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It is important that we do a couple of things. It is important that we continue to invest in training those in charge of procurement and commissioning in local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that the budget for that would, I am afraid, be cut if we sliced £100 million off the Cabinet Office budget. It is also important for us to introduce a bit of transparency, which is why we have asked the social
enterprise sector to rate local authorities. We published those statistics earlier this month. I am pleased to say that eight councils in the top 25 were Labour councils. I am afraid that only one was Conservative, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will be anxious to turn that situation around.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fine work that social enterprises and charities do across all our constituencies, such as The Hinge, in Goole, which works with young, vulnerable and homeless people. That is a client group that, sadly, is likely to grow through this recession. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that there will be fast-track funding to help social enterprises deal with that difficult and growing client group?
Mr. Byrne: First, may I praise my hon. Friend for the charitable work that he does? Organisations such as The Hinge will have an enormous contribution to make over the coming months, and the strength that they could acquire in that time could serve them well in regard to their long-term contribution to the sector and to the communities that they work in. That is exactly why different Departments right across Government are putting in place significant amounts of funding to help the sector over the next two or three years. That funding would be cut if we took the advice of some in the House. Once the money is in place, it is vital that we get rid of any impediments to getting deals done, which is why I am bringing Ministers together to clear those road blocks out of the way much faster.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Would the Minister accept that the country and the Government cannot do without charities, churches and volunteers? We have a deprived estate in Macclesfield, the Moss estate. The local churcheswith the support of my own livery company, the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which has invested a great deal in the projectare putting a great many volunteers and community workers into that estate to help to reduce the deprivation and exclusion and the other problems that often go with exclusion.
Mr. Byrne: I am very grateful for that example, because I was not aware of the contribution that the livery companies were making to this agenda. The hon. Gentleman underlines my point that we will get through this recession faster, and in a way that protects families and businesses better, if we build our work on strong communities. It is the faith-based organisations, charities, voluntary groups and, I now know, livery companies that are knitting those communities together.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): I am pleased to tell the House that the £16.5 million modernisation fund and the £15.5 million targeted support fund are both up and running, and have received more than 500 applications and expressions of interest to date. The volunteer brokerage scheme for unemployed people went live on 6 April, and nine regional roadshows have been fully subscribed. Last month, the Prime Minister appointed Dame Stephanie Shirley as the Governments first giving and philanthropy ambassador. [ Interruption. ]
Kevin Brennan: Yes. Of the £15.5 million targeted support fund, which opened to applications on 29 April, Bradford will get £410,892, which will be delivered by the Bradford and district community empowerment network. If my hon. Friend has any organisations that he wants to steer in the networks direction, I recommend that he do so.
Gordon Banks: The Real Help website and documentation should beand, indeed, arereally helpful, but I cannot help but think that MPs and the Government have perhaps not done enough to promote awareness of these services to the sectors that could really benefit from them. What can the Minister and Back Benchers do to make them more accessible?
Kevin Brennan: I am writing to all Members affected by the funds, which will be all Members of the House in England affected by the Real Help Now action plan. In addition, the Office of the Third Sector has already held nine regional roadshows, which have been fully subscribed. Business Link is a free business advice and support service, and it is also available to the third sector. In Scotland, Business Gateway Scotland provides a similar service, giving advice on what help is available to businesses and the third sector.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): The Government value the role and work of the parliamentary ombudsman. They also believe that Members of Parliament have an important role to play in assisting constituents with concerns about their dealings with Government Departments and public bodies.
Dr. Wright: One of the great achievements of a previous Labour Government was to introduce the parliamentary ombudsman system, against the resistance of elements of the Conservative party. Is it not now time to give citizens direct access to the ombudsman, as has been recommended by successive occupants of the office?
Mr. Watson: I have known my hon. Friend for longer than nearly any other MP, and his former agent, Jack Fleming, from the time of the former Labour Government of the 1970s, would have been proud of my hon. Friends work to improve the machinery of government. Sometimes, I have to say that it seems that we have been discussing the ombudsman for that long as well. We know that 134 MPs said that they wanted to remove the MP filter, but I cannot honestly say to my hon. Friend that that is the settled will of the House. To be honest with him, I would also have to say that there is no settled view in Government either, but I undertake to take soundings from Members again to ensure that their views are properly reflected when we come to make our decision.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Royal Marine Jason Mackie, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. He and others who have lost their lives have served our country with distinction for the good of the Afghan people and for the good of democracy around the world. They deserve our profound gratitude for their service, which should not ever be forgotten.
Mr. Speaker, there will be a further opportunity to acknowledge your contribution and achievements in this House, but let me say briefly on behalf of all Members that your record of service to this House and this country has been outstanding over 30 years, and you have shown unfailing personal kindness to all Members on all sides of the House.
There is widespread concern throughout the country and on all sides of the House about the Governments plans for the privatisation of Royal Mail. In that light, will the Prime Minister now reconsider those proposals?
The Prime Minister: We have put before the Houseand our proposals are now in the other placethe problems that Royal Mail has to face up to. It is losing 5 million letters a year [Laughter.] I mean it is losing 5 million letters in comparison with the number that were delivered in previous years. There is an £8 billion pensions deficit. I want to reassert to the House the need for new investment in Royal Mail [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: Many measures in the Bill are supported unanimously on both sides of the House, and the fact is that we have to get new investment into Royal Mail. That is why we have invited outside parties to express their interest.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): May I associate myself with my right hon. Friends remarks about those brave servicemen and women who have died in the cause of Afghanistan? A few weeks ago, the House debated the issue of the Gurkhas. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to give us any indication of what progress has been made on it?
The Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend knows, we have a great deal of sympathy and support for those Gurkhas who wish to come into this country. Many of them have served our country and our Army with huge distinction over the years. We were the first Government to say that those after 1997 should be able to have residence and settlement in this country, and 6,000 have done so. We have also equalised pay and pensions, while at the same time raising the Gurkhas pensions back in their own country. We said that we would listen to the voice of the House after the debate held a few weeks ago, and we are also listening to the views of the Home Affairs Committee, which has had hearings. The Home Secretary will make a statement tomorrow. I believe it is possible for us to honour our commitments to the Gurkhas, and to do so in a way that protects the public finances. That will be part of the announcement to be made tomorrow.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Jason Mackie of Armoured Support Group The Royal Marines, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday? Some of his family live in Bampton in my constituency, and I know that the whole country will join in their sorrow.
May I too join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker? I will never forget the kindness that you showed me and the advice that you gave me when I was a new Back Bencher in 2001. I know that everyone wants to thank you for the public service that you have given to the House and the country.
I know that the Prime Minister is frightened of elections, but how can he possibly believe that in the fourth year of a Parliament, in one of the oldest democracies in the world, a general election could somehow bring chaos? Have another go at a better answer.
The Prime Minister: I am not going to support a programme of Conservative public spending cuts. But look here: the House has got to have some humility about what has happened in the last few days. We have got to recogniseall of us, in all parts of the Housethat mistakes have been made by Members of Parliament in all parties. Having had the humility to recognise that, we also have a duty to sort the problem out. The only way to sort out the system is to go ahead and sort out the system, and that is what we are proposing to do.
Yesterday we had good all-party talks involving the House of Commons Commission and all parties, and we made a great deal of progress. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I should have thought that what the public want us to do first of all, as this Parliament, is to sort out the problems and deal with them. And secondly, what they want is a Government who will deal with the economic recession.
Mr. Cameron: Does the Prime Minister not understand that the best way to show some humility is to ask the people who put us here? The Prime Minister is so hopelessly out of touch. How can the answer to a crisis of democracy be an unelected Prime Minister? In past months, during this economic crisis, there have been elections in India, South Africa and New Zealand. They all have new Governments with a new mandate. The United States had an election in the middle of a banking crisis. Was that chaos? Is President Obama the agent of chaos?
The Prime Minister: I notice that at no point does the right hon. Gentleman enter into the policy issues that are at stake here. At no point does he want to talk about what would be the effect of a Conservative Government in this country cutting public spending in schools, hospitals and public services generally, or about what they would do in leaving people on their own in this recession. Our duty is not only to clean up the system in the House of Commonsand every Member has a responsibility to work on that nowbut to take this country through the difficulties of the recession, and not say to people that unemployment is a price worth paying.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that he wants to talk about the issues. How better to address the issues than in a general election? The Prime Minister rightly says that the economy is the big issue. One of the biggest issues in our economy is the lack of confidence. Why is there so little confidence? Because there is no confidence in the Government.
The Prime Minister says that he wants to get on with the work. The fact is that the Government are not doing any work. They cannot even organise a car scrappage scheme. We will not end the paralysis just by electing a new Speaker, or even by setting new rules; we must give the public their voice, and the country the chance of a fresh start. Is it not the case that the only way that can happen is through a general election?
The Prime Minister:
I repeat: what would cause paralysis is Conservative spending cuts that would make it impossible for our economy to move forward. Look at what we are doing to help the unemployed at the moment: 100,000 people who are unemployed are being helped back to work, and every month 200,000 and more are getting back into work. The Conservatives have refused to support the money that is necessary for the unemployed.
Look at our housing scheme, helping people to avoid mortgage repossessionsand again, the Conservatives have refused to support that scheme. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the country would be longer in recession, with more debt and deficit, with more businesses going under and with more unemployment, if ever we had the misfortune of him ever being in power.
Mr. Cameron: People will just hear the arrogance of a Prime Minister who will not let the people decide. The Prime Minister talks about paralysisbut this is what one of his own Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), has said about Government paralysis:
Week after week MPs have been turning up but with...no serious work to do...there is no legislative programme to speak of. Even the debates are put on to fill in time...The whole exercise is vacuous.
Can the Prime Minister not see how badly we need a fresh start? Two years ago he promised us a fresh start. Remember what he said outside Downing street, talking about a Government of integrity and decency? Well, that died with Damian McBride. He promised to renew trust in Parliament. Where is that promise today? He promised prudence; he promised economic stability; he promised a big house building programme. None of these things are happening. The Prime Minister calls elections chaos; I call them change. Why cant we have one?
The Prime Minister: One hundred and twenty thousand businesses are now getting help as a result of decisions we have made that the Conservative party would not make. Hundreds of people are getting help to get into jobs as a result of what we are doing, whereas the Conservatives would abolish the new deal. We have opened the 3,000th Sure Start childrens centresomething that would be at risk under the Conservatives. We have a vast educational investment programme in our schools; the Conservatives propose to cut it. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, there would be chaos with public spending cuts under the Conservatives, and yes, it is an unacceptable way of going forward if a party is trying to have an election without even having a sensible manifesto, other than proposing public spending cuts.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): A business woman who owns and runs a small manufacturing company in my constituency came to see me last week to complain about the attitude of banks in lending to businesses such as hers. Does the Prime Minister understand that public support for the banking bail-out will entirely evaporate unless banks are seen once more to be lending to the small and medium-sized companies on which this economy depends?
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