House of Commons
Monday 10 July 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
No interim targets have been set but, as with our successful pathways to work pilots, we will continue to monitor and publish our progress on a regular basis.
As a result of demographic changes, and without any policy change or special initiatives, the forecast incapacity benefit case load will fall from 2.7 million today to about 2.36 million in 2015-16. Does not that rather handy head start of 340,000 make the Minister’s promise to cut the incapacity benefit count by 1 million both unambitious and a little misleading?
That is an entirely unfounded claim. Recent changes have resulted from the introduction of the new deal, the policy to make work pay through the national minimum wage and new, more flexible working arrangements in the workplace. All those policies have two things in common—first, they have successfully enabled more people to enter the labour market and, secondly, they were all opposed by the Conservatives. It is therefore an ambitious target and we are determined to achieve it so that people should no longer be written off and consigned to a life on incapacity benefit, which was all too common under the previous Government.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a very low employment rate among people with mental illness. Undoubtedly, there is a problem with employer attitudes to that client group, so what are his Department and other Departments doing to try to take that agenda forward?
My hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, has worked tirelessly on that agenda and rightly identified the fact that the biggest single factor that leads people to claim incapacity benefit is mental illness. The new personal capability assessment and the new employment support allowance will focus on that emerging trend and seek to address it. The roll-out of pathways has provided encouraging evidence about how we can support people with mental illnesses and give them the chance to return to work. I look forward to discussing those matters in more detail when I visit my hon. Friend’s constituency next Monday.
The Minister said last week that, for every £800 spent on pathways, the taxpayer is saved some £8,000 as a result of people returning to employment. If that is the case, why have Ministers briefed that they do not have enough money to roll pathways out for all claimants and may even have to ration them? Is it not bizarre that the Government can find billions of pounds of additional finance for benefits and tax credits, which can keep people in dependency, but they cannot find the money to get people back to work in this way?
I do not know whether that is another of the endless spending commitments from the hon. Gentleman, whom I had previously thought was on the moderate wing, if there is such a thing, of his party’s spending commitments. The roll-out of pathways has been shown to be the single most successful initiative ever in supporting people while they leave incapacity benefit and take up the chance to work. However, we have to go much further, which is why, last week, we announced the national roll-out of pathways throughout the country by 2008, so that everyone on incapacity benefit and the new employment and support allowance will have the chance to participate in that very successful initiative.
Does the Minister accept that the fact that a number of Labour Members wish to question him is a sign of our support for the Government’s strategy of trying to give opportunities to work to people who are on benefit? Does he realise that, over the period in which the Government aim to reduce the numbers on incapacity benefit, over 1 million claimants will either retire or die? Can he set out the net effect of the new Government policies?
I have set out a 1 million net reduction in the numbers on incapacity benefit, and I take the comments by my right hon. Friend and others as offering support in principle for our ambitious agenda. Through other initiatives, we have already ensured that there is a reduction of one third in the number of new claimants receiving incapacity benefit since 1997, but we must go further. We look forward to a conversation with him and my hon. Friends to discuss what more we can do so that people are no longer written off, as they were throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that psychiatrists in my constituency have serious doubts about the capability test? [Interruption.] It is a serious point, as they have serious doubts about the capability test in respect of mental illness. Will he look at that test again to ensure that it is properly standardised and has a basis of scientific rigour?
Unusually, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely reasonable point. We are looking at how we can review the personal capability assessment, which is so crucial to ensure that every individual is treated as just that: an individual, so that an assessment can be made of their learning disability, mental illness or other injury. If the hon. Gentleman has specific ideas about how we get that right, I am happy to listen, but we are spending a huge amount of time and effort working with disability organisations such as Mind and Mencap to make sure we get personal capability assessment exactly fit for purpose.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the huge increase in the number of people receiving incapacity benefit was purely a result of the policies of the Conservative Government and their attempts to hide the unemployment figures and that, to get people on incapacity benefit back into work, we need to provide more encouragement and capacity building for them so that they have the necessary self-esteem to get back into employment?
My hon. Friend is right. The pathway back to work will be taken in a series of small steps. Importantly, that involves rebuilding self-confidence and self-esteem, refreshing skills or learning new skills, and then receiving support in the completion of CVs and preparation for interviews, which many may not have undertaken since they left school. The package of measures through pathways will be important in helping to transform the life chances and job opportunities of many who have been neglected in the past.
Conservative Members are keen to see the benefits of the pathways roll-out being achieved not only by diverting new claimants into work as soon as possible, but by engaging existing IB claimants. In his statement to the House on 24 January, the Secretary of State said:
“Over the next few years, we will ask existing claimants to attend a work-focused interview and agree an action plan to take steps to return to work.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1307.]
Will the Minister confirm that that is the Government’s policy and that a requirement for existing claimants to attend an interview and agree a plan will be introduced as soon as sufficient resources are available?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to agree with my Secretary of State, and I am happy to do so. We are piloting ways of ensuring that the pathways scheme supports current incapacity benefit claimants. As we set out in the Green Paper and subsequent statements, we will look to migrate the existing case load of about 2.6 million across to be supported by the employment and support allowance. Of course, in the interim, individuals currently on incapacity benefit can volunteer, if they so wish.
I received a letter from my hon. Friend’s Department last week, informing me that pathways to work would start in my constituency next year. Based on the pilots that we have had so far, what impact can I expect that to have on the number of people on incapacity benefit in my constituency?
Based on the roll-out of pathways across about 40 per cent. of claimants, we anticipate continuing reductions in the number of those on inactive benefits, particularly those with more complicated multi-dimensional needs in terms of the support that they require to get a chance to work. The evidence is that about 25,000 people have entered the job market as a consequence of pathways thus far. We can learn from the best experience of those pilots and roll that out across the country as a much more substantial contribution towards our target of reducing the number of those on inactive benefits by 1 million.
With reference to the Minister’s response to me earlier, the reason I asked him to confirm the Secretary of State’s statement to House is that the Green Paper says something slightly different. The Green Paper states:
“As resources allow, we will, over time, consider extending work-focused interviews”.
That is a nuance on what the Secretary of State said. If the only constraint on extending the work-focused interview to existing claimants is resources, why does not the Minister negotiate with the voluntary and private sector providers who are to roll out 60 per cent. of the pathways programme to see whether they will include the interview stage in their package and accept a full transfer of risk—effectively, a no success, no fee basis—so that the resource constraint evaporates and the benefits of the pathways to work programme can be rolled out to existing benefit claimants as well as new claimants with the scheduled roll-out of the overall programme?
That would not be the most effective way in which we could roll out pathways support across the country. The evidence is that, if someone is on incapacity benefit for two years, they are more likely to die or retire than ever to find a job. As a priority, we will focus on those who are newest to incapacity benefit or employment support allowance, but we will not neglect those who were placed on incapacity benefit as a matter of public policy by the Opposition when they were in government. We know that it is an ambitious target to change incapacity benefit numbers by 1 million, but it was achieved in the 1980s and 1990s by the Opposition. We intend to achieve the same level of change in incapacity benefit numbers, only in the opposite direction.
Civil Servants (Gershon Review)
Since 2004, staffing levels in my Department have fallen by 19,385 full-time equivalents. As a result, we are now two thirds of the way to meeting the target reduction of 30,000 set out in the Gershon review.
We certainly do not want that to be the result. We are recruiting additional staff to the CSA to deal with some of its problems, but overall it is right and proper that we pursue these efficiency measures in my Department. If we can carry them out successfully, it will save £1 billion a year for the taxpayer by March 2008, and that is the sensible way forward.
In welcoming the fact that the Secretary of State is on target to reach the necessary reductions, and echoing the point made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there will be no reduction in services to our constituents? Many people still come to my constituency surgeries, and those of other hon. Members, who are concerned about the delay in processing their claims. Will he give us that assurance? By all means rationalise and simplify the service, but keep the front-line services as efficient and effective as possible.
That is absolutely the main focus of our objective in making these changes. I acknowledge that there have been times when we have not provided the level of service that we would have liked, but we are working hard with the front line to improve service delivery. Part of the reorganisation in the Department will see an extra 10,000 staff moved into front-line responsibilities, dealing directly with my hon. Friend’s constituents and those of other hon. Members.
This will be a saving.
In other Government departments—the Rural Payments Agency springs to mind—departmental heads, in pursuit of Gershon targets to reduce the head count, have got rid of some of the most experienced, talented and productive people and replaced them with low-cost, inexperienced staff from agencies, with all the consequent problems that we have seen in that and other departments. Will the Minister reassure the House that we shall not go through that bogus process in achieving any head count reductions in his Department?
We will not go through any bogus process. I believe strongly that it is possible to make such efficiency improvements without reducing the quality of the service that we provide to the public. Despite the fact that there have been problems in one or two parts of the country, overall customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high for the service delivered across the Department, and we need to remember that and ensure that it is our No. 1 priority.
Of course we welcome sensible use of technology to sustain and even improve services to vulnerable people. However, it is clear that many of them will have experienced—the Secretary of State has tacitly acknowledged this—serious declines in service delivery, including the initial meltdown of the service to jobseeker’s allowance claimants last autumn, continuing dysfunction in the CSA and continuing poor morale and industrial relations problems in the Department itself. In the light of all that, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Gershon emphasises the maintenance of service quality as much as head count reduction, and does he share Gershon’s view that they are of equal importance?
Yes, I do, as would all hon. Members. The problems that arose last autumn have been addressed, and we have moved on since then. In making all these changes, it is of course essential that we keep as our No. 1 priority the service to the public and the customers whom we are here to serve. That will always be the Department’s priority.
The latest claimant count in Shropshire is 2,604, as opposed to 2,010 a year earlier. Employment in the county continues to expand, as it does right across the country, where it is up by 270,000 over the same period. Our employment rate is one of the highest on record and the highest in the G7.
I can understand why the Minister does not want to talk about unemployment rates in Shropshire and would rather talk about the county’s employment rates. Is he aware that the Office for National Statistics says that between May 2005 and May 2006 unemployment rose by an astonishing 30 per cent.? I am not blaming the Minister, but will he and his colleagues liaise with the Secretary of State for Defence about the defence training review and safeguarding 2,500 much-needed defence sector jobs in Shropshire?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there have been some unfortunate increases in unemployment and redundancies in his constituency recently; of course, we all regret that. His constituents will need to know from us that the Government are pursuing the right economic policies to help those people back into work as quickly as possible and that my Department is pursuing the right policies in terms of giving them individual assistance back into work. He may be aware that there are 1,400 vacancies in Shropshire and that eight employers in his area have recently made 440 job announcements. His constituents will want to be sure that we are not going to return to the claimant levels that they experienced before—2,600 now, as opposed to 4,300 in 1997 and 12,500 in 1986.
The pensions White Paper set out a series of measures that will increase the number of women qualifying for a full basic state pension, including reducing the number of qualifying years, introducing a new carers credit for those caring for at least 20 hours a week and moving to a more generous system of weekly credits. As a result, we estimate that around 70 per cent. of women reaching pension age in 2010 will be entitled to a full basic state pension instead of about 30 per cent., as now.
I welcome the emphasis that the excellent White Paper places on pensions provision for women. That was urgent and overdue. Will the Secretary of State consider the importance of the so-called grey pound on the local micro-economies of areas with increasing ageing populations such as Cumbria, which he knows well? Would it be feasible to help the economies in those areas by prioritising Government policy towards women pensioners?
We should prioritise the needs of women pensioners everywhere, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am glad that he signalled his support for the pensions White Paper, which, in relation to women, is probably the most radical shake-up of the pension system since 1948. I hope and believe that the reforms that we have announced, which will have a big impact on improving equity for women in the state pension system, will have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
In genuinely welcoming the measures in the White Paper for women and carers from 2010 onwards, may I ask the Secretary of State about today’s women pensioners—the 3.8 million who are already retired and the 1 million who will retire by 2010? What is he doing for them? How will he help them in increasing their ability to achieve full pensions?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the changes that I have described will operate from 2010. Between now and 2010, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I will be considering the position of existing women pensioners. One of our announcements in the pensions White Paper confirms that pension credit will increase in line with earnings from 2008. That will deal with the situation of many of the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It will not affect entitlement to a full basic state pension, but it will ensure that we prioritise the needs of women who do not have a full pension and do what we can to ensure that they do not retire in poverty.
We are consulting on some issues, but I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the announcement in the White Paper that we will convert the home responsibility protections into a new system of weekly credit, which will make a significant contribution to extending entitlement to the full basic state pension to many more women.
The injustice that many women have experienced with the basic state pension needs a proper solution and we have proposed one. Lord Turner proposed a series of changes, which would also have taken effect from 2010, because he and the Government were considering long-term reform of the pension system. I strongly believe that reforms to the contributory principle will have a much more immediate impact than the introduction of a residency test, which, by its nature, would only build up a series of future accruals. It would not affect the position of women retiring in 2010, especially that key cohort of women aged 45 and over, who basically have no time left to acquire a full basic state pension.
Pension credit will largely cover women who retire now without a basic state pension and, from 2010, we will move to a system whereby more women retire with a full basic state pension in their own right. I believe that that strikes the right balance between equity and affordability.
We plan detailed discussions with employers. We are holding a summit on the design of personal accounts on 17 July, followed by a programme of seminars with employers on the implementation of the proposals in the White Paper.
Employers have a critical role to play in persuading their employees to take up the national pension saving scheme. Is my hon. Friend in a position to inform hon. Members that, in his discussions with employers, he can tell them that there is a consensus in the House on compulsory employer contributions?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we build a consensus on those proposals. When people put their money in pension schemes, they lock it away for 20, 30 or 40 years and that will be easier if the policy remains stable. I am happy to say that all the main parties support compulsory pension contributions from employers.
Has the Minister seen the Aon Consulting survey, which shows that only a third of final salary schemes remain open to new members and that more than 70 per cent. expect to close in three years? Has he, like me, received representations from employers’ organisations on behalf of responsible employers who want to keep their final salary schemes going by amending their conditions yet feel undermined by the Government’s sweetheart deal with the public sector unions?
I do not believe that there is a link between those issues. We rightly want to work with people on a review of the regulatory costs of occupational pension schemes. If we can find methods of reducing those costs that balance employee protection and the cost to employers, we will do that. That will encourage people to keep occupational pension schemes open, and we would like to work with them on that, too.
We published the Welfare Reform Bill on 4 July. That marks the next stage in our plans to modernise the welfare state and break down the barriers to work. Electronic copies of the Bill are available and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that they are readily e-mailable.
How will the Minister respond to an amendment to include on the face of the Bill the provisions that the Prime Minister e-mailed to the former Secretary of State last summer, calling for time-limiting and means-testing incapacity benefit and naming and shaming doctors who, in the Department’s view, have been a soft touch?
The hon. Gentleman asked how I intend to reply. I am tempted to say that I shall do so by e-mail, but that might be taking things too far. For a man who spends so much time with modern technology, he is sadly out of date so far as our proposals are concerned. We have published our Bill, which builds on the Green Paper, and is about no longer writing people off to a life of inactivity on benefits.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in this question, particularly as he has expressed his disappointment in the Conservative party being unable to maintain its regeneration initiative that was launched in Liverpool. I have seen the lives of many hundreds of my constituents transformed by the reforms that this Government have introduced. Will my hon. Friend meet me and representatives of the voluntary and charitable sector in Liverpool—who are working exceptionally well with some of the hardest to help groups—to look at how the employment zone initiative is structured and to talk about innovative ways in which we could improve how it is working?
I would be happy to do so. The innovative city strategy, of which we will publish more details later this month, is one of the further opportunities that Liverpool and some of our other big cities will be able to use to lift their employment rates. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss what more can be done in Liverpool and our other great cities.
Whether we look at the Bill in electronic form or on paper, there are key areas that we cannot read simply because they have not been included. Examples include the proposals to withhold benefits from those who do not comply with its conditions, and the regulations that will follow in statutory instruments. Does the Minister agree that, if the House is to understand fully what the Bill is about, it is important to publish those regulations—at least in draft form—before the Bill’s Second Reading?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an awful lot of the detail of the Welfare Reform Bill will, rightly, be set out in regulations. We intend to publish many of the key regulations in time for its Committee stage, as has been common practice with many other important pieces of social security legislation.
The Government have included some welcome reforms to the housing benefit system in the Bill, but, for 3,000 of my constituents who are in temporary accommodation, the housing benefit that they receive for their exceptionally high temporary accommodation charges represents a real disincentive to work. In areas such as mine, those charges can be between £400 and £450 a week. The Government are piloting changes to housing benefit arrangements in east London. Does the Minister recognise that it is essential to roll out those pilots into high-value areas so that my constituents who want to work in order to turn their lives round will have the opportunity to do so, and will not be deterred by those excessive rents?
My hon. Friend is well regarded in the House for campaigning on behalf of her constituents, particularly those in the position that she mentioned. The pilots for the local housing allowance are part of our wider agenda of financial inclusion. The additional financial responsibility, the sense of flexibility and the opportunity for financial independence that the reform of housing benefit will provide are a key part of our wider reforms. Of course, if my hon. Friend has specific concerns, other Ministers in the Department and I will be happy to discuss with her how we can roll the programme out around the rest of the country.
There are now many more people in work in the UK than ever before, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has confirmed that we have the highest employment rate and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7.
I thank the Minister for that answer. According to the House of Commons Library, unemployment has risen by 23 per cent. in my constituency. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested last week that, if the number of unemployed people was added to the number on incapacity benefit, the resulting inactivity rate would be worse than that of France and about the same as that of Germany—that is, pretty dire. Is not that an indictment of a Chancellor who has blocked reform while spending billions of pounds on keeping millions of people in the grip of state dependency?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House, but that is a ridiculous claim for him to make about this Government’s economic record. For him to compare today’s unemployment levels with the time when 3 million unemployed was “a price worth paying” is utterly ridiculous. There are now more people in work in the United Kingdom than ever before. In the last quarter, 10,000 more people found work every week, and there are still 600,000 vacancies in the economy. Of course, we have much more to do before we reach our 80 per cent. employment target, but we are now a million miles away from the position that we inherited, with its vast, grotesque and indefensible levels of unemployment throughout the country.
One area of the country in which unemployment is rising is Hemel Hempstead. It is no fault of the businesses or people seeking work in the area, but is the result of the Buncefield explosion. An inquiry is taking place behind closed doors, which does not aid the local community’s confidence at this time. Will the Minister tell me what his Department is doing to encourage work back into the Hemel Hempstead area after that terrible disaster?
Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies of the Department for Work and Pensions will, of course, play their full part in supporting people who want the chance to get back into work in Hemel Hempstead and elsewhere. In a wider sense, we are also continuing our review of the skills agenda to ensure that those who do not have the skills to be actively involved in the labour market at the moment do so in the future. It is a particular problem for people who are over 50, where the skills gap is markedly different.
Council Tax Benefit
Since last December, people applying for pension credit have been able to get housing benefit and council tax benefit at the same time via one phone call to the Pension Service. As a result, 14 per cent. more pensioners now request these benefits and the resulting number of successful claims through pension credit has gone up by 39 per cent.
That is a very important point, as organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged play a key part in helping to deliver the service and finding people who are not claiming their benefits. It is important to remember that those benefits are not a privilege, but an entitlement, and we should do all we can with those organisations to help people to get them. I would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Age Concern and the local service on the nearly 1 million face-to-face contacts that they made last year to encourage people to take up their benefits.
It is excellent news that more pensioners are gaining access to this support, which is vital to them, but will the Minister look further into the use of call centres and dedicated call lines for people applying for benefit assistance? Frankly, in some instances, it is causing real difficulties.
Many people find it easy to claim over the phone, but if my hon. Friend knows of any constituents who are reluctant to use the service, they can, of course, request a visit from the Pension Service locally, which will either visit them at home or find a setting such as Age Concern where they might feel more comfortable about making their claims. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with more details.
In addition to the help that the Department gives via the social fund, we are now delivering the £36 million growth fund, which will increase the amount of affordable credit available via credit unions and community development financial institutions. That will help tens of thousands of people to avoid having recourse to doorstep lenders and loan sharks.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency, people do have problems with expensive credit deals, loan sharks and a credit union under severe pressure. What assistance can West Lancashire residents actually expect from the growth fund to promote affordable credit and assistance with credit unions?
The first growth fund contracts have been signed in the last few weeks and terms have been agreed with a further 20 organisations, including five in the north-west. Negotiations continue with all other organisations that were successful at the evaluation stage, including a further 12 in the north-west. I think that my hon. Friend can her tell constituents that the situation should improve, once the growth fund contracts begin to come into operation. They will lead to many more affordable loans being available to them, so they should be able to avoid the extortionate interest rates levied by the doorstep lenders and the loan sharks.
Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems is that arising from inaccurate information contained in many of the adverts that promote credit and other cards? Quite often, the technical terms disguise the actual annual credit and interest figure.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have got previous on this—I campaigned very hard on the subject in my previous capacity, when I served on the Treasury Select Committee—and he will know that the Government have responded to some of the issues that the Committee raised and some changes were made under the Consumer Credit Act 2006, which has improved the situation. In my personal view, although this is no longer my ministerial responsibility, a great deal more is still to be done.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on child poverty highlighted the importance of the availability of affordable credit. The three credit unions in Plymouth make their services known largely by word of mouth, and there are real concerns that they are not reaching all the people who are at greatest risk from loan sharks. Does the Minister intend any of the growth fund moneys to be specifically directed at publicising the services available and offered by credit unions nationally?
I can help my hon. Friend. What we are doing through the growth fund, of course, is receiving bids that come from credit unions and groups of credit unions, including some in her own part of the world. Many of them are including publicity campaigns in the bids that they put to us and in the contracts that we are negotiating with them. She is quite right to identify the problem, and I hope that the money we are investing with the growth fund will go a long way to improve the situation.
Pathways to work pilot schemes have currently helped at least 6,130 people with mental health problems back into work.
I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State for that reply, but he will be aware of the evaluation of the pathways to work scheme carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published in research report 354, which states:
“There is no statistically significant evidence that the policy has any impact on those who report having one health problem that is mental illness.”
To what does he attribute that poor performance? Given that people with mental ill-health now form the largest single group of new claimants of incapacity benefits, what steps is he taking to ensure that that important group can benefit further from welfare reform?
The data that I have seen indicate that about one in 10 people with mental health problems who are participating in a pathways pilot scheme have found a job. That is significantly better than in those areas without a pathways scheme. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his view, and I take it that he is lending his support to the view of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said of pathways:
“The pilots have been successful, showing a large increase in participation in re-integrating programmes and a marked increase in exits from incapacity benefits.”
If the choice is between the hon. Gentleman’s view of pathways and the OECD’s, I am afraid that I prefer the OECD’s view.
There is no doubt that the cognitive behavioural therapists who work in the pathways to work areas and help people with mental health problems into work have been very effective. How confident is my right hon. Friend that enough of those people will be properly trained when the pathways scheme is rolled out to other areas, especially as mental health is one of the big issues and obviously requires a different approach from that for people with other disabilities and especially as the most recent research shows that employers are even more prejudiced against employing someone with a mental health problem?
There is no doubt that people with mental health problems face an issue of stigma, and we must tackle that. Specifically on pathways to work, my hon. Friend is quite right to refer to the positive impact of cognitive behavioural therapy. For example, I have visited a scheme in Derby with a significant success rate in employing CBT services from the private sector, where, I am afraid, the NHS did not have the necessary capacity. Together with the private sector and the NHS, I hope that there is a way to ensure that we have sufficient capacity. Like my hon. Friend, those of us in the House should go out and meet people who have benefited from the programme. That is the way to test the scheme’s value, rather than relying on reports from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
What is the Secretary of State’s opinion of “The Depression Report”, published last month by the London School of Economics, which suggests that huge savings could be made on incapacity benefit if cognitive behavioural therapy was made available to those suffering from depression or anxiety disorders, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence? If he has not yet read the report, will he do so and give serious consideration to its proposals, along with his colleagues in the Department of Health?
I have read the report, and we agree with it. We are extending pathways to work to every part of the United Kingdom, so that everyone will have access, where appropriate, to CBT.
Independent living is at the heart of the Government’s strategy for disabled people. The life chances report, published in January last year, set out a range of measures to enable more disabled people to lead independent lives. The Department for Work and Pensions and the new Office for Disability Issues are working closely with the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government to test individual budgets and, in all, 13 pilot sites will be on stream by the end of this month.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. There will be some individuals in that category with learning difficulties and chronic mental health problems who, 30 years ago, could have been in a long-term institution. What assistance are we giving to such people to ensure that they can live independent lives in our communities?
One reason we are testing this approach through the pilots is to ensure that people such as those to whom my hon. Friend referred have far more control over their lives, and we are pulling together some of the resources available to them, including access to work. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the pilots, so that they can underpin the development of a far more individual and “in-control” approach for disabled people in Britain.
We have already made significant progress. New claims are down by a third since 1997 and in the year to November 2005, the number of people on incapacity benefits was down by 61,000. We are building on that success through the national roll-out of pathways to work and the measures announced in our Welfare Reform Bill. That will make a significant contribution to making a reality of our aim to reduce, over a decade, the number of those claiming incapacity benefits by 1 million.
I watched the exchange about the general picture between the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who asked Question 1. May I ask the Minister a specifically London follow-up question? Just over 250,000 people in Greater London are claiming invalidity benefit or getting other disability benefit, which means that they are not working. Can the Minister tell me, either now or later, what proportion of them—excluding those who will have died or retired—will be in work by the target date of 2016?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the earlier exchange between the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and Members was far better live than it was on the monitor. As the hon. Gentleman has asked a specific and detailed question, it would be appropriate for me to give a written response at a future date, but he will doubtless be delighted to know that the number of incapacity benefit recipients in his constituency has already fallen by 5 per cent.
We were disappointed by the House of Lords decision in respect of the Barker case. The Government announced that we will amend the Compensation Bill to restore the position and to offer some comfort to sufferers of mesothelioma.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and for the commitment that the Secretary of State gave earlier this year to taking such action. Does the Minister plan to extend the compensation, particularly to those people—mainly women—who come into contact with such fibres, perhaps through washing their husband’s clothes at home?
The hon. Gentleman, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), raised this matter in an Adjournment debate a week or so ago, and I can confirm today what I confirmed in that debate. The industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme is under review and we will publish a discussion document later this year, on which all interested parties, including the hon. Gentleman, can comment. We are looking for additional ways to provide the support that people in this dreadful situation need in order to make their life with that terrible illness at least in some small way more acceptable.
Many of us are delighted that the Government are moving to overturn the decision in the Barker case, but do we not need a swift and simple compensation scheme—unlike the miners’ compensation scheme, which is over-burdensome—for mesothelioma sufferers? Many such sufferers may have only 18 months from the moment when they know that they are ill with the disease to the moment when, sadly, they die. Will the Government move swiftly on this issue?
My hon. Friend takes a close interest in this subject and has done so for some time. He is right to say that the current situation is unacceptable. I understand that the average time taken to process and pay a claim is longer than the post-diagnosis life expectancy of mesothelioma sufferers, which is clearly unacceptable. The Government are working hard with the insurance industry, trade unions and others, and we will make a statement on this matter before the summer recess.
Child Support Agency
In February 2006, the agency published its operational improvement plan, which sets out how it will make significant improvement to performance over the next three years. In the meantime, Sir David Henshaw is developing a redesign of the child support system for the longer term and has been asked to deliver his findings to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the summer recess.
My hon. Friend is right that all such problems arise because of relationship breakdown, and it would assist the families and children involved were such intervention avoided. Mediation has a role to play, and while I do not want to prejudge anything that the Henshaw report will bring forward, my hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—
But will the hon. Gentleman carry out an investigation into the practice of constituency associations forming a club, which charges a large annual membership fee, part of the benefit of which is a complimentary dinner in the House of Commons? In so doing, will he publish the list of all Members who have booked private dining facilities in the House since the election?
This is not primarily a matter for the House of Commons Commission. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there has been misuse of any facility provided by the House, including its refreshment facilities, that is a potential breach of paragraph 14 of the code of conduct. Allegations of that nature should be drawn to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and will be considered in accordance with the procedures for investigating complaints, as agreed by the House.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Official Report (Corrections)
The ministerial code makes it clear that Ministers must give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. It is obviously helpful if any correction necessary to anything said on the Floor of the House is made clear, for example, through a written ministerial statement. In the light of my correspondence with the hon. Gentleman and his suggestions, I am currently considering the terms in which guidance should be given to Departments on how corrections might best be put on the record, taking into account how high profile the original error was. I am also in touch with the editor of the Official Report as to how corrections might be noted and cross-referenced in Hansard.
I hope that it is not old-fashioned to believe that being inaccurate at the Dispatch Box is one of the cardinal sins of British politics. If that is still the case, should not corrections be made at the Dispatch Box at the same time of day as the original error, in order to gain the same publicity as the original words received on “Today”, “Yesterday in Parliament” or anywhere else?
Were a deliberate error made at the Dispatch Box, having to come back to the House for a further oral statement would probably be the least of the retribution to be meted out to the individual. As for inadvertent errors, unless such an error was grossly negligent, it would be slightly over-the-top for the Minister concerned to have to come back to make a further oral statement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on his basic principle, that the way in which a correction is implemented should take account of the circumstances in which the original error was made. I also understand his concern about the use of letters from Ministers, which are then placed in the Library and cannot be properly cross-referenced.
I have seen other data which suggest that what the Prime Minister said may well have been entirely accurate. Let me say, however—leaving aside that particular example—that if there is an inaccuracy, it is right for that inaccuracy to be brought properly to the attention of the House and the public. That is in the Government’s interests as well. The Government’s interests are not served by the appearance of inaccurate data in the Official Report, with corrections—sometimes quite significant corrections—available only in the House of Commons Library.
I am grateful for the positive tone in which the Leader of the House is addressing an issue that vexes all Members on both sides of the House, but let me also give an example. On 19 April, during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that in the Thames Valley strategic health authority area—as it then was—there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks for out-patient appointments. In fact, that was not the case: a constituent of mine had been waiting 18 weeks. I wrote to the Prime Minister; he did not reply to me. The Secretary of State for Health replied to me, saying that when the Prime Minister had said on 19 April that “today” there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks, he had meant that on 31 December 2005 there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks.
As of the end of March, there were more than 500 patients waiting more than 13 weeks for out-patient appointments in the Thames Valley area, so the figure would not even have been accurate on the basis of the most recent data relating to the date to which the Prime Minister referred.
Do not Ministers have a real responsibility to the House, and to the public who read reports of our proceedings, to ensure that the information given is accurate? Does not the biggest responsibility rest with the Prime Minister, who should be the one to ensure the highest standards of all in the information that he gives?
Having observed the care that the Prime Minister takes in preparing for Prime Minister’s questions, and the voluminous briefing that he receives and studies in every detail, I can say that he makes every effort to ensure that the replies he gives are accurate. As for the specific example given by the right hon. Lady, she will appreciate that I have not seen the details. It seems to me, however, that she accepts that there was a period when the waiting list fell to zero, and that the Prime Minister was therefore perfectly entitled to make the point.
We have to use the latest available data. I do not want to sound like “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, but I have not seen from the record where the Prime Minister’s “breath mark”, or comma, occurs, denoting what “today” qualified. He was, however, using the most up-to-date data.
The right hon. Lady will have cause to know that I quite often quote data relating to the Thames Valley strategic health authority. I am open to correction, but I can tell her—much to her embarrassment, which is strange, because she should be celebrating the fact— that according to my recollection, the number of nurses in her SHA area has increased by over 3,000 since 1997, and the number of doctors by a significant number of hundreds.
Select Committee Reports
There are merits in enabling as many reports as possible to be discussed here in the House of Commons, but the time pressures on parliamentary business do limit that. Fortunately, our increasing use of Westminster Hall during recent Sessions has enabled hon. Members to debate many Select Committee reports and to call Ministers to account.
I am grateful for that response, but time pressures will always be with us. Some very important Select Committee reports are discussed in the House all the time, not least the Defence Committee’s fifth report following its Afghanistan inquiry. The Committee said, for example,
“We do not believe it will prove possible to complete the reform of the security and justice institutions in Helmand within the three-year commitment so far made.”
Given that that three-year commitment has been repeated time and again, does not the Deputy Leader of the House agree that the whole House needs an opportunity to discuss that report, Afghanistan and the UK commitment over a three-year period, or even beyond that?
I understand that there are up to five days when defence issues are due to be debated in this House and that would clearly be a suitable topic during those debates. Also, many statements are made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and other Ministers on defence issues, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is here today to listen to the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
Seeing as some of the most glaring examples of administrative incompetence by the Government, including the Home Office’s escapades and tax credits, have been drawn attention to by Select Committee reports, is not there a need to give those reports the best possible exposure and debate in the House, and to do so with a sense of urgency, which unfortunately the present Westminster Hall arrangements do not provide?
Fortunately, this House does provide them. It has provided an Opposition day next week for the hon. Member and his hon. Friends. I understand that the two topics for debate have not yet been chosen. Perhaps, since he feels strongly about it, he will prevail on his Whip and his party leader to include those reports, so that they can be discussed with the passion that he clearly feels about them.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the Government's strategy on counter-terrorism—but first, if you will allow me, I would like to express again my personal condolences, and, I am sure, those of the whole House, to all those who suffered as a result of the London bombings on 7 July last year. The first anniversary of those tragic events has just passed, and we witnessed on Friday the very moving and solemn expressions of the whole nation's remembrance.
It is right that last week focused on commemoration, but it is also right that people, including the survivors and families of victims of the 7 July attacks, want to know more about the current and future terrorist threat and what we are doing to combat it.
Following 7 July, the Government said that we would provide three things: an outline explanation of our strategy to combat terrorism, an explanation of the system of national threat levels, and a statement on the lessons learned from the 7 July attacks for the emergency responders. Today I am fulfilling the first and second of those promises. I will be providing a statement on lessons learned later.
The Government are necessarily limited in what they can say about our counter-terrorism measures, because some elements must obviously remain secret, but I will say as much as is prudent, as we have tried to do in the publications that we have issued today.
The counter-terrorism strategy—known in Government as Contest—was first developed in 2003 and is continuously reviewed in the light of developments. It has been referred to publicly on Government websites. It is wide-ranging, involving the whole of Government, international partners, agencies, including the police and intelligence services and, most importantly, all our citizens in the United Kingdom from all our communities.
Sadly, terrorism is not a new phenomenon, for the United Kingdom or for the world. Even in our time, terrorism has disguised itself as many things in different places—falsely claiming, for example, the mantle of socialism, nationalism and even in some places Christianity. Therefore, terrorism is not the monopoly of any religion or ideology. None the less, the new manifestation of international terrorism that we now face is different from previous threats to the UK in some crucial ways.
The first is the global nature of the threat. It is no longer possible to separate the domestic and international dimensions of the threats that we are facing. The realities of modern life, including mass migration, ease of travel and information flows, mean that the terrorists’ arena covers a very wide range of targets in a very wide range of countries. Secondly, whereas in the past it was possible to link terrorist attacks to particular groups, networks or individuals, that is no longer the case. The new threat comes from a range of individuals operating in global networks.
A third characteristic of the new threats is the sheer scale of human destruction that the attackers want to cause. They intend to cause mass casualties. They murder indiscriminately men, women and children. They make no distinction between combatants and civilians. They lay waste to people irrespective of their background or religion, and they are prepared to use themselves as the suicidal means of attack—witness the events of 7 July in London. All those features have a major impact on how we might prepare for and deal with terror. In particular, the advent of the suicide bomber introduces the presumption that we must intervene at an early stage.
A fourth characteristic is that the people involved in those terrorist attacks are driven by a very particular violent and extremist ideology. A common thread running through terrorist attacks over the past decade has been a claim by those involved that they have been acting in defence of Islam. It is crucial that we understand that the extreme interpretation espoused by Islamist terrorists to support their actions is not an interpretation of Islam that is shared by the vast majority of Muslims in the UK and abroad. That majority rejects both extremism and violence. The dividing line in the fight against terrorism is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between evil and those opposing evil. It is not a clash of civilisations, but a struggle for civilisation against indiscriminate, evil terrorists and terrorism.
I now turn to the strategy itself. It is structured around four principal strands, sometimes known as the four Ps: prevent, pursue, protect and prepare. The four pillars of the strategy are not mutually exclusive. They are closely linked and together form a balanced and integrated approach.
The first pillar is prevent. It is obviously essential to tackle terrorism with all the levers at our disposal. Internationally, for instance, the use of our brave armed forces may be a necessary part of fighting terrorism, but it will never be sufficient on its own. We also need to work to eliminate social and economic inequalities, through aid, through trade, and through our efforts to help resolve political problems, whether in the middle east or elsewhere. So too, domestically, we recognise the complexity of the phenomenon. Effective security measures, intelligence and policing are essential. But ultimately, modern terrorism will be defeated only by addressing the political and social issues by a debate about values, by democracy and by public solidarity. That is why we are working with all communities to tackle the social factors underlying radicalisation, to block the ways radicalisation takes place, and to counter the radicals’ arguments. But it is not just the Government that have a role in preventing radicalisation. Muslims and the wider community in the UK must also play their part if we are to be successful.
Last summer’s “Preventing Extremism Together” campaign showed what can be done when Government and communities work together. There were often differences in opinion, arguments and discussion, but dialogue continued and difficult problems were faced head on, not ignored or avoided. As a result we all learned from each other and our relationship was strengthened. We need to build on those initiatives and to focus our attention more closely on places such as prisons and universities where we know that radicalisation is more likely to take place.
We must also ensure that the social and economic inequalities that give rise to a sense of alienation because people feel deprived of life chances are reduced and ultimately overcome. That work has been prioritised across Government and is overseen by a Cabinet-level Committee that will drive it forward.
The second strand—the pursue strand—is, as the name suggests, concerned with pursuing terrorists and those who support them. This section of the document that we published today sets out how intelligence is used by the police and security agencies to piece together the best understanding of the threats we face. A word about intelligence: I believe that as long as the threat against the UK remains, intelligence will play a crucial role in protecting us against future terrorist attacks, but the plain fact is that intelligence by its very nature is often imperfect. It is very important that we all—inside and outside the House—understand that there can never be 100 per cent. guarantees, and that the risk of future terrorist attack remains.
The Government’s top priority—and that of the police and the intelligence agencies—is, obviously, public safety. Four attacks have been disrupted since July 2005. That is why the Government fully support the police and the Security Service when they are required to make very difficult decisions on the basis of intelligence. Intelligence is rarely complete, is never perfect and is often fragmentary and partial. There may be situations in which the police simply do not have the luxury of delaying action to firm up on the intelligence. That is the reality of the approach, and I believe that everyone in all our communities ought to recognise the circumstances in which our intelligence agencies and police operate.
Prosecution is, and will remain, our preferred way of dealing with terrorists and disrupting their activity. Prosecution, however, is not always possible. Information and knowledge are not necessarily evidence. When, as is sometimes the case, the available intelligence shows that an individual is involved in terrorism, but does not provide enough evidence to secure a prosecution, we must have other options available to us to protect public safety. Those options include deportation, where the person concerned is a foreign national and a threat to the UK, excluding foreign nationals who threaten our national security from entering the UK, asset freezing and control orders.
The use of control orders has been much in the news recently following the High Court judgment on 28 June that the specific obligations in six control orders were incompatible with the individuals’ right to liberty under article 5 of the European convention on human rights. We are appealing that judgment in the Court of Appeal. All existing control orders remain in force, and I will continue to make new control orders where I consider it necessary to do so to protect the people of this country.
The protect strand is concerned with reducing the vulnerability of the UK and UK interests overseas to a terrorist attack. We have a history of protecting our critical national infrastructure from attacks, and over the years we have built up a strong partnership with both public and private industry in the UK, as well as with our international partners.
Among the strands of work that are being taken forward in that area are programmes of work to strengthen the UK’s border security and tracking systems and to harden our transport systems and key transport hubs against terrorist attack, and the well-established programmes of work with those who own and operate our key utilities and services.
The prepare strand is all about ensuring that if a terrorist attack occurs we are as ready as we can be to deal with the consequences. This strand involves a huge number of stakeholders who deliver resilience across public, private and voluntary sectors. The work is underpinned by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which establishes an effective civil protection framework for the 21st century. In the Contest document we have focused on those work streams that enhance our resilience against terrorist attack.
We have outlined the main elements of our strategy in the first of the documents that we have published today. We have also referred to the threat and response levels in the United Kingdom. The second document published today explains the threat and response levels, what they are and how they are used in the United Kingdom. This is the first time that any Government have made public in this way the system deciding threat levels. We considered this carefully. We have decided to inform the general public about the process so that it can be better understood and more transparent. We also hope that it instils confidence and trust.
At the same time, the existing seven-point threat level system will, with effect from 1 August, be simplified to a five-point system. Though it clearly remains of most direct use to those directly involved in protecting national security, it is of obvious interest to members of the general public. From 1 August, the five threat levels will be: low, which means that an attack is unlikely; moderate, which means that an attack is possible, but not likely; substantial, which means that an attack is a strong possibility; severe, which means that an attack is highly likely; and critical, which means that an attack is expected imminently.
I again stress two things. First, this is not an exact science. It involves human judgment. No one can predict the future; we can only make reasoned judgments. Secondly, threat levels are applied to the United Kingdom as a whole—the national threat level—in order to summarise the overall threat of a terrorist attack to the United Kingdom. There may be variations within the general threat level in respect of important sectors of the economy, and sometimes individuals, events or places.
Since August 2005, the national threat level has been—and remains today—“severe (general)”. Under the new system to be introduced from 1 August, that will equate to severe. From 1 August, information about the national threat level will be available to the general public on the Security Service and Home Office websites. But the importance of the public remaining vigilant at all times and reporting any suspicious activities is still the key message.
Finally, the way in which the Government and sectors of our infrastructure respond to such threat levels needs to take into account both the national and the more specific threat picture, and, in addition, the importance and vulnerability of particular sites. The response structure has three broad bands related to different levels of threat. These are set out in the document that I referred to.
I should stress that there is no national response level. Response levels are set by security practitioners in each sector, are determined by specific assessments of risk, and may vary from site to site. We will not therefore be announcing them. To do so would only assist any would-be attackers. However, we will keep the response level system under review, with the Security Service and our security practitioners, to ensure the maximum practical congruity between threat levels and response levels.
Through the publication of both documents, my aims are simple: to bring further transparency and understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat; to raise awareness of the various strands of work that make up our counter-terrorist strategy; to explain publicly the United Kingdom’s system of threat and response and levels; and to undertake to make the United Kingdom national threat level public from 1 August. I believe that the publication of these documents will be a significant further step in the existing dialogue between all of us on some of the very complex and difficult issues that the threat from international terrorism represents. That threat is to all of us and will be met, and eventually overcome, only by united action by all of us. I commend the documents to the House.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I start by joining the Home Secretary in his condolences to those who suffered in the 7 July bombings and his support for all those who bravely defended us all before, during and after those terrible events? I also thank him for his courtesy in giving the Opposition advance sight of his statement.
I welcome the intention, which I think is the main thrust of his statement, to institute a public threat level warning system. We and others have been calling for that for some years, and the proposal was supported by the Intelligence and Security Committee two months ago. The idea is eminently sensible and the system will increase both public confidence and public vigilance. However, it will require the public to know what to do in each alert state, so what do the Government intend to do to educate the public about their response to the published alert states? Will the Home Secretary give the House some indication of how the practicalities will work? Will the public be asked to be alert for specific matters, as was common in Northern Ireland, or does he envisage that there will simply be an exhortation to heightened awareness?
The system will, of course, only be as good as the intelligence that underpins it. The embarrassment of last year when the Government’s alert status was reduced shortly before the 7 July attack demonstrated that very clearly. This is not an argument against having a transparent system, but an argument for reinforcing our counter-terrorist intelligence operations.
That brings us to the general counter-terrorism strategy: the so-called Project Contest. I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is publishing the details of Project Contest, to which we will give careful consideration and respond in due course. However, this is not just about strategies on a piece of paper. It is first and foremost about delivery on the streets of our cities, whether that is preventing the alienation and radicalisation of young men, as the Home Secretary has said, or interdicting, catching and convicting terrorists before they act.
In autumn last year, the Prime Minister’s delivery unit reviewed Project Contest: remember, this was after 7 July, and the Prime Minister’s own delivery unit was reviewing the Prime Minister’s own policies. The unit’s comments were scathing. It said that key policies designed to prevent attacks were “immature and disjointed”, and that other policies were unrelated to the
“real world and show no signs of making progress”.
It said that the policy was mired in confusion, with
“little effective coordination and no clear leadership”,
and that there was
“little confidence in the ability of the security apparatus to tackle the problem and it is very difficult to demonstrate that progress has been made”.
The unit quoted from a series of interviews with a number of Whitehall officials, who said:
“Activity is not connected or coherent.”
They asked, “Who’s in charge?”. The reply was:
“We measure meetings and reports, not real world impact.”
The conclusion of the 11-page delivery unit review states:
“The strategy is immature. Forward planning is disjointed or has yet to occur. Accountability for delivery is weak. Real world impact is seldom measured.”
The Home Secretary has controversially described his own Department as “unfit for purpose”. Is he confident that that Department is capable of correcting the serious problems highlighted by the Prime Minister’s own delivery unit? Is it not the case that the necessary grip on the overall counter-terrorist effort will be taken only if there is a single Minister of Cabinet rank dedicated solely to dealing with the threat? Would we not be much more certain that our counter-terrorist strategy was both well designed and properly implemented if we had the benefit of an independent inquiry into the failure of that strategy that permitted the terrible events of July last year?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he started by referring to the consensus around the publication of the report—but I regret the way in which he ended. I think that he referred to the “failure” of our systems with reference to 7/7. We should not underestimate just what protection this country has gained from our security services. Four times in the past year alone we have prevented a terrorist threat through the acumen, bravery and commitment of our services in this country. The old adage that we, and they, have to win every time, but the terrorists have to win and get through only once, is true. We should be a little quicker to understand and support our security services and a little slower to condemn them, implicitly or otherwise.
May I refer to some of the other matters that the right hon. Gentleman raised? He asked whether we were urging the public to take specific or general action. We have given some broad headlines on page 33, under the heading, “What can the public do to help?”, which explain what people can do both in their own communities and in response to threat levels. That includes:
“identifying and reporting unusual or suspicious”
circumstances. An anti-terrorist hotline, on 0800 789321, has been available for some time to anyone who wishes to draw to our attention anything that they think is noteworthy. Obviously, when people are travelling abroad, they could keep in touch with the Foreign Office. People can also help by
“working in their own community”,
and so on. So, in a general sense, there are things that the public can do, but as I said earlier, whatever the threat level, I hope that people will be vigilant at all times. It is only by the united action of the united peoples of the United Kingdom that we will eventually counter this threat.
As for specific threats, the position has been made clear by successive Home Secretaries, and by the Prime Minister. If there is a specific threat against a specific target, we will of course warn people, but as everyone in the House will know, we have to be wary about acting on general information and issuing warnings when they are not justified by the evidence. I merely point out that before 7/7, when the Government, under previous Home Secretaries, pointed out that there was a threat—on the advice of our intelligence services, and having taken into account all the considerations—Opposition Members accused us of crying wolf. It is difficult to judge between being over-cautious and being over-dramatic in alerting the public. We always face that problem.
As for the self-critical analysis of our strategy, it is true that last October, barely two years after we set up the strategy, the Prime Minister commissioned—as he ought to have done—an analysis and a self-critical examination of the operations of our intelligence services, particularly the Contest strategy, as one would expect. We take the lessons of that analysis very seriously, and we are doing everything possible to make sure that we improve our performance at every opportunity.
We have put in many more resources, and about £2 billion is going into general counter-terrorism and resilience work. We are spending four times as much on special branch and policing counter-terrorism activities as we did a few years ago. The resources are going in and lessons are being learned, and tomorrow there will be a debate in which such points can be discussed in far greater detail.
I join other hon. Members in passing on condolences on behalf of my party to everyone who suffered or was bereaved by the attacks on 7 July last year. I, too, thank the Home Secretary for the advance notice of his statement.
I welcome what the Home Secretary said about the new system of threat and response levels, and I look forward to examining the document in more detail. Will he provide me with one small point of clarification? Does the new system of response levels replace the old system of alert state levels, which was used in key public buildings such as the Palace of Westminster? He will remember that the Intelligence and Security Committee called for greater simplicity in the terminology that is used, and it is important to include greater clarity in the new system that the Home Secretary announced today.
The Home Secretary spoke eloquently of the need to work “with all communities to tackle the social factors underlying radicalisation, to block the ways radicalisation takes place, and to counter the radicals’ arguments.” Does he agree with the comments made last week by his hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) that the Government’s follow-up to the excellent work by the seven working groups under the aegis of the “Preventing Extremism Together” initiative has been somewhat weak? Of the 64 recommendations, I think that only a handful have been implemented.
I noted the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the High Court judgment on 28 June on a number of control orders and the Government’s intention to appeal. Notwithstanding that appeal, could he comment on the public remarks made by the independent reviewer of the anti-terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile of Berriew, that the control orders could easily be amended in detail and in substance to bring them into line with the High Court judgment without abrogating any of our obligations under the European convention on human rights?
Finally, I note that the Home Secretary refers, rightly, to the need to strengthen the UK’s border security and tracking systems. How far advanced are the plans to implement an e-border—electronic border—system, and is he warming at all to the argument made by a number of us for some time that there is an overwhelming need for a single integrated border police, if we are to take all the measures necessary to tackle the ongoing terrorist threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I shall answer them all as quickly as possible.
Yes, the response levels that I announced today are a replacement for the alert levels to which he referred. On the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) about the progress of “Preventing Extremism Together”, I listened carefully to what was said, and I think it is important that we undertake some self-criticism. We always want to push to do more. I do not agree with many of the comments that my hon. Friend made on this occasion, although I agree on the necessity to do a lot more.
Nine towns and cities with large Muslim populations were visited, for instance, by Home Office Ministers. Seven community-led working groups were set up under the banner of “Preventing Extremism Together”. Out of the 64 recommendations, 27 were for the Government to lead on. We have agreed action on all 27. Three have already been completed. I can give the hon. Gentleman details on those, if he wishes. One of them is youth matters, with the Department for Education and Skills and the Green Paper. One is extending opportunities legislation to cover discrimination on the grounds of faith, and expansion of the Muslim ethnic achievement project.
Work on 17 of the recommendations is in progress. Three are still under consideration; two have not been taken forward. From memory, one of those is powers to close places of worship. I cannot offhand remember the other one, but I can write to the hon. Gentleman about it. The three principal recommendations in which the Government were involved—the scholars roadshow, the Muslim forums against extremism, and the mosque and imams national advisory board—have been completed. So a great deal of work has already been done, but I am the first to admit that we have a lot more to do.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall not go any further on the question of control orders because there is an appeal outstanding. It would be wrong at this time to comment on the learned Lord Carlile’s views.
On immigration and nationality, the hon. Gentleman may know that I promised when I took over as Secretary of State at the Home Office that those areas where I perceived inadequacies—that was not the whole of the Home Office; I was misrepresented earlier, but I did discern and identify publicly areas where there were serious inadequacies in my view—I would come back within 100 days and put forward a programme for overhauling the Home Office, reforming the immigration and nationality directorate and rebalancing the criminal justice system. There are a few days left, but I promise the hon. Gentleman that before he goes off, I will bring make proposals on all three.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best memorial to those who died or who were injured last year is the effectiveness of our efforts to tackle future terrorism?
In regard to the work that is going on to prevent the growth of violent extremism, does my right hon. Friend accept that although many things have been done during the past year, this vital work needs a level of clear-sighted and consistent ministerial leadership, which has been lacking during the past 12 months? It is quite true to say that the voices that are most likely to persuade young Muslims away from violence are the voices of other Muslims, but what Government do, and the way in which Government work with those people, can be crucial in helping them to be as effective as possible. On that issue, is my right hon. Friend aware that I share the view that has been expressed that a Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism would be desirable, but in the absence of that, can my right hon. Friend say which Minister will personally lead on, and take responsibility for, the delivery of the prevention strand of the counter-terrorist strategy?
As ever, my right hon. Friend makes very good points. He will understand if I try to avoid any imputation that I am criticising anyone who has previously held a post involved in this matter. However, I agree that we can always improve, and the fact that this matter is under the direct lead of my right hon. Friend at the Department with responsibility for communities and work in the communities, as well as local government, means that a major element of this will now be given an impetus. She leads on that—
It is obvious that those on the Opposition Front Bench have a problem keeping up with our reshuffles. I am glad that I have been able to enlighten the right hon. Gentleman.
On the serious matter, my right hon. Friend’s point is that a focus and concentration on community engagement in the radicalisation programme, and understanding it better in ideological terms and confronting it in debate and discussion, would make a major addition—[Interruption.] I am presenting this statement today on the full counter-terrorist strategy. My right hon. Friend asked not merely about counter-terrorism, but about engagement in the Muslim community at the grassroots level, which is a good thing to do on its own, not just to prevent terrorism. I am agreeing with him and I am saying that that will now be given a new impetus because my right hon. Friend is leading it up.
The Home Secretary will understand that those with London constituencies with thousands of constituents travelling into the centre every day share a particular concern about what he tells the House today. But on the specific points that he made about his five-point threat level, he explained that news of it would be available on the Security Service and Home Office websites. However, realistically, after a while, how many people will check that before they set off for work in the morning? Is the right hon. Gentleman having discussions with some of the public transport operators about other ways in which the threat levels can be advertised, particularly to commuters into central London, so that people do not have to search for specialist sites to find out how at risk they might be just going to work?
Yes, I am willing to do that. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas, I will be happy to receive them and I will consider them carefully. We have made an assumption that when the threat level, if it is made public, moves in any significant direction, it is likely to be followed by the media, but, of course, there are many other ways in which it could be made available, and we will always look to them.
Let me take the opportunity to correct one point. I said in response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) that one of the matters that we had not proceeded with was the proposal to close places of worship, but was one of the considerations in the Prime Minister’s 12-point plan, rather than one in the “Preventing Extremism Together” programme.
Given that the public did not understand the difference between the threat level and the alert state in the past, given that different threat levels—now, apparently, response levels—could apply to different parts of the critical national infrastructure, and given that one could reduce the threat level but not the alert state, as happened before 7 July, and that that was understood by practitioners but not the public, do we not, without wishing to be alarmist, need to say rather more to the public than appears on websites and in the papers published today, so that they can better understand what is being proposed?
The complexity that my hon. Friend outlines with regard to the response level, as opposed to the threat level, is one of the reasons why it is not to be published. Threat levels will be published. However, there is a degree of complexity about response levels which, in addition to the utility that any would-be terrorist would find in a declaration of the response level, means that we should treat them differently from threat levels. Nevertheless, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend in saying that we should maintain, as I said, a
“review, with the Security Service and security practitioners, to ensure the maximum practical congruity between threat levels and response levels.”
The simpler we can make this in operational terms, the better.
Interdiction and, in particular, the prevention of errors in interdiction, are dependent on the rapid and accurate transmission of information. Sadly, the emergency services still cannot fully and properly communicate with each other, particularly on the highly vulnerable London underground system. On a wholly practical level, when will the Home Secretary secure the investment that will make the Airwave system work underground?
The point about communications and co-ordination and threat levels was a lesson learned from the terrible events of 7/7. That is one of the areas that we will have to consider, and there will of course be a response later on. I said that today I would address two of the three things that we will do.
Without prejudicing prosecutions or security and intelligence, can the Secretary of State amplify on the gravity of the four terrorist attempts that have occurred over the past year? I think that he should beef up his information to the House and should be able to do so without prejudicing those things. We need to know how grave they were.
On gravity, the Secretary of State said that he did not want to criticise his predecessors. I do, in one respect, and I include in that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). All Home Secretaries have failed to address the question of our seaports. I have been amazed by that time after time, long before it was fashionable to argue that we should have a dedicated, highly mobile police force. It is now rather late in the day. I urge the Home Secretary to take it from somebody who represents the riparian authorities of ports along the Thames that all over the United Kingdom, our vulnerable ports—well, my right hon. Friend gets the drift—
I thank my hon. Friend for his brief summary of a position that he made plain to me at considerably greater length in a private meeting. I got the point then, and I have got it now. I have passed his comments on to those who deal with such matters.
I will consider my hon. Friend’s first point, although I am not sure that the expression “beef up” is one that I would want to agree with. I will see whether there are any more details that we can put out, but I think that it is preferable if we keep this to the minimum. One of the problems that we have experienced in putting intelligence into the public domain is that going into great detail can expose or endanger the sources of that intelligence. However, if we then modified that detail to ensure that we do not expose ourselves to any risk as regards the sources, we could be accused of putting out something dodgy. I therefore prefer to keep it to the minimum at the moment.
I agree with the Home Secretary that intelligence will play a crucial role in protecting us from a future terrorist attack. May I remind him of the specific counter-terror role undertaken by an individual from Strathclyde in ACPO Scotland? When the Home Secretary is considering the allocation of resources for counter-terrorism and intelligence, will he ensure that all parts of the UK are considered and that all the necessary resources are given to them?
Of course we shall try to do that. Normally, when we make such allocations in our budget at UK level, Scotland receives a proportionate amount—indeed, more than proportionate, depending on how it is calculated—to meet the needs of a third of the UK’s landmass, though only 8 per cent. of the population. I would not want anybody to underestimate the amount of extra money that has gone into policing. As I said, approximately four times as much money is going into policing, through special branch and so on, and about £2 billion is going towards counter-terrorism and resilience.
The resources for MI5 are commensurate with the extent to which we can expand. There are limitations because we have to train people, who must be skilled in, for example, different languages and backgrounds now that we face a different threat.
The Home Secretary rightly made several points in his statement. One was that, although the security services have to work efficiently, they may make mistakes, and that it is incumbent on the Government of the day to support them even when that happens. However, he also rightly pointed out that, for there to be community cohesion, there has to be trust in the security services. That is a difficult balance to strike. I do not want to go into detail, but there have been recent cases in which we have not got the public relations right. Can he begin to change the culture so that we have a much more rapid series of conclusions when things go right and when they go wrong, and accept the fact that, when things go wrong, early admission should be made rather than denial, which leads to distrust, especially among minority communities?
Yes. My hon. Friend and many other hon. Members could help by explaining the nature of intelligence to people. When a piece of intelligence comes before an intelligence officer, it is not often “right” or “wrong”. It is always fragmentary and partial. Even if it is right in its isolated area, it may be right or wrong in the general context. Putting together a series of such fragmentary pieces of information requires a great deal of judgment, so there is a gradation rather than a simple “right” or “wrong”. Some understanding of that helps people to realise the difficult position in which those in the police and the intelligence services are placed if, on the basis of information received, it appears possible or probable that an event may occur, the consequences of which would be disastrous for many human beings. In those circumstances, it is incumbent on us to support the actions that are necessary for our police and security services to protect life. As I said, all hon. Members could help to promote a better understanding of that. We must balance the sensitivities of all communities with a recognition that the police sometimes have to act to protect all communities.
The Home Secretary has told the House and the wider world that the Home Office is “not fit for purpose”. How have the Government’s legislative proposals failed the test of our civil liberties and their Human Rights Act 1998? The right hon. Gentleman did not wish to refer to control orders but central problems call into question the Government’s interpretation of those basic rights. Does he propose to alter the Human Rights Act?
I know that the hon. Gentleman prides himself on the accuracy of his words. Let me therefore correct a factual inaccuracy. I said not that the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”, but that elements—areas—inside it were not. I said that after commending the Home Office for transforming the speed of treatment of asylum cases and—previously and subsequently—for transforming the UK Passport Service, which was the most disastrous aspect of Government in 1999. It has been transformed, with a consumer satisfaction rating that is higher than that for Tesco. I know that the hon. Gentleman would want to begin his question on a correct factual basis.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about tackling misrepresentations, misinterpretations or any administrative or other implications of the Human Rights Act to try to rebalance matters. Yes, that will be part of the third review, which I mentioned. Proposals on all aspects of rebalancing the criminal justice system will be introduced before the end of the parliamentary term.
Will my right hon. Friend give the strongest possible support and encouragement to those law enforcement agencies engaged in intercepting the financing of terrorist acts? Does he believe that criminal activity is a source of funding for such activity? If that is the case, will he encourage the law enforcement agencies to expose such links, so that those young people to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) referred earlier, who might otherwise be attracted to join in such activities for misguided religious or other reasons, can see the true nature of the organisations to which they are attracted?
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. Given her experience as a Security Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, she will probably know as well as anyone in the House how what is sometimes portrayed—and sometimes, in the eyes of its adherents, even begun—as a noble cause can degenerate into money-manufacturing criminality for gangster organisations. That is the true nature of all extremist terrorism, when it goes unimpaired and unaddressed. Part of our dialogue with young people therefore involves discussing why they believe that they ought to become sympathetic towards such processes, and to engage with them by explaining not only the underlying political reasons that they believe drive them in that direction but the terrible consequences involved, including the corrupt criminal activities that are often related to such terrorist practices.
There has, quite rightly, been a great deal of discussion on the importance of intelligence in the battle against terrorism. Will the Home Secretary confirm that, in regard to national security and intelligence matters relating to Northern Ireland, it is still his intention that the lead agency will be MI5, reporting directly to governmental authorities and Ministers?
It was when I left Northern Ireland, because that is the direction in which I pointed it, and I think that that is still the case. In fact, I will say to the hon. Gentleman that that is the direction, but I will write to him to correct myself if it is not. However, I think that it is.
In terms of the general threat level, we are at the same level as we have been since after July. I would like to say that I believe that there is a period of guaranteed safety, but there is no such thing. However, I can give my hon. Friend a guarantee that those who are working to protect this country from the threat of terrorism will give 100 per cent. dedication, 100 per cent. commitment and, I hope, 100 per cent. professionalism. They cannot give us 100 per cent. certainty, but everything possible is being done to ensure that, even with a severe level of threat, the terrorists do not get through.
May I express the hope that those responsible for the planning of policy, the enactment of legislation and the deployment of operations will keep well in mind the principle of proportionality, the importance of not infringing civil and political liberties, and the need to maintain the good will of the law-abiding community? Some of us think that that has not been the mark of Government policy over a number of years.
Of course, the whole question of proportionality is something that we should always bear in mind. That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman would want, as a lawyer as well as a parliamentarian. As an historian, he will also be aware that situations change. In regard to both the criteria of assessment—intention and capability—that are used against the new threat, we now face an enemy that is utterly unconstrained in its wanton wish to destroy humankind on the largest possible scale. That differentiates it from many enemies in the past. It is also unconstrained in its potential capability, because having the technical means to produce radiological, nuclear or chemical weaponry now means that an unconstrained intention can be conjoined with an unconstrained capability. We have to remember that when we talk about proportionality.
The Home Secretary is right to tell us that the majority of Muslims here wish only to live peacefully and do not support terrorism in any form, but is he worried about the result of a recent public opinion poll, which indicated that 13 per cent. of British Muslims view last year’s suicide bombers in London as martyrs rather than criminals? Will he work more closely with moderate Muslim leaders here explicitly to condemn such attitudes and to support and work for the concept of a separation between allegiance to a state and allegiance to a religion—a concept that is rare in the Muslim world, but not unique, as shown by the good example of Turkey?
Yes, I think everyone would be worried about the percentage that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the other hand, we should not assume that general sentiments expressed in an opinion poll are an indication that people wish that they were engaged in such terrorist activity. It is not unknown in respect of past terrorist acts that the allegiance of young people—whether it be here, in Northern Ireland, Spain or Italy—can sometimes be attached in theory to something that they would never support in practice. We should not underestimate the problem and we cannot be complacent, but we should not brand large sections of the Muslim community as inveterately committed in that direction. I think that that would be wrong. As I said earlier, the dividing line is not between Muslim and non-Muslim, but between evil terrorism and those of us who hold a set of values in common throughout all religions and all civilisations. I merely point out the fact that many of the victims of these terrorist acts—not only in London and New York, but in Saudi Arabia, Amman, Turkey, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, Egypt or in many other areas where terrorists are inflicting their ills on societies, including Afghanistan and Iraq—are themselves Muslims. Not only that, but many victims are often women and children as well as men, so we are all at threat. Terrorism threatens us all and only by a united response will we ultimately defeat it.
Following on from that, does the Home Secretary accept that some of the statements from Ministers, including the Prime Minister, over the last year have served only to heighten the alienation? What does he propose to do to re-engage the majority moderate members of the Muslim community who, like everyone else, want to get rid of terrorism?
No, I do not accept that in respect of the Prime Minister and I would say to the hon. Gentleman that engagement does not mean patronising. The vast majority of Muslims in this country—just the same as everyone else—want to live in a free, decent society where their children do better than they did. They value the freedoms that we protect here and they find terrorism abhorrent. When we engage with people in that community who may not be part of that mainstream, we should be not just engaging them but prepared to enter into discussion and, if necessary, debate with them over values. A values-based discussion will sometimes lead us into debate, which I believe is a good, not a bad, thing.
Afghanistan (Troops Levels)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about UK deployments to Afghanistan. On Thursday, I spoke about Afghanistan during the defence debate. Today, I reiterate the enormous debt that we owe to the British soldiers who have given their lives and who have been injured while serving there. I also salute the bravery of all of our forces who are working to bring about lasting change in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, I said that we had received requests for additional forces in Helmand and that I would announce our response as soon as possible. I will do that today; but first, I want to place that response and indeed the whole of our deployment to Helmand and to Afghanistan as a whole in its proper context.
On 11 September 2001, a devastating terrorist attack was launched against the west from within Afghanistan’s borders. That happened, at least in part, because we abandoned Afghanistan to become a failed state after the Soviet occupation, and that is why it remains overwhelmingly in our national interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to a haven for terrorists. It is also in the interests of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom have no sympathy for terrorism or violent extremism. There are many malign influences holding back the Afghans and we need to fight them, but we should be under no illusion about what is required to succeed.
Only by rebuilding Afghanistan, by strengthening its Government, its security forces and its legal system and by tackling its desperate poverty will we be able to help Afghanistan to make real and lasting progress. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that we should help. The UN agrees. NATO agrees. Thirty-six countries are providing troops to seal their agreement. We all agree, and everything that we do and say should reflect that consensus.
It is also important to recognise where our efforts in Helmand stand in relation to the strategy for Afghanistan as a whole. NATO has been in charge of that mission for three years. It has helped to generate the confidence for millions of refugees to return, and improved access to better medicine and education. It has followed a clear plan to expand security and reconstruction from the north to the west, and now to the more challenging south. We have been engaged in that process throughout, having until recently provided a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The south is more challenging, but that was always well understood, which is why NATO sought a firm platform of progress in the north and west first.
Let me turn specifically to Helmand. We began deploying to Helmand in February, building up to full operating capability on 1 July. It has been said that we have been over-optimistic about that deployment, that we told the House that it would not be difficult and that we sent the wrong force. None of that is true. We said from the start that it was going to be a challenging mission. My predecessor’s statement to the House on 26 January included a sober assessment of the threat. The force package, which was designed by the military and endorsed by the chiefs of staff, reflected that. It contained attack helicopters, artillery and armoured vehicles. We deployed tough, capable units, with robust rules of engagement, because we expected violent resistance.
We knew that the Taliban, the drug lords and certain tribal elements would resist any attempt to bring security to the people of Helmand. We knew that the kind of people who behead teachers, burn schools, smuggle drugs and assassinate Government officials were not likely to stand by and allow progress to happen. Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have over-matched the opposing forces every single time that we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment, and failed. They will continue to try to disrupt our mission, and they will continue to fail.
Let me turn now to that mission. Some say that it is confused and that it is spurious to say that it is about reconstruction, when the reality for soldiers has been fighting. We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance. That is why we sent soldiers to do the task, but that does not change our overriding purpose, which is to rebuild. We have been accused of naivety by drawing a distinction between the ISAF—international security assistance force—mission to spread security and the US-led mission focused on counter-terrorism. But that distinction is not naive at all. In both cases, soldiers will have to fight, but the nature of the ISAF mission reflects the fundamental fact that we will not reach a lasting peace by force alone; we will reach it when Afghanistan has changed and when the Government have been able to deliver such security, development and prosperity that the ordinary Afghans will no longer tolerate terrorists and criminals in their midst. That is why rebuilding is our mission. Our forces on the ground understand that, and the Afghans understand it. In that sense, the mission is simple, but its delivery is complex. That complexity arises from the situation. Three decades of conflict have stripped the south of all signs of governance and robbed many Afghans of hope. And in that uncontrolled space, violence, criminality, narcotics and extremism have flourished. We have confronted those threats and learned much about them since we deployed. As with any deployment, those experiences have allowed us to review our forces and approach. That is what we have been doing in recent weeks.
Let me now explain why we need to adjust and strengthen our force structure in Helmand. The original intent was to tackle the challenges incrementally, spreading security and reconstruction from the centre of Helmand out. But the commanders on the ground grasped an early opportunity. They saw the chance to reinforce the position of the local governor and the Afghan army and police by going into northern Helmand and challenging the impunity of the Taliban there. In doing that, we moved faster towards achieving our ultimate objectives but also extended ourselves.
We must respond to that development. But it is our actions—our decisions and our determination to grasp the challenge—that have brought about the development, and not, as some suggest, a failure to anticipate a violent response to our arrival. Yes, the violence has increased, but that was inevitable. We are challenging the power of the Taliban and other enemies of the Afghan Government, and they are reacting. But despite their efforts, we are spreading security.
Our commanders have asked for additional forces to secure the early advances in the more remote communities in the north, while also enabling more progress to be made in central Helmand. Last Monday, I said that I was aware of ongoing work on such additional resources. I was also aware that, as part of that process, the chiefs of staff were going back to operational commanders and urging them to ensure that they had asked for everything that they needed. As I said in the House on Thursday, that iterative process produced a recommendation, which I received on that day. I and the chiefs of staff have considered the recommendation, and I have now endorsed it. I am grateful for the support and assistance of other Departments, especially the Treasury, in working through the necessary detail of this process as quickly as possible.
Let me outline the key elements of the additional force. In order to accelerate the reconstruction effort in the current security environment, we will deploy 320 engineers from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers to start projects to improve local infrastructure. A company from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines will provide force protection for them. Those deployments will take place in September. We will deploy an additional infantry company, drawn from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, to provide more mobile forces, and two platoons from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment to provide additional force protection. There will be small increases in headquarters staff. We will also boost our medical and logistical support to reflect the increase in troop numbers.
We will step up our efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan national army. Its brave soldiers have fought side by side with us in recent months, and they are the key to our eventual exit strategy. We are therefore deploying additional staff to Helmand, and to the regional Army headquarters for the south. Great strides have already been made in that essential task and, following forthright discussions that I had with the Afghan Defence Minister, Wardak, additional Afghan troops have been sent to Helmand, and more will follow. There are also about 2,300 Afghan police and military in Helmand, building to about 4,800 in 2007.
As with previous deployments, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists. Some 150 reservists are serving in the joint operational area, including members of the sponsored reserves. Some 450 call-out notices will be served on individual reservists in order to fill approximately 400 posts in theatre. One of the main reasons for the increase in reservist numbers is the planned deployment of 100 reservist personnel from 212 field hospital.
Those enhancements—totalling some 870 personnel—will place additional demands on our air transport. We have already increased the flying hours available for attack and support helicopters, as requested by commanders, and today I can say that we will also make available more support helicopters and one additional Hercules C130. We also plan to deploy a radar installation, provided by No. 1 Air Control Centre, Royal Air Force.
All those additional deployments will be made as soon as possible. I also want to cover the planned changes to the force structure resulting from the roulement in October, when the units currently comprising the Helmand taskforce, drawn predominantly—but not solely—from 16 Air Assault Brigade, will complete their tours. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, including 42 and 45 Commando and other supporting elements, including 12 Signal Regiment. That roulement will also involve a change to the force structure, reflecting the differences in the two brigades’ structures and equipment, including the requirement to support the commandos’ Viking armoured vehicles. That represents approximately 125 additional personnel. The House will also be aware that last month, I announced the deployment of 130 personnel from 34 Squadron Royal Air Force to increase force protection at Kandahar airfield.
This is a complex picture. Some troops will be going immediately and others in October; some will constitute an enduring addition, and others are being deployed on a surge basis. But I can tell the House that as a result of today’s announcement, the steady-state size of the Helmand taskforce will increase between now and October from some 3,600 personnel to approximately 4,500.
I am aware that our armed forces are heavily committed. As I said in the personnel debate, about 18 per cent. of the Army is currently deployed on operations. That is challenging, but sustainable. Taking into account deployments in Iraq and the planned increase in personnel to Afghanistan, most of our deployable units will operate outside harmony guidelines. I do not accept that lightly, but I do believe that it is necessary, and judging by comments made in this House in recent months, so do the majority of Members. We will do all that we can to minimise the impact, and we will continue to seek further contributions from our NATO partners in order to relieve the pressure in some of those areas.
Some commentators have suggested that insufficient infantry soldiers are deployed in comparison with the force’s overall size. Let me be clear that the delivery of this mission is not borne by the infantry alone, and it does a disservice to a great many brave men and women to suggest otherwise. Indeed, of the six deaths in Afghanistan since the deployment, half have been from other arms. The infantry do have a challenging task, but so do all our forces in Afghanistan. Air power, artillery, light armour and others are involved in combat. However, the work done by the provincial reconstruction team, the training teams, and those who enable others to operate is every bit as essential to eventual success. Some more infantry are indeed deploying, but the fundamental balance of combat forces to others carrying out vital roles will not change. That is because the mission has not changed.
Questions have been raised about NATO’s capability and the intentions of the United States. NATO now has many more troops to reflect the greater challenge in the south. Rules of engagement have been made more robust. This morning, I spoke to Commander ISAF, General David Richards. He told me that, in the south, effectively there were no caveats placed by nations on the use of their forces. Across Afghanistan, he was seeing a “new NATO” in which such caveats were becoming a thing of the past. He also said that he was confident that he had the forces to do the job, and that he had been encouraged to see nations like Germany and Spain considering making additional forces available.
I believe that NATO is thoroughly fit for this role. It has been suggested that because it does not have forces in every province, it cannot succeed, but that misses the fundamental point that we are at a stage when NATO is expanding in Afghanistan. Months ago there were no NATO troops in the south at all, and few US troops. Soon, there will be nearly 9,000 in the south—part of a total of about 18,500. NATO is building on a success that many seem determined to ignore.
As for the US, last week I spoke to General John Abizaid, the US commander responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was absolutely clear about the US commitment to Afghanistan. The Americans are not leaving this to NATO. They are part of NATO and are likely to be the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan for some time to come. Accusations that they are abandoning NATO are misplaced.
Lastly, I want to address counter-narcotics. I said that stability was the key to Afghanistan’s future, and part of that stability must be delivered by the Afghan Government facing up to the evil of narcotics. President Karzai’s personal commitment to this has been clear, and we must help. Again, the aim is simple, even if the implementation is difficult, and it is the same aim as for all other aspects of our task: to rebuild.
We will make a lasting impact on the narcotics industry only by strengthening all aspects of Afghan life, so that the economy can function without drugs money and farmers have alternative livelihoods to turn to. That will take time, but the process must start now.
Our soldiers are not narcotics police, and we do not ask them to be narcotics police. They are not waging a narcotics war; they will not destroy poppy fields; and they will not fight farmers for bags of opium. They are helping to create the conditions of security and development in which the narcotics industry will be weakened and eventually driven out by the Afghans themselves.
I trust that I have made my position clear. My decisions on these matters have been shaped by what I saw and heard when visiting Afghanistan. Our people there are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They know why they are there, and they recognise the importance of their task. They have achieved a great deal already, and I intend to give them what they need to secure those achievements and to help the Afghans towards the stable future that they deserve.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for making it available in advance to the Opposition. I join him in saluting the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, their families and their civilian support.
The Secretary of State was right to remind the House at the outset of the reasons behind our involvement in Afghanistan: it is a failed state that acted as an incubator to terror, which was inflicted on innocent people in New York, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere, possibly even in London. A failing Afghanistan represents a threat to our national security. We can choose to confront the forces of terror at their source before they develop, or we can wait until they develop, and confront them here on our doorstep. Not confronting them at all is not an option. Dealing with the savagery and fanaticism of al-Qaeda and its allies will have an unavoidable cost, but the cost of failing to tackle them could be incalculably greater. Security is never a cost-free option.
In the House last week, I said that there were three reasons why we must not fail in Afghanistan. First, the reputation and cohesion of NATO is on the line. Secondly, failure would embolden our enemies in the region. What state could then feel safe? What if the next target for destabilisation were to be Pakistan, with its nuclear capability? That is a truly terrifying thought. Thirdly, we owe the people of Afghanistan, broken by decades of war and attrition, the chance to enjoy peace, stability and prosperity. We must not abandon or betray them.
The Government have two basic duties: to maximise the mission’s chance of success; and to minimise the risk to our forces in carrying out that mission. We intend to fulfil our constitutional role by holding the Government to account, not for the aims of the mission, but for its delivery.
We have set out a number of questions and reservations in recent months. On 26 January, I said in the House:
“There is widespread support in the House for the strategic objectives…set out by the Government, but the Secretary of State will be well aware of widespread anxieties that the level of resources committed by ISAF may not be sufficient to achieve the stated objectives, and that we may consequently be drawn into an escalated conflict.”— [Official Report, 26 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1534.]
It was always to be expected that our deployment would lead to increasing Taliban activity, and that has certainly happened. Those who took a less optimistic view than the Government have been shown to be correct.
I am pleased, however, that the Secretary of State has today provided greater clarity about our other main reservation: the anti-narcotic role. We have often said in the House that using our forces overtly to destroy poppy crops would result in farmers being pushed into the arms of the Taliban. The reduction in poppy production is not a role for our soldiers, but for the Afghan Government, supported by international assistance in providing substitute incomes. We must not allow the Taliban the propaganda weapon that our troops threaten the income of poor Afghan farmers. I note the assurance that our forces will not be used as narcotics police, and we will monitor events closely to ensure that that is true on the ground.
What are our specific questions about the delivery of this mission? First, can the Secretary of State tell us what are the most recent plans from the Americans in relation to reducing their troop numbers in Operation Enduring Freedom? Surely we must do all that we can to persuade our United States allies that they cannot reduce their commitment in the current security circumstances, with the upsurge in Taliban violence. Given that rise in Taliban activity, would it not also be sensible to ensure an early merger between OEF and the NATO mission? The circumstances of the mission have changed markedly. Would not that simply reflect the reality on the ground? What discussions have taken place about it?
What discussions have been held at Head of Government level about increasing the contributions from other NATO countries? There will be some 15,000 to 18,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, of whom 5,000 will be British, with more on the way. Whatever the capabilities and professionalism of our forces may be, we cannot be expected to carry NATO in this manner. Our NATO allies must understand how frighteningly high the stakes are, and those who may long for a security relationship without the United States need to realise that a defeat for NATO in Afghanistan would be likely to produce greater American isolationism and unilateralism—the very things that they claim most to resent. All must carry their share of the burden.
The Secretary of State talked of making more support helicopters available. Will there be more attack helicopters as well? Where will the extra helicopters come from? How many will there be, and when will they arrive? How many extra personnel are being earmarked to help train the Afghan army? Where will they come from, and what will the time scale be? And what of the police? What representations have been made to the German Government, who are responsible for training the police, that they must have sufficiently robust vetting procedures to stop Taliban infiltration of them, which would pose a security threat to our troops?
Finally, can the Secretary of State tell us about the plans to put non-governmental organisations on the ground? If they are not there, there will be no reconstruction at all. Will the Secretary of State consider the plans outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, to install an international co-ordinator in Afghanistan to ensure that money is not wasted, and that the Afghan people benefit, not the middle men?
The tone of the statement leads me to believe that the Government now recognise that the impression given to the British public was that this mission was less dangerous than it has turned out to be. Sadly, the admission that these operations will be outside harmony guidelines constitutes an acceptance of the reality of overstretch. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under this Government we now have an insufficiently large standing army.
It is vital that we give our forces all that they need to do the job, for the price of failure in Afghanistan would be intolerable. The Government deserve the support of the House in achieving their aims, but they need to get their detailed decisions right at this point, for the patience of the British public and the House is not inexhaustible. Above all, the security not only of ourselves but of future generations is at risk. The stakes could hardly be higher.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unswerving support for our engagement in Afghanistan. It is very important that our troops, particularly those whom we have deployed in Afghanistan, know that there is support for what they have been sent to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—without going into the same amount of detail in setting out the geopolitical situation—that doing nothing is not an option. That, of course, underpins the Government’s approach.
When we began to deploy in February, continuing until 1 July when full operational capability was reached, we sent the force package for which the military commanders had asked. It was designed by the military commanders—in consultation with the chiefs of staff—to do the job. The purpose of our deploying further resources is to reflect the experience and learning gained from that deployment.
I dealt specifically with the issue of narcotics because I felt that it, among other issues, required clarification—not that there was any doubt about the objectives that we set for our troops when we sent them to Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, I remember reading carefully what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he announced the deployment on 26 January not only in the House, but elsewhere. He made it clear then that we were not sending our troops out to be narcotics police. However, given the commentary that there has been since then, I felt that it was important to make it clear again that there is no change in the position. That is not what our troops are doing in Afghanistan.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the continuing size of the American commitment to Afghanistan, particularly in the context of Operation Enduring Freedom. Before coming to the House, I spoke to the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, specifically about that matter. His response to me was that the Americans deploy their resources in Afghanistan and in other theatres in response to the circumstances, that forces increase and sometimes reduce and that that is what they will continue to do, but he gave me a reassurance, which I have reiterated to the House in the context of the statement, that the Americans' commitment to Afghanistan will be unwavering.
The hon. Gentleman has referred on more than one occasion to the fact that we need to remove the distinction between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom. That is one of the issues on which I disagree with him. My concern is that, if I were to accede to his request in relation to that and encourage NATO and others to do away with that distinction, exactly what I think will put our troops on the ground at risk in Afghanistan would happen. We would at one stroke do the job the Taliban are trying to do with their information operation in communities all over Helmand province, and that is to suggest to people in those villages that what we are telling them we are about there—reconstruction—is not the truth and that we have other objectives. If I were to accede to his request to remove the distinction between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF even conceptually and argue for that more broadly with NATO, I would achieve that objective at one stroke.
The hon. Gentleman asks about further helicopter support. I had to decide whether I would be able to give detailed information to the House today and, if not, whether to delay the statement, or whether to make the statement in the way in which I have because there is other work to be done in relation to helicopters. I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman, however, that the helicopter support that will be made available to support the package will be that which has been asked for by the commanders on the ground.
On the issue of NGOs and reconstruction, it is clear to me, from my experience both in Afghanistan and from what was reported back to me from Afghanistan, that our long-term objectives there will be served by the success of reconstruction, but that we will not be able to achieve that reconstruction without security and we will not be able to build the security without reconstruction. We have deployed the significant resource of engineers in order that they will be able to enhance the reconstruction that we can do and the security that we can create in the communities through the deployment of our resources thus far.
May I reiterate our support for the engagement in Afghanistan and pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of our forces who are undertaking that dangerous work? It is essential that we build long-term stability in Afghanistan not only for the Afghan people but because, as others have said, lawless chaos provides sanctuary to militant extremists, and that threatens everyone’s security. I also stress our support for the deployment of additional troops announced today. Where they are able, the Government clearly must provide the commanders on the ground with the troops and equipment that they need.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how much of what he has announced today is totally new and how much of it is an acceleration of plans that already existed? Is he confident that the additional deployment he has announced will be sufficient? Is the breaching of harmony guidelines and the dependence on reservists to which he has referred sustainable for the long term, as it is becoming increasingly clear that this will be a long-term job?
Is he satisfied that all the helicopter, lift and air attack capability that is required has now been committed, and can he tell us where the men to do the proposed extra flying hours will come from? Will the additional commitment impair our ability to train more crews back home?
The Secretary of State tells us that a sober assessment of the threat was made at the start of the mission, and I am sure that that is true, but the former Secretary of State for Defence described it as
“a small but hugely significant step”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1533.]
It remains hugely significant, but it looks somewhat less small than it did in January. Of course we have to respond to changing circumstances and a more challenging environment, but can the Secretary of State tell us whether the role and operational objectives of British troops have changed at all from that time?
We have the lead responsibility for counter-narcotics, but there has been a record harvest in the south of the country, and there are grave questions about the feasibility of simultaneously achieving both security and counter-narcotics objectives. A concerted strategy is needed to provide alternative livelihoods for those who depend on narcotics. The Secretary of State said in his statement that that process must start: does he mean that there is as yet no strategy, or simply that the practical work on the ground must now start? Finally, with two weeks until the summer recess begins and given the fast changing environment, can he tell us what measures the Government have in mind to keep Parliament in the loop as changes are necessary over the summer recess?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his party for their support for the additional deployment of troops to Afghanistan. I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) was able to express his support when he did not know what that deployment was going to be. That was a positive step.
In my statement, I sought to explain in detail the motivation behind the decision for each of the elements of the additional resource. I do not accept that any of it is an acceleration of anything that was planned, other than that a review of our deployment was planned at the point of deployment at about this time, as I have explained on more than one occasion. That has in the past been explained to the House.
The hon. Gentleman asks about additional flying hours. My understanding is that additional flying hours that have been agreed in response to the request of the commander in the theatre are as much a function of our ability to support the helicopters in those additional times as they are a function of the availability of people to fly them. The hon. Gentleman asks if the deployment is sustainable, and I assure him that it is. I identified the challenges that it sets in terms of harmony guidelines, and I accept that they are far from ideal. Steps need to be taken in the short term, or in the longer term, to address those issues, which were debated at some length on Thursday in the context of the personnel debate. The solution to that will take some time to develop.
The hon. Gentleman asks if there has been any change in role, and there has not been. On his final question, we will do what any Government can to ensure that when Parliament is in recess, information on a wide range of issues is communicated appropriately to those who need to know.
I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, responding as it does to the requests from our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend has outlined the Government’s objectives in Afghanistan and how we are responding to the latest developments there. Can he say a little more about our reserve forces? They now operate with our regulars in a much more integrated way than ever before, and I think that that is right. Our reservists also make a unique commitment. They have full-time jobs outside the armed forces in civilian life. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 allows the Government to mobilise the reservists for a maximum of one year in every three, but as a result of discussions with employers and the reservists, the Government have tended to mobilise them for a maximum of 12 months in any five years. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that he sees no reason to move away from that five-year rule as a result of this latest development?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I do not see that either my announcement today or the level of deployment of reservists that has been required would indicate that we will move away from that frequency of deployment. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the significant contributions made by reservists and to recognise that as a result of reforms in training and structure they are more suited to deployment than they were in the past. I also pay tribute to their employers, who support us well when we have to deploy their employees.
The Secretary of State may have heard last week of my concern that the deployment to Afghanistan, which I fully support, is being conducted on something of a shoestring. Last week, when we visited, we met some fantastic men and women who are doing their excellent best with the resources they have, but we heard that deployment of the Harriers and its subsequent extension to March next year carried a condition imposed by the Treasury that it should be at no additional cost. Will the Secretary of State remove that condition and assure us that none of the deployments that he has announced today carries the same extraordinary condition?
I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was in Afghanistan with his Select Committee only last week, so he brings up-to-date information to the House. I am pleased that he was as impressed as everybody who visits our troops in Afghanistan with the job that they are doing and the bravery that they show. When I was a Treasury Minister I was partly responsible for the process of agreement about deployment of the Harriers, which is on a staged basis, and I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that it does not in any sense inhibit what we are seeking to do in Afghanistan. Indeed, he will have noticed that Harriers were being deployed with significant effect right across the theatre; they are very much in demand and are being used extensively not only by our troops but by others. I can tell him categorically that none of that deployment carries with it any qualifications in relation to costs.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that at least two conditions must be met if the mission is to be successful? First, the mission must have the support of the Afghan people and, secondly, those in the international community who could contribute forces must accept that the mission is necessary and justified. If my right hon. Friend agrees, will he reinforce the point that if there is any confusion between what Enduring Freedom has done, and is doing, and the ISAF commitment, it could undermine both those aims? Does he agree that the United Nations needs to clarify the mission, given that it is about three years since it did so, and that many people in the international community and in this country have forgotten that there is a UN mandate?
I have not forgotten that there is a UN mandate. I spend a lot of my time reminding people that there is a UN mandate, which is supported by NATO and a significant number of countries—almost all the developed world—including countries whose presence is remarkable given their past history, such as the Scandinavian countries. Indeed, I understand that Swedish troops are in Afghanistan with no caveats. From my dealings with our partners in NATO or others deployed in ISAF, I have no sense that there is anything other than the fullest commitment to the noble cause of seeking to rebuild Afghanistan, no matter how difficult that may be, for the very reasons that were articulated at some length by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I have absolutely no doubt about that level of support.
I agree that it would be a disservice to our forces to confuse what they are doing with Operation Enduring Freedom. None the less, that operation is necessary because terrorists are still at large in parts of Afghanistan, and it is right and appropriate that we should try to eliminate them.
Was the now apparent failure to deploy sufficient troops and equipment to Helmand province at the beginning of this operation the result of inadequate intelligence as to what was needed, or of the absence of a clear mission purpose, or, as now appears most likely, of overstretch and the reluctance of the Government in the face of that to make the necessary deployment? Had there been a more realistic deployment, is it not possible that the lethal opposition that our forces have faced in Helmand province might at least have been better constrained? Can the Secretary of State now say that he is confident that no further additional deployment will be needed to achieve that position?
May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the configuration of the original force package that was sent to Helmand province as the Helmand taskforce in Afghanistan was a result of what the military commanders asked for and what was agreed by the chiefs of staff and recommended to Ministers? Before coming to the House today, I phoned the military commander in Helmand province, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether—in the knowledge of the resources that we were now deploying to Afghanistan—he, the commander with responsibility, felt that we had sufficient resources to carry out the task that had now developed out of the nature of his deployment in the first place. He said yes.
I welcome the statement, its reiteration and its clarification. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that this is an internationally agreed and endorsed operation, and given that there are so many countries involved—he mentioned 36—it will be important that other NATO partners also increase their presence in this mission? Will he tell us what discussions he is having with his partners in NATO? He mentioned the increase from 3,600 to 4,500 by October, which is a 20 per cent. increase in the taskforce in Helmand province. Is there going to be a similar increase by other NATO partners to assist in this vital, necessary international job?
Today, General Richards, the commander of ISAF, told me that he had the resources that he needed to do the job. He said—as all commanders do when I have this conversation with them—that if there were more resources that he could employ, he could always employ more resources, but I asked him whether he had sufficient resources to do the job. I have been in conversation with him, the Secretary-General of NATO, and a significant number of our allies at Defence Minister level to insist that for additional resources—where they are available—should be deployed.
In relation to the transfer of authority for phase three, which is due to take place at the end of this month, although there are some shortfalls against the ideal solution, General Richards told me this morning that he is pleased with recent developments in these areas and is confident that they will be filled, and he has been reassured by the efforts of NATO’s senior commanders.
Will the Secretary of State please convey to the Prime Minister my continuing conviction that sending British troops into Afghanistan is like throwing kerosene on to a burning tent, and that the more troops we send, the higher and fiercer the flames will burn in Afghanistan, throughout the Islamic world and on the streets of this country?
The hon. Gentleman has the merit of being consistent in relation to these matters and I respect him for that, as he understands and knows. In this House, in a rhetorical way, he repeatedly makes clear the position that he has sustained. I am sure that he was saying exactly the same thing when ISAF was deployed in both north and west Afghanistan. He ought to look at the progress that has been made there now.
Those of us who support my right hon. Friend in what he has set out today nevertheless recognise that the point about the contributions made by other NATO allies is central and important. Is he aware that a debate is taking place in the German Parliament, as it is in other allies, about where we should go with this? What can he do to ensure that the message that failure in Afghanistan is unthinkable is communicated through him and his colleagues in other allies’ Governments?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that no one who has had a conversation with me about Afghanistan has not been told exactly what the hon. Member for Woodspring repeats every time he comes to the Dispatch Box: failure is unthinkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the future of NATO. Failure in Afghanistan would be significant for NATO’s future as an organisation that can deliver on its objectives and generate the amount of force necessary to protect those whom it was designed to protect in this very much changed and difficult world in which we live. I repeat that message consistently. My understanding from the conversations that I had today before coming to the House is that whatever the debate is being held in Germany’s Parliament—it is entirely appropriate that that debate should take place—the Germans are in fact considering increasing their deployment in Afghanistan.
I very much welcome the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has made, but does he not agree that what is especially shameful about the NATO allies’ response to the mission is the fact that given that the commander, General Richards, is a NATO commander—Commander Allied Rapid Reaction Corps—the operation is a NATO operation, so not to support it wholeheartedly is to show that NATO’s transformation is inadequate and incomplete? The allies now need to take grown-up, real decisions, especially about the deployment of airlift, which they have in abundance, and make some use of that.
I accept that the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on significantly challenging issues for NATO. The process is ongoing. For example, as was confirmed to me today, although I have recognised this development myself, real progress has been made in NATO on caveats to such an extent that, for the deployment in the south, no caveats are now in any sense restricting the commander, General Richards. There are other significant challenges, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the British Government have made quite a novel and significant suggestion for the long-term solution of one that he identifies. However, the support that he and others in the House can give me to continue to communicate the message to our NATO allies is welcome.
I welcome the statement. Last week, I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee. Morale is high and the troops are committed to the job that they are doing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating not only them, but Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development staff on the job that they are doing as part of the provincial reconstruction team down at Lashkar Gah? Does he concur with General Richards’s statement to us that the UK’s commitment to the military operations in Afghanistan more than meets the commitments that other international partners are making?
I have no difficulty at all in joining my hon. Friend in extending congratulations. I gladly take any opportunity that I get, whether at the Dispatch Box or otherwise, to congratulate our forces on the work that they do not only in Afghanistan, but in other theatres. I will add to the list of those who should be congratulated on the progress that has been made in Helmand, which he witnessed, not only in Lashkar Gah, but beyond, of which today’s statement was a function. We should also extend congratulations to the Afghan national forces, who are fighting along with our forces very bravely. When we consider the scale of the challenge that we face and the commitment that we need to support the Afghans, we should consistently remind ourselves that those brave people have lost 2 million of their own citizens fighting for the freedom to get themselves to the stage at which they are. That is why the international community must stay with them.
Lessons from previous engagements teach us the importance of employing sufficient troops at the start of an action in order to achieve success. Given the size of the Taliban forces encountered by our troops, is the Secretary of State confident that the deployment that he announced today will be sufficient, and that a series of future incremental increases will not be necessary, as they will not provide the required cohesion?
I do not accept the criticism implicit in the first sentence of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have said repeatedly that the force package that has been sent was what the military commanders asked for, and that the need to reinforce that package is a function of our success, even though our success in engaging the Taliban has generated challenges for us in the early days. I will not estimate or guess the size of the Taliban forces, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that not everyone who fights with the Taliban supports them ideologically. People fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons; some fight with them because they pay them. Part of our objective is to give those people a message that there is a future for them without the short-term lifespan of such fighting. Part of the challenge is to try to break those people away by engaging with them and explaining that they have a future that does not depend on their being a hired gun for anyone who will pay them $10 a day, or less.
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people outside the House will regard his statement today as an example of mission creep, and think that we are starting an unending deployment of British troops in Afghanistan? Can he give us an idea of the maximum number that he is prepared to deploy, and for how long?
Without hesitation I can tell my hon. Friend that I will not answer that question specifically. He may find that a cause for criticism, and I will just have to live with that. It is because this is not mission creep that we have to identify additional resources. We have to deploy those resources to achieve the mission and the objective that we set; as we deployed, we identified prospects for success that now have to be reinforced. I just ask my hon. Friend, who, I suspect, is a consistent critic of any deployment of ours in Afghanistan at all: what is the alternative for the people of Afghanistan and the developed world if we, who are capable of doing so, do not accept the challenge of stopping that country once again becoming a training ground for terrorists?
I am pleased to hear that we are sending reinforcements but saddened that there are no announcements on helicopters. Twelve helicopters for operations in Helmand is not enough. I would like, too, the possibility of sending some mechanised infantry to be discussed. Can the Defence Secretary tell the House whether or not such troops were requested? I accept that 16 Air Assault Brigade is a formidable unit for taking ground, but it was never designed to hold ground, which is a light infantry operation.
I echo concerns that have been expressed about NATO. The fact that 36 countries have troops in Afghanistan is impressive on paper, but one third of those countries are offering only 60 troops or fewer, which is laughable. Indeed, 34 of the 36 nations do not match Britain’s contribution to Afghanistan. I urge the Defence Secretary to speak to his colleagues and make sure that our NATO representatives and colleagues match our efforts in Afghanistan, as they are not doing so at the moment.
May I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have already told his right hon. and hon. Friends? I have conversations on those subjects continually, not only with the Defence Ministers of NATO countries but with people who have responsibility for generating the forces in Afghanistan. I have received assurances from those people, on whom I depend for advice on matters that I bring before the House. On the current deployment and the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, I checked today with the commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether he now has the resource that he needs and requested for the mission that he has been given, and he confirmed that he has. That is a comprehensive answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Is not one of the main reasons why we have lost more British lives in the past four weeks than in the previous five years the fact that we are associated with the American operation “enduring stupidity”, which seeks to bomb the Afghans into democracy and to destroy their livelihoods? The country has been anarchic and ungovernable by outside forces for centuries. Is not the alternative that the Secretary of State seeks for us to detach ourselves from that operation and to devise our own practical alternative, which is to transfer to the Afghan farmers the licence for using their poppies in order to manufacture morphine? Is he not concerned that the Taliban are not on their own, as he says? We are also fighting against those who are defending their livelihoods, some who are Tajiks fighting against the Pashtuns, and many others who are warlords and who are every bit as wicked under Karzai as they were in previous years.
I am tempted to say that when my hon. Friend reads in Hansard the question that he has just asked, he will see that in the second part of his question he has contradicted the assumption that he made in the first part, about the motivation of the people who are attacking our troops. First, Afghanistan is a democracy. It has a democratically elected Government, President Karzai is a democratically elected president, and it has a democratically elected Parliament. It may not be what my hon. Friend recognises as democracy, but it is significantly better than the Afghan people have ever had in their lifetime. It is that very democracy which we are in Afghanistan to protect. Secondly, it is entirely inappropriate to attribute blame to those who are seeking to support that democracy and to give the Afghan people the opportunity to throw off the tyranny of those whom my hon. Friend accurately describes as having brutalised them over three decades. They were doing it long before the Americans, the British or ISAF ever went anywhere near Afghanistan, and to suggest that that is the motivation for the criminality and their crude violence now is totally to misunderstand what is going on in Afghanistan.
Last week, when I saw my former unit, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, I discovered that the company there was a composite company made up from the whole brigade. I see from the statement today that a company will be drawn from 3 Commando Brigade. That is an unnamed company, not from a commando, but from a whole brigade. When the Ministry of Defence has to send composite companies rather than formed units, what further evidence does the Secretary of State need that our armed forces are at overstretch?
In the statement that I made to the House, I sought to be candid about the degree of pressure that we were putting on our forces, and to suggest that I was not hiding from the consequences of the decision that we have made today.
I am glad my right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that many of the Taliban fighters are paid by the Taliban. Although I recognise that we do not want British troops burning poppy fields, who will be responsible for stopping the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan, 60 per cent. across the Iranian border, and the money into the Taliban war chest?
The responsibility for counter-narcotics lies principally with the Afghan Government, of course with support from, among others, ourselves, who are the lead partner nation for the Afghans in counter-narcotics. The strategy has several strands, and it is only when all those strands come together that we will see a counter-narcotics strategy that allows Afghanistan to move away from an economy that is over-dependent on narcotics and consequently can be exploited in the way that it has been, and that we will be able to interdict, to the extent that we can, the flow of narcotics on to the streets of our country.
The Minister is aware that we will not win this unless we get the reconstruction right. Commanders on the ground say that only a very small amount of reconstruction has been delivered to the people of Helmand. Given the need to maintain the good will of ordinary villagers, is it not time massively to upscale the budgets and the delivery of reconstruction, to drop DFID’s somewhat politically correct idea that all reconstruction, or most of it, should go through the Afghan Government in Kabul and filter its way down to Helmand, and to start to brand reconstruction as British, thereby safeguarding our troops in Helmand?
I know that the hon. Gentleman as a member of the Select Committee has had the opportunity to consider these matters in some detail, and he identifies a very important correlation between reconstruction and security. It is not possible to plan for reconstruction without security, and it is not possible to sustain security without reconstruction. That is why, at the beginning of the deployment part of the statement, I announced to the House the significant increase in military engineers who will improve the prospects of our being able to do reconstruction in these communities immediately behind the introduction of security to them, recognising that it is difficult to ask those who are associated with non-governmental organisations and do not have military capability to take on the level of risk that that set of circumstances generates.
It is not a shortage of funding for reconstruction that is the challenge, it is the ability to be able to deliver it and configure it in a way that is consistent with the precarious level of security in which we may have to start to deliver it. That is why a substantial part of this deployment is designed to achieve just that.
I hope that the Secretary of State has noted that a significant number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed widespread concern about our NATO allies who have not given sufficient support in Afghanistan. Would he accept that some of his responses have been slightly complacent, all too diplomatic and not sufficiently robust?
I do not think that it will surprise the right hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member to learn that I do not recognise his description. I have sought to be candid with the House in terms of accepting the scale of the challenge not only that NATO faces, but that I face as the UK Defence Minister, to engage with our allies to ensure that we generate a sufficient level of force to be able to see this task through. At the end of the day the right hon. Gentleman will have to understand that I depend for advice on those who have the specialist skills to be able to inform me of whether the deployment of resource is sufficient to do the job. I repeat to the House that I made inquiries before I came to the House today from those who can best tell me and they have confirmed to me that they are confident that we will be able to deploy sufficient resource throughout the south to see stage three of the ISAF deployment meet its objectives, and to move then quickly to stage four, when of course we will be in a different set of circumstances and the resources available will be significantly greater across theatre.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice. Is it still the convention of the House that Members who are called following a ministerial statement should have been present at the commencement of that statement? Many colleagues have been here throughout the statement and have not been called, yet I suspect that one or two—certainly one—were not here at the beginning and yet have been called.
I must remind the hon. Member that that is usual, but it is a matter of discretion. Both the occupant of the Chair, and the Speaker’s Secretary, who assists the occupant of the Chair, do their very best to make sure that the names of everyone who wishes to speak are noted down as quickly as possible.