House of Commons
Monday 11 December 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Export Control Organisation
The Government considered whether to outsource export licensing activities last year. The outcome was a decision not to proceed with outsourcing, which was reflected in an announcement in the House on 21 July 2005. There have been no other ministerial discussions on the future of the Export Control Organisation.
Despite our Government’s stated intent not to sell arms in conflict zones, to regimes that abuse human rights, or to the poorest countries on the planet, the Defence Export Services Organisation is still dealing with Sri Lanka and Uganda in the first category, Israel and Indonesia in the second, and Nigeria and Pakistan in the third. Does the Minister agree that we should launch a coup against DESO and install the Export Control Organisation in the Ministry of Defence so that we can start to build, at last, an ethical defence and foreign policy?
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. We apply the most rigorous criteria for all countries involved in that environment. I can tell my hon. Friend that all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. If an export is considered inconsistent with the criteria, a licence will not be issued. The criteria are robust and we apply them rigorously.
When the Government responded in October to the report on strategic export controls published by the Quadripartite Committee, Ministers emphasised that
“the Government takes very seriously the control of defence exports and behaviour of UK companies … in this area”.
With those words ringing in his ears, will the Minister reassure the House that the Serious Fraud Office will be given every encouragement to continue its work investigating the deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, and that when it has done so and proper process has been followed, its report will be made available to the House?
I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was aware that that is not a matter for me and also that he was fully aware that it is inappropriate to discuss an ongoing police investigation or any other matter in the judicial process. However, I note the direction from which the hon. Gentleman is coming—it is another attack on British industry. I am conscious of the fact that one of his party’s senior defence spokespeople said that aircraft carriers would be better built in the United States—yet another instance of the Liberals not wanting British industry to succeed.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concerns that, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk from Bristol to Lancashire, whether at Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems or Thornycroft, the bottom line is that we have to ensure that the SFO completes its investigations. After two and a half years, we need early completion to ensure that those jobs are not lost or put at risk. Will my right hon. Friend give some support to British industry and ensure that, while we recognise export credit controls, British interests are kept alive?
I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate of those industries both in his own constituency and more widely in the United Kingdom. He constantly raises legitimate matters of concern. He is also a strong supporter of our defence industrial strategy, and the Government are determined to make sure that both our manufacturing base and our defence sector are strong. Those who say that we should not be exporting are arguing against that principle, and I know that my hon. Friend does not share that point of view.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministry will need to take particular care where there is a risk of execution, torture or cruel or degrading treatment, will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether, if there were a proposed export to Sudan either of a piece of defence equipment, or indeed of a pair of handcuffs, it would be resisted?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details about that, because we have to look at the issues on a case-by-case basis. However, I would say instinctively that if approval was being sought in a case where the use was for torture or for malign ends, it would not get through our strict criteria. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that, will he please write to me and I will give him a more considered answer?
Although not everyone supports arms exports, does my right hon. Friend agree that they secure many highly skilled jobs in the UK, and that as a result of the Export Control Act 2002, introduced by the Labour Government, we have one of the most comprehensive export control systems anywhere in the world?
I agree entirely and I tried to set that out in my earlier answers. I think that we can hold our heads high in respect of the way we approach this matter. It is correct that what we do is always under scrutiny on a case-by-case basis within Departments and we have to take into the balance the impact on employment and this country’s manufacturing base. These are not easy judgments to make and there are occasions on which applications are refused. We try to help the industry by providing an early answer. We will continue to apply the rigorous provisions that I set out earlier.
There are sufficient quantities of high-quality ammunition to meet operational requirements in all theatres. Ammunition is accepted into service with UK armed forces only after it has passed an extensive qualification programme addressing both performance and safety. Careful stock-pile management then ensures that the right quantities of the right types of ammunition are available to meet operational needs. That is achieved through a combination of extensive forward planning, close liaison with operational force commanders and detailed analysis of historic usage.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that for his Department to have justified sending to our troops in Afghanistan a batch of ammunition that was known to have a potentially lethal fault, on the grounds that it would have been irresponsible to hold it back owing to insufficient stocks of properly functioning ammunition, demonstrates yet again the unacceptable risks that our troops are exposed to as a result of inadequate resources, complacency and incompetence on the part of Ministers?
If that were the case, I would stand here guilty, but it is not. The hon. Gentleman should listen to explanations that have been given by the Ministry of Defence, not to what has been said in the press. What we are saying does not accord with his analysis.
Do Defence Ministers feel any scintilla of embarrassment at the fact that four former Chiefs of the General Staff, as well as the present incumbent, have publicly and strongly damned every aspect of MOD policies in respect of arms supplies, general administration and armaments—the policies of a Department over which those Ministers are supposed to preside?
We have very good and honest relations with current Chiefs of Staff and we keep in close liaison with previous ones, all of whom have the freedom to express a point of view, but all of whom were part of the planning process that I set out in my earlier answer.
I listened to the Minister’s earlier answer with great interest. The fact remains that troops on operations have found that their weapons have jammed because the quality of the ammunition provided was simply not good enough. Has the Minister any idea what it is like to fire a weapon and find that it jams in his hands? If he has not, I have.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not a military man, but I have fired rifles and I have been a Minister long enough to have been through all the testing that we had to do to improve the SA80. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). The jamming of machine guns was not the result of the ammunition, but because of a fault in a particular part of the equipment, which has now been rectified. When we discover that a piece of equipment is not functioning, it is immediately replaced with new equipment. It has not happened in the way that Conservative Members have set out. I must also say that all the ammunition that we buy has been consistently up to NATO standards. Of the particular type of ammunition mentioned, 680,000 rounds have been fired in both operational and training terms.
We all saw the video on You Tube and know what position those two soldiers were in with their malfunctioning bullets or weapons. Last week, the former Chief of the General Staff said:
“Military operations cost in blood and treasure … It is our soldiers who pay the cost in blood; the nation must therefore pay the cost in treasure”.
Does the Minister agree that that includes giving our soldiers bullets and guns that work?
I am really surprised at this line of approach. I have already answered the question twice and said that it did not happen in the way in which it was set out in the media, so there is no point in continuing running this theme. A soldier who used that equipment could, on listening to our debate, become convinced that there was a fault with the ammunition. There is not. It is up to NATO standards. A fault was discovered with the machine gun, but it was rectified. Where such a fault manifests itself, the actual piece of equipment is then replaced. I ask Opposition Members, who are asking extensive questions about this, actually to read the answers that we give them.
The number of new recruits into the Territorial Army remains relatively high, but we are not complacent and we continue to focus our efforts on improving TA manning, which is a key priority for the commander of regional forces. A number of key initiatives have been and are being introduced to improve recruitment and retention, including project one Army recruiting, which is designed to provide greater integration and coherence between the TA and the Regular Army recruiting offices and which will begin in April 2007; future marketing campaigns that specifically target the TA; and more fundamentally, the changes introduced to the TA structures, which are already having a positive impact on TA manning levels.
Does the Minister acknowledge that recruitment to the TA is increasingly hampered by the fact that employers are reluctant to take on TA soldiers, who may be called upon to undertake long tours of duty overseas? What steps are the Government taking to protect the employment prospects of those brave men and women, who are serving their country?
I recently met a group of east midlands employers at a reception in the Ministry of Defence and had a good talk to them about the various issues. They represented both the private and public sector, and all of them were very positive. Of course, it is very important that employers continue to support our reservists and TA, and we continue to be in dialogue with them. Very few people have a real problem with their future employment; but clearly, we monitor the issue regularly.
May I tell the Minister that, this weekend, I spent some time with the former Gurkhas who have come to live in Thurrock—and very welcome they are, too? They tell me that the prospect of their joining the TA after retiring as regulars has never been offered to them, and it occurs to me—I put it to the Minister—first, that Gurkhas should be so invited and, secondly, that there must be a big reservoir of former regulars who are not formally approached about rejoining through the TA. They could produce a cadre of well trained, highly professional and motivated skilled soldiers. I particularly commend the Gurkhas to him. We could have Gurkha territorial companies or have them in the mainstream Army.
I join my hon. Friend in praising the work, professionalism and courage of the Gurkhas in the British Army, in which, of course, they have a long history. He may be confused about the issue of nationality and when people become eligible, so I am happy to write to him to give him some more detail.
I remind the House of my interest. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 gives some protection to TA soldiers who are on mobilised service to go back to their jobs, but it does not give any guarantee of promotion. Some TA soldiers are now coming back from their second or third operational tour and facing a decision about sacrificing their primary career to continue with their secondary career. Given that fact, does not the Minister feel that the current level of TA mobilised service is simply unsustainable?
I obviously recognise the service that the hon. Gentleman has given and place that fact on record. Currently, about 1,300 reservists are mobilised—about 3.7 per cent. of the strength—but I recognise the important point that he makes. Last week, when I visited Germany, I talked to reservists about some of the employment issues that they may face. Of course, that is something that we continue to work on. As I told the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), most employers are very good and very supportive. Of course, when the reservists and TA go back, they take with them a lot of good skills and experience that can be used in the world of commerce and business, and so on. We should obviously praise that and highlight it. I obviously take account of what the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) says, and we continue to do such things when we are in dialogue with employers.
The TA in my constituency has, as my hon. Friend knows, provided front-line medical support to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a wonderful credit not only to the TA but to its relationship with the national health service, from which many of those people come. Will my hon. Friend come to meet those people in Ellesmere Port? Many more people in the NHS could be persuaded to join the TA, and a visit from him could encourage them to do so.
There are a lot of initiatives in terms of retention and recruitment. As of 1 September 2006, the strength of the TA was 1.6 per cent. higher than it had been; we have seen an increase of about 500 people in the TA in the last 12 months. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report from the National Audit Office which was produced earlier this year, he will find that there is quite a lot of enthusiasm for staying in the TA. Some of those people have decided to join the regulars.
The UK contingent in Kosovo amounts to a total of 175 personnel, as part of NATO’s overall force of about 16,500. We intend to keep that level of commitment in place until the Kosovo settlement process has run its course and the security situation is considered to be stable and self-sustaining. Our next force level review is likely to take place in summer 2007, when it is anticipated that NATO will confirm its intentions for Kosovo.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that the critics of our intervention in the Balkans and Kosovo were totally wrong and that there are many Muslims and others alive today as a direct result of British, US, NATO and European Union forces bringing peace and stability to that region?
I do. That is a good point. I was in Bosnia about two weeks ago with the Bosnian Defence Minister, on the very day when Bosnia was granted partnership for peace involvement with NATO. That shows an amazing step forward in a short time. When one considers what is happening in that country, and looks around and sees the developments that have taken place—not just in terms of defence restructuring, but across society—we should congratulate ourselves as a nation on what we did in the Balkans, not just in Bosnia, but in Kosovo. We can take great pride in it and that is how they view our contribution. Those who criticised us at the time should say sorry.
Does the Minister acknowledge that a significant number of people deployed in the Balkans are, and have been, members of the Territorial Army? The answer to the previous question was curiously complacent. The fact is that of the 42,000 people in the strategic defence review supposedly in the TA, currently 36,000 of them—
May I remind the Minister that I strongly supported the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo? Does he agree, for once, with General Sir Mike Jackson, who has pointed out that NATO has not had anything like the credit that it deserves for supporting Muslim rights, human rights and lives in those two parts of the world? Does he accept that there is a real danger that NATO may have to enforce any settlement after the results of the elections are known in January? Where are the troops going to come from to do that, given our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening sentiment. I pointed out that there are currently 16,500 NATO troops in Kosovo. Recently, there has been significant unrest on the street. All that has been dealt with well and contained. Clearly, judgments have to be made as we move towards that final status and those final negotiations. Given the strength and capabilities of that force of 16,500 in Kosovo—it would be a matter of military judgment whether that was sufficient—up until now, it has shown that it is able to stabilise that region and to deliver. Of course, increasingly we are getting more buy-in from the wider community in Kosovo. They want what everybody else wants in the Balkans: peace and security. They have it in their own hands to deliver it, but we will make sure that we continue to help them to achieve that. If it becomes difficult, as ever we will make sure that we succeed and those who are trying to destroy peace and stability will fail.
To date, more than 6,500 applications for the new Arctic emblem have been processed and passed to the Veterans Agency for dispatch. As a result of the publicity from the many launch events that were held around the country—including, I understand, a successful one arranged by my hon. Friend in Nottingham—several hundred new applications have been received in recent weeks. Officials are working hard to process those applications, but the volume received means that it will take a few weeks to dispatch some of the emblems.
On behalf of Members of all parties who have campaigned for years to bring this injustice to an end and to get the Arctic convoy veterans properly recognised, may I put on record my thanks to the Minister and his predecessors for the effort that they put in to ensure that this injustice was righted? May I also put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State, who has clearly brought about a different attitude in the Department on these matters, particularly in the recognition of the people who were shot for desertion in the first world war and of the Arctic convoy veterans? The fact that the Secretary of State and his team have taken an interest in this makes a great difference.
First, may I praise the work that my hon. Friend has done over the years in campaigning on this matter? I cannot take any credit, because things were all done and dusted as I came into my post, so credit must go to my predecessors for the work that they had done. As he will recall, the launch event on HMS Belfast was a moving experience, because we met those veterans and listened to the stories of bravery, courage and the pure hardship that they had to go through. I am pleased that this news has been well received by those veterans.
May I tell my hon. Friend that I and a great many others were encouraged by a letter that he sent me on 24 November, in which he made it clear that he intends to be the veterans’ champion and to press the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to allow our servicemen who fought in Malaysia the right to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal? In making those representations, would it assist him if more right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House were to sign early-day motion 356, which is in my name, and early-day motion 375, which stands in the name of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates)?
I am aware of the work that my right hon. Friend has been doing on this issue and of the early-day motion that he tabled. He has made many representations to me. He will be aware, as I think he confirmed just now, that I have made clear what the veterans’ views and wishes on this issue are. I am sure that there will be ongoing discussions, but the Foreign Office takes the lead on this.
I regularly receive representations on military equipment in Afghanistan from a wide range of sources, including hon. and right hon. Members of this House. We keep our deployment in Afghanistan under constant review to ensure that our armed forces have the equipment that they need.
The current Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, his immediate predecessor, Sir Mike Jackson, and Brigadier John Lorimer, who is due to take up command in Afghanistan next year, have all said that the Government are not providing sufficient armoured vehicles and helicopters for the operations in Helmand province. Those grave concerns have been dismissed by Ministers. I have constituents who have sons and daughters in Afghanistan. Whom should they trust—senior soldiers who have been in the military all their lives and who understand leadership, or Ministers, who know very little about the military and even less about leadership?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should trust a process that reviews not only the force strength but the equipment that our soldiers have in theatre. It has served this country well for decades. All senior members of the military, including all those who were and are Chiefs of the Defence Staff, make a contribution to and are involved in the decision-making process.
On the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s question, Brigadier Lorimer has made it publicly clear that he has not made any request for any equipment for Afghanistan that has been turned down. He and others know that a process is ongoing to review our deployment, force strength and equipment in Afghanistan. It is not yet concluded, and no decisions have yet been made.
The Secretary of State should know that these processes can be hurried up—they should be hurried up—and that there is a serious shortage of helicopter load and personnel carrying capacity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will he take steps immediately to find out what helicopters could be leased at short notice from the Americans, who have plenty of them and would be glad to let us have them?
We have already increased the size of the support helicopter force in Afghanistan, sending another two Chinooks since July, and we have increased flying hours. I have met the current commander of the UK taskforce, Brigadier Jerry Thomas, twice in recent months and he has confirmed to me that he has sufficient helicopter availability.
Speaking as a Conservative Member, let me tell the Secretary of State that we understand the difficulty and sensitivity of these matters. However, will he give the House an assurance this afternoon that there will be adequate armoured personnel carrying equipment in Afghanistan? I believe that we are asking our forces to put their lives at risk travelling in some of the vehicles that are currently used. Will he give the undertaking that I have requested to protect the lives of our personnel?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I directed an urgent review of the protected patrol vehicles in response to concerns relating to the evolving threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will recollect that on 24 July I announced that we were to invest more than £70 million additional resources in approximately 270 new vehicles for both theatres; they are all on track to be delivered as I announced. They include Vector vehicles, which are Pinzgauer vehicles; Mastiff vehicles, which are Cougar vehicles specially purchased from the United States of America; and Bulldog vehicles. I can give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal assurance that if the process, properly staffed up, as the phrase is, comes to me with a recommendation for additional armoured vehicles in Iraq or Afghanistan, I will respond to that request.
What I am saying to the House is that I have spoken twice to the current commander of our forces in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan about that very issue and twice put the question directly to him, and he has given me that assurance. I have no knowledge of the view on helicopter lift of any prospective commander of those forces. If such a prospective commander wants additional helicopters, he will, no doubt, make that request properly through the chain of command and it will come to me.
That is a most inadequate answer. As General Jackson put it last week,
“There is a mismatch between what we do and the resources we are given with which to do it”.
Today, the Secretary of State has hidden behind his commanders who say that they do not need anything, but he must know otherwise from speaking to people in the field. Today, I spoke to somebody who tells me that there are not adequate Apache spares. When will the Secretary of State invite the armed forces not to trust the process, but to trust him to deliver that which they need to do the job that the Prime Minister has given them?
In his speech, General Sir Mike Jackson used the adjective “Kafka-esque”. What is Kafka-esque about this situation is that the hon. Gentleman comes to the Dispatch Box against the background of having supported a Government who cut support to our armed forces in real terms by £500 million a year, but then complains that a Government who have provided £1 billion a year more progressively over their time in office are providing inadequate support to our troops. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, he knows that if he wants a specific matter to be dealt with, there is a way to do that. I have no knowledge of the matter that he has raised today having, he says, spoken to someone this morning. If he provides me with detailed information, I shall correct the inadequacy.
The Government have published a White Paper setting out our decisions and the arguments behind them. In the coming months, we are committed to supporting an informed debate on those decisions in public and in Parliament, including by the Select Committee on Defence. All of us will have the opportunity to evaluate the various contributions to that debate before Parliament considers and votes on the matter in spring.
Will the Secretary of State tell us by what means he intends the public to be informed about the legality, cost and operating costs of the Trident replacement? If there is huge public opposition to the expenditure and the proposal, how will he take that into account in any proposals that the Government introduce, and when does he expect his Department to bring the subject back before the House?
My hon. Friend is aware that the Government communicated their position on all the matters that he raises in the White Paper published last Monday; all those issues were dealt with in it. If he or other hon. Members, or any other person who wants to take part in the debate, needs additional information on any part of that White Paper, I will be happy for that information to be provided. My view, which is borne out in any measurement of public opinion, is that the public support the decision that the Government have indicated that they are prepared to take. As for the determination of the debate, my hon. Friend is aware that there will be a debate and a vote in the House in the spring.
What alternative systems of deterrence, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, did the Secretary of State and his Department consider before advising the Government to commit themselves to the next generation of Trident?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that we considered all alternatives. However, given the strategic threat that the deterrent is designed to deal with, the Government decided that a credible deterrent, able to face down that threat, would need to be of the nuclear variety, and would need invulnerability, so that it could continue as a sea deterrence. Such a threat could not be faced down by conventional forces.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the issues that people will be interested in is how the plans comply with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Will he tell the House what the Government’s position is on meeting those obligations?
The Government’s position is that the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent is fully consistent with our commitments under the non-proliferation treaty. The arguments to that effect are spelled out in the White Paper, and they were repeated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box last week. The article of the NPT that causes the most concern to people is article 6, but the Government have shown more of a commitment to the maintenance of their position and the fulfilment of their requirements under that treaty than any other Government in the United Kingdom, or indeed the world, have done. That is why, over the years, we have progressively been able to announce disarmament steps to minimise our deterrent until it reached its current position, and that is why we were able to announce a proposed further cut in warheads last week.
If the Scottish Parliament, clearly expressing the majority view of the Scottish people, votes against the stationing of Trident or any other nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, will the Secretary of State and the Government respect that decision?
I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman what his party’s position on the deterrent would be if the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people voted in the opposite way. Would his party continue to present the Scottish people with the alternative of a Government who would take them out of NATO, which has provided security for them for in excess of five decades? He is aware that the Scottish Parliament has determined that the matter should be reserved to this Parliament—although aspects of the subject, particularly those relating to the 11,000 jobs that the deterrent provides in the west of Scotland, are rightly matters for the Scottish Parliament. I look forward to the Scottish Parliament reflecting the view of the Scottish people, which is one of support for the maintenance of the deterrent.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that whatever the issue, the people who are against shout the loudest, so how will we evaluate the public response? Public opinion polls will recently have fallen out of favour with him, as they have done with me, so is it not a good idea to encourage Members to survey people in their local newspaper, as I intend to do in the Tamworth Herald, to gauge public response and feed it into the debate?
My hon. Friend is free to gauge his constituents’ views using any method that he thinks is indicative. I have a particular point of view, so it is not for me to determine how other people should contribute to the debate. However, I encourage all methods of contributing to the debate, which should be as wide and as detailed as possible. I am struck by the fact that most people who oppose the decision that the Government have put forward for debate are more interested in discussing the process than the details of the debate.
The partner nations have undertaken, through international memorandums of understanding, to buy 620 aircraft in three tranches. That undertaking remains extant. The success of overseas sales campaigns undertaken by the partner nations will clearly have an impact on the final production numbers of Eurofighter Typhoon.
The Minister of State will understand that recent press reports commenting on the state of discussions between the United Kingdom Government and Saudi Arabia have caused concern among aerospace workers on the Eurofighter project, especially in the light of the comment by the chief executive of BAE Systems that discussions had “stalled”. Now that Ramadan has concluded, what specific steps will be taken by the Department, as the representative of the UK Government, to restart those talks so they that achieve a successful conclusion on a vital order?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of Lord Drayson’s active work, not just in the country that he mentioned but in wider markets. My noble Friend is in the United States looking at the joint strike fighter, and emphasising the importance of ensuring that we gain the proper understanding from the US, to take that project forward. The right hon. Gentleman cannot criticise what the Government have done to continue to market that plane and to extol its virtues wherever we find interest in it.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that he would be wise to keep his options open on final production numbers for the Eurofighter Typhoon? If the Americans do not deliver the required technology transfer for the joint strike fighter, we should urgently consider flying the Typhoon off our new aircraft carriers.
We are back to the old conundrum of plan A and plan B. We have made it very clear to the United States that we want to be part of the JSF programme, that that technology transfer is needed, and that we must have sovereignty on that aircraft. If that does not happen, we have plan B.
But if the United States forced us to take the route of putting the Eurofighter Typhoon on our aircraft carriers, how many more of those aircraft would we have to build, and would that be affected by the Government’s recent decision on unmanned aerial vehicles? Should we not suggest to the Americans that they ought to listen very carefully indeed?
I do not know the answer to that, because we are not at that stage of examination. That is something that will happen when we reach that point, then we must decide the number that we require. Of course, that will be based on defence planning assumptions. Once that matter is addressed, it will help to determine the final decision. We are not yet at that stage, but clearly we will require a particular type of aircraft to fly off those aircraft carriers. That is what we have told the United States, and that is why we want the JSF. It is also why we are saying that if we do not get it, we have plan B.
St. Malo Agreement
I meet the French Defence Minister on a regular basis, including at meetings of EU Defence Ministers where, collectively, Ministers take forward work on the European security and defence policy consistent with the 1998 St. Malo declaration.
St. Malo was important because, for the first time, British and French Governments agreed to work together to improve the capabilities that are available not just for Britain in Europe but for the specific relationship with other EU countries. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the progress that has been made in implementing the principles of St. Malo, bearing in mind that there seems to have been a difference of opinion between him and the French Defence Minister over the funding of the European research initiative?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that from the outset the United Kingdom has consistently provided leadership to drive forward the capability development agenda, and we have been successful in ensuring that the ESDP develops in a way such as to be both supportive of and supported by NATO’s crisis management activities. Of course this is not a zero-sum game, given that the European Union allies are 19 of the 26 NATO allies. My right hon. Friend refers to a discussion that took place at the last meeting on the budget of the European Defence Agency. We do not have any dispute of principle with anyone else on the matter, but we do have a debate on the detail of how the principles are to be achieved, and in particular, on the operational budget that should be allocated. That does not reflect any lack of support from the UK for the agency—on the contrary, it shows our desire to see our scarce resources spent to best advantage.
Will the Secretary of State recommit himself to NATO, as opposed to the growing EU force that some countries are talking about? St. Malo and the Berlin-plus talks mean that many people based in Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe headquarters are double-hatting. An increasing emphasis is being placed on the EU to create its own military force. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that we will stand by NATO and not see an EU force develop?
I have no difficulty in giving the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he needs about us standing by NATO. However, we should recognise that there are areas in which the European Union can complement the work that NATO does, and we should examine these on a case-by-case basis, but we should take advantage of the opportunity that the ESDP provides to help improve the overall capability of all the members of the European Union, given that 19 of them are also members of NATO.
EU Defence Technological and Industrial Base
We continually assess the merits of the European Union defence technology and industrial base against our specific requirements for the development, acquisition and support of defence equipment capability. Significant technology and industrial capability resides within a number of EU member states.
The European Commission has said that it intends to safeguard Europe’s technological and industrial base. It has made it clear that it intends to end the practice right across the European Union of trying to save defence jobs in the short term by exporting know-how and jobs in the longer term through so-called offset deals. What is my right hon. Friend’s position on that?
My position is clear, and it is consistent with my answers to earlier questions. We must ensure at all times that we have a strong, secure manufacturing and defence industry in this country. We have defined what we propose to do through the defence industrial strategy and the maritime industrial strategy. We have set a clear objective not just in the MOD, but alongside industry and with the support of the trade unions and the work force. But there is overcapacity in the EU and that must be addressed as well. We must move forward to make sure that we have a strong base both in the UK and in Europe because—let us be clear—other nations are beginning to strengthen their capabilities. To be able to compete, we need to be strong.
I would like to think so, because that is the way we are going. I am surprised that hon. Gentleman asks that question, given the intensive effort that has gone into ensuring interoperability and compatibility between systems. I draw his attention to what we are seeking to do with the United States on the joint strike fighter, which is a good example of our joining the United States in taking on an advanced aircraft. This is not just about fixed-wing aircraft—it is happening across a whole range of platforms to ensure that we have such interoperability; otherwise NATO cannot effectively deliver the resources that it seeks to, and needs to, in many areas of the world.
As I have made clear in this House and publicly on many occasions, the security situation in Iraq remains difficult and challenging. However, many parts of the country are relatively stable, with the Iraqi security forces increasingly taking the lead. Sectarian violence remains the key challenge to security, but that is at the top of Prime Minister Maliki’s priorities, and the coalition continues to support him. The successful actions of UK forces in Basra this weekend demonstrate our resolve to help the Iraqi Government to confront sectarian groups and to create the space for the reconciliation process to work. This assessment of the security situation is consistent with the Iraq study group’s assessment as set out on pages 3 to 6 of its report.
Given the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the comments by General Dannatt to the effect that the presence of UK troops in certain parts of the country is exacerbating the security situation, can the Secretary of State tell the House, without giving inappropriate details, if these deployments are continuing, and if so, why?
As General Dannatt made clear in subsequent interviews, his remarks concerned the position of our troops in Maysan province at a particular time when they were subject to a particular type of attack. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that we were in the process of redeploying those troops. They are still in Maysan province in significant numbers, but they are not the tethered goat that some people suggested that they were when they were in a fixed position—they are moving around the province and working more on the border. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s qualifying his question by not inviting me to explain how we might redeploy other troops in future, but he can rest assured that the particular difficulty that we face in fixed positions in Iraq is uppermost in the minds of the commanding officers and of those at the MOD.
May I say at the outset that many of us believe that the Prime Minister should be in the House today making a statement on the Iraq study group? What is good enough for press conferences in the White House and Whitehall should be good enough for the House of Commons.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor said on Iraq:
“We will not stay one day longer than we are needed and wanted by them, but we will not leave one day too early against their wishes or under threat.”—[Official Report, 27 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 542.]
Does he agree that while everyone wants our troops to come home as soon as possible, an explicit timetable, as suggested by the Iraq study group, risks being seen as a green light by insurgents, risks our being blown off course by events, and risks creating more instability in Iraq, not less?
I agree that if we set ourselves a fixed timetable for the removal of our troops from Iraq, we will potentially hand a victory to those who seek to attack our troops in Iraq, and give them a timetable to work to. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the condition-based approach that we have taken to the withdrawal and subsequent draw-down of our troops in Iraq. I am also grateful for the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, especially in a newspaper article that he wrote after his visit to Iraq. We should stick to the strategic approach that we have always taken to the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq—that is, that it should reflect conditions on the ground.
I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that it would not be in Britain’s national interest to leave behind a destabilised Iraq, teetering on the brink of civil war and potentially drawing in neighbouring states. Does he again agree with his predecessor, who said:
“Our aim is to help the Iraqi people create a functioning democracy with the security to defend it while rebuilding their economy.”?
Is that still the case? Would not creating a false prospectus to leave Iraq be no more honourable than establishing a false prospectus to go into Iraq?
In a speech that I made last month, I outlined the three elements of our strategy. On security, we will build up the army and the police. That includes dealing with police corruption, and that is exactly what we are doing in Operation Sinbad in Basra. We will hand over security province by province, which is exactly what we have been doing in MND South-East. We will move to maintain an overwatch, standing by if we are needed to help the Iraqi forces. As for politics, we will support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, especially their reconciliation programme. In economics, we will help develop basic services, jobs and long-term projects. If that amounts to what the hon. Gentleman described in other words, I agree with him.
I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to speculate on the circumstances that may exist in the coming months or years. We will continue to work with our coalition partners, especially the United States of America, to ensure that we have a common approach to what we are doing, recognising that we have responsibility for different parts of Iraq, where the conditions may be different from one place to another. However, we must also take into account not only the ability of the Iraqi Government and their security forces, but the Iraqi Government’s wishes.
The reserve forces have three primary roles: to augment the regular forces for enduring operations, to provide additional capability for large-scale operations, and to provide specialist capability. Given that the voluntary reserve forces are based at nearly 400 locations throughout the UK, they are ideally placed to fulfil two other important roles: to provide a civil contingency reaction capability for crises in the UK and to maintain links between the military and civilian communities.
Does my hon. Friend not also think that reserve forces, because of their greater age and maturity, and better reflection of the diversity of the population, are often better equipped to deal with civilian populations? Will he pay special tribute to the London Regiment, which is based in my constituency and has had two companies in Basra, to great effect?
I pay tribute to the reserves, including those based in London, for the tremendous job that they do in working with and supporting our regular forces. They do an important job, and as my hon. Friend said, they bring additional skills and qualities, good use of which is made in operational theatre. Their experience will be built on, thus bringing even more quality and success to our operations in future.
Some 7,100 members of the UK armed forces are serving on operations in Iraq.
I am grateful for that answer. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient progress is being made in training Iraqi security forces? Does he agree that it is essential for the UK to put maximum pressure on the Iraqi Government to improve their capabilities, so that we can withdraw British troops when that is consistent with not creating a less stable situation in Iraq?
I am satisfied that progress has been made. It would be complacent to suggest from the Dispatch Box that we could not do better in training Iraqi forces, because I believe that we could. However, the forces whom we have dedicated to the role do a magnificent job in training Iraqi forces and also in improving the Iraqi police service, especially as we move through Basra city in Operation Sinbad, as we have done in past months and as we will do in future months. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle the security of that country is key to our ability to draw down. That is not lost on anybody with an understanding of Iraq.
Drug Interdiction (Caribbean)
The Royal Navy makes a significant contribution to international counter-drugs operations in the Caribbean. During 2005-06, Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Caribbean were involved in the seizure of more than 14 tonnes of cocaine with a UK street value of approximately £1 billion. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler has been responsible for our most recent successes, seizing 2.9 tonnes of cocaine on 23 November, bringing the total haul of drugs that she has seized or destroyed over the past three months to 11 tonnes.
I congratulate the Royal Navy on that vital work. I have met a number of people involved in drug interdiction work in Latin America and the Caribbean, including our overseas drug liaison officers, who work closely with local authorities in those countries. There is no doubt that that work represents huge value in preventing drugs from arriving here. We could, however, do more. Will he urge our right hon. Friends the Home Secretary—who, I notice, is now in his place—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider providing even more resources for those overseas drug liaison officers, as I believe that that would result in more intelligence and more success for the Royal Navy in interdicting drugs?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government always try to have a comprehensive approach to this matter, whether it is the Royal Navy, the Serious Organised Crime Agency or the drug liaison officers in the countries that are usually the source of cocaine—or part of the food chain for it—that are involved. We take the matter extremely seriously, and I think that that is why we are having more success. The figures that I gave represent about 20 per cent. of the cocaine that would be expected to arrive on Britain’s streets. That is a tremendous achievement, not just for the Royal Navy but for others. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is on the Treasury Bench now, he will have heard my hon. Friend’s question—and like all Ministers at the time of a spending review, we are always looking for ways to encourage those who have the money to be a bit more forthcoming.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you advance notice. You will have seen the speculation in the media over the weekend and today about the thousands of post offices that are due to be closed, on which an announcement is expected in due course. You will be aware that that could have a devastating effect on communities, particularly in rural areas. It is absolutely clear that the Department of Trade and Industry has been briefing the media over the weekend on the scale of cuts, the compensation that would be made available to post offices that do close and the continuing amount of subsidy. We understand that a statement is to be made to the House before Christmas, but do you not think that the information should have been made available to the House before being made available to the media?
I will not be drawn into the hon. Gentleman’s argument, except to say that I recall the Leader of the House mentioning last Thursday that a statement was going to be made. Today, I received such information from the Department. I would hope that that statement would be made some time this week—although the Department has said that it will be before Christmas, I would prefer it to be this week. I know the anxiety that he and many other Members have about post offices. The issue affects not just rural areas but city areas such as my constituency. I put it to him that I am expecting a statement this week.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a similar subject—on which I have notified the Department for Constitutional Affairs—I have a named day question due for answer today, which, I understand is with the responsible Minister, about progress on military inquests. Unfortunately, however, the Minister’s press office notified The Daily Telegraph of information that will be contained in that written answer about the number of inquests still outstanding. Yet again we have an example of the press being briefed before the House. Can you suggest any measures that we can take to ensure that Ministers are accountable to the House, not the media?
The hon. Gentleman has made the case that information has been issued which was due to be in a parliamentary answer given to him and, of course, the House. I hear from the Government Front Bench that that is not true. Perhaps I can offer to look into the matter and contact the Minister concerned.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that at business questions last Thursday, grave concern was expressed by many Members that there would not be a statement from the Prime Minister this week—preferably today—on the results of the Iraq study group’s report. Have you had any indication that a Minister—preferably the Prime Minister—will come to the Dispatch Box this week to make a statement? If not, have you any suggestions on how we can ensure that these matters are properly discussed?
Let me respond first to the point of order from the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). The hon. Gentleman may no longer need to raise his own point of order after that.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a system for urgent question applications on which I am able to exercise discretion. What I cannot do is specify the Minister who will come to the House. I received some indication that Foreign Office Ministers would not be available today, and that weighed on my judgment regarding an application submitted by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). All I can say is that tomorrow is another day, and it is up to right hon. and hon. Members whether they make applications. I shall go no further.
Is that of any help to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)?
You are always helpful, Mr. Speaker. But, further to the point of order, is it not a matter of concern that great events have been taking place in Washington, yet the Prime Minister has not made himself available today? Is it not an issue of accountability to the House that he should be available at the appropriate time?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It had always been my understanding that the thrust of “Erskine May” and the ministerial code of practice was that Ministers should answer questions in the House in an accurate and timely fashion. I should be grateful for your confirmation that my memory is not deficient in that respect, in the light of the answer that I received to an oral question that I put to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence. When I asked him about Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and Saudi Arabia, the answer I received referred to the joint strike fighter. I am not certain whether the Minister’s hearing was deficient, but I hope that my understanding of accuracy in answers to questions is correct.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) that I will ensure that my right hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence are fully aware of his concern about Saudi Arabia and Typhoon, as well as his entirely separate concern about the joint strike fighter?
As you said, Mr. Speaker, I told the House last week that there would be a statement on the Post Office this week. There will indeed be a statement later this week, and the House will not be sitting on Friday.
Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), Mr. Speaker. I tabled a question for named-day answer, to which—on the basis of the latest search—I do not think that I have received a reply, asking how many people had been murdered by people who had been released halfway through their prison sentences during the period in which they would otherwise have been in prison. As I have said, I do not think that I have received an answer to the question; yet a great deal of information has—no doubt coincidentally—been released to the press on that very topic. I am beginning to wonder what is going on.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a new, separate and entirely unrelated point of order, I seek your guidance. Given that the United Nations last week airlifted no fewer than 82 of its own staff out of Darfur as a result of the latest terror induced by the Janjaweed militias and that no fewer than an estimated 224,000 people in Darfur have been entirely cut off from essential aid supplies on account of the intensity of the violence, have you had any indication, Mr. Speaker, that either the Secretary of State for International Development or the Foreign Secretary intends to come to the House to make a statement about what the Government intend to do to address this very serious situation?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given that in the last Parliament more than 400 Members put their signatures to an early-day motion on post offices signed by the chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and myself, the secretary, and that more than 4 million signatures were delivered to No. 10, do you not agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is just not on for the Government to brief the press and for the Leader—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Back in June I tabled a question to the Home Secretary asking how much money had been paid in compensation to asylum seekers. Six months or so later, I received a letter saying somebody would write to me. Nobody has. I contacted the Library. The Library was told by the immigration and nationality directorate that it was not prepared to give out the information. I would just like to say to the Home Secretary that if he is not prepared to tell Members of Parliament, I would be delighted to read about that in the press.
You flatter me, Mr. Speaker. On a point of order, may I remind you of what you know already? Where a Minister—the Leader of the House in this instance—rises and speaks in response to a point of order, it is within your discretion to treat it as a statement so that we can ask questions of the Leader of the House. We are entitled to know when the Post Office statement will be made. There are only three days when it can be made. Under precedent, we are now entitled to ask the Leader of the House when it will be made.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a genuine and helpful point of order. A helpful and full statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was given to nearly all the media yesterday. Has the Secretary of State indicated when he might have the courtesy to share the contents of the statement—which was on the Child Support Agency—with the House?
Orders of the Day
Offender Management Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Cutting crime, ensuring justice for victims and preventing reoffending is at the heart of the Home Office’s day-to-day work, but our work must do more than simply meet targets or provide jobs for people. It must be the route to security and opportunity for individuals, communities and our whole society. Preventing crime is but one part of that, but it is an essential part, and this Government have had considerable success: crime is down by more than a third in a decade. That is the result of our focus on tackling crime on the one hand and the causes of crime on the other.
In tackling crime, we have put more police on the streets than ever before and we have gradually introduced neighbourhood policing teams. We have also extended the powers available against antisocial behaviour and we have jailed dangerous offenders for longer for the protection of the rest of society. However, we have accompanied that by tackling the causes of crime, as we promised to do, including, among other elements, mass unemployment, social deprivation, lack of education and poverty.
Tackling crime and its causes has led to a 35 per cent. reduction in crime during the lifetime of this Government—as opposed, of course, to a 100 per cent. increase in crime in the final years of the last Government. Central to this has to be penal policy, of which prisons are of course an essential part. They protect the public, provide punishment and act as a deterrent, but they must also be the start of a process of rehabilitation. That process ought to be a continuum, which is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. This must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime and protecting the public through reducing reoffending.
Is it not a matter of concern, however, that some two thirds of prisoners reoffend? Should there not be a change of mindset? When in prison, the loss of freedom is the punishment. Should we not do more in our handling of problems such as solvent abuse in prison, and to improve and enhance literacy, education and training while people are in prison, so that they leave with more skills than when they entered and we can get the reoffending rate down? A two-thirds reoffending rate is a matter of grave concern to everyone.
I shall deal with the reoffending rate in a second, but—along with issues such as protecting the public, punishment and deterrence—education and rehabilitation in prison is of course an essential part of prison life. More than 50,000 offenders are completing unpaid work in the community this year alone—a 30 per cent. increase over the past two years. This year, four times more offenders are being taught basic skills than were taught them four years ago, and this year, five times more offenders are subject to accredited offending behaviour programmes than five years ago. Treatment for drug addiction in prison is up 973 per cent. since 1997. I would not claim for one moment that we are achieving all that we ought to achieve on rehabilitation, but I contest the view sometimes expressed that we are doing nothing or not increasing the amount of educational and rehabilitative course work going on in prisons.
Has my right hon. Friend had time to look at the work being done in Thorn Cross prison, in Cheshire, where the Cheshire fire brigade is working with young offenders? Early indications suggest that the recidivism rate has dropped dramatically as a result of this exciting attempt to rehabilitate young people. Could that be considered as a possible model for other young offenders institutions?
I am familiar with that case, which my hon. Friend has raised before. The relationship that has developed is commendable and has been to the benefit of all involved. Part of the philosophy behind the Bill is to open up rehabilitation and offender management in its widest form to the widest possible contributions from all the sections of society that can contribute. I commend my hon. Friend’s local authorities on developing that scheme, which is representative of what we are trying to achieve across the country through the Bill before us.
Some of the assertions that the Home Secretary has just made are matters of “fact” whose veracity is open to debate, shall we say. Would it not be a good idea for the Committee examining the Bill in the new year to be able to follow the new House of Commons procedure, which allows such Committees to take evidence? The programme motion in the Government’s name does not permit the Committee to take evidence, but many issues could be resolved if the Home Secretary advised his friends operating in the usual channels to permit it to do so, as the House now permits.
I will come to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s first point—the assertion—in a moment. On the second part of his contribution, which was a question, I can say that the provisions of the Bill are neither new nor have gone undiscussed, in any way. The Government’s consultation paper on proposals for reforming probation, “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending”, was issued in October 2005. The Government response to that consultation, “Working with probation to protect the public and reduce re-offending”, was issued in March 2006. The proposals for involving alternative providers, “Improving Prison and Probation Services: Public Value Partnerships”, was issued in August 2006. The Home Affairs Committee held an evidence session on the matter in November 2005, and there will be discussions during the Bill’s progress. Many things could be said about the Bill, but lack of discussion is not one of them. At some stage, we need to move forward.
It was claimed that I was making questionable assertions. I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell me which of them was inaccurate. More than 50,000 offenders completing unpaid work in the community this year—does he question that?
As we do in these debates, I am merely allowing the hon. and learned Gentleman the opportunity to substantiate the serious allegation that he has just made. I think he said that, at the very least, the facts that I gave at the Dispatch Box could be disputed in their veracity, which, in my understanding of English, is another way of saying that they could be disputed in their truthfulness. Does he dispute the fact that the figure for unpaid work is up by 30 per cent. over the past two years? Does he dispute the fact that this year four times more offenders were taught basic skills than four years ago, or that five times more offenders are subject to accredited offender behaviour programmes than five years ago? [Interruption.] I take it that, as usual, there is an unsubstantiated—
Pursuant to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I put to the Home Secretary a point that I have raised before, but the importance of which has not yet, in my opinion, been fully understood by the Government? Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution is on the record as stating that his single most important member of staff is his speech and language therapist, who, by enabling boys to access education and express their needs, can be vital to the rehabilitation process, will the Home Secretary tell me whether he is open to the idea of constructive amendments in parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, to ensure a Government commitment to deliver such a therapist to every young offenders institution in the country?
I recall that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter before and, yes, I am open to that suggestion. My view is that among the many causal factors we should address inside prison are low literacy and numeracy, which lead to a range of frustrations—anger, the inability to get and hold down a job, and so on. Outside prison, housing is another problem we have to deal with, so I give him a guarantee that we will at least consider his suggestion during the debates. I cannot promise him that a commitment will be given instantaneously because there are resource implications, but I do not dispute the evidential basis for his assertion—unlike the last one made from the Opposition Benches.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that this debate should be rooted in fact and evidence-based, to use his favourite phrase. Can he confirm, with reference to the consultation that took place earlier on the main outline of the Bill, that of the 798 responses received, 788 were opposed to the National Offender Management Service proposals in so far as they affect the so-called contestability of the probation service?
Well, let me give him some of the quotations from the responses. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations said:
“We welcome these proposals for change. The Third Sector has an increased role to play in reducing re-offending.”
I could also mention the Social Market Foundation and the CBI, as well as Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of NACRO—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—who is not normally associated with privateers or the right wing. He said that
“the involvement of charities in rehabilitating offenders would improve law and order much more than toughening sentences or fining the parents of badly behaved children.”
I could go on by citing Turning Point and any number of other organisations. Last week, for example, I talked to young offenders at the Prince’s Trust about what the voluntary sector has to offer.
My hon. Friend suggests that there is a mass lobby against the Bill, and we all know that some oppose it. We have all received communications from people, but we should not underestimate the strength of support for the proposals across the charitable and voluntary sector and from those concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders. There is a great groundswell of support.
The Home Secretary may not have the figures in front of him, but perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to tell the House how many people in prison are detected as using illegal drugs each year. The figure used to be about 20,000. Secondly, is it still true that every week 2,000 people commit a serious criminal offence—one for which, if caught and convicted, they could be sent to jail for six months or more—for the first time?
I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information. On drug use in prison, my memory is that we have reduced the figure from 24 per cent. to around 12 per cent., but I may be wrong. I will certainly write to him on that and the other point that he raises.
I noted what my right hon. Friend said about the various organisations that sing the praises of the Bill. Could it be because they stand to gain from it? Why are the proposals predicated on competition when, as a Member representing a Scottish constituency, he knows full well that the Scottish model is based on inter-agency co-operation? What does he find distasteful about that model, if he does so find it?
On the Scottish model, first, I have no vote in what the Scots decide. Secondly, from time immemorial, the Scots have had a completely different legal system, based on Roman law rather than case precedent. Thirdly, I do not always agree that the Scottish Executive choose the best way even for Scottish conditions. Laying those points aside, my hon. Friend’s main point is whether the proposals are based on contestability or partnership. The truth is that they are based on both, because we are looking for a partnership not only with organisations that are seeking a profit, but voluntary and charitable organisations, many of whom do not seek a profit but bring a particular expertise to particular areas. Now that my hon. Friend is back, may I say that we have missed him? We have missed the whips and the stings that he brings to harnessing the Government in partnership or contestability, depending on how one views it. If my hon. Friend bears with me on this, he will see that I am trying to supplement the probation service by releasing the energies of other sectors in support of what probation is trying to do—not to replace it or just introduce contestability.
I am obliged to the Home Secretary. Given what he said about contestability a few moments ago, will he offer a definition and explain how it differs from part-privatisation? May I also ask him why public sector workers in the prison service are unable to compete for some of this work?
On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, the answer is that they do and sometimes very successfully. One of the great things about introducing a degree of contestability is that the performance of the public sector often improves sufficiently for it to start winning, even against competition. As to privatisation, let me give the hon. Gentleman two examples. The Prince’s Trust is not a for-profit organisation and neither are some of the voluntary organisations that I read out earlier. It cannot be regarded merely as opening probation up to private concerns, some of which make a profit, because there are voluntary and charitable concerns as well. I do not believe that those operating with some effect through the public sector probation service have anything to fear from this. Indeed, in the long run, they will have seen their efforts supplemented by it.
If I can make a little progress, I shall come back to hon. Members again later. I also have to make some progress because I am under your careful eye, Mr. Speaker.
I was talking about the fact that protection, punishment and deterrence are no use without rehabilitation and that rehabilitation ought to be a continuum—in other words, from inside to outside of prison. That is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. It must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime, which is one of the main benchmarks of our success, reducing reoffending and thereby protecting the public.
It is right that we have invested heavily in this area. The probation service has received a 40 per cent. increase in the last five years and something like £900 million more has been spent on the probation service this year. As I said, we are talking about a real-terms increase of 40 per cent. What we are doing has not been done against the background of any starvation of resources for the probation service. No one should believe that that is the case. Having said that, it is also right to point out that there has been a great deal of improvement in the results, so we should not believe that no progress has been made in probation. More than 50,000 offenders completed unpaid work in the community this year, which is an increase of 30 per cent. on two years ago. I also mentioned a fourfold increase in teaching basic skills this year and five times more offenders being accredited with offending behaviour programmes.
There is, however, a limit to the progress made and, as hon. Members have pointed out in today’s discussion, that limit that has remained with some obstinacy. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of the colour of the Government—and almost regardless of the amount of resources—the reoffending rate has stayed obstinately high in recent decades. About 60 per cent. of offenders go on to commit another crime within two years and Members will know of cases where dangerous offenders have been poorly supervised. Let me say this in simple terms. That is not a tolerable position to continue with. It does not help offenders and, more importantly, it is a poor deal for communities and for the vast majority of hard-working, law-abiding citizens whom we seek to protect.
That is the main purpose behind the Bill.
The failure to reduce the reoffending rate cannot be explained away simply by blaming a lack of resources. As I have said, the budget has increased by 40 per cent. in five years to more than £900 million—a record. Although I concede that case loads have risen, the amount spent per offender has gone up. In addition, we have increased probation staff by 5,000 since 2001. Indeed, we have increased probation staff by 50 per cent. since 1997, while case loads have increased by 30 per cent. We have made a great deal of investment over the past 10 years.
Does the Home Secretary agree that the kind of work that he has just outlined to deal with offenders is best based at a very local level? Has he heard from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about the success of the prolific offender management scheme, which he helped to launch some two years ago in Brighton and Hove? How will the move towards a more regional organisation for managing offenders in the community help in dealing with those very local problems, which is where the success is often found?
I agree that much of such work is better commissioned locally, but that is not the question. The question is whether it should be provided only by a local monopoly. We are creating the circumstances whereby it can be commissioned locally, but its commissioning will not automatically depend on an existing local monopoly, which will both commission and provide the service that the commissioners are commissioning. We are opening it up. In some cases, it will not be provided locally; it will be provided in a larger area. However, for the foreseeable future—for the next several years—the specific management of offenders, particularly serious ones, as opposed to intervention to provide educational programmes, will be done by the probation service. We will try to make the changes in stages, so that we open up and break the monopoly in a cautious fashion that relies either on the best of the existing probation services or on giving assistance to improve them to provide offender management.
No one would deny that my right hon. Friend and his predecessors have invested very substantially in the probation service or, indeed, that they have fully consulted members of the probation services, not least the union that represents probation officers, which is based in my constituency, but does he not share my concern that it has been impossible to get more support for these reforms among probation officers? Does he not see any way in which it would be possible to proceed on the basis of a greater consensus?
Of course I want the maximum support from our probation service and our probation officers. As I was going on to say, I understand that there is nothing as painful as the birth of a new idea. There is nothing as difficult as change, especially when it is intended to create a partnership not only with those who might help but others who might do part of the job better in some circumstances. Therefore, we ought to have at the back of our minds our gratitude for those who work in the probation service for all that they do. We also ought to say to the public that there is no way in which we can have a no-risk life. There is no position where we can promise anyone that there will be no risk. Having said that, our primary concern must be the protection of the public.
The fact that we have thrown money and various improvements at the issue in recent years and still had an obstinately high—60 per cent.—reoffending rate suggests that we at least ought to be open to asking how we do this better on the back of our present probation service, by supplementing its effort and by addressing the complexity of some of these problems with a comprehensive range of complex provisions, drawn not only from the private sector, but from the voluntary sector and the charitable sector, as well as our public sector.
The Home Secretary has set the yardstick for judging the success of the Bill: a drop in the stubborn and wholly unacceptable reoffending rate. The Government’s case is that increasing competition will achieve just that, but given that probation boards already subcontract, in effect, 2 to 3 per cent. of their budgets to the private and voluntary sector, what hard evidence is there from that outsourcing to support the Government’s case?
First, this is not just a matter of competition. It is a matter of allowing ourselves the assistance of a diverse range of providers, with expertise that is particular to particular areas and that could help—in other words, a panoply or reservoir of people who can assist in trying to reduce reoffending. Secondly, I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me, what evidence is there that the present position, which is voluntary—opening up to bringing in the voluntary, the charitable or the private sector—is bound to be less successful than the Bill? The truth of the matter is that, at the moment, the rate of giving access to other than the publicly provided probation service is very low indeed, although it is not so low as to mean that the Bill is a change in principle.
In the prison and probation service, about 25 per cent. of the services are already provided from other than the public sector, so there is no great step in principle in the Bill. Within that, however, the figure is very low as regards the local probation boards themselves. The total amount of non-public-sector provision in the probation service has fallen in the past few years from a height of about 5 per cent. to the present 2 or 3 per cent. That is since we withdrew the central targets. The element that has been commissioned from outside the public sector has largely been commissioned by central Government. That should not surprise us. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is more than 200 years since one political economist wrote of the tendency of monopolies to preserve their own monopoly. That is true in all walks of life. We are trying to provide the legal framework that allows others to come into that partnership.
Although many of us will have good examples of the probation service working—indeed, we have many probation officers in our constituency parties to remind us of how effective they are—may I give the Home Secretary an example of an incident that occurred today in my office? An individual phoned about a mentally ill prisoner who has been released early—no doubt because there is pressure on places. The person made contact with us because the ex-prisoner’s mother used to live in Birkenhead. The prisoner is homeless. We phoned the probation service and were told that not much could be done. We asked what actions would be taken. The probation service thought that there would not be much joy before Christmas. Although we are mindful of the probation service working well, when he is crafting the new reforms, will he make sure that, when they are complete, the buck stops on somebody’s desk and action has to be taken in circumstances such as those?
That is one of the reasons we are trying to carry the Bill forward and institute some reforms.
May I make a little progress? We have put in a great deal of resources and we have increased the number of staff considerably. We have put in 40 per cent. more money—£900 million this year. Earlier, I may have said £900 million additionally this year. I correct myself if I did. It is not quite as much as that, but it is a huge increase. There has also been a huge increase in effort. I would like to pay tribute to the probation service’s dedication and to its improved performance. Its effort means, for instance, that in 90 per cent. of breaches, enforcement action is swiftly taken. That is down to some of the improvements that have been made.
We have increased resources and effort, but the situation is still not good enough. No one can just accept what we have with any degree of complacency or fatalism. We need to countenance reform, and that is what the Bill is about—the reoffending rate does not have to stay this way. The measures in the Bill are urgently needed. They remedy problems that for far too long have been allowed to erode confidence in both the justice system and, in many ways, the probation system. They supplement the investment and effort with reform and with new resources being opened up from the private, charitable and voluntary sectors.
I will try to make a little progress, but I will give way later.
I accept that some of the measures in the Bill require substantial reform for probation officers and that change is never easy. Some of the measures might be unpopular with those who have to implement them, but it would not be the first time that that has happened when we are trying to carry through reform in the public services. We need a debate about how to work together to protect the public, not one based on an outdated, a priori, dogma concerning inputs and who delivers them. Good probation services and good probation officers have nothing to fear.
Let us also be truthful about the fact that there is no simple solution. The causes of reoffending are hugely varied and multiple, which is why our response must be equally comprehensive, and capable of being tailored to particular circumstances. They cannot be tackled adequately by any one agency alone and they certainly cannot be preserved due to a matter of dogma when there is the opportunity to tackle some of the obstinate reoffending rates that have not changed. There is no room for monopolies. We need a broad coalition of effort that allows us to tap the reservoir of capabilities inside and outside the public sector to address this major problem.
Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I just say to him that
“Profound problems require politicians to accept that we need an approach of shared responsibility—combining the skills and resources of government, the voluntary sector and business. In the case of prison and crime, we all suffer from the consequences of failure, and so we should harness everyone’s ability to achieve success.”
The Home Secretary is being very generous. I was wondering why I agreed so much with the statement that he just read out. I hope that this intervention will help him. Does he recall telling the House that young black men are about five times more likely to be in prison than young white men? We therefore need to tackle that problem by ensuring that no prejudice at any point in the criminal justice system causes that, and that young black men have the same life chances and opportunities as others in the community. Will he tell the House which agencies could focus on the problem, and how we can find a solution to it?
We are concentrating our minds on that, for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), is working with the Commission for Racial Equality on this matter. One of the benefits of opening up to the voluntary sector and charitable partnerships is that many of them have built up specialisations, expertise, a history and relationships in tackling some of these problems.
My right hon. Friend is persuading me that there is an issue to be dealt with and that we should give the Bill its Second Reading. Is he willing to meet a small group of my constituents who have concerns about possible fragmentation, not all of which have emerged in the national debate up to now?
I am glad that my speech is persuading some of my hon. Friends. This weekend some of the voluntary organisations wrote to hon. Members and we know from the response that that persuaded some of my colleagues. I am glad about that, because I do not think that there is no ground for debate. The topic is a serious one that people approach in a serious fashion and I think that people are prepared to be persuaded, as I am by one or two of the comments that have been made. We will consider such points as the Bill proceeds. I say to my hon. Friends that if we put the protection of hard-working people first, which requires the reduction of reoffending, and we put in considerably more resources and considerably more effort, it is not open to us to say that we will not consider improving and reforming the way in which we deliver the service. That is what we ought to do.
More embarrassing is the Opposition parties’ apparent opposition to the Bill. I do not know how the Liberal party can countenance opposing an extension to bring in the voluntary and charitable sectors to assist the public sector, or how the Conservatives can oppose the Bill, in view of what the Leader of the Opposition wrote in The Guardian, no less, just beneath Polly Toynbee’s column. The right hon. Gentleman wrote:
“The jolt provided by competition to provide services and the fresh thinking from new operators has meant that everyone has had to raise their game.”
Subsequently, on BBC “Breakfast”—after discussion with Polly, no doubt—he said,
“let’s find the voluntary bodies and the charities that are doing the great work, and give them more power and responsibility.”
It is beyond me to understand how the Opposition can contemplate voting against the Bill’s Second Reading tonight. They are facing different ways to different audiences.
Let me make a little progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has been very patient.
It seems to me to be sensible to provide greater flexibility. We need to be able to commission services across geographical and organisational boundaries. Although, of course, we want to look to local commissioning, it may be sensible to commission on a wider geographical basis for some purposes. Some programmes currently delivered in prison could also be delivered across the prison gate, thus helping to bridge the gap between custody and the community. We need an element of choice to ensure that we have the best provider for the job and to maintain the pressure on existing providers to continue to improve.
I will, if my hon. Friend lets me make a little progress, but I have two hon. Members lined up to intervene.
The Secretary of State, not the probation boards, will be responsible for ensuring service provision by entering into contracts with the public, private or voluntary sectors. With that burden lifted, the public sector can play to its strengths while others play to theirs. Consequently, local probation boards will be replaced by probation trusts as the public sector provider. Trusts will employ their own chief executive and will act with greater independence.
A few myths have been raised tonight to which I may return, but at this stage, I shall let in some hon. Members who have been waiting some time to intervene.
Does the Home Secretary accept that it is not what is written in Polly Toynbee’s column that worries us, but the track record of some of the private security companies that are seeking to take over parts of the probation service? That is what is worrying Labour Members and Members who are traditionally supportive of the Home Office team. Is he happy to see the American firm Kalyx, whose appalling management of Harmondsworth detention centre has been roundly condemned by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons, or Group 4, which has consistently failed to tag dangerous offenders properly, taking over part of the management of offenders in the community?
If my hon. Friend is suggesting that the way to avoid having disturbances or problems in prisons, or shoddy provision of prison and probation services, is to put such services entirely in the public sector, he is ignoring the events at Lincoln prison in 2002, Wealstun prison in 2003 and Stoke Heath prison earlier this year, and the reports on Pentonville prison, Leicester and Belmarsh, all of which are in the public sector. That merely tells all of us that, whoever runs the prisons or the probation services, mistakes will be made and the highest quality has to be demanded. Neither the public nor the private sector has a monopoly on virtue, or the lack of it. Before we start our debate, I ask that we approach the subject without that dogmatic division. We should ask, “How we can best get the outcomes?” and “How do we best put together the services available to us in the public, private and charitable and voluntary sectors to achieve those outcomes?”
Is the Home Secretary aware that, several years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a report on the alternatives to prison services? Three Home Secretaries later, the prison population is at record levels. Will the Bill take into account the Committee’s recommendations, which were decided unanimously, on a cross-party basis? They would have resulted in a reduction in our prison population, which is the largest in Europe. In particular, will the Bill consider the concept of weekend prisons, which, in Finland, have resulted in the prison population being almost halved?
Of course we try to bear in mind all contributions, particularly—and most importantly, I would think—those from the Home Affairs Committee. In the past, I have had to remind hon. Members that we ought to be careful with international statistics. If we compare the statistics for the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the population, we see that the figure is very high; for England and Wales, it is 142, compared to 96 in Germany, Italy and so on. However, the number is very low compared to that in the United States, where the figure is 726. If we ask a different question—what the prison population is, relative to the number of recorded crimes—our figures are very low, even when compared to those for Europe. We have 12 people in prison per recorded crime. The European average is 17, but in Ireland it is 35, in Spain it is 46, and in Sweden, it is only 5. Of course, that indicates that there could be a number of variables, including the level of criminality and the way in which crime is recorded. Things are not as easy as stating one simple fact, and then claiming that our prison population is out of all proportion to every other country’s—and it is not, depending on the statistics that are available.
The Home Secretary has twice used the word “monopoly” in relation to the professional performance of a trained official. I would like to hear him give some factual basis for the ideas that are to be introduced in the Bill. Frankly, I would like to know of any system in the world that can rely on the mix that he proposes, and that can produce a more effective probation service than ours, because many of us find the idea almost impossible to believe.
The simple fact that we are considering—and it is substantiated by all the evidence that we have—is our reoffending rate. It is higher than that for any other country in a comparable situation of which I am aware, and that is despite our having increased staff by 50 per cent. in 10 years, having increased resources by 40 per cent. in five years, and having increased the number of people working in the probation service by 5,000. We are suggesting that, cautiously, over a period of time, we should ask ourselves whether it would be right to try gradually to open up the intervention programmes—not, in the first instance, offender management programmes, but the programmes for re-education and so on—to those with expertise in dealing with reoffenders from the charitable, private and voluntary sectors. It would be a brave person who claimed that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders did not have any experience from which we could benefit. It would not be sensible to tell the Prince’s Trust that it does not have anything to teach us about rehabilitating young offenders, as it has done so very successfully in many cases. We want to involve organisations from the voluntary and charitable sector, but we want to do so gradually. I have already said that for the foreseeable future—the next two or three years—the management and supervision of offenders will be undertaken by the probation service. We have adopted a gradual approach in an effort to tackle a very obstinate problem indeed, as the evidence suggests that to do otherwise by throwing money and staff at the problem does not improve the position.
I endorse my right hon. Friend’s comments about the creativity and flexibility of the voluntary sector. In my own constituency, Community Service Volunteers has worked effectively with long-term, persistent offenders, with a positive success rate of over 90 per cent, so I certainly welcome a greater role for that organisation in the management of offenders. Many people, including some of my hon. Friends, are concerned about the monitoring and regulation of the training and skills offered by the new providers. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that that will be in place so that organisations that fail to provide services do not remain in the system?
Absolutely. I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be reassured to learn that we do not intend to get rid of the inspection regimes or amend them significantly. They will stay the same. Having inherited a plan to amalgamate the inspection regimes for prison and probation, one of the first things that I did in my early months in post was to acknowledge opposition to that plan and allow the continued separation of those inspection regimes, as long as they provide a continuum in their programme of work. I hope that that provides the reassurance that my hon. Friend seeks: there has not been any attempt to diminish the effectiveness of the inspection regimes, and standards will be maintained. If that is not the case in any given area, that will be made public.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is growing evidence from the education field that former military personnel who deal with disaffected young people in schemes similar to day release from school have achieved success? Organisations such as Skill Force, with which he will be familiar from his days at the Ministry of Defence, and the advanced skills academy in Liverpool, which is run by former military personnel and which I visited last Friday, command more respect from many young people as methods of dealing with offenders than certain other organisations.
I am familiar with some of those courses as a constituency MP and as Armed Forces Minister and Secretary of State for Defence. My right hon. Friend is quite right, but that is only one area in which we have prohibited incorporation or partnership. We want to make a common effort to tackle the problem, and try to open up the system so that there is some competition. We will not do so in the first instance in offender management—we envisage that that will remain a publicly run service—but there is a vast reservoir of talent in the voluntary and charitable sectors. I hope that such a reservoir will develop in the private sector, as it can provide courses and education, as well as advice on relationships, mentoring and role models, that can be used to supplement the efforts of the probation service. May I tell my hon. Friends that I realise that that can be portrayed all too easily as diminishing the efforts, energy and professionalism of the probation service? It is not meant to do that. It is meant to supplement those efforts by bringing in the talents of people out there. In many ways it represents a return to the roots of the probation service and the values of our party, by bringing people in from the voluntary sector for the purpose of self-help.
I must make progress and draw my remarks to a conclusion. By being courteous to Members, I am being discourteous to my Opposition counterpart in the time that I have taken.
To sum up, although the Bill contains a range of measures, the main idea is to liberate and harness in partnership the talents of those in the voluntary, the charitable and the private sectors who can contribute to partnering our public sector probation service in tackling rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Government investment will continue. We will not rush the reforms in overnight. We want a measured approach, not because of objections from colleagues, but because it is sensible to take a measured approach that balances the obvious need for urgent improvements with the system’s ability to cope with that change.
The Bill is the product of a hard look at current systems. I recognise that it means taking tough choices, especially for those who work in our probation service, but it brings the probation service into a new world, where we supplement the efforts of our traditional probation service with the talents and expertise of the voluntary and charitable sectors. That is vital to our work in cutting crime, reducing reoffending and protecting the public. That is the primary purpose of the Bill. I commend it to the House.
I begin by expressing my apologies on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Secretary of State, for his unavoidable absence this afternoon. Secondly, I declare an interest as a member of the Bar, although my practice is entirely at the civil Bar. However, I am a Crown court recorder and in that capacity make good use of the services of the probation service, which is very much the subject of the Bill.
The Government have been thrashing about this area of public policy for some years. They have been doing so without achieving anything of value in terms of crime reduction or reduction in the amount of repeat crime committed by offenders released from custody or on community sentences. They have failed to produce from the criminal justice system people who complete their sentences better able to play a worthwhile part in the life of our country, fathers who look after their families—most crime is committed by men—citizens and taxpayers able to take responsibility for themselves, for their dependants, and for their actions and decisions, or people aware of their responsibility towards others for how they behave.
It is worth noting that in the 100 years before the Government came to office in 1997, only 48 Bills to do with criminal justice were enacted. There were about 15 in the century before that. This is, if not the 60th Bill, very nearly the 60th to come before Parliament since 1997 purporting to be an answer to the actual and perceived wrongs in the criminal justice system. Do our constituents feel any safer as a result of this avalanche of legislation, and are they in fact any safer? Do they believe the Government have done anything for them in a practical and effective way? The answer to all those questions is no.
It is surely no longer controversial to say that the criminal justice system in the widest sense of that phrase is in a parlous state. Those who work in the police, the courts, the probation service, the parole system and the prison service, and victims of crime as well all suffer from low morale and from inadequate political leadership and poor strategic management from Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Over the past decade we have seen this Government repeat the classic error found in organisations in crisis led by people in a hurry with no sense of direction: they have fallen into the habit of reinforcing failure and of issuing orders followed by counter-orders and then disorder. “Do anything rather than do what’s right, but make sure you get a headline” is the Department’s motto. If they have any claim to fame or notoriety, it is for their insatiable appetite for passing Bill after Bill and for claiming that each one is the flagship that will lead to the ending of all that is wrong with whatever the various Home Secretaries have said is wrong. Enacting a new statute is not the same as implementing the provisions in it, and still less the same as implementing a considered policy. Far too often, we have seen other flagships launched. Take the Criminal Justice Act 2003—that particular year’s Ark Royal of the Home Office fleet—which before long was shown in large part to be no more than copy for headline writers. It is full of holes, many of which were put there by the Government as they failed to bring its provisions into force or repealed them before implementation or afterwards through yet more legislation.
There has been a mad and thoughtless rush to legislate in order to give the impression of command, but there has been none of the necessary thinking, preparation, consultation or staff work to test ideas, many of which should have been tested to destruction, to see what is appropriate or will work in a genuinely practical way. The Government confuse noise with authority, movement with productivity and headlines with delivery. This Bill is no different.