House of Commons
Tuesday 10 October 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Post Office Network
I meet regularly with ministerial colleagues to discuss a wide range of issues.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he will acknowledge the concerns across the country about the future of the Post Office, but is he aware of the growing dismay about those politicians who claim to support postal services while actually wanting to privatise them? That is, of course, the policy of the Liberal Democrats.
I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman—whom I almost called my right hon. Friend—makes. However, the problem is worse than he says, as the Government have made available thousands of millions of pounds through the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry to help support and sustain the post office network. Of course, it is also Liberal Democrat policy to abolish the DTI and spend its budget elsewhere.
When my hon. Friend discusses the future of post offices with his ministerial colleagues, will he ensure that their importance in urban areas—and especially poorer urban areas—is fully taken into consideration? What support are the Government giving to such post offices to enable them to compete?
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally important point. Post offices have a key role to play in deprived urban communities, just as they do in rural communities. The urban post office network has benefited from the £2,000 million that has been invested in recent years. That money has enabled the Post Office to become part of a global banking network and to compete in the modern age. The reality is that customers will determine the Post Office’s future—we cannot expect that the post office network in 10 or 20 years’ time will be like the one that existed 10 or 20 years ago.
It is appropriate today that the House should mark the passing during the recess of Hector Monro, who represented the Dumfries constituency for some 33 years and held several ministerial offices. Hector was a great servant of this House, of his constituents and of Scotland—and never more so than in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. He will be sorely missed.
Does the Minister agree with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and the many Scots who have signed its petition, that the post office network in Scotland has an important social value? If so, why have the Government systematically removed business from that network?
First, may I associate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and colleagues on this side of the House with the warm tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to Hector Monro? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has spoken of the warmth with which Hector is still remembered in the constituency for the work that he did for the south of Scotland.
The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) asked about the nature of the post office network, but I remind him that the Government have provided financial assistance, in the form of the investment of taxpayers’ money, that amounts to well over £2,000 million. That speaks not of a Government who are withdrawing support from the Post Office, but of one who continue to support it. I contrast that with the fact that 3,500 post offices throughout the UK closed in the 18 years of Conservative Government.
May I draw my hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to Auchterarder sub-post office? When the VisitScotland tourist office there closed, Donald Ramsay, the sub-postmaster, had the foresight to enter into negotiations and secure 90 per cent. of its business in his post office. Does my hon. Friend agree that local post offices might be able to take advantage of similar opportunities when tourist offices and the like are placed under threat? Will he join me in congratulating Mr. Ramsay on his foresight in embarking on that new business venture?
I am more than happy to pay tribute to Mr. Ramsay and to my hon. Friend, who I know played a part in negotiating the arrangement that has brought the tourist office into the post office. I look forward to VisitScotland opening an office in Port Glasgow so that the same synergy can be established there. My hon. Friend has given the House an example of how the Post Office can enter into new entrepreneurial ventures that will help sustain it. That stands in sharp contrast to those hon. Members who go around collecting petitions about the future of post offices, while supporting policies that would see them close.
State Aid Rules
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, although as Secretary of State for Scotland, I have not discussed future state aid rules with representatives from other member states.
The Secretary of State is aware of the great anxiety in Shetland because of the complaints being investigated against various economic development projects that are claimed to have breached state aid rules. I hope that he and his Department will do all they can to work with the Scottish Executive and others to allow a satisfactory resolution of those complaints. Looking to the future, does he agree that what is needed is a system that allows for clarity in the prior approval of schemes and that recognises the economic fragility and peripherality of communities such as Shetland?
The hon. Gentleman is right—I am aware of the concerns on the islands at the moment, given the ongoing disputed state aid issues, and I know that as the local representative he has taken a close interest in those matters. Indeed, I understand that I even featured in The Shetland Times this week, such is the level of his concern. As he said, those matters are being explored in detail with Shetland Islands council, the public body concerned, the Scottish Executive and our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Discussions are ongoing with the Commission to try to resolve the outstanding issue, but I should be clear that the principal responsibility lies with the public body in question—in this case Shetland Islands council, which is why I hope that we can find a resolution to these matters.
Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor is to be commended for many things, one of which is his view that EU state aid rules and regional aid rules are best repatriated, and that this is a classic example of where very little is added by having state aid rules and regional aid handled by Brussels? Far better to have it returned to member states.
Clearly, the whole House is minded to pay tribute to the work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
A review of EU state aid is under way. I am glad to say that the thinking not just of the Treasury, but of the whole British Government—and, indeed, the Lisbon agenda—figures prominently in the ongoing review by the Commission. We want to see less but better targeted state aid and I believe we are making real progress in Europe towards that end.
As state aid was the given excuse for the restructuring of Caledonian MacBrayne, does the Minister feel that the £16 million currently being wasted on restructuring would have been better spent on fare reductions, especially considering that some articulated lorries spend £1,000 on a return fare to the outer Hebrides? Should not every opportunity be taken during the restructuring to relocate Caledonian MacBrayne’s headquarters to Stornoway, Tarbet, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale or Castlebay, or all those ports? [Interruption.]
A very strong case for Gourock has just been put by my hon. Friend the Minister. Whenever I buy tickets for the MV Isle of Mull, I tend to buy them from Gourock and not from Lochmaddy, so I have a certain sympathy with his view.
On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, this is of course primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, who are aware of the strength of feeling both on the outer and the inner isles on the future of Caledonian MacBrayne.
Given that the UK is the member state, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the existing arrangements with the Scottish Executive in relation to state aid rules, in particular their compliance? Is not this yet another example of a failure to have clear working arrangements in place between London and Edinburgh?
I feel that the hon. Gentleman is stretching the point to return to a familiar theme at Scottish questions. As I sought delicately to suggest, responsibility lies primarily with Shetland Islands council, but of course we stand ready to work both through DEFRA and Scottish Executive Ministers to find a resolution to the dispute.
Planning consent to site wind turbines is devolved to Scottish Executive Ministers for larger projects and to local authorities for others. In all cases, the relevant authority must comply with European obligations, including those arising under the birds and habitats directives.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I welcome the progress—albeit slow progress—that the Government are making on renewables, may I express concern that often bird life and habitats are overlooked in the planning and decision-making processes? Does the Minister share my concern that the proposal by British Energy and AMEC on the Isle of Lewis does not fully explore the whole issue of the impact on migrating bird life, about which the Scottish population—a bird-loving population—have real concerns?
When the hon. Gentleman started to talk about endangered species in Scotland, I thought for a moment that he was talking about the Scottish Tory party. If the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) wants to debate that, he is very welcome to join us at Scotland Office questions.
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point—there is often tension between the global environmental gains to be made from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, and local environmental considerations, and it is important that they are balanced. That is why the European habitats directive must be taken into consideration before planning consent is given, and I am sure that he welcomes that EU regulation, as he welcomes all EU regulations. However, that highlights the need to take these decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the evidence, and not to adopt a strategy of calling for a moratorium on all wind- farm developments in Scotland. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may say that no one is saying that, but the Scottish Tory party is saying it.
I certainly hope that bird habitats will be taken into account in the very exciting development on the Beatrice platform, which is run by Talisman, whose headquarters is in my constituency. People there are working out how to maximise the use of offshore wind—in fact, the turbines will be very large and one of them will be extremely large—but does my hon. Friend agree that such developments should not be jeopardised by any over-concern for wildlife, which, obviously, has to deal with the existing offshore platforms in the North sea in any case?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the potential of deep-water offshore wind farms to get us beyond some of the tensions that occur when the local environmental impacts stop the global benefits of renewable energy. Of course, the trial on the Beatrice field is just beginning and we must consider its results with very great care.
While it is obviously right that the interests of migrating bird populations should be taken into account, does the Minister agree that the siting of wind farms can provide a useful stream of revenue for farmers and landowners in respect of their properties, which might otherwise be financially unviable?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an excellent point. Of course, wind farms have many possible benefits, not just the global benefits of reducing our carbon emissions and helping us to meet our targets. However, people in more and more farming communities recognise that if their farms are to be viable and sustainable, they must diversify from agriculture into other forms of income generation, and this is one of them.
This is an important and enlightened measure, which came into effect earlier this month, and whose enforcement will be, as in other strands of discrimination legislation, mainly through employment tribunals and sheriff courts.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he share my disappointment that some sections of the business community have used the opportunity of the introduction of this legislation to complain about burdens on business? Does he agree that they would do far better to welcome this legislation as a real opportunity to ensure that all sections of the community get a fair deal?
I am in sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. I think that any modern business would want to be able to recruit and retain staff on the basis of competence and skills, rather than their age. This is a classic example of the sort of measure that will undoubtedly benefit the United Kingdom’s businesses in the long term. There is no contradiction between running a business efficiently and running a business fairly.
I very much welcome the legislation. However, an estimated 56,000 Scots between the ages of 16 and 21 earn less than their older colleagues, solely on the basis of their age. Does the Secretary of State agree that such age discrimination is probably illegal and certainly unacceptable, and that it is time for the lower minimum wage rates for younger workers to go?
Mr. Speaker, forgive my concern for the crocodile tears expressed about youth unemployment and the minimum wage. We considered the matter very carefully in government after 1997. Of course, the Conservative party then claimed that 1 million jobs would be lost as a consequence of what they judged would be a dangerous and reckless policy. In fact, the only people who ended up losing their jobs because of the manner in which we introduced the minimum wages were the Conservative MPs who opposed it. The serious point behind the measures that we took and the fact that we introduced a different rate for young workers was our profound concern to avoid significant youth unemployment, which is still too common in continental Europe. The virtual eradication of long-term youth unemployment has been one of the Government’s most significant achievements. I believe that our measured and sensible approach to the introduction of the minimum wage has played a significant role in that success.
The Opposition fully support the new regulations. However, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been a failure to convey to businesses, particularly small businesses in Scotland, the detail of the regulations? What proposals does he have to remedy that?
I do not accept that suggestion. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will come into force next year, will of course have a key role in education about and promotion of the regulation, but in the meantime sources of information are available to both small and large businesses to make sure that there is effective implementation of the regulation henceforth.
My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with Home Office colleagues about a range of issues as they affect Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will be aware that the population of Scotland has now risen for three consecutive years, that the population of Glasgow has risen for two years and that last year the population of Dundee rose for the first time in a generation. Will he and the Secretary of State make representations to the Home Secretary that, no matter what he does in managed migration from the new EU-accession states, he should do nothing that will jeopardise the fragile recovery of Scotland’s population?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the increase in Scotland’s population as though the figures fell out of a clear blue sky without any effort by the Government and the Scottish Executive to bring them about. He should pay tribute to the First Minister for the fresh talent initiative that has helped to attract some of the brightest and best young people to come to study in Scotland and to stay in Scotland. The strength of the Scottish economy, which is benefiting from the strength of the United Kingdom economy, makes Scotland a very attractive place. What would happen if Scotland broke away from the rest of the UK? Can we imagine anybody wanting to come to a Scotland governed by the Scottish National party, as the country would be economically unviable and would not attract any—
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend discuss immigration with their colleagues, will they seek to ensure that asylum decisions are taken much more quickly? A great deal of distress is caused to families who have put down roots once a decision goes against them. The quicker that asylum decisions are taken, the better.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the new asylum model is designed to make sure that the initial decision is taken much more quickly and that any appeals that subsequently follow also happen more quickly.
May I make a point that I have made on previous occasions? Our immigration policies will have to be about the economic needs of Scotland as the host country and the UK in general, but asylum policy must never be about that. Asylum policy has to be about whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution and we must make that judgment, and make it quickly. If the person meets the criteria, we will welcome them and integrate them into Scottish society. If they do not, they will have to return to the country from which they came.
Does the Minister acknowledge that immigration into Scotland has been very beneficial right across the economy? Does he accept that those who have come in under the skills initiative and who were given the indication that they would have a right to permanent residence after four years, but who are now being told that they will have to wait five years, have effectively been misled? Will he make representations to the Home Office to make sure that those who applied for a four-year time limit will be allowed to qualify for it?
I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will certainly look into it on his behalf.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. While we welcome immigrants to Scotland, we have the right to specify the particular skills that we wish to come to the UK in general. That is what the managed migration policy and a points-based migration policy are about, so that we can have an independent body that recommends what the skills needs of the UK are and then respond to that. I will get back to him on the particular point he mentions.
Scottish Airports (Security)
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of matters.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he accept that there is a need for an assessment to be made following the new regulations that seem to be in force across airports in Scotland? As part of that assessment, will he look at the position at Prestwick, which seems to have a far more efficient service than those that operate in other airports in Scotland?
I assure my hon. Friend that we keep the security regime at all the UK’s airports under constant review. It is determined on the basis of level of national threat, and clearly there have been changes both to the threat level and to the security regime implemented at our airports since the events of 10 August. However, it would be remiss of me both in relation to Prestwick and the operation of other major airports, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, not to take the opportunity to place on record my personal gratitude as Transport Secretary for the work that was done in Scottish airports during August. It is significant that the level of performance not just at Prestwick, but at other Scottish airports, was outstanding in what were very demanding circumstances.
When the right hon. Gentleman is having these discussions, will he make sure that his colleagues are aware of the excellent work done by the staff and management at Inverness airport, not just in security, but in developing new routes and services that are bringing substantial benefits to the economy of the highlands and islands?
I am not quite sure with whom I am due to be having conversations—perhaps with myself. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am fully aware of the level of service that was provided at Inverness, as well as at other airports. I know that he has been pursuing the matter of the route development out of Inverness airport for some time and that he continues to raise it with the Government.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to congratulate the management and staff at all UK airports—particularly those at Glasgow airport—on their work during the recent security threat. Will he also welcome the recent announcement by BAA of the significant investment at Glasgow airport, which will enhance the security at that airport and also make it easily accessible for people to travel from?
As a regular traveller through Glasgow airport, I am fully aware of the outstanding service that was provided, although the support for the new security regime has not been universal. When I was travelling with my four-year-old son a couple of weeks back, he had to take off his wellington boots at the security comb. He asked, “Why do I have to take off my wellies?” and the security guard replied, “Because your dad’s making everybody take off their wellingtons.” [Laughter.] Notwithstanding that one rather sceptical voice, I am happy to place on the record my admiration of the staff and management at Glasgow airport.
Since 4 July, 161 devolution issues have been intimated to the Advocate-General. Of these, 102 related to civil proceedings and 59 related to criminal proceedings.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating the new Lord Advocate on her appointment? Will he also confirm whether the Advocate-General was consulted on that appointment and whether there are plans to distinguish the office of chief legal adviser to the Cabinet in Scotland on Scottish legal affairs from that of chief prosecutor?
I am very happy to join the hon. Lady in welcoming the new Lord Advocate, who is the first ever woman to hold that post. The daughter of a coal merchant from Govan has risen to the top of the legal and political establishment in Scotland. That is a great tribute to her talents and abilities. As the hon. Lady knows, the role of the Lord Advocate as head of prosecutions is enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998. The independence as such is enshrined in that Act. Other arrangements, such as whether the Lord Advocate is a member of the Cabinet in the Scottish Executive, are matters for the First Minister.
This Government’s strong macro-economic policies have delivered the strongest Scottish labour market in decades, with record levels of employment. The Government's monetary policy framework has delivered the longest period of sustained low and stable inflation since the 1960s.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of recent research that shows that the success of the Nordic countries is, above all, due to their long-term political and economic stability. Does he agree that that is what Scotland needs as well, and will he ensure that he resists the calls of those who would jeopardise tens of thousands of Scottish jobs by plunging us into years of constitutional uncertainty and chaos?
I find myself in full agreement with the hon. Gentleman and I pray in support not simply the research carried out by the Government, but the most recent headlines in Scotland. Only yesterday, on 9 October, The Scotsman led with the headline:
“Scottish output growth fastest in 6 years”.
The Herald led with the headline: “Scotland’s economy going strong”. Of particular significance in that story was a quote from Andrew Wilson, the deputy chief economist of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who said:
“Solid result. Good news for manufacturers generally.”
Clearly, the consensus that the Scottish economy is strong and strengthening extends even to those who previously belonged to other parties.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the relative economic success of the Republic of Ireland, with its low corporate tax rates? Is that not a lesson that the Scottish economy would find hugely advantageous—if corporate tax rates in Scotland were cut to the level of those in the Republic of Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that corporation tax has already been cut by this Government. His point about Ireland has to be taken somewhat cautiously. If we look, for example, at the competitiveness of western Europe in computing and IT, there was a time over the past 20 years when we could secure what is inherently mobile international capital investment by having reduced rates of corporation tax. That level of investment in Ireland preceded the rise of not just China, but India, Vietnam and other economies in the far east. The economic restructuring that has taken place in recent years suggests that there is no single silver magic bullet. The determination to provide the economic stability that we have provided, together with education and training, also has a key role to play.
I regularly meet representatives of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
Yes, just a few weeks ago I met with the STUC general council and we discussed at length the interests of Scottish manufacturing. Immediately preceding that meeting, I had held discussions with Scottish Engineering, and it again placed on record its determination to continue to support modern manufacturing strength for Scotland.
COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT
The Secretary of State was asked—
In the past four years, 57,000 homes in the north-east have been brought up to decent homes standards, with 48,000 new kitchens, 31,000 new bathrooms and 48,000 new central heating systems having been installed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can she advise the House whether the principles enshrined in composite 10 at the recent Labour party conference will be used to ensure that the Government reach their aim of having decent homes for all, including those tenants and councils who rejected private finance initiatives, arm’s length management organisations and stock transfers?
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s continued interest in these matters, and I respect his contribution to the debate on them. However, he knows, as do other Members who are present, that we have a pledge to try to meet the ambitions, right across the country, of every tenant in council or social housing to have a home of a decent standard. If we were to go down the route of not levering in the money from the private sector that we could through housing associations, that could cost the Exchequer an extra £12 billion. That is £12 billion that we could spend on more kitchens and more central heating—on homes of a decent standard—and my hon. Friend and other Members should agree that that money could be better spent.
Does the Secretary of State realise that many people in the north-east will not have a chance of having a decent home if the regional housing board continues with policies, done at the behest of her Department, to restrict the number of houses built in areas such as Alnwick and Berwick to about 60 a year, which will mean that there is no social housing and still higher prices for the remaining houses in the private sector?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have an ambition to build more than 200,000 extra homes a year by 2016. In order to achieve our ambition, and to meet the housing aspirations of people throughout our country, we need to have a system in place that will provide the extra supply that we need—more homes in every region. Within that general framework, we aim to give as much flexibility as we can for local authorities to build on brownfield land rather than greenfield land and to decide the appropriate places where homes can be built. But the bottom line is that we must have extra homes if people’s housing aspirations are to be met.
Further to the matter of the 200,000 new homes, the question is: where? Is it not the case that the drive towards decent homes in the north-east, and in the north generally, is being undermined by a stealthy transference of regeneration funding to the south of England? Why has English Partnerships’ spending in the south risen sevenfold, to some 59 per cent. of its budget, which is a massive swing away from its previous funding pattern? Is that not further evidence that commitment to reviving cities in the north is taking second place to the dash for concrete in the south?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. If he were serious about providing the extra homes that people need and ensuring that they are of a sufficiently decent quality and standard for them to live in, he would back our housing market renewal pathfinders, which are regenerating communities throughout the north and giving people a decent place to live. But ultimately, we need the extra homes for people to live in if we are to meet their housing aspirations. Young couples today find it difficult to take their first step on to the housing ladder. If we are to stabilise the house price affordability ratio, we need to deliver 200,000 more homes, and we need those homes in the places where people want to live.
Flood Plains (Building)
We expect to publish a new planning policy statement 25 later this year to strengthen and clarify planning policy on development and flood risk.
As part of the revised guidelines, will the Minister give the House a commitment this afternoon that the question will be dealt with of insurance cover for houses on functional flood plains that are prone to flooding? Thirsk, particularly Finkle street, has been flooded twice in less than five years, and a particular business and a number of residents have been told that there is simply no insurance cover available. Will the Minister plug that loophole with the guidelines? [Interruption.]
I do not think that the hon. Lady recognised the pun that she made, but it was well appreciated on the Labour Benches. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, Baroness Andrews, is looking at this matter, which will be discussed, and I can assure the hon. Lady that her comments will be drawn to my hon. Friend’s attention.
Recently, Heywood experienced the equivalent of one month’s rain in a few hours, and it was the second serious flooding episode that the town has had. Does my hon. Friend accept that local planning authorities need to enforce stricter regulation of new housing developments that are trying to link into existing drainage networks, which cannot carry the capacity? That is part of the problem.
It is clear that planning policy guidance 25 has had quite an impact, and according to the Association of British Insurers it has proved very relevant when looking at development. The new statement will strengthen the current guidance, but I should point out that there is a statutory duty to consult the Environment Agency on all new developments, and that will inform any planning authority’s decision.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that two rivers meet in my constituency, and that the flood problem goes much further than that? The situation is not helped by the fact that my constituency is constantly being asked to take more and more houses; indeed, the problem has been made even worse by the regional spatial strategy proposal to build thousands more. That will not help the area, which is a totally inappropriate place for those houses to be built; it will be very environmentally damaging. Will the Minister go back to Labour’s pre-election pledge to end the predict-provide approach to house building?
I sometimes wonder about Conservative policy. The Conservatives share in our demand for, and recognition of the need for, more housing, but wherever they are, they say no to more housing. We have to ensure that local planning authorities have all—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may not want to listen, and choose instead to go on a party political rant, but there is an important point to be made about the hon. Gentleman’s comments on flooding. It is important that local authorities have all the relevant information from the Environment Agency, which is now a statutory consultee, when looking at the development of a particular area. We believe that PPG25 is good, and we have strengthened and clarified it through planning policy statement 25. That addresses the questions, and the hon. Gentleman cannot just say no to any housing anywhere.
When the German Government looked at exactly the same problem of developments on flood plains and developments that put under pressure the existing drainage system’s capacity, they came to a very specific conclusion: that they needed to change planning and building regulations so that all new developments were required to incorporate rainwater collection and water recycling in the structure of the development. Will the Minister consider doing exactly the same in the UK?
It might help if I refer my hon. Friend to our plans to issue a new planning policy statement on climate change before Christmas. Such matters are being discussed to determine whether they can be addressed through building regulations and planning policy.
The Department receives many representations on planning regulations and proposals to change them.
I thank the Minister for that response. She realises that it is extremely important for her Department to deal with investigations into planning regulations quickly. In the past, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sat on such cases for a great deal of time, and in the case of the livestock market in Shrewsbury, the cost to local council tax payers is £2 million in lost revenue. Will she do everything possible to speed up the adjudication on the proposed transfer of Darwin house to our council because it wishes to build a Darwin museum in Shrewsbury?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on individual cases and that there are restrictions on what we are able to say about planning cases that are going through the system. However, I can tell him that we are committed to passing cases through the system as swiftly as possible. We have introduced much tighter deadlines on both ministerial planning cases and the time taken for planning cases to go through appeal. I hope that that will assist his case.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that people feel that there is real injustice in planning inquiries and decisions. Applicants always have a right of appeal, but objectors have no right of appeal. When will she consider changing the regulations so that there is fairness on both sides?
Ultimately, we think that planning decisions need to be taken initially by local authorities, which are the democratic representatives of local communities. A right of appeal is built into the planning system because people have a right to appeal about how their own land should be used. However, we should also recognise that we should not have additional layers in the planning system that could cause planning decisions to drag on indefinitely and not provide proper certainty on, and democratic accountability for, decisions that are taken.
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, local authorities draw up their local plans. They hold consultations with their local communities and have to take decisions on planning applications that come forward. There will always be cases that have an impact that goes much wider than individual local authorities, and it is right that they should be considered through call-in processes or other processes. I have to say to Conservative Members that often what lies behind their anguish about local decisions is the fact that there is a local decision that they do not like because they do not want new homes to be built in their areas.
I appreciate the efforts that the Government have made, but the fact remains that it takes four months to conclude a written appeal and almost a year to conclude an oral appeal. Those are inordinate lengths of time. Would not one way of dealing with the situation be not to create additional layers, which the Minister has quite rightly turned her face against, but to appoint more planning inspectors so that such cases can be dealt with much more quickly?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have tried to increase the number of cases that go through the written procedure because that process can be much swifter for all concerned. We have also invested additional resources in the planning inspectorate, which is dealing with increasing numbers of appeals. Just as there are increasing numbers of planning applications, there are increasing numbers of appeals on planning applications, which obviously increases the inspectorate’s work load. We have already put in train a programme of work that is reducing the time taken by planning appeals on housing so that decisions can be taken much more swiftly.
Does the Minister recognise that a crisis of housing affordability is affecting hundreds of thousands of families throughout the country? Will she take steps to amend planning policy guidance note 3 to empower local authorities to place a duty on developers to pay more attention to the affordability of the housing that they build and less to the profit margin that they will receive from it?
I agree that we need to do more to address the affordability pressures that are faced, especially by first-time buyers throughout the country. As a result, we need to build more homes. More than 200,000 new households are being formed each year, largely as a result of more people living alone, but we are building only about 160,000 new homes a year, which is unsustainable. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to reform the planning policy guidance on housing. We have already published a draft for consultation, and we will publish a revised version later in the year to support more housing, including not only more shared ownership and affordable housing, but more market housing.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what representations she has had from the major supermarket chains—or, indeed, the Treasury—in respect of the possible changes to and relaxation of PPG6? Does she agree that the changes made by the previous Government, including the introduction of the sequential test, have been an important factor in assisting the regeneration of our town and city centres, and that if the guidance were to be relaxed to allow more out-of-town shopping development, it could have a serious impact on our city centres?
My hon. Friend is right to say that planning policy guidance on town centres has had a big impact on city and town centre regeneration. There has been a lot more investment and development in town centres, and in the centres of our big cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds—
And Sheffield, of course—particularly Sheffield. In those cities we are seeing a huge urban renaissance as a result of the guidance. We have no proposals to change PPG6. I have not had any representations from supermarkets; I do not know whether there are any in the Department, but the matter has not been raised with me personally.
It is a fact that since her appointment the new Secretary of State has overruled an average of one in five decisions made by her own planning inspectorate, and just now we heard what sounded like an attack by the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Secretary of State’s nimbyism. If she has so little faith in the planning system, why should anyone else?
Planning inspectors make representations to Ministers on a small number of cases, and Ministers take decisions based on the evidence that is put to them. It is right that they do so, and it is right that they should be democratically accountable for the decisions they take. We need more new homes across this country, but we also need to ensure that they are of higher quality and are built to good design standards in communities that are sustainable. We shall continue to take those decisions.
We will shortly set out our approach for future local governance in the forthcoming local government White Paper. In the light of those proposals, I shall, of course, be happy to work with Stoke-on-Trent city council on the necessary provisions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply and for the interest that he takes in Stoke-on-Trent. As he well knows, we in Stoke-on-Trent have a system whereby the council is run by a council manager and an elected mayor. My concern is that Stoke-on-Trent city council has asked to go ahead with a referendum, pending the enactment of the legislation as a result of regulations. We urgently need the regulations under the 2000 Act to be introduced. Will my hon. Friend meet Stoke-on-Trent council to discuss how the matter can be resolved?
I commend my hon. Friend on her vigilance on this matter—indeed, she wrote to me on 31 July raising a similar point, and she has made several other representations. My answer to her question is, yes, of course I shall do so. It is important, not only for the governance of Stoke but for the future prosperity of that fine city, that we get the arrangements right. That is why the matter is receiving my individual attention.
The design for manufacture competition is making excellent progress. Preferred developers have been selected on all 10 sites in the competition, and construction work is now under way on four. We anticipate that the first show home will be completed by November.
We have 1 million more homeowners in Britain since 1997, which is to be welcomed, but I regularly meet people in Dudley who are working hard but struggling to make ends meet on average incomes or in low-paid jobs, some of whom are living at home with their parents. They are desperate to buy a home of their own. They need a Government who are on their side, helping them to get on the housing ladder, which is why the expansion of the programme that my right hon. Friend has outlined today is so important. When does she think that people in my constituency will be able to buy a home at a lower cost?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that there is a real need, for young couples in particular, to be able to gain access to the housing market. The £60,000 house competition was designed to reduce and keep a lid on construction costs while driving up quality standards, particularly for smaller, two-bedroom houses. That should generate a cultural change across the industry and keep prices down while delivering higher standards. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit not only from that change in the industry, but from the other low-cost home ownership schemes that the Government are developing. He will know that we aim to help more than 100,000 households over the next few years, in the run up to 2010, with specific help through low-cost home ownership schemes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments, but I understand that the £60,000 relates to construction costs, and that there will be a variation in prices according to local housing market conditions. Can she reassure me that, even taking those local adjustments into account, the houses will still be affordable to people in the market who cannot get on the housing ladder?
We are certainly encouraging all developers to think about how they can reduce construction costs and drive up quality. Of the 1,000-odd houses that will be built through that type of competition, some will go on the market for £60,000 or thereabouts. People will have access to them through the shared equity scheme, and they will be able to buy a share of the house for such a price. However, it is important to point out that that will not be the only way for people to get their foot on the housing ladder. There are other Government policies designed specifically to help first-time buyers, and to enable people to get a foot on the housing ladder, including, for example, the homebuy scheme, which was recently re-launched by the Government. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of couples will be able to benefit from that scheme.
I am enthused by what I have seen of the prototype £60,000 homes. They address some of the problems that I have experienced with planning applications for new housing developments in my constituency, which all too often are poorly designed, lack ambition in terms of environmental sustainability, and are submitted with minimal public consultation. When will the “How to Win at Housebuilding” toolkit for local authorities and other social housing providers be introduced, so that they can be given better guidance on how to tackle some of those issues?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the competition was launched by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, there was huge scepticism about whether it was possible to design a spacious, high-quality, eco-friendly house with a construction cost of £60,000, but he showed that that was possible. Now, we are building eco-homes that have the “lifetime homes” standard and are very spacious. We hope that, through the competition, local authorities can hold their own competitions, asking developers to build houses to the same design standards. I hope that that toolkit for local authorities will be available before Christmas.
The Secretary of State referred to her Government’s low-cost home ownership schemes, and in particular the homebuy scheme. Can she explain why the grand total of homes sold under the social homebuy scheme, according to her parliamentary answer in Hansard on 4 September 2006, is just one?
I accept that we need to do far more—[Interruption.] We need to build more social homes. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman confirmed that he will match our real-terms spending commitment to build more social houses. We need to examine, together with registered social landlords and housing associations, why more people are not taking up the option of a social homebuy scheme, and we are determined to make the scheme attractive to people who want to buy a part of their social home. Over the next few months, and in the run-up to the pre-Budget report and beyond, we will develop a shared equity package that will make the scheme much more attractive, both to registered social landlords and to tenants who may want to make use of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to do more. I would be grateful if he confirmed that he will match our spending pledges.
This is laudable, but there are such disparities in land values that it becomes a drop in the ocean. When will the Government do something about taxing land values to even up the opportunities to build the houses that meet local housing needs?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a strong theoretical abstract tax argument, because taxing land values is a decent way of raising money in a way that is fair to lots of people. He will know, too, that there is a priority and an imperative from Government to have infrastructure development which supports housing in all its forms so that we do not build housing in isolation from thinking about economic prosperity and links to our towns and cities. That is why the Department for Communities and Local Government, together with the Treasury, is working to develop a planning gain supplement that will be based on land values and on the planning permission associated with that, so that we can use some of this resource to support the necessary infrastructure needs.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that affordability concerns not only the purchase price but running the house afterwards? How many of the £60,000 houses meet the target of a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use and a 40 per cent. reduction in water use; and how much reduction is there overall if, as I believe, none of them meets that target?
The environmental standards that have applied during the two years that this competition has been running have increased throughout that time. The houses that are being built now are of a higher standard than those that were built two years ago, and we are constantly raising the bar. The next phase of the design for manufacture competition will specifically ask bidders and developers to come forward with plans not only for homes that meet the 40 per cent. reduction but for carbon-neutral homes. Our ambition is that, through the way in which homes are built and developers think about constructing them, homes will become much more eco-friendly so that we can meet our carbon reduction emissions targets. However, we will of course continue to do more.
Brownfield Sites (Planning)
The Department has received a range of representations as part of the consultation on the new planning policy statement 3, which was published in draft last year.
During the Commons debate in the summer, the Minister was sympathetic when many of us said that our constituents believe that brownfield sites should be ex-commercial sites, not the gardens of houses and bungalows, which when built on as so-called brownfield sites completely change the nature of residential areas. In the light of her sympathetic comments, what progress has she made in redefining brownfield sites?
As we said during the debate, we need to build more houses across the country. We also need safeguards against inappropriate development. Many councils have already used those, but we are already strengthening them as part of the draft policy statement that was published last year. We must recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the definition of brownfield land was introduced in the mid 1980s. I quote:
“It is difficult to imagine how urban gardens could have been separated out in terms of available technology and cost.”
It talks about it being a statistical definition. That quote is from the hon. Gentleman’s party’s campaign document, so it is perhaps inappropriate for him to call for us to change the statistical definition.
Development on brownfield sites is often more difficult because of the former uses of those sites. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent development occurring in my constituency at Warburton on the old railway engineering works, where the historic buildings are being conserved? A difficult site with only one access has been developed and 300 houses have been provided at a high environmental standard. Will my hon. Friend ensure that those lessons are spread?
My hon. Friend is right. There are some excellent examples of development on brownfield land to high environmental standards but also with affordable housing. English Partnerships often plays a leading role in working with local authorities to bring former industrial and commercial sites back into use so that we can build new homes for the future.
Since 1997, about 235,000 new social homes have been provided, funded by the Government and by planning gain. The majority have been built by housing associations.
The Minister has not answered my question, which related to council houses. Will she confirm that, after nine years of a Labour Government, only about 4,000 council houses have been built? Even the Thatcher Government built 350,000 council houses. Why are this Labour Government so hostile towards council housing? Why will they not follow the Labour party’s conference policy to restore the building of council houses?
Let us be clear: local councils can build houses. They can use their own resources, prudential borrowing, private finance initiative schemes and section 106 agreements. We provide most of the Government funding for new social housing through housing associations because they can lever in an extra 40 per cent. of borrowing, which means that they can build 40 per cent. more homes with the same amount of money. That represents better value for the extra money that we put in. We are also looking at ways of giving councils more flexibility to carry out more building. In regard to the hon. Gentleman’s comparison with the early 1990s, construction and land costs were lower at that time. However, that was because the Tory Government of the time had pushed the housing market into a deep and damaging recession. I do not think that that is a housing policy worth returning to.
North Korea Nuclear Test
On 9 October, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Foreign Ministry announced that it had conducted an underground nuclear test at 02.36 United Kingdom time. That an explosion of sufficient magnitude occurred is not in question, but the exact nature of the explosion has not yet been independently verified by the identification of radioactive particles. However, given North Korea’s stated intention last week to conduct such a test, the international community is proceeding on the basis that this was indeed a nuclear test, as the DPRK has said.
The world has been united in its condemnation of North Korea’s action, which was carried out in direct defiance of the will of the international community. Comments made by world leaders, nuclear experts and international organisations have highlighted North Korea’s isolation. North Korea’s nuclear test jeopardises regional stability in north-east Asia and poses a clear threat to international peace and security. It contravenes North Korea’s commitments under the non-proliferation treaty, breaches the 1991 joint declaration of South Korea and North Korea on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and ignores United Nations Security Council resolution 1695.
The Security Council is continuing its discussions today on how to respond to the North Korean nuclear test. As I have said, the international community has been unanimous in its condemnation of the DPRK’s actions. The United Kingdom will be pushing for a robust response, given the clear threat posed to international peace and security by the test. The Security Council is considering a sanctions package covering a range of measures, including measures designed to impact on the areas of most immediate concern to the international community: the DPRK’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
Immediately following the test, the Prime Minister and I both issued statements making it clear that North Korea’s actions were highly irresponsible and provocative. We have also called the DPRK’s ambassador in London to the Foreign Office to make clear our views. Since then, I have discussed the situation with various Foreign Ministers, including the Chinese Foreign Minister Li, the Japanese Foreign Minister Aso and the Secretary of State of the United States, Condoleezza Rice. Those contacts are continuing, and will continue in the hours and days ahead.
May I express to the Foreign Secretary the strong support of the Opposition for the declared policy of the Government to seek a robust response under chapter VII of the United Nations charter, including the imposition of legally binding sanctions? Is it not worth reminding the House and the nation of the generous offers made to North Korea during the six-party talks, including on power generation and security guarantees?
I have three broad questions for the Foreign Secretary. The first is on sanctions. Last night, the United States proposed sanctions that would include a trade ban on military and luxury items, the power to inspect all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, and freezing assets connected with its weapons programmes. Japan appears to have proposed, in addition, that North Korean ships and planes should be banned from foreign ports and airports. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether the Government support all those proposals, or whether there are any that they do not support? Will the Government be calling for any further measures not mentioned by the United States and Japan? Can she say when she expects the Security Council to reach a decision? If a decision is made under Chapter VII and ignored by North Korea, does she expect further steps to follow?
The second set of questions concerns proliferation. Given that we must bear in mind the fact that this is a country that has never developed a weapons system that it has not eventually sold to the highest bidder, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the danger that nuclear technology originating from North Korea could find its way into the hands of transnational terrorists, or states supporting them? What assessment has been made of North Korea’s ability to arm its missiles with a nuclear warhead, and to which of its missiles would that apply? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that means we must expand the proliferation security initiative with the aim of identifying and stopping sources of nuclear trafficking? Would the sanctions being proposed at the United Nations change in any way the powers to search ships under the initiative? How will the efforts to intercept illicit cargoes from North Korea be made more effective?
The third set of questions concerns the unity of the Security Council. There is clearly a growing perception in the world that the price of stealing one’s way into the nuclear club is bearable. That is a perception that we cannot afford to allow to continue. Is it not the case that the Security Council members who have been united in their condemnation of North Korea must now be united in their actions? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is of the utmost importance to preserve the unity of the UN in the coming days—I am sure that she does—but that if sanctions are to be effective, they will obviously require the full support of North Korea’s neighbours? Can she say any more about any assurances that she has received during her discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister about China’s approach to the issue? What contacts has she had with her counterparts in Russia and South Korea regarding sanctions, and has this any implications for South Korea’s development of the industrial complex at Kaesong, over the North Korean border?
This latest development is clearly part of an alarming trend towards nuclear proliferation, which we must do everything possible to halt. While our immediate goal must be to confront and contain North Korea and oblige it to return to its obligations and negotiations, must we not now commit ourselves to reviving and strengthening the non-proliferation treaty as a whole, and dealing resolutely with those such as North Korea and Iran that attempt to breach it?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. He has asked me a great many questions, which I shall do my best to deal with as briefly as I can.
The proposals made by the United States and Japan are under consideration as we speak: the Security Council has just begun its meeting. For our part, we are content to see any and all of the measures presented so far on the table. We think it extremely wise to have a full range of measures for consideration in the Security Council, so that people can assess them and decide whether they wish to adopt all or some of them, but also so that it is clear what range of measures is potentially available to the Security Council on this or, indeed, any future occasion.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me what would happen if North Korea ignored an expressed decision by the Security Council. That is exactly why I think it right to look at the full range of measures. It is not at all clear yet what decision the Security Council will make. As the right hon. Gentleman may have heard—it has been commented on in the news media—the Security Council meeting yesterday was extremely brief. That was partly because some members did not have instructions from their domestic Governments, but it is thought that there is no question about the opposition to what North Korea is doing. However, what the detail of people’s willingness to take action in the immediate future will be is not yet clear.
The right hon. Gentleman raised, quite correctly, the issue of proliferation. That is exactly why the international community as a whole is so alarmed about this development. It is not just the issue of North Korea itself; it is the fact that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it has shown a propensity to distribute weapons in the past.
We are not in a position to answer some of the detailed questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked about arming missiles and so forth, not least because not enough is yet known about the nature and weight, for example, of a potential device. However, he is right to stress both the need for unity in the international community—which we will try to sustain—and the need to look again at the issue of the non-proliferation treaty in this light.
Conversations that I have had with the South Korean Foreign Minister indicate that that country is consulting widely and in great depth about the exact course of action that it will pursue. I cannot, therefore, answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question yet, but I am sure that it is one of the issues that South Korea will be considering, given the breadth of the process that it is undertaking.
I recognise that this is one of those occasions when the whole House will applaud the actions that my right hon. Friend has taken and will strongly support the efforts being made in the Security Council to secure effective additional chapter VII sanctions, involving, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, the authority to inspect all cargo going into and out of North Korea. Does she agree that China, as the main superpower, has a real responsibility to support sanctions for the benefits of its own people and the wider world and to make sure that they are effective?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is clear from the conversation that I had with the Chinese Foreign Minister that the Government of China are, as he would expect, gravely concerned. It is also clear that the Government of China are very mindful of the implications for the neighbourhood of any steps that might be taken, and are anxious, as are we all, not to do anything to make the situation worse. Balancing these issues is not likely to be easy, which is one of the reasons why I cannot answer the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) as to when the Security Council might come to a decision. At this moment it is too early to tell.
We join the unanimity across the House in condemning the nuclear test by North Korea. It is a dangerous development, not just for the region but for the world as a whole. We also firmly support the efforts in the Security Council to drive through tough sanctions against the regime. We join with others on both sides of the House in stressing the need for China and Russia to recognise their responsibilities and to support these measures. However, does the Foreign Secretary recognise that agreement will be much harder to achieve while there is even the prospect of military action by the United States, which would be absolutely catastrophic? Does she agree with the former United States Senator Sam Nunn, who said that this appalling situation represents a massive failure of United States—and, by extension, British—foreign policy, which has been disastrously sidetracked in Iraq while failing to deal with the terrible prospect of nuclear weapons in North Korea?
No, I do not agree that any stance taken up to now has in some way encouraged North Korea. It is clear that this is a course of action that North Korea has been pursuing, for its own mysterious reasons, for a long time. I do not speak in this House for the foreign policy of the United States, and I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman’s quotation of Senator Nunn was 100 per cent. accurate. But I reject the notion that this is in some way a result of neglect or a foreign policy failure by this Government, the Government of the United States or anyone in the international community. This is a North Korean failure—home-grown.
I welcome the initiatives that my right hon. Friend has taken, particularly her contact with the Chinese Government. Does she agree that if the purpose of UN sanctions is movement from North Korea and not its isolation, it is essential that we have China on board in any UN decision? Will she pursue that course of action?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who is exactly right. The purpose of sanctions being taken against North Korea is to get them to return to the six-party talks and abandon their course of action, and not in some way to punish them for what they have done.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a failure by the Security Council to impose serious sanctions would send a green light to Iran, suggesting that it could proceed with impunity with its aspirations for nuclear weapons? Does the Secretary of State accept that if the North Korean regime is likely to collapse some time over the next few years, it might be better if it collapsed sooner rather than later, before it could threaten its neighbours with nuclear weapons? Does not this point to very effective sanctions, including oil sanctions, being imposed at this stage?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point. As I said to his right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, the international community will look at the full range of sanctions that are available. I would certainly be reluctant to agree with any proposition that there was anything to encourage the Government of Iran, which I believe has uniquely supported and encouraged North Korea down a similar route. We strongly take the view that this should not be viewed as a green light to anyone, and that the international community must act with resolve. However, it is important to preserve not only that resolve, but international unity.
North Korea is patently unwise to starve its people for this nuclear weapon, which actually puts the country more at risk rather than less. However, may I say to my right hon. Friend that she has a bit of a blind spot if she does not believe that President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and the subsequent war against Iraq did anything to encourage North Korea to adopt this course of action? May I also say that although I do not object to sanctions, I am opposed to chapter VII actions that could lead on to military action? Cannot my right hon. Friend see that that would only make matters worse?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is mistaken in thinking that all this followed on from or was exacerbated by anything that President Bush or anyone else in the international community has said. If I may say so, I believe that it is something of a blind spot when people fail to recognise that this is a road down which North Korea has been treading, for reasons of its own, for a very long time. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about chapter VII, but the wording refers to a threat to “international peace and security” and I cannot think of a clearer threat to international peace and security than the one that we have just seen.
Will the Foreign Secretary send the strongest possible message of support to the South Korean Government and President Roh? I have the honour of representing the largest Korean community in the UK, and my constituents are desperate to know that the British Government will stand firm with the South Korean Government. Will the right hon. Lady tell President Roh that the UK Government—unlike some people in Washington—in no way consider his sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea to have been at fault?
We very much support the Government of South Korea and fully sympathise with the terrible anxiety that they are feeling. I am sure that it will encourage the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that part of the action that the South Korean Government are presently undertaking is, as I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, to consult on the widest possible basis and to draw all parties and all former presidents into talks in order to achieve a complete national consensus on how best to deal with what amounts to a very grave threat to South Korea in particular, as well as to others in the neighbourhood.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there have been two American policies on North Korea? The first, pursued by Madeleine Albright and President Clinton, was one of rapprochement. It included the denuclearisation of the peninsula, and was very successful. Following that came the very damaging policies of President Bush, which wrecked the policies of rapprochement and increased the tension and fears, however ill founded, of North Koreans. It is right that our policies should be robust, but should not they also be intelligent and independent?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that although there may be days when people in the House feel that it is time to have a go at the United States, this is not one of them. If we want to have a go at anybody, let us have a go at North Korea. This is North Korea’s policy, and that country is pursuing it wantonly. As everyone in the House well knows, in the process of spending on its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea is effectively persecuting its own people, who are undergoing terrible suffering. That is not something for which we should be seeking to find any kind of excuse or rationale. The example that I would put forward here as relevant to North Korea is that of Libya, which gave up its nuclear weapons—and quite right, too.
I was just about to ask whether Libya had any lessons for North Korea, in the way in which Britain and the US have behaved to a country that takes a more enlightened view and changes course. Instead, may I ask whether the role of the A. Q. Khan network in supplying nuclear information to North Korea has, in the view of the Department, brought forward the ability of North Korea to carry out that test at this time?
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I stole his thunder, or his line; I recognise his experience on these issues. It is hard to answer the question whether the A. Q. Khan network made an appreciable difference to the time scale of what North Korea has been able to do. I can certainly say that the issue of that network and the supplies that it was putting out lends strength to our argument that this is something in which North Korea has been engaged for a very long time.
It was rather shaming to hear that it was the fault of Britain and the United States that the nuclear test took place—the point of view of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench spokesman and some of those on our Back Benches. That really is a new axis of idiocy. We have the big advantage of an embassy in Pyongyang, put in place by the Labour Government in 1998. Will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention to the concerns of Japan and South Korea, which are only a small step away from developing their own nuclear capability unless action is taken against North Korea? May I suggest that the responsible Minister might be dispatched to the three capitals of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to report back to the House on these grave developments?
I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the grave concern felt, especially in South Korea and Japan. I will consider his suggestion, but we may pick up as much in New York about the concerns in those capitals as through visits to them at this point. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred to proliferation dangers, one of which is the concern that others in the region will begin to consider their own position. That is something that we must try to avoid at all costs.
In relation to the United Nations Security Council and the effectiveness of the UN, does the Foreign Secretary endorse the comments by John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, that this issue would by implication be a test for the UN? Will she give every encouragement to ensure that the UN, in this instance at any rate, acts with both force and unity?
Yes, I accept that this is an issue on which the UN needs to act with unity, but also with strength. That is something that we will try to deliver. Those with many years of experience in such matters have said to me of late that the permanent members of the Security Council are going through a period of what might be described as unusual unity. That is wholly to be welcomed. It is also something to be worked with and strengthened. I may not express matters as ambassador Bolton does, but I share the view that it is important that the UN gets this right.
It would be a grave error to suggest that the six-party talks are dead. Everyone is trying to encourage North Korea back into the six-party talks, because of the belief that that is the best way to address the range of issues that have been raised for those in the neighbourhood.
We have not yet finalised the sanctions package, so it is not easy to assess how long it might take to have effect. I suspect that North Korea will not lightly relinquish the course of action that it is pursuing, which is why I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks that I think it right for the Security Council to discuss a substantial range of measures. It is also something to bear in mind when a decision is made about what measures are adopted now.
During the cold war the nuclear powers agreed a series of memorandums to try to prevent exactly the sort of thing that happened two days ago. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that all current members of the nuclear club are subject to those memorandums? How does she expect to exert some sort of control over North Korea?
No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the confirmation that he seeks. Certainly there are memorandums in existence, although I cannot recall the precise network. There might be a slight misunderstanding here. We are not trying to encourage North Korea to sign memorandums and agree to be of good behaviour; rather, we are trying to encourage it back into a process of denuclearisation of the area—that is, to give up and demolish any missiles or weapons that it has developed.
I have visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is probably the most repressive regime in the world, but the level of opposition there remains quite strong. That is evident in the number of people fleeing the country; in effect, they are voting with their feet. What efforts have the Government made to support opposition groups, both in the country and outside it? Does the Foreign Secretary support regime change in Pyongyang?
Perhaps this is not the right day to dwell on the issue of regime change, but the Government do what we can in North Korea, through relatively small-scale programmes of assistance and support. If the hon. Gentleman’s visit was recent, he may know that the programmes run there by our Department for International Development have been stopped or scaled down because of the difficulty of making sure that they can be monitored properly, given the restrictions on freedom faced by opposition groups, non-governmental organisations and so on. Those restrictions make matters extremely difficult in North Korea, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to build good contacts with people of good will where we can.
Does not the nuclear test in North Korea show the strategic foresight of Japan, Australia and South Korea in developing a ballistic missile defence shield? North Korea already has effective missiles, and is trying to develop ones with a longer range. Is it not time the House had a debate about the use of a ballistic missile defence shield, as well as about the necessary diplomacy and sanctions mentioned today?
Iraq and Afghanistan Update
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I should like to start by expressing my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the brave servicemen who have lost their lives since I last spoke to the House on 24 July. Five soldiers have died in operations in Iraq, all of them killed in action. Twenty seven personnel from all three services have died in Afghanistan, with 11 killed in action and 16 lost in other incidents, including those killed in the RAF Nimrod crash on 2 September. Others have been wounded, and our thoughts should be with them also.
I turn first to Iraq. The House will be aware of the escalation of sectarian violence in recent months, particularly in and around Baghdad. The combined Iraqi and American Baghdad security plan, about which I was briefed in Baghdad in August just before it began, is a major initiative aimed at improving security for all the communities in the city. The security element is closely followed by co-ordinated projects to improve basic services, backed by more than $400 million of funding. In those areas that have been cleared of terrorists and sectarian gangs so far—with 1,700 weapons seized—citizens are reporting better security and are starting to see improvements in their daily lives. That said, however, the overall level of violence across the city, including sectarian killings, remains unacceptable—there was further evidence of that today—but the plan is still in its early stages and there is impressive commitment from American, coalition, and Iraqi forces.
In the UK’s area of operation in south-east Iraq, the biggest challenge lies in Basra city. Two weeks ago, Iraqi and UK forces began a large-scale operation moving through the city sector by sector, strengthening security and improving basic services. One important element of the operation is a renewed effort to improve the capacity of the Iraqi police and to address infiltration by militias. The operation also includes clean-up projects, agriculture projects and projects to improve basic services, including bringing clean drinking water to a part of the city that has never had it before.
Elsewhere in the south-east, in September Dhi Qar became the second province to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities, following al-Muthanna in July. We should congratulate the Iraqis on that achievement, and of course our international partners.
In terms of future planning for the UK in Iraq, I can confirm that the force package for the next routine roulement in November, in which 19 Light Brigade takes over from 20 Armoured Brigade, is essentially what I outlined in my announcement to the House on 18 July. I also draw the House’s attention to my written statement on 11 September, which confirmed a temporary deployment of 360 troops, including specialists such as engineers to help deliver the Basra projects I described earlier, and elements of the theatre reserve battalion, to provide support during the roulement period. Excluding the temporary deployment, this will leave our force level in Iraq at approximately 7,100.
We should be in no doubt that this is a decisive period in the future of Iraq. There is much debate, here in Britain, in America and of course in Iraq, about the best way forward, but all agree that military means alone will not be decisive. This is especially true now, when it is clear that sectarianism and the struggle for power have emerged as a major threat to Iraq’s security. What is required above all is a political solution. That must include a genuine effort at national reconciliation, drawing all Iraq’s communities into a political process and away from violence. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government are trying to deliver that. We and our coalition partners must do all we can to support them and to strengthen their resolve—but so, too, must the international community as a whole and Iraq’s near neighbours in particular.
Let me turn to Afghanistan. The achievements and losses of our forces in Helmand province rightly have been the focus of our attention in the last two months. The work our forces are doing there is difficult, dangerous and exhausting. I salute them, particularly the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are coming home, having been relieved by 3 Commando. I shall be visiting them tomorrow to thank them in person, but today, on behalf of the whole House, I should like formally to record our recognition of the bravery, professionalism and sacrifice of that brigade and all those from across the three services who supported them during their tour—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”.]
On this, the fifth anniversary of our intervention in Afghanistan, we should reflect on the progress our efforts have brought about: 2,000 schools built; 5 million children in school, a third of them girls; more than 70 new hospitals and clinics; and 4.5 million refugees returning home. This is not a failing mission.
NATO, in the shape of ISAF—the international security assistance force—under the leadership of General Richards, now has responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan, but as we know, the summer has seen fierce fighting and as I made clear in a speech last month, the persistence of the Taliban was greater than expected. Such is the nature of operations: the enemy always has a vote—and we have adapted. But let me repeat: the force package we deployed, which we have strengthened further over the summer, was designed to deal with violent resistance, and in every encounter with the Taliban our forces have defeated them. Moreover, by attacking us directly, the Taliban have taken heavy losses, both in northern Helmand and against the Canadians in Kandahar. We have sent a clear message that we will not be beaten in combat—a message not lost on the local population. That has strengthened the position of local leaders, some of whom are now pursuing peaceful negotiations with our commands and with the Afghan Government.
In Afghanistan, we have now reached a key point in the campaign. On Sunday, I spoke to General Richards and he described the situation as a window of opportunity. If we can build upon the blow we have delivered to the Taliban and if we can quickly deliver real, concrete changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans through development and reconstruction, we can begin to generate the lasting support that the Government need. So we are moving forward, but I have consistently made clear the challenges that we still face.
The assumption of complete military command for Afghanistan is a significant achievement for NATO, but it is also a significant test. There are still shortfalls in the planned force structure. Caveats on the use of some forces remain. I have been in frequent, often daily, discussions with the Secretary-General and fellow Defence Ministers to reinforce the message that, as an alliance, we must live up to our commitment to Afghanistan, sharing the burden and, as important, sharing the risks. I ensured that this subject was top of the agenda at the NATO summit in Slovenia two weeks ago, and I will continue to press for urgent action.
We have made some progress. Some caveats are lifting—the Poles have confirmed they will provide a battalion, and the Canadians plan to put further troops into the south. Importantly, General Richards judges that he has the forces to maintain the relatively stable security situation that now exists, but I will continue to push for his requirements to be met in full, as a matter of urgency.
In Helmand, the UK task force also faces challenges. The battles that we have fought in the north of the province have brought us to the relative stability that we have seen in recent weeks. Taliban activity is down and engagement with local leaders is growing, but we must capitalise quickly with progress on reconstruction. We are rebalancing our forces, taking advantage of the steady improvement in the Afghan army and police to concentrate our forces on the central area surrounding the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. That should increase the scope for other Government Departments to act in safety, and it should also increase the confidence of local enterprises and international NGOs to begin the reconstruction that is at the core of our strategy.
Back in the UK, the main challenge for me, for my Department and for the joint headquarters and the chiefs is to give our troops the resources that they need to get the job done. That is a relentless task, but we are rising to it. We have now almost completely deployed the reinforcements that I described to the House on 10 July, with the last elements due in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. That includes two more Chinook helicopters and more flying hours for helicopters across the fleet; more capacity to train the Afghan national army; engineers to take forward development; and more infantry.
On 24 July, I announced a new package for protected vehicles for both Afghanistan and Iraq, including 100 new Mastiff and 100 additional Vector vehicles, funded by new money from the Treasury. We continue to invest heavily in force protection, including countermeasures to protect vehicles against attack, defensive aids for aircraft and personal body armour. I believe that we have shown that we can be responsive to the requests of commanders, and we will continue to be responsive.
Of course, support for our troops is not just about numbers of people and equipment; it is also about pay, conditions, welfare and medical care. In all those areas, we are constantly reviewing what more is needed, and for some weeks now I have specifically been looking at pay levels for forces on operations. Our forces are some of the best paid in the world—only Canada pays more across the ranks—but forces from other countries do not pay tax when on operations, and this has led some to demand that we do the same for our people. I think we can do better.
I am pleased to announce today that we intend to introduce a new tax-free, flat-rate operational bonus, which, for a six-month tour, would amount to £2,240. For an average private or lance-corporal, that is equivalent to the amount of tax that they would pay during a six-month tour. It means that half our people on operations will be better off than under a tax exemption—increasingly so for the lower paid. The most junior will be more than £500 better off after a six-month tour than if we simply exempted them from tax. As important, everyone on operations will be equally better off than they are now—by just under £100 per week, free of tax. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for making more than £60 million of new money available so that we can fund this new bonus without taking any existing defence funding away from front-line needs.
This is a complex area. I have been looking at these questions for weeks, but I can assure the House that the troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan over the summer will not lose out as a result. The payment will be backdated to 1 April 2006, as an adjustment to pay arrangements in the current financial year. Full details of eligibility will be made public shortly, but I can confirm that, besides Afghanistan, the payment will apply to our forces in Iraq and in the Balkans.
Finally, let me deal with the issue of medical care for those injured on operations. First, I want to challenge the notion that the current system is in any way inferior to what went before. In particular, the relentless attack on the work of the outstanding medical staff—military and civilian—at Selly Oak hospital is both unfair and misplaced. I have been there twice in recent months. It is one of the highest-performing and most successful hospital trusts in the NHS and provides major specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience.
Our primary concern is to give our injured people the best medical care available. That is to be found inside the NHS. While some have been calling in public for a return to military hospitals, we have been quietly getting on with the job of establishing a military managed ward at Selly Oak in partnership with the NHS. I can confirm that this will be operational before the end of the year.
I have been open about the nature of the challenges that we face in our operational theatres. I do not seek to hide from the House the difficulties we face in overcoming them, but I am convinced our strategy remains the right one. In Afghanistan, we have to tackle the south and the east if we are to secure what has already been achieved in the rest of the country. We have to make the comprehensive approach work, with all Government Departments acting together to achieve our objectives. We have to get NATO to live up to its commitments. In Iraq, we have to support the Iraqi Government and their army and police in taking responsibility for their own security and in holding the line against sectarian violence. We will do all these things—we cannot afford not to.
I have spoken many times about the debt we owe the men and women who serve in our armed forces and who carry out this hard and dangerous work on our behalf. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to them again today.
Let me begin by associating myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families and friends of all those who have given their lives for our security. Let me pay tribute to all those servicemen and women who have performed so well under such difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I have said several times in the House, the Opposition fully support the Government’s aims in Afghanistan: to prevent the recurrence of a failed state and the re-emergence of al-Qaeda and the effects this would have on Britain’s security. It is more true now than ever that NATO’s reputation in on the line. Our collective security requires a properly collective response—a response that has been notably lacking from some quarters of our allies.
It is, however, the duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account for the means of achieving these objectives. From the outset of the deployment to Afghanistan questions have been raised about whether too much planning was done on the basis of the most optimistic potential outcome. Public opinion was prepared largely for a mission that was about peacekeeping, not war fighting. From the very beginning, questions were asked about the level of manpower and equipment being deployed given the difficulties that might be faced. In the event, the realists, rather than the optimists, have been proved right. Resistance from the Taliban has been fierce and the deployment under-strength. As a result, not only were a further 900 troops sent by the Government in July, but NATO commanders on the ground still believe that they are undermanned. I certainly do not agree with the assertion made by the Secretary of State for Defence in July that:
“neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”.
These major strategic questions require a great deal of analysis, which I am sure that the House will want to give them in due course. Today, I have a number of specific questions for the Secretary of State, relating to our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include the safety of our troops, the need for more equipment, the calculation of casualties, the treatment of those injured, the inadequacy of the inquest system and the lack of reconstruction.
Let me begin with the question of body armour. On 18 September, the Secretary of State said in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) that Osprey, the body armour that provides extra protection for the neck and shoulders, would replace ECBA, which provides only minimal chest protection. How many sets of Osprey armour have already been provided for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and what proportion of our troops can receive it when necessary? The correct answer should be 100 per cent.
Let me next turn to helicopters. The Prime Minister said recently that our commanders can have “all that they want.” They immediately responded by saying that they wanted more helicopters. The worry is that the Government may promise what they are unable to provide. How many helicopters do we have that could be used in Afghanistan, but are not being used? How many helicopters do we have that are not fit for purpose? For example, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures suggest that only 41 per cent. of the Lynx and Gazelle fleets are fit for purpose. What requests have been made to our NATO allies for extra helicopters? Which nations currently have the capacity to provide appropriate helicopters, but have not done so? How many military helicopters have we earmarked for sale to foreign countries and why did the Government cut the battlefield helicopter budget from £4.5 billion to £3.2 billion as recently as 2004? On available vehicles, how many of the Mastiff and Vector vehicles announced in the July package have now been delivered in theatre?
On the issue of casualty numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we want to see greater transparency. At the moment, there are discrepancies between the way in which UK and US casualty figures are compiled. In particular, only casualties who are admitted for in-patient treatment or casivaced are included in our official figures. What we are not told is the proportion of our troops who are injured sufficiently to make them unfit for duty, but who do not require hospitalisation. The US provides figures on those who are injured, but return to duty within 72 hours. Can we please have the same?
Of those who are injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential that they are treated by those with the best medical skills, but in the most appropriate environment. No one has attacked the excellent work of the medical and nursing staff, and to suggest that is deplorable, but to have injured servicemen and women and reservists treated in wards alongside civilian patients is just not acceptable. Part of the healing process is about coming to terms with the nature of their injuries and that is best done among their comrades. We want an assurance today from the Secretary of State that everything possible will be done to ensure that those who return to the UK will be treated in exclusively military wards. The British public will expect nothing less.
Back in May, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the unacceptable level of outstanding inquests for those killed in action. The backlog results in families being unable to achieve closure of the tragic events that have occurred. At the time, in response to the request, the Government made more resources available to the Oxfordshire coroner, yet the situation remains completely unacceptable. The Coroners Act 1988 gives the coroner the ability to delegate the responsibility of carrying out an inquest to another county. Why is this not being used? Do Ministers have the power to instruct the coroner to make that happen? If not, and if a ministerial order is required to make that possible, the Government will have the full co-operation of the Conservative party to make that possible.
Let me welcome the announcement of extra money for those on the front line. They deserve no less. I am delighted that the Government have responded so quickly to the Leader of the Opposition’s initiative. If we can achieve this much in opposition, how much more could we achieve in government? Will the payment have a minimum qualifying period; will it apply to all three services; will it be repeated for every deployment; and what impact will it have on tax credits for those at the lower end of the pay scale?
Finally, let me ask about reconstruction. In respect of Iraq, the Secretary of State is right to concentrate on the need for a political solution and the establishment of an independent judicial system. However, can he remind the House today who is responsible for the training and development of the police service in Iraq, and why it is so far behind schedule?
In Afghanistan, we are about to enter a crucial phase. We have seen fierce fighting and an enormous commitment to defeat the Taliban. But without substantial reconstruction on the ground, and after five years of a foreign military presence, those in the south of Afghanistan might rightly question why they have seen no improvements to their infrastructure. Two hundred schools in Kandahar, and 165 in Helmand, are closed for security reasons, and DFID has withdrawn its only representative in Helmand.
Let me put the following question to the Secretary of State: what sort of security environment do the NGOs expect there to be before genuine reconstruction begins? Do they expect a zero-risk environment? If they do, we will never have the basic requirements of what is needed to win the hearts and minds of the peasant farmers in south Afghanistan. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity to impress upon the Secretary of State for International Development the need to get the NGOs operating? If we do not do so, the sacrifices of our men and women in Afghanistan could be in vain, and that would be a completely unacceptable outcome for the House and the country.
If I were to answer all the questions the hon. Gentleman has put to me, I suspect that I would incur your wrath, Mr. Speaker. However, I will endeavour to deal with the principal issues raised and, to the extent that I do not answer them, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place the answers in the Library. That will allow other Members to ask questions today.
At the outset, let me repeat something that I have said to the hon. Gentleman on more than one occasion: I value the support that he and the majority of those who sit on the Conservative Benches give for the operations in Afghanistan and for their objectives. It is important to those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out those very dangerous operations that they know that they have that support.
Let me deal with the body armour issue, because I know that the hon. Gentleman has a specific interest in it, and he has expressed a view in the media about it: 15,000 sets of Osprey armour have been deployed into the operational theatre, and anybody who can do the simple arithmetic required will know that that is more than the number of people who have been deployed into both theatres. However, that does not guarantee that there is a set for every individual, because soldiers, like Members of Parliament, come in different shapes and sizes.
I undertook that the new Osprey body armour would be deployed into theatre by late autumn, and I suggest that the figure of 15,000 confirms that that has been achieved. I now tell the House that there will be sufficient body armour for absolutely everybody in theatre by January of next year, but I can also give the reassurance that nobody who is deployed in theatre into a situation where they are exposed to the possibility of being under fire is denied the use of Osprey armour. There are more than enough versions of that advanced system of body armour for everybody to have them. Therefore, I am confident that we have achieved the objective that we set, which reflects the answer that was given to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and that we will achieve our overall objective by January of next year.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked a number of specific questions about helicopters for which, candidly, I do not have the information to be able to answer. However, I will have those questions researched and answer them in writing. However, let me say in relation to helicopters that the hon. Gentleman is of course right to suggest that we should not promise what cannot be delivered, but he should also be careful not just to read what the newspaper headlines state that those in theatre say about helicopters. The headlines relating to the alleged request for more helicopters were not supported by the body of the actual interview with the commander of the British forces; that is not what he said in response to the Prime Minister’s remarks. That having been said, we are constantly reviewing helicopter numbers, and there has been a significant increase in helicopter capability, particularly for Afghanistan. Along with senior members of the Department and my fellow Ministers, I am reviewing what we can do to increase the availability of helicopters not just by generating further air frames, but by generating the crew, spares and other support necessary to provide that further capability, if that is at all possible.
On medical care, I point out that, as the House already knows, those who call for the reopening of military hospitals ought to remind themselves how we came to no longer have such hospitals. The defence cost study 15 of 1994 was responsible for the closure of our military hospitals, on the basis of saving money. In fact, in the light of developments in medical practice, closing those hospitals was the right thing to do. It is entirely appropriate that the best care be provided to our forces, and that is to be found in the national health service.
As I said, we are seeking to provide a military-managed ward in an appropriate environment within Selly Oak. The hon. Gentleman associated himself with the criticisms that others have made of Selly Oak hospital by intervening in the debate in the manner that he did. If he is going to comment on the quality of NHS care, he should visit the hospital. I invite him to visit Selly Oak, to see the wards for himself and to speak to the troops, as I have done. I visited it very recently, and the troops who are getting that NHS help and service spoke with glowing praise for those providing that care.
There has also been uninformed speculation about the way in which we record injuries and put our casualty figures into the public domain. It was suggested this week on the front page of a local newspaper that 5,000 injured troops were unable to be deployed on the front line because they were on an NHS waiting list. None of this is true. There may well be about 5,000 people in that medical category, but that does not mean that they are all injured. Some of those people are just being treated by their GPs, just as anybody in civilian life might be who was signed off by their doctor. The way in which we record and publish casualty figures—I am looking at that process, and I am prepared to consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion—has been consistent over the years and is consistent historically with the way in which British forces have published such figures. Of course, had we changed it, we would have been accused of doing so in order to hide something else.
I am very keen to have a system that puts the information that we have into the public domain as openly, freely and quickly as possible, and I will do everything that I can to get to that. But what I will not do is to ask those responsible for the safety of our troops on the ground to take part in some sort of bureaucratic exercise designed to serve the purposes of people who want to make political capital out of those casualties.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement this afternoon and confine my brief remarks to just two areas? First, I totally associate myself with what he said about Selly Oak hospital. Anybody who visits it will see that it is a first-class, professional caring environment, and it does a tremendous job in looking after the injured, who served our country so well in many theatres. Secondly, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement about the new payments; this underpins the value agenda, which is so important. We as a country have to demonstrate how much we value our servicemen and women. Our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are often under critical scrutiny, some of it very unfair, and his statement today on the new payments will do more to boost their morale than anything else that he could have done.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. By asking a question on pay, he gives me the opportunity to indicate that the answer to all the questions on pay asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is yes. The payment will apply to all those who are deployed. It should not affect tax credits, but I will examine the detail of that.
May I echo most sincerely the words of condolence to the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the summer recess and express my good wishes to those who are recovering from injuries?
I thank the Secretary of State for his wide-ranging statement, but I urge the Government to make time available for a full debate on the foreign policy implications of the developments that are taking place. The Leader of the House has called the situation in Iraq “pretty dire”, and the Secretary of State referred in his statement to this being a decisive period, although he rightly said that military means alone will not be decisive. What is the British strategy in Iraq? What is our attitude to the work of the US envoy, James Baker, and to the widely discussed possibility of a US strategy to divide Iraq into three parts? What role do we now see for the UN? Those may be Foreign Office questions, but that proves my point about the need for a fuller debate in the House.
I warmly welcome today’s confirmation that there will be a rebalancing of our forces in Afghanistan, with the Afghan army and police taking over the platoon houses in the northern areas, which will enable us to concentrate our forces in the central area around Lashkar Gah. Does the Secretary of State agree with General Richards, who said in his radio interview yesterday that we must improve the lot of the Afghans in the next six months if they are not to turn back to the Taliban for support? Indeed, might we have been further advanced in winning over the support of the Afghan people if we had not diverted so much effort into Iraq in 2003?
How quickly can the Prime Minister’s welcome promise of additional kit and equipment be fulfilled? Brigadier Butler said that helicopters were his top priority and pointed out how much faster our progress would be if we had more helicopters. Can the Secretary of State confirm newspaper reports in Demark saying that some of its new Merlins will be diverted to the UK? If that occurs, will they be available over the winter months, when land travel is difficult? When will the Chinooks that are so scandalously grounded be available for use, and how will all that fit into General Richards’s six-month window of opportunity?
Last but not least, I warmly welcome the tax-free operational bonus that the Secretary of State announced today. That option is better, more logical and more transparent than a messy tax rebate scheme. It is welcome that it will be backdated to 1 April. Nevertheless, there may be complaints from those who miss out. Will he confirm that the pay review body will not adjust the X factor downwards in any way to compensate for that?
We should all commend the excellent work of those who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando, with people from my area who have gone out there to take over. However, I say again that a substantial debate on where this is all going in foreign policy terms is long overdue.
It is not in my gift to grant time in the House for a foreign policy debate, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I would welcome any opportunity to explain our policy on Iraq and Afghanistan from the point of view of the Ministry of Defence and the Government. I am proud of the work that we are doing in both theatres.
The hon. Gentleman asks what our objectives are in Iraq. They have not changed. We are there at present in the context of a United Nations resolution to support the democratically elected Iraqi Government, to ensure that they run the country and, as I said in my statement, to support them at this challenging time. We should bear it in mind that the Government of national unity have been in existence for only 139 days. However, people are judging them against ambitions that would be challenging for Governments that had been in power for decades, if not centuries. They are facing attacks on their authority from terrorists. As I have explained from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions, there are difficulties, especially in multinational division south-east and in Basra, due to competition for economic and political power.
We are there to provide support to the Iraqi security forces and that has not changed. In response to an earlier question, let me say that 307,000 members of those security forces—about half of them police officers—have been trained by the coalition since the training of forces started.
The hon. Gentleman asks about my view of the comments of others—people who, I hasten to add, have no responsibility of government and no responsibility in Iraq—on what they think might be best, or what people think they think might be best for the Iraqi people. In my view, but, more importantly, in the view of the Iraqi people and their Government, the break-up of Iraq is not in their best interests. Their constitutional position allows for federalism in some circumstances, but that is a matter that they need to work through, which is what politics is about. That work may be difficult and challenging, but that is what democratic politics is like. If we want Iraq’s Government to be a democratic Government, exercising control over their own people, we need to support them to do that.
Like the hon. Member for Woodspring, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raises our inability during the period in which our forces were deployed in northern Helmand—supporting the Afghan provincial government at the request of President Karzai and the national Government—to mobilise our forces in the central part of Helmand to carry out reconstruction work. Everybody knows about that—it is an historical fact, well documented and debated. The decision was made by our commanders on the ground and I fully support them in that. It appears, from the way in which they have been able to fight the Taliban to a standstill and get the support of the local population in those areas, that that effort has been successful. That success must be sustained, which will be a challenge. However, redeployment of forces back into the centre will allow us to carry out reconstruction work.
I have here a document that sets out the reconstruction projects that have taken place in Helmand province, summarising completed projects, current projects and proposed projects. The document was provided to me by the Department for International Development for this statement. Rather than read it out, I shall place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can see what has been done. It is not the case that nothing has been done: a significant amount of reconstruction has been done in Helmand province, albeit not as much as we want.
Is General Richards right to say that the next six months will the most important period in the Afghan operation? Yes—but in the five months that I have been in my present job, every next six months has been the most important six months in both theatres of operation. Everybody tells me that, and it is always true. That is the challenge that we face over the winter, and we will have to be up to it.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee on Defence in July and I can tell him that the men and women of the Army and Air Force we met there showed a high degree of bravery and morale is very high.
We also visited Lashkar Gah and the provincial reconstruction team there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if press reports that the brave DFID officer has been withdrawn are true, that will be a retrograde step?
The hon. Member for Woodspring also raised that issue, which is at the heart of what we are trying to do in reconstruction. Not only our Government, but our allies in NATO and the EU will consistently be faced with the challenge of helping countries to move from conflict, through reconstruction and into a positive future. Part of that challenge, as he said, is to decide what measure of security is sufficient for us to deploy people who have not signed up to the military. Incidentally, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that all three forces are represented in Afghanistan and are making a significant contribution there. We have to decide, realistically, what degree of security we can generate in circumstances such as those in Helmand province, and whether that is sufficient for us to deploy people who, unlike members of the military, do not sign up for the level of risk that those who sign up for the military are prepared to accept.
That is a significant challenge faced by the international community, and not just the British Government, so I have engaged with our international partners on it. We need to have a debate, because we need to find a way of delivering reconstruction in such circumstances repeatedly in future. There are many countries in Africa that we, as an international community, have ambitions to help. I am not suggesting that UK forces will be present, but other forces will be, and the exact circumstances will be replicated. We need to ask ourselves whether we can expose people doing reconstruction work to that level of risk, or where we can find and generate the partners who can do that work.
Those are not easy questions to answer, but I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has been to the area and seen the problems for himself, that that does not necessarily mean that people need to be present in the theatre to be able to provide support for reconstruction. We can find partners, and the list of—
That is not entirely correct. We can find partners, in the form of local contractors and other people, who can deliver reconstruction work for us that develops the cycle that we all want, in which security leads to reconstruction and development, in turn generating more security. We all know that that is what we need to do. Simply identifying the problem does not help to resolve it.
I should perhaps declare my interest as someone who may receive the operational payment. Although I shall donate mine to the Royal British Legion, I thank the Secretary of State on behalf of my fellow servicemen, as it is a small step in the right direction. Progress is being made, but it is painfully slow. There is a complete lack of capability or capacity in the provinces. The DFID officer has not been in Helmand for some months, and the military cannot deliver reconstruction; it can only deliver stability. Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come for a degree of political honesty and that, if we are to achieve what the Government want to achieve in Afghanistan, we will be there not for two or three years, but for 15 or 20 years? The hand-to-mouth existence of the military simply cannot go on.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “And gallant.”] I apologise; I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his personal contribution. Clearly, because of his own experience, he speaks from knowledge of the situation, and I recognise that. I thank him, too, for his welcome for the additional payment to troops deployed in operational theatre. I am sure that that they will take note of his comments. In passing, the pay review body was of course consulted about the payment and welcomed it. It constantly reviews the information on which it bases its advice, but it is independent of Government and I do not speak for it; it can speak for itself.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to be honest, on behalf of the Government, about the scale of the challenge that we have taken on. I have endeavoured to be just that throughout the time that I have been Secretary of State for Defence. I hasten to add that my predecessor, who had responsibility for deploying troops to Afghanistan, was honest, too. The fact of the matter is that, for political purposes, people seek to edit the words that he used. They ignore the four and a half pages of his statement and take one phrase. That is the dishonesty in the way in which matters have been explained to the people of the United Kingdom.
People need only look at the configuration of the force that we sent to Helmand province. We sent paratroopers, eight Apache attack helicopters, and artillery. If there is any suggestion that that in any way supports a conclusion other than that we were configured for the possibility of doing some war fighting in those circumstances, it defies logic. The fact of the matter is that this was always going to be difficult. The southern part of Afghanistan is the Taliban’s heartland, and it was always going to be difficult. It was always going to require a long-term commitment to that country by NATO, the United Nations and the developed world. This obsession about time does not help us to get the job done. There is no alternative to doing this job: it is the most noble—
Order. May I stop the Secretary of State? I allowed a long statement and a long response from Front Benchers because of the nature of this statement. This shows that Front Benchers can take an inordinate amount of time out of these statements. From this point on, I want very brief questions and brief answers. In the near future I will be making a Speaker’s statement regarding the nature of statements that are brought to this House. Back Benchers are not getting the chance to which they are entitled.
In view of the endless slaughter of largely innocent civilians in Iraq and the inability of the occupation authorities to provide the necessary protection in any way whatsoever, is there not a case for seriously considering whether the whole issue of Iraq should be referred back to the Security Council of the United Nations? Why should we believe that the situation will be any different next year or the year after?
The answer to my hon. Friend is perfectly simple. There is due to be a renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution and we will presumably have the opportunity to debate it.
Given that the increasingly dangerous and bloody mission in which our brave soldiers are engaged in Helmand province is, whatever the Secretary of State says, completely different from the peaceful mission of reconstruction that the Government rashly told us was the original purpose of our deployment, is it not time for the Government to review the whole question of our deployment into Helmand—in particular, so as to determine what benefits it is currently bringing to the people of that province?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be aware that the deployment into Helmand is not increasingly dangerous—in fact, over the past four weeks it has become increasingly stable and productive and more generating of circumstances that will allow us to do the reconstruction work that we went there to do in the first place.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In view of the comments that have been made about the lack of progress in Afghanistan, can he say a little more about the progress that has been made as regards the position of women there? For example, about a quarter of the Afghanistan Parliament comprises women Members—women who, under the Taliban, would have been not only required to wear a certain form of dress but virtually excluded from society.
The simplest answer that I can give my right hon. Friend is that there are now 5 million children in school in Afghanistan, one third of whom are girls who were denied education under the Taliban. However, the most impressive statistic that has come out of what we have achieved as an international community in Afghanistan is that 4.5 million people who chose to live outside Afghanistan and who had families and connections there have gone back to live in the country. This is the single biggest repatriation of refugees that the world has ever known.
Is not the truth of the matter that artillery and Apache helicopters are rather limited in their abilities as regards reconstruction, that the military operation has been wholly unaccompanied by an equivalent level of reconstruction, and that as a result the past six months of British efforts in Afghanistan have made worse, not better, the situation with regard to support for the foreign military intervention from the local peasant farmers whom we are trying to help?
The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the point that I made to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). Because of the way in which commanding officers, appropriately, deployed our troops at the point at which they went into Helmand, they were not available to be able to generate for the central area of Helmand the security that they were sent there to generate in order to support the reconstruction work. Increasingly, however, the opportunity is there for them to be available. They have been supported by the additional troops that I announced in July. That opportunity will become apparent over the winter months. The challenge is whether we can take that opportunity to start the reconstruction at the level that we planned.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of the operational bonus. When I visited Iraq earlier this year, I met the troops and saw the conditions in which they were operating. I represent Portsmouth—the home of the Royal Navy, which is also playing its part in Iraq by protecting Iraqi oil platforms and training the Iraqi navy. Will he confirm that this bonus will apply to sailors in the Royal Navy deployed on operations in Iraq?
I thank my hon. Friend for her support, and for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that the Royal Navy is doing in Iraq to protect the oil infrastructure that generates almost all the income that the Iraqi Government now enjoy from their own oil reserves. I had the privilege of visiting HMS Kent when I went to Iraq in August, and I was able to see for myself the work that was being done. Those people are equally committed, equally brave and equally professional.
The Secretary of State has recognised in his statement that there have been genuine concerns about the medical care of the wounded who are being repatriated to the United Kingdom, in that a military-managed wing is to be opened at Selly Oak hospital. Will he tell the House what proportion of those who are repatriated will be treated in that wing, and whether other military-managed wings are to be opened in other NHS facilities?
The disposition of patients in terms of their care is related to their clinical need. I am not in a position to make decisions about the clinical needs of those who return from Afghanistan or Iraq for whatever reason. The majority of those who are medically evacuated from those theatres are returned not because of injuries that they have received in combat but for epidemiological reasons similar to those experienced by the general population. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, much as I would like to answer his question simply and quickly, I have no idea how to answer it because I have no idea what we will be facing. However, one of the beauties of our being able to treat people who are returned to this country in the national health system is that it gives them access to some of the best care in the world.
Will the Secretary of State give us an estimate of the number of soldiers and civilians—in addition to the tragic loss of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—who have died in both countries since the operation began five years ago in Afghanistan and three and a half years ago in Iraq?
I am not in the business of making estimates of the number of people who have died, any more than I would be in the business of estimating the number whom Saddam Hussein killed, or the number of citizens of Afghanistan who gave their lives to secure the freedom and the democratically elected Government they now enjoy. However, if I were to estimate the number that Saddam Hussein killed and the number of Afghans who have given their lives to secure that freedom, I suspect that, in both cases, it would be in the millions.
Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the soldiers of 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who have served with great distinction and courage in Afghanistan, losing three of their number in tragic circumstances? Will he also give me a commitment that those men and women will receive the food and water supplies that they need, as there have been logistical difficulties in ensuring that those supplies arrive regularly and on time?
I have no difficulty in accepting the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to those who have served, whether in the Royal Irish Regiment or any other regiment or unit in any of the services. I do that freely because they are entitled to that tribute. However, I should like to make a point about rations during war fighting. It devalues the contribution that troops, particularly soldiers, make in those circumstances—and, to some degree, sanitises how difficult, dirty and dangerous their work is—if we seek to explain the fact that soldiers have to live in uncomfortable positions by saying that it is because of a failure of logistics or supply. Often, this is simply a function of how dangerous the circumstances are, and we ought to recognise that as part of the reason why we should pay such a significant tribute to those people.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm that the excellent United Kingdom support currently given to the Afghan security sector will be continued, and will he consider allowing it to grow? I ask because I think it significant to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. If it does not happen, I think that the indictment for all of us will be that the Taliban will be given the word go, and its tyranny will be seen by all local Afghan people.
I thank my hon. Friend for her support. She is right to suggest that in Afghanistan the exit strategy for all who are there from other countries is building up of the Afghan Government’s ability not just to govern, but to secure their own people through professional forces at both army and police level. That is our significant focus, and that is why in July I announced that additional troops would go out and work with the security sector, training Afghan forces to take over from us. We need to do that, we need to do more of it, and we need to do it very effectively, because that is the test of our ability to reconstruct and to secure Afghanistan. My hon. Friend is perfectly correct in that regard.
In his statement, the Secretary of State asserted that “the best medical care is to be found inside the NHS for our returning troops that are injured”. How does he square that with the farming out of combat-stressed casualties to Labour-donor-run Priory clinics, and the destruction on his watch of the discipline of military psychiatry?
The hon. Gentleman has quoted part of what I said. At that point, as I recollect, I was referring to the quality of care available in a specific trust at Selly Oak which has an international reputation for trauma medicine. That is why the decision was made to base the centre of our medical support there.
I accept that there are challenges in relation to the provision of, in particular, psychiatric care. Statements were being made about that before my watch, and I am endeavouring—with the ministerial team, and with the support of the medical structure that we have—to provide the level of support that is appropriate for those who have undergone these experiences.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to look at his own party’s record in relation to the medical care of our troops before he starts criticising other people.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular for the update on Afghanistan. Will he clarify whether recent successes against the Taliban have been strong enough to create circumstances in which the schools and health centres that they recently destroyed can be rebuilt, and whether it is safe for women to exercise a public role—even a limited one—or to take up employment without fear of execution?
My hon. Friend has set one of a number of tests of whether reconstruction is working. In the detail of the discussions between community leaders, the Afghan Government, the provincial government in Helmand and indeed the NATO forces, the reconstruction of schools is at the heart of what we are about. It is a symbol of significant progress. That is why a statistic that I frequently use as a test of progress is the number of girls in education. The ability to liberate girls and women from the tyranny of the Taliban will, I believe, be the consistent measure of our progress.
As long ago as February, Conservative Members warned the Government that in the event of serious resistance in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault Brigade would not have the equipment, the firepower or, above all, the manpower that it required to do the job. Recognising that, 3 Commando Brigade planned to take two complete commandos out with it this autumn; yet it deployed with half the infantry that it had planned. Why is that?
The nature of the force that we deployed was based on military advice given to Ministers not only by chiefs, but by military experts who went on to the ground and examined the situation. The configuration and nature of the force were based on the best military advice. The difference is that an entirely appropriate decision was taken at the point of deployment. That decision had consequences, but it may be—time will tell—that it will be to the long-term benefit of the deployment and the objectives of the operation. As everyone tells me constantly, these are the sorts of things that happen when one deploys forces into theatre. Circumstances change, and the very fact of deployment into theatre generates change itself.
How can we win the hearts and minds of the people in Helmand when the majority believe that we are there to get rid of their main source of income? With Karzai increasingly appointing warlords, ex-Taliban leaders, criminals and drug dealers as police chiefs and provincial governors, is not the likelihood that oppression by these provincial governors and police chiefs will greatly increase the danger to our soldiers? Should we not rethink the mission to consolidate the real progress made elsewhere in Afghanistan, because escalation could result in a situation that develops into NATO’s Vietnam?