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19 Mar 2008 : Column 911

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): Is it not now clear that the crucial access criteria for the closure of post offices will leave thousands of elderly and vulnerable people isolated from the services on which they depend, with walking routes that are dangerous to the alternatives and no public transport available? Were Ministers in the Cabinet Office consulted on the social exclusion implications of those access criteria? If they were not, what is the point of their having responsibility for social exclusion? If they were consulted, why did they make such a Horlicks of it?

Phil Hope: Once again the right hon. Gentleman lays down a challenge about the extent to which older people are being included in the discussions, but I notice that once again he has signally failed to match our commitment to provide the exact subsidy that he seeks, which will enable the post offices to remain open. I will give him more time at the Dispatch Box to answer my question: will he match our £150 million a year subsidy to support the rural and urban network?

Mr. Maude: It would be great to get an answer to the question that I asked and I am sorry that the Minister has failed to do that. It is perfectly clear that the total incompetence of this process is leading to hundreds of completely viable post offices facing closure, creating huge problems for thousands of vulnerable people. What does the Minister think that his constituents in Corby will make of his fulminating in his local paper against post office closures in his constituency when those closures are being forced through by his Government? Will they not conclude that the Government are now shot through with hypocrisy?

Phil Hope: My Corby constituents hold me in extremely high regard. They like the fact that I stand up and campaign on their behalf. The fact that we now have a new town centre, a new railway station, two new secondary schools, a new hospital, brand new housing and a regenerated growth economy with low unemployment and higher wages might give some indication that the people of Corby are very pleased with the conduct and performance of their local Member of Parliament. They will not be persuaded by a sham campaign by the Conservative party, which is pretending to support post office openings at the same time as failing to commit to match the Government’s pledge of a £150 million subsidy until the year 2011.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Many people across the UK and in Northern Ireland are alarmed at what appears to be a sustained campaign for the demise of the post office network, particularly in rural areas. When will the Government go back to the drawing board and invest in a campaign to sustain and rebuild the rural post office network?

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is right to press for a subsidy for the post office network to maintain those post offices that are not financially viable. I am pleased that he will support the £150 million a year in subsidy that we are giving to the Post Office until the year 2011. I assume that he will support that, and I hope that he will persuade some of the other parties in this Chamber to support that £150 million subsidy, too.

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Sports (Volunteering)

5. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to reduce the administrative burden of volunteering in sport. [195049]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): The Government are committed to reducing administrative burdens that may hinder any type of volunteering. Following the report of the independent Commission on the Future of Volunteering, we will produce guidance to help us reduce unnecessary Criminal Records Bureau checks, including in sport. Sport England is also running specific programmes to reduce the administrative burden on sports volunteering.

Mr. Reed: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to congratulate the 5 million people who volunteer in sport on a monthly basis, including Nina Walker, from my constituency, who recently won the BBC unsung sporting heroes award. However, will he ensure that his Department plays a lead role in ensuring that the unintended consequences of worthwhile legislation, such as CRB checks, do not impact on the sporting sector? For example, the points system for migration might lead to sports clubs having to sponsor international visiting teams. Will he play a lead role in ensuring that good policies do not impact unnecessarily on sport?

Edward Miliband: Let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent who, after that question, is more of a sung than an unsung hero. My hon. Friend is right to pinpoint unintended consequences as an issue, but people sometimes get an impression about legislation that turns out not to be correct. That is why I said in my answer that we need to give people proper guidance about the CRB checks so that they know when they are needed. We shall be very much involved in that process.

Child Poverty

6. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What account the Social Exclusion Task Force takes of child poverty in setting its work plan. [195050]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Through its work on families at risk, the Social Exclusion Task Force is seeking to improve services for families and children facing multiple disadvantages such as worklessness, poor housing and mental health problems.

Following more than 90 applications from local authorities and their partners, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families will shortly be announcing the successful councils that will develop innovative approaches to working with such families.

Mr. Harper: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He will know that the Opposition share the Government’s aspiration to eliminate child poverty by 2020 but, given that the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted that the Government are unlikely to hit their target of halving child poverty by 2010, what will his Department do to make sure that the Government hit their 2010 child poverty target?

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Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman says that he shares our aspiration to meet the child poverty target, but why did the Opposition vote yesterday night against the Budget measures that would make it possible to take 250,000 more children out of poverty? It is all very well for him to say that the Opposition support the target, but that means that they must vote for the measures that will help us to meet it.

On the wider question of the 2010 target, the Government are determined to make progress. The shadow Chancellor has said that we have one more Budget to go, and we are determined to do more to tackle child poverty.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): Last Thursday, the Work and Pensions Secretary—who has just come into the Chamber—said of the Government’s child poverty target:

His words were rather different from those used just now by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. However, the DWP’s annual report was published recently and it makes it absolutely clear that

In the middle of that muddle, who is right—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, or his Department’s annual report?

Edward Miliband: The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is absolutely right—we do intend to meet the 2010 target. It is a challenging one, but the difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we are determined to adopt the measures that will take us towards meeting it. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to shed crocodile tears about the target, but he is in no position to talk about these matters if he is not willing to take those measures.

Family Intervention Projects

7. Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of family intervention projects. [195052]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): Family intervention projects are pioneering new ways of working with socially excluded families. Such approaches have demonstrated real benefits for seven out of 10 families, for example in their physical and mental health and in their educational attainment. Building on that success, the Government recently launched their £16 million family pathfinders programme and extended the family nurse partnership programme to new areas of the country.

Mr. Heppell: Does the Minister agree that, although the programmes are often portrayed as extensions of the nanny state, they are actually the exact opposite? By using a carrot-and-stick approach, we are helping people to take charge of, and responsibility for, their own lives.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted that some of the pioneering work includes a family intervention partnership project in his own
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Nottingham constituency. Families that have probably been written off by many agencies are given intensive and tailored support to bring about change. Those projects have been remarkably successful, and that is why, through the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health, we are rolling out similar programmes across the country.

Data Protection

8. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): What plans his Department has to improve data security across Government. [195053]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): The Cabinet Office is committed to improving data security. The Cabinet Secretary’s review has already led to enhancements in data security across Government. I expect him to report shortly.

Mr. Randall: Would the Minister agree that, quite frankly, the Government are in a complete shambles? I refer to the loss of private details. Can he give an assurance that he is confident that he has taken measures to ensure that that never happens again?

Mr. Watson: When O’Donnell reports, there will be four action points on which we have to deliver: increasing accountability and responsibility in Departments, putting in place specific measures to protect our information, ensuring that every Department has robust scrutiny mechanisms, and, crucially, ensuring a culture change so that every public servant treats personal data like their own money.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [195060] Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mrs. Moon: Having met four young people from my Bridgend constituency, my right hon. Friend will be aware that it is vital that those young people have the assurance and confidence that, for their futures, there will be apprenticeships and good jobs available for them, on which they can build their future lives. Can I give them that assurance from the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: I was pleased to meet young people from my hon. Friend’s constituency and to talk about the creation of jobs and opportunities for young people. The whole House will be pleased to know today that the employment figures show that we have more people in employment than at any time in our history.
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Despite the global financial turbulence, which has meant unemployment rising in America and unemployment twice as high as ours in France and Germany, we have seen unemployment fall in every region and nation of the country over the last year. That is possible only because of the policies of stability and the creation of the new deal, which we will continue to pursue; that never happened under the previous Government.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): The whole world will have been shocked by the pictures on television last night of the security crackdown and the dead bodies on the streets of Lhasa and other parts of Tibet. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, yes, our relationship with China is vital, and China is a major power, but we must be absolutely clear in telling the Chinese Government that this is completely unacceptable?

The Prime Minister: I spoke to Premier Wen of China this morning, and I made it absolutely clear that there had to be an end to violence in Tibet. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will agree with that. I also called for constraint, and I called for an end to the violence by dialogue between the different parties. The Premier told me that subject to two things that the Dalai Lama has already said—that he does not support the total independence of Tibet and that he renounces violence—he would be prepared to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama. I will meet the Dalai Lama when he is in London. I think it is important that we all facilitate discussions, but the most important thing at the moment is to bring about an end to the violence, to see reconciliation, and to see legitimate talks taking place between those people in China.

Mr. Cameron: Can I congratulate the Prime Minister on making absolutely the right decision with regard to the Dalai Lama? It is a difficult decision, but it would not have been made any better by delaying it, and I congratulate him on doing the right thing.

The Prime Minister: We make the right decisions at all times.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): May I say to my right hon. Friend that long-term unemployment is down 82 per cent. in my constituency, and overall unemployment is down by 39 per cent.? I have just been in discussions with a prospective inward investor who proposes to bring another 600 jobs to my constituency. My right hon. Friend knows that the success in turning around the economy in my area is due to the relationship between the Government and the private sector. Will he ensure that we invest in training, so that those good trends continue in future?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has fought hard for the car industry and other jobs for his constituency, and for the development of the science-based industries in the whole of the north-west region. He will be pleased to know that unemployment is falling in the whole region, that unemployment is down on a year ago, and that more jobs are being created in all parts of the country. We will continue to pursue the policies that are necessary—putting stability first by bearing down hard on inflation, a new deal to give people chances of jobs, and apprenticeships for young people. None of that would happen under the policies of the Opposition.

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Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Two hours ago a retired Gurkha soldier handed over this medal to me in protest at the Government’s refusal to grant him British citizenship. Does the Prime Minister know what it means for a loyal British soldier to give up a medal that he won for his long years of service to this country? Can he explain to the Gurkhas why on earth he believes that Gurkhas who have served in the Army after 1997 are worthy of British citizenship, but those who served before that date should be deported?

The Prime Minister: Let me also pay tribute to the Gurkhas. They have been in existence since 1815. They have served loyally in every part of the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they fought with Prince Harry over the past few months. They have done a tremendous job for our country. We are the first Government to have given Gurkhas the right to a pension, for those serving after 1997. We are the first to have given equal pay to the Gurkhas. We are the first to have dealt with the problems of married accommodation, and we are the first to say that after four years in the Army they will have the right to residence in this country. Those are changes that we have brought about. Why is the date 1997? It is the date that the Gurkhas, once based in Hong Kong, moved to be based in Britain. That is why we are honouring the promises that we made for the period after 1997.

Mr. Clegg: That is a technical argument on a moral issue. It is a spectacular misjudgement from the man who signed the cheques for the Iraq war, but has never had the moral courage to take responsibility for it. After five years of conflict in Iraq— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the right hon. Gentleman speak. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Clegg: After five years of conflict in Iraq— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Clegg: After five years of conflict in Iraq, at the cost of 175 British soldiers’ lives, over 600,000 Iraqi civilians and £7 billion of taxpayers’ money, will the Prime Minister tell the House today whether he has any regrets about his decision to support and pay for the war in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: There is a democracy in Iraq as a result of the changes that have been brought about. Millions of children are getting the benefit of education, vaccination and health care services as a result. We are rebuilding, with the Iraqis, the economy of Iraq. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman wants to go back to a situation where Saddam Hussein was in control of Iraq.

Q2. [195061] Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): Children’s centres, where community midwives, health visitors and speech and language therapists are working alongside child care providers and family support workers, are making a real difference to the life chances of children and giving tremendous support to their parents. Will my right hon. Friend please give an assurance to the House that the funding for the Sure Start programme will continue, so that every community has access to fully integrated children’s services?

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