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10 Mar 2010 : Column 285

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): My team and I have regular meetings and discussions with ministerial colleagues on all areas of Cabinet Office work, including the Greening Government ICT strategy. Through actions recommended in the strategy, good progress is already being made by Departments and we are recognised internationally as leaders in this area, with savings of £6.8 million and 12,000 tonnes of carbon savings, as is reported in our "One year on" report.

Paul Holmes: Carbon emissions from ICT are one part of a very poor picture overall. The Minister has received £681,000 of public money from the Department of Energy and Climate Change as part of a low-carbon technology scheme. Is she confident that that will be well spent when, of the 13 Cabinet Office buildings, none has received an energy efficient rating, and five, including Downing street, got a worse rating in 2008-09 than they did in the previous year?

Angela E. Smith: Yes. One reason why those buildings got a slightly worse rating was that there was more activity and staff worked later nights. However, that is still not acceptable, and we are ensuring that we put that money to good use to bring down carbon emissions across the estate.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) said, IT is one element of the Government's carbon footprint. The latest figures show an increase in the amount of energy consumed by IT in some Departments, and Government buildings are shown to be among the least efficient in the country. Does the Minister agree that the announcement in December of less than £3 million for pilot projects to reduce emissions from Government buildings is too little, too late?

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Lady will not be surprised that I do not agree. Reducing energy use and carbon emissions produces savings as well. One of the results of the Greening Government ICT strategy that we are proud of is that, as we produce savings by reducing energy use, we can plough that money back into ensuring that we reduce carbon emissions still further. The money will be put to good use, and I can assure her that plans are on track for significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Grassroots Grants

8. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): How many local organisations have received grassroots grants from her Department in the last 12 months. [321245]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I can announce today that from September 2008 to December 2009, the grassroots grants programme has provided over 15,500 grants to small charities and voluntary organisations, totalling more than £38 million. These grants are given to small groups across England to do what they think best meets the needs of their local communities. In addition, more than £17.5 million has been received in donations from businesses and individuals. That has been boosted by the Government to more than £31 million to support local activity in years to come.

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Mr. Anderson: Will the Minister join me in praising the Birtley community partnership in my constituency, and in particular the chairman, Mr. Ian Caddy, who was recently awarded the MBE by the Queen, for the work that they have done with the community assets programme to develop a community hub in our town from what was a derelict library?

Angela E. Smith: I can. The grassroots grants and community assets programmes are two of my favourite Government programmes for the sector, because they really involve the community in making a difference. My hon. Friend's constituent, whom he mentioned, really earned- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but there are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I might just tell the House at this point that since last Wednesday I have received a large number of letters from members of the public, whose support we will all be seeking in a few weeks' time and to whose views we should attach importance. Those letters have complained bitterly about the excessive noise, barracking and yah-boo behaviour in this House- [ Interruption. ] Somebody said from a sedentary position "shocking". As far as the public are concerned, it is shocking. It is nothing of which to be proud, and we do not need to hear any more of it.

Angela E. Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I may write to you myself on that issue.

I wanted to say that my hon. Friend's constituent earned his MBE, and he should be very proud of that. I understand that his constituent is not very well at the moment, so I send him my personal best wishes and those of my colleagues for the work that he has done for the community.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What proportion of those grants went to rural areas in that period?

Angela E. Smith: I can look in more detail at that, but the hon. Lady should know that the grants are issued throughout England and directly by community development foundations locally. If she is concerned that those who give out the grants in her area are not giving enough to rural areas, she should please let me know, because they should be fairly well spread across rural and urban areas and among young and older people. They are small grants of £250 to £5,000, and they are targeted at community groups. I am sure that her concerns can be assuaged if she looks at the issue and comes back to me.

Mr. Speaker: I call Sandra Gidley.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Speaker: You have had a go. [ Interruption. ] No, I call Sandra Gidley. You can always try on a supplementary.

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ICT (External Consultants)

11. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): How many external consultants have been recruited by her Department to work on ICT projects in the last three years. [321248]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Ms Dawn Butler): The Department examines requirements for external consultancy on a case-by-case basis. Cabinet Office is committed in the long term to upskilling the IT department in order to ensure that we reduce the requirement for external resources, and we are building in-house the capacity, culture and skills that are needed to increase efficiency.

Sandra Gidley: If the Government are decreasing staff numbers and then giving the same jobs to consultants, how can we be sure that we are getting value for money? A neighbour who was working on a Government IT project within a Department refused to relocate and was then redeployed by a consultancy firm at a much higher salary. How can that sort of example represent value for money?

Ms Butler: It is important that we consider a couple of areas. For instance, from 1 April 2009 the Cabinet Office required all proposed procurements for external resources to be approved by the external resources board. External resources are used only when the external supplier offers skills or resources that are not available within a Department, and offers value for money. [Interruption.] That, coupled with the upskilling of internal ICT departments, will ensure that the Department does secure value for money.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do hope that the House will come to order. It is very discourteous to the Minister who is answering the question at the Dispatch Box for people to sit wittering away to each other as though their conversations are more important than the answer. They are not.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): May I say how much I agree with you, Mr. Speaker? It is so important that people at home can hear what is being said.

On consultants, may I say to my hon. Friend how important it is that we secure local procurement for the various contracts that exist? It is important to ensure that, when ICT is procured, there are local jobs for local people.

Ms Butler: I thank my hon. Friend for championing, and ensuring that we have, local jobs for local people. We have to consider value for money and whether we have the skills in-house to provide the services and IT strategies that we need.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Minister very kindly stop this assault on the English language? Can we drop these awful terms, such as "upskilling" and "third sector"?

Ms Butler: Upskilling is now a recognised and understandable term. I apologise if the hon. Gentleman is put off by it, but I explain to him that it means
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that we will educate people further in the necessary skills that they need in order to do the job. I hope that that makes it clearer to him.


The Prime Minister was asked-


Q1. [321219] Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. They are: Rifleman Jonathon Allott; Rifleman Liam Maughan, from 3rd Battalion the Rifles; Lance Corporal Thomas Keogh, from 4th Battalion the Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion the Rifles; and Corporal Stephen Thompson, from 1st Battalion the Rifles, attached to 3rd Battalion the Rifles. These men have made the greatest of sacrifices in the service of their country and their comrades. Their heroism and bravery cannot, and will not, be forgotten. Their legacy will be in the future that is being won for the people of Afghanistan and the protection they are securing for the British people. They will be remembered with great pride by the British people and by their families. As we honour their memory, we send our sincere condolences to their families and loved ones, who feel their loss the most. The debt that we owe them can never be repaid.

The whole House, I think, will want also to pay tribute to the life of Michael Foot. He will be remembered as a man of deep principle and passionate idealism who was, in the views of many in all parts of this House, the greatest parliamentary debater of his generation.

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.

Mr. Benyon: The whole House will want to concur with the words of condolence that the Prime Minister has offered to those members of the Rifles who lost their lives. For those of us who served with the regiment that has now become the Rifles, we feel the loss of the families very intensely, but it is matched with pride at what that regiment has become and what it is today.

The Army Families Federation has carried out postal trials which prove that it is unlikely that the vast majority of our armed forces serving overseas will be able to vote in the coming election. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that we do not have the perverse situation whereby we have people fighting abroad for others to have the right to vote, but we are denying them that right themselves?

The Prime Minister: I repeat and endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, not only about the regiment that he is talking about but about the bravery of the individual soldiers. I also say to him that the Justice Secretary is making the best arrangements possible so that every soldier and every member of the armed forces overseas who has a vote will be able to cast their vote. I will personally write to the hon. Gentleman
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about all the arrangements that are being made. It is absolutely right that everyone should have the chance to cast their vote in every election.

Q2. [321220] Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I ask to be associated with the remarks on the loss of life, and on the late lamented Michael Foot.I believe that my right hon. Friend is in favour of full financial disclosure by parliamentarians. With that in mind, will he assure me that the Cabinet Office is currently undertaking an investigation into the tax returns of the noble Lord Ashcroft?

The Prime Minister: I have been involved in no such investigation of Lord Ashcroft. I have to tell the House that I believe the assurances that were made in December 2007 that Lord Ashcroft was paying his taxes and was a resident in Britain. These assurances were given to us in an interview by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I first echo what the Prime Minister said about Michael Foot? Obviously, I did not serve with him in the Commons, but I have always admired his writing, his brilliant oratory and, above all, his dedication to this House of Commons. While I did not agree with much of what he said, not least about the Soviet Union and disarmament, he held all his views with conviction and with passion, and that is how we should remember him.

May I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the four servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan in the past seven days: Corporal Stephen Thompson, Lance Corporal Tom Keogh, Rifleman Liam Maughan and Rifleman Jonathon Allott. We pay tribute to their bravery and their service, and, as the Prime Minister said, we will not forget what they have done.

Yesterday, we had the inquest into the deaths of four soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008. At the time the Defence Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), linked their deaths to the commanders' choice of vehicle. That was flatly contradicted by what the coroner said, so will the Prime Minister now apologise on behalf of his Minister?

The Prime Minister: The Minister apologised at the time, and I repeat that apology. The issue for me is, first of all, that our thoughts must be with the families of Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Trooper Paul Stout. They also died serving their country and building a safer Afghanistan, and therefore a safer Britain.

I have read the coroner's report from the inquest. That report will go to the Ministry of Defence, which has said it will look at every detail that is raised by the coroner and take whatever action is necessary. There are really three areas that have got to be looked at, and we have to be absolutely sure that everything possible is being done. The first is on vehicles themselves. We have ordered 1,800 new vehicles since 2006 at a cost of £1.7 billion to make sure that we have the vehicles that are necessary for the commanders on the ground.

Secondly, on training, we have made sure that the training is better, and it will be improved for those who are going to Afghanistan. Thirdly, on improvised explosive
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devices, as everybody knows, the guerrilla warfare in Iraq and in Afghanistan led to IEDs starting to be used, and we had to take extra measures to deal with that. We have improved our engineering capability and our surveillance capability, and we now have 3,000 mine detector machines on the ground for our troops. That will double over the next few months. We are doing everything we can to deal with the IED threat, so we are answering legitimate questions that have been raised.

I hope that we can also pay tribute to the dignity with which the parents of those who died spoke yesterday. The dignity they showed is something that I believe impressed everybody throughout all the country.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister has now apologised for something that should never have been said by the Minister, and the House will be grateful for that.

From that apology, let me turn to the broader issue of the Prime Minister's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. Following his evidence, one former Chief of the Defence Staff said that he was being "disingenuous" and another said that he was "dissembling". Both those people worked with the Prime Minister- [ Interruption. ] Oh, it is because they are Tories, is it? That is what this tribalist, divisive Government think about people who serve our country. I think, first of all, the Prime Minister should get up and dissociate himself completely from what those people behind him have said.

The Prime Minister: It is common cause within this House that we support the campaign in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and it is common cause also that we do not send our troops into battle without the commanders assuring us that they are properly equipped for the operations they are undertaking. In every instance where the Ministry of Defence asked for equipment under urgent operational requirements, that equipment was given.

If I may say so, as far as vehicles are concerned, the Leader of the Opposition praised us last summer for what we had done to increase the number of vehicles in Afghanistan. If we are talking about these issues, let us find where the common ground is rather than where there is division.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister's Members of Parliament have questioned the integrity of people who have served this country, fought for this country and are essays in the bravery of this country. Before we go on, he has got to get to that Dispatch Box and dissociate himself from those disgraceful remarks.

The Prime Minister: I have never at any time criticised the patriotism of anybody who has been involved in the defence establishment of this country. I think we should have a debate about this that is both serious and based on facts. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that every request that was made to us by the Ministry of Defence for urgent operational requirements was met. We have spent £18 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq, on top of the MOD budget. I assure the House that every time our commanders go into action, I ask them for an assurance that they have the equipment they need for the operation. I want to applaud the patriotism of everyone who serves our country, and so does the vast majority of this House.

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Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister has given us a lecture this morning outside the House on character, but he does not have the character to stand up to his own Back Benchers-it is a disgraceful slur.

It was not just Chiefs of the Defence Staff who said this. We have had a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence talking about a guillotine budget, a serving permanent secretary talking about a serious dispute between the Treasury and the MOD, and a former commander of the Paras in Afghanistan saying that he was

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