House of Commons
Monday 30 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—
Before I start, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and families of Lieutenant Tom Tanswell of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, who died in Iraq last week, and those of Marine Gary Wright of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who died in Afghanistan the week before.
The RAF’s fixed wing troop-carrying capability is provided by a mix of RAF aircraft and, when required, by civilian chartered aircraft, which are used during times of peak tasking. We are planning to enhance the RAF’s strategic troop-carrying and air tanker capability, currently provided by the VC10 and Tristar aircraft, with the future strategic tanker aircraft. We are also enhancing tactical troop-carrying capability with the procurement of 25 A400M aircraft.
May I first associate myself with the Minister’s comments with regard to the two very brave men who lost their lives? Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and loved ones.
Is it true that owing to a lack of RAF capacity as regards transport those who are serving on the front line and wish to come home for leave sometimes have to wait days before they can do so? Does it not add insult to injury that those men should have that time deducted from their leave? I should be most grateful for the Minister’s comments.
I would remind the hon. Gentleman that there are men and women. There is an issue relating to the reliability of the operational bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why the RAF tries to make it its highest priority. We regret any disruption that those air bridge difficulties may have caused to the plans of personnel. I was recently in correspondence with one of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, who as a serving Territorial Army officer experienced significant difficulties in Cyprus. We have dealt with that. Today I wrote to respond to all the detailed questions that he raised in his letter. He is not in the House today; I understand that he is in Cyprus with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It would be useful if that correspondence were placed in the Library to make all the details available.
What action is the Minister taking to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability? In particular, given the excellent performance of the Merlin helicopters in Iraq and elsewhere, is he considering the possibility of an early procurement decision to increase the number of Merlin helicopters available in the early part of next year?
I am inclined to say that there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters. The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical. I understand that he may want to get business for his constituency, but we have to listen to what is required on the ground. We have asked for a full review of the situation and we are trying to see whether any remedial action can be taken in sufficient time to deal with any such matters that may have arisen, are arising, or may arise in future. This is all under review, and it is too early to say what the conclusions may be.
The Hercules aircraft based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency is the workhorse of the air bridge with Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Minister knows, one of the conclusions of the Government’s inquiry into the tragic crash of the Hercules in Iraq more than a year ago was that it is vitally important that foam suppressant should be fitted around the wing tanks of the planes so that, were they hit by small arms fire, there would be no repeat of that tragedy. What progress has been made in the fitting of foam suppressant to the remaining Hercules fleet, particularly the five that are currently deployed in Afghanistan?
As ever, when we have to learn lessons, we do. That is the principal purpose of boards of inquiry, although sometimes another examination of events may give us additional information. We have taken on board all the recommendations by the board of inquiry that deals with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The programme to fit explosive-suppressant foam to the aircraft continues as planned, and two aircraft have been fitted so far. We will continue to work through that programme. It takes time because aircraft have to come out of service for fitting to take place, but we are on target to achieve the objectives that he mentions.
Conservative Members join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those who have recently given their lives for our country, showing yet again the bravery of British troops on operations around the world.
The Minister will recall that I wrote to him in March, warning that the lack of
“sufficient, reliable and properly equipped aircraft … was adding to the stress on soldiers and their families and causing tension between the RAF and the other services”.
That point was graphically reinforced six months later by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Does the Minister accept that responsibility for the fiasco lies not with the Royal Air Force but with Ministers, who have cut RAF numbers by 7,500 and require them to operate clapped-out old kit? In his reply in April, the Minister said—
I heard one of my hon. Friends say as an aside that the hon. Gentleman is still learning. I thought that he would have learned the valuable lesson that it takes time to procure new equipment.I mentioned the A400M—I know that the hon. Gentleman supports the programme—but it takes time for that aircraft to be procured and put into theatre. The strategic tanker aircraft is also undergoing its final procurement analysis. The complex programme will ensure that we have a long-term solution for many decades to deal with some of the problems. Is he genuinely suggesting that, given that we do not have those aircraft, we should not use our existing aircraft? I think not. If he believes that they are not suitable and fit for purpose, he is wrong. The aircraft that go into the theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan must have appropriate defensive aids suites. So as to ensure that we get the best support, we have to lift them out in troopers and put them on through a mixture of RAF aircraft or hired civilian aircraft. We are now doing that. We understand the associated problems. We regret every incident when we have failed. However, such failures are not through want of effort or, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because of clapped-out old kit.
The Afghan provincial government under the leadership of Governor Daud has made progress in engaging with local community leaders in Helmand. He sought and gained backing for his negotiations from President Karzai and, as part of the process, UK forces handed over security in Musa Qaleh to provincially raised forces. Such engagement has strengthened the governor’s position and he continues to develop relations throughout Helmand.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. There is no doubt that UK forces are second to none in carrying out their duties wherever they are required. Is there any aspect of that engagement with the local populace that he would wish to be improved and strengthened?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about our troops. I am sure that all hon. Members share his view. He asks whether I would like any aspects of the engagement with the communities in Helmand province to be improved. I would like the processes to be built upon. The key to that is to let Governor Daud, whom I met last week when I was in Helmand province, continue with the process that he has already started in Musa Qaleh—where he has proper political control—in other parts of northern Helmand, including the Sangin valley and other communities. The process is difficult, but ultimately, Afghan solutions to Afghan problems will deliver the answers for the Afghan people. We should support their properly constituted and elected government in achieving those solutions.
Notwithstanding the excellent work of our troops in tough conditions in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State seen the reports in The Times today that say that, where our troops are pulled back, the Taliban have moved straight back in? Would he like to comment on that?
I read those comments, which are attributed to a man called Khan, whom I do not recognise as a spokesman for the community of Musa Qaleh. All morning, I have heard PGHQ in Helmand province inquiring as to who the spokesperson actually is. I am mindful of the fact that I have repeatedly had comments quoted to me from alleged spokespeople from Helmand who turn out to be members of the Taliban. Only last week, I spoke to the commanding officer of the British forces and the head of the Helmand taskforce who told me that they were keeping the situation in Musa Qaleh under daily observation. In his view, the deal done with the local community—between the governor and the local community—was being sustained. Of course it is a very delicate situation and we can only observe. There are associated risks, but unless we take them, the people of that part of Afghanistan will not secure the improvement that we are deployed there to achieve.
Can my right hon. Friend shed any light on reports that up to 60 Afghan civilians were killed in a NATO bombing at the end of last week? Can he say what help, if any, NATO is making available to survivors? Does he agree that, if we make mistakes like that, there is not the slightest chance of our winning hearts and minds in Helmand or anywhere else?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have followed the story as it developed last week. Only over the weekend we had reports—public, open reports in the media, which I read—that General Jim Jones, who is known as SACEUR, theSupreme Allied Commander in Europe, apologised to President Karzai for the inadvertent casualties created. As he explained it, the Taliban had been using these individuals as a human shield. He clearly put the responsibility on the Taliban and I have heard from our own troops of circumstances in which the Taliban have used innocent individuals as a human shield—indeed, specifically lining up women and children in front of paratroopers on one occasion, not long after we were deployed in Helmand province. They do that because of the effect that my hon. Friend identifies: if there is accidental injury or death caused to innocent civilians, the Taliban will play that out. We are mindful of that fact, which is why we take the greatest care to ensure that there are no civilian casualties.
With 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain coming from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the interests of our young people, our armed forces should be fully supported in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend identifies one of the reasons why it is important that the world, not just the UK or the developed world, which is specifically represented in Afghanistan, sees through the support and development of the Afghan economy so that the people of Afghanistan will not be exploited, as they have been by drug dealers and others in the past and forced to grow poppies for opium. It is a long-term problem and those who understand how it has been dealt with in other countries will realise that we have to build governance, build the rule of law and security and build economic prosperity. Only in that context will very poor people be dissuaded from growing poppy when they are in many cases being forced into it by violence.
Rather than trying to find Mr. Khan’s identity, would we not do better to recognise the evidence of our own officers and soldiers, particularly those who have been in discussions with village elders about arrangements in the villages. They have identified among those village elders potential supporters of the Taliban who they believe have been giving them the once over during the course of the negotiation. Should we not recognise the truth of the situation—that the Taliban are very much stronger six months after we started our deployment in Helmand than they were before?
I do not accept that the Taliban are much stronger now than they were before. I believe that they were significantly present in those communities. We also saw, as I mentioned in response to the previous question, a significant increase in the growing of poppy in the year before we deployed into Helmand province. That, among other indications such as the beheading of teachers and closure of schools because they were teaching girls, suggests exactly what they were doing. There was much evidence that the Taliban were in those communities. The fact that we deployed into those communities brought them out very quickly, as it did in northern Helmand.
The essence of the hon. Gentleman's question is that I should pay regard to what the commanders on the ground tell me, and that is exactly what I do. It will be instructive for him to know that we have accepted, and indeed Governor Daud has entered into, only one agreement, although there are discussions going on across northern Helmand. He is bravely holding out to ensure that, as in Musa Qaleh, he deals with people who properly represent the community, and not the Taliban.
I welcome the agreements with village elders that have been struck in various parts of Helmand province, but will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of how well he thinks they are working on the ground? To what extent has the combination of Ramadan and the poppy-planting season contributed to a lull in activity? What impact has the air strike last week had on relations with the Afghan population? What can he tell us about the longer-term future of the security elements that the village elders have been able to summon to the cause? What prospects are there for integrating them eventually in the Afghan auxiliary police?
The first point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there are no agreements—there is one agreement. That is the point that I was making in response to the previous question. There is one agreement thus far. There are negotiations going on in Sangin, in the Kajaki area and in other parts of northern Helmand. Those are being conducted in a canny and expert way by Governor Daud, who is ensuring that he deals with the appropriate people in those communities. It was only when he identified that he was dealing with the appropriate people in Musa Qaleh and those who represented the community, and not the Taliban, that he struck the deal.
The second point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the incident involving the inadvertent loss of life—it was not as much as people are reporting—did not happen in Helmand province. It happened in Kandahar in the Peshwar valley. That can have an effect on Helmand, but it will not have a direct effect. The blunt answer to his question is that the view of those on the ground who know is that the Musa Qaleh agreement is holding and that, if it holds and spreads in Helmand, that will be to the good of the people of Helmand, whatever other activities they may have been involved in. If we establish the strength of the local communities and they can hold out the Taliban, that is exactly what we went there to do.
Are there not two threats to our relationship with the Afghan people? Governor Daud said last week of British help:
“Promises to get projects up and running have not been kept and there hasn’t been a DFID representative in Helmand for2 months.”
Secondly, politicians abroad have been calling for more action to destroy poppy crops. Do not the failure of DFID and the intention to destroy poppy crops in the short term—the only income for subsistence farmers— risk pushing the local population into the arms of the Taliban and undermining the efforts of our armed forces?
In the first place, Governor Daud is a man who represents his community and consistently asks for more, as indeed almost every hon. Member probably does in relation to their own constituents at one stage or another. It is not surprising therefore that he should focus on what more he wants for his community and not necessarily on what has already been achieved, and a significant amount has been achieved in Helmand province in road building, in other significant reconstruction work, in health and in schools. Indeed, we plan to do much more work, particularly in Musa Qaleh and in other parts of the north, in order to reinforce the deal that has already been struck in that part of the country.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was wrong about the absence of a DFID representative in Helmand. Last week, I was in Lashkar Gar, where I met and spoke to a DFID representative present on the ground. The challenge is whether the security in the part of the province where we want to do the reconstruction work first is sufficient for us to deploy into those areas people who are not soldiers or troops, for the purposes of reconstruction work. That is a difficult judgment to make. Consequently, we need to reconfigure the way in which we do the construction or reconstruction work, and that is exactly what we have been doing across government. That is why in July I announced the deployment of 300 engineers into Helmand province, and we are beginning to see the work that they can do across the province. That work will build further security. We will then, on that basis, encourage non-governmental organisations and others to build their representation in Helmand, or to come back into the province to do what we went out there to do in the first place. We have, in my view, a programme now in place, principally as a consequence of the work that the Paratroopers did while they were there in regularly overmatching the Taliban.
The United Kingdom has to date contracted for 144 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft for the Royal Air Force. A decision on the third production buy of the aircraft, known as tranche 3, has still to be taken and is not required until at least 2007.
I thank the Minister for the update on those numbers. I remind him that the Government have remained consistent to a commitment to buy 232 Eurofighter Typhoons. Given that 72 of those aircraft have already been sold, on a Government-to-Government basis, to Saudi Arabia, may I conclude that the number that the RAF will eventually be given is 160?
My right hon. Friend is aware of how important the orders are to the north-west and its skills base. Can he ensure that we will look for the third tranche? I know that it is earlier than he expects, but some argue that joint strike fighter technology transfer may not go ahead, so will he be aware that we may have to use Typhoons off the carriers?
I know that there are those who argue for the marinisation of the Typhoon, but there are no plans to do so. Sometimes that is promoted by those in industry, and their spokespersons elsewhere, as plan B. I wish to make it clear, with regard to our intentions for the carriers, that plan A remains plan A. Those who campaign for plan B usually want it to be plan A, if the House understands me—[Hon. Members: “We don’t.”] Well, hon. Members should read Hansard. This is an important issue. We have a major investment commitment across the whole defence sector. The defence industrial strategy sharpens that and gives us a better approach to look forward, with industry, to ensuring that all our procurement requirements can be met within the resources that are allocated to us. That applies to Typhoon as it does to every other procurement buy. We have an ambitious programme and we hope to meet all those ambitions.
May I say, in the nicest possible way, that the Minister did his reputation for straight speaking less than his usual justice in the answer that he just gave to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? Let me give the Minister a second chance. Will he guarantee that however many of the Typhoons eventually come to the United Kingdom, none of them will be used fromthe two aircraft carriers that one assumes he and the Government will eventually get round to ordering?
I have given two very straight answers, and I do not think that I have anything to add to them. I talked about the Saudi Arabian export order, which has still to be concluded, and the way in which thatis separate from our own memorandum of understanding. I have indicated our plans in regard to the two aircraft carriers and what will fly off those two platforms. The hon. Gentleman fully understood the point that I made about plans A and B, and I assume that he supports that.
Connections with Yorkshire will be maintained through the presence of a permanent regimental headquarters in York, with outstations in Richmond and Halifax. In order to carry forward the historic links of the antecedent regiments with the towns and cities of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire regiment undertook a series of marches through the county over the summer.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I congratulate the Government on retaining the name of the Halifax regiment, may I press my right hon. Friend to confirm that the links will continue by giving a funding boost to the Army’s Bankfield museum in Halifax? That will ensure that the historic links with the town are maintained.
I am not aware that there is an issue with the museum. My understanding was that museums would continue, but I shall certainly look into the specific point that my hon. Friend raised. On behalf of the new Yorkshire regiment, I ask her to work in the county and in her constituency to ensure that the regiment is fully recognised and supported by all the community.
Does the Minister agree that old regiments, such as the Green Howards and many others, had recognised historical links with cities such as York and towns such as Thirsk and Bedale, which helped with recruitment? He must ensure that those links are recognised under the new set-up; otherwise this Government and the next Government will have enormous problems with recruitment and retention.
I agree that trying to maintain recruitment is an issue across the whole Army, although, as it happens, recruitment in Yorkshire is strong and we do not believe that it has been affected by the formation of the new regiment. As of today, recruitment figures are actually better than they were for the previous two years, which tends to go against some of the views that have been expressed, but we have to maintain that activity to ensure that we retain that high level of recruitment. That is why recruiting activities will continue throughout Yorkshire; and I know that the hon. Lady will be supportive and will make sure that people interested in an Army career choose the Yorkshire regiment, as other Members will want to do for regiments in their constituencies. We are conscious of the issue, although we have not seen the adverse effect that the hon. Lady seemed to imply, and we shall continue all our efforts to maintain recruitment.
Is the Minister aware that the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which was merged just over four years ago into the Light Infantry, is to be merged in February into the Rifles? Will he assure the House that his Department will do everything it can to maintain the historic links with significant historical regiments, such as those for Yorkshire, which are so important for recruitment, and to encourage the regimental associations, when the mergers take place in February, to keep alive that distinguished history?
We are very conscious of the golden thread, as it is called. It is for the Army itself, as well as the regimental associations, to keep that light burning. Throughout its history, the British Army has undergone many, many changes, with regiments amalgamated and some disbanded, yet it is still revered as among the best, if not the best, in the world today. If we do not adapt to change and continue to make sure that our people have the best structure and the best support, that golden thread will be challenged, but we have it very much in mind.
Recruitment is doing well, although there are good and less good areas, but a lot of effort goes into maintaining it. There was cataclysmic phraseology around, to the effect that the process would be the end of the British Army as we know it, but that has simply not been the case. I am conscious, too, of the fact that 100,000 people marched through Glasgow in 1957 campaigning against the amalgamation of the Highland Light Infantry, yet the then Conservative Government proceeded with the amalgamation and the British Army is still strong. That amalgamation and subsequent ones proved successful. We have to make sure that this is as successful and I have every confidence that it will be.
We constantly assess threats to our deployed forces, including the security environment in which they operate. To date, that has not required specific assessments of the effects of the proliferation of cluster munitions and their use by non-state actors.
I thank the Minister for his reply. As the conflict in Lebanon shows, cluster munitions have a widespread and damaging impact on innocent civilians, both during and after conflict, so why are the Government refusing to support an international ban on the use of those manifestly indiscriminate weapons?
There was, of course, evidence that Hezbollah used such weapons. Clearly, the Israelis did as well, and we have raised that with the Israeli Government. Why are we opposed to a ban? This subject has been looked at across the range of nations that have an interest in it. If properly used, such weapons are consistent with international humanitarian law. The matter is constantly reviewed. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we should take a capability out of the hands of our forces which could result in a situation in which, if they were deployed, British soldiers’ lives could be lost. If that is what he is advocating and we ban such weapons, what is the next thing that he will want us to ban? Will he want our soldiers to have no weapons at all?
Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by Human Rights Watch that condemned the use of cluster bombs against Jews in Israel as a war crime? Has he further seen the Amnesty International report that said that the indiscriminate use of rockets and their bombs on, again, Jews in northern Israel was also a war crime? Does he share the assessment of those two organisations that the actions of Hezbollah, with regard to cluster bombs and the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Jews in Israel, constitute a war crime?
It is not for me to judge what is, and what is not, a war crime; that is best left to those who have judicial responsibility for such matters. I know that my right hon. Friend is only too well aware of the role of non-state actors and how ruthless they are—of what global terrorism does. There are no controls on such actors. They do not need to observe any law—international or any other—and they have total disregard for the lives of civilians. That is not the case in respect of the United Kingdom. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that, when we deploy forces and they are in conflict situations, every effort is made to minimise civilian casualties, if that is possible. That is not the case with regard to non-state actors, and I think that we shall see more brutal use of weapons of very evil choice by global terrorists in the years ahead. They are the ones whom we should be targeting it is they whom we are trying to deal with in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else they might manifest themselves.
Armed Forces (Resourcing)
As Members are aware, we have two major commitments—those in Iraq and Afghanistan—plus significant enduring commitments in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere. We accept those challenges because we cannot afford not to. The job that our forces are doing, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, is vital, and I am grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman’s party for both of those missions. We continually review our force levels in each theatre, and I assure the House that the current levels are manageable, and that they give our commanders what they need to do the job.
Although we have supported the Secretary of State in those two missions, ever since the publication of the strategic defence review before the millennium, when Lord Guthrie went to see the Prime Minister to complain about underfunding of the armed forces, we have consistently pointed out and complained about overstretch and underfunding, and this Government’s failure to match the commitments that they have taken on with the necessary resources to meet those commitments. If the Prime Minister is continually to say, “Whatever the commanders on the ground want, we will give them”, whose fault is it if he cannot deliver what they want, such as more helicopters and armoured vehicles?
The hon. Gentleman can point to no example where the Prime Minister or any Secretary of State for Defence, or the Ministry of Defence, in this Government has failed to deliver what our troops on the ground want and need. Of course, we are able to do that because, in cash terms, the annual budget for defence has increased by £5 billion in the past five years. We should compare and contrast that with the cuts of £2.5 billion in the last five years of the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make assertions about investment in our armed forces, he ought to do so on a proper, comparative basis.
Resources, of course, can mean people as well as equipment, and if we are to maintain our defence capability, recruitment remains a challenge. I, and doubtless Members in all parts of the House, want more young people to learn about service in the forces, so that they might choose it as their career. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give the House a progress report on the pilot scheme to extend the combined cadet forces into state schools, and does he have any proposals to encourage more young people in state schools to join the cadets?
The pilot schemes are due to roll out shortly. Because they are still in the planning and negotiating stages with the individual schools concerned, I am not in a position to give him from the Dispatch Box the report that he would like, but I will write to him with the details of those discussions. However, we intend to ensure that the pilots are successful, so that they can be a forerunner of the development of cadet forces across the country.
On resources and the recent tragic loss of an RAF Nimrod in Afghanistan, the Secretary of State wrote to me today in detail, saying that the investigation
“will include consideration of the concerns raised about the age and management of the Nimrod fleet”,
which I welcome. Can he tell the House today how quickly he expects the board of inquiry to conclude its investigations?
As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, the board of inquiry, which was set up to deal with such matters, is not in my control and nor is it accountable to me. It is entirely independent and its conduct is entirely a matter for itself, but it is inconceivable that it would not deal with the very issues that he raised with me in correspondence. For the very reason that it is independent, I am not in a position to say when I expect it to report, but I anticipate that it will do so as quickly as possible, in line with the thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident.
Experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme suggests that the British armed forces will do their level best to meet every commitment that we throw at them. Although I disagree with the view that our armed forces are at overstretch, it seems clear that they are at stretch and have been for some considerable time. Would it not ease matters if we drew down our remaining troops in Bosnia, now that the majority of that task is complete, and if some of our European allies took a more forthright role—in particular, if German troops took on a combat role?
On Bosnia, we are looking at that very possibility in the context of EUFOR—the European force that is there—and its command and control. I am confident that, in or about next spring, we will be able to do just what he is urging upon me.
Has the right hon. Gentleman noted General Lord Guthrie’s description of the British Government’s military intervention in Afghanistan as “cuckoo”, which he gave for exactly the reasons that I have repeatedly put to the right hon. Gentleman and his two predecessors as Secretary of State for Defence?
I indeed noted the interview that Lord Guthrie gave, but it must have been only partly reported in the newspaper that claimed to have that interview. Although I could see the assertion that the deployment of our troops into Afghanistan and the operation there were “cuckoo”, I was unable to glean from the interview as reported exactly what the reasoning behind that assertion was, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that the assertion was made for the reasons that he has articulated, because that allows me to repeat that those reasons are wrong. The hon. Gentleman repeatedly misunderstands, as do others in the House, what we are doing in Afghanistan. We are not doing what the Soviets or anybody else sought to do, or even the British Army before them. We are there in partnership with the Government of Afghanistan, and in excess of 30,000 Afghan troops are now fighting with us in Afghanistan.
As the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) correctly said, the ultimate resource for our armed forces is manpower, which is dependent on morale and motivation. The Secretary of State told us that he did not know about the planned changes to the separation allowance, which will mean cuts to the income of many of our front-line combat troops, when he announced the recent bonus payment. Can he now confirm that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have decided that those cuts will go ahead? That is a clear case yet again of this Government giving with one hand and taking with the other, and—what is worse—undermining the morale and motivation of our troops, to boot.
The hon. Gentleman repeatedly draws conclusions from facts that he does not understand, into which he does not inquire, or which he misrepresents. On this occasion, he is making suggestions about the reconfiguration of the separation allowance—an issue that was reported in the media. I confess that I did not know the detail of the subject, but given that the decision was made three years ago, and was agreed by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, it is not surprising that it was not at the forefront of my mind. If he had made even the most cursory inquiry into the matter, he would have discovered that the reconfiguration of the allowances does not take one penny away from anybody or from the armed forces. It makes sure that the allowances are paid fairly across all the services. Money is not being taken away from anybody. Indeed, the operational allowance that I announced in the House two weeks ago is significant additional money for our armed forces. The total effect of the operational and the separation allowance is to give significant additional money to the armed forces, and, interestingly, it will result in more money for the lowest paid, which his proposal of a tax cut would not have achieved.
By the end of this year, there will be a military managed ward at Selly Oak hospital. It will provide an enhanced military care environment for patients returning from an operational theatre, if it is clinically appropriate for them to be brought together in one ward. There has also been an increase in military nurse numbers at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, which is the primary reception hospital for operation casualties.
Decades of thought have gone into providing the best possible trauma care for our injured servicemen and women. Indeed, the previous Government started the process when they sought to close our military hospitals. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said when he visited Selly Oak on 25 October 2006:
“you cannot keep a military hospital open with that level of throughput”
that those military hospitals have.
I see that the hon. Gentleman assents. He has been trying to explain that across the country for some time, and I welcome his support. The way to improve care for trauma victims is to ensure that they are treated in theatre, in the best possible hospitals. We do that by providing them with world-class hospitals there and by ensuring that they are treated in world-class hospitals when they return. We have chosen to centre our care for those people in Selly Oak hospital in the west midlands because it is a world-renowned centre of trauma care.
The House is aware that a decreasing number of hon. Members have had any meaningful experience of the armed services. I regret that, and I certainly commend the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who have had some experience and have benefited from British military hospitals, which have been centres of excellence, are deeply concerned—nay, angry—at the way in which we have provided medical services for those wounded while fighting for this country, and for peace and freedom in various parts of the world? I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that I regret the closure of British military hospitals, because we need to treat our soldiers in special places, where they can be with their colleagues, as that is helpful to their recovery.
The hon. Gentleman’s last point was his most important point, and that is indeed why we are moving towards a military managed ward. If necessary—if the numbers justify it—we will move beyond that to military managed wards, to provide an appropriate environment for those who are recovering. However, I will do some research to ascertain whether, when the process of closing the hospitals was embarked on, he was just as vociferous from the Back Benches. [Hon. Members: “He was.”] I am sure that he was, but I suspect that his was, if not a lone voice, a very lonely voice. I say to him, with respect, that on many occasions he may be a lonely voice but a right voice, but on this occasion he is a lonely voice but a wrong voice. In terms of clinical governance and proper support for our troops, those military hospitals would not have provided the level of care that we want for those who are prepared to make the sacrifices that our troops are prepared to make.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his commitment to the provision of a military managed ward within the excellent care of the NHS. Our hard-working NHS doctors and nurses do not just operate here in the UK, but risk their lives in theatre as reservists and members of the Territorial Army. Does he agree that to denigrate NHS care for military personnel, as several Opposition Members have done, is an insult—
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the level of care that is being received by our forces in theatre. Last week, when I was in Helmand province, at Camp Bastion, I visited the military hospital in theatre. It is excellent and is excellently staffed by people of the highest calibre. Opposition Members have to square the circle with the people of this country when their leader suggests that his policy can be summed up in the word, “NHS”—
The Ministry of Defence sponsored research by King’s college to gain further understanding of the extent of mental health problems by those who have served on Operation Telic. We welcome the study’s confirmation in May 2006 that the overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women are returning from operations in Iraq in good health and that there has been no significant difference between the mental health of regulars who deployed to Iraq and those who did not.
In response to the study’s findings that higher percentages of reservists who served on Telic 1 displayed symptoms of common mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder than reservists who did not deploy, we announced our intention to create an enhanced post-operational mental health care programme for recently demobilised reservists. That will be launched before the end of the year.
I pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives and their health in this conflict, includingthe 2,000 ex-servicemen—60 a month—who have succumbed to mental health problems following the conflict in Iraq. What is the Department’s long-term commitment to that group of causalities, bearing it in mind that the conditions are often long-term and manifest themselves some time after the event?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is excellent care for those on operations and those coming back from operations. Excellent care is provided by Combat Stress and the Priory Group, as well. As I have just mentioned, for post-operational purposes, for reservists, we are looking at providing additional mental health care. We are also looking at the possibility of pilots, working with the NHS and some charities, for other veterans who may need further support. For instance, that may mean some sort of involvement from military mental health care professionals.
May I commend to the Minister the work of Hollybush house in my constituency, which provides specialist mental health services, residentially and in the community, as part of the Combat Stress network? Its already limited resources are being stretched by increased referrals from veterans recently back from Iraq and it also has concerns about support for reservists who have been recently deployed. Can I expect the Minister to announce, as part of his strategy, increased funding for Combat Stress by the end of year?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in this matter. She mentioned Hollybush house and Combat Stress in her constituency. We work closely with them. As I said, in terms of the overall strategy, it is important to consider support when on operations and when coming back from operations. It is also important to look again at how we can improve post-operational support. We are looking at a particular scheme to give that support to reservists. We will continue to look at ways in which we can improve and get more assistance to those who need it.
The Minister referred to a statement made by his predecessor in May, which said that a Minister was going to come to the Dispatch Box a few months later to clarify the details of the announcement. Five months later, the Minister has simply repeated chunks of May’s statement, so it appears that the Department has made little or no progress. When will our reservists, some of whom have significant mental heath issues, as was acknowledged in May’s statement, finally get to hear about the treatment package to which they will be entitled? When will the Department pull its finger out and make that announcement?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my earlier answers. I make it clear again that it is important that we get this right and that we provide the best possible service. We intend to make an announcement on the issue before the end of the year.
While on operational deployment, service personnel receive excellent medical care in field hospitals and other deployed medical facilities. In Afghanistan, we are upgrading the hospital facility and we already have an upgraded facility in Iraq. In addition, the £690 million Birmingham new hospital project will see our military casualties being treated in the largest and most modern critical care unit in Europe, as well as offering our medical personnel excellent training and research facilities.
The hon. Gentleman identifies a challenge that we face. In response, we have to offer those who wish to practise medicine in the armed forces the best possible environment in which to do so, with the promise that they will be able to train and build their skills in a way that will allow them to advance in the profession. The investment that I outlined in the hospital that is presently called Selly Oak will provide that environment.
While I will not accept any criticism of the quality of medical treatment that our servicemen and women receive from the NHS when they return injured, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that sometimes when our soldiers are treated in mixed wards, some of their special needs, such as where to store their kit bags and how they access visitors, are not quite understood? Further talks might be beneficial so that the two services understand each other better.
I have been to Selly Oak hospital, which has been the focus of all this attention, twice in the past six weeks. I spoke at length to patients on both occasions, and the group of patients whom I met only a couple of weeks ago were unstinting in their praise of the care that they received in the hospital. I will bow to no one in defending that hospital, which is providing the highest level of care. Of course, we can always improve our ability to generate the environment in which to recover that will be the best for those for whom we care. We will continually examine the situation, including the points that my hon. Friend raises.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last updated the House on units deploying to Afghanistan on 10 October 2006. Army units are generally given advance notice of a possible deployment to allow them to plan ahead. The next major routine roulement of regular UK forces is due to take place next spring. The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards has been given prior warning that it may form part of that deployment. An announcement regarding the next roulement will be made in due course, once the details have been finalised. If the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards was to deploy to Afghanistan in spring, its average tour interval for the three-year period between April 2004 and April 2007 would be 10.75 months.
Of course, that is way out of the harmony guidelines. The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards will have been deployed on operational tour for 19 out of 36 months by spring next year. Does the Minister not recognise the massive effect that that has on family life, promotion and retention? Such a pathetic tour interval will lead only to fewer soldiers, not more. In light of those statistics, will the Minister review the dreadful decision taken by the Ministry of Defence in July 2004 to cut four infantry battalions? Will he recognise that to give soldiers what they need, perhaps more soldiers are required?
The hon. Gentleman raised two points. Yes, we fully recognise the impact that such short tour intervals have on all serving personnel and their families, and we do all we can to work against that. Looking across the average, we are not that far out in terms of our overall commitment, but there are certain units that come under great pressure.
The hon. Gentleman talks a lot of nonsense about the restructuring of the Army under the future infantry structure. Let me tell him why. Under the arms plot which we have had for too long and which successive Governments refused to tackle, anything up to seven battalions were not available because of re-roleing or relocating. The restructuring that we are undertaking and the reinvestment of 3,000 posts through the future Army structure will allow the British Army and the British armed forces to live up to the high accolade that we give them—that they are the best in the world. That will take time to deliver, but at least we are now on track. Previous Governments failed to achieve that.
Military patients are getting the very best treatment available. The Birmingham NHS hospitals that are the primary reception hospitals for operational casualties are among the best in the country. They offer specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience, treating civilian and military patients alike. That is why many of our armed forces doctors, surgeons and nurses work there—to help develop the skills needed for front-line missions.
Is it not the case that the treatment received by all our armed forces—soldiers, Navy, Air Force or anybody else associated with our armed forces—is second to none? I pay tribute to Headley Court for the rehabilitation work that it does. Will my hon. Friend confirm that war pensioners are entitled to priority treatment on the NHS for injuries that they have received, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to treating our personnel with the respect that they deserve?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the excellent, close working relationship between the military and NHS medical staff. When I visited Selly Oak, I saw the excellent relationship that has developed there, allowing the best possible treatment to be provided. Injured soldiers to whom I spoke there were clear in their congratulations and appreciation for the care and treatment that they had been given. My hon. Friend is right that war pensioners who suffered injuries are entitled to priority treatment on the NHS. Periodically we remind the NHS of that, and I shall continue to do that in future.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the independent report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister last July. This morning Sir Nicholas published his comprehensive and compelling report. I believe it is a landmark in the debate about climate change.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary have repeatedly stressed that climate change is an economic, energy, security and political issue, not just an environmental issue. The Stern report shows why this is true. The conclusions of the report are clear. First, climate change is the greatest long-term threat faced by humanity. It could cause more human and financial suffering than the two world wars and the great depression put together. All countries will be affected, but the poorest countries will be hit hardest. Secondly, the costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of action. At a minimum, a failure to tackle climate change—the continuation of what Sir Nicholas Stern calls business as usual—will cost 5 per cent. of global GDP. Costs could, however, run up to 20 per cent.of GDP.
Thirdly, the window of opportunity to reverse the rise in global emissions is narrowing. The science and the economics suggest that to avoid catastrophic climate change, or at least its likelihood, global carbon emissions must peak in the next 10 to 15 years.
Fourthly, the Stern report shows how the stock of CO2 or its equivalent has risen in the 150 years since the industrial revolution to 430 parts per million, and it continues to rise at around 2 parts per million a year. Stabilisation at between 450 and 550 parts per million would mean at least a 25 per cent. cut in global emissions, and for richer countries with higher emissions, it would mean a cut of 60 per cent. or more.
Finally, Sir Nicholas makes it clear that climate change is not an insoluble challenge. The technologies to reduce energy demand, increase energy efficiency and develop low-carbon electricity, heat and transport are within grasp. The costs are manageable at around1 per cent. of global GDP. The earlier we act across all countries and all sectors, the more we keep costs down.
Stern argues for global co-operation and domestic action, so let me set out our response in both areas. First, on emissions trading, Stern argues that we must create a price signal for carbon, in particular through the development of emissions trading schemes around the world. Emissions trading can not only ensure cost-effective reductions in emissions, but drive tens of billions of dollars each year to put developing countries on a path to low-carbon economies. The European Union is a world leader in that area, and a European solution is key to our goals. Today, we are proposing that the EU commits to new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent. by 2020 and at least 60 per cent. by 2050.
We are setting out our commitment to strengthen the EU emissions trading scheme as the nucleus of a global carbon market. I will be discussing with business and environmental groups on Wednesday how we can develop a unified UK position for phase 3 of the EU emissions trading scheme from 2012. I am sure that we need to secure the long-term certainty of the scheme, to extend it to cover new sectors, especially aviation, and to link it to other emerging emissions trading schemes, notably those in California and other parts of north America.
Secondly, Stern argues for a stronger focus on technological co-operation, including the doubling of energy research and development support and a fivefold increase in low-carbon technologies. In March, the Chancellor announced the creation of an energy technologies institute, a new public-private partnership worth £1 billion of research and development funding into low-carbon energy technologies over the next10 years. Today, we can announce that two new companies will be joining the partnership, Scottish and Southern and Rolls-Royce, taking total contributions so far to £550 million, half of which has come from the Government and half of which has come from the private sector.
Stern also identifies a specific need to develop low-carbon transport fuels, which is why the UK has initiated a joint taskforce with Brazil, South Africa and Mozambique to promote the development of a regional sustainable biofuels strategy in southern Africa. The renewable energy and energy efficiency partnership, which the UK launched in 2003, is now working in more than 40 countries to develop policies and financing frameworks for investment in sustainable energy.
At the Gleneagles G8 summit last year, the UK was instrumental in establishing the energy investment framework to bring forward increased investment in energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. That was led by the World Bank and other regional development banks. The UK Government, with president Wolfowitz of the World Bank and the four leading regional development banks, are therefore pleased to announce today a partnership with the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development to stimulate private sector investment through that framework. President Wolfowitz and the Chancellor will co-host a conference early in February 2007 to kick off the partnership.
Thirdly, hon. Members on both sides of the House know that action to reduce deforestation, which makes up 18 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions each year and which is more than the whole of the transport sector, is important. Forests are of great global importance for climate change and biodiversity, but they are also the sovereign territory of the countries where they are, and only those nations can decide what happens to them. With the Governments of Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, with Germany holding the presidency of the G8 and the EU next year, and with the World Bank and other interested parties, we will be exploring over the coming months how to mobilise global resources for sustainable forestry.
Fourthly, on adaptation, the review suggests that richer countries must provide financial support to developing countries to adapt to the changes in climate that are already in train. The UK Government are strongly committed to making climate risk reduction key to development activities. Contributions to the special climate change fund, the least developed countries fund and the Canadian international development research centre are additional to development finance and policy as part of this drive.
In all those four areas, the UK is determined to continue to show international leadership. That drive is strengthened by our domestic leadership. To be the most convincing persuaders abroad, we must be effective contributors at home. Between 1997 and 2005, when the economy grew by 25 per cent., the Government led the way to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 7 per cent. We are exceeding our Kyoto targets and are the only country on track to double them. The ambitious commitments in the energy review to take a further 19 to 25 million tonnes of carbon out of the economy will add further impetus to reduce emissions.
We have now also decided to put in place a legislative timetable to become a leading low-carbon economy. Our climate change legislation will provide a clear, credible, long-term framework for the UK to achieve its long-term goals of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Bill will be based on four pillars. For each, we will give details at the time of the Bill’s publication. In addition, we are determined to promote the widest possible debate in the House and across the country about the contents of the Bill.
First, the Bill will put into statute the Government’s long-term goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 from 1990 levels. We will also consider appropriate interim targets. We are determined to enhance Britain’s competitive position and believe that business in particular will benefit from the long- term framework that is so important for effective investment decisions.
Secondly, the new legislation will establish an independent body—a carbon committee—that will work with Government to reduce emissions over time and across the economy. We will ensure that the committee’s advice is transparent, equitable and mindful of sectoral and competitiveness impacts, including the need to secure energy supplies at competitive prices.
Thirdly, we believe that targets need to be accompanied by substantive measures if they are to have credibility. Therefore, the legislation will create enabling powers to put in place new emissions reduction measures to achieve our goals.
The final pillar of the legislation will be to assess what additional reporting and monitoring arrangements are necessary to support our aims of a transparent framework for emissions reduction, including reports to the House.
The House and the country owe a huge debt to Sir Nicholas Stern and his staff for their outstanding work. His report should be a cause for alarm but also for action. The whole Government are determined to deliver that action, at home and abroad.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance notice of it.
The Opposition strongly welcome the findings of the Stern report. I cannot pretend to have read all700 pages, and I only hope that it has been printedon recycled paper. As the key findings were comprehensively leaked over the weekend, however, it has been possible to get the gist. Sir Nicholas Stern and his team deserve to be congratulated on their forensic and thorough analysis of both the dangers and the opportunities presented by climate change. The report is an important and profoundly serious piece of work.
In its overall message, Stern’s analysis reveals little that was not already known, but it puts beyond doubt the arguments that the Opposition have been advancing for some time, and that the Environmental Audit Committee has been advancing for even longer: first, that the activities of mankind and climate change are inextricably related; secondly, that we do not have much time, although we do have just enough time to take action to head off irreversible and catastrophic changes to the earth’s climate; thirdly, that we must decouple economic growth from carbon emissions and move quickly towards a low-carbon global economy; and, fourthly, that the costs of not tackling climate change will be infinitely greater than the costs of taking action now.
The Chancellor has rightly emphasised the need to put in place an effective, international, market-based system for reducing global emissions. I note that he proposes a new commission to take that forward, for which we have already called. It is good to see him accepting our advice. We have also called for a tougher and wider application of the EU emissions trading scheme as one means of creating a price signal for carbon. Again, it is pleasing to note that the Chancellor has caught up.
The Secretary of State has finally stopped playing hard to get over our calls for a climate change Bill, and announced that we will have one. I hope that he will confirm that that will form part of the next Queen’s Speech, which he omitted to mention in his statement. We look forward to debating the details of the Bill.
It is good that the Government have accepted the need for a new independent body, which will work with the Government to reduce emissions, but does the Secretary of State expect the carbon committee to set targets based on scientific evidence, as we do, or will the targets be set by Government on the basis of a wing and prayer? I remind the Secretary of State that his party has a very poor record on meeting its own environmental targets.
I note that the 60 per cent. reduction target is to be put into statute. What about the “interim targets” that the Secretary of State is “considering”? Unless they are statutory as well, they will be in danger of being about as meaningless as all the other targets that have been missed. I see no reference at all to the annual rolling carbon reduction targets for which we, and climate change campaigners, have been asking. Have the Government rejected that proposal?
The Secretary of State says that the final pillar of the legislation will be
“to assess what additional reporting and monitoring arrangements are necessary”.
An assessment does not sound much like a pillar. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to an annual carbon budget report in Parliament? That would give him and his successors an opportunity to report on progress, and to set out any new measures that are thought necessary to ensure that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced before putting them to the vote.
What has the Secretary of State in mind when he talks of “enabling measures”? Will he assure the House that when he introduces any new measures he will do so in an upfront, transparent and open manner, and that the measures will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval?
There is a real danger that the Government are intending to produce a watered-down climate change Bill, which will do little to impose the externally applied rigour that is needed to change the mindset of Ministers and civil servants. We do not want a watered-down climate change Bill, or a Bill based on four wobbly pillars. We want a Bill that will create a green revolution throughout government.
The Secretary of State can hardly have failed to notice that his own thoughts on measures to tackle climate change were leaked at the weekend. They included a range of new taxes. It was an interesting wish list, and if the Chancellor accepts any of the Secretary of State’s proposals we will of course examine them with care. We have been calling for a rebalancing of taxation to reward activities that do not contribute to climate change, and to bear down on those that do. The fact is that, since 1997, the proportion of tax revenues generated by environmental taxes has fallen from 7.7 per cent. to6.2 per cent. That trend needs to be reversed, but will the Secretary of State assure us that the Chancellor will not see it as a chance simply to hike up the tax burden yet again? We need replacement taxes, not extra taxes. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Chancellor’s record on introducing stealth taxes has seriously undermined public confidence, led to widespread and understandable cynicism, and made the job of persuading people of the need for green taxation very much harder?
We welcome the Stern report, but we are doubtful about the Government’s willingness or ability to follow through with effective action. Under Labour, carbon emissions have risen in five of the last eight years, and they are higher now than they were in 1997. According to Stern, the costs of dealing with climate change are increasing with every passing year. Has the Secretary of State calculated how much less expensive it would have been if the Government had acted sooner?
Is not the main reason for the Government’s failure to date that the Chancellor simply has not taken the issue seriously enough? Incidentally, where is the Chancellor? Given that Stern himself said this morning that the issue was far too important to be left to energy and environment Ministers, it is extraordinary that the Chancellor has done exactly that this afternoon.
The speeches surrounding the publication of the Stern report suggest that, at last, the Government have started to become more ambitious about climate change. If that is true, and if it is followed up with effective action, I shall be delighted. However, we have heard too many grandiose speeches from the Government before to be wholly convinced.
The Government have dithered for too long. We now need decisions and action: we need to get on with the job.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to associate myself with his remarks about the Stern review and the excellent way in which it was done. Listening to him, you would have thought that the Conservatives had been the most enthusiastic supporters of the Government’s green measures over the past 10 years. You would have thought that the Tories had been champing at the bit for the climate change levy that was introduced—
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker.
I wonder whether hon. Members noticed that the hon. Gentleman failed to apologise for the fact that the Conservatives opposed the measures that we took, including the climate change levy and the aggregates levy. He asked where the Chancellor’s decisions had led over the past 10 years. They have led to the United Kingdom being the only country in the world that has more than doubled its Kyoto commitment.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the work on annual targets that we have announced. I am glad that he did so. On Friday, the Leader of the Opposition said that we should have
“binding year on year targets”.
The hon. Gentleman was quickly sent out to explain what the Leader of the Opposition meant—namely, that those would not be “rigid annual targets” but a “rolling programme of targets”. He also said—this is very helpful—
“Well, it’s over 3 years until the general election. It doesn’t matter until then does it?”
It does matter what the Opposition’s policies are. They are either a serious party of government or they are a shower; at the moment they are a shower, no matter how many windmills they put on their roofs.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for the courtesy of letting us have an advance copy of his statement.
I associate Liberal Democrat Members with the welcome for Sir Nick Stern’s excellent report. Sir Nick is one of the few British economists with a genuinely global reputation by virtue of his role as chief economist at the World Bank for many years. The report will have a serious impact not only in the business and economics community in this country but more widely—particularly, I hope, in the United States. It is significant because it turns on its head the old notion that we could delay action on climate change because the costs and benefits were out of line. It is clear from Sir Nick’s work that we must not delay in taking action.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s letter to the Chancellor—or was it the letter to The Mail on Sunday?—in which he set out a range of green taxes that bore more than a passing resemblance to a package that the Liberal Democrats voted on at Brighton. One could almost say that it was a carbon copy of our policies. I, for one, believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I thank the Secretary of State for that.
We welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a legislative framework and an independent review body—the carbon committee. However, it is important that he tells us whether it will be able to take its evidence openly, whether its minutes will be published, like those of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, and whether it will produce annual reports to this House assessing progress towards the targets on which all major parties in the House now agree, however belatedly in some cases. The problem is that the statement makes no mention of annual targets—indeed, in other places the Secretary of State has dismissed them—but merely mentions “appropriate interim targets”. What would we think of the Treasury if it did not set annual targets for its expenditure? On the other hand, the Secretary of State might think that not a bad idea, given the damage that he is inflicting on his own budget at present.
Is not this an entirely untenable position? Is not the Treasury, or any reputable economic forecasting organisation, fully capable of taking into account the effect of the weather on energy demand, carbon emissions and growth in gross domestic product? Is the Treasury really saying that all the work that the MPC, or any self-respecting economic group, can do on smoothed averages, cyclically adjusted figures and even weather-adjusted figures is completely irrelevant to the carbon framework? I urge the Secretary of State to look again at the possibility of setting more realistic targets that would allow this House to assess the trajectory in meeting those targets in 2030 or 2050. How on earth can anyone hold to account a Government who are up for election in 2009 or 2010 when the targets are being set for 2030 or 2050?
The report contains nothing about joined-up government, which is a key element of dealing with climate change, following on from the Stern review. When will the Government set up a Cabinet committee, headed by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor, with the clout to get the team of Ministers working as a team? If climate change is the No. 1 problem, as we have heard so often, why are flood defence budgets being cut? Why has the Treasury simply bottled out of taking on the fuel duty protesters year after year so that carbon emissions from transport have increased sharply? Why is the Department of Trade and Industry cutting the centres for ecology and hydrology, which help us understand the impact of climate changeon biodiversity? Why does the Department for Communities and Local Government sanction more than 100,000 new homes on flood plains, contrary to the advice of the Environment Agency? Again, that point was raised in the Stern review.
Why do not we get straight answers in plain English about those contradictions? On climate change policy, should not the Government play like a well-rehearsed orchestra? Instead, the players pay no attention to the conductor, and the orchestra is out of tune, off key and not playing to time. It is no wonder that climate change policy is a shambles. When will the Secretary of State start pulling the Government’s efforts together in a co-ordinated manner?
My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) sounded like an old record when he pressed his musical metaphor.
If climate change could be tackled by setting up a committee, successive Governments would have solved the problem long ago. As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary again pointed out, many of us who are currently sitting on the Front Bench last week attended a Cabinet committee on energy and the environment, chaired by the Prime Minister, on our international climate change strategy. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not the be all and end all, although I am grateful for his support for that Government initiative.
Let me tackle the hon. Gentleman’s serious point about annual targets. I know of no economic model that makes allowances for the weather. I have not seen Treasury expenditure plans that make such allowances. That is why annual targets do not make sense and why the Kyoto protocol specifically rejected them in favour of its five-year targets. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman says much about reductions at home—as does the Conservative party—but it is vital to realise that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in Bangalore is as dangerous as a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in Birmingham. That is why buying our emissions reductions abroad is a perfectly ethical and important way forward, which is not captured in a debate about targets in the UK.
However, monitoring annually—reporting on, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words—our progress towards those targets is a completely different matter. The Government have been committed to that for at least nine months—possibly longer—and it was put into statute last year under the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) promoted. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be plenty of chances to debate the matter, more often than annually, but that is not an argument for annual targets.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the carbon committee. I said that I would set out the details when the climate change Bill is introduced. As he intimated, there are difficult issues to get right, including the balance between an independent committee and its responsibilities and Government responsibilities. We will present proposals to ensure the transparency and clarity that he seeks.
I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In the light of the Stern report, does he accept that the Government have four key responsibilities: first, to ratchet up the contribution of renewables to electricity generation in this country from the current pathetic4 per cent. to at least 25 per cent. in 10 to 15 years; secondly, to require industry to report on its environmental impact year after year; thirdly, to provide for a carbon budget for individual households to assist them in reducing emissions year by year; and, fourthly, to require an overall aggregate reduction throughout the country of3 per cent. a year as the only way to achieve the target of a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050? Does he also accept that the Government should report—every year, I hope, but at least every five years—on success, and, if we have not been successful, on what needs to be done to get back on track?
My right hon. Friend has raised four points. On renewables, I am not sure that he will be satisfied, but we are committed to generating 20 per cent. of our electricity supply from renewables by 2020. I know that my right hon. Friend would like that figure to be 25 per cent. by 2025, but we propose to increase that contribution from 4 per cent. to 20 per cent. within 14 years. In respect of the Companies Bill, I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not venture into an already crowded terrain. On individual accounts, he emphasised the importance of offering clarity to people about the consequences of their household decisions. When energy prices are high, there is not only an environmental but an economic win as people improve their energy efficiency. I am certainly committed to that. Finally, as I said to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), measures to deal with reporting arrangements are now in statute as a result of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. I look forward to successive debates on those issues.
In welcoming Sir Nicholas’s report and conclusions, may I tell the Secretary of State that it might have been more helpful if the documents to which he referred had been available in the Vote Office ahead of his statement? That would have been better than having them relayed to us by the BBC, which reported that its correspondents had read all 38 pages of the summary while Members were simply referred to a website.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee recommended more work on the development of green aviation fuel through bio-energy work. In his statement, he referred to the creation of a group in southern Africa to deal with that issue, but given that South Africa already produces half of its aviation fuel by a process that can produce green aviation fuel, will the group take that work on? Secondly, at the domestic level, what measures will the right hon. Gentleman take to encourage individuals to invest more in energy-saving methods? Many of them, like windmills and photovoltaics, currently have a poor rate of return, so what can he do to improve that?
I apologise to the House as I should have explained the problem about the documentation earlier. It was not an environmental matter, but there was an administrative problem with the printing of the 711-page report. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the 38-page summary and I am sure that the Stern team would want me to explain to the House that no offence was intended. I have checked and I know that it is trying to remedy the problem as soon as possible.
In respect of what the right hon. Gentleman called green aviation, I see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is in his place. Not only in southern Africa, but in Europe and north America, it is important to pursue energy efficiency and technological innovation in respect of aviation as well as surface transport. I know that that is on the right hon. Gentleman’s agenda. As to energy saving, I referred earlier to the importance of information when I answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). The Government are investing significant sums of public money in all our constituencies on insulation and other energy-efficiency measures. They are important because they enable families, especially poorer families, to benefit from energy efficiency. I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s support for those efforts.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will convince the House that the ensuing Bill will contain some imaginative measures on personal transport—a difficult issue for the whole world to deal with. Can he assure me that some vision will be applied to that issue so that as we move forward on the route towards a possible hydrogen-based economy in the long run, people are carried with us and buy cars such as a British-made Vauxhall Astra, which is considerably cleaner than even a hybrid Lexus?
I admire my hon. Friend's support and tenacity on behalf of his constituents. I am not sure that the climate change Bill is the obvious place to pursue the matters to which he refers, but I know that those issues are being considered at both European and domestic level. I assure him that we recognise the need to tackle transport issues as part of the wider approach to the issue.
To ensure that the climate change Bill is as effective as possible, will the Secretary of State have urgent discussions with the Leader of the House, so that the Bill has exhaustive pre-legislative scrutiny and careful post-legislative scrutiny and monitoring?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have already spoken to the Leader of the House about the statement that I made earlier today and about the need for extensive discussion of the Bill in the House and outside. Quite what procedure we use is still to be determined, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we want the Bill to be as widely debated and scrutinised as possible.
May I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend? Nick Stern’s work will have international significance in taking forward the debate on climate change, and it underlines the lead that this country has given on the issue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the logic behind Nick Stern’s report is that we need a fundamental cultural shift towards a carbon-accounting economy? Some of those measures—fiscal measures and regulation—could be introduced quite quickly, but others may require more detailed analysis. We should not have any boundaries, but rather look at the whole concept of carbon accounting, including personal carbon accounting. We need some good-quality analysis and work to be done on that, so will he press his friends in the Treasury for that?
My hon. Friend, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), is a distinguished former environment Minister. There is a fundamental challenge in the Stern report and it can be simply expressed. For 150 years, we have pumped carbon and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as if it had no environmental or economic cost. We have known for some time that it has an environmental cost, but today, the economic cost has been dramatised. Simply put, we need to ensure that, as we move forward, that cost is incorporated into the economic and social decisions that we take. The accounting issues that my hon. Friend raises are important. A range of groups, including the Royal Society of Arts, are looking at personal carbon allowances. That can only be a good thing as we think about how Government, business and individuals play their part in this global challenge.
Even before the report was published, spokesmen were claiming that it would require more green taxes. Will the Secretary of State comment on the claim that the report will be used as an excuse for increasing the tax burden on an already over-taxed public? Will he comment on claims that that will result in more expensive consumer goods, less access to foreign travel and a greater imposition for people living in rural areas?
I am sure of one thing: failure to act will lead to the sort of tax increases and costs to individuals that the hon. Gentleman fears. The Government's position in respect of green taxes was first set out in 1997, when we came to office, and it was developed in a 2002 Treasury paper that I commend to him. At every stage, we have pursued the principle of fairness at the heart of our taxation and spending policy and I assure him that that will continue.
While looking at personal accountability for individual carbon cost, can my right hon. Friend look at the two sides of the equation? As well as people being taxed for carbon-rich behaviour, can he encourage people to reduce carbon in the atmosphere by rewarding good behaviour and by giving grants, for example, to firms such as the one in my constituency that produces heat exchange systems, which are extremely effective in reducing carbon emissions and the heating costs of poorer families? That could be a win-win for everyone.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The greatest win for an individual is that they will have a lower energy bill as a result of the energy-efficiency measures that she describes. That prospect seems to offer incentives in exactly the right place. If we can support companies such as those in her constituency, all the better.
I know that people in my constituency will want to play their part in any common-sense measures that will come forward, but I hope that, in the Secretary of State’s rush to tax 4x4s, he remembers that, while they may be a fashion accessory in Chelsea and Westminster, they are working farming vehicles in rural areas. Can he say something about what he will do to bring China, the United States, Russia and India on board? China has a new power plant opening every week and in India growth is such that 200,000 mobile phones are sold every day.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As the Chancellor and the Prime Minister made clear this morning, there must be international action as well as domestic action. I have tried to refer to that in my statement. China, India, the United States and Australia all need to be part of a global agreement, but I hope that, in his discussions with legislators in the countries he mentioned, the hon. Gentleman will pursue the fact that every one of those countries is a signatory to the 1992 UN convention on climate change. That convention committed those countries to seek to avoid dangerous climate change. It is important that we say to legislators in those countries that their Governments and Executives need to live up to those commitments.
Premier Wen from China and Prime Minister Singh from India have been in this country over the past four or five weeks and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I met them. I think that we have the opportunity, if the industrialised world sets itself hard targets—as we have done and as the European Union has done—to bring China and India on board, but we also need to ensure that important steps forward at state and city level in the United States, and by American businesses, are translated into action by the US Government.
As someone who has worked on these issues for more than a decade, I congratulate my right hon. Friends on the commissioning of the report and their responses to it. If we embrace everything that Nicholas Stern has said, history will see that today was a turning point in the global treatment of climate change. In setting an example at home, will my right hon. Friend take a look at the grants for householders to install low-carbon equipment? I understand that the grants have been so popular that they have almost run out. I hope that he will address that issue very soon.
My hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record in this area. I am happy to inform her and the House that the Government have brought forward some spending that was previously planned for next year to help the low-carbon buildings fund, which I agree has proved to be a tremendous success.
There can be no more important subject debated by this House in this Parliament than the one addressed by Sir Nicholas Stern and I hope that hon. Members will have a chance to debate his report once they have had a chance to read it. I warmly welcome the message that early action to tackle climate change will be more effective and less painful than delayed action. In that context, does the Secretary of State agree that there could be no more timely moment for his intervention to recommend tax changes to increase the incentives for greener choices by businesses and consumers; that Britain’s influence abroad would be enhanced if we were willing to take bold and perhaps unpopular action at home; and that an early litmus test of how seriously the Government continue to take the issue of climate change will be seen in the pre-Budget report?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that domestic and international action must be linked. I am sure that he is also right that there are a range of opportunities to take the debate forward. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and I were smiling at each other across the Dispatch Box because we had a debate in the Chamber two weeks ago about climate change issues, but I am happy to debate it as often as possible.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chancellor on the report? I note that it was commissioned before the present Leader of the Opposition was elected to his post. I urge my right hon. Friend to inject some realism into the debate. There will be no pain-free choices, for individuals and their future lifestyle or for the Government and their policies. The issue is too important to leave to party politics, so will my right hon. Friend ensure a national debate between politicians and in every community and school so that we may leave a safe planet for our children and their children?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I tried to refer in my statement to the need for the climate change Bill to be something that can be taken out to businesses, schools and communities around the country, because he is right about the need for action by Government and businesses, and also individual action. In respect of his first point, some people always find change painful, but when the failure to change would be even more painful, the case for action is proven. That is the case in this area and I will be seeking to prosecute it.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that action on climate change is vital at the international and national level, and also at the local level. Will he join me in congratulating Richmond council on introducing a parking charge scheme based on emissions, despite vociferous opposition from all the local Tory councillors—
In an interview yesterday, I was asked about the Richmond council decision and I could almost feel the interviewer fall off his chair when I said that although it was a Lib Dem council and a Lib Dem idea, it seemed like a good one to me. I am happy to say that.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a geothermal heating project in Midlothian, which has been on the go for some time and would reintroduce an old industry that can contribute to the future of the country? The project is 3,000 ft down in old mine workings at Monktonhall, and if it works, with 1 million gallons of hot water produced every minute, it could be replicated 200 times in Scotland alone and thousands of times throughout the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are certainly committed to ensuring not just that renewable energy sources that have been developed and are close to the market are increasingly available but that we pursue sources further away from the market, through the research and development to which he referred. There is often discussion of carbon capture and storage, in which I know that my hon. Friend is interested, given his background, but we are interested in all ways of pursuing low-carbon energy sources.
I welcome the announcement that there will be a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech. Indeed, by pure coincidence, after the statement I shall be presenting my fourth climate change Bill—the texts of all my Bills are freely available if my right hon. Friend wants to incorporate them in his Bill in a couple of weeks’ time. May I draw his attention to the statement in Sir Nick Stern’s executive summary in the second paragraph on page 23 and ask him to comment about equity? In a world where there has been such long delay in delivering the 0.7 per cent. United Nations aid targets and the millennium development goals will be so long delayed, according to the Chancellor, what hope do we have of reaching the 1 per cent. of gross domestic product expenditure that Sir Nick talks about, and that it will be equitably spent?
My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on the issue. In respect of sharing out global burdens, the 1992 UN convention to which I referred earlier includes the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities: common responsibilities in which every country must play a part but differentiated because countries with better capacity, greater wealth and greater ability to contribute to tackling the climate change challenge must do so. That means that the industrialised countries must take on an equitable burden that reflects their development. I shall certainly look at the Bill that my hon. Friend introduces, but the principle of burden-sharing as enunciated by the UN is the right one.
I think that we are all agreed on the seriousness of the problem, and the debate is shifting to some difficult questions about what one does about it. The Secretary of State has acknowledged that the problem is global, which means that nothing we do in this country—although it may make us feel good—will actually solve the problem if others do not act. That leads to many conclusions, but two of them are, first, that it is important to develop technologies that help solve the problem, as he said, and to make them available in the developing world on terms that it can afford; and, secondly, that whatever we do domestically it makes no sense to impose costs on British business that make it uncompetitive internationally if other countries do not do the same thing.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman so I hope that, on reflection, he will see that his statement that nothing we do will make a blind bit of difference is too strong. There are two tangible ways in which our action can make a difference. The first is that unless we show willingness to act, as sure as night follows day, the Chinas, the Indias and the other developing countries certainly will not want to follow suit. That is the first reason why it is important for us to take action. Secondly, every business organisation to which I have talked has said, “We want long-term certainty and stability so that we know the rules of the game—the carbon price game. Once we know those rules, we will compete and win in those markets.” That is a second reason why there is strong self-interest in this country, as well as social interest, in taking the sort of action that I think the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, will not want to dismiss so lightly.
Forty-five pages of Sir Nicholas Stern’s report are devoted to adaptation, out of 711 pages. I note that my right hon. Friend referred to adaptation in his statement, whereas both the Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons completely overlooked it. My right hon. Friend referred to his Bill with four pillars. Can I suggest a fifth pillar for the Bill—if not a fifth column—to deal with adaptation, which is pressing? Climate change has already started, and we need to adapt to it now, in terms of flood defences and many other things.
The adaptation challenge that my hon. Friend refers to is important in this country, as well as abroad. I think that it is less a matter of legislation than it is one of expenditure.
To answer him and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen), who asked the previous question, there will be global flows into energy over the next 30 years. The International Energy Agency estimates that there will be $17 trillion of investment over the next 30 years. The question is: does that investment incorporate assumptions about the carbon price, or not? If it does incorporate those assumptions, it will support low-carbon sources of energy. If it does not, I am afraid that we shall be in very serious trouble indeed. It is not only public spending that is important; directing private expenditure is critical, not just in this country, but around the world.
In seeking to win the hearts and minds of our electors on the economic logic of the Stern report, will the Secretary of State confirm to those who argue that there is really no point in us in the United Kingdom doing anything because it will not make any difference if China and others are not doing it, that the average African consumes one sixth of the energy that we in this country consume? Also, as we approach the annual Christmas electronic binge, will he suggest that we look at ourselves for an example, before we say that there is nothing that we can do?
I think that I might be able to arrange to use certain offices for a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), so that they can try to persuade each other. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) is absolutely right that we have a responsibility to take action. But, in an age of $60 and $70 dollar oil prices, it is also in our economic interests to take action. Energy efficiency is the most obvious win-win that I have ever seen.
The Stern report is most welcome, and it is an excellent example of this Government’s substantive approach to the problem under discussion. My constituents in Bishop Auckland find it absolutely incomprehensible that a rail ticket to London is three times more expensive than a plane ticket to Rome. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about when he thinks that aviation will come into the EU trading system?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I were in Berlin the week before last, talking to our German counterparts in anticipation of their presidency of the EU next year. Our position is that aviation needs to come into the EU emissions trading scheme as soon as possible, and we are looking forward to the Commission producing its proposals on when that should happen, and we shall certainly be pushing for as early entry as possible.
May I welcome the publication of the Stern review and the Secretary of State’s statement, in particular his comments on domestic action, and can I share with him my sense of urgency? When he introduces the enabling legislation that he discussed, can he also produce detailed proposals, which are thus far missing, to do many things, not least to reduce the cost of connectivity to the grid, so that we can finally harness the carbon-free offshore wind power in the north and west of Scotland, which will thereby lead to the carbon reductions that we all wish to see?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In the energy review that was published in July, there was extensive discussion both of planning issues and of some of the other barriers to micro-generation and selling into the grid. I can assure him that there is a study going on with Ofgem, the regulator—and, my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy assures me, with the Department of Trade and Industry as well—to address those barriers to that sort of renewable energy, which is so important.
My right hon. Friend is aware that one of the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions is to convince high energy-using British companies to convert to electricity produced by combined heat and power. Can he give an assurance to the House that those companies that have already converted to CHP, thus effecting massive reductions in their carbon emissions, will not be penalised in phases 2 and 3 of the EU emissions trading scheme, as they have been in phase 1?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I think that I am right in saying that CHP can boast a 40 per cent. energy efficiency gain. I know that he met my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment to discuss that, and I know that there are particular constituency interests as well, as there are some innovative companies in his area. Certainly from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, there is a real commitment to using the energy review and its processes to push forward the agenda on CHP.
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the Government share the view, expressed in the Stern report, that a global stabilisation target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide or its equivalent is almost out of reach, and that we have to settle for a range between 500 and 550 parts per million, even though that appears to accept the probability of temperature increases of at least 2 degrees, which was previously thought to be a dangerous tipping point?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. All that I want to say at this stage is that we agree with Sir Nicholas that staying below 450 parts per million looks well nigh impossible, because according to the latest data, there are already 430 parts per million of CO2 or its equivalent in the atmosphere, and according to Sir Nicholas’s estimate, that figure is rising by 2 to 2.5 parts per million per year. Equally, once we reach 550 parts per million, there is a likelihood—a better than 50:50 chance—of catastrophic climate change in the second half of this century, and every step that we take between 450 and 550 parts per million makes that likelihood greater. So I would not want to pluck a figure out of the air and suggest that it is “safe” and other figures are not. What is clear from Sir Nicholas—perhaps this point lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s question—is that we must keep the figure as low as possible and take action as early as possible.
I am sure that everyone in the House—I hope—recognises the importance of setting an example if we are to make any progress in the international forums. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the need to argue for the establishment within the European Union of an international body with powers such as those that the International Monetary Fund possesses, so that it can monitor developments in reaching international agreements, make suggestions and conduct an international education programme?
I welcome the Government’s plans to reduce carbon emissions. Bearing it in mind that growing economies like ours and the emerging ones of India and China are energy hungry, what role does the Secretary of State see for nuclear power in reducing our dependency on fossil fuels?
As the energy review made clear, nuclear power constitutes just under 20 per cent. of the total electricity supply. We believe that it is right that we start by reducing demand and promoting energy efficiency, but equally, if there comes to be a choice between oil, gas and nuclear, for me, as the Secretary of State pursuing climate change objectives, it is obvious that nuclear has the lowest carbon emissions of those three sources. We have also made it clear, however, that it is not for the public purse to subsidise nuclear investment; public investment should be restricted to renewable technologies that are further from the market. We are also clear that, in a world where carbon has a price, the economics of nuclear versus other energy sources changes.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of Scottish Power’s and Scottish and Southern Energy’s plan to build a power link to carry renewables from Beauly, in the north of Scotland, to Denny, in my constituency. Does he agree that such projects are crucial to our ability to hit our targets?
I would probably be wise not to venture into commenting on individual projects, but the general point that my hon. Friend makes is a very important one. I know that he has campaigned for a long time on the importance of renewable energy and renewable electricity, and I support him 100 per cent. in that drive.
On taxation, may I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said earlier? While UK tax policy may well have a role to play, does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that climate change should not be used as a cover for increasing net taxation in the United Kingdom, and that the introduction of any green taxes must be balanced by a net reduction in other taxes?
The Chancellor addressed this issue this morning when he pointed out that, for example, the climate change levy has been balanced by a significant reduction in employer national insurance contributions, and the same is true of the landfill tax. As I said earlier, at every stage of our tax and spending policies the Government have pursued the principle of fairness.
My right hon. Friend referred to domestic action. Does he agree that it would simply be daft to reverse long-standing developments that are helping us to build a stable, green, environmentally sound economy, by allowing the short-term exploitation of open coal sites, as is being proposed in my constituency? That will have a drastic impact on an area that has been devastated by the coal industry and is trying to move forward.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue and, as a fellow north-east MP, I know that he has been campaigning on the subject in the region. I can tell him that my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy set up a coal forum to discuss issues of precisely that kind, and I hope that the subject will be on its agenda.
If the right hon. Gentleman intends to lead by example and practise what he preaches, how confident is he that he will return to the Dispatch Box in a year’s time to report that, right across Government, the use of ministerial cars has declined significantly, and the use of public transport has increased significantly?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are aware that many of us are concerned about the length of time taken up by both questions and answers in Question Time and in statements. I am not referring to the statement that we have just heard, but rather to business questions last Thursday, and Defence questions earlier today. I know that you sympathise on that point, because you have said that you will make a statement about the length of interventions from Front-Bench Members and others. When will that statement be made?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for raising the matter with me. May I compliment the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the way in which he answered supplementary questions? It allowed me to call a great many Back Benchers, and it was a help. The older and more experienced Secretaries of State can learn from the young. I should say, too, that today’s Question Time was a case in point: I had to go beyond the rules of the House and take a further question at30 minutes past the hour, because I felt that the Ministers were taking too long in answering the supplementary questions. I hope that that will be borne in mind. On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s main point, I hope to make my statement on Wednesday. I add that Back Benchers have a responsibility, too, and they should not ask more than one supplementary question. In the new Session, we can start afresh, and I will apply the rules that I shall set out in my statement. I hope that that helps the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out that there had been administrative problems to do with the publication of hard copies of the Stern review, but this morning, I was at Millbank, and I could not help noticing that a large number of my journalist former colleagues had hard copies. Could someone gently suggest to the Treasury—I understand that it is responsible for the matter—that it should practise what it preaches when it comes to outsourcing, and that if it has difficulties printing such a document, it should get someone to trot down to Prontaprint on Victoria street and make the requisite number of copies?
I was here in the Chamber when the Secretary of State addressed the matter, and I think that we will leave it at that. The Secretary of State will deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Passenger Car (Fuel Consumption and Carbon Dioxide Emissions Information)
Colin Challen presented a Bill to introduce additional conditions on the display of information relating to passenger car carbon dioxide emissions in all promotional media relating to motor vehicles: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 237].
VIOLENT CRIME REDUCTION BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO.2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 20th June 2005 (Violent Crime Reduction Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order, namely: 27, 1 to 26 and 28 to 118.
3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. McNulty.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Violent Crime Reduction Bill
Lords amendments considered.
Designation of alcohol disorder zones
Lords amendment: No. 27.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
The Lords amendment inserts a new subsection into clause 13, which sets out the procedure for designation of an alcohol disorder zone or ADZ. It is worth briefly reminding the House of the nature of the ADZ process. In outline, designating an ADZ is a joint police and local authority decision. First, the local authority must propose an ADZ, followed by a 28-day consultation period involving licensees and the wider community. As soon as is reasonably practicable after the 28 day consultation period, the local authority and the local chief constable must publish an action plan setting out the steps that the police and licensees should take to avoid designation. The action plan will contain a number of preventive steps that licensees should take to help prevent alcohol-related crime and disorder, which will vary from one area to another. Typically, they might include premises-specific action such as introducing proof of age policies or using toughened glasses. The plan could also include financial contributions towards preventive schemes, such as the employment of a taxi marshal to avoid pinch points or putting on a late-night bus service. If licensees implement the plan, an ADZ is not designated, but if they do not comply with the steps in the action plan, the local authority may designate one.
Non-compliance criteria for designation are as follows: if, after eight weeks following publication of the action plan steps are not taken or are not sufficient to enable the local authority to consider designation unnecessary; or if the local authority, before or after the eight weeks, is satisfied that the plan will not be implemented, that steps required are no longer being taken or that any effect is no longer being given to arrangements made in accordance with the plan.
Having dealt with the context of ADZs, may I turn to the specifics of the Lords amendment, which covers local authority powers to designate an ADZ following publication of the action plan? The amendment reaffirms the belief that the local authority has no power to designate an ADZ if licensees have implemented the entire action plan. It imposes an additional check on local authorities, preventing them from designating an ADZ if the majority of steps set out in the action plan have been put into effect by licensees. The intention behind the amendment is not at issue. The action plan is the important objective, and we want to ensure that there is every opportunity to deliver it. However, we do not believe that the proposed subsection is needed or is workable. It is not needed, principally because the Bill does not give any powers to local authorities to designate an ADZ if an action plan has been implemented. As I have made clear to the House, local authorities can designate if licensees do not comply with the steps in the action plan.
The proposal is unworkable, because a one-size-fits-all check would hamstring local authorities, preventing them from designating an ADZ if the majority of steps have been taken. It may be the case that the 51 per cent. of actions taken are not the most critical actions in the action plan. However, as I said, we are sympathetic to the intention behind the Lords amendment. We strongly believe that it is not needed, and would be unworkable, but the Lords’ concerns can be dealt with in guidance. Clarification about the extent of local authorities’ powers and the flexibility that we want in relation to the action plan will be reflected in the guidance.
I draw the House’s attention in particular toclause 16, which provides that the Secretary of State must publish guidance on ADZs, which the police and local authorities have a duty to follow. Since the debate on ADZs in another place, we have developed that guidance. In particular, I am grateful for the help of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, with which we worked to produce a piece of guidance specifically addressing that matter and other issues discussed in another place. I can offer assurances to the House that the guidance includes clarification that local authorities’ powers to designate an ADZ focus on non-compliance with the action plan by licensees; local authorities cannot designate if the entire action plan has been implemented. Time is an important factor, and the action plan does not have to be implemented in full within weeks—the local authority must be satisfied that enough steps have been taken in the action plan to make the designation of an ADZ unnecessary.
The local authority should ensure that implementation of the action plan is appropriately monitored and that it actively engages with licensees over the eight-week period. Ample warning should be given to licensees if the local authority feels that designation is appropriate. Flexibility should be shown over action plans, based on local needs. Local authorities should waive the need for compliance with all the steps set out in the published action plan where it is considered that the overall objectives of the action plan can still be delivered. I have provided more detail on what the guidance covers in a letter to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). I leave the House with those assurances.
Alcohol disorder zones, which we support, are designed to deal with a serious and growing problem. Only this month, the British crime survey reported that the proportion of people saying that drunkenness was a very big or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood has risen to well over one in five. Of those who report experiencing antisocial behaviour in the previous year, nearly one in 10 say that they see drunkenness or rowdiness every day and more than a third say that they see it every week.
Of those people worried about drunkenness, most report difficulties with noise and littering by drinkers, but, worse, nearly a third have been troubled by drunks urinating in public or fighting. Indeed, 1.2 million violent incidents are alcohol related. That is half of all violent crime. The Cabinet Office has reported that 61 per cent. of the population perceive alcohol-related violence as worsening and one in five violent crimes takes place in or around pubs and clubs. Nearly 70 per cent. of those crimes occur at the weekend. Nearly half of all victims of violence describe their assailants as under the influence of alcohol at the time. In our major cities, but also in once peaceful towns throughout the country, decent people’s lives are being made a misery by wholly unacceptable behaviour that is too often fuelled by alcohol.
The measures proposed in the Bill in relation to alcohol disorder zones, under which the establishment from which these problems emanate should contribute towards the costs of dealing with the problem, are the right ones. The Cabinet Office estimated that alcohol-related crime costs the UK £7.3 billion a year in policing, preventive services, processing offenders through the criminal justice system and the human costs incurred by the victims of crime.
The Lords amendment, which was moved by Baroness Anelay, relates to our concern that the Bill appeared to allow local authorities to pre-empt completion of the action plans that precede alcohol disorder zones, even where progress was being made in dealing with the problem. Lords amendment No. 27 attempts to deal with that problem by preventing an ADZ from being designated if a majority of the steps in the action plan have been put into effect.
The Government have set out their concerns about the amendment and I agree that, for instance, it would not make sense to prevent a local authority from designating an ADZ simply because a numerical majority of steps, which may be the less important ones, in the action plan have been met. Since the amendment was agreed in the other place, the Government have explained—as the Minister has today—the guidance that they have developed in consultation with the industry, which should address those concerns. In particular, the guidance states that an action plan does not have to be implemented in full, that it should be carefully monitored, that ample warning should be given by local authorities over the eight-week period if they are dissatisfied with progress, and that flexibility should be shown to meet local needs. I understand that that guidance has been sufficient to allay industry concerns and, on that basis, we will not seek to oppose the Government in rejecting Lords amendment No. 27.
Over the past couple of years, the Liberal Democrats have called for a levy on big late-night venues to help pay for policing and the other costs of alcohol-related disorder. Therefore, we welcome the principle of alcohol disorder zones, because the scheme implements our “polluter pays” policy. We had some concerns about the issues in relation to the action zones and the tarring of the innocent along with the guilty. However, we welcome the extra safeguards that have been put into the guidelines because we were worried about the way in which local authorities might administer the scheme.
In Committee, we argued that there needed to be more of a causal link between behaviour and who was caught so that it could be established whether a premises or club had contributed to the alcohol-related disorder in a zone. If responsible establishments were caught in an alcohol disorder zone and forced to pay the charge—if they were effectively penalised by the irresponsibility of other establishments—it would be a disincentive for good licence holders to maintain good standards. That appears to be contrary to “Drinking Responsibly”, the Government’s consultation paper that is targeted at irresponsible premises.
We, like Conservative Members of the House of Lords, were worried that the intervention trigger that a local authority would use might be inappropriate or premature. Again, the measure is designed to make people behave responsibly, so if we were to penalise those exhibiting good behaviour, we would send the message that there was no point in being an exemplary landlord. Equally, establishments included under the action plan might be fulfilling their part of the bargain, so consideration would be needed not of the numbers, but of who was doing what was required and who was reneging on the agreement for the establishments caught in a proposed alcohol disorder zone.
The problem could be widespread because the threshold for triggering an alcohol disorder zone is extremely low. It would be difficult to find an area that has not experienced alcohol-related disorder, because it is prevalent in this country. We thus thought that it was important that councils were inhibited from moving too quickly or enthusiastically. I would have liked measurable criteria on what constituted a successful action plan. Lords amendment No. 27 would have gone some way towards alleviating concern that a local authority could act pre-emptively. Given the new safeguards in the Government’s guidance, however, which will make the industry accept the way forward, Liberal Democrats are happy with the Government’s proposal. If we can establish the Government’s proposals vis-à-vis the way in which ADZs and action plans will work through the guidelines, Liberal Democrats have no problem with that.
The introduction of alcohol disorder zones is an extremely good idea—one of the Government’s better ideas. In Cheshunt, which I represent, we have a particular problem around the Old Pond area, which, on Saturday nights, can be likened to a war zone. The situation is such that during World and European cup matches, we often have numerous cavalry stationed up at the town hall in case they are required to disperse troublemakers. Fortunately, that was not necessary this year because the publicans around the Old Pond held constructive talks with the police to work out how they could control their clients and customers. That was probably a direct result of the threat of the imposition of alcohol disorder zones.
Although this might go against some of the views held by those in another place, I do not have much sympathy with the drinks industry. It has done extremely well out of Government legislation over the past year or so. While it is doing well, it is important that it accepts that it has a responsibility to the wider community, which, by and large, does not use its establishments, yet deserves a decent night’s sleep and the ability to use the streets free from the fear of being abused, mugged and having to watch people urinate against brick walls. So I welcome the Government’s view. It is useful for my local council to have in its armoury the threat of designating an alcohol disorder zone. My message to Broxbourne council is that if in future it feels the need to apply such an order, it should not hesitate, as it will have my support.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker). His advice on this matter, as on so much else, is compelling. Although I support ADZs generally, I have one concern.
The Minister will realise that the problem is getting the various authorities to follow the advice that he gives in his guidance. That does not always happen. Does he accept that the main way of tackling alcohol-driven street antisocial behaviour has been through the under-age drinking measure that was introduced in the first year of Labour’s power, the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997? That is one of the most used non-traffic laws in the country. That excellent Act could be even more effective and reduce the need for ADZs if police always followed Ministers’ advice and involved parents, as the Act intended. That would enhance prevention and parental control, which we all agree is the best way forward.
However, police do not always follow the guidance and they do not always apply that law in the way that was intended by involving the parents, so how will the Minister ensure that in the case of the Bill, the police listen to his advice and follow his guidance?
Lords amendment No. 27 disagreed to.
Drinking banning orders
Lords amendment: No. 1
In Committee in this place the Government gave a commitment to consider whether positive requirements to address alcohol misuse behaviour could be attached to a drinking banning order. On Second Reading in the other place we confirmed that we would table new clauses to that effect. That is the purpose of amendments Nos. 1, 2, 5 to 7 and 9 to 14. They enable individuals who are subject to a drinking banning order to undertake a course to address their alcohol misuse behaviour.
Amendments Nos. 3, 8, 20, 21 and 25 make minor and technical changes to the provisions on drinking banning orders by removing the concept of “relevant persons”. That removes an unintended fetter onthe courts’ ability to make a DBO on conviction. The matter was helpfully drawn to our attention bythe Crown Prosecution Service, so I am sure that the amendments will be welcomed.
Amendment No. 30 gives effect to a recommendation in the report on the Bill by the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. New section 147A(9) originally provided that the Secretary of State may make an order increasing the fine for the offence of persistently selling alcohol to children set out in new section 147A(1). The fine is currently set at a maximum of £10,000. By the effect of the Licensing Act 2003, the power could be exercised using negative resolution procedures, but in accordance with the Committee’s recommendation, the Bill was amended so that the fine could not be increased without the authority of both Houses of Parliament. However, the requirement to seek affirmative approval by each House is limited to increases which do not relate simply to inflation.
Amendments Nos. 31 and 72 simply correct an unforeseen consequence of section 21 of the Licensing Act 2003. They will ensure that where a premises licence issued under the 2003 Act requires persons to be at the premises to undertake security activities, those persons will not need to be licensed by the security industry authority, unless the Private Security Industry Act 2001 requires them to be so licensed.
Amendment No. 32 resolves an unintended problem, which was recently brought to our attention by a number of local authorities, associated with the licensing of public spaces under the Licensing Act 2003 and the use of designated public places orders under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Where a local authority holds a premises licence, or occupies or has managed for it a premises that is subject to a premises licence, a DPPO will be excluded from applying to those premises only at times when alcohol is actually being sold or supplied and for another 30 minutes thereafter. At all other times, the premises will be the subject of a DPPO. In other words, if a local authority has introduced a DPPO, it will not apply while alcohol sales are taking place. As I have said, that is a minor technical change. I am sure that the House welcomes this group of Lords amendments, because it resolves concerns expressed by local authorities on introducing DPPOs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—no doubt he will shortly be the right hon. Gentleman—for that whistle-stop Cook’s tour of the amendments. If I understood him correctly, he referred to a limited extension of the affirmative resolution procedure. Will he advise the House whether there is a new upper limit for the fine, which was £10,000, and, if so, what is it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the advance news—he knows more than me. He has made an entirely fair point. The recommendation from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee was simply to move from the negative procedure to the positive procedure. Nothing else will change, so £10,000 is still the upper limit. The Committee was concerned that both Houses should have the chance to debate any increases above inflation, rather than introducing the increase by the negative procedure, which would lead to the laborious process of praying against the order.
To be generous to the hon. Gentleman, he is being pedantic rather than difficult—he has not created a difficulty for me. I do not know the answer off the top of my head, but if I get inspiration at some stage in the course of our deliberations, I will let him know; otherwise, I will write to him in due course.
The amendments will improve the efficacy of the Bill, and I commend them to the House.
Our concern about alcohol disorder zones was that retailers would be penalised for disorder caused by nearby pubs and clubs and that a blanket measure could be unfair. In the main, those concerns have been allayed during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. The Government have reassured us that alcohol disorder zones will be a last resort and will not become a routine intervention and that they will review the operation of alcohol disorder orders two years after implementation. We have also been reassured by amendments Nos. 28 and 29, which make it clear that draft regulations must be laid before and duly approved by this House and the other place. The other Lords amendments in this group are largely consequential and technical, and we are happy to support them.
I will not detain the House for long on this group of amendments. I very much welcome the amendments made in the other place.
With regard to drink banning orders, we repeatedly made the point in Committee that merely banning an activity cannot be the whole answer. If people are not to reoffend in the same manner, rehabilitation and education are necessary for them to learn the error of their ways constructively. Our ongoing concern is that the drink banning order is an instrument to deal with a social problem, which we recognise, but still does not address the causes of that problem, and inevitably fails to produce a long-term benefit. I am therefore glad to note that the Government have listened to my arguments in this instance, and have included a provision to address the underlying reasons for the behaviour that would cause a drink banning order to be made. By including an approved course with a drink banning order, we begin to tackle the heart of the matter.
The apparent British malaise of getting blind-drunk on a Friday or Saturday night is symptomatic of more than young people going out to enjoy themselves. That needs to be addressed. We welcome the addition to the Bill, which provides it with a great deal more balance. The provision of treatment to people who are subject to such orders cannot but benefit them. As the Minister said to the House previously, the Government have made a commitment to considering whether positive requirements to address alcohol misuse could be attached to a drink banning order. I therefore thank them for bringing forward the amendments.
I, too, thank the Government for bringing forward the amendments. I did not mean to be pedantic in asking the Minister when the threshold was raised to £10,000 for those caught selling alcohol to minors. In moving from the negative to the affirmative procedure, I hope that we have a debate in the House as soon as possible. In my constituency, off-licences and shops selling alcohol to under-age children is a huge problem, which destroys families. To act as a deterrent, the upper limit of £10,000 should be raised significantly.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 26 and 28 to 32 agreed to.
Using someone to mind a weapon
Lords amendment: No. 33
Although these amendments are gathered under the general heading of “Weapons etc.”, they have some important separate dimensions. I will therefore spend a little time discussing the distinct groups of amendments covered by the heading.
Amendments Nos. 33 to 38 relate to the new offence of using someone to mind a weapon. They extend the definition of a “dangerous weapon”, as stated in the Bill, to cover all specified offensive weapons. As currently drafted, the definition is more limited. We agreed to consider such an extension to the definition for the new offence, and subsequently amended the Bill in the other place to make the legislation as useful as possible. Amendment No. 37 confirms that the sentence for those aged under 21 for this offence is detention. Amendment No. 38 is a technical amendment to clarify the section to which the provision will refer.
The Minister knows full well that he has considerable support for this part of the Bill, with which I entirely agree. In dealing with amendments to clauses 32 to 34, will he let the House know what undertakings, if any, have been given to those representing airsoft activities that the Government will provide them with a defence to the manufacture, sale or transfer of imitation firearms under clause 32?
I will happily do so. Both I and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), have met those from the airsoft sector—if that is an appropriate phrase—and have assured them that any such exemptions, rather than being necessary in the Bill, would be provided in regulations. We said that we were minded to move in that direction, given that the activity was relatively harmless, but that the regulations would have to be laid in the proper fashion, consulted on and then agreed or otherwise with a range of stakeholders. That is the position as of now. I have also told those representatives—and, more generally, individuals and organisations affected by this part of the Bill—that I consider it to be in everyone’s broad interest for the regulations to be under way, and duly consulted on, at the earliest opportunity. If representatives of other organisations wish to meet me or my hon. Friend, or indeed both of us, we will certainly consider meeting them in due course as the regulations are consulted on.
I welcome the Minister’s reference to the draft regulations and to consultation on them at the earliest possible opportunity. May I take it from what he has said that he is at least minded to seek to ensure that the regulations are issued before the Bill’s final passage in the other place—a point on which I have focused in respect of several pieces of legislation? It seems to me that sight of such regulations in draft before the House is invited to give final approval to a Bill is of the essence.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman in spirit and in principle. I have sought to ensure that Bills that are in my charge from start to finish deliver in that fashion, and that there is—for want of a better phrase—a road map showing what regulations and guidance are likely to follow, with as much information as possible provided during a Bill’s parliamentary passage. As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Bill has not been in my charge from start to finish, but whatever remains in dispute between us and the other place will be passed up to the other place for due consideration tomorrow. Try as I might, I fear that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he wants: I cannot ensure publication of and due consultation on the regulations by this time tomorrow.
Someone else once said in this place that when he and a colleague undertook a charm offensive, he was the charm and our colleague was the offensive. I should probably leave it at that, but I take the procedural point about the need to provide Committee members, and indeed Members of both Houses, with at least a framework or outline of any regulation, guidance and elements of legislation following Royal Assent as early as possible.
Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 47, 61 to 65 and 77 all deal with the issue of imitation firearms and air weapons. I am happy to support Lords amendments Nos. 39 to 47 and 62 to 65, which relate to controls on firearms. Let me briefly explain the most significant controls.
Lords amendment No. 40 removes a clause providing for controls on the sale of ammunition loading presses—devices that perform the full range of mechanical operations required to reload cartridges. The Government have accepted arguments that such operations can be carried out without specialist equipment through the use of simple tools that are available from any DIY shop. We have already included controls on the sale of primers, and given that it is not possible to reload ammunition without primers, we accept that clause 31 is no longer necessary.
Lords amendments Nos. 41 and 47 give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs powers to seize imitation firearms imported in contravention of the controls in the Bill. Although clause 32 makes it an offence to bring a realistic imitation firearm into Great Britain, it does not specifically contain a prohibition against their importation. Amendments Nos. 41 and 47 address that situation by establishing that the goods are liable to forfeiture under the customs and excise Acts. A case in which that was appropriate might concern youngsters returning from a school trip abroad with banned items.
Amendments Nos. 42 to 44 relate to defences to the ban on sale, manufacture and importation of realistic imitation firearms. Defences are provided for museums and galleries, both public and private, in relation to sales and so on to Crown servants, and for businesses to import realistic imitations solely for the purpose of modifying them to make them non-realistic—for example, for race-starting or dog training.
Amendments Nos. 48 and 66 increase the maximum penalty for having a blade or a point in a public place or a school without good reason from two years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both, to four years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both. That forms part of our wider package of measures to reduce knife crime, in line with our manifesto commitment
“to introduce tougher sentences for those involved in serious knife crime”.
Amendments Nos. 49 to 60, 75 and 76 amend in various ways the power to search individuals for weapons in schools, further education institutions and attendance centres. They prevent a head teacher from requiring a member of school staff to carry out such a search unless they are security staff and provide transparent definitions of school staff for the purposes of this Bill. They require that the other person present when a search is conducted is another member of staff of the school, FE college or attendance centre respectively. We propose that, because it is better for the second person present to be someone with a formal duty of care towards those being searched, which increases safeguards for both those being searched and the staff. They change the grounds for a search from “reasonable grounds for believing” to “reasonable grounds for suspecting”. That will enable the scope for searches to include a wider range of people. A head teacher who suspects a knife is in their school, but whose information is not strong enough for believing a particular pupil has it, will still be able to search. However, it is important to note that, before searching any pupil, they must always have a suspicion that the pupil may have a knife.
The amendments enable the National Assembly for Wales to order when powers for FE colleges in Wales come into force. They also reduce the threshold for a constable to exercise his or her powers of entry to a school and search for weapons in section 139B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. By revising that threshold to one of reasonable grounds for suspecting, we ensure that the police power to search in schools is consistent with that of school staff. That will also apply in Northern Ireland.
I commend the amendments to the House, because by accepting them we will improve the Bill’s efficacy and effectiveness.
The amendments fall broadly into two parts: those that relate to the carrying of knives and those that relate to firearms. I shall start with those relating to knives, particularly amendment No. 48.
The Bill’s provisions on knives are undoubtedly necessary. Fatal stabbings are up by nearly a fifth under this Government. Last year, 236 people were recorded as having been killed by a sharp instrument—an increase of more than 17 per cent. on the figure for 1998-99. The most common method of killing last year, representing nearly a third of all offences recorded as “homicide”, related to fatal stabbings. Knives are used in 7 per cent. of violent crime. According to the British crime survey, that means that knives are used in 169,000 crimes a year, and there are three fatal stabbings for every fatal shooting.
Almost a third of pupils have carried a knife, according to a poll conducted in 2004 for the Youth Justice Board, which says that 28 per cent. of young people in mainstream schools had carried a knife in the past year. The problem is serious and growing. It was therefore right to say, from the beginning of the Bill’s passage, that the maximum penalty for carrying a knife in a public place, which is currently only two years, should be increased. We believed that it was important for Parliament to send a signal, especially to younger people, that carrying knives was unacceptable.
It is surprising that the Government opposed us for so long because our proposal featured in their election manifesto. Page 47 states that
“we will introduce tougher sentences for carrying replica guns”—
“for those involved in serious knife crimes”.
Why were the proposals to increase sentences for those involved in serious knife crimes or tougher sentences for carrying a knife not included in the Bill? It is extraordinary that, only six months after the election, the Government voted against the amendment tabled on Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) to increase the maximum penalty to five years. The current Home Secretary and the Minister voted against it.
The Home Secretary is fond of accusing his opponents of talking tough, voting soft and hoping that no one will notice. If the Government talk tough by promising tougher sentences for knife crime in their manifesto and then vote against that policy only months later, that looks like talking tough and voting soft to me. It is hardly surprising that people noticed.
Nevertheless, we welcome the change of Home Secretary and, manifestly, of heart. For whatever reason, the Government eventually conceded in another place that tougher sentences were necessary. Lords amendment No. 48 would achieve that, and we were happy to support it in the other place as we support it now. U-turns appear fashionable in the Home Office. They have happened on mergers, the control of immigrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria, the purchase of a prison ship, which was cancelled only a few months ago, and now—unnecessarily—on the important subject that we are discussing.
The story on firearms is similar and not happy for the Government. Gun crime has doubled since they came to power. In the year when they were first elected, there were nearly 5,000 recorded firearms offences involving firearms other than air weapons. In 2005-06, the figure more than doubled to 10,000 offences. Air weapons, which the Bill covers, account for more than 1,500 injuries a year and imitation firearms are used in more than 3,000 crimes a year. We were therefore happy to support the provisions that tackled carrying such weapons, especially clause 28, which increased from 17 to 18 the minimum age at which an individual can purchase or hire an air weapon or ammunition for an air weapon.
Nevertheless, we set out several concerns. They revolved around legitimate use of such weapons, first through historical re-enactment. Secondly, the Minister mentioned airsoft. Many of us found in our constituencies that people enjoy a legitimate recreation through that, and there was concern that the Bill could have an impact on it. I am therefore grateful for the reassurances that the Minister offered today. I understand that representatives of the Association of British Airsoft are due to meet the Minister within the next couple of weeks to discuss the matter further and I hope that their concerns will be allayed.
Concerns were raised in this House and in the other place about pistol shooting and the potential impact on legislation of competitive target shooting and the wish to train in this country ahead of major competitions, particularly the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. I understand that the Government and various lobby groups are now in discussion on how best to use the Home Secretary’s powers under section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968to authorise competitors and officials to possess competition pistols for the duration of the games and special warm-up events. I hope that a satisfactory solution can be found so that our competitive teams can participate in the Olympics. It is important for legislation to recognise the interests of legitimate users.
Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 38 are technical and we are happy to support them. Amendment No. 39 is also technical and will ensure that an entry in the table of punishments in the Firearms Act reflects the correct age limit for possessing an air weapon. We are happy to support that, too.
Amendment No. 40 strikes out clause 31, which restricted the sale and purchase of ammunition loading presses. It was deleted in Committee only to be further amended by the Government on Report. The Minister has explained some of the reasons behind the change on loading presses.
Amendments Nos. 41 and 47 were tabled in May in Committee on the advice of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which stated that the absence of a prohibition would leave it unable to seize a realistic imitation firearm if discovered while it was being brought into the country. The amendments establish that such goods are liable to forfeiture under customs and excise Acts and that a customs officer will be able to use his discretion in deciding whether it is necessary to seize particular goods. Those amendments seem entirely sensible.
Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 are aimed at clarifying the defence for museums and galleries using realistic imitation weapons as outlined in clause 33. As drafted, the exemption applies only to public museums and galleries that do not distribute any profits. Amendment No. 42 removes those words, ensuring that private museums can also benefit from the exemption, and amendment No. 43 aims to iron out further deficiencies in the drafting of specific defences in the clause. As drafted, anyone selling a realistic imitation firearm to a member of the police or the armed forces would be found guilty under clause 32. By extending the defences in clause 33, the amendment would ensure that that does not happen.
Amendments Nos. 44 and 45 deal with the problems faced by the airsoft industry and other users of imitation firearms such as dog trainers and race starters. Once again, we welcome them. Indeed, we are happy with all the amendments in the group and gladly support the Government on them.
I shall make only a short intervention in the debate. I earnestly ask the Minister to reflect on the path of an excellent Bill, for which the Government are responsible, as a result of long campaigning and long negotiation with those who have fought for control of the curse of imitation firearms. It is a good Bill containing some excellent parts.
One problem now manifest is the concern of many hon. Members that the Bill may be amended by regulation, bringing into play thousands of imitation firearms that accurately resemble real firearms that would otherwise be banned under the Act. I ask the Minister to reflect on the extreme difficulties stemming from a legitimisation of airsoft weapons that, in every way, resemble lethal firearms.
The Minister says that this is an unobjectionable and harmless activity. It might be so. Some of us might find a game that involves the tracking and “killing” of other people by adult men to be a strange pastime, but if they wish to do it and if it assists them—I see that it might assist Opposition Members—with whatever problems they have, let them do it. The problem is not what they do; the problem is what they use.
Sales of airsoft machines are predicated on the machines being exact replicas of deadly firearms. The website of the main organisation involved suggests that it now has 22,000 members. If exemptions are going to be made to allow a group of that size to trade in imitation firearms on the internet or otherwise, a huge part of this Bill will be wrecked before it is enacted. If that happens, hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps millions—who have campaigned or supported campaigns will have to return to the campaigning ground, and an enormous advantage for this Government, which they thoroughly deserve, will be lost. In congratulating the Minister and the Department on the Bill, I ask my hon. Friend to take on board, as I know he will, the real concerns that exist throughout the country about these potential exemptions.
The amendments on increasing the sentence for carrying a knife or a bladed article in a public place are extremely significant. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who is no longer in his place, pointed out that, while carrying a gun carries a tariff of seven years, carrying a knife carries a tariff of only two years, yet both items kill people. He asked the then Home Secretary to consider increasing the maximum sentence for carrying a knife. The former Home Secretary agreed to examine specific measures to do so, and I am glad, therefore, that such measures have been introduced at this stage of the Bill.
It would be strange if I did not mention in passing that the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment on Report to test the Government on the issue of knives having parity with guns. As we heard, the Conservatives tabled an amendment, which was voted on, introducing a tariff of five years for carrying a knife in a public place. Sadly, the Government voted against it, but I am glad that their view has now changed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a longer sentence can be passed for stealing a bike than for being caught in possession of a knife in a public place, so there is something still fundamentally wrong with the Government’s priorities? Does she further agree that more needs to be done to ensure that our schools are a safe and secure place of learning for youngsters? Given recent evidence and the number of knife incidents since schools returned in September, far more still needs to be done.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I will come to later. It is a shame that the Government could not bring themselves to vote positively on Opposition amendments at an earlier stage, but I am glad that the strengthened sentence for such a serious and prevalent criminal offence is now being introduced. It is important not just to have an appropriate maximum sentence but to put an end to the notion that carrying a knife is less serious, or does not compare with carrying a gun. Now that the House is moving towards agreement on the issue, perhaps we can agree that it is not really about what is tough and what is soft—it is what is effective that is important.
The way in which the judiciary apply the maximum sentence will decide what is effective. Rehabilitation and education must be part of any prison sentence for carrying knives because the objective of the new measures must be to change behaviour. We must also understand the difference that a lengthened sentence will make.
In a parliamentary question in June this year, I asked the Secretary of State how many people had been found guilty of wounding someone with a knife in each of the past five years and how many had received a prison sentence. I received the answer:
“The specific information requested is not available as we are unable to differentiate between the weapon(s) used in the various offences of wounding when supplying data.”—[Official Report, 27 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 272W.]
That answer was about the offence of actually using a knife, whereas we are discussing what will happen to those convicted of carrying a knife, but I argue that we need to understand and measure the effect of the new measures. I ask the Minister to ensure that we are able to track accurately who gets a prison sentence and what other punishments are meted out to those found guilty of carrying a bladed weapon in public, so that we can judge what difference the Bill makes to re-offending rates by individuals and the general incidence of the wider offence.
The increased length of sentence gives the offence of carrying a knife in a public place a more appropriate weight. We need to be concerned, above all, with the victims of knife crime and their families. Whenthe media move on, the families are left to deal with the aftermath of the death—often of a young person. I hope that the lengthening of sentences for the offence will send a clear message about how seriously we take the issue and will have some effect on the prevalence of carrying.
The longer sentence for the offence of carrying a knife is welcome in my constituency and others, but what will ultimately protect the public most is a reduction in the number of those carrying knives. The Minister referred to a wider package of measures, which I welcome, in the Labour manifesto that were aimed at reducing knife crime. I encourage the Government to pursue the wider agenda vigorously.
Every new tragedy brings a spate of concern and coverage, but it is clear that young people carry knives for three reasons. First, they are afraid that if they do not carry a knife they will be vulnerable to other young people who do so, especially when out of their territory. Secondly, some young people who carry knives have few life chances, but they feel that if they carry a knife at least they will not be “dissed”. Thirdly, and ludicrously, knives are fashion accessories. We need to address those causes through all the agencies—schools, youth work, police work and parents.
We need to do a lot of work listening to young people and learn what we have to do to make them feel safe enough not to carry a knife. We need to learn what will disabuse them of the idea that it is in any way cool to carry a knife. The answers include diversion, care and attention, aspiration, education and life chances. The amendments would add deterrence and punishment to that list. Change will not be quick or easy, and it certainly will not be cheap, if we are really committed to it. The Bill will help if it is administered, enforced, measured and followed through, but I am sure that hon. Members recognise the mountain that we still have to climb if we are to change the knife culture on our streets.
The Liberal Democrats are happy to support the amendments on weaponry, which further the intention of the Bill to address the dangers of imitation firearms, without stopping those who have legitimate reasons to use realistic firearms, for re-enactment or theatrical purposes.
During our proceedings on the Bill, we have all come to know and understand more about weaponry in general, and airsoft in particular, than we might ever have thought necessary. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), because I, too, see no compelling reason for airsoft guns to look realistic. As he said, there are dangers in the quantity of such guns that could be available. It is said that if the gun does not look realistic it spoils the airsoft experience, although that is not something with which I particularly empathise. However, whether or not the decision is for a realistic gun, I cannot imagine that the sport would not survive.
The real mischief is that imitation firearms prove deadly when converted, or even when mistaken for real. A police officer does not have the chance to make that distinction, so exact are the replicas—nor would the man in the street or a trader in a store—but I hope that the Bill will halt that mischief.
The Bill has achieved an appropriate balance and includes a range of exceptions and defences, which will not inhibit or ban unnecessarily but will curtail activities where necessary. I am glad that the Government have listened to representations and the Liberal Democrats are content to support them.
I want to say a few words about amendment No. 48, which relates to knives. As the Minister knows, I sit part-time as a Crown court recorder and as a district judge in courts across London. The single most prevalent crime, which is growing and growing and growing, is that of carrying a bladed article in a public place.
In Committee, just over a year ago, I quoted some horrifying statistics from a Youth Justice Board survey carried out in 2004, which showed that 1 per cent. of pupils in England and Wales aged between 11 and 16 had at some time in the last year carried a knife in school for offensive reasons, and 2 per cent. for “defensive” reasons. That means that 60,000 of our children had carried a knife in school at some stage during the previous 12 months, which is horrific.
If Members went to the courts where I sit they would realise the prevalence of the offence of carrying a bladed article in public. They should listen to the witness who says that he or she was so terrified by the glint of the steel thrust at them in the street late at night that they had nightmares for months on end, and dared not go out into the streets for fear of coming across a possible attacker.
The House has not got properly to grips with the issue of carrying knives. I say to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) that it is all very well to focus on help, guidance and education, but tell that to the person whose life has been ruined by being threatened in the street with a nasty looking knife.
Although the amendment, which would double the possible sentence for carrying a bladed article in a public place, is welcome, have the Government really got their eye on the ball? They are increasing the sentence from two to four years. Terrific. So shall we now be sending everybody to prison for more than two years? No. The number of people sent to prison for carrying a bladed article in public is extremely low. In the last year for which figures are available, of the 5,000 to 6,000 people convicted for that offence, a paltry10 per cent. went to prison. Almost 90 per cent. of people who carry knives in public know that, if they go to court, they will not lose their liberty. Furthermore, many of that paltry 10 per cent. probably received a sentence of about two, three or four months.
Why is changing the maximum sentence from two years to four years suddenly considered to be a piece of magic that is the answer to the problem? It is not the answer; the answer to the problem is to enforce the existing law much more thoroughly, and, respectfully, in my view this Government have failed to do that.
About a year ago in Committee, we talked about knives in schools, and nobody could deny my figure of 60,000 schoolchildren carrying knives, so I asked a parliamentary question: how many prosecutions had there been for carrying knives in schools? Does anyone know how many there were? Out of, perhaps, 60,000 a year, there were only about 12 prosecutions. Is that a sufficient proportion?
What about the power that the Government gave themselves in the Bill to give teachers the power to search pupils, as if that is a panacea? Teachers have already for many years had powers to bring in the police and say, “I suspect that pupil of carrying a knife, so please search them.” The fact is that that is another aspect of the law that was simply not enforced. Much of our criminal law would be improved if we in this House legislated and spoke less, and saw to it that the police enforced the current law more strictly and forcefully.
However, let us examine what happened when I suggested a year ago that we should harshen-up the penalties for carrying a bladed article in a public place. As it happened a year ago, I forget if it was me who did that, and I shall be corrected if I am wrong—although I know that I am right. It might have happened in Committee in October last year, or it might have happened on Report, when I was carrying my party’s response to the Bill. The Government absolutely rubbished my suggestion that there should be tougher penalties. Let me inform the House of what was the best answer that the Government could give to my suggestion at that time, by repeating a statement by a Minister on knife crime. The Government’s approach—and I gently suggest that this will not carry the day—was as follows:
“It is essential to educate young people about the dangers and consequences of becoming involved in criminality associated with weapon-carrying and the Home Office funds and operates a number of community-based initiatives aimed at encouraging good citizenship and turning vulnerable young people away from crime.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 301W.]
I would love to be able to say to some poor complainant in a court who has had a knife shown at them, “Don’t you worry, member of the public, because the Government are going to fund a few initiatives and a few training programmes.” No: that is not the answer to this problem. Why on earth did the Government rubbish my approach a year ago—especially as they are, of course, now coming back to it? That is a great shame.
I have one final message for the Minister. He is a man of the world and a reasonable man, and he knows about the world outside—I know that he does—so he understands that knife crime is a terrible threat. Therefore, he must also understand that we cannot cure this great evil by simply having a little education here, and a little help there, and a doubling of the sentence as well. He must understand that the real way to deal with this problem is to get the police and the schools to operate a zero-tolerance approach to knives. There must be a tough, harsh attitude. We must make it clear to people that knives are wrong, and that if knives are present, they will be punished. Anything less than that simply will not do.