative ladder of aspiration? (903972)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The school improvement programme that we are driving forward, combined with uncapping university places and investing in apprenticeships, is giving people a ladder of opportunity to make the most of their lives and the most of the employment opportunities that are clearly being created in our country, where there are 2 million more people in work. I also know he has a particular interest, in his constituency, in extending the Robin Hood line, and he is meeting rail Ministers to try and deliver this. That is exactly the sort of infrastructure project that this Government want to get behind.

The refugee crisis is the biggest issue facing Governments across Europe. We now know that, under a UK Government programme, in Folkestone, trafficking victims were locked up without food, asylum-seeking children were forced to sleep on concrete floors, patients with diarrhoea were denied access to showers, and a naked woman was allegedly beaten at a detention centre. Is the Prime Minister ashamed of that?

I will look carefully at the points the right hon. Gentleman makes. I would say that our asylum system is fair, and Britain down the ages has given asylum to people who are fleeing torture and persecution. When it comes to resettling Syrian refugees, it was instructive at this week’s European Council to see a chart that showed how many countries have actually resettled Syrian refugees. Britain has done far better than any other country, bar Germany.

This week the Scottish Refugee Council called for an investigation into allegations about the way that asylum seekers are treated and housed in Glasgow. It wants the Home Office to commission an independent inquiry into claims of substandard housing and dehumanising treatment of refugees by the private company contracted to provide accommodation services by the Prime Minister’s Government. Will he commission that investigation?

We are happy for those issues to be properly investigated, and the Home Affairs Committee in this House of Commons has just done a report into the way that asylum housing is commissioned. If the Scottish Parliament wants to carry out those investigations, of course the United Kingdom Government will co-operate with that. We must ensure when we take people in that they are properly housed and looked after, and that their children are schooled, because that is the sort of generous country we are.

Q9. I welcome the Government’s excellent See Potential initiative to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders. I speak as someone who employs a female ex-offender via the excellent Working Chance charity, so will the Prime Minister assure the House of his commitment to ensuring that employers in the public, private and charity sectors play their part in providing greater opportunities for ex-offenders? (903973)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I salute what he has done to help ex-offenders. If people are applying for a job, they have at some stage to declare the criminal record they have and the offences they may have committed. The question is: do they have to do it absolutely at the CV stage? We think that they should not. We believe in the idea of banning the box, and the civil service will introduce that so that people do not have to include that information on their initial CV, and they might at least get the chance of an interview and not be ruled out. That is what we are talking about. When we talk about life chances for people in our country, and giving people a second chance to make a go of their life, we are putting our money where our mouth is.

Q2. If the British people vote to leave the European Union, will the Prime Minister resign—yes or no? (903966)

Q10. It is much to the Government’s credit that more than 2 million jobs have been created since 2010, but nearly 1 million of those have gone to non-UK EU nationals. Does the Prime Minister agree that the EU’s free movement of people is damaging the employment prospects of UK nationals and has contributed to the 1.6 million British people who remain unemployed? That has not been compensated for by an equivalent level of jobs for UK nationals in other European countries. (903974)

If my hon. Friend looks at the figures for the last five years, she will see that two thirds of the rise in employment has been from jobs going to British people. Where I agree with her is that, with the welfare reform that we have introduced for EU citizens and the tougher control of migration from outside the EU, we should see welfare reform in the UK as the flipside of migration control. We want to ensure that it always pays for British people to train up and do the jobs that are being made available, and we should see immigration control and welfare reform, together with a growing economy, as a way of getting more of our people into work.

Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that it is very important to make the positive case for Britain remaining in the EU: each of us get £1,200 back for every £120 we put in; we have lower prices; we have more choice in shops; and we have easier travel for holidays and businesses? Will the Prime Minister explain how our membership of the EU benefits so many aspects of our lives? (903967)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that, in all the arguments about single markets, sovereignty and all the rest of it, we can sometimes lose sight of some of the simple consumer benefits of being a member of the European Union. She mentions cheaper air travel, ease of travel and not having any tariffs. These are things we take for granted now, but they were simply not the case 40 years ago. I agree that that is a strong part of the very positive case we should make for remaining in the EU.

With the hon. Lady’s own constituency in mind, we should also point to the enormous success of the British car industry, which now employs and is responsible for more than 140,000 jobs. That is a great European success story. A lot of those cars go to the European market and we want to make sure that that continues tariff-free.

Q12. Our security is guaranteed under NATO, and the Government’s action to meet our 2% commitment is most welcome. I recently visited RAF Odiham in my constituency, where the Chinooks, which do so much for the United Kingdom and our friends overseas, are based. Will my right hon. Friend look at plans to improve the quality of accommodation for airmen and airwomen in RAF Odiham, which I am sure he agrees they deserve? (903976)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Let me, through him, pay tribute to the Chinook pilots and the crews who service those helicopters. I have visited Afghanistan something like 13 times in the past few years. Their bravery, professionalism and brilliance in flying, often at very low levels, is absolutely remarkable. They have rightly been decorated and commended for the work they do. We have an upgrade programme for the Chinooks, which will mean new helicopters replacing part of the existing fleet that is becoming worn out. I think I am right in saying that some £2 million has been spent on RAF Odiham, but if more is needed we will make sure that that happens.

Q4. In 1949, aged 11 months, my constituent William Bradney was diagnosed with polio. He has worked from the age of 15 and he continues to work at 67. However, following a clearly flawed personal independence payment assessment, he is set to lose his Motability car—potentially within three weeks. He says that will leave him unable to leave the house and unable to work. Will the Prime Minister urgently review my constituent’s case and the cases of the 14,000 disabled people who have lost this essential lifeline? (903968)

I will certainly have a look at the case, because what we have found so far with PIP payments is that we are actually spending more money on disability, rather than less money on disability. I will look very carefully at the case. The whole point about PIP, as compared to disability living allowance, is that there is more of a proper medical assessment process to find out what is required. Through the hon. Lady, may I say to her constituent that I am sure he, like others, will welcome that we are so close to eradicating polio entirely from our world? The Government are committed to going the extra mile and making that happen.

Q15. Schools in South Suffolk were delighted this week to see the publication of the Government’s consultation on fairer funding. Given that the first part of the consultation will focus on the core principles, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of those principles must be that rural schools face unique and unavoidable costs that are not well funded under the current formula? (903979)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we are examining the formula and trying to achieve better fairness. I think everyone can now see that the gap between the best-funded schools and the worst-funded schools has become too great. I also agree that it is vital that the specific needs of schools in rural areas are properly considered. That is why our consultation proposes that we should direct additional funding to small schools in sparsely populated areas.

Q5. To follow up a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, official figures show—[Interruption.] It’s not funny. Official figures show 12,000 vacancies in construction that are hard to fill due to a lack of skilled applicants. Can the Prime Minister explain why, under his Government, the number of construction apprenticeships has fallen? (903969)

The point is we are building more houses, investing more in construction and training more apprentices. The money is there from the Government, and the apprenticeship levy on larger businesses will make sure that we can fund apprentices long through this Parliament.

The Prime Minister will be aware of a recent tragic fatality on the A17 in Terrington St Clement in my constituency. While we await the result of a full inquest and the police inquiry, does he agree that it is vital that the local parish council is fully consulted on new safety measures?

I have heard about that tragic accident and, on behalf of everyone, I send our sympathies and condolences to those involved. My hon. Friend is right to say that, in so many of these cases, the parish council has a lot of expertise about areas of roads that are not safe and things that could be done. Of course, it should be listened to in this and other cases.

Q6. We celebrated mother’s day on Sunday and International Women’s Day just yesterday, and Conservative Members were, rightly, keen to celebrate women on both occasions. Why, then, have this Government introduced cuts to public services, a freeze to child benefit and reductions in work-related benefits, which have left mothers £13 billion worse off? (903970)

The one thing I share with the hon. Lady is that it was right to celebrate mother’s day. I shared it with my mother, but I think I have probably said enough about her for the time being. It was also a privilege yesterday to welcome to No. 10 some inspirational women from all walks of life, to mark International Women’s Day.

I am not saying that this Government have solved all these problems, but we have more women in work and they are getting higher pay, paying lower taxes, getting more childcare and retiring with better pensions. When it comes to the things that Government need to do, we are appointing more women to senior positions and public appointments, and the honours system is now properly reflecting women. [Interruption.] Someone shouted out, “What about the pay gap?” The pay gap is now at its lowest published level. We have abolished the pay gap for under-40s. When it comes to protecting women, this is the Government who criminalised forced marriage, introduced the duty to report female genital mutilation, set out a specific domestic violence measure, and introduced Clare’s law so that people can find out about violent partners.

I accept that there is more to be done, but let me say this to the Labour party: one thing you can help with is no more segregated political meetings. Let us end the process of having people with bigoted religious views treating women as second-class citizens. I think you should all take the pledge—no more segregated meetings!

The UK still has relatively poor superfast broadband and far too many mobile “not spots”. Great work has been done, but what discussions will my right hon. Friend have with the Chancellor, in advance of next week’s Budget statement, about how we can improve coverage further, particularly for rural small businesses in areas such as mine?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Since 2010, we have nearly doubled the number of homes and businesses with superfast broadband. We are on track on the 90% and 95% targets, but clearly more needs to be done. This is an issue for Members across the House. Ten years ago, we were all rather guilty of leading campaigns against masts and all the rest of it. Our constituents now want internet and mobile phone coverage. We need to make sure that we change the law in all the ways necessary, that the wayleaves are granted, that the masts are built, that we increase coverage and that everyone is connected to the information superhighway.

Q11. Seventy-six per cent of the cost of a bottle of whisky is tax. Last year the Government’s 2% cut on duty increased revenue to the Treasury by £102 million. Does the Prime Minister accept that one of our greatest export products is taxed too much, and will he join me and the Scotch Whisky Association in calling for a further 2% reduction in duty in this year’s Budget? (903975)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I have consistently backed Scotland, Scottish whisky and this vital industry, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: on the day that the profit and loss account for Scotland has come out, we can see that Scotland would face a £15 billion gap if it were outside the United Kingdom. I dread to think what taxation would have to be levied not just on whisky, but on petrol, work, incomes and homes. That is the prospect of life outside the United Kingdom, and that is why I am so glad we voted to stay together.

The Government have just presented three White Papers to Parliament under their self-imposed legal duty to provide information under the European Union Referendum Act 2015. The Minister for Europe, during proceedings between the two Houses, gave me an undertaking that the Government information under that Act would certainly, as he put it, be accurate and impartial. The three recent White Papers are not. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the enforcer of the ministerial code, which demands that Ministers give accurate information to Parliament. Will he issue instructions to Foreign Office Ministers to review and correct those White Papers?

First, let me say to my hon. Friend that we believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. Parliament dictated that those documents would be published, and that is why they are being published. On the question of their content, their content has been prepared by civil servants under all the appropriate codes. If he does not agree with some of the content, I would say to him and to other colleagues: challenge the content. Have an argument about the content. Stop arguing about the process.

Q14. The Prime Minister’s notes will indicate that I raised with him the question of the national wildlife crime unit earlier this year. I am delighted to report that its funding has been secured for the next four years, and I take full responsibility for that. I read it on my website, so it must be true. As my mother used to say, it never hurts to say thank you, and I do so. On a similar matter, may I ask the Prime Minister how his manifesto commitment to outlawing the use of wild animals in circuses is progressing? (903978)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such effective questions with such good effect. On circuses and wild animals, we have a manifesto commitment. We did not manage to meet it in the last Parliament. We license these things so strictly that I think we are now talking about one or possibly two circuses—[Interruption.] Two; thank you very much. We are still committed to legislating when parliamentary time allows.

Later today, colleagues from across the House and I will launch the all-party group on ending homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of organisations around the country, including the Northampton Association for the Accommodation of the Single Homeless and the Hope Centre in my constituency? Will he pledge that, as a Government, we will do all we can to help homeless people and to address the causes of homelessness so that we can end the problem once and for all?

I certainly welcome my hon. Friend’s launch of that all-party group. We need to work both on rough sleeping, where we face particular challenges at the moment—there are some good operations under way to try to deal with that—and on homelessness, at the heart of which is the need to build more houses. That is why we have an £8 billion housing programme to build 400,000 houses and we hope to build, by the end of this Parliament, 1 million new homes. That is the key. All the arguments about homelessness, in the end, come down to providing effective homes.

A friend of mine works a 39-hour week, including Sundays and bank holidays, on the shop floor at B&Q. Can the Prime Minister imagine my friend’s shock when he discovered that he would lose money as a result of the introduction of the living wage? That is because to introduce it, B&Q is cutting allowances. As a result, my friend will take home £50 a week, or £2,600 a year, less after the hourly rate goes up. Will the Prime Minister and his Chancellor ensure in their Budget next week that nobody who works on a shop floor will take home less money?

We want to see people taking home more money, and that is why we have introduced the national living wage, which will reach £9 an hour by 2010, and we are cutting the taxes of people like the friend to whom the hon. Lady refers, who will be able to earn £11,000 from 1 April before paying any taxes at all.

A recent study led by Imperial College has shown that biomass, if progressed through contracts for difference, could save bill payers and the Treasury billions of pounds. This industry supports thousands of jobs in the Humber, and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). There is a sustainable business model. The biomass comes from the US and Canada. Will the Prime Minister look at this, so that we can try to get it into the CfD programme?

I will look at that, but what we all have to realise is that the levy control framework—the extra amount of money that we are prepared to put into renewable energy—is a finite amount. In the end, we have to make sure that we get cost-effective electricity and that we go green at the lowest cost. That is the aim, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says.

It used to be said that an English family’s home was their castle, but following the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill, new tenants in social housing will be on fixed three to five-year contracts. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that a student beginning their secondary education may face eviction at the very time they are coming up to their GCSEs or A-levels?

For more people, we want their home genuinely to be their own, which is why we are extending the right to buy from council tenants to housing association tenants—so that millions of people will be able to own their own home. As for future tenancies, we want to make sure that social housing is there for the people who need it most. No current tenant is going to be affected. That is why we think this housing Bill will see more homes built, more homes owned, more homes rented and will be good for housing in our country.

Order. We will come to points of order. I think hon. Members raising points of order should have an attentive audience, which seems more likely once those leaving have done so quickly and quietly.

What is more, I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members, whose eagerness is evident for all to see, but points of order of course come after the urgent question and the statement. As I am sure these are very genuine points of order, hon. Members will come scurrying back to the Chamber in order to air their concerns at the appropriate moment.

Meanwhile, we have quite a considerably important and rich parliamentary offering—[Laughter.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—in the form of an urgent question from a very senior denizen of the House.