House of Commons
Thursday 30 November 2006
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
TRADE AND INDUSTRY
The Secretary of State was asked—
Post Office Network
I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is not able to answer questions today because he is on a trade trip to China. He has notified colleagues on the Opposition Front Benches.
The Government have invested more than £2 billion since 1999 in the post office network, because we know that post offices are an important part of British life, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas. We will announce shortly our proposals to ensure a long-term stable footing for a continued national post office network.
The village post office is on the edge of an abyss. Some 80 per cent. of those 8,000 vital businesses would collapse without the annual Department of Trade and Industry support subsidy, due to end in 16 months, and the Post Office card account, which will expire in 2010. To survive, the rural network needs the lifelines of post office-based banking products, preference in the distribution of Government services and an early White Paper to spell out a clear future framework. Does my hon. Friend—who is the most astute of Ministers—think that he is doing enough to tackle that most acute of crises?
My hon. Friend will be able to make his own judgment shortly, because, as the Secretary of State has said, he will make an announcement before the Christmas recess. Because of my hon. Friend’s long family association with the Post Office, he knows that the current position is unsustainable, with losses of £100 million per year, expected to rise to £200 million per year. Investment from the Government since 1999 has been £2 billion, including £150 million for the rural network, which, as my hon. Friend says, will continue until 2008. We know that POCA must have a successor, and that Government assistance will be required to maintain a viable national network. My hon. Friend will shortly be able to see the outcome of all the Government’s efforts, particularly over the past six months.
The remaining sub-post offices in Upminster are mostly also convenience stores, in which sub-postmasters have expanded the range of services to make businesses viable. Those provide an important service, especially for elderly people who do not drive and cannot get to the main shopping areas. Will the Minister review his decision to abolish the post office card account and enable post offices to expand the range of services that they provide, rather than slowly strangling them?
The hon. Lady accords me status above my station by saying that I made the decision to abolish the post office card account. First, that would not be my decision. Secondly, no such decision has been taken. The Department for Work and Pensions is in negotiations with Post Office Ltd. and others about a successor to the Post Office card account, and we have given assurances to the House that there will be a successor, as, regardless of what happens, more than 1 million people will be dependent on that to receive their benefits. As we all know, the vast majority of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are small business people, and they sometimes trade jointly and service communities with other products. We are doing what we can to assist them, and we know how important they are to communities. When the Secretary of State makes his announcement shortly, the hon. Lady will see that we have made provision to do the best we can for the whole network.
I welcome what the Minister has said today, because Bexley has lost nearly half its post offices or sub-post offices in the past five years. Will he reaffirm that the coming statement will also take into account the needs of the suburbs, which require local post offices or sub-post offices to be viable, sustainable communities? Such facilities need to be near where people live.
We fully acknowledge the role that post offices play in communities and the essential services that they provide for many. We have also been helping them to develop new products over the years. For example, the Post Office is now the biggest supplier of foreign currency and the biggest provider of independent travel insurance, and has launched new saver accounts this year. It is looking to expand its business. Equally, however, 800,000 private vehicle owners bought their tax discs online last year, and more than 3 million have already done so this year. We know that internet banking, mobile phone technology and the rest are changing people’s habits, and the Post Office must expand its range of services. We have a dual job: to support the network to be as wide as possible, and, equally, to expand its range of services and products for a securer financial footing.
Later today, Labour Members have a meeting with Postcomm and Postwatch to discuss these important matters. Can my hon. Friend assure me that Ministers are in discussion with Postcomm and Postwatch, in order to benefit from their expertise when making a plan of action for a future viable network?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are in discussion with all the appropriate agencies. Postcomm and Postwatch have produced reports that are being studied as part of our exercise to arrive at a statement, which will be announced before Christmas. We have been in intensive discussions with Post Office Ltd. A number of Adjournment debates have taken place, especially over the past six months, in which right hon. and hon. Members have expressed their points of view. The Department has received a voluminous amount of correspondence, and national newspapers have run campaigns on the subject. The Prime Minister has established the Ministerial Committee on the Post Office Network, MISC 33, which has met several times. There have also been a number of bilateral meetings between the Secretary of State and other Cabinet Members, and between me and other Ministers. We have been working intensively to ensure that the outcome of the difficult decisions that we shall have to make shortly will not be a result of lack of effort or research.
The Minister rightly observed that the Post Office faces changing commercial challenges as the market develops, but as the Trade and Industry Committee concluded in its recent report, the problem is that the Government have accelerated the process with their own policies, as identified by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). Will he reassure us that the proposals in the forthcoming statement will enable sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to enter into contracts with the Post Office so that they can compete by using their entrepreneurial flair in their own shops, and will also encourage the Post Office to produce a range of innovative products so that it can compete more effectively with the banking sector?
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having omitted to say that the Select Committee, which he chairs so ably, has submitted a report to the Secretary of State, which we will also be considering. The Secretary of State’s statement will refer to the ability of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to offer better services to their customers. There are conflicts in respect of their ability to perform some of the functions that they have requested, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the options are being considered, and that there will be a full opportunity for further consideration when the Secretary of State makes his statement.
Is not some change inevitable, when 98 per cent. of new pensioners choose to take their pensions through the banks, and the 200 smallest post offices have fewer than 20 customers a week? Will the Minister ensure that maximum effort goes into maintaining as much of the post office network as possible?
My hon. Friend paints an accurate picture of the statistics showing the changing face of even the benefits business. Seventy-five per cent. of benefit recipients have bank accounts, and, as my hon. Friend says, 98 per cent. of new pensioners are choosing to have their benefits paid into a bank account. The way in which benefits are received is changing, but as I said earlier, at least 1 million people will still depend fully on the post office for their benefits. We know that we must provide for the most vulnerable, whether they are in the rural communities, the suburbs or deprived urban areas, and that will be a key consideration for the purposes of the Secretary of State’s statement.
When the Secretary of State eventually makes his statement, will he also explain why he wants to scrap Postwatch, the consumer watchdog that has helped to fight so many rural post office closures? Is it mere coincidence that Ministers are trying to muzzle an independent specialist watchdog and merge it with another body at the same time as proposing to cull rural post offices—or is it all part of the same plan?
As I have experience of misquotations by the hon. Gentleman from our last meeting on a public platform, he will forgive me if I do not acknowledge the accuracy of what he has said. We are in the business of strengthening consumer protection, as will become plain in due course as the new arrangements are introduced.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his courtesy in informing us in advance of his absence—but meanwhile, the Minister seems to be doing extremely well. Can he tell us how many post offices will close as a direct result of the withdrawal of the Post Office card account? Does he accept that a post office card account II that looks after only 1 million of the 4.5 million customers will not be enough to save many small post offices? Last week Postwatch said:
“the government, the regulator and other relevant stakeholders need to form a common strategic view of what social outcomes are desired from the post office network”.
Will the Minister assure us that when the Government statement is made later this month, it will address ways in which post offices can work with carriers other than Royal Mail, and also Royal Mail’s anti-competitive activity in poaching business from sub-post offices?
When the hon. Gentleman rises and makes such generous comments, I automatically smell a trap—but they were generous remarks, and I am grateful for them. He asked a very serious question, and he can, I think, be reassured that the Secretary of State’s statement will cover all the elements that he referred to. I must correct an impression that I might have given: when I said that the Post Office card account successor will have to look after 1 million people, what I meant to say was that 1 million people will be dependent on it. There will be others who choose to continue with the POCA regardless of the fact that other products will give them better service—for example, because they will be able to get interest on the money left in the account, which is the situation for more than another 1 million people. The POCA will not be restricted only to the people whom I have mentioned; there will be a successor that people can make a decision on. Issues to do with competitiveness will be covered in the Secretary of State’s statement.
My question must be set against the background of the situation being difficult. In rural communities, such as my Bolsover constituency, which is 25 to 30 miles long, most rural post offices have survived—with help—but in some cases people do not want to run the post office because they cannot make a profit. We did things about that: one of the things we did was to manage to get one set up in the miners’ welfare, and it is still there. When the Minister discusses great and grandiose plans, will he take into account the fact that imaginative ideas such as that should be continued with, because we can save quite a lot of post offices if people only put their minds to it?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Department of Trade and Industry, Royal Mail Group and Post Office Ltd have spent £25 million on pilots over 18 months, examining operations such as personal banking, virtual banking, mobiles and hosting operations, and they have been enormously successful. In fact, we have returned post office services to some communities that lost them years ago. The Post Office has to be imaginative. There will be an opportunity for communities to examine the Secretary of State’s proposals and to see whether they fit with their profile, and for them to come up with their own ideas on how best to protect their network, which we want to make sure will be provided nationally. So the points made by my hon. Friend are very relevant to many communities.
Mailing Preference Service
The Mailing Preference Service is a voluntary response by the direct marketing industry to meet the concerns of consumers who do not wish to receive unsolicited mail. The number of complaints about the effectiveness of the Mailing Preference Service is small, and my Department has no proposals to introduce greater powers to take action against mailing companies that have failed to screen their customer listings effectively against the MPS, beyond those already possessed by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Every day, millions of people throughout this country receive unwanted letters, e-mails and telephone calls, many of which originate overseas. What action is the Department taking to combat that problem?
There are arrangements under the MPS for individuals to say that they do not want to receive such items of mail, and Royal Mail also operates an opt-out system. On the other hand, I must say that direct mailing works for many companies and organisations; it is a legitimate way to advertise products. Also, the revenue that Royal Mail gets from direct mailing helps to maintain the low cost of postage in this country. So there is a balance to be struck. For those who complain, there is a clear complaints procedure in place to allow them to have their complaints taken seriously. Last year there were 4,666 complaints, and up to November this year there were 4,000 complaints, but there are billions of pieces of direct mail, so we need to get the problem in perspective.
The credit card and financial industry seems to be one of the greatest users of junk mail. I am chairman of the all-party identity fraud group, and I am very concerned about the information sent out in junk mail relating to credit card application forms. Please will the Minister talk to the industry so that we can close down one area in which it seems that ID fraud is on the increase?
The Government take identity fraud very seriously, which is one reason why we are bringing forward our identity card proposal—about which I know that the hon. Gentleman is very supportive and sympathetic. We take such issues seriously. We are in discussions with the banks about the ability of individuals to get above their level of credit. We are also talking, via the Insolvency Service, to credit card companies. These are important issues and I know that the organisations that market such services take them seriously, but we always need to be vigilant.
Power station applications in England and Wales of up to 50 MW capacity, including wind farms, are decided by the relevant local authority. Above that level on shore, applications are decided by the Secretary of State, who will take into account environmental impacts, other relevant matters and, of course, the views of the local community. That includes the views of the local planning authority, community groups and individuals.
I recognise the need to increase the amount of energy that we get from renewable sources, but does the Minister accept that there are many preferable alternatives to onshore wind farm development, and is he aware that the application to build 10 400 ft wind turbines at Bradwell-on-sea, in my constituency, is massively opposed by the local community and has been rejected by the local planning authority? If it is allowed to go ahead, it will spoil one of the most beautiful and historic areas of the country.
Obviously, it would not be for me to comment on a particular proposal or application, but there is a growing consensus in our society and in Parliament about the importance of renewable energy. Some 4 per cent. of our electricity now comes from renewables, and we want to see a fivefold increase to 2020. That does not mean that we should say yes to every application, but that we should look at local concerns very seriously before saying yes or no.
My hon. Friend will recall from our last energy debate the importance that we all attach to renewables. If I may, I will reduce the scale just a little, down to individual domestic wind turbine installations. Come April or May of the new year, will such installations be permitted for individual houses without any planning regulation, on the same basis as television antennae, for example, which are already free of such restrictions? Will my hon. Friend enlighten me on that point? The first such proposed installation in Coventry—it happens to be in my constituency—has already become ensnared in impossible bureaucracy.
I suspect that I should declare an interest, Mr. Speaker, as someone who is awaiting a decision from Croydon council on my own application for a wind turbine. I understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government is reviewing the very issue that my hon. Friend raises. There is a body of opinion that thinks that, just as there is some easement regarding Sky satellite dishes, there should be some easement for this, in respect of local planning strictures.
Wind farms are of course welcome, provided that they are in the right place. Back in May, the Minister acknowledged that there was an unfair bias toward wind under renewable obligations. Given that fact, does he agree with me that all too often, many current applications have more to do with availability of site than with sustainability of project?
I am not sure that I can agree with that. As I said, these issues need to be decided on a project-by-project basis. Various projects have come before the Secretary of State, including an important one at Whinnash, the answer to which, following an inquiry, we judged should be no. An equally controversial project was planned for Romney Marsh, which we thought should go ahead. However, we will not get very far if there is a wide body of consensus saying, “Yes, climate change is the big issue facing us, and yes, we need more renewable energy—but when it comes to my constituency, no, no, no.” There has to be some moderation.
We were very sorry when the hon. Gentleman was moved from his post as Minister for Energy, but it seems today that we can welcome him straight back to his previous responsibilities. What are the Government’s plans for publishing new legislation to govern the planning procedures for onshore and offshore wind? When do they expect to publish it, will it be separate from the energy White Paper expected in March, and what criteria does he think will be the most important in determining where these wind turbines will be permitted?
I should start by saying that there is widespread concern that, although we need to pay proper regard to local community concerns, it takes far too long to reach a decision on the energy infrastructure that we need, whether it be a wind farm or a new power station of whatever kind. We all understand that we need massive investment in energy infrastructure over the coming five, 10 or 15 years. The Government are therefore looking very seriously at those planning issues, so that we may achieve a better balance between local concerns and our energy security needs. That will be reflected in the White Paper that the Secretary of State has said will be published in March.
The university of Bristol personal finance research centre recently looked at what the effect of the equivalent of an increase of 0.5 per cent. on interest rates would be on consumers. They found that an additional 1 per cent. of households would be expected to struggle financially as a result of such an increase. The Government are committed to ensuring access to affordable credit and have allocated £36 million from the financial inclusion fund to promote the growth of credit unions. We are also committed to ensuring that those in financial difficulty have access to free debt advice, and are giving £45 million to fund new advisers in areas of high financial exclusion.
My constituent Mr. John Barrett of Scarborough was appalled to receive a letter offering him a loan of £7,500 at an annual percentage rate of 44.6 per cent. The suggestion was that he could use the money for a holiday. That generous rate is available only to those in full-time employment. Others, such as Farepak customers who may be on benefits or paid weekly, have to pay rates as high as 175 per cent. What more can be done to encourage credit unions, such as the one recently set up in Whitby, so that people can escape from the clutches of such predatory interest rates?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have put £36 million into developing a national network of credit unions. In addition, we are insisting that the European directive, which will be produced soon, includes opportunities for growth in that sector. Without being too partisan, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that when the Tories were in government, they provided not a single penny for the extension of that sector—
I am not spoiling it; that is a fact. The Tories cannot lecture us about issues that they did not deal with when they had the opportunity. I give an absolute assurance that we will continue the development of that sector when resources are available, and I hope that in doing so, we will receive the support of the Opposition, who have voted against it in the past.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making available that additional funding for credit unions. Will he use the opportunity of next year’s 90th birthday of the Co-operative party—whose parliamentary group I chair—to promote the ideals of co-operation and mutuals, especially credit unions? For too long in England, credit unions have not been at the forefront of people’s thinking on our estates, as they have in Scotland and the United States. Will my right hon. Friend use that opportunity to drive home the message that credit unions are the right way forward?
I am prepared to do that, and I will also have a meeting with the Co-op to see what else we can do. In areas where credit unions work, we have an endemic problem of illegal money lending. The Government have set up two pilot projects, in Scotland and the west midlands, which in recent months have secured significant prosecutions and taken out of the community a group of people who have been a scourge in it. It is important not only to assist credit unions, but to take other action to undermine the criminal element who prey on the most vulnerable.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s words about credit unions, but I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) about the need for more regulation of money lenders—because that is what the people who push glossy leaflets about loans with 100 per cent. interest rates through doors are. Should we consider tougher regulations in that area to protect the vulnerable?
Next year, the Government will bring forward a directive in respect of unfair activity in that area. We will do that in a non-partisan way—[Laughter.] I cannot win. A few minutes ago I was accused of being too partisan. Now I make an offer to be non-partisan and the Tories burst out laughing. They just flip-flop everywhere. I reassure my hon. Friend that I will work with the whole House to ensure that legitimate operators remain in the market, but that we will deal with those who are not legitimate.
The speed of the investigation will be determined by the thoroughness of the investigators, who act independently of Ministers. The investigation is being carried out by the companies investigation branch under powers in section 447 of the Companies Act 1985. Reports of investigations under section 447 may not be published, nor may information about their findings be disclosed except to prosecutors and regulators named in the Act. There is a public interest reason for preserving the confidentiality of the investigation. Premature disclosure of information would prejudice any action that was merited, whether that involved prosecution, the disqualification of directors, or regulatory action.
I thank the Minister for his response, although whether the inquiry will report before Christmas remains unclear, certainly to Farepak customers. Will he confirm that evidence of wrongdoing by directors will lead to criminal proceedings against them? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appears to have advocated a boycott of HBOS for its sad involvement in the affair. Does he support that?
As a politician, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make clever remarks. However, if he wants me to do the same in respect of HBOS, he must accept responsibility for the fact that that would mean that any culpability on HBOS’ part found by the investigation could not be taken to court by the prosecutor. My job is not about taking sides; it is about ensuring that there is a proper investigation and action is taken if illegality is found. By all means let the hon. Gentleman seek a headline, but my job is better than that. My job is to seek the truth of the matter, and to take action if that is necessary. After all, the Government sent the investigation branch in within hours of Farepak’s collapse. In normal circumstances, the investigation branch does not go into a collapsed company until after the administrator’s investigation. The fact that the Government took the unprecedented step of sending the investigation branch in so soon, by agreement with the administrator, shows how seriously we take this matter. I hope that hon. Members realise that, and that clever off-the-cuff remarks are not helpful.
May I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend and his private office for setting up the family fund, and for their tireless work in seeking justice for the Farepak victims? Does he agree that an early conclusion to the investigation would help to pave the way for early regulation for the Christmas savings sector, so that similar difficulties never arise again?
My hon. Friend has played a tremendous role in this matter. The time scale does not allow me to make an oral statement today, but I will issue a written statement setting out the details of the fund as they stood at 7.30 this morning, and the arrangements for its distribution by 18 December.
I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to give the House a flavour of my written statement. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) that the investigation will not be strung out, but I do not want it to conclude early as a result of pressure from politicians. I want a proper, full-scale, detailed and complex investigation that will involve many people and the inspection of large numbers of records. Indeed, we will have to reconstruct much of the company’s record base, because we need a constructive approach to finding the money trail. The investigation will be completed as soon as possible, but to a time scale that is commensurate with determining the truth and the action that must be taken.
As at 7.30 am today, more than £6.4 million had been placed in the fund, including more than £340,000 of public donations. Gift aid will contribute an additional £30,000. The resources are still being counted as I speak, and I assure the House that more money will be available later today. We have agreed in principle with the administrator that a large number of hampers, with a substantial market value, will be secured. We are in discussion with a logistics company and a large national retailer to determine whether the hampers can be distributed before 18 December.
Help in kind is being provided by the Park group, Findel plc and others, with logistics for the distribution of vouchers. An estimated £500,000 of gift aid will ensure that administrative expenses do not eat up every pound that people have put into the fund. In addition, we have agreed with the administrator that he will go back to court to cover the period from 11 to 13 October for repayments in excess of £300,000, which we hope will be made by Christmas.
Using the Consumer Credit Act 1974, we have secured—[Interruption.]
Order. In fairness to the House, I must stop the Minister; there will be a written statement.
Does the Minister agree that compensation of 15p in the pound for Farepak customers is a national disgrace and will ruin many people’s Christmas? In my constituency, people have lost more than £100,000 and because of the poor rate of compensation, the Reading Chronicle has today launched a local appeal—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the hon. Gentleman speak.
In the investigation, will the Minister look into how many Farepak customers use debit cards to pay their bills, as they may be entitled to full compensation?
The hon. Gentleman does the exercise down; it is not a compensation scheme, but a good-will gesture. After three weeks, from a standing start, more than £12 million in one form or another will go to people before Christmas. No legislation covers debit cards, but Visa has given a commitment to refund debit cards, as well as credit cards, in full. I hope that others will do the same, as that will result in a considerable sum of money. Other factors are involved, as the hon. Gentleman will realise from my statement. The investigation is widespread and will look into all aspects of the company’s collapse. More information will be available to the House at an appropriate time, but for now I think we should allow the investigators to continue their work. The priority between now and Christmas is to ensure that at least some people’s Christmas can be saved. If we had not taken the initiative, nothing would have been saved.
The management of HBOS, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Farepak and European Home Retail have all come in for varying degrees of criticism throughout the crisis. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the senior managers of each of those organisations will be interviewed in the DTI investigation to give the House a full and clear picture of what actually happened?
Some of the managers of those companies and others involved with the banks and financial services that had a working relationship with Farepak have already co-operated fully and have made it clear that they will continue to do so, and I am pleased about that. Companies—financial services and others—that had financial dealings and arrangements with Farepak will be part of the investigation.
We had spotted the fact that there was to be a written statement and the House is grateful to the Minister for giving us the gist of what will be in it when it is published later. Quite apart from the specific issues of the investigation, which we must respect, many of us find astonishing the background principle that savers’ deposits have been used to prop up a parent company as though they were cash flow from profits that would never need to be returned. What discussions has the Minister had about introducing immediate changes so that deferred purchase savings schemes such as Farepak are brought within the scope of the existing regulations that govern licensed deposits, so that in future vulnerable customers are protected and not abused as they have been in this case?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments in the spirit in which they were made. I immediately had discussions with the Office of Fair Trading, which is now in discussion with the regulators on the point the hon. Gentleman raised and other matters. Within a reasonable period, I expect them to come forward with proposals for Ministers to consider. In addition, I have to ensure that when the investigation is complete any proposals meet the needs not only in this case but in other financial transactions of a similar nature. The House can rest assured that after this debacle I want to ensure that arrangements in the future meet the needs of consumers and the retail sector. I am very much in favour of co-operation in this matter; it is in all our interests that consumers are protected and that legitimate retail businesses can continue to operate effectively. When it is appropriate, I will put information in the public domain for consultation, and we shall take action on whatever proposals result, to ensure—we hope—that a Farepak case can never happen again.
The Government are working with partners to improve skills levels across manufacturing. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced approval of the new national skills academy for manufacturing, thus fulfilling yet another manifesto commitment. The academy will develop a genuinely employer-driven training opportunity, with training and education programmes that will set national standards for delivery, helping employers to raise skill levels and meet the demands of global competition.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am particularly pleased about the element that involves partnerships with employers to ensure standards. In the centre of vocational excellence—in which I am a member of the steering committee—that is how we operate. I have recently been able to give awards from modern apprenticeship level right the way through to leadership and management level. We need a degree standard level in technical textiles. Will she help me to ensure that the regional development agency, which has promised £2 million for studies on technical textiles at degree level at Leeds university, fulfils that promise by March next year?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in the textiles sector, arising from good provision in her constituency. The centres for vocational excellence ensure that provision exists. They are supply-side driven. We now have to ensure that the demand from manufacturers, employers and businesses matches that supply. I am happy to help her. I suggest that she should engage in discussions with the local learning and skills council, the supply agencies and the regional development agencies to ensure that the need in her constituency is met.
Last month, the deputy director of employment policy at the Engineering Employers Federation said:
“increased protectionism would be a grave mistake”.
What is the Department doing to lower tariffs to help British manufacturing?
One of the things that we could all do within the House is start talking up the success of British manufacturing. Too often people decry it; too infrequently they commend the very good record. For example, manufacturing output over recent times has been increasing consistently. The Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to support manufacturing across the piece. From investment in new technology and innovation, to the support that we give through our manufacturing advisory service, the contribution of regional development agencies, and the research and development tax credit—there is a plethora of support. That is contributing to the success of British manufacturing across the board. The hon. Gentleman would do well to join me in celebrating the success of British manufacturing.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the restructuring of the Learning and Skills Council?
Through the development of skills academies, we are trying to make sure that the qualifications and training courses that are offered meet the demands of manufacturing. It is crucial that the Learning and Skills Council works with employers, through the sector skills council arrangements, or the skills academies, or the regional development agencies, to bring together that demand for skills with an appropriate supply of skills. That is what the reforms are all about.
I agree with the objectives to which the Minister referred, but I have just been told by an innovative British engineering company that it was not allowed to visit a local school to advertise its apprenticeships because that school did not wish to encourage its pupils to leave at 16. With 1.1 million manufacturing jobs having been lost since 1997, is it not the case that if we fail to ensure more joined-up thinking on skills and manufacturing, the only skills that will exist will be in China and India?
I would be grateful to the hon. Gentleman if he gave me the details of that particular instance, because I agree that if we are to encourage more young people to work in enterprise, in the widest sense, we must ensure a far closer relationship between industry, enterprise and schools. I have often gone on record saying that that relationship has to start when children are quite young, because they make their subject choices at a very early age. They should be inspired, and the enormous excitement that can come from a career in manufacturing and enterprise must be made visible to them, so I would be grateful if he gave me that information. I say to him, again, that he should not talk down manufacturing. Manufacturing output is up, quarter on quarter, and in the last quarter it went up yet again. In the automotive industry, for example, we are producing as many cars today as we did at the height of car production in the 1970s. It was when his party was in government that car production declined, because that Government failed to see the importance of manufacturing and enterprise to the economy.
Although I recognise why my right hon. Friend says that the national skills centre is employer-led, does she recognise that employers do not always have a good record of looking to the future and planning for skills needs? Will she make sure that there is an employee element, and employee guidance, too? In particular, will she ensure that trade unions have an important role in making sure that employees get the passportable skills that they need for the future of manufacturing?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and the Government have done a lot to ensure that trade unions are closely involved with education in the workplace. I have visited many schemes in which trade unions play an extremely positive role in ensuring that employees obtain greater skills and more qualifications at the workplace. The work that we have done through the sector skills councils, and the academies that we are establishing, will bring employers together, and with that joint experience, employers can ensure that the training, qualifications and expertise developed are fit for purpose, so that we can increase productivity and provide sustainable jobs and economic growth.
The Government support the UK environmental industries sector, which has increased from £16 billion, employing 170,000 people in 2001, to £25 billion, employing 400,000 people in 2004. We have introduced a range of incentives for small and medium-sized enterprises, and the commission on environmental markets and economic performance, announced by the Chancellor in response to the Stern report, will make further recommendations to ensure that the UK makes the most of the opportunities arising from the environmental challenges of the present and the future.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, 1.1 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1997. Many of those jobs were in my constituency in Shropshire, and in the west midlands. What specifically are the Government doing to encourage environmental technologies for the national good, so that a renaissance in British manufacturing can occur on the back of environmental technologies?
I am rather tired of Opposition Members constantly proclaiming that jobs have been lost in manufacturing industry under this Government. If we look at the record, we see that this year up to September, we have lost 75,000 jobs because of increased productivity and new technology, not because of a reduction in manufacturing output. We should compare that with 1981, when we lost 673,000 jobs in one year alone, or with 1991, when we lost 422,000 jobs in one year alone. The record speaks for itself.
The right hon. Lady has made her point. I call Mr. Bob Blizzard.
Our latest estimates in September show that at the end of 2005, commercially recoverable reserves of UK oil and gas amounted to between 7 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil equivalent. In addition, it is estimated that between 4 billion and 18 billion barrels of oil equivalent could be found as a result of further exploration. My hon. Friend is a tireless and, indeed, giant champion of the industry, and he knows that while there is long-term decline, there nevertheless remains powerful potential for the future.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the energy portfolio today, and I hope that I can do so again in future. Is not the most secure source of energy our own oil and gas and, as we have just learned, there is plenty left? Most of it is in small fields, yet operators have to use the consents procedure that was devised for the large, early discoveries. Will he look at how those procedures can be streamlined without compromising their integrity to facilitate the development of those fields by small companies and, at the same time, make sure that the Department of Trade and Industry retains responsibility for the matter?
I agree that as the fields mature, as exploration west of Shetland, for example, becomes more difficult, and as more smaller companies move in, we must constantly review procedures, including those for consents. Fortunately, our PILOT partnership with the industry is an effective vehicle for the Government—both the DTI and other parts of Government—and industry to discuss those very issues.
Minister for Women
The Minister for Women was asked—
Measures in the Pensions Bill published yesterday mean that about three quarters of women reaching state pension age in 2010 will be entitled to the full basic state pension, compared with 50 per cent. without reform. More than 90 per cent. of women reaching state pension age in 2025 will achieve the full basic state pension.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. The Government’s pensions proposals make a serious and decent attempt to tackle the developing problems in that area. Will she ensure that policy takes fully into account the great value of the necessary home building and child care activities in which women are involved, and not just their national insurance record? Women should have fair access to the full basic state pension as soon as possible.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the proposals, as cross-party support is important in ensuring that people are confident that we are making long-term changes that will make a difference. I agree entirely with him. The Equal Opportunities Commission said that the Bill
“is an important step towards ending the scandalous inequalities…The unpaid contribution to society made by millions of parents and carers will finally be recognised and rewarded on the same terms as paid employment.”
There is no doubt that there was inherent discrimination in the pensions system, given the unfairness of someone’s sex determining whether they qualified for a state pension. I am delighted that the Government have recognised the problem, and have taken action in the Pensions Bill, which was published yesterday. Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that the Government will not renege on any of the promises they have made to women, and that they will continue to make sure that the gap between pension provision for women and men is closed as quickly as possible?
I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend on the issue. The Bill aims to deliver equality. As she will know, we will introduce a gender equality duty in April, which will apply to all Government Departments and public sector organisations, bearing in mind the effect of their policies on men and women. I congratulate the Department for Work and Pensions on its gender impact assessment, as it is exactly what we need to ensure that our policies deliver what she asked for.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that, whereas at present only 30 per cent. of women are entitled to a full state pension, by the Government’s estimates that will rise to 70 per cent. by 2010. Of the remaining 30 per cent. who will never qualify under the 30-year rule, will the Government re-examine the contribution regulations to enable women who are working on past their current retirement age of 60 to continue to make national insurance contributions, so that they can get a better pension when they eventually retire?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the debate. The Bill has just been published and there will be an opportunity to explore some of those issues in depth. Our policy has always been to try to make up the disadvantage that women feel and, as the hon. Lady knows, two thirds of the pension credit goes to women. We will welcome all constructive contributions to the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that pensions are often a complicated matter, and that full information and explanations are required at the earliest stage, especially to young women, about the pension consequences of actions that they take during their lifetime? Will the Government ensure that adequate publicity and information are provided?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are considering putting together some sort of guide that will answer precisely such questions. She is right. Simplicity will make it easier for women to be confident that they will get a pension, and that they can save and add to it. A great deal has been done to get rid of some of the complexities in the current pension system.
We remain committed to providing people with information to support retirement planning. Measures in the Pensions Bill set out our proposals to establish an organisation to deliver personal accounts and private saving. We estimate that around 2.2 million to 3.4 million women will open personal accounts. The Government will publish a White Paper on personal accounts shortly.
As the Minister is aware, under the Government’s proposals, women on low pay would be automatically enrolled into personal accounts, yet when it comes to retirement the level of income from that saving could be completely negated by means-tested pension credit. What discussions has she had with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that women on low earnings benefit from the new scheme?
The hon. Lady raises important points, which we are examining in detail. One of the benefits of our proposals is to link the pension again to earnings. That means there will be higher rates of basic state pension, which will lift more women out of that situation. We need to continue to examine the effects on all women as the proposals go through.
Private pension provision is often associated with self-employment. I recall from my years of acting as an accountant for small businesses in the textile industry that women in particular were less likely to make private pension provision. What does my hon. Friend think are the key barriers that prevent such take-up and what steps are being taken to surmount them?
My hon. Friend draws attention to an important matter. One of the key barriers is people’s understanding of the pensions system and of the implications for them in retirement, so providing clear information, along with a simpler system that enables more women to qualify for a full basic state pension, will assist the process.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) points out, the Minister must be worried about the quality of advice that she is offering. If women are, as statistics show, on relatively low earnings, it cannot make financial sense for them to save towards a private pension when the minimum income guarantee that the Government offer goes up by earnings every year, and not by inflation. Is she not worried that many such women will be angry when they reach retirement? They will have saved for a private pension that is swallowed up in benefits forgone.
These are important issues, but we want women to understand what pension they will get when they retire. In addition, we are doing a great deal to tackle the gender pay gap, which is the reason that so many women are poorly paid now. We want better paid part-time jobs, which means that they will be better able to save for retirement.
The inter-ministerial group on human trafficking co-ordinates work on this issue across Government. The Government introduced new offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 under which there have been 30 convictions for trafficking. The UK action plan on trafficking will be launched in the spring and will make proposals that should improve prevention, investigation and prosecution of traffickers, as well as protection and support for victims.
In the week when Her Majesty’s Government, instead of apologising for Britain’s role in the international slave trade, should have been celebrating this country’s lead in abolishing it, will the Minister take another lead in confirming to the House that the Government will soon sign the European convention against trafficking in human beings so that that evil trade can be brought to an end?
Most Members of this House will think that it was right for the Prime Minister to express his deep sorrow about this country’s role in the slave trade. Of course, on the occasion of the bicentenary we will celebrate the UK’s achievement in having been at the forefront of abolishing this evil trade. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that while we recognise that 200-year history, we should face up to the new challenges that confront us in today’s world and not ignore the many hundreds—indeed, thousands—of people who have become victims of human trafficking. He is right, too, to draw attention to the importance of the European convention, the aims of which we support in their entirety. As he says, we have been at the forefront of efforts in this area, and we are considering whether we should sign the convention. We agree with all its aims in principle, but there are certain aspects that we need to ensure would not affect our ability to secure our borders.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that in 2007 we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. However, we need to move forward, because every constituency is probably affected by the current slave trade of sex trafficking—I know that it has happened in my constituency. Will she clarify, perhaps not now but in writing to hon. Members, the technical reasons for not signing the declaration at this stage? The failure to do so sends out the wrong signal at a very important time in our history, and I hope that we can overcome the problems and sign it as quickly as possible.
I share my hon. Friend’s hopes that we will be able to sign the convention. There are no time limits, and it is right that we should take our time to consider the issues properly. For example, the convention contains provision for an automatic period of reflection or recovery for the victims of human traffickers, yet in practice we tend to exceed those limits. We want to reflect carefully on the experiences of other countries to ensure that we retain our ability to secure our borders.
When are we going to get a prime ministerial apology for King Henry VIII’s disgraceful treatment of his wives?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who makes his point in his own way. I believe that the majority of people in this country think that it was right utterly to condemn the history of our involvement in the slave trade and to express our deep sorrow about it. That will resonate with most people, who see the bicentenary of its abolition as a huge milestone.
I welcome the progress that Ministers have made on matters where they have some power as regards trafficking and modern slavery. However, much more needs to be done to help the thousands of women and girls who are victims of trafficking and are being held in conditions of near slavery and forced to work as prostitutes right now in Britain.
Today, my hon. Friends and I are launching a campaign to try to publicise the help that is available, but what is needed is a national telephone helpline. Will the Minister note the cross-party support for early-day motion 282, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and will she take steps to set up a much-needed helpline?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the measures that the Government are taking to prevent human trafficking of any kind and to protect victims. I hope that she will welcome the contribution that we have made, not only through legislation but through direct support for victims through the Poppy project, which offers them important support by providing sheltered housing and reaching out to people affected in the community. Of course there is more that we can do. In the spring, the Home Office, which has been consulting on those programmes, will publish an action plan. We will consider how that can be developed and how the UK’s human trafficking centre, which was set up in October—it is the first of its kind in Europe—can be used effectively to gather intelligence. I hope that she will support that.
Business of the House
May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming weeks?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 4 December—Remaining stages of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.
Tuesday 5 December—Opposition day [1st Allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Government failures on Public Health”, followed by a debate entitled “Failure of Government Transport Strategy and Mounting Capacity Crisis on British Roads and Railways”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 6 December—A debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Thursday 7 December—Estimates [1st Allotted day]. There will be a debate on the provision of affordable housing followed by a debate on occupational pensions.
Details will be given in the Official Report.
At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Friday 8 December—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 December will be:
Monday 11 december—Second Reading of the Offender Management Bill, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.
Tuesday 12 December—Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill.
Wednesday 13 December—Second Reading of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.
Thursday 14 December—A debate on fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 15 December—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 14 December and 11 January will be:
Thursday 14 December—A debate on changes in medical and clinical practice.
Thursday 11 January—A debate on the future of legal aid.
The information is as follows:
Communities and Local Government: in so far as it relates to the provision of affordable housing (Third Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee entitled “Affordability and the Supply of Housing”, Session 2005-06, (HC703-11).
Work and Pensions: In so far as it relates to assistance for those who have lost their occupational pensions. (Sixth Report of Public Administration Committee entitled The Ombudsman in Question: The Ombudsman’s Report on Pensions and its Constitutional Implications”, Session 2005-06, (HC1081).
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.
Can we have an urgent statement from the Defence Secretary on the complete mess made by the Ministry of Defence of payments to Royal Marines serving in Afghanistan? I know that the Defence Secretary is making a statement on the NATO summit today, but we need an explanation of why personnel were led to believe that they would receive extra money only to have it clawed back, which will have a major impact on the morale of serving troops in a very difficult and dangerous theatre.
Can we also have an oral statement next week from the Home Secretary on the riot at Harmondsworth and problems in the Prison Service? A written statement has been tabled today, but written statements should not be used by Ministers to avoid having to come before the House to answer questions from Members. One third of the detainees at Harmondsworth were foreign national prisoners awaiting deportation and another 150 illegal immigrants may now be released from other prisons to make room for detainees from Harmondsworth. There was another incident overnight at the Lindholme detention centre. The former chief inspector of prisons, the noble Lord Ramsbotham, has said that the result of all the upheaval in the Home Office
“over the past decade is we have a prison service left in a state of shambles.”
The Home Secretary should make a statement to the House so that hon. Members can call him to account.
Talking of statements to the House, why is the NATO summit statement later today being made by the Defence Secretary, not the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister has made every statement to the House on NATO summits since 1997—in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004. Why is he not here today, or was the summit just too embarrassing for him?
The Leader of the House will have just heard in women’s questions a reference to early-day motion 282 on human trafficking, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing).
[That this House notes that 25th November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women; further notes the newly published report of the End Violence Against Women campaign, which concludes that the Government is not doing enough to combat the many and varied types of violence suffered by women; notes in particular that thousands of women who are victims of trafficking and organised crime are being forced to work as prostitutes; commends the work of the many charitable organisations providing help to women who are victims of violence; and calls on the Government to take immediate steps to raise public awareness of the problem and of the help and support which is available to victims.]
There are estimated to be 8,500 trafficked prostitutes in London alone, charging £15 a time for sex, each earning their pimps £100,000 a year. That is horrific, but it is happening in the UK in the 21st century. It is a new form of slavery. We need to raise awareness of the problem and of the help available to those caught up in this terrible trade, so can we have a debate on sex trafficking?
The Leader of the House will know that the Department of Trade and Industry is investigating the collapse of MG Rover. We learned this week that the Phoenix four, the former owners of MG Rover, are going to benefit from a tax rebate of £16 million. Can we have a statement from the Trade and Industry Secretary, and should not the tax rebate be withheld until the investigation is complete?
I have raised the issue of back garden development before. The position is simple: Government targets mean that back gardens are being built on and that family homes are being demolished to make way for flats. What is more, the Government are refusing housing and planning delivery grant to those councils that do not encourage building on brownfield sites—that is, on back gardens. Yet, this week, the housing Minister published planning policy statement 3, which states:
“Particularly where family housing is proposed, it will be important to ensure that the needs of children are taken into account and that there is good provision of recreational areas, including private gardens”.
Is it not crazy that the Government encourage councils to build on back gardens while at the same time telling them to keep them? I do not know about “no joined-up government”; this does not even seem to be a joined-up Minister. Can we have a statement from the housing Minister on this?
With the housing Minister giving mixed messages, the Ministry of Defence messing up forces pay and the Prison Service in a state of shambles, this is truly a divided and paralysed Government.
On payments to the Royal Marines, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is of course concerned about these reports and I will communicate to him what the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has said. I know that he will be making a statement, either oral or written.
Of course, what has happened at Harmondsworth is serious. Such things can happen under any Government, however, as the right hon. Lady and her colleagues will know. It is extremely important that detainees and offenders do not get the message that if they riot and cause destruction in these institutions, particular attention will be paid to them. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is never slow to come forward with statements—he is already making one today—and he has tabled a written ministerial statement on this issue. He and I will bear in mind what the right hon. Lady has said when deciding whether there should be an oral statement early next week.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the NATO summit. The House will wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement in the House on the White Paper on the future of the Trident missile system on Monday. It is entirely appropriate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who was present at the NATO summit with the Prime Minister, should make the statement following the summit.
We all share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) in early-day motion 282 on the importance of action to deal with sex trafficking.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead invited me to comment on those who appear to be profiting from the collapse of MG Rover. Of course, we all share her concern about this, but I do not want to comment in any more detail until the inquiry into the collapse has determined who should bear responsibility. I will, however, ensure that her proposal is passed on that the money should not be paid to the directors until the inquiry has been completed.
The right hon. Lady talked about back garden development. I listen to her from time to time during these sessions, and I see a new world that she is presenting for her constituents and for those in the Conservative party. In that new world, there are no difficult decisions for the Government to make, and the moment there is a Conservative Government—should that horrific time ever arrive—there would be no pressure on building land in Maidenhead or anywhere else in the south-east. All would be hunky-dory. It is not fair on the electors to take them for a ride in that way. As she and every other Opposition Member who represents a constituency in the south-east knows, there is pressure on housing land, especially in the south-east. In some respects, we want people to move out to other places—the north-west, for example—but with the changes in family formation, including the increase in small families, there is a need for small dwellings as well as large ones. It is far better to use brownfield land—including, in some cases, large back gardens—than to use greenfield land. I take it from what the right hon. Lady says that she would abandon the use of brownfield land and move instead to ensuring that vast swathes of green belt were used for building. That would be the consequence of what she is saying.
May we have an urgent debate on the state of manufacturing in the United Kingdom following the decision by GE to close its lighting factory in Leicester, which has been in existence for 60 years, putting at risk almost 400 jobs? The proposal is to move the work to Hungary. This important issue is relevant not just to Leicester, but to other constituencies about which decisions are made by people thousands of miles away that will have profound consequences for the local economy.
I hope that my right hon. Friend is able to raise that matter and take one of the many opportunities for debate on it. Of course, we understand and share his concern, and I know that the manufacturing advisory service and other Department of Trade and Industry agencies are already seeking to help those who have been affected by the announcement.
May I endorse the request for a statement on the position of the Royal Marines, many of whom I had the privilege of meeting as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme? They are the best of the best, and they do not deserve to be treated in this shameful way.
May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the information, which emerged obliquely last week, that the anticipated increase in the number of police community support officers will be cut from 24,000 to 16,000? In my police authority area, Avon and Somerset, that means a reduction from the planned 541 to 346. That is a difficult adjustment to make late in the budgetary process. May we have a statement on the reasons for that change and an opportunity to question the Home Secretary?
I note that we are to have a debate on fisheries. Will we ever have another debate, in Government time, on agriculture? According to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures, we are losing one dairy farm every day. That is a scandalous position for this country to be in. We might also consider the position of small abattoirs, which face further full-cost recovery on inspection charges. That means that even more of them will be lost.
On a not unrelated matter, given the chaos in DEFRA, may we have a debate on the effects of cuts in British Waterways funding? People who use our waterways are not given to demonstrating, but the Leader of the House may have noticed that people in narrow boats are demonstrating up and down the country over the effects of those cuts on British Waterways. May we have an opportunity to discuss them?
Lastly, next week, we face the first Bill—the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill—being considered by that new creation, the Public Bill Committee. Will any guidance be issued on the taking of evidence by Public Bill Committees? What is to be done in terms of written and oral evidence, and is there any provision for the Bills starting their consideration in another place also to benefit from evidential sessions?
On the planned number of community support officers, some adjustments were made to CSO numbers, but since 1997 the hon. Gentleman’s own police force area has had 400 extra police officers and 154 CSOs—a very big increase in the forces available to fight for better law and order.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned fisheries. There was indeed an opportunity to discuss aspects of agriculture, which is what he asked about, during last week’s debates on the Queen’s Speech, but we will of course bear in mind his suggestion for a debate in Government time on agriculture.
On waterways, on Wednesday 6 December in Westminster Hall there will be a 90-minute debate about the impact of grant reduction on the work of British Waterways.
On guidance in respect of evidence-taking sessions under the new Public Bill arrangements, which the House agreed on 2 November, the arrangements for the equivalent of Special Standing Committees do not and will not come into force until 1 January. That was part of the decision made by the House to give the House authorities and Members on both sides time to get used to the arrangements and for there to be guidance laid down. While the name of the Committee has changed, that Committee will proceed under the old arrangements rather than the new.
On 12 September, the directors of Farepak wrote to hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families telling them that they had until 6 October to pay up. Seven days before, the company went into liquidation. We now know that Halifax Bank of Scotland walked away with more than £30 million of that money. We also know that it made a donation of nearly £2 million, £1.6 million of which was bank charges that it got from Farepak. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that compassionate, caring institutions and individuals, including Government, local authorities and health authorities, reviewed their relationship with Halifax Bank of Scotland, with a view to withdrawing from it?
Of course, I understand greatly my hon. Friend’s concern, and I express yet again my appreciation and that of the House for the way in which he has fought for those who lost so much money, both as customers and employees of Farepak. He will understand that I cannot comment on the conduct of particular financial institutions, pending the outcome of the inquiry that is taking place. We accept, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade accepts, that the Government have responsibilities. The House may wish to know that the Government will be meeting Farepak employees’ entitlement to statutory redundancy pay and any arrears of pay, holiday pay and money in lieu of notice within the statutory limits.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, confirmed last night that she was prepared to meet me to discuss problems relating to magistrates courts in Macclesfield. I am grateful to her for that, and we shall meet before Christmas. It appears that the problems that we are encountering, which may be not untypical of other parts of the country, are caused by the underfunding of the Crown Prosecution Service and its inability to service the various courts, particularly in Cheshire and perhaps elsewhere. May we have a statement from the appropriate Minister and, if not, a debate in this place about the funding of the Crown Prosecution Service and the need to ensure the continuation of local justice in this country?
I do not have detailed figures with me, but I know for certain that Crown Prosecution Service funding has increased substantially, and that its performance has improved considerably, with more offences prosecuted and offenders brought to justice. Under any Government, there will be changes in the configuration of courts, for example, and I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State.
The Leader of the House will be aware that many Members are concerned that adjustments in minimum targets for community support officers do not interfere with delivery of our commitment to neighbourhood policing. On another subject, does he agree that the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire’s proposal to divert heroin supply from drug dealers to general practitioners, to take heroin addicts out of the criminal orbit, deserves a serious debate? Bearing in mind the favourable Swiss experience, constituents who have talked to me are extremely positive about the proposal, although I also have colleagues who are more sceptical. The question needs and deserves a serious debate.
On the issue of the police grant, my hon. Friend’s area as a whole will receive a 5.1 per cent. increase in formula grant. As he knows, the numbers of police officers have increased significantly, along with appointments of community support officers, since we came to office. I agree that the treatment of those seriously addicted to drugs requires considerable debate. He will be aware that, in practice, the system being recommended by Nottinghamshire’s deputy chief constable existed in this country until about 1970, and was then changed. However, we must always search for new ways of dealing with such an intractable problem.
Can we have a debate on the fitting of explosive suppressant foam on the Hercules fleet? Despite the armed forces’ requesting that five years ago, the Secretary of State for Defence has confirmed that only two of the fleet have been fitted. As a consequence, Flight Lieutenant Stead, whose parents live in my constituency, died when his Hercules was shot down. Given that this nanny state Government are always passing laws to protect us from ourselves, can we get them to protect our armed forces, who are putting their lives at risk serving our country?
First, let me pay tribute to the crews of the Hercules fleet, with whom I have flown on many occasions into Iraq and Afghanistan. They are people of astonishing skill and bravery. Secondly, I will follow up the hon. Gentleman’s point and write to him. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has the safety of service personnel as his highest priority.
I recently met a number of constituents who were in their late 70s and fairly frail, but who were being denied the home help service. I thought that that was a Leeds phenomenon, but the Leader of the House will know that, today, the Commission for Social Care Inspection reported that 100 out of 150 local authority providers are depriving the frail and vulnerable by supplying the home help service only to those with serious and critical illness. Does the Leader of the House share my dismay at the ending of home help service to ordinary, frail, vulnerable people? If so, will he draw it to the attention of his Cabinet colleague responsible, and provide some time in the Chamber for a public debate?
I will, of course, draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I have examined this matter with some care. Local authorities are concentrating their increased resources more on those in greatest need, and therefore less on those in what is judged as lesser need. As for having a debate, as my hon. Friend knows, there are many opportunities to raise such matters on the Adjournment, either here or in Westminster Hall.
The head of the Home Office’s immigration and nationality directorate, Lin Homer, has been used as a ministerial body shield in the past. She cannot be held responsible, however, for the lack of provision of accommodation for failed asylum seekers and others. The prison system is in chaos. It is not good enough for the Home Secretary to hide behind a written statement. When will he come to the House, and when will we have a debate on the issue?
It is palpable nonsense to accuse the current Home Secretary of hiding behind anyone else. He is always delighted to be in the House—[Interruption.] He will be in the House in about 20 minutes, making a statement on something else. I am sorry to say that it was also my experience as Home Secretary that so many things can happen in the Home Office, sometimes on the same day, that there is an embarrassment of choice as to which difficulty must be dealt with in an oral statement, and which must wait. That situation has faced my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and it would even face a Conservative Home Secretary should such a situation ever arise.
Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to look at early-day motion 195, on the UK’s Antarctic heritage?
[That this House notes that it will shortly will be the centenary of the Antarctic expeditions led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott; believes that it would be an appropriate recognition of the achievements of the expeditions for the huts and artefacts used by the expedition on Ross Island, Antarctica, to be conserved for future generations; notes, however, that although funds have been secured to conserve Shackleton's hut and artefacts, insufficient funds are available for the conservation of Scott's hut and its artefacts at Cape Evans; and urges the Government to recognise the achievements and significance of Scott's heroic expedition by ensuring sufficient funding is made available for the conservation of his hut and its artefacts.]
As it is almost a century since the expeditions of Shackleton and Scott, will he ask his colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to consider ways of supporting the conservation of artefacts from the expeditions in Antarctica in the same generous way as the New Zealand Government are providing support?
I will certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I understand that part of the problem is that the Heritage Lottery Fund cannot be used, as the artefacts are overseas. I will follow the matter up and see what can be done.
It is proper that the Serious Fraud Office should investigate fraud and misdoing in business. Its current inquiry into BAE Systems, however, has been going on for a very long time. As the Leader of the House will know from aerospace workers in his constituency, that is now causing a great deal of concern, as it appears that the current inquiry is impacting on important negotiations for the sale of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons to the Saudi Arabian Government. May we have a statement next week from the Attorney-General indicating whether he is willing to put more resources into that inquiry to bring it to a conclusion and therefore to stop it gumming up the works of such important discussions?
The right hon. Gentleman and I share a constituency interest in this matter. I applaud the way in which he has represented the interests of the British aerospace industry, generally and today. He will, however, appreciate that I cannot comment on a continuing investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, other than to say that I will pass his remarks to my right hon. and noble Friend the Attorney-General.
May we debate early-day motion 319?
[That this House congratulates the Government on the success of its courageous reforms of the licensing laws enacted despite widespread hostility from opposition parties, the public and press; welcomes the halving of drugs deaths since 2001 following the Portuguese government's courageous decision to depenalise drugs against similar opposition; regrets that illegal drug use, crime and deaths persist at high levels in the United Kingdom; recognises the waste and futility of using the criminal justice system against drug addicts; and urges the Government to summon up the courage to challenge popular prejudice and adapt health solutions that have reduced drugs harm elsewhere.]
The motion congratulates the Government on their courage in introducing—in the face of almost total opposition from the press, public and Opposition parties—a licensing law that has proved very successful.
Before 1971 there were fewer than 1,000 addicts, virtually no drugs deaths and no drug crime. Now we have 280,000 addicts, and the highest rates of drug crime and drug deaths on our continent. Is it not time for the Government to summon up a little more courage, do the unpopular thing, and concentrate on drug policies that work rather than continuing with harsh prohibition?
A debate in which my hon. Friend could offer the Government further congratulations on their achievement would be cause for high celebration. I hope to arrange it as soon as possible, and hold him to his word.
As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) earlier, I believe that we should take account of experience, including experience of other countries. Certainly there is no perfect way of dealing with the very difficult problem of serious drug addiction.
The Leader of the House may be aware of early-day motion 238, which stands in my name.
[That this House notes that about 80,000 endowment policies are sold each year in the United Kingdom; acknowledges that there is a general recognition that while these policies provided a useful repayment vehicle for paying off mortgages when interest rates and stock market returns were much higher, this has not been the case for some time; and calls upon the financial services industry to undertake a fundamental re-assessment of the commission basis on which many of these products are sold in order to protect home owners who have depended on policy proceeds to redeem their mortgages.]
The motion draws attention to the fact that, year on year, about 80,000 endowment policies are still being sold in the United Kingdom. The primary purpose of endowment policies was supposed to be the repayment of mortgages, but they are clearly unsuitable for that purpose now. When may we have a debate to pressurise financial service providers to sell policies that are not driven solely by commission?
There will be plenty of opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to make his point. The difference between then and now is that the market is now much more regulated, and commission must be declared to the potential policyholder. It is also true that endowment policies have not always been sold to, and are not only useful to, those obtaining mortgages.
May I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 360?
[That this House is appalled that while the City of London booms most cleaners there receive no sick pay, no pension, only the legal minimum holiday allowance, earn as little as 5.35 per hour and many take two jobs to make ends meet; commends the courageous campaign by cleaners in the City to secure a living wage; welcomes this campaign's extension to other major cities; believes that the cleaners' endeavours will lead to a real improvement in their treatment; notes that a living wage is about more than hourly pay but includes sick and holiday pay and pensions; contrasts the shocking gulf between the estimated 8.8 billion paid out in City bonuses this year with the poverty-pay cleaners must survive on in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world; recognises that global companies make significant profits by operating out of London and requests that they therefore behave responsibly towards their most vulnerable workers; is extremely concerned that progress towards a living wage is being impeded by the intransigence of the City's major banks and law firms' refusal to recognise the cleaners' trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union, and allow them to negotiate on behalf of the cleaners; and calls upon companies such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, CitiBank, Lehman Brothers, Nomura and Lovells to instruct their contract cleaners, including ISS, Lancaster and Initial, to settle with the Transport and General Workers Union on a living wage, holiday pay, pension, sick pay and union representation.]
The motion concerns living wages for cleaners, and the dispute with London merchant banks such as Goldman Sachs. According to the Transport and General Workers Union, a Christmas dinner for a typical family of four costing £14 per head—which is quite expensive—would take a cleaner a full day’s work to earn, while it would take a director of one of the banks less than 90 seconds, although it might take a little longer to earn the champagne. Is it not time the dispute was brought to an end, and cleaners were given a proper living wage?
I hope very much that the dispute is indeed brought to an end. My hon. Friend has reminded those involved of one of our many major achievements, the introduction of a living minimum wage.
The Leader of the House will be aware that blind people are currently excluded from the higher-rate mobility component of disability living allowance. It is extremely difficult for them to use buses, trains and the underground unless they are accompanied, so they are forced to use taxis and private hire vehicles, which are far more expensive. The problem is highlighted in early-day motion 46, which stands in my name.
[That this House expresses its concern that blind people are excluded from claiming the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance; believes that blindness should be regarded as an impairment that has a severe impact on a person's independent mobility; notes the substantial extra costs that blind people have to pay to travel by taxi and private hire vehicle; and therefore calls on the Government to reconsider eligibility criteria which exclude blind people from being able to claim this important extra-cost benefit.]
The Leader of the House will also be aware that a mass lobby of the House by the blind is proposed for 4 December. Will he find an early opportunity for us to debate the issue?
I am certainly sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will convey his concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The hon. Gentleman will, however, understand that judgments must be made about the criteria for payment of the higher-rate component, and also about the use of resources.
An article in a back issue of The Political Quarterly, available in the Library, describes in precise detail how patrons’ clubs are being used to raise funds, employing the dining facilities of the House. As a number of Members have kindly put details of the cost of joining such clubs and the profit margins on their websites, and as the practice is forbidden by the House, is it not time we had a full debate enabling us to learn all the facts, such as who precisely are using patrons’ clubs—and other such clubs—every day, including today, to raise funds for the Conservative party?
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee, is present. I know that he would be delighted to receive details of that alleged breach of the rules from my hon. Friend, or from any other Members.
May we have a debate on the arts? It will not be a very happy new year for them, because on 7 January 2007 the Theatre museum in Covent Garden will close its doors. It has one of the largest collections in the world, dating back to the 16th century. A debate would give the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport an opportunity to tell us that if the decision cannot be reversed, at least this wonderful collection could be put on display so that it can be seen by people not only from London, but from all over the world.
Subject only to time, I should be delighted to arrange a debate on the arts to demonstrate our support for museums; but the hon. Gentleman, who is a constituency neighbour of mine, can do better than that. He is trying to insinuate that all is dire when it comes to museums, but he will know that our record in museum attendance and funding has been astonishing—not least because we broke with the Conservative policy of charging for entry. Entry is now free, and there has been a huge increase in investment. As a result, museum patronage has increased.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, if he gives me the details I will follow them up.
May we have a statement on ministerial training? I understand that the first ever training course for junior Ministers was held at the National School of Government in Sunningdale only recently. Given all the controversy about the management of the Home Office and other Departments, it would be nice to be told how people are getting on.
I think that the success of the training is perfectly obvious. If the hon. Gentleman is pitching for a role as a tutor to keep Ministers on their toes, I will ensure that his offer is passed on.
The Leader of the House will know that on the advice of one of his predecessors we changed our Standing Orders, and are now obliged to set up a Standing Committee on the English Regions. He will also know that, 18 months into the current Parliament, the Government have failed to provide such a Committee. As we appear to be doing perfectly well without it, will he change the Standing Orders back to how they were?
That is an interesting idea. It requires further consideration, and I will give it.
My right hon. Friend is, I hope, aware of the Bill being introduced in the other place by Lord Dubs to ban cluster munitions. A useful debate was held here last Monday on an Adjournment motion, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton). I am pleased to learn that the Government intend to support the ban on dumb cluster munitions, but, following the Government’s wonderful leadership on landmines, is it not about time we also banned cluster munitions? Would it be possible to bring the Bill here from the Lords, as a matter of urgency?
I cannot promise that we can bring the Bill here quickly, but I can promise that I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the views expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend, and then contact him again.
May I wish you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House a happy St. Andrew’s day? Last week, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on further constitutional change. Since then, we have found that there is majority support not only for Scottish independence but for English independence. Therefore, may I urge the Leader of the House not to arrange such a debate, and to continue to do absolutely nothing about the West Lothian question because everything is working out spectacularly well?
On a matter on which we can all agree, I return the compliment and wish the hon. Gentleman and all his friends a happy St. Andrew’s day. On the wider issue, I commend to the House a brilliant article by Mr. David Aaronovitch that tore apart the position of the Scottish National party. He wrote about the SNP inhabiting a parallel world in which it pretends both everything to every person and that there will be no difficult choices to be made if that dreadful event befalls Scotland and it goes independent. If it does go independent, that will be a bad day for Scotland, as well as for the other nations in the United Kingdom.
The Leader of House will be aware of concerns expressed recently by the TUC that interns were being exploited by some Members of this House who paid them nothing but expected them to work full-time hours. May we have a debate on that to ensure that we are not setting a bad example to industry by failing to practise what we preach with regard to workers’ terms and conditions?
I am not totally sympathetic to that. I used to have interns working for me, and as I had no money to pay them the arrangement was that while they were working for me they were supported by their university or their parents. They benefited from that and so did everybody else. I usually do my best to agree with colleagues, but in this instance I cannot agree. I think that there is a real role for internship. We should not exploit interns but, for example, I provide work experience in my constituency, and I would like to pay everybody who comes through my door—
The queue is so long that I could run a bidding system, but I am so charitable that I do not do that.
I have never seen any direct evidence of internship being exploited. I think that it is a sensible system that benefits young people. The more we can encourage young people to have a taste of the real political process from a range of political perspectives, the better.
The Leader of the House is not usually given to hyperbole but he did err in that direction in responding to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on back garden development. Could that be because the Government have a guilty secret? They think that back garden development and the pressure on housing in the south-east is a result only of people unreasonably setting up new families and living longer, when there is in fact a third reason: the 500,000 new people who came into this country last year, and the many more people who come every year. Perhaps we could have a debate on that?
First, let me say that the Government have many secrets but none of them is guilty. Secondly, I was not trying to be hyperbolic; I was simply trying to set out the facts. Of course there is immigration into this country, but factories and firms in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency would not be operating effectively but for immigration from, for example, eastern Europe, and that is certainly true for my constituency as well. We agreed to the expansion of the European Union and what went with that. We should celebrate the fact that we have a booming economy—it is particularly booming in London and the south-east—and then make proper arrangements to cope with some of the consequences of that, which include great pressure on housing.
As the Leader of the House uncharacteristically failed to explain properly why the Prime Minister is not making the NATO summit statement today, may I give him another opportunity to do so by asking him first to confirm that the Prime Minister has always given the NATO summit statement, and secondly to agree that the summit in Riga was of immense importance bearing in mind NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan and the failure of some member states to play their full role? Finally, will he give us an assurance that the next Prime Minister will make a statement on the next NATO summit from the Dispatch Box?
I take the right hon. Gentleman at his word if he says that the Prime Minister has in the past given the statement about the NATO summit. I also say to him that Members of this House cannot have it both ways: on the one hand the Prime Minister is taunted for taking too much control over Ministers, but on the other hand when he sensibly delegates responsibility to a senior colleague—who, in this instance, attended the event—he is criticised for not being present. This Prime Minister has made more statements per year than previous Prime Ministers. He will make a statement on the future of the Trident system on Monday, and I support him on the matter asked about. It is perfectly reasonable that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence makes the statement today. It was an important summit, but he attended it and can give good witness as to what was decided at it.
May we have a statement on the legislative process for the climate change Bill, and specifically on whether it will be appropriate for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to take on a pre-legislative scrutiny role?
I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. The answer to the question is that that partly depends on whether the Bill is published in draft. The proposal in the Queen’s Speech is that we have a Bill rather than a draft Bill, but we did think about having a draft Bill. If it is published in final form, because it will have its Second Reading after 1 January, it will in any event be subject to the much improved Public Bill Committee stage that the Modernisation Committee proposed and the House has endorsed, including an inquiry over the first three or four sittings.
May we have a debate on how we can work with wildlife trusts, bat, butterfly and moth conservation groups and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in utilising the £2.7 million additional spending that has been announced by the Department for Education and Skills for taking the curriculum outside the classroom so that we can reconnect our young people with the natural environment?
I will do my best to support my hon. Friend on that. I also pay tribute to the RSPB because it has one of the largest memberships of any organisation in the country. It not only gives a lot of pleasure to its 1.3 million—I think—members, but plays a major role in preserving the environment and providing indicators of future trends in climate change.
May we please have a statement or debate on the provision of speech and language therapy to young offenders? Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution has stated that his speech and language therapist is his single most important member of staff who, by enabling boys to access education and express their needs, is vital to their rehabilitation, does the Leader of the House accept that, as Lord Ramsbotham has long argued, it is important that the Government make a firm commitment to ensure that a speech and language therapist is attached to every young offenders institution in this country?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is present and listened to what the hon. Gentleman said. We would all like speech and language therapists to be attached to all offenders institutions, but that is a matter of priorities and of the availability of such skilled individuals.
Is the Leader of the House aware that the Sentencing Advisory Panel has recommended to the courts that custodial sentences be dropped for shoplifting? The manager and the entire staff of a large supermarket in Ampthill in my constituency have written of their great concern at that decision, because such sentences are the only disincentive to shoplifting. Given that the retail industry will probably have one of its worst ever years because of online shopping, that is far from helpful. Should such a measure not be debated and discussed in the House and be introduced as an amendment to existing legislation, rather than be a recommendation from an independent body?
That is a recommendation from an advisory body; it is not a decision by Ministers. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has confirmed from a sedentary position that Ministers have not yet made a decision on that recommendation. The concerns of the hon. Lady and her constituents will of course be taken into account, and I think that they are widely shared across the House.
The Government have made no statement whatsoever about the budget for the Olympic games since the Lords amendment to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Bill was discussed in this House in March. Bearing in mind the considerable press speculation and the fact that the Government are refusing to answer parliamentary written questions on it—they are simply using the formula, “A review is in progress and the results will be announced in due course”—will the Leader of the House ask the Olympics Minister to make a statement to this House? There are many Members in all parts of the House who, although they support the Olympic games and wish to continue to do so, feel that the lack of transparency and accountability is doing the Olympic process enormous damage.
As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee responsible for the Olympics, I can say that we will of course provide the House with detailed and further information when it is available. However, a review is continuing, and much of the press speculation is just that. Meanwhile, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken note of the high praise offered to the forthcoming London Olympics and its state of organisation and readiness by the chairman and senior executives of the International Olympic Committee, who met yesterday.
Order. We must move on.
I have a ruling to make. The inquest into Mr. Litvinenko was formally opened at 11 o’clock this morning and immediately adjourned. In view of the Home Secretary's statement and the general public interest, I am exercising my discretion to waive strict application of the sub judice rule, but I ask hon. Members to bear it in mind that an inquest has been opened.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the death of Mr. Alexander Litvinenko. This statement provides an update on the circumstances surrounding his death on 23 November 2006. As I made clear to the House on Monday, Mr. Speaker, and as you have again made clear, I remain limited in what I can say, in order to ensure the integrity of the police investigation and to observe the relevant proprieties. I continue to work with my colleagues across government to ensure an appropriate response to the developing situation, and I am grateful in particular to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Transport for their assistance.
In my previous statement, I highlighted the issues being addressed by the Government in response to the death of Mr. Litvinenko. I confirmed that traces of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 had been found in Mr. Litvinenko’s urine, and at several London locations. To date, some 24 venues have been, or are being, monitored, and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at approximately 12 of these venues. Police continue to trace possible witnesses and to examine Mr Litvinenko’s movements at relevant times. It is probable that the investigation will continue to bring additional locations to our attention for screening—additional, that is, to the numbers that I have just given to the House. I stress that the Health Protection Agency continues to reassure members of the public that the risk of exposure to this substance remains low.
At 23.00 hours last night, NHS Direct had received approximately 1,700 calls. A total of 69 people have been referred by NHS Direct to the HPA as a precaution. Fifty-two of those people have been contacted, 18 of whom have been referred to a special clinic or to an appropriate clinic in their area. To date, 29 urine tests have been returned, and none of the results shows any cause for concern. I hope that that helps to reassure the public on these issues.
Earlier today, as you mentioned, Mr. Speaker, the coroner opened the inquest into Mr Litvinenko’s death, which was formally adjourned pending further scientific evidence and investigation by the police. The post mortem is expected to take place tomorrow. As confirmed last night, two British Airways aircraft are being monitored by experts at London Heathrow. I can confirm that early results show low levels of a radioactive substance on board both aircraft. The HPA expects to be able to confirm that no residual public health risk remains on the first plane. A formal report is in progress, and measurements continue to be taken on the second plane. The risk to public health is, we believe, low, but passengers who wish to receive further advice should in the first instance contact the special helpline or website set up by British Airways to confirm that they were on one of the aircraft. If they were and they are concerned, they should contact NHS Direct for further advice.
A third BA aircraft is on the ground at Moscow airport. BA has decided not to return it to London until the position is clearer, and the Government are in contact with BA about the next steps. Between them, these three aircraft have made some 221 flights, involving about 33,000 passengers and approximately 3,000 staff. A fourth aircraft of interest—a Boeing 737 leased by Transaero—arrived at London Heathrow terminal 1 this morning. Passenger details will be collected and the HPA will contact individuals if any matters of concern are found.
The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Russian Foreign Minister on Wednesday 29 November and requested all necessary assistance with the public health aspects of this incident. In addition, she formally requested all necessary co-operation with the ongoing investigation. The Russian Foreign Minister assured her that this co-operation would be forthcoming. We will contact other Governments of countries where the planes that I have mentioned might have landed in the interim.
I hope that this statement and the various bulletins issued by the health authorities have given a degree of reassurance, at least, at what is an understandably worrying time for many travellers.
I start by thanking the Home Secretary for making this statement today and for providing the Opposition with early sight of it.
We understand that more than 30,000 British Airways passengers have been alerted on the basis of risk of radiation exposure. Clearly, the grim pictures of Mr. Litvinenko in his dying days and the large number of people nominally exposed to polonium-210 traces could lead to unnecessary public alarm. I appreciate the Home Secretary’s caution on any matter involving public safety. He used the phrase—I think I have it right—“the risk of exposure is low”. Will he clarify that? In particular, will he give an objective assessment of the risk to the public, based on the expert scientific advice he has received to date, and will he confirm that this risk is very small indeed?
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said:
“There is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of that investigation going where it needs to go.”
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the police have been, or will be, instructed that diplomatic niceties will not obstruct or influence in any way the conduct of this investigation?
There is predictable ongoing fever-pitch speculation in the media. Will the Home Secretary provide any further answers and reassurance at this stage? I understand, particularly in the light of your comments, Mr. Speaker, that there are legal limitations to what the Home Secretary can say. However, can he quash at least one rumour reported in the press and inform the House whether any of the aircraft under inspection in London or Moscow have carried a diplomatic bag since the beginning of October this year?
Many Russian émigrés in London will be feeling alarmed about their own safety after the events of the last weeks. That alarm will have worsened after Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian Prime Minister, was taken seriously ill in Ireland and his office said that he might have been poisoned. Is any action being taken to protect and reassure other Russian dissidents in the UK?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. As far as we can tell, the risk of exposure is very low indeed because of several factors. First, polonium-210 is an isotope that radiates over a very short distance—centimetres, rather than metres. Secondly, almost any barrier between the source of polonium-210 radiation and a person will stop the travel of that radiation—even thick paper. So if it is in a glass phial, for instance, the radiation will not travel.
Thirdly, there has to be ingestion of polonium-210, either by eating, inhalation or via a cut. As far as we are aware, with inhalation, the level in sieverts would be so low as to mean a very small risk. That is borne out by all the evidence that we have. I mentioned 29 urine tests, mainly of hospital and other staff. All have been cleared of concern, and I hope that that provides reassurance to those who may have been worried.
As for the two aeroplanes on the ground at Heathrow, one is expected to be cleared by the HPA when it has compiled its report, and the other is being monitored. Tests are being carried out and BA will make a decision on whether to bring the other aeroplane back from Moscow on the basis of the results.
As for co-operation with the Russians, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to them and we have been assured of their co-operation. We understand that that assurance goes up to the highest level in the Russian authorities. Of course, if it is necessary to use the powers that are conferred on the police to obtain access, for instance, to aeroplanes in this country, they will be prepared to exercise that power on their own judgment. There will be no political prohibition on the police following where the evidence leads them. In that context, I have no knowledge of any diplomatic bags. I had not seen that story but I will satisfy myself about the position and, if I need to correct anything that I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, I will come back and do so.
I am also grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement and advance notice of it. I have two questions, one specific and one more general. The Home Secretary referred to the need for passengers and staff on those flights to refer themselves, in the first instance, to BA and then to the health authorities. Can he confirm that procedures are in place, both for BA and NHS Direct, to refer passengers to the police if they have information of any value in identifying passengers of interest to those conducting the investigation?
Can the Home Secretary give the House an assurance that, once this episode is put behind us, the general issue of the availability and ready transport of radioactive materials will be considered with redoubled effort and the appropriate clinical priority attached? I discovered this morning that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s database on illicit trafficking has recorded more than 650 incidents since 1993 of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive material. Those are just the incidents that the IAEA knows about, and the House will be keen to ensure that the Government will redouble their efforts to address that issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and he is correct that there is a BA helpline for anyone who thinks that they may have travelled on one of the planes. If necessary—and the numbers should be falling all the time—the helpline will refer them to NHS Direct, which will monitor them and refer them on if appropriate. The helpline number is 0845 6040171, and the website also has information.
The hon. Gentleman asks about cross-reference to the police. Within all the exigencies and proprieties of data protection and privacy, the agencies are liaising to refer people onwards if they have some useful information.
As regards radioactive materials, I told the House in my last statement that there are probably between 130 and 150 sites where the material might be used in some form in the UK. As far as we can make out, there has been no loss or theft from any of those sites. That is our concern in the short term, but the hon. Gentleman correctly points out that in the medium term this incident will enhance our awareness of the dangers of the proliferation of radioactive materials, and we will certainly look to learn lessons from it.
Has my right hon. Friend been advised that the radioactive footprint in the aircraft indicates polonium-210 or other radioactive material?
Of the 24 sites that have so far been investigated, contamination has been found at 12. There are two stages to the process. The first is the detection of some radioactive contamination and the second, which takes a little longer, is studying it to see which form it is. In most of the cases that I have identified, the contamination is polonium-210. It is at very low levels in some cases, and higher in others, although none is a health hazard of any significance. As my hon. Friend may know, the radiation output is measured in becquerels, which is the rate of radioactive deterioration of the material, or the number of clicks on a Geiger counter, for those who are not scientifically minded. The range of contamination of polonium-210 found so far is quite significant, but even at the higher limits it is not a huge risk to anyone.
Does not the existence of the traces on the aircraft suggest at least that that dangerous isotope can be carried on to them without being detected by all the highly sophisticated security equipment that we have at British airports at present? Is not that a loophole that the Government should look closely at closing as soon as possible?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, we should try to learn all the lessons that we can from this incident. He will understand if I do not confirm or deny any technical aspects of the security precautions, but I assure him that we are concerned not only with the investigation but with what lessons we may learn from it. The willingness of the public to help in the investigation is illustrated by the fact that the staff who have been asked to help the police with their inquiries have been very helpful.
During pre-legislative scrutiny of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, we tried to imagine the unimaginable, but we failed to imagine this event. We did think about the relationship between security, health and transport. Has my right hon. Friend yet had an opportunity to assess that relationship following this event and the response in terms of civil contingencies and emergency planning? When he has done that assessment, will he advise the House whether he is satisfied with that response?
I can tell my hon. Friend that I am happy with the co-operation that we have received from all of my colleagues in government, as witnessed by the fact that so many of them are in their places on the Front Bench. Ministers have attended Cobra regularly and worked closely together. We can learn lessons from the incident and we will have our proceedings monitored as a process, apart from the practical efforts that are in hand, so that we can see what lessons can be learned about working together.
It is believed that some of the poisoning may have taken place in various residences and other properties in my constituency. Obviously, the media have focused hitherto on the very human tragedy of this case, but I am concerned about the safety and welfare of my constituents and of those who work in and visit my constituency. I appreciate that the Home Secretary may not be able to go into great detail just now, but will he say on what basis a former senior KGB officer was given asylum in this country? Presumably, many other people from across the world are in the same boat. Should we not now give serious consideration to ensuring that people who come to this country and who intend to remain political agitators against other sovereign states are not allowed to stay?
I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
How long does it take polonium to decay and become harmless?
It has a half life of 138 days.
Has the Home Secretary considered liaising with his counterparts in other countries to determine whether people have died under similar circumstances elsewhere? Given the international nature of the inquiries, and if there have been such deaths, would not the pooling of information be of benefit to all?
To the best of my knowledge, the only other death in similar circumstances happened back in the 1950s. However, I have no doubt that the historical and medical evidence will be reviewed as the case proceeds. At the moment, we have very little information.
NHS Direct and the Health Protection Agency have evidently been doing an excellent job in identifying, tracing and testing people. My right hon. Friend has explained what people on the relevant flights can do and how they can contact British Airways, but has he asked the airline to take proactive steps to trace people who may have been affected?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been actively involved with British Airways, which has assisted us to the best of its ability—to the extent that it has agreed, even before calls are made to NHS Direct or the health authorities, to facilitate the reception of telephone calls to confirm whether people were on particular flights. I think that the system is working satisfactorily, although I hope that people will understand the problems that arise from the sheer number of travellers involved. As I said earlier, since around 1 November the three planes that I mentioned have carried something in excess of 30,000 people to 221 destinations. However, British Airways is making every effort to respond positively in very difficult circumstances.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, and thank him for giving us advance sight of it. I agree that this is a worrying time for many travellers. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was contacting the Governments of the other countries in which the planes may have landed. He specified four aircraft in his statement, but will he say whether any other aircraft or airports in the UK have been tested? Are there any plans to do so?
As far as the aircraft are concerned, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that two British Airways planes at Heathrow and one at Moscow airport are involved. In addition, an aeroplane with the Russian airline Transaero landed at Heathrow this morning, and we know of one other Russian plane in which we think that we might be interested. Other planes may be involved that we do not know about at present, but those are the five that we know of. The hon. Gentleman also asked about airports in this country. Although we believe that we need concentrate only on Heathrow, several European airports might require investigation. The investigation is dynamic and is changing by the minute, let alone the hour. If we become aware of any further problems, we will send out an immediate alert and seek to discover the whereabouts or transit of any aeroplane that might be involved.
If something like 33,000 passengers did indeed make journeys on the aeroplanes in question, it follows that several thousand would be citizens of other countries. Another possibility is that many British citizens who flew in those planes will still be on holiday or working overseas. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that other Governments and British citizens abroad are able to receive the sort of advice that NHS Direct makes available in the UK?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and her staff at the Foreign Office are in touch with our overseas posts, and they will send out what information they consider necessary. If specific health or transport advice is needed in any particular case, they will ensure that the necessary information is supplied.
May I return to the second question asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, which has not yet been answered? It had to do with the safety of political dissidents and émigrés in London and the UK. Thousands of such people have been given asylum in this country, which is seen as a safe haven for those with political views that are unpopular in their own countries. However, if dissidents and émigrés are being assassinated in public or semi-public places in London, this country will no longer be considered to be a safe haven. In my opinion, this incident has had a severely negative impact on this country’s reputation as well as Russia’s.
I find the hon. Gentleman’s final sentiment—that this incident somehow reflects badly on this country and its services—quite extraordinary. We understand that, although our traditions of liberty and free speech sometimes cause great difficulties—for the British Government, as well as for others—they are often what people come here for. It is not possible to safeguard people in this country 100 per cent., whether they are dissidents in their own countries or not. I wish that it were, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do our utmost to ensure that everyone who is given citizenship or asylum here is protected to the best of our ability. To cast aspersions as he has is to criticise, unduly and unfairly, our security services, police and all the many people who are trying to ensure that this remains a safe country where opinions can be stated without fear or favour. I assure him that the investigation will be carried out in that way.
My question follows on from the one asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Britain must remain a safe haven for people fleeing political persecution, but does the Home Secretary agree that political dissidents who become agitators can, by their actions, undermine our national security? In those circumstances, should we not have a review of the people who are allowed to stay here?
The difficulty is that the inference to be drawn from any answer to that question must be that we have already decided the outcome of the investigation. We must not get ahead of ourselves in that way. I stress that the police have not yet gone beyond saying that the death was suspicious. They will follow up all leads, some of which, as I said earlier, are changing by the hour. We are finding different sites to look at and I have no doubt that, by the time I leave the Chamber, the numbers that I have given in my statement could have changed again. We are giving the House information about this or that plane. We may discover that some, or a greater number, of the planes that we believed were of interest to us are not the right ones. That is the nature of an investigation and I urge the House to understand that while we are open as possible on such a subject—as is right, here in the cradle of democracy—we must nevertheless be responsible in using the information. However eager we are to build up a picture of conclusion in our minds, we may actually be only at the very early stages of the investigation.
With permission, I should like to make a statement on the NATO summit in Riga, which I attended in support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Before going further, I should stress that there was overwhelming consensus among the leaders of the 26 NATO countries on the crucial importance of strong collective defence to meet the security challenges of the 21st century. They reaffirmed NATO’s central role in defending our countries and our common values.
The UK had three priorities for the Riga summit: ensuring success in NATO’s military operations, notably in Afghanistan; improving NATO’s expeditionary capability; and improving NATO’s ability to work more closely with civilian partner organisations and the rest of the international community. I am pleased to report that, despite the complexity of some of those issues, and some genuine and legitimate differences of approach between member countries, real progress was achieved in all three areas.
The primary focus of the summit was NATO’s current operations. Today, more than 50,000 NATO personnel are deployed in six missions on three continents. More than half of them—32,000—are in Afghanistan, which remains NATO’s top priority. All 26 NATO member states reconfirmed their commitment to the mission. There was a shared recognition that success in Afghanistan is crucial not just for the Afghan people and for regional and global security, but for NATO itself. As the Prime Minister has said, now that NATO has taken on this vital but challenging mission, its credibility is at stake.
The summit offered an opportunity to take stock of progress in Afghanistan, particularly since 2003 when NATO took on the mission, in the form of the international security assistance force—ISAF. In place of the despotic rule of the Taliban, the country now has a democratic Government. The economy is growing, and infrastructure and basic services are being rebuilt. At last, after 30 years of conflict, the everyday lives of millions of Afghans are visibly improving. According to UN figures, 4.5 million refugees have returned to rebuild their lives.
Of course, at the same time, the mission faces serious challenges. The Taliban and the drug lords are determined to fight to resist progress and they continue to exploit the impunity they have enjoyed in the south. ISAF forces have seen hard fighting over the summer and have taken significant casualties, but they faced down the Taliban and reinforced the Afghan Government in extending legitimate governance and the rule of law throughout the country.
We know that some member countries have had reservations about the mission. Their domestic audiences have been concerned about the intensity of the fighting and have raised questions about the prospects for success, but even after this difficult summer everyone at Riga agreed that the mission in Afghanistan has to succeed. We should not underestimate the significance, at this moment, of all member countries explicitly reaffirming their support for the mission and their common pledge to provide ISAF with the forces and flexibility to ensure the continued success of this vital mission.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led calls for our allies to reconsider how they might do more to provide such forces and flexibility. There was a welcome signal from a number of nations that they would lift the national caveats on the use of their forces. There were also pledges of additional force contributions. I cannot give full details today; Members will have seen reports in the press, but we must wait for national Governments to confirm those commitments in due course.
The pledges made at Riga are a small step in the context of a 32,000-strong mission when the ideal, as I have been impressing on my NATO opposite numbers for months, is that there should be no national caveats at all—something that I am proud to say is true of our 6,000 personnel in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that even if those are small steps, they are steps in the right direction. Before Riga, the Secretary-General estimated that 85 per cent. of ISAF’s force requirements had been met; that has now risen to 90 per cent. and we must continue to work until we reach 100 per cent.
We must also continue to work on the wider challenge of transforming NATO. The threat facing NATO members has changed dramatically since the alliance was formed in 1949. There is agreement that NATO must transform its capabilities to meet the challenges of a changing world. We must become more agile and more efficient.
That is easy to say in theory, but harder to achieve in practice in the context of an alliance of 26 countries each with its own approach and its own sovereignty. There are signs of progress, however. Yesterday, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe declared the NATO response force fully operational. The NRF was established following the 2002 summit to provide a high-readiness force able to deploy quickly where required, to carry out the full range of alliance missions. That is a key development. Even before the force reached full operating capability it showed its worth, in the relief effort following the Pakistan earthquake last year. We also agreed new initiatives to increase the strategic airlift available to allies, to enhance co-operation between our special forces, to improve alliance logistics support and to streamline the NATO command structure.
Of course, as I have said countless times from this Dispatch Box, success in the type of operation NATO is now undertaking will not be achieved by military means alone. That is especially clear in Afghanistan. The international community needs to work in a co-ordinated way across all the different lines of operation—security, governance, law and order, reconstruction and development, and counter-narcotics—to deliver a truly comprehensive approach.
That comprehensive approach is not unique to Afghanistan. It is equally important in Kosovo where KFOR has been crucial not just in maintaining security but in supporting the political process. Such an approach will be needed in the majority of operations the international community undertakes in future.
NATO cannot do the work of supporting governance and development by itself; nor should it. We have to improve the way we work with organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, non-governmental organisations and national Governments who provide civilian capability. Yesterday, we agreed to develop new proposals for improving civil-military partnerships throughout all stages of operations, from planning to execution on the ground. NATO does not and should not pretend to be the sole means of creating and maintaining security. The civilians and military working in places such Afghanistan or Kosovo are working for the same aims; it is not a zero-sum game, where support for the UN or the EU is a defeat for NATO or vice versa.
Many commentators feared that the summit in Riga would be a waste of time and at worst a failure. Those fears were unfounded. The summit reaffirmed the strength of purpose within the alliance and its commitment to remain a force for good in the 21st century.
NATO is not perfect. It needs to prepare for tomorrow’s challenges while continuing to adapt to today’s operational needs. It has started the process of transformation and it is the responsibility of all of us, individually and collectively, to support that process. In protecting our security and our vital interests, there is no alternative to working within international organisations, and over the past 50 years NATO has proved itself to be one of the best we have. It deserves our continuing loyalty and support.
The Secretary of State’s statement reflects the outcome of a very disappointing summit. Had it been otherwise the Prime Minister would undoubtedly have been at the Dispatch Box to claim the credit for himself.
We agree with the communiqué’s goal of avoiding “unnecessary duplication” between NATO and the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is crucial that EU members of NATO take active steps to prevent such duplication? Indeed, what duplication would ever be necessary, and is not that at the heart of the present crisis in relations between NATO and the EU, which is of the Prime Minister’s making?
We welcome the call for member nations to halt the decline in defence spending, but it underlines the Government’s failure to reverse the decline over the past 10 years. Why has the summit abandoned the spending floor of 2 per cent. of gross domestic product? Have the Government allowed that commitment to be dropped?
The big question is, of course, Afghanistan—NATO’s first out-of-area operation, which is the most critical challenge facing NATO and the future credibility of the organisation. Is it not profoundly disappointing that France, Germany and Italy, which together have more than 5,500 troops in Afghanistan, have all flatly refused to commit them to Helmand, where they are most needed, save, as the communiqué states, in emergencies? Surely the continuing loss of British, American, Dutch and Canadian soldiers constitutes such an emergency. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister for the Middle East, who said:
“The view seems to say that it’s alright for British soldiers to die in defence of the West, but it’s not alright for others”?
Does the Secretary of State understand the magnitude of the challenge facing him when this nation’s European NATO partners fail to meet their obligations? We now have an Army of under 100,000. We are committed to two major concurrent operations. We are short of helicopters and close air support, and lack proper protective vehicles, and we are supplied with second-rate ammunition. How long does he think that he can sustain this tempo of operations without others shouldering their fair share of the burden? Now we are told that the Royal Marines have had the promised extra money denied them, as they are in theatre, with the consequent damage to their morale.
What discussions took place at Riga regarding the need for a greater commitment to reconstruction in Afghanistan and what decisions were reached in respect of poppy cultivation? Does the Secretary of State agree that to destroy the livelihood of poppy growers without offering them comparable incomes will put the lives of our armed forces at greater risk and increase support for the insurgents?
Russia was the ghost at the feast. We note that NATO is to assess the risk to our energy security, but why is there nothing of substance in the communiqué on that vital matter? It has been a firm Government policy that Serbia could join the partnership for peace only once it had delivered those accused of war crimes, and yet we were told that Serbia would join the PFP without delivering. Why the U-turn? What signal does that send to those who have shielded war criminals for years?
Finally, we note that NATO’s missile defence feasibility study has been completed. Why has the Secretary of State not reported to the House on those developments, which are vital to the security of NATO members? Why does he refuse to answer questions about that matter in this place? Did he discuss with his NATO counterparts the possibility of ground-based interceptors being located on British soil?
We believe that NATO remains the cornerstone of our security, but it faces a potentially serious crisis. The summit failed to meet the challenge. It is time for all its members to demonstrate their commitment now.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I share his ambition that we will work with our NATO allies to develop a capacity and capability that transforms NATO into an organisation that meets the evolving challenges of the 21st century. He will be pleased to know that all partners in NATO confirmed their ambition in relation to that objective in a co-operative fashion.
On budgets, we have not abandoned—nor have we asked NATO to abandon—the 2 per cent. commitment. As the declaration recognises, in the case of some partners, there has been a fall in investment in respect of a reduction in their budget. We have to halt and change that direction of movement. There is a commitment in the communication towards that.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, we ought to celebrate the success of the transformation that has already taken place in NATO towards the expeditionary capability that we are seeing so successfully deployed in Afghanistan. However, that is not to say that there are not still challenges. Some of those challenges were discussed at length and relate to caveats and to a commitment of forces. Significant progress was made in that regard, but there is still much to do and I make no bones about that.
I do not think that it is appropriate that we recognise only the loss in Afghanistan of soldiers who come from certain nations. Many other nations, including some of those that have deployed soldiers to the north and west of the country, have also lost brave troops in engendering the progress in Afghanistan. It would be entirely inappropriate if, as NATO, we reduced our policy in Afghanistan to a balance of body counts. That is not the appropriate way to look at things. Sacrifices have been made by other countries.
Afghanistan, in parts other than the south, needs to be maintained in its state of progress and forces need to be deployed in that regard. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that the commanders on the ground need to have the flexibility to be able to move their troops, in relation to the operation plan, across the whole country. However, we should not become Helmand or southern-focused any more than those who are in the north or the west should become focused on only those parts.
On the comprehensive approach, there has been significant development. That is reflected in the declaration, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read, in terms of the commitment for NATO to work. The area is difficult, and I understand that. As I explained in my statement, it is not a zero-sum game between the European Union and NATO, and it should not be allowed to become one. He is perfectly correct to say that there is no need for duplication, but there is a need for co-operation and, in particular, strategic co-operation.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance notice of it. I agree that it is good news that all the NATO member states have recommitted themselves to the action in Afghanistan. What assumptions were made at the summit about the length of the commitment in Afghanistan? In reconfirming their support, are all the member states up for a long haul, which it is generally agreed now is what they are in for?
On caveats, the Secretary of State has done his best to reinforce the smiles and the declarations at the end of the summit, but, rather like Budgets, these things often look better at the time than they do a day or two later. He has said that he cannot go into the detail of caveats today because other countries will have to confirm their arrangements. How long does he think that that confirmation process will take? Is it true that the larger countries, with the significant numbers, have agreed only that they will help in an emergency? Surely they would have helped in an emergency in any case, or else what sort of an alliance is it?
It is doubtless welcome that Slovenia and Luxembourg have agreed to lift their caveats, but with 50 and 10 troops respectively, that is not going to make a big difference to the shortages of troops in southern Afghanistan. Is the Secretary of State assuring us that serious progress has been made in dealing with the shortage of 2,500 or so troops in the south? He mentioned helicopters. Will he confirm whether he is confident that the helicopter shortage has also been addressed?
Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussion, if any, there was about NATO developing relationships with countries outside the north Atlantic area? Australia and Japan, for example, have been referred to in recent days. What was the French attitude to that? What future does he see for NATO entering into relationships with sympathetic countries in other parts of the world?
On the last point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware from the declaration that Riga has successfully delivered the first step towards deepening NATO partnership relations with existing partners, with troop contributors—of whom there are 18 over and above the 26 NATO nations, in operations across the globe—and potential contributors to NATO-led operations. The part of the declaration that deals with that covers a number of pages and he will have to take the time to read it himself. In response to his question, that means that non-NATO countries, such as Australia and Japan, will be able to discuss existing and future operations with NATO in a flexible, transparent and pragmatic way, and will have access to the partnership tools, which are important, currently available only to existing partners. Those are significant steps forward and they were unanimously agreed.
I understand the concentration on Afghanistan. That was the priority in terms of operations for the summit itself. There is an understanding by all those involved in Afghanistan that this is a long-term commitment. However, I hasten to add that that does not mean a long-term commitment in its current phase. As we have seen, there are parts of Afghanistan where our commitment to the country has moved it on significantly. Holding that improvement is, of course, important. Stabilising it, and building governance and economic development in those areas is important to continued security. I am careful to qualify the commitment to the long haul, because it is often erroneously interpreted as a suggestion that there will be a long haul of, for example, the sort of war fighting that we have seen in Afghanistan in the immediate past, but that is not what I mean. There is a commitment by the developed world, beyond NATO, to a long haul in Afghanistan, because there is no alternative.
I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about when things will happen. One of the delights of NATO is that the countries are all different, and they have different ways of making decisions. Some of them constitutionally require the involvement of their legislature in making decisions and announcements, so we must just wait and see what happens. However, there has been an important step forward in accepting the principle that the troops deployed to such a theatre ought, in principle, to accept the same risks. That issue has to work its way through, and I accept that there are still challenges.
We should not belittle the contributions of some of the smaller countries. Some of them make contributions that are significantly disproportionate to their size. Importantly—and I make this point advisedly—the effect that they have with comparatively small numbers of specialised troops is often disproportionate.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but does he agree that the future success of NATO, which is the best military alliance that we have ever had, is dependent on greater transatlantic defence industrial co-operation? To that end, does he agree that an early settlement of the issue of the sovereign capability to upgrade and maintain the joint strike fighter will help us?