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Commons Chamber

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 17 January 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ministerial Duties

1. What proportion of his working time in the last six months has been spent on matters relating to Wales. (114700)

I give the job all the time it needs to deliver for Wales and have achieved a phenomenal amount in the past six months, including Royal Assent for the landmark Government of Wales Act 2006, which the hon. Gentleman and his party fought against tooth and nail.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but despite his best efforts, is he aware of the growing concern in Wales that given his responsibilities for Northern Ireland and his interest in becoming the next Deputy Prime Minister, Wales might not be getting the attention that it deserves from its Secretary of State?

Indeed, how would he know? I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on his audacity, given that he moonlights as a local councillor in Kettering. In the future, if his Front-Bench colleagues got their way and we saw second-class status for Welsh MPs, with English MPs restricted to dealing with English legislation, he would not be able even to ask such a question, and we would see the Balkanisation of Parliament, which would be a disaster for the United Kingdom that would lead to constitutional chaos.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently told the people there that they should be green with envy at the financial settlement that he had got for them? Should not the people of Wales be red with anger at the fact that their representative in Parliament and the Cabinet is not doing the same for them?

The hon. Gentleman has another job as well because he is an Assembly Member. I am amazed that he has the time to come to Welsh questions. I would have thought that he would be on the backs of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State for their disgraceful policy of wishing to break up the United Kingdom by joining an alliance with Plaid Cymru to create second-class status for Welsh MPs. He should be ashamed of himself.

That is last week’s joke.

What proportion of the Secretary of State’s time was spent on Welsh environmental issues? Does he agree that Wales could benefit hugely from the new Energy Technologies Institute’s £1 billion budget? Will he spend time over the next six months lobbying his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to attend a key event at the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is near Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire, that will showcase the potential of Wales to work with and benefit from the new ETI and its funding?

My hon. Friends—rather unfairly, I thought—shouted, “Hello,” at the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he scrubbed up rather nicely, or rather cheekily, in Hello! magazine. I will indeed urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explore how organisations in Wales, especially the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, which my right hon. Friend visited last August, can contribute to this vital agenda, in which I share an interest with the hon. Gentleman.

RAF St. Athan

2. What recent discussions he has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on the future of RAF St. Athan. (114701)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Defence Ministers on a range of issues, including the current and future use of RAF St. Athan.

I understand that the defence training contract will be announced shortly. If it is awarded to St. Athan, will the Minister tell us what impact that will have on jobs in Wales?

As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement on the defence training review at 12.30 pm. It would not be appropriate for me to speculate on the outcome. However, it is well known that if the St. Athan bid is successful, it will have a substantial impact on Wales. We are talking about more than 5,000 jobs coming to Wales and an investment of £14 billion. If the bid is successful for the Metrix consortium, it will be evidence of the private and public sectors in Wales working together and coming forward with a world-beating bid to provide excellent training facilities for our defence forces.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the new military academy comes to RAF St. Athan, which is in my constituency, it will have an economy-transforming impact on south Wales because we will see the biggest single public investment ever in our country?

Yes, if that is the outcome. Again, I do not want to prejudge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence’s statement at 12.30 pm, but if that is the outcome, it will undoubtedly be the largest public-sector investment in Wales, and possibly in the United Kingdom, as my hon. Friend says. It would put up to £58 million a year into the Welsh economy over the next 25 years. As he says, it would have a transforming influence on the economy of not just his constituency, but the valleys and the Cardiff-to-Newport corridor.

If that announcement is made at 12.30 pm, it will have a devastating impact on my constituency. Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Assembly Government, through the Welsh Development Agency, have made available £100 million for infrastructure to support the Metrix bid? Does he agree that if the contract, worth up to £16 billion, is awarded to south Wales, it will enhance Labour Assembly Members’ prospects of being re-elected to the Assembly, and therefore of retaining control of the Welsh Assembly?

I had a certain amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman until he made that last comment. The fact is that the Ministry of Defence ensured that the awarding of the contract was subject to a rigorous impartial evaluation process, which means that whatever the outcome announced in less than an hour’s time, it will be based straightforwardly on the quality of the winning bid. To claim that there is some sort of dirty, backstairs deal being done, as the hon. Gentleman implies, demeans him and the party that he represents.

As Wales represents 6 per cent. of the population, but 9 per cent. of the armed forces, is not the most important point about the two contracts, if they are awarded to St. Athan, the fact that we will be providing our troops with what they really need and deserve, namely the very best training, which they need for modern warfare and modern peacekeeping?

Absolutely. Obviously, there are huge economic benefits to the awarding of the contract, but the most important issue, and the reason why the Ministry of Defence went down the road of looking into establishing a defence training academy, is to improve and expand the training for our armed forces. That is the driver behind the decision. The issue is not just the benefits that the decision will bring to Wales but, as my hon. Friend says—and I congratulate him on all his work in dealing with and supporting the Metrix bid—the fact that our forces will have a state-of-the-art defence academy to provide them with the best training possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, I offer an unreserved apology.

We know that we do not always need to disagree in politics, and I know that the Minister and I—I speak for my party’s Front-Benchers—are equally keen that the contract for the training of our forces should be awarded to St. Athan later today. Indeed, I am on record as having supported the bid right from the start, along with colleagues on the other Benches. However, we understand that each Member will fight for their own constituency interests, and should be allowed to do so. Does he agree that such a decision would underline the enormous benefit to Wales of being a full participant in the United Kingdom, and would not have been made at all if the separatists, some of whom sit in the House, who even oppose recruitment to the armed forces in Wales, had their way by tearing Wales out of the Union?

Well, may I tell the hon. Lady that the road that her party seems to be taking in pursuing an English Parliament is actually contributing to the separation of the United Kingdom? Only a few weeks ago, her party in Wales was clearly in discussions about forming a coalition with the nationalists, so perhaps—

Railway Companies

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the performance of railway companies in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (114702)

My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss issues affecting Wales, including the performance of railway companies.

As a south Wales MP, I receive many complaints from constituents about Arriva trains, objecting to long delays, cancellations, services that skip stations when they are running late, and overcrowded trains. Given that Arriva ticket prices have increased by 5.5 per cent. this year—well above the national average for a service that is well below average—what action has the Minister taken, and what does he plan to do, to improve that service?

The hon. Lady criticises Arriva trains, and in the past her comments would have been fair. However, improvements have been made to the Welsh services awarded to Arriva under the franchise. There has been a welcome improvement in the punctuality of Arriva trains, which rose by 6 per cent from the second quarter in 2005-06 to 85.6 per cent. in the second quarter of 2006-07. There is still a long way to go, but substantial investment has been made in the Arriva franchise by the Welsh Assembly Government, including the provision of longer trains and investment in stations so that they can be served by such trains. We will keep a close eye on Arriva’s performance, as we will with First Great Western.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has read reports in The Western Mail about an impending price war between two train companies, which could lead to people with a valid ticket being left on the station, unable to board a particular train. What talks has he had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport to put pressure on those companies to avert such a price war, which would affect people in Llanelli and west Wales, who regularly have to use both companies, as only one of them serves areas west of Swansea?

I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), to discuss those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) makes an important point, particularly about the position of Arriva customers who travel beyond Swansea and want to connect to a First Great Western service. We must ensure that we provide joined-up rail services, and further discussions need to take place between Arriva and First Great Western. I will urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to address the problem and encourage the companies to work together more constructively.

I recently made a journey from Swansea to Bangor that took just over 10 hours on Arriva trains that were uniformly dirty and covered in graffiti—an improvement, according to the Under-Secretary. That service receives a public subsidy from the Welsh Assembly Government, but those conditions demonstrate contempt for the paying public. Is he confident that his colleagues in Cardiff understand the meaning of value for money, given the subsidy that they provide?

I am glad that he is not doing so, because it would result in a reduction in the services provided under the franchise. Because of the previous Government’s failure to make any significant investment in our railway infrastructure it will take a long time to achieve the quality of service that passengers expect and deserve. Improvements, however, are on the way. The Government are investing £110 million a week in the rail infrastructure, which will lead to significant benefits in performance. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that those investments have been made in Wales only because the UK Government are prepared to invest in infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. His policies would cause the break-up of the United Kingdom and end that investment.

Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the decision made by First Great Western to cancel the important 17.18 peak time service between Cardiff and Swansea? Unlike its fellow Welsh operators, Arriva and Virgin Cross Country, which are among the best performers in the country, First Great Western is among the poorest.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless campaign to try and retain the 3.15 service from Paddington through to Swansea. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a number of discussions with Andrew Davies, the Minister in the Assembly, and I have had a meeting about the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). We will continue to press First Great Western for a review of its decision and for a significant improvement in its overall performance. Customers of First Great Western are not getting the service that they deserve and expect. On Sunday I had a four and a half hour journey on First Great Western with no catering available at all. That is unfair not just on me, but on all the other passengers. First Great Western needs to work with the Department for Transport to improve its performance.

Free Bus Travel

4. What discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on implementation of free bus travel across the England-Wales border. (114703)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues on transport matters, including the Welsh free bus travel scheme for over-60s and disabled people.

One of the issues in my constituency is the impact of the national border when bus journeys go across it. I know that the Secretary of State for Transport is making sure that the new framework legislation will enable a seamless transition. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State for Wales could press his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government to take up that framework legislation to ensure that we can have seamless journeys across the English-Welsh border.

Indeed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Welsh Assembly Government Ministers will do that. I congratulate him on supporting bus services, as Mrs. Thatcher once said:

“Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 26 can count himself a failure”,

and Steven Norris, when Transport Minister, said that bus passengers are “dreadful human beings”. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is contradicting that record.

Over 20,000 elderly and disabled people in Flintshire have benefited from the scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it and similar schemes could be endangered if we ever saw a ragbag coalition of separatist Tories and nationalists running the Assembly?

Indeed. Not only would that policy be under threat, but the entire future of the United Kingdom would be under threat from the Tories’ policy of creating an English Parliament, relegating Scots and Welsh MPs, and presumably Northern Ireland MPs in the future, to second-class status. That is a recipe for the break-up of the United Kingdom and for such policies to be destroyed.

Gershon Review

5. Whether he has met Treasury Ministers and the First Minister in Wales to discuss the effect of the Gershon review job reductions on west Wales and the valleys objective 1 area. (114704)

I met the Paymaster General on Monday to discuss the effect of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ change programme on west Wales and the valleys and Wales as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the issue with the First Minister.

I thank the Minister for that useful reply. He will know that nearly 50 jobs have been lost in the Department for Work and Pensions office in Porthmadog and that there are further threats to about 50 in the Revenue office. The loss of 100 jobs in a small town in the objective 1 area is a devastating blow. May I ask him sincerely to redouble his efforts—I know he will—to have the policy changed so that it does not devastate that area of north-west Wales?

HMRC has not announced any office closures. The programme of regional reviews announced in November is a consultation exercise. Published future staff numbers are initial proposals only. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that before withdrawing any office, a full impact assessment will be undertaken, including an assessment of the impact on the local economy. I agreed with the Paymaster General that we would meet again with the First Minister to discuss these matters, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), that if we did not have a United Kingdom Government, these issues would not be discussed. His policy on separation of the United Kingdom would deny his—

My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent service that the Bangor Revenue office provides to the whole of north-west Wales. It employs many of my constituents, but those jobs are under threat. Will he press the Treasury, as I and many other Members have pressed the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we provide a full bilingual service to people in north-west Wales? The DWP accepted that and moved Revenue jobs from south Wales; now is the time to keep them in north-west Wales.

I can tell my hon. Friend that HMRC recognises the needs of its Welsh-speaking customers, especially during this period of change, and is seeking a better understanding of their requirements across the range of HMRC services. I will discuss that with the Paymaster General and the First Minister when we meet again.

May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff—[Interruption.]

The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff at the Revenue office in Porthmadog, 24 are Welsh speakers. There are another 44 Welsh speakers in the Bangor, Rhyl and Colwyn Bay cluster. Can he confirm that he recognises the importance to people in north Wales of receiving a Welsh language service from the Revenue office? Has he impressed that on his colleague, the Paymaster General?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Porthmadog office deals with telephone and written correspondence in Welsh. The formal consultation on the future of that office will not begin until after April 2008, so there is plenty of time for representations to be made by Members, trade unions and stakeholders, not only in north Wales but throughout Wales. I assure him that the Paymaster General and I will take up the matter with the First Minister when we meet again.

Police Funding

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly Government on police funding in Wales. (114705)

The Government continue to provide huge increases in resources for the police service. The recent announcement of more than £450 million in total funding for 2007-08 represents another good deal for Wales.

In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety stated:

“We are committed to ensuring that Neighbourhood Policing will be introduced to every community in England and Wales by April 2007, and that every community will have a Neighbourhood Policing team by April 2008.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1679W.]

Given that the police in Wales have said that that will not be possible under the current funding settlement, can the Minister still guarantee that it will be fully funded and fully implemented in Wales?

Of course we want to see neighbourhood policing rolled out right across Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, under this Labour Government we have had 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers in Wales, compared with the consistent cuts in police officers and police budgets under the Tory Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

There are more police officers in north Wales than ever before, and the introduction of community support officers has brought neighbourhood policing to streets in Wrexham and other parts of north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend have a quiet word with some of those who are bleating in north Wales to get them to enjoy the benefits of a rising budget rather than the contraction that would be brought about if we ever had a ragtag coalition of nationalists and Tories running Wales?

I could not have put it better myself. Neighbourhood policing in north Wales is indeed of a high standard. It would be put at risk, not only for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave, but if the Leader of the Opposition’s policy of £21 billion of cuts in Labour’s spending plans were implemented.

Does not the Secretary of State realise how hollow his words ring and how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground? What does he say to people in places such as Abergele and Old Colwyn, who are losing dedicated community beat officers, or our chief constables in Wales, who have to take officers off the beat to fill civilian desk jobs? Where has all the money gone and why does Labour continue to fail to deliver proper policing for the people of Wales?

The truth is that there are 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers under Labour, crime has decreased and people see neighbourhood policing that they never saw under the Tories. The clear choice for everybody in Wales at the Welsh Assembly elections in May is voting Labour and against the ragtag, Tory-led, Plaid Cymru coalition that opposes us.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Sadly, before listing my engagements, I must once again ask the House to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the three servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past few days. They were: Royal Marine Thomas Curry of 42 Commando; Lance Corporal Mathew Ford of 45 Commando, and Kingsman Alex Green from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. They were all performing vital roles in working towards a safer and more secure world for this country and the whole global community, and we should be very proud of them.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

May I be associated with the Prime Minister’s opening remarks?

On 30 November 2005 at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister guaranteed that nobody would wait more than six months for a national health service operation. Every month since then, that guarantee has proved worthless and bogus. Today, official Government figures show that 15,832 patients are waiting more than six months. Why?

They do not, as a matter of fact; literally a handful of people on the in-patient list wait more than six months. That contrasts with the position in 1997, when 300,000 people waited more than six months. There has been a dramatic improvement, with the waiting list—the lowest since records began—400,000 down since we came to office and waiting times now an average of seven weeks. I thank the hon. Gentleman for letting me point that out.

Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning racism and xenophobia in any form, including on the so-called reality television show “Big Brother”, which has prompted 13,000 individual complaints? Does not he agree that it is important that broadcasters take great care before broadcasting any such prejudices to millions of people throughout the country?

First, let me tell my right hon. Friend that I have not seen the programme in question and I cannot therefore comment on it. Of course, I agree entirely with the principle that he outlined: we should oppose racism in all its forms.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Royal Marine Thomas Curry, Kingsman Alexander Green and Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. I also congratulate the Royal Marines on the bravery of their operation to recover Lance Corporal Ford’s body. It was a reminder of the incredible professionalism of our armed forces.

Last week, the junior Home Office Minister responsible told us that she knew nothing about the fiasco of the foreign criminal records. Now we know that she was receiving and signing letters about the issue as long ago as October. Why is she still in her job?

As the permanent secretary indicated in his evidence yesterday, the backlog was not drawn to the Minister’s attention. There is an internal inquiry about exactly what took place. Let me emphasise that, as I explained last week and shall explain again this week, since the Association of Chief Police Officers and those people at the Home Office have gone through the matter, no significant public protection issues have arisen so far in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau checks. It is correct that—since May 2006, when ACPO was given responsibility for the matter—a new system is in place. It is working well but, of course, we have had to work through the backlog of cases. Let me emphasise that we are in no different a position on the matter from any other European country.

The Prime Minister tries to say this is not serious, but someone went on to kill and a people trafficker was cleared to work with children. The Prime Minister’s defence seems to be that the Minister knew about the problem, but not about the backlog—but the problem was the backlog. Do we not want Ministers who are going to ask some questions and show some judgment, rather than just operating like giant franking machines signing letters? The Prime Minister could clear up a lot of this if he published the letter that the Association of Chief Police Officers sent to the Home Office. Why does he not publish that letter? It is probably in his file right there. Go on and publish it.

First, let me point out that if the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the case that was in the newspapers at the weekend, my understanding is that this particular individual in fact was on the police national computer. Secondly, let me point out that it is simply not correct to say that the problem was the backlog alone. The problem was that there was no proper system and had not ever been a proper system—[Interruption.]—for the exchange of information between European countries. That has now changed. Indeed, I can tell the House that, in addition, there is a proposal from Germany, France, Spain and other countries now to connect databases across Europe. We will look very carefully at that, but it is simply not right to say that this was a problem that we had and no other country had. Every country had it. We have now introduced a new system. If I may say, yet again with this issue, as with many others, prior to 1999 there were absolutely no records kept at all.

The Prime Minister likes to tell us that he believes in freedom of information, so I ask him again: publishing the letter would not harm national security or confidentiality, so publish the letter—why not?

There is an inquiry under way and when it completes its investigation, everything will be published fully so that people can see it. Let me however once again repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue where prior to May 2006 there should have been a proper system in place in Britain, because there was no proper system in place across Europe. We have now introduced a proper system for the very first time, and that means, as with many of the other issues, for the first time data are being properly collected and acted upon.

So much for freedom of information. Let me ask the Prime Minister about the inquiry. Will he confirm that it will look at the role played by Ministers, including the Home Secretary?

Of course it will look at the role played by Ministers; it will look at the role played by everybody. I simply point out to the right hon. Gentleman the evidence that was given yesterday by the permanent secretary.

Let us be clear. This inquiry is being carried out by the head of personnel at the Home Office. If this scandal had happened in a care home, in a hospital or in any business in this country, do you think you would ask the head of personnel to conduct the inquiry? This comes at the end of the week in which two more murderers have walked out of open prison, the immigration staff at Heathrow say they cannot cope and potential terrorists walk free from house arrest and nothing is done. The Government’s response when things go wrong is to put junior officials in charge of an inquiry. Does that not show that this Government and these Ministers are interested in protecting themselves, not in protecting the public?

Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman, since he mentioned control orders and terrorism, that it was the desire of this side of the House to detain people. We were the Government who introduced legislation toughening up the laws on terrorism which he and his colleagues voted against. The one group of people we will not take lessons from on control orders or action on terrorism is him and his colleagues.

I have a constituent whose life expectancy is no more than four months. He has asked me to pass on his experience that, first, people in that situation, especially those under chemotherapy, do not get the full support from the benefits system that they need; and, secondly, that he fully supports the Government’s effort to merge databases within the Government so that others do not have to go through the multiple form-filling that he has had to go through. Will the Prime Minister ask the Department for Work and Pensions to take account of both points?

I know that there has been a meeting with the relevant Minister. It is very important that we look at the support that we give to people in this situation, and obviously I am grateful for the support in relation to the sharing of information, but it is important that we ensure that the appropriate help is given, and that can sometimes be through the benefit system rather than through specific allowances which, in this case, are really directed towards pensioners.

Once again, I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence for those who have lost their lives in the service of their country.

Yesterday, the Government appeared before the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in order to explain their decision to drop the investigations into allegations of corruption in relation to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. When will the Prime Minister publish and make public the Government’s submissions to the OECD so that the British public can judge for themselves?

They can already judge for themselves because we have made it clear the reasons why my advice—certainly—was that the investigation would do enormous damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I said that because I believed then, and believe now, that it would do enormous damage to our co-operation on terrorism, and to issues to do with security and the broader middle east—quite apart from the thousands of jobs that would have been lost as a result of the loss of that contract, although that was not the reason why the decision was taken. I believe that that was right then, and I believe that it is right now. Sometimes, in government, I have to give such advice and take responsibility for acting in the interests of the country as a whole. The Government have to put those views forward. I put them forward then; I believed them to be right then and I believe them to be right now.

As a result of that answer, can we now expect the other current investigations into allegations of corruption in arms sales—in relation to Tanzania, for example—to be dropped in the same way? How can the Government’s handling of this squalid affair be in any way squared with the Prime Minister’s promise that his Government would be “whiter than white”?

To be frank, I would have greater respect for the opinion put forward by the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he were prepared to accept that, irrespective of the damage to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, the investigation should none the less proceed. But when he attempts, somehow, to have it both ways by saying that there would not really be any damage, and that the investigation should none the less proceed, he simply indicates once again what the problem with the Liberal Democrats is: they are an object lesson in the absence of leadership.

Last Thursday, following months of refusing to discuss future plans with trade unions, local politicians or—most importantly—the work force, NCR in Dundee announced 650 job losses. It did so in the most callous fashion imaginable, assembling the 800 manufacturing staff in a room with a large-screen television, from which the chief executive announced via video link from America that 650 of them had been made redundant. Will the Prime Minister join me in reassuring the people of Dundee that we will do everything that we can to help them? Will he meet me to discuss how we can reassure the people of Dundee of the Government’s commitment to full employment and high-quality jobs, including the 700 NCR jobs that remain in Dundee?

I sympathise fully with those who will lose their jobs as a result of the decision by the company. I know that the Scottish Executive’s Partnership Action for Continuing Employment has stepped in to try to ensure that other work is made available for those who are, sadly, going to be made redundant. It is also important that we safeguard the company’s position in other parts of Scotland. I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what we can do. As a result of different measures taken over the past few years by the Government on a UK-wide basis and by the Scottish Executive, we now have very good schemes that go into effect immediately when redundancies are announced and that often help people to get alternative employment. It is important that we try to ensure that this operates in the particular circumstances to which my hon. Friend has drawn my attention.

Q2. Will the Prime Minister concede that an unintended consequence of the Government’s policy in the middle east has been to advance the interests of the Shi’ites at the expense of the Sunnis? (116018)

No; unsurprisingly, I do not accept that. The most important thing that we have done is to set the principle—which the Iraqi people demonstrated by voting in the election for a non-sectarian Government—that the vast majority of people would prefer to live in peace, whatever their religious or ethnic background.

I raised this issue particularly when I was visiting British troops in Basra before Christmas. I am pleased to say that the operation that they are conducting in Basra is going well and is successful, and their clear view is that those who are creating the trouble are a minority, and that the vast majority, whether Shi’a or Sunni, want to live in peace together. I had a conversation the other day with the Vice-President of Iraq, who is one of the main leaders of the Sunni community, and he made the same point. We should never fall for the extremists’ propaganda that says that the majority want what they offer. Actually, the majority of people, in whatever part of the world, prefer to live and raise their families in peace and prosperity, and to treat their neighbours, of whatever race or whatever background, with some semblance of decency.

Mohammad Daud, the provincial governor of Helmand province, was principally responsible for the ceasefire in Musa Qala, which brought peace to that area and has saved lives. He was singled out by the Defence Secretary as, unlike other provincial governors, a man of integrity who certainly was not corrupt. Last month he was sacked. Will the Prime Minister make representations for his reinstatement?

I must say to my hon. Friend that Mohammad Daud’s successor shares exactly the same strategy for Helmand province. I want to pick up on one implication of my hon. Friend’s comments. What British troops are doing down in Helmand province is remarkable; tragically, we have again had to remember those who have fallen in the service of their country. They fell fighting the Taliban, however, and that fight is having huge success in the south of that country. Every time that they are able to inflict such losses on the Taliban, reconstruction and redevelopment can proceed. The new governor of the province is helping very much with that. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, there are real reasons for optimism about what we are doing in Afghanistan. The alternative was seen clearly a few months back, when the Taliban executed a teacher in front of a class for teaching girls in school. Those are the two alternative futures for the country, and I know which side we should be on.

Yesterday, it emerged that the Department for Education and Skills had issued guidance that will make it more difficult for head teachers to enforce school uniform policies. I know that the Prime Minister and I agree about the importance of school freedom and professional responsibility. I have one simple question, which requires a simple answer: will he scrap this unnecessary and wrong piece of central guidance?

The right hon. Gentleman probably has not seen the letter already issued by the Minister for Schools at the Department for Education and Skills making it absolutely clear that we support fully the right of schools to enforce their school uniform rules. [Interruption.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in spite of only having entered their second term since opening, the two new city academies in my constituency, St. Mark’s and Harris Merton, will be oversubscribed next year, such is the support of local parents and the community? Will he join me in congratulating the parents, teachers and staff at that school, and their enlightened sponsors, the Church of England and Lord Harris of Peckham?

I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating both the schools and sponsors who have put so much hard work into the city academy programme. In light of some of the publicity about the new school building programme, building schools for the future, let me say that, since 1997, 800 new schools have been built around the country. Those new or completely refurbished schools have made an enormous difference to what is happening in our country. In addition, more than 1,600 new science labs, better classrooms for more than 4,000 schools, hundreds of new sports halls and thousands of new computers and electronic whiteboards have been provided. As the results show, a revolution is going on in our schools at the moment, of which the city academy programme is an important part, and it is delivering quality education to some of the poorest kids in our country.

Q3. I echo the tribute that the Prime Minister has been paying today to British troops. I was delighted to hear on Friday of his support for a substantial increase in defence spending. Has he ensured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer agrees with him? (116019)

It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement of the extra defence spending a few years ago in the comprehensive spending review that meant that defence spending has been rising for the first time in years. In the 10 years before we came to office, there was a cut of something like a third. Moreover—I am grateful for the opportunity to point this out—if the additional sums for Iraq and Afghanistan are included, we have been holding defence spending constant as a proportion of our national income in what is, of course, a vastly growing economy. That compares with, again, a cut of about a third in the years before we came to power. I agree that we have far more to do, but, thank goodness, our record is a lot better than that of the last Government.

Earlier this week the leader of the Scottish National party suggested that the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections would constitute a vote for a referendum on independence. Given that not a single constituent has ever contacted me to request such a referendum, does my right hon. Friend agree that people of Scotland have much more serious issues with which they wish this Government to deal?

My hon. Friend is right. Of course issues such as crime, health, education and the state of the economy are immensely important to the people in Scotland who will vote in the forthcoming elections. As she says, however, the point is that the Scottish National party has now put on the agenda its desire for independence for Scotland and a referendum to achieve it. That would not only have a disastrous effect on the Scottish economy, but waste the enormous benefit that the Union has brought to England and Scotland over the past few years.

Surely the modern way forward for a country such as ours is devolution, with a Scottish Parliament to deal with issues that should be dealt with solely in Scotland, and a UK-wide arrangement enabling us to deal with issues such as the economy, security and defence with which we need to deal together. That is why it is so important for us to reject the option of independence.

Q4. Following yesterday’s television interview with the Prime Minister’s former spin doctor Lance Price, will the Prime Minister confirm that he has not called the Chancellor of the Exchequer psychologically flawed? (116020)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating police in Burnley on their recent success in reducing crime, which last year alone was down by 6 per cent. in Lancashire as a whole? Does he think that that is due in any way to the increase in police numbers, which have risen by 336 in Lancashire since 1997? Will he personally guarantee not to jeopardise that investment through unfunded and irresponsible tax cuts in the future?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest in our police services. The work that has been done in Lancashire is remarkable: it has had an excellent record over the past few years. Given all the criticism of the Home Office, it is worth pointing out that crime has fallen, not risen, over the past 10 years. That contrasts with the record of the Conservatives, who doubled crime and, in the last few years before we came to office, cut the number of police. We have record numbers of police officers, we have police and community support officers, and we have falling crime.

Q5. If the Prime Minister were lucky enough to come to Hemel Hempstead, he would see a community rebuilding itself after the terrible Buncefield explosions that took place a year ago. He would also have an opportunity to visit Hemel Hempstead general hospital and the acute facilities that treated all the injured people. There was huge investment in the hospital before the Government came to power, and, to be fair, there has been investment since. However, that investment is being thrown down the drain. The award-winning birth unit has been closed, the cardiac unit is being closed, the accident and emergency unit is being closed and the intensive care unit is being closed. I could go on. In fact, the whole hospital is being closed, although— (116021)

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be the first to accept, as a result of the desire to centralise specialist services at Watford there will be far better specialist care for patients. The plan that he has described has been presented by child care clinicians precisely because they believe that it will help to provide better specialist services for people. He is, however, right to say that there has been massive additional investment in his area. That is why there are more nurses, more doctors and shortening waiting times.

I feel sure that my right hon. Friend would like to join me in congratulating Phoenix high school in my constituency, which last week was named as the most improved secondary school in England. However, is he aware that Tory councillors in Hammersmith and Fulham, who continually call for Phoenix to close, are now seeking to close the much improving Hurlingham and Chelsea school? Can he do anything to stop that?

Of course, such decisions are taken locally but I am sure that the strong campaign launched by my hon. Friend will have an impact, because where schools are improving dramatically we want to keep them improving.

Q6. Is the Prime Minister aware that the new primary care trust for Norfolk and Norwich started operations with a £50 million deficit, resulting in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in my constituency having actively to delay routine operations for 200 patients? What does he say to those constituents of mine who are waiting in pain, and in particular to Mr. Ben Mullarkey of Dersingham, who had to pay to have his hip replacement done in France? Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he said that we had 24 hours to save the NHS? (116022)

I understand the difficulties that have been caused in the hon. Gentleman’s area as that particular trust comes back into financial balance. However, it is worth pointing out that, at the same time as the trust is facing those financial difficulties, over the past few years in his local area the number of people waiting for more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment has fallen from 31,000 to 16. Only one patient in the whole of his strategic health authority is waiting for more than 13 weeks for a first out-patient appointment, and there has been dramatic improvement in both cancer and cardiac care. I understand the problems being faced as the trust comes back into financial balance, but let us be clear that once that happens we will be able to use the additional capacity that we have provided and bring those waiting times down further. Our desire is to get to the end of 2008 with an 18-week combined in-patient and out-patient waiting period. That would be a dramatic improvement.

Q7. The educational improvements that the Prime Minister has referred to have led Britain to improve its position in the international education league tables, but we still languish at No. 18 in the OECD league tables for skills. What does the Prime Minister plan to do to improve the skill levels of youngsters in this country? (116023)

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right, and the two things that will be important are, first, the additional investment in schools which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds in the next few years, and also that we are moving to the new system of vocational education which will allow a far better choice for youngsters at the age of 14 to opt for a high-quality stream of vocational education. That is what we need to do. We have very much focused on lifting academic standards and there has been considerable success on that, although there is lots more to do. We now need to have the same focus on vocational education, and the combination of the money and the reform over the next few years should deliver results.

Q8. The Prime Minister will be aware of the hugely successful launch of Highland 2007 in Inverness on Friday, which demonstrated the renewed confidence and optimism in the region. In the year that we celebrate the culture, heritage and future of the highlands, will the Prime Minister ensure that his Government pursue policies that not only help to tackle the particular disadvantages faced by Britain’s most dispersed and remote region, but promote awareness of the contribution that the highlands has made to the UK over the years? (116024)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. The highlands has made an enormous contribution to the whole of the United Kingdom, and one of the reasons why we have special help and provision and we organise that in a way that allows the whole of the UK to support the highlands is that we recognise that it is far more sparsely populated than other areas and therefore particular help is needed for local services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue the investment to make sure that the highlands carries on playing the vital role that it does in terms of the future of Scotland and also the whole of the UK.

Q9. Is the Prime Minister as appalled as I am by the decision of Conservative councillors in Wandsworth to close Battersea arts centre and to try to blame Government grants even though Wandsworth is in no danger of being capped and has the lowest council tax in the country? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It also has huge reserves—[Interruption.] (116025)

It also gets excellent value from its £100,000 grant to Battersea arts centre, having just given—[Interruption.]

I agree with my hon. Friend that Battersea arts centre does a fantastic job. They should do everything that they can to keep it open, and they should keep it open.

The Prime Minister and his Government are about to abolish the right to elect jury trial in serious fraud cases. Will he retain the right to jury trial for political corruption, such as the selling of honours?

The proposals that we have simply relate to fraud trials in the way that we have described. I doubt whether the Scottish National party will support those proposals, but it should, because they will free up—[Hon. Members: “He is Plaid Cymru.”] Let me explain exactly why. They will free up money that we desperately need to make sure that we have both the police and the criminal justice system that allows criminals to be caught and punished.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government continue to support a viable network of post offices, and that the Post Office card account on which so many pensioners depend has a successor? (116026)

Yes, that is precisely the reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that the Government have decided that we will continue with the new account after 2010. That, incidentally, is in addition to the £2 billion of extra support for post offices, particularly rural post offices. We all know the reasons why post offices face a great deal of challenge and difficulty at the moment—because of the changing way that people are handling their accounts—but I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything that we can to make sure we preserve as many of them as possible, that we make the investment and that we keep the account going.

A few minutes ago, in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about criminal records exchange, the Prime Minister said that before 2006 there was no system across Europe for the exchange of criminal records. Can he explain why, in 2001, the Government negotiated a protocol to the 1959 Council of Europe convention on the exchange of records, but have neither ratified nor implemented that protocol? So before 2006, it would have been possible to exchange those records.

The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken about that. The fact is that there was no proper system prior to 2005 and the decision of the European Council. If I may, I will point this out to him: it was only because we were able to work with other European partners that we managed to get agreement to implement a new system. That new system is in place, and for the first time we have proper records that we can implement properly and make sure that we monitor properly. That is the change that has been brought about in the last year.

Defence Training Review

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the defence training review rationalisation programme. Before I do so, however, I am sure that the whole House will join me in extending their condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of Marine Thomas Curry, Lance Corporal Mathew Ford and Kingsman Alexander Green, who were killed in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the weekend and earlier this week. I pay tribute to their bravery, professionalism and courage. No words can express my admiration for our armed forces and the work that they do daily in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.

In November 2004, the Ministry of Defence issued invitations to negotiate for two contractual packages under the defence training review rationalisation programme. The programme is a large and complex public-private partnership project that seeks to transform the way in which we deliver six types of specialist training on a defence-wide basis to support better the future needs of the armed forces.

All bidders have put in strong bids, and I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House, who have expressed such strong support for relevant bids. I can now report that, following a detailed evaluation process, the bids from the Metrix consortium have been judged to offer the best technical and prospective value-for-money solutions to the defence training review requirement for both packages 1 and 2. As a result, we are appointing Metrix as preferred bidder for package 1 and provisional preferred bidder for package 2. Metrix has won each package independently and separately, and we now plan to take forward negotiations with the consortium.

On 18 December, the MC3 consortium submitted an unsolicited last minute alternative proposal for package 1. That proposal was considered, but was quickly discounted as failing to meet the requirements of the invitation to negotiate. As an unsolicited proposal it was also outside the rules of the competition.

I must emphasise that identifying the best training solution for defence has been the primary consideration. The evaluation has involved some 200 subject matter experts. The training element was overseen by Professor Molyneux, an independent expert in modern training technology and e-learning.

For package 1 we are confident that we have a broadly affordable solution that will deliver modern and efficient aeronautical engineering, electro-mechanical engineering and communications and information systems training. Currently, that is delivered at nine locations, involving some 3,500 military and civilian staff providing instruction to 6,500 defence trainees at any one time. Over a five-year transition period starting in late 2008, Metrix proposes to rationalise the estate, initially on to two major sites, St. Athan and HMS Sultan. Marine engineering training will remain at HMS Sultan until 2017, when that too will relocate to St. Athan. The St. Athan site will be largely a new-build facility.

A small enclave will, however, be retained at Bordon for vehicle recovery training, and some communications training will continue to be delivered at HMS Collingwood. Overall, that will have a varying impact across nine sites: Arborfield, Bordon, Blandford, HMS Collingwood, Cosford, RAF Cranwell, RAF Digby, HMS Sultan and, of course, St. Athan.

Package 2 is more complex. It aims to provide training for logistics and personnel administration, police and guarding, security, languages, intelligence and photography. Currently, that is delivered at 18 locations across the United Kingdom, involving some 2,900 military and civilian staff, and 4,500 trainees.

The evaluation process identified Metrix as a clear winner for package 2, but we have more work to do to resolve the outstanding issues to address a significant affordability gap and to explore possible synergies with package 1, which should deliver improved value for money across the programme as a whole. Until we have resolved those issues with the bidder we cannot confirm the final approach that the MOD will take, including whether all, or part of, package 2 goes forward. However, it is only right that we inform the losing bidder that it has been unsuccessful.

Starting in late 2008, the current Metrix proposals would again see rationalisation to St. Athan over a five-year period. However, all training currently undertaken at Leconfield, Wethersfield and a number of smaller federated units would remain at those sites, as would the majority of training currently delivered at Chicksands.

Together, these proposals will embrace the very best training methods available today, in an environment designed for military learning. Full advantage will be taken of the latest technology for simulators and distributed learning solutions. The proposals will deliver top-grade single living accommodation for all ranks, with single en-suite rooms for many. New recreational and sports facilities will enhance the quality of life for our trainees, staff and their families.

I take the implications of the change programme for our people very seriously. The impact is likely to be significant for civilian staff required to transfer to the new partner. They will, of course, be protected in full accordance with the TUPE regulations, which cover the transfer of undertakings. However, some redundancies following transfer cannot be ruled out, and should any occur, they will be taken forward sensitively and in full consultation with trade unions and staff.

I do not underestimate how disappointed some hon. Members and their constituents will be where we are seeking to withdraw training establishments. That will be most keenly felt in the west midlands at Cosford, and in North Dorset at Blandford. While not wishing to pre-empt any specific decisions, I am pleased to say that there are no plans to close either site. The current training at each will continue until 2011, and the Department is exploring a number of proposals for the potential future defence use of both Cosford and Blandford. Those proposals will be announced, subject to the normal review and approvals processes, but a military presence is expected to remain at both sites in the future. At Cosford, Metrix proposes building a learning resource centre and developing a national training research and development support centre. In addition, it will work with the Department to examine how the programme might support the establishment of the national manufacturing skills academy.

It has been suggested that the Ministry of Defence has a conflict of interest by virtue of its minority shareholding in QinetiQ, which is part of the Metrix consortium. That was recognised at the outset. Frankly, it is not unusual for QinetiQ to be a member of a consortium bidding for MOD work, or to be a potential beneficiary as a subcontractor. Therefore, we have put in place stringent steps to separate the roles of customer and owner in relation to QinetiQ. Those steps were made plain in the prospectus to investors when QinetiQ was floated on the stock market last year, and a copy was placed at the time in the Library. I am content that the DTR evaluation process did not take improper account of the QinetiQ shareholding.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence and I have written today to all those hon. Members whose constituencies are affected by this announcement, with details of the changes as set out in the winning bidders’ current proposals. As the way forward becomes clearer, I will update the House. I have also made available in the Library a number of key documents, including the invitations to negotiate and Professor Molyneux’s letter validating the evaluation process.

I conclude by emphasising again that the bids from the Metrix consortium offered the best technical and value-for-money solutions to meet the future needs of defence specialist training. As I stated earlier, we now plan to take forward negotiations over the coming months with the Metrix consortium. This remains an extremely complex public-private partnership programme and a number of significant issues remain to be resolved, particularly over the proposals for package 2. I do not plan to make any further announcements until that work has been completed.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. May I, too, begin by paying tribute on behalf of the Opposition to the servicemen who lost their lives recently? Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of Thomas Curry, Mathew Ford and Alexander Green.

I should also like to thank those of my colleagues who have argued so forcefully for the facilities in their areas. I refer in particular to my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for Gosport (Peter Viggers), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). All their constituents will be affected by the proposed changes.

On the positive side, it would be good to have high-quality training, and a high-quality training establishment that might act as an aid to recruitment in the future, especially given that demographics will not be on our side. Moreover, at a time when we are celebrating the Union in this country, it is also a positive to see Wales playing a full part in the future of our armed forces. That will send the strong message to those who want to break up the UK that far more unites us than divides us. The statement will also be regarded as a positive opportunity for the academic capabilities of the west and south-west of England, not least among which are the excellent technical skills offered by the academic institutions of Bristol and Bath.

However, the statement is remarkable for its very opaque nature, and for what it does not tell us. Exactly why did the Metrix bid win? What were the key decisive factors that made it the preferred choice? Will the Secretary of State give us an idea of the number of redundancies that the MOD has assessed to be likely as a result of this decision? What type of alternative defence use might be envisaged for Cosford and Blandford, and when might those employed there get further details?

Perhaps most worrying are the financial elements of the deal. Exactly how much will the proposals cost? There was nothing in the statement to tell us that. Has the Chancellor agreed to underwrite the full cost of the projects? At a time of overstretch in the armed forces, a tight defence budget and an even tighter spending round in prospect, will the proposals be financed through a growth in the defence budget—that is, with new money? At a time of inadequate service accommodation and mothballing ships, and when there are capability gaps, any further reduction in front-line budgets would be wholly unacceptable.

Of particular concern are the terms used by the Secretary of State. He says, “We are confident that we have a broadly affordable solution”. It seems to me that a solution is either affordable or not. What does “broadly affordable” mean? When he says that we have to address a “significant affordability gap”, what sort of gap are we talking about? What sort of money does the Secretary of State think that that gap involves? As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, those terms must mean something to him. The House, the country and all those affected by the changes have a right to see some numbers put on that vague terminology.

We all want to see quality training, but I am afraid that the statement raises far more questions than it provides answers.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the obvious positive advantages that this modernisation of training for our armed forces can deliver. I agree that our ability to do that on the appropriate site, regardless of where in the United Kingdom it is, is a cause for celebration, and a celebration of the Union.

The hon. Gentleman asks for figures. He will excuse me, but considerable negotiations have still to take place with the consortium that has been judged against the evaluation process as providing both the best technical solution and the best value-for-money solution. I said that I had put significant details about that process in the Library, so the House will forgive me if I invite Members to read that information, as it is in the public domain, in the Library.

The through-life cost of the programme is about £16 billion over 25 years, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept is a significant investment in the training of our armed forces. I am certain that investment would not have been possible within the trend of defence expenditure that we inherited, and it is consistent with our ability to increase spending on the armed forces and our ambition to be able to invest more, and to increase our spending on them in the future.

As for affordability, the purpose of making the statement at this time was to announce the outcome of the competition to identify a preferred bidder. In relation to both packages, significant detailed negotiation has still to take place with the preferred bidder, once identified. The competition has come to a close, so it is appropriate that there is a transparent and obvious announcement of who was judged—against the transparent criteria of the competition—the winner. Challenging and complex negotiations have to take place, about which there has to be a degree of commercial confidentiality. In relation to package 1, I am satisfied that we shall be able to conclude those negotiations, because the affordability of the package is broadly within the parameters that we set for ourselves.

There are significant affordability challenges for the second package. However, because the same consortium won each competition independently of the other, there are opportunities for synergy and savings that have to be explored. At the end of that process a decision will have to be made, but a decision may need to be made at some stage about an alternative way of providing training for the second part of the package. I make no bones about that; I am perfectly clear about it.

This is a great, great day for Wales, and it will be remembered for a long time. This is good news not only for my constituents in the Vale of Glamorgan, in particular the work force at St. Athan, but also for the south Wales economy. Most importantly, this is good news for Her Majesty’s armed forces and the training that they need for the 21st century.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who worked hard putting the bid together and supporting it? I am thinking in particular of Mike Hayle of Metrix, parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), my colleague Jane Hutt and Mr. David Swallow in the Welsh Assembly, and last but not least, readers of the South Wales Echo, who supported the campaign from day one. [Hon. Members: “This is a speech!”] Finally—

Order. I must remind the House that the purpose of the question session is to put questions to the Minister. Perhaps the Minister could reply briefly.

I have been invited to pay tribute to people—and the first people I want to pay tribute to are those who presently provide the training for our armed forces. That training is working well at the moment. However, they recognise, as we recognise, that we must modernise and adapt it to meet the needs of the future, particularly in relation to tri-service deployment. I am unstinting in my praise of all those, including my hon. Friend, who have so consistently and appropriately lobbied for their constituents’ interests. In this case, the best indicative result at this stage of the process for the delivery of the training needs of the armed forces happens to be in the Metrix bid. To the extent that they have been able to deliver that opportunity of a solution, those involved with that bid are to be congratulated, but no more than others who took part in the process.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement, and I join him in paying tribute to the three members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few days. Yesterday, I attended a thanksgiving service for 16th Air Assault Brigade, which has recently returned from Afghanistan; the roll of honour ran into double figures.

The decision is clearly good news for south Wales, but bad news for just about every other part of Britain where military training takes place. It is good news for companies that are thriving on the fruits of privatisation, but bad news for the dedicated, publicly employed training professionals who will either lose their jobs or have to leave the public sector. It is good news for the Ministry of Defence, because it can now offload the costly mega-million white elephant that was built in the wrong place for a purpose that is not wanted.

This is yet another example of the Government’s fixation with privatisation—

Order. I am always reluctant to interrupt an hon. Gentleman, but questions must be put. This is not an opportunity for a statement, whether from the Front Bench or not. If the hon. Gentleman can rephrase what he has to say into a question, I can accept that.

In the wider interests of Britain’s armed forces, is this a privatisation too far? Will the Minister say whether any other MOD privatisations are being considered?

The bidder that has been successful in this competition has proven capabilities, which were confirmed during the evaluation process. That process was technically demanding and adjudicated to the highest standards to deliver training. There is no question but that, despite the fact that we start at a high level of training for our armed forces, this investment and opportunity, when delivered, will improve training for them. The test of that is whether there is support from the chiefs of staff, and there is. The PPP is the chosen procurement method in this case because it brings private sector management expertise, which brings added value, and the ability to have significant capital investment in the estate in a short time, which would have been unaffordable otherwise. Not only that, but it gives the Department the flexibility to increase or decrease the student throughput, with the partner who is involved, over the period of the contract. As far as my Department is concerned, with signed PPP contracts we have a good record in terms not only of value and delivering in time, but of delivering what those who charge us with the responsibility of delivering these services want for our forces.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will see a world-class training facility at St. Athan, which will greatly benefit Britain’s armed forces. That must be the only criterion for taking this decision: what is best for the training needs of Britain’s armed forces? His announcement means that I will achieve some of my long-held ambitions: to see the defence footprint in Wales greatly increased, to see large numbers of highly skilled jobs created, and to see a boost to our skills base. Will he confirm that private companies will be able to buy into this training facility? That will mean that the entire Welsh economy will have the opportunity to upskill its work force.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s contribution to the process of identifying the appropriate way of delivering training for the military when he was an Under-Secretary in the Department. Not just as a Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency, but as a person who has contributed to the progress that has been made—although there is still much work to be done—he is entitled to take some credit for that. He is quite right to say that the centre of excellence that will grow in St. Athan will not only provide our military forces with the opportunity of tailored training across the whole range of phases 2 and 3, but will generate opportunities for the Welsh economy and for skills in Wales itself.

I congratulate Metrix and St. Athan on winning the bid. As that result means that Bordon in my constituency will lose the School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, will the Ministry of Defence work closely with the local community to ensure that the release of MOD land is managed in such a way as to make it a positive experience for Bordon as well as for the MOD?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive contribution to the process. He realised that there was always a possibility that a facility and opportunities that were there for his constituents in Bordon would be removed, depending on the decision that was made. I reassure him that, almost from the moment that I sit down after the statement and leave the Chamber, we will start to engage with those communities, and with him, where that is appropriate, to ensure that the best advantage is taken of the opportunities that will be created. Over time, this move will provide a range of opportunities for the development of the area. We need to ensure that those opportunities are consistent with the community’s plans for their area and its growth.

Naturally, I am disappointed by my right hon. Friend’s statement, as Cosford is less than 10 miles from my constituency. The people of the west midlands will be bitterly disappointed as well. My right hon. Friend has mentioned on a number of occasions the rigours of the evaluation procedures. Will he tell me on what date the two packages were put to the Treasury for its evaluation and on what date the Treasury gave its evaluation of those two main proposals?

I cannot off the top of my head remember the specific dates. There has been continuous communication between our Department and the Treasury about this proposal, as one would expect. I understand my hon. Friend’s disappointment in relation to Cosford and I commend him—as I will no doubt repeatedly commend others who catch your eye, Mr. Speaker—for his contribution and his advocacy for his community. Looking to the future, Cosford is well placed as a highly flexible defence site. Although I am not in a position today to give more detailed information than what I specifically included in the statement, I can reassure my hon. Friend that in relation to the totality of the opportunities that that site offers, it is our intention that Cosford will continue to make a significant contribution to our total defence services.

What weight has been given to personnel issues? Is the Secretary of State aware that for decades there has been a sensible focusing of training and the basing of ships in the Portsmouth and Gosport area, with the result that many service personnel—naval personnel—have made their homes in south Hampshire? A move to south Wales for training purposes will have a devastating effect on their domestic arrangements, and no doubt on the retention of skilled and trained men. Is the Secretary of State aware that, with the move of many surface ships into mothballs, with a threat over the premier port, Portsmouth, and now with this announcement, the Government will have to work very hard to avoid the conclusion that they do not understand the importance of sea power and do not respect the traditions of the service—the Royal Navy and its personnel?

The fact that we are in the middle of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, peacetime warship building programmes that this country has seen is an indication of the Government’s commitment to our Navy. [Hon. Members: “How many ships?”] Hon. Members need to go through the same process as I have gone through over the past several months, during which Chiefs of the Defence Staff have repeatedly explained to me how the capability of the platforms that we now use is much better and greater than it was even a decade ago. It is now redundant to count platforms to determine the delivery of military effect. Hon. Members need to understand the effect of the significant investment that we are making in not only ships, but warplanes and other equipment.

I am conscious that today’s announcement will have an effect on those who work for us on not only the civil side, but the military side, to provide training. There is no plan to close HMS Sultan in the near future. As I said, the earliest move will not take place before 2011 and electro-mechanical engineering training will remain there until 2017. That will give us the opportunity to ensure that we can engage with people to understand their personal ambitions. We will engage with them in such a way that we can respond to them and make the best use of them. Hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to have shared the belief that the centralisation of the training and the building of a centre of excellence would bring about a benefit. Some people were always going to be presented with the choice of moving, or moving on.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and, as Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, thank him for the fair and transparent way in which the process has been undertaken. I also thank all members of political parties throughout Wales who supported the bid in a non-sectarian way. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the institutions of further and higher education in Wales that have supported the bid and made it excellent?

All those who have been involved in supporting, planning and making the bids have behaved entirely appropriately and are to be congratulated on their approach. In a sense, the congratulations that Metrix and Wales deserve arise from the fact that they have emerged as the winners. I cannot repeat often enough that the process was subjected to the most rigorous technical assessment and an assessment of value for money. The winners in the competition came out on top for both packages and in both criteria.

In the negotiations on the programme, what regard was taken of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Wales spatial plan? How will the economic effects of this massive investment be extended beyond Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff and parts of the valleys?

There was no negotiation or discussion with anyone outside the parameters of the competition itself. We are now entering a phase in which such negotiations and discussions can take place. The hon. Gentleman clearly recognises the possible value to the whole of Wales of today’s announcement, and he is right to do so. However, he might want to point out to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), his leader, that it was inappropriate for him to sign an early-day motion in November opposing the entire defence training review programme. The hon. Gentlemen’s colleagues in the Welsh Assembly might now allow some of our armed forces the opportunity to enter Welsh schools, because if they had their way such a thing would be banned.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) that many people in the west midlands will be disappointed by the decision, to say the least. Having said that, the Secretary of State has given us a hint about several proposals for RAF Cosford. Will he consider meeting a small delegation of west midlands Members, of which I am the chair, to discuss any future plans?

I cannot make it any clearer that I do not anticipate that Cosford will be anything other than well placed for future opportunities. I have described some of them, and there might be others that people might know or speculate about, although I am not in a position to do that. Either the Under-Secretary who has day-to-day responsibility for this area of policy or I will be only too happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and other Members from his area to discuss those opportunities to the extent to which they can be discussed. I meant to make the point earlier that all the meetings that I had and all the advocacy of hon. Members, except when they took place on a bilateral basis, were distinguished by their cross-party nature.

It is clear that defence training at RAF Cosford will end by 2011. Despite the Secretary of State’s comments, we have heard no details, definitive statement or guarantee about the type of defence sector work that Cosford might expect. In his statement, he said that his Department was “exploring a number of proposals for the potential future defence use”, but even those future proposals must go through an approval process. There is thus no guarantee that Metrix, which might have a different view from the Ministry of Defence, will come forward with a learning resource centre, a national training research and development support centre, or, indeed, the national manufacturing skills academy. Will the Secretary of State assure the workers who are watching us live that proposals will be worked up in detail? Will he give those workers details and a guarantee that they will have a bright future, rather than giving us a bland statement that Cosford will have some sort of defence future?

The hon. Gentleman has approached this difficult issue for him and his constituents entirely appropriately and in a genuine cross-party spirit. He has been a consistent advocate for the best interests of his constituents and Cosford. I understand that he is disappointed, but, knowing him, I expect that he will do exactly what his question suggests he will do: gird his loins and start looking for assurances to the extent that he can get them about plans for the best use of Cosford, which could give rise to growth in certain parts of his local community. I, too, am disappointed that the timing is such that I cannot give him any more certainty from the Dispatch Box than that which was in the words that I have carefully used in my statement and my responses to hon. Members’ questions. I expect that the path between his office and my Department will become well worn over the weeks and months to come. He can rest assured that we will work with him, his constituents and the work force to ensure that they get the best possible outcome.

I recognise the huge economic benefits that will accrue to Wales from today’s decision regarding the new centre of excellence at St. Athan. Prior to my right hon. Friend’s visit to Portsmouth tomorrow, will he take account, as part of the naval base review, of the enormous economic benefit that Portsmouth naval base brings to my area, where we hope that we can have as favourable an outcome in the future as Wales has had today?

During last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister enumerated the benefits that the naval base at Portsmouth brings to the area, of which I am conscious. The review is necessary for the reasons that were set out when it was announced. It will continue and recommendations will be made to me. Until such a time as those whom I have charged with responsibility for carrying out the review feel that they are in a position to report to me, I will leave them to get on with the job. I simply say to my hon. Friend—no doubt I will have plenty of opportunities to repeat this tomorrow when I visit Portsmouth—that the importance of the naval base to the local community and the contribution that it makes to the support of our armed forces, especially the Navy, are not lost on me.

Please will the Secretary of State clarify his enigmatic reference to housing? He said that there will be new build for single accommodation, but in the next sentence he referred to benefits to families from recreational accommodation. Will any married quarters be provided, and who will procure, manage and maintain them?

There will be married quarters accommodation. That is part of the package, and the detail of how that is to be delivered and managed will be worked out in the detailed negotiations.

I welcome the statement, and the news will be a huge boost to south Wales, Cardiff and my constituency of Cardiff, North. Will consideration be given to whether special measures can be put in place to help those aircraft maintenance specialists who lost their jobs in the running down of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency at St. Athan? Some of my constituents were in that position. Will there be any special measures that will help them to retrain as instructors in the new facility, as they have the skills that will be needed?

With respect to my hon. Friend, I am not in a position to deal with the detail of the transferability of any specific skills so that we can meet other demands, in relation to the many aspects of engineering training that will be necessary. I was born and brought up in west Scotland, and I represent and have lived in a constituency that has a long history of engineering. Indeed, I have in my family a chief engineer in the merchant navy. My instinct suggests that it is just the sort of people who have those basic skills who the successful bidder will be looking for to deliver the training needed. I am absolutely certain that opportunities will be found to enable people with those basic skills to do the necessary retraining to allow them to take advantage of jobs.

Under the circumstances, it is important that the Secretary of State and his Department consider future defence uses for Blandford. I understand that £75 million has been spent at the college there in the past few years. Will he give every assurance that the facilities will be retained for the greater good of the local community?

The Metrix bid proposes to move the training currently delivered at the Royal School of Signals in Blandford to St. Athan by the end of the transition phase, but, again, no significant moves are currently anticipated before 2011. The RSS is, of course, only one element of the activities undertaken by the Royal Corps of Signals in the camp. We are still reviewing the implications for the headquarters of the signal officer in chief and the other units, including the research and development facilities on the site.

Will the Secretary of State take the first opportunity to ensure that strong, enduring links are built between St. Athan and the universities of Cardiff, Swansea, and Wales, Newport, and particularly that links are built with the defence industries in Newport, such as EADS and International Rectifier? It is understandable that there is disappointment in other parts of the country, but does he agree that this is probably the first time that Wales has had its first share of defence jobs, and can he assure Members—

It is logical that the opportunity for such significant investment, and for a centre of excellence for training, should generate a demand for links with all establishments of further and higher education in the area. The things that my hon. Friend suggests I should encourage will happen naturally in any event.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the anguish and the dashed hopes caused by the statement today will be added to by the lack of detail? When will we have an idea of precisely what will happen at Cosford, and of how many people are likely to be given jobs there? Will he come to the House within the next year and tell us that?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to accept that the only answer that I can give at the moment is that I will do what he suggests as early as I can; I recognise how urgent the matter is. My expectation is that both my Department and the relevant services should engage immediately with the people who are affected by the decision, to ensure that what will happen in the future, and the opportunities for the future, are shared with them, to the extent that that is known, as we go along.

There will be an enormously warm reception for the announcement in my constituency and across south Wales—indeed, across the whole of Wales—not least because so many young people in my constituency are in the armed forces and want the best training possible. Is not the most important part of today’s announcement the fact that we are talking about a £16 billion investment in training, so that our armed forces have what they deserve and need—the most advanced, most sophisticated, highest-tech training in the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am pleased to announce that we will be able to make that significant investment, but I am also conscious that I am charged with the responsibility of ensuring that we actually deliver, against the very high standards that we have set for training for the armed forces. We recognise that any announcement of this nature, stretching so far into the future, has to continue to be affordable. We cannot have a scheme that starts off promising a lot, but that fails to deliver in the later years because it was not sustainable. I need to make sure that, in the negotiations, we ensure sustainability.

RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby are in my constituency, and my constituents work at both bases. Will the Secretary of State give the House the precise implications for those two bases? With regard to the letter that he mentioned, of which I have not yet received a copy, will he please put a copy on the board within an hour?

I think that it will be possible for me to put a copy of the letter on the board within an hour. I know that those letters were, on my instruction, being drafted. They could not, of course, be given out before the statement was made. The aerial erector school at RAF Digby is intended to move to St. Athan, and that will affect fewer than 20 staff. The station’s core task as the joint services’ signal wing will remain unchanged. As for RAF Cranwell, all aeronautical and communications engineering training will move to the new tri-service defence training campus in St. Athan in south Wales under package 1. Under package 2, a small element of the Defence College of Logistics and Personnel Administration will transfer, too, and that will affect fewer than 100 staff. As I say, the college’s core initial officer training task will remain unchanged, but I will ensure that the letter gets to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the time scale that he suggests.

The Minister has in the past been kind enough to acknowledge the superb work done by the leadership team in Deepcut in my constituency, which is the headquarters of the Royal Logistic Corps. He acknowledged in his statement that the future of logistics training was more complex than the move to St. Athan, but can he give my constituents in Deepcut the same assurance that he gives to those who serve in Cosford and Blandford that the site will continue to serve a defence function in future, sine die?

I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but I can give him an assurance that we will engage, in the very short term, with the people who are likely to be affected, because the site will of course be affected by the outcome of the continuing negotiations on package 2, and may have to be vacated if the result of those negotiations allows us to deliver the complex package in the way we want. I am grateful to him for recognising that the second package has a degree of complexity that the first does not; in the first package, there is much more synergy between the different elements of training. However, I will ensure that, to the extent possible, he as Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath is kept up to date on developments.

The Secretary of State knows that my only interest is in what is right for the armed forces; I do not have defence interests in my constituency, although I did serve myself. In today’s statement, there is nothing to suggest why Metrix and Wales were chosen. It might be the right decision, but nothing in the statement made public today indicates why it was made. Will the Secretary of State elaborate, in a spirit of openness?

Coming to the House to announce a decision is, in some circumstances, quite restricting. There is a comparatively short period in which to make a statement, and I am trying to stick to that requirement. To supplement the information available to hon. Members, I have placed a significant amount of background information, including the independent verification of technical assessments, in the House of Commons Library. Members can look at that information at their leisure if they wish to satisfy their curiosity or if they wish to be certain that we have been open. A detailed, complex technical assessment of the bids was made against a number of criteria that were set out in the bid process—I have made the information to tender available to the House of Commons, too—and on value for money the Metrix bids were the significant winner, which is why they were chosen. We must get down to details and discuss the terms of the contract to see whether those complex services can be delivered.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems is located in Blandford in my constituency. The South West of England Regional Development Agency estimates that the economic footprint of the military presence at Blandford is nearly £300 million a year, so the impact of any move will be significant. The Ministry of Defence has spent nearly £100 million developing the Royal School of Signals at Blandford into a centre of excellence, so I think that the decision is wrong. However, I want assurances about the future of Blandford. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the headquarters of the Royal School of Signals will remain at Blandford, that the signal officer in chief will remain there, and that in future Blandford will be the natural base for all signal regiments when they are located in the United Kingdom?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to extract those assurances from me, and he will understand my inability to give them to him. I have already said some quite detailed things about Blandford, and I confirm that we are still reviewing the implications for the headquarters of the signal officer in chief and the other units, including research and development facilities at Blandford. I cannot say any more at this stage.

I very much welcome the awarding of the contract to St Athan, which brings a period of uncertainty to an end and will unquestionably benefit the Welsh economy as a whole. Did the Ministry consider keeping the training contract in the public sector, or was the PPP approach the only one to be considered?

I have already indicated in reply to previous questions some of the advantageous characteristics of the PPP, but the most significant advantage was that it allowed us the opportunity to make capital investment that, I candidly admit, we could not otherwise make. After decades of failure to invest in the infrastructure that delivered our training, the scale of investment required was such that it would take decades to secure it if we had used any other method. This way, however, we can secure it in the time scale that I gave in the statement.

I am delighted that all training in Leconfield in my constituency will continue, and I congratulate the staff at Europe’s premier driver training centre on convincing both bidders of the strengths of their operation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £40 million investment that is cited in the documents that he released to the House of Commons Library this morning will be invested in Leconfield, and will not be subject to any Treasury cuts in future?

I do not have any experience, either as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or, indeed, as the Secretary of State for Defence, of the Treasury cuts that people keep talking about. I do have experience, however, of significantly increased real investment in our armed forces, certainly compared with the money spent on them by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. I would be the first to say that we could do more if we invested more, and things that have been highlighted in recent months suggest that there are areas in which we need to invest more. I do not have with me the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but if its detail refers to a planned investment of that nature in his constituency, that is what is planned.

There is a standing joke in the armed forces about RAF Cosford, Blandford and the garrison at Aldershot: when the barracks finally get a lick of paint people know that the building is going to be sold. There was a major project at St Athan, as £70 million was spent building a massive aircraft hangar to repair Tornadoes and Harriers, only for the entire project to be scrapped a year later. Will we see some better spending by the MOD?

Independent audit and assessment have confirmed that the MOD is getting progressively better at investing public money so that it can deliver for our armed forces. There is no question about that, but no one, whatever party they represent and certainly no one from a party that has governed the country, can be happy with our ability to do so in the past. We must be honest, and accept that in the past we made some significant mistakes. We do not need to enumerate them, as we all know what they are. We are on a path of improvement, and we will continue along that path.

The Secretary of State generously congratulated the respective bids on the strong cross-party support they received and, in turn, I congratulate the architects of the Welsh bid, which will be well received in south Wales, not least by the Labour candidates for the Welsh Assembly elections next spring. It is a sad day for Shropshire, and a very sad day for my constituency. Will the Secretary of State confirm what he said in the statement about the details of the bid, and confirm that new build will be required to provide the training in St Athan, which, of course, was not the case with the Cosford proposal? I should like to take up his offer to explore a national manufacturing skills academy in Cosford, and I am happy to work with Government Members to progress that proposal in the near future.

At the risk of repeating myself, of course we will do all that we can to make sure that the best use is made of the Cosford site, to the advantage of the local community. I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman’s question was, but he said that one bid did not require new build while another did so. In any assessment of necessary investment, there is an argument that it is a positive aspect of any bid to provide modern, state-of-the-art accommodation for our people, particularly members of the armed forces who are training. The hon. Gentleman’s point therefore cuts both ways.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I need your guidance because, as you are aware, in many constituencies, including my own, health issues are paramount. The loss of the proposed super-hospital for Hatfield has been very hard for us, particularly as before the election the Secretary of State for Health visited us. Since the election, I have requested meetings with Ministers to discuss the failed proposal and debts. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), had been to St. Albans on 10 December, because I was unaware of that visit. I was unaware, too, that meetings were held to discuss the hospital bid. Will you give me guidance on the matter, Mr. Speaker, as the Minister has not as yet given me any indication that he will discuss the matter with elected Members, although parliamentary wannabes seem to receive that courtesy?

It is a courtesy for any hon. Member who visits another constituency on an official matter to extend notice of the visit to the Member who represents the constituency. Whether it is a Minister or a Back Bencher, they should inform the sitting Member of Parliament that they are visiting their constituency. It is different, of course, if it is a private matter. I do not have any powers to tell a Minister to meet a Back Bencher, but I served as a Back Bencher in opposition, and it was always good to go and see a Minister. Ministers should consider seriously any request from an hon. Member to come and see them about a constituency matter. If a Member of Parliament cannot represent his or her constituency, who can?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I, too, ask your advice as the Back Bencher’s friend and as the guardian of the House against a sometimes over-mighty Executive? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced today by way of a written statement the merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. This is a significant change to the machinery of government, involving millions of pounds and intimately affecting communities throughout the country. Today we are discussing the business of the House, rather than pressing legislation. Why has the right hon. Lady not come to the House to make that statement? This is a pattern on her part. Whenever matters of controversy—for example, the abandonment of the home condition report element of the home information pack—are before us, she makes a written statement and does not come to the House to answer questions.

My view has always been that a Minister should inform the House. How that information is conveyed is for the judgment of the Minister. I will leave it at that.

Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to establish a national strategy to safeguard runaway and missing children; to make provision for the collection and reporting of information about runaway and missing children and for related co-ordination between local authorities and other bodies; and for connected purposes.

In November 2005, the House gave consent to publish a Bill to protect runaway and missing children. The Bill was published last year with support from the National Missing Persons Helpline, the Children’s Society, Parents and Abducted Children Together, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Crisis, the chair of children’s services for the Association of Directors of Social Services, the lead officer for runaways from the Association of Chief Police Officers, and many hon. Members. That Bill’s purpose was also to place a duty on the Secretary of State to safeguard children.

It does not seem too much to ask that vulnerable children are identified so that they can be helped, that information is collected when a child is reported missing to the police, and that there is effective co-ordination to ensure that such children receive help. However, the House did not find time to give the Bill a Second Reading. Safeguarding vulnerable children is, however, the core business of Government. It is our responsibility and we cannot ignore it. We need the Bill.

The Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills do not even know how many children have gone missing over the past 12 months. A large number of local authority children’s services—the bodies responsible under “Every Child Matters” for safeguarding young runaways—do not know how many children in their own area were reported missing to the police in 2005. Of the 120 authorities that responded to my recent request for information, 71 did not know the statistic for their area, 23 could not say how many of their looked-after children—children for whom they were directly responsible—were reported missing to the police in 2005, and 42 did not know how many children on their child protection register had been reported missing to the police.

Police forces have been making progress during the past 12 months, but fewer than half are currently using the computerised systems designed to make recording and management of reports effective. Research by the Children’s Society indicates that around 100,000 children go missing each year. Those estimates are corroborated by research for the Government’s social exclusion unit review of young runaways in 2002 and by statistics from the Metropolitan police.

That means that, on average, every five minutes of every day a child goes missing in the UK. Most get home safely and are cared for and cherished, but many do not. They are running from danger into danger. Those children must have someone to turn to and somewhere safe to go. It is our responsibility to make that happen. Today there are only 10 places available in refuges run by charities for children who have run away. National and local charities are the main providers of emergency help.

The National Missing Persons Helpline has set up a dedicated runaways helpline, totally funded by voluntary donations and grants, which took 57,000 calls in 2005—calls like one from an 11-year-old girl who phoned in the early hours of the morning, asking for help because her mother had kicked her out of the house. She agreed to speak to social services, but hung up. She phoned again a few days later at 10 pm and asked for contact with social services, which was arranged by the helpline.

Almost a month later the girl rang again late at night, saying that her mum had thrown her out again. Social services advised her to go home, but she said she would rather stay on the streets than go back. The helpline night worker was able to persuade her to talk to the police, who picked her up at 1 am, very cold and scared. This little girl is 11 years old and has special needs. Without the helpline, she would have been out on the streets on her own through several nights.

The London Refuge provides emergency accommodation and specialist support for children who have run away. Among the children whom it has helped in the past 12 months was a 14-year-old girl referred to the refuge by the police. She ran away because she was being hit by her mother. She disclosed physical abuse over a sustained period of time. She said that her mother had burned her with an iron, and showed the staff a serious scar on her stomach. She had special educational needs and attended a school for children with special needs. She had run away several times before.

The refuge made a child protection referral, arranged for an advocate and contacted a solicitor on the girl’s behalf at her request. She said she would not go home because she was too scared. Her solicitor attended the administrative division of the High Court on her behalf. The court ordered that she should be accommodated by the local authority, pending assessment and investigation. She was placed in foster care that day. The refuge does not have funding to continue its work beyond this financial year.

Those children found someone to help them, but thousands of other children do not, and we do not even know how many of them are out there on their own. According to the Children’s Society research, many young people sleep rough, stay with someone they have just met, or employ strategies such as begging or stealing to survive. There are serious risks to children surviving in this way. More than 8 per cent. had been hurt or harmed on the most recent occasion that they had run away. Children who were away for more than a week were twice as likely to have been hurt or harmed. The surveys indicate that over 20,000 children are missing for a week or more each year.

The police have given me some anonymous case studies, and they are heartbreakers. A 14-year-old boy with a deteriorating sight condition that means he is partially sighted was being abused by his mother and so was put on the child protection register, then placed in a care home. He ran away from the home 23 times between the end of October 2005 and the end of January 2006. On the last occasion that he went missing, he was robbed and assaulted.

Other cases—some were far worse—depict time and again vulnerable children, including children in local authority care, children with special needs and children with mental health problems, persistently running away and being exploited by predatory adults, getting trapped into drug abuse, drug dealing, sexual exploitation and prostitution. One 15-year-old, born HIV-positive and in local authority care, was reported missing 120 times. A 16-year-old girl in care went missing 111 times.

Yet Lancashire police, working with children’s services and charities, have demonstrated that good information, appropriately shared, interviews with children and action to tackle their problems radically reduces the number of runaways, and in addition gives police the information that they need to prosecute abusers. The problem can be solved only by effective joint working. Because children who run away cross administrative boundaries, that co-operation must extend beyond the local area.

If we want to buy a book or a piece of music, five minutes on the internet will find it for us. We can pay our road tax online or contact friends whom we have not seen for years. Information is available to us at the press of a button. The Bill will require police and Government bodies to use technology to record when a child goes missing. Local authorities will know that a child in their care has run away before that happens 120 times, and will be able to identify and tackle problems in their care homes. The Bill will also require agencies to work together so that police officers do not return a vulnerable child to its abusers, predatory adults are not left free to pick up children off the street, and charities can access statutory support when a scared and vulnerable child makes contact in the middle of the night.

One does not need to be a philanthropist to back speedy action, just someone who will not put up with waste. It costs £1,000 in police time to investigate a missing person. The young boy with impaired sight whom I mentioned earlier, who was abused at home and ran away from care 23 times, cost £23,000 of police time in those three months. How much better that money could have been spent. How much does it cost to keep someone in a young offenders institute? Ninety-four per cent. of the inmates at Thorn Cross YOI in my constituency said that they had been runaways before becoming involved in crime. Early intervention can save children and save money.

In short, a child is running away every five minutes. More than 100,000 will have run away in the past 12 months. Some of them will have been running from serious abuse. About 8,000 of them will have been hurt or harmed while they were away from home—some very seriously hurt. We do not know how many were murdered. Information technology and communications are now so advanced that a single telephone call from a child anywhere in the country, day or night, should give them access to safety and help. It is our job to make this happen, and it is about time that we did.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, Ann Coffey, Dan Norris, John Battle, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. John Denham, Ann Keen, Ms Dari Taylor, Jane Kennedy, Mr. Stewart Jackson and Mr. Paul Burstow.

Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children

Helen Southworth accordingly presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to establish a national strategy to safeguard runaway and missing children; to make provision for the collection and reporting of information about runaway and missing children and for related co-ordination between local authorities and other bodies; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 47].

We now come to the motion on conventions. I must tell the House—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With no disrespect to the Chair with regard to the selection of amendments, I merely want to draw attention to the question whether the practice of comity between the Houses has led to the fact that the proposed amendment, which would replace the words “with approval” with the words “with interest”, has been the reason for—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of this House and knows full well that the Chair does not enter into debates about why amendments have been selected or otherwise. I have to tell the House that the amendment on the Order Paper has not been selected.

Orders of the Day

Conventions of Parliament

I beg to move,

That this House takes note with approval of the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions of the UK Parliament (House of Commons Paper No. 1212 of Session 2005-06).

Let me begin by commending to the House the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which forms the subject of the resolution before us. The report is an impressive piece of work that has provided us with clarity on the key conventions that must govern the relationship between this House and the other place.

Before I talk about the report in more detail, I should like to pay tribute to all the members of the Committee from both Houses. Many of its members from this House are in their places today. The outcome of its inquiry and consideration far exceeded the expectations in this House when we debated the establishment of a Joint Committee on 10 May. That is a great tribute to all its members. The fact that the report is unanimous strengthens still more its conclusions about the current operation of the conventions.

I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend Lord Cunningham, who is a very old friend to me and to many of us, and who showed his customary felicity, as well as patience, in drawing together different strands of opinion and ensuring that there was a coherent and unanimous report. When the other place debated the report yesterday—I should tell the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it agreed an identical resolution to approve it—my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor called it the “bible” on the existing conventions.

I also pay particular tribute to one member of the Committee who is no longer with us—Lord Carter, who is sorely missed in both Houses. He had a very distinguished career in the other place. I got to know him well when, as Home Secretary, I had the happy task of being the Secretary of State with by far and away the largest amount of legislation of any Government Minister—some things never change—and I had to persuade him of the wisdom of that legislation and the ease with which it would go through the House of Lords. He was ever co-operative, but also clear about his own opinions when my enthusiasm overtook my judgment. He is sorely missed in all parts of this House and at both ends of the building.

Today, the House is invited to approve the Joint Committee’s report. The Government have published a response to the report—Command Paper 6997—the remit of which, for reasons that I will explain, necessarily goes further than that of the Committee itself. However, the House is not being asked to approve that response, happy though I would be for that to be on the Order Paper as well. We are instead looking for cross-party agreement on the report of a cross-party Committee and on its description of the conventions as they stand.

Yesterday in the other place, there was general endorsement of the Committee's conclusions, although the debate extended to include consideration of an issue raised in one paragraph of the report—the application of the conventions to a future House. I will come to that later. Although it is not the subject of the resolution, it will no doubt form a substantial part of the debate. We are looking for Parliament-wide approval of the Committee’s report on the current relationship between the two Houses. The Government accept the Committee’s descriptions of that relationship and its definition of the key conventions.

One of the fundamental requirements on the Joint Committee was to consider the conventions on the basis of the primacy of the House of Commons. Indeed, the primacy of the Commons is the fundamental principle guiding all current discussions on any future and further reform of the House of Lords, and it has not, to my knowledge, been questioned by any party during previous debates on reform.

But that is the very point of concern. This is being treated as a matter that is just between the parties and not for wider discussion. This House has never had a proper debate on what we want; certainly, there has been no such debate within my own party. It is not good enough to say that this can be wrapped up between the parties.

With great respect, that is not the case. First, we are proceeding on an all-party basis. I am as partisan as the next person when necessary, but I happen to believe that on important issues of the constitution, if it is possible to proceed by consensus and cross-party agreement, so much the better, because those are the ground rules that constrain and help to determine the nature of the partisan debate.

Secondly, as I said, we had a debate about the establishment of the Joint Committee on 10 May, when I was only in my first week as Leader of the House, and I was told by those founts of wisdom, the Whips, that it would all go through on the nod. The debate then went for about four hours, not least with a good half an hour from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who decided to open the debate when I was temporarily absent, for a couple of seconds, from my seat. He treated us to a lengthy disquisition, and very interesting it turned out to be. As often happens, the debate then took off and became a very good debate about the conventions on the relationship between this place and the other place. I am sure that the same will apply today. When we get to debate the specific proposals on the reform of the other place, much of it will be about whether moving towards, for example, an elected element, is compatible with primacy in the Commons. Much will be said by hon. Members of all parties about that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his characteristic generosity in giving way. He rightly says that any progress on the issues must be made by consensus. He extols the virtues of consensus and I agree. However, paragraph 61 of the report states:

“Given the weight of evidence on this point, should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again.”

Let us compare that with the Government’s December response, which states:

“Our answer to that question is that further reform should not alter the current role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber, and that the conventions governing its relationship with the Commons are fit for that purpose.”

Either we are wrong or my right hon. Friend is. I fear that, on this occasion, it is he who is wrong.

I shall deal with my right hon. Friend’s point in more detail shortly. Of course paragraph 61 is correct that, were the composition of the other Chamber to be revised, and the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, the relationship between the two would be called into question and have to be re-examined in due course. However, it is important not to parody the Government’s response. As my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear, it is a response by the Government as whole. We concluded that the primacy of the Commons can and should be maintained, and that it could be maintained in a reformed House of the sort that I would support. It was not a cavalier judgment but was reached after careful consideration. It is fully consistent with the repeated judgments of substantial inquiries, including that of the royal commission on Lords reform.

Of course I shall, but let me make progress on primacy and then revert to the issue. That applies to other colleagues, too.

Will my right hon. Friend give way? I wish to make a point on the subject that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) raised.

I should like to make some progress and then revert to the matter. Of course, I shall then give way to my right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished Member of this House and also a member of the royal commission.

One of the fundamental requirements of the Joint Committee was to consider conventions on the basis of primacy. Recognising the unambiguous primacy of the House of Commons and its importance to the relationship between the two Houses is paramount in any debate on the subject. The Government welcome the Committee’s clear statement of that fact.

Four pillars bear the weight of the primacy of this House. First, the elected Members of this House determine the party that is in government and also determine—as they did in March 1979—when a Government’s authority comes to an end. That democratic mandate is fundamental to the governance of the country and the primacy of the House.

My right hon. Friend said that the House’s powers derive from its Members determining the Government. Is not that the wrong way around? We determine the Government because we are the elected Members. Our determination is based on the elective principle, not the Parliament Act or finance legislation or the fact that the Government have to command a majority in the House. It all comes down to the core issue of election. If we change that, all the other elements in the equation change, too.

I understand the argument, which is quite strong, against any change in the other place to provide for an elected element. The fact that this House is wholly elected is a necessary part of the arrangement but, by itself, it is not a sufficient part of the relationship. There are plenty of examples, which are given in appendices to the royal commission report and mentioned briefly in our response to the Joint Committee’s report, of wholly elected second Chambers in other countries that are clearly subordinate and have less power—in some cases, they are close to powerless—than the House of Lords. It is perfectly possible to construct arrangements, depending, to put it bluntly, on what is acceptable and the constitution, whereby one Chamber is clearly supreme and has primacy, notwithstanding the fact that the other Chamber—I do not support the model that I am outlining—is also wholly elected.

Let me give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) first because I sense the way that the debate is going.

My right hon. Friend has asked the House to “note with approval” the report. With a tiny caveat, I am happy to note the report with approval. However, paragraph 61—not paragraph 63, as the summary states—reads:

“Our conclusions apply only to present circumstances. If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not.”

We are therefore being asked to approve the report on the basis of the continuation ad infinitum of the status quo. If not, we are wasting our time today.

We are not remotely doing that. My right hon. Friend says that matters will “be called into question”. Of course they will be called into question—they always have been. Those who take the view that any elected element in the other place poses an inherent danger will use that as part of their argument. I understand that. However, the Committee states that future arrangements are outside its remit and it is therefore not remotely the case that we are today closing down all debate on the future composition of the other place. I shall deal with plans for that later.

My right hon. Friend was a distinguished member of the royal commission and he will recall that it, under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham, considered the relative powers of the two Chambers at great length, almost in anticipation of the examination question set by the Joint Committee on Conventions. The royal commission recommended an elected element—of, according to the alternatives, between 12 and 35 per cent. Recommendation 2 on page 33 concluded:

“The House of Commons, as the principal policy forum, should have the final say in respect of all major public policy issues, including those expressed in the form of…legislation. Equally, the second Chamber should have sufficient power, and the associated authority, to require the Government and the House of Commons to reconsider proposed legislation and to take account of any cogent objections to it.”

Recommendation 6 states:

“The reformed second chamber should maintain the House of Lords convention that all Government business is considered within a reasonable time.”

Other support was given to what were understood then and now to be such conventions. I agree with the conclusions of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the royal commission.

Is not the Leader of the House in danger of treating primacy rather like pregnancy? Either one is or one is not. Has not the meaning of primacy evolved in the past 300 years as this House has become more democratic? If the upper Chamber became wholly or partly elected, one could surely retain the primacy of this House, but it might be significantly less than is currently the case. Is not that the real issue?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) chaired the Public Administration Committee and presided over a report—one of several on the subject—on the future of the House of Lords. Towards the end of his report, he and his colleagues wrote that changing the nature of the other place is not a zero-sum game with this House—I believe that that is an accurate recollection of what the Committee said—and I agree with that.

I do not for a second regard primacy as being like pregnancy, although it is an elegant metaphor—either you are or you are not—but it is evolving and it has, for sure, evolved very significantly. I have always accepted—I did so when I gave evidence to the Joint Committee—that as the other place has increased its active membership, which has been a dramatic change over the past 30 years, and following the changes in 1999, it has become more assertive and more questioning. Let me say, as someone who has served at a senior level in the British Government for the last 10 years, that I do not mind that. I happen to believe that the questioning of Ministers is a way of improving Government decisions, as well as being an accepted part of our democracy, rather than an irritant. Of course, there have been mornings, particularly when I was in the Home Office, when I thought that it would be nice if the House of Commons were on holiday.

For sure, as I said, primacy is evolving. We can debate the issue at greater length when we discuss the White Paper, as it is obvious that there is an appetite for change and I am pleased about that. I have always accepted that the role would change. What I do not accept—and, more to the point, what people much more distinguished than me have not accepted—is that at the moment we introduce an elected element in the House of Lords, by virtue of that fact the primacy of the Commons and the ability of the Government to have the final say suddenly dissolves. That strikes me as unsustainable, unsubstantiated and devoid of evidence.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the sequence of events that we were engaged in was, first, trying to answer the question about the present disposition of powers between the two Chambers so that we could then debate the change in the composition of the House of Lords on the basis of an agreement, if we could reach it? The Committee did not say that there will definitely be a change, argued for or won; all it said was that the question of whether, if we change the composition, there should be a change in the relative powers is bound to come back. It was done completely logically, but there was no presumption across the Committee that just because we changed the composition of the other place, there would have to be a further change.

I accept that entirely. It is part of a sequence. The Joint Committee was established only because it was triggered by our manifesto commitment to further reform, and was supported to go further by the manifesto commitments of both Opposition parties.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor said yesterday:

“The acceptance of the other place’s primacy has been the ‘bedrock’ of all discussions on the reform of your Lordships’ House, and no party has deviated from that acceptance.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 575.]

I would also like to quote a good friend of mine—my noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean—who takes a slightly different view from me on this matter. Although she believes quite strongly that

“the relationship between the two Houses may well change if the Lords becomes partly or wholly elected”—

she also says that, in her view, that is a fact

“within accepting the primacy of the House of Commons”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 620.]

I fancy that there is rather less to argue about there than sometimes appears here.

I want to make some progress.

I said that the first of the four pillars of primacy was the fact that the elected House determines who is in government, who is to leave it and who sustains the Government. The second pillar is the Parliament Acts. As the Joint Committee states in paragraph 18 of the report, the Parliament Acts have defined

“the fundamentals of the relationship between the two Houses ever since 1911, expressly limiting the powers of the Lords compared with the Commons, and acting as a long-stop to save a Bill and to vindicate the primacy of the Commons when there is a deep disagreement between the two Houses.”

The third and fourth pillars are the Salisbury-Addison convention and the financial rights and privileges of this House and I will return in a few moments to both those specific matters.

I give way to the hon. Gentleman. No debate that I have taken part in over the past 10 years would have been complete without his intervention. I will pay for his journey to Blackburn if he manages to keep the European Union out of his intervention.