House of Commons
Monday 8 October 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Claimant unemployment is falling for 18 to 24-year-olds and is down 138,000 since 1997.
Now that the red flag has been hauled down and the yellow flag of cowardice has been hoisted, what is the Secretary of State’s vision for youth unemployment, given that so many more people who have been on the new deal have gone back on to jobseeker’s allowance?
The truth is that, compared with when the Tories were in power, when young people had virtually no chance of getting a job in constituencies such as mine, unemployment has been cut, youth unemployment has been cut and long-term unemployment—more than a year—has been virtually eradicated. That is a record of which we are proud, and the new deal for young people has made an enormous contribution to that—a new deal opposed by the Conservatives.
The number of young people leaving the new deal to go straight back to benefits has spiralled in recent years and the number of 18 to 20-year-olds not in education, employment or full-time training has increased sharply. Does not that show that the claim that youth unemployment has been virtually eradicated is nonsense and that, despite all the billions of pounds of expenditure on the new deal in the past five years, we still have a serious and growing problem with a hard core of unskilled, unmotivated young people who are effectively doing nothing with their lives?
In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, long-term, six month-plus youth unemployment has fallen by 94 per cent. since we came to power. I can give him lots of other figures, including about the very high number of vacancies in his constituency. There are plenty of jobs in his constituency, and that is true right across the country. Yes, there is an issue about 16 to 17-year-olds, which we are addressing, but it would not be addressed by the bankrupt policies of the Conservatives.
What role does my right hon. Friend think city strategies can have in tackling worklessness among the under-25s?
Those strategies can have an enormous role, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on chairing the city strategy project in Rhyl, which has got off to a flying start. He has brought together local employers and all the other agencies. The strategies are focused on tackling some of the problems right at the centre of our towns and cities that are still very serious and part of a legacy that we inherited 10 years ago. We are doing something about it.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is doing something about it.
My hon. Friend is indeed doing something about it, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is joining me in congratulating him on what he is doing in Rhyl to tackle some of the serious problems of people who are also involved in drugs and other problems in some of our most disadvantaged areas. In Rhyl, people are showing the way forward, and we will all need to consider whether that model can be applied elsewhere.
Given that, during the past three years, 2 million people have come to this country to work and have found work, does my right hon. Friend not feel that our welfare-to-work strategy is somewhat disappointing? Given that we are not now to have an election, might we have a debate in Government time on the new proposals that he intends to introduce to help and encourage more people to move from benefit to work?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are consulting, including with him, on how we take on the next stage of getting more people into work. The truth is that we have been incredibly successful in the past 10 years in tackling the main problem of those who are in and around the job market, with 2.7 million extra jobs in the past 10 years, about 800,000 of which involve those who have come from outside the country to work in Britain and are contributing to our economy. However, there is still a high level of people on long-term benefits, which we intend to tackle. That is why we published our Green Paper, “In work, better off: next steps to full employment”, and I will certainly work with my right hon. Friend and anyone else who has ideas to contribute during the consultation that ends at the end of this month.
I welcome the Secretary of State back from the campaign trail. I have been wondering over the weekend whether he is one of the Cabinet’s young Turks or grey beards.
The Secretary of State talks about youth unemployment. According to the Office for National Statistics, overall youth unemployment is almost 50,000 higher than it was when the Government came to office. Does he accept that situation?
As the Secretary of State responsible for the grey citizens in this country, I take pride in that role. Furthermore, when we look at our record on youth unemployment compared with what we inherited in 1997, we see the truth: the rates of both claimant and International Labour Organisation youth unemployment have fallen since 1997. The new deal for young people has reduced total and long-term youth unemployment and virtually eradicated long-term claimant unemployment—those claiming for a year or more. Those figures have gone down by 90 per cent. since 1997.
Despite the continual attacks on the new deal for young people, independent assessment has shown that the total number claming jobseeker’s allowance for more than six months would have been twice as high as it is now. That is all a result of our achievements, but we have got to do more—and we will do more.
I find it baffling when the Secretary of State talks about his achievements. According to the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds was 14.1 per cent. in 1997; today it is 14.5 per cent., and nearly 50,000 more young people are unemployed. When the Secretary of State said to this House,
“Actually, youth unemployment has been all but eradicated”—[Official Report, 18 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 283.]
was he telling the truth?
I repeat to the hon. Gentleman the point that I have already repeated: long-term youth unemployment—those on the claimant count for more than a year—has been virtually eradicated. That is a fact. He can check the statistics with me; I am happy to exchange correspondence with him on the issue. The truth is that we have a good record on increasing the number of jobs for young people. We continue to do so. However, there are more young people in the under-25 age group in the labour market now. That accounts for some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but he should check his figures.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still a problem that we must resolve? Will he look at some of the exciting pilots that depend on intensive mentoring? There is one in east London and we are starting one in Huddersfield. Jobcentre Plus and bureaucracies such as learning and skills councils often get in the way of such pilots. Will he visit some of those interesting pilots?
I am certainly happy to look into those projects. Yes, there is a whole issue about mentoring. The question is not only about getting young people into jobs, but about keeping them in those jobs; that is where mentoring comes in. Such mentoring is important for all sorts of categories of people who have been on long-term benefits, as it makes sure that they sustain their employment. When mentoring is applied, such people often do so.
Most individual complaints would be dealt with by pensions centres or the Pension Service chief executive. In respect of occupational pension schemes, complaints would be dealt with by internal procedures or the pensions ombudsman. It follows that few complaints would go to the Secretary of State; the Department does not therefore take account of the figure.
I am disappointed to hear that reply. When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he was responsible for complicating occupational pension schemes to such an extent that many of them were shut down by the trustees.
On another point, will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the unclaimed assets fund is being used only for youth projects? None of that money is going towards helping those pensioners who suffered so much through the failure of the schemes.
Last week, the Conservative party claimed that unclaimed assets could be used—in pension and other funds, as far as I am aware—to make payments and refloat the lifeboat that was sunk in July by the report issued by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young. That report clearly stated that
“we do not believe that…‘unclaimed assets’ are credible alternative funding sources.”
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a real problem in recruiting trustees for the administration of private pensions? That is partly due to the requirements put on pension funds by the regulator. For example, there is now a requirement for trustees to become professionally qualified. That has been difficult. In the case of our own scheme, which I have the honour to chair, all our trustees took the Pensions Management Institute examinations. However, it is proving increasingly difficult for other schemes to recruit people to become trustees given both the potential liabilities that they face and the requirement for additional learning. Before, it was considered sufficient for them to take appropriate professional advice.
As it happens, I met the regulator this morning and discussed this very point with the chairman and the chief executive. There is concern about the level of qualifications that it appears that some trustees are obliged to achieve. As part of the deregulatory review, I want to look at the issue. I am not sure that the statute is the problem—it is more the guidance that seems to be given. As a result of the review, I hope that we will be able to make it much clearer that the level of competence required of trustees consists of a reasonable knowledge, plus common sense, and that we will not deter large numbers of people from becoming trustees at a time when we need them. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
How many complaints does the Minister know about concerning the very large sums of money taken out of funds each year under the tax policy of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the ineffectiveness of the regulator to resist those demands?
Of course, the regulator’s aim is to ensure that we have a stable and effective pensions scheme. By and large in recent years, since the office of the regulator has been established, it has gained credibility and increased confidence in the pensions industry. As a result of the creation of the regulator, we have a pensions industry that is much stronger than it was.
More than 1.8 million people have been helped into work through the new deal programme, including 11,790 people in Leicester, of whom 3,330 people are in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, which I have of course visited at his invitation before.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and ask him to visit again—so successful was his last visit. When he comes to Leicester, will he come with me to visit a community-based scheme called Business-to-Business, which over the past few years has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of people into work as part of the new deal arrangement? Does he agree that that is the basis of the new deal—enabling people from diverse backgrounds to get into full-time work so that they can help to sustain the wonderful British economy that we have at the moment?
I acknowledge the important role that Business-to-Business has played, especially in tackling a problem that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart: the difficulties faced by ethnic minority communities, particularly in city and town centres. That remains a big challenge for us and it is one of the outstanding issues that we need to address. I also welcome the fact that Leicester is one of our city strategy pathfinders, tasked with improving local employment rates. I know that my right hon. Friend has been invited to the launch on 19 October.
Once the Minister has visited Leicester, will he continue travelling north and visit my constituency, where in the last year to date unemployment has fallen by 16.2 per cent.? That is welcome, but does he agree that it is not good enough and that areas such as mine ought to be made targets for zero unemployment? That is entirely possible in an area such as mine, where the number of jobs coming in is greater than the number of unemployed. However, priority needs to be given to people locally who are unemployed. Will he agree to direct the Department accordingly?
I will certainly see what I can do about my travels. I did not respond directly to the request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) about visiting Leicester. We will look into the matter. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform is due to visit Leicester soon. Perhaps he can accompany my right hon. Friend to a project such as the one he mentioned.
I was in Scotland a few weeks ago and what struck me was the way in which, over the past 10 years under a Labour Government, the economy has been transformed. There are more jobs than ever before and, in areas including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), we are beginning to tackle successfully some of the deep-rooted and deep-seated problems of people who have been on benefits year after year as a result of the Tories’ miserable failure throughout the United Kingdom, and especially in Scotland, when they were in government.
We have succeeded in arresting and reversing a historical upward trend in child poverty, which led to its doubling under successive Conservative Governments. Since 1997, Government policies have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty, with fewer children living in workless households and increases in lone parent employment.
In his plagiarised speech at the Labour conference, the Prime Minister said that the
“goal for this generation is to abolish child poverty”.
How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the fact that, according to figures from March this year, the number of children in poverty has risen by 200,000 to 3.8 million, after 10 years of a Labour Government? We still have the highest number of children living in workless households in the whole of Europe. What about rhetoric and reality?
One thing that is for sure is that in 1997 we had the worst record in Europe, and today, although there is more to be done, we are recognised as having the greatest improvement of any European Union country. Since 1997, over 2 million more people are in work, and unemployment is close to its lowest levels since 1975. Of course we have to do more, but the difference between today and 1997, when we came to power, is that then there had been 20 years of an increasing trend of child poverty. That trend upwards has been halted. We do not believe that the latest figures represent a trend in the wrong direction, but our Green Paper asks important questions: what more can we do to provide work for those who currently do not have it, and to make work pay?
Is not persistent inter-generational worklessness at the heart of the problem? What more can be done to ensure that people who stay out of work continually, from one generation to another, and who have that as the norm, can be signposted, so that we make sure that they take part in this new generation of work and do not stay out of society?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The saddest thing to hear from staff working in our jobcentres is that they are dealing with the son of someone whom they dealt with 20 years ago. Breaking the cycle of inter-generational unemployment is a huge challenge, and there are no quick-fix solutions. Our ambition must be that when children look out of the window of a morning, they see a community on its way to work. We have to make sure that we provide the means, the resources and the expectations if that is to happen.
As we currently measure relative poverty, the only way to reduce child poverty is to increase pensioner poverty, and vice versa. Has the Minister looked at more realistic ways of measuring actual poverty, so that we can have a more sensible debate about the subject?
We have been successful in reducing both child poverty and pensioner poverty, so we must be doing something right. There is a lot of debate about the different factors that affect poverty. We use relative poverty because globally it is widely regarded as one of the best ways to assess poverty, but we consider other aspects, too. It is important that we do not look at the issue solely in terms of income. Our decent housing programme is contributing to supporting people, so that they live in better homes with lower fuel costs; and our education and skills programmes equip people to take on work that is much more skilled today than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago—people have to face up to that fact. Of course, the issue is also about making sure that parents understand how important it is to support their children in having aspirations, and we support parents in doing just that.
I thank the Minister for taking the time to visit my constituency this summer; it was a worthwhile visit. She learned that almost 3,600 children in my constituency live in workless households. That means that about four in 10 young children going to school do not have the experience of a parent in work. Now that she has come up and seen that, may I ask what conclusions she has drawn, and how she plans to tackle the issue?
I very much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I visited the Sure Start children’s centre, where I met women who had been helped by Sure Start and by people who work in jobcentres and who come to the Sure Start centre to provide the information that women need in order to make choices about going into work. One area where we have to work harder is in making the convincing case that people are better off in work. That is one of the issues that I am looking at closely, because I think that people still do not understand what is available to them when they are in work, and what they do not lose by being in work. We have to make that case more strongly and clearly, and I welcome any suggestions on helping us to achieve that.
The fact is that child poverty rose in the past year. What is more, according to Save the Children’s devastating assessment published last week, child poverty will not be abolished on current trends until 2049—30 years after the Government’s deadline. As the Government search for a new vision, will the Minister support policies to increase child benefit and investment in educational opportunities for the poorest children, so that they can escape the circumstances of their parents? I suggest that that could be paid for by scaling back the tax credits paid to middle and high-income families.
I think that I have already said that I accept that there was a rise in part of our figures on child poverty this year, but it is important to look at the overall trend rather than just at one year. This involves a challenge, but we are the first Government in this country to set a child poverty target and to challenge the assumptions that have gone before. The child benefit rate will go up to £20 from April 2010, and from April 2009 women will get child benefit from the 29th week of their pregnancy.
Those are examples of what we have announced this year as part of the 2007 Budget, but there is more that we can do. We have also announced a roll-out of in-work credit for lone parents of £40 across the country and of £60 in London in recognition of the particular costs there. We can be proud of what we have achieved, but we cannot be complacent about the evidence of unemployment in families and in communities that has gone on for too long.
Six hundred thousand children are living in households whose incomes are too low to pay income tax, but which are still required to pay the full amount of council tax. I know that the Department has said that it will review the thresholds for council tax benefit and income tax. May I ask when?
My hon. Friend raised this issue in her Select Committee report, and I understand that we are considering it and will get back to her on it. We have just extended a pilot that was started in the north-east, in which we looked for greater collaboration between our Jobcentre Plus staff, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the local authorities, to try to achieve simplification of the way in which people juggle different benefits and in-work and out-of-work credits. I hope that, if that works in the further extension of the pilots, we can seek to develop it elsewhere. In the first pilot, the time taken to sort out the benefits for people was reduced by two thirds. That has a psychological impact on people who are choosing whether to stay on benefit or to work. Making a difference in that kind of process could make the situation a lot better.
Will the Minister promise joint action between her Department, the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to tackle the high water bills for South West Water customers? Does she accept that, without measures to make water more affordable, her Department will not meet its child poverty targets in that region?
I am happy to look into that question on the hon. Lady’s behalf. Of course, it is important not only to consider the bills but to conserve water and ensure that we use only what we need and do not overuse it. I will write to the hon. Lady on the issue, if she will bear with me.
Jobcentre Plus (Telecoms Charges)
Jobcentre Plus conducted a review, which was completed in July, which investigated the inbound telephone numbering plan that supports the contact centre and benefit delivery centre operations. During the review, Ofcom’s call numbering team was approached on an informal basis for advice on developing the Jobcentre Plus internal numbering strategy, particularly regarding the future tariff structures of the 0845 range.
Some telecoms providers charge higher than normal rates for all 08 numbers, even so-called freephone numbers, which means that some unemployed Jobcentre Plus clients are paying charges that they cannot afford for the advice, information and assistance that they need. Will the Minister tell the House why those people cannot ring a local centre, at lower, local rates? Will she expand the review to which she has referred to include this issue, and reassure us that the Department is not receiving a rake-off from the excess charges generated at the moment?
I am aware that some mobile phone companies charge significantly over the basic rate. We have had discussions with them, but their pricing policies are very much a matter for them. I want to give my hon. Friend some comfort, however. Since 1 August, the cost of an 0845 number on BT lines has fallen from 3p to 2p a minute. When someone calls our helpline, we are careful to make them aware how long the call will take, and to ensure that they are aware of the mobile phone charges that can accrue to the call. We then advise them that they can phone back on a land-line if they want to do so. If they cannot do that, our advisers will call them back. That ensures that nobody is disadvantaged because they cannot afford the price of a telephone call.
Is the Minister aware that many people trying to claim benefits over the phone either cannot get through or are told that they will be called back even though they do not have a phone? The social fund commissioner’s office found that fewer than one in five calls were answered, so will the Minister end the Government’s complacency about the effect of the faceless state on people in real difficulties and ensure that those in particular need can either see a Jobcentre Plus official or have an official make the call on their behalf?
I appreciate the enthusiasm that the hon. Gentleman brings to his post, but we do of course offer face-to-face interviews with Jobcentre Plus advisers in appropriate circumstances. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can assure him that that is the case. It is very clear in some application processes that a third person can speak on behalf of the applicant. More than 90 per cent. of calls are answered, but we are aware that we have to continue to review matters in order to ensure that the system is made even better. I take great exception to the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this amounts to a “faceless state”. We have a whole range of committed and dedicated benefit advisers across the country whose main job and principal occupation and commitment is to ensure that people get the help that they need at the time that they need it.
The benefit advisers do a very good job, but is it not fairly tacky to use such a system for people to apply for the assistance and help to which they are entitled? Would it not be better simply to ask that no Government Department anywhere in Whitehall continue the growing practice of using 0845 numbers? If people have already paid through their taxes to receive services from Her Majesty’s Government that are of a high standard, no impediment should be placed in their way.
With the utmost respect, may I say to my hon. Friend that we have discovered that contact centres are generally more convenient for customers to access, because they remove the need personally to go to a local jobcentre. On cost comparisons, I have already said that the cost of a land-line telephone call is 2p a minute. Again, with the greatest respect, I have to say that, in comparison with the cost of a bus or train journey to a local office, contact centres are appropriate for most people. Harking back to my response to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will ensure that where people want an interview and in some instances a face-to-face application process we will deliver that.
Local Employer Partnerships
Through local employment partnerships, we will be working with employers to enable individuals to get the preparation and training that they need to support their movement into work. In England and Wales, Ofsted and its Welsh equivalent, Estyn, have the responsibility to assess the effectiveness of training contracted and funded by the Government. In Scotland, all Scottish Enterprise national training programmes must conform to Scottish quality management system standards.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I am sure that she will agree with me that the importance of skills and training is utmost in everybody’s minds, particularly with the Olympic games and the biggest build programme in Glasgow’s history, as well as—hopefully—build for the Commonwealth games and Glasgow’s bid. Will she ensure that apprenticeship training is valid and relevant to the jobs that are needed, and that the skills shortage and gap will be taken care of in future?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is absolutely key that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills work together to ensure that the connection between employer and training is strengthened. I was very pleased to visit Portsmouth this summer, where VT Shipbuilding is working with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and Jobcentre Plus to produce a fantastic programme. Pre-employment training is provided in the shipyard, ending with an offer of adult traineeships up to a very high standard. Four men who had been out of work for a considerable time got those jobs. I am meeting some of the companies working to build the infrastructure around the Olympic games. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, and I would be happy to talk to him further about what we can achieve in this area.
Following the formal consultation on the child maintenance White Paper, published in December last year, we published our response document in May. We have continued to meet stakeholders to discuss the reforms to child maintenance. In the past three months, for example, we have met the Child Poverty Action Group, Families Need Fathers and One Parent Families. We continue to work closely with all stakeholders.
What reassurances can the Minister give to the many thousands of families struggling with the current system that the IT used by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will work this time around?
Those people will not have to wait until CMEC is in operation because we are already engaged in a programme of improving the CSA’s IT system. A number of important releases are out already and the system is operating a lot better, which is why, since the operational improvement programme commenced in April 2006, we are getting child maintenance payments to 63,000 more children, and why we can report that the applications backlog is down by 36 per cent. We are clearing new applications faster, partly because of existing IT improvements.
As well as receiving representations from the various charities involved in this area, has my hon. Friend received representations from the Public and Commercial Services Union, on behalf of the staff who will administer the new system? When I talked to them in Blackpool, they said that they were becoming increasingly anxious about how they will manage the old calculation, the new calculation and the new-new calculation when CMEC is introduced.
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. We are closely engaged with our staff. I have had a number of meetings with staff representatives over the last year, and I know that other colleagues in the Department have done the same. The staff tell us, overwhelmingly, that they are right behind the Government’s reforms, and they welcome the improvements that the operational improvement plan is already achieving. They also welcome some new powers that we have given staff—for example, to collect child maintenance debts.
Although we are discussing with staff particular issues about transitional arrangements such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned, our staff want to work for an efficient system that delivers more child maintenance to more children; they recognise that the changes we are introducing are set to achieve just that.
Will the Minister please ask Sir Leigh Lewis to pass on to his staff Members’ thanks for the detailed work that they have put into the inquiries that we make on behalf of our constituents and our hope that the new systems will work better? Will the Minister also ask the Prime Minister to instruct permanent secretaries to say to Secretaries of State that they do not want to introduce systems that will not work first time around? We should not have to have a running experiment for two years, causing disaster to so many families.
I will certainly pass those comments on, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is not an area for experimentation. The CSA has been troubled almost since the day of its inception. We all accept that this is a difficult policy area, and we have taken through reforms that have achieved some improvement, but we all recognised—right across the House, I think—that there was a really tough problem with the agency.
We decided that, because of their problems, the agency and the system as they currently exist cannot go on. That is why we decided to introduce the new arrangement under the commission, why we are taking time to ensure that we get that right, why we are deliberately taking time over the transitional arrangements to ensure that they are right as well, and why, in the meantime, we are investing additional people and resources to improve the agency’s performance. On all counts, it is improving.
As the Minister will be aware, more than 120,000 people work for companies that have gone out of business leaving insufficient money in their pension funds. When will he agree that the Government’s compensation scheme should be bolstered to ensure that those workers receive the same compensation as is available under the Pension Protection Fund?
The financial assistance scheme assets review is being led by the Government Actuary, Andrew Young, and is considering the better use of the assets currently in failed pension schemes. The Government have indicated that we are prepared at least to match any extra funding that might arise out of the assets review. Further funding is therefore available. The Government have the goal of moving towards a 90 per cent. top-up rate, and we are determined to seek justice for pensioners.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s comments, especially on behalf of the HH Robertson’s pensioners in my constituency, whose scheme, which is covered by the rules, failed in 1996. Many people have now received payments from the scheme, and there have been many letters of thanks. I pay credit to the staff who have dealt with the complicated casework. Will he ensure that complex cases such as bridging pensions are dealt with as a priority before moving on to the kind of detail suggested by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), because such pensioners deserve support now?
We are trying to get as much support as possible to pensioners, and I have made changes to the rules in the past month—for example, agreeing that trustees will be able to make payments directly rather than having to go to the financial assistance scheme first. The FAS has now paid out just under £9.1 million to 2,560 qualifying members. A further 868 members will be paid as soon as they have confirmed their personal details, and an additional 814 members have been assessed as eligible for FAS payments when they reach 65.
The Conservative party promised last week to refloat the lifeboat and ensure that pensioners receive a payment within three months of a Conservative Government taking office. Does the Minister recognise that the British people feel cheated of the opportunity to vote for an incoming Government who could bring justice to pensioners rather than the injustice that they have suffered under Labour?
Tory fantasy finances will not help those pensioners. Last week, the Conservatives tried to refloat a lifeboat proposal that sank last July following Andrew Young’s report. It was sunk not by the Government, but simply by the fact that the cost of increasing the fund to PPF levels, as proposed by the Tories, is £2.7 billion in cash terms over 50 years. The Tories have not shown how they can provide that money, and fantasy finances will help no one. There are two realistic ways of providing finances: one is better use of assets in the failed schemes; the other is through the taxpayer. We are awaiting further information from Andrew Young on how we can better use those assets, and we have indicated that we will provide Government funding. That is the realistic way of getting justice for pensioners. The proposals that the Tories have made will achieve nothing: they are pure fantasy.
Why does the Minister show passion only when he says no to pension victims? Why cannot he have the courage of his convictions and follow what the Conservative party pledged to do if it won the election, but which the Prime Minister bottled out of—get the first payments to victims from a proper lifeboat fund within three months, by 1 February? Why cannot he do the same?
The Conservative party made a proposal that simply does not float. The Government Actuary clearly set out why it is not credible to try to manufacture such funding from something vaguely called unclaimed assets. The Government have offered taxpayers’ money and a realistic proposal to bring together the assets of failed pension schemes better to ensure that they can provide for those who need justice. The Tories proposed nothing realistic; it was pure fantasy. This Government are determined to do justice to pensioners, and to do it properly.
With the compliance rate among self-employed non-resident parents at 59 per cent., it is clearly important to take further measures, which we are doing in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill. For example, the use of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs information and fixed-term maintenance awards will speed up the process and help to prevent self-employed non-resident parents from providing delayed or misleading information.
As well as accurate assessments, enforcement of the assessments is vital. Every week, I see cases where it is obvious that the tax return information and the figures that are submitted to the CSA are quite unrelated. I have spoken to the CSA, which does not use Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs departments as well as it might. What can be done to ensure that people do not use self-employment deliberately to delay or obstruct the enforcement of their child maintenance liability?
I thank my hon. Friend for that further point. We have all seen similar cases in our constituency surgeries. That is why we are introducing additional powers in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now going through Parliament: first, the power to use gross income information from HMRC, which will give us a more robust and reliable source of information about real income than what some self-employed non-resident parents tell us; secondly, the power to use fixed-term awards; and, thirdly—and importantly for those who are still inclined not to co-operate—powers to deduct money directly from accounts that self-employed people might have with various financial institutions.
The Minister will be aware, however, that much of the problem arises when someone’s lifestyle is obviously at variance with their declared income. He said that we would use HMRC data, but one of the problems is that when there is evidence of a difference between lifestyle and declared income, the CSA often does not properly investigate it. Will the HMRC data be treated as sacrosanct or will CMEC have powers to investigate further when there is evidence that they do not equate with the lifestyle of the person involved?
The hon. Gentleman identifies a correct point. One of the problems was that the CSA was, in a sense, originally designed and set up to be an investigatory agency, but was never given the powers to be one. The difference with the new commission is that it will have the right to access HMRC data, which are far more reliable on real income levels than the evidence that self-employed non-resident parents submit to the agency. With the use of HMRC data and the other steps we are taking, especially the power to have direct access to finance accounts, we are confident that we can certainly make it far more difficult for self-employed non-resident parents to evade their responsibility to maintain their children.
What would the Minister say to the gentleman—I will call him Mr. X—who came to my surgery on Saturday, a self-employed individual who has supplied all his information to the CSA, which has lost his file on two separate occasions? He has asked for a statement of what he has paid and how the calculation has been made, only to be told that that information is not available to him or his solicitor. He is now being taken to court, on Friday, by a debt collection agency. I rang the MP hotline this morning, only to be told that I would have to put the case in writing to the CSA, which would have to contact the debt collection agency, which would then write back—a process taking four weeks. Does not the system cut MPs out of the loop? Should it not be a bit more responsive to the situation in which my constituent has found himself?
My hon. Friend highlights an extremely complex case, of which there are still a fair number in the system. The length of time that it is taking to resolve the case that he outlined is, of course, not satisfactory. I should be more than happy to meet him urgently, to see whether I can make any intervention that might speed matters up.
There are currently around 650,000 unfilled vacancies across the economy. Jobcentre Plus alone takes over 10,000 new vacancies every working day, and at least as many again come up through other recruitment channels. However, we are redoubling our efforts to help jobless people by rapidly expanding local employment partnerships, to help 250,000 people from the most disadvantaged groups into work over the next three years.
Will the Secretary of State implement any of the proposals outlined in David Freud’s report “Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity”, which the Government commissioned? Has he discussed the report with the Prime Minister? If the recommendations are not to be implemented, will he tell us why not?
I have indeed discussed the report with the Prime Minister, and I have also discussed it with David Freud. Most of it has been accepted in our Green Paper. It makes an important contribution to ensuring that there are serious reductions in the number of people on long-term benefits and people who are not in the jobs market or even in job-focused benefit environments. I will not, however, follow the Tory path, which I assume the hon. Lady supports, of unfunded, uncosted programmes that will leave an enormous black hole in public finances, and which omit to point out that it is necessary to spend to save. That is what worried me about some of the announcements at the Tory party conference last week.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Written questions were tabled, under the new arrangements for September questions, by 136 hon. Members. Fifty-nine per cent. were answered on the specified answering day, with a further 24 per cent. answered subsequently in September. That amounts to 83 per cent. of questions answered in September.
That woeful performance—40 per cent. of questions not answered on the day on which answers were due—shows that the Government are failing to provide the answers that the country needs in a range of policy areas. That, no doubt, is why the Prime Minister was frightened to go to the country to receive the answer to the question that we all want to ask.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that under the last Government no questions were answered in September, although hon. Members could table them. This is a new procedure. More Members have asked questions on September question days than did so last year. The time taken to answer them, on average, is about the same as the time taken on non-September sitting days. Obviously, we all want all questions to be answered as quickly as possible.
Only in Parliament, during September, was there no debate about an early election. Only in Parliament was there no debate about an international credit crunch, a run on a bank in Britain, foot and mouth disease for the second time, the bluetongue virus and the speculation about when we should call the election. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that written answers are not a suitable alternative to substantive debate about the big issues of the day, and that Parliament should sit in September?
The House did sit in September for two years as an experiment. My hon. Friend will know that on 1 November last year, in a free vote, the House decided not to continue September sittings. He will probably also know that the Modernisation Committee is to consider whether the arrangements for recall of Parliament are sufficiently accessible to Members.
Does the Leader of the House accept that while of course it is helpful to be able to table written questions during a recess, it would be even more helpful if Prime Ministers and other Ministers made major statements to Parliament, rather than to the country from abroad, when a few days later they could be accountable here?
If the House is not sitting and Ministers need to give out information, they have no option but to give it out publicly and not to this House. When the House is sitting, we very much take the view that information should be given to Parliament first.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
A total of 105,957 litres of bottled water was sold by the House of Commons Refreshment Department in 2006-07. In the same year, 16,200 litres of bottled water were supplied to the Department of the Serjeant at Arms for use in Committee Rooms, and 34,000 litres of bottled water were provided mainly in water coolers to staff of the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but is it not time, when we are looking at environmental change and the enormous environmental costs of bottled water, that the House of Commons stopped preaching to the rest of the country and started to reduce its use of bottled water, to use tap water and to stop all the waste of the empty bottles, too?
I have a lot of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course, in the restaurants and bars of the House, this is a matter of choice for the individual consumer. Tap water is available free of charge in all Refreshment Department outlets. In March, the Administration Committee studied the issue of Committees using water and concluded that logistical constraints, health and safety issues and staffing costs meant that there was quite a complex issue to be considered. If he wishes to look at that report and to make further suggestions, I assure him that it need not necessarily be viewed as the last word on the matter.
Would it not be a good idea, if we have to have bottles, to have them refilled from the tap in the House rather than their being carried from one part of the country to another?
As I say, I have a lot of sympathy with that proposition. That was exactly what the Administration Committee looked at. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make further proposals to the Committee, I am sure that it will be pleased to listen to them.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
European Scrutiny Procedures
The Government are well aware that there is dissatisfaction in many quarters about the scrutiny of European measures in this House. In its 2005 report, the Modernisation Committee identified the need to look at how to reinvigorate the work of the European Standing Committees. We are continuing to examine possible ways forward, and the Government expect to make proposals in due course.
That will not do. It was two and a half years ago that the Modernisation Committee brought out that report, chaired by the then Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Since then, absolutely nothing has been done. The report referred to
“worrying shortcomings in the House’s scrutiny of EU business”.
More than 1,000 new measures are being proposed every year, and only a tiny fraction is scrutinised or debated properly. Rather than talk about the powers and rights of this House, will the Government do something about them and make some proposals?
The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced member of the European Scrutiny Committee. As such, he must know that it is very important that we get the proposals and any changes right. As with the management of all business before the House, it is partly a matter of balancing resources, including Members’ time. The Government are well aware of the concerns and continue to give the matter proper attention.
I echo the sentiments that were expressed by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who is a very active member of my Committee. The arrangements were that, if any European business was referred by our Committee, so that its merits could be considered, it would go to the Standing Committees of the House, three of which were established with fixed memberships and agendas. One of the great problems that face Parliament is that, for two Sessions now, Sessional Orders have turned that scrutiny process into nothing but another kind of statutory instrument process. May I have an assurance that Sessional Orders will not be laid this year and that Committees with agendas and fixed memberships will be re-established to give some decent scrutiny to European business?
My hon. Friend is a most diligent Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done in that role. The difficulties to which he refers relate to the difficulties in finding Members who are prepared to serve on the Standing Committees as they are currently structured. That is why the Government are looking more widely at structural reforms.
The Prime Minister has said that he wishes to make Parliament the crucible of public life and that he wants open government, but the European Scrutiny Committee continues to meet in private. Will the Deputy Leader of the House commit to opening up this Committee, or is she going to bottle it, just like the Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is right: as with many Select Committees, some sittings of the European Scrutiny Committee are held in private. When discussions have been held about making all sessions open to the public, the votes have proved contradictory. The issue is extremely controversial but the point is well understood.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I want to make a statement to set out detailed proposals for political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in Iraq, for the security of the Iraqi people, for the future configuration, new equipment and security of our own armed forces, and about the obligations that we owe to the local Iraqi staff who have supported us in our efforts.
I start as the whole House would want me to, by paying tribute to the seven members of our armed forces who, since July, have lost their lives in action in Iraq: Corporal Stephen Edwards, Private Craig Barber, Leading Aircraftman Martin Beard, Lance Sergeant Christopher Casey, Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath and Sergeants Mark Stansfield and Eddie Collins. I want to pay tribute also to the 18 who have died in Afghanistan: Lance Corporal Alex Hawkins, Guardsman David Atherton, Sergeant Barry Keen, Lance Corporal Michael Jones, Captain David Hicks, Privates Tony Rawson, Aaron McClure, Robert Foster, John Trumble, Damian Wright, Ben Ford, Johan Botha and Brian Tunnicliffe, Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge, Sergeant Craig Brelsford, Corporal Ivano Violino, Colour Sergeant Phillip Newman and Major Alexis Roberts.
They died doing vital work in the service of our country. We owe them, and others who have lost their lives, a deep debt of gratitude. They will never be forgotten. I also want to send our wholehearted sympathy to the families of those who have fallen, and to the injured and their families.
Our strategy in Iraq as a Government has been first, political reconciliation, to work to bring together the political groupings in Basra and across Iraq; secondly, security, to ensure that the security of the Iraqi people and the new Iraqi democracy is properly safeguarded, as well as the security of our own armed forces; and thirdly, economic reconstruction, to work for an economy in Iraq where people have a stake in the future.
Our strategy is founded on the UN mandate renewed last November in UN Security Council resolution 1723. Whatever disagreements there have been with our decision to go to war, there can be little disagreement about the unanimous UN position affirming the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future, calling upon
“the International Community, particularly countries in the region and Iraq's neighbours, to support the Iraqi people in their pursuit of peace, stability, security, democracy and prosperity”.
Let me affirm, as I told Prime Minister Maliki last week, and as I have agreed with President Bush and our other allies, that we will meet our obligations, honour our commitments and discharge our duties to the international community and to the people of Iraq.
The future depends first of all upon sustained progress on political reconciliation. That is why, when I met Prime Minister Maliki and Vice-President Hashemi in Baghdad last week, I said that it was vital—they agreed—that the three plus one leadership group of the Prime Minister and presidency council meet now to take the political process forward; that key legislation be passed on sharing oil revenues, the constitutional review and provincial elections; that the Government must reach out to disaffected groups, as well as decide on next steps on detainees; and that local elections go ahead in early 2008 making provincial councils more representative. Our message to the Government of Iraq and to the leaders of all Iraqi communities and parties is that they must make the long-term decisions needed to achieve reconciliation.
The support of Iraq’s neighbours—including a commitment to prevent financing and support for militias and insurgent terrorist groups—is also critical to ensuring political reconciliation and security. I urge all nations to implement the international compact to renew Iraq’s economy, to participate in the neighbours conferences to boost co-operation and surmount divisions in the region, and to support the enhanced UN mission in Iraq. I renew our call—which I believe will be supported in all quarters of the House—for Iran and Syria to play a far more constructive role by halting their support for terrorists and armed groups operating in Iraq, continuing to improve border security, and arresting and detaining foreign fighters trying to reach Iraq. And we must all act against the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. When the people and security forces stand up to al-Qaeda—as in Anbar province, which it had declared to be its base—it can be driven out.
As I turn to the security situation, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the steadfastness of our coalition partners who are working with us—there are troops from Denmark, the Czech Republic and Lithuania—and to the continuing Australian and Romanian role. The achievement of a democratic Iraq matters to every civilized nation, and I pay tribute to all 26 nations—led by General Petraeus and the US—that have troops on the ground in Iraq.
As the Petraeus-Crocker report set out, the security gains made by the multinational forces this year have been significant, and as important as improving current security is building the capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can achieve our aim: that Iraqis step up, and progressively take over, security for themselves. In 2004, it was agreed with the Iraqi Government that in each of the 18 provinces security responsibility would be progressively transferred to Iraqi authorities as and when the conditions were right. Now we are in a position to announce further progress.
Over the past four years, the UK has helped train over 13,000 Iraqi army troops, including 10,000 now serving with the 10th Division which has been conducting operations in Basra and across the south of the country without any requirement for coalition ground support. As we also tackle corruption, 15,000 police officers are now trained and equipped in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army 14th Division, with about 11,000 men, is in the process of joining them and has already taken on responsibility for Basra city, bringing security force levels in the south to almost 30,000 now and over 35,000 by June next year.
Since we handed over our base in Basra city in early September, the security situation has been calmer. Indeed, in the last month there have been five indirect fire attacks on Basra air station, compared with 87 in July. Although the four southern provinces have about 20 per cent. of the population, they account for less than 5 per cent of overall violence in Iraq.
During our engagement in Iraq, we have always made it clear that all our decisions must be made on the basis of the assessments of our military commanders and actual conditions on the ground. As a result of the progress made in southern Iraq, US, UK and Iraqi commanders judged over the last 15 months that three of the four provinces in the UK area of control in southern Iraq were suitable for transition to the Iraqis. They have subsequently been transferred to Iraqi control.
As part of the process of putting the Iraqi forces in the lead in Basra, we have just gone through a demanding operation which involved consolidating our forces at Basra airport. That was successfully completed, as planned, last month. The next important stage in delivering our strategy to hand over security to the Iraqis is to move from a combat role in the rest of Basra province to overwatch, which will itself have two distinct stages. In the first, the British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and mentoring the Iraqi army and police force; securing supply routes and policing the Iran-Iraq border; and the ability to come to the assistance of the Iraqi security forces when called upon. Then in the spring of next year—and guided as always by the advice of our military commanders—we plan to move to a second stage of overwatch where the coalition would maintain a more limited re-intervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring.
I want now to explain how—after detailed discussions with our military commanders, a meeting of the national security committee, discussions with the Iraqi Government and our allies, and subject, of course, to conditions on the ground—we plan from next spring to reduce force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500. The first stage begins now. With the Iraqis already assuming security responsibility, we expect to establish provincial Iraqi control in Basra province in the next two months as announced by the Prime Minister of Iraq; to move to the first stage of overwatch; to reduce numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 at the start of September to 4,500 immediately after provincial Iraqi control and then to 4,000; and then in the second stage of overwatch from the spring—and guided, as always, by the advice of our military commanders—to reduce to around 2,500 troops, with a further decision about the next phase made then. In both stages of overwatch, around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq but elsewhere in the region. At all times, therefore, we will be achieving our long-term aim of handing over security to the Iraqi armed forces and police, honouring our obligations to the Iraqi people and their security, and ensuring the safety of our forces.
I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances. Existing staff who have been employed by us for more than 12 months and have completed their work will be able to apply for a package of financial payments to aid resettlement in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, or—in agreed circumstances—for admission to the UK. Professional staff, including interpreters and translators, with a similar length of service who have left our employ since the beginning of 2005 will also be able to apply for assistance. We will make a further written statement on the detail of that scheme this week.
The purpose of economic reconstruction is to ensure that ordinary Iraqis have a stake in the future. So, as a result of work launched with Prime Minister Maliki in July, the provincial council has created the Basra investment promotion agency and is forming a Basra development fund—$30 million from the Iraqi Finance Minister—to help small business access finance. As announced this morning by the Iraqi Government, we have agreed on the need for a new Basra development commission. It will bring national, regional and international business knowledge together, and provide advice on increasing investment and economic growth. It will host a business leadership conference to strengthen the engagement of the UK private sector in Iraq. It will help the provincial authorities to co-ordinate projects to strengthen Basra’s position as an economic hub, including the development of Basra international airport and the renovation of the port.
I can tell the House that in addition to our support for humanitarian assistance—additional support announced today by the Department for International Development—Deputy Prime Minster Barham Saleh has announced over $300 million for investment in Basra. This will be increased again in 2008, ensuring that the third stage of what we are trying to do—economic reconstruction—can make real progress.
The safety and security of our armed forces remains our highest priority. The Mastiff patrol vehicle offers the best known protection against mines and roadside bombs. I can announce today that, in addition to the 100 bought and deployed last year in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence is placing an order for 140 Mastiff patrol vehicles. In recognition of the work of all our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help our troops stay in touch with home, we will now provide additional funding from the Reserve to double the number of internet terminals and provide free wireless internet for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that they can e-mail their families from their living quarters.
I am also convinced after my visit to the region that progress cannot be fully achieved without progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. A few days ago, we published our proposals for an economic road map to underpin the peace process—a programme for economic and social support for rebuilding the Palestinian economy and the reduction of high levels of poverty among the Palestinian people. The Foreign Secretary and I believe—as I think does the whole international community, including the US, the European Union and the Arab League—that the current dialogue between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert offers the best chance of final status negotiations since 2000. The next step is a meeting of the parties and key international players in November, at which we would like to see an agreement that puts the Israelis and Palestinians on a path to real negotiations during 2008, leading to a final settlement of two states living side by side in peace and security. There will be a donors conference in December. The international community will work with Prime Minister Fayyad to strengthen the economy of a future Palestinian state. I welcome Tony Blair’s work as the Quartet envoy on this. The UK will continue to support the political process and to provide support for humanitarian assistance and economic development, and I assure the House of my personal commitment to doing all that we can to ensure progress. Working for a successful conclusion to the middle east peace process, taking on al-Qaeda terrorism and ensuring a more secure Iraq are all key to the future stability of the region.
We have made commitments to the Iraqi people through the United Nations, and we will honour those obligations. We will continue to be actively engaged in Iraqi political and economic development. We will continue to assist the Iraqi Government and their security forces to help build their capabilities so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country. It is also important to remember what has brought us to this stage: the determination, professionalism and sacrifice of our armed forces. They have protected the Iraqi people while training their security forces to bring peace to their cities, towns and districts. The scale of their achievement will always be remembered, and we will continue to discharge our duties to them and to the international community.
I commend the statement to the House.
May I start by welcoming the Prime Minister’s statement? I hope that he will agree that statements on our troops should always be made in the House of Commons. I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the 25 servicemen who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since we last met. We owe them and their families a huge debt for their professionalism, courage and sacrifice.
The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home, and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. Could the Prime Minister clarify one point in that regard? He spoke about 500 logistic staff who will be based outside Iraq. Can he confirm that they will be moved from Iraq, or are some of them already based in neighbouring countries?
May I also welcome today’s announcement about the Iraqi interpreters? People who have risked their lives for Britain should never be let down by Britain.
In Iraq, our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission and to minimise the danger to our troops. With that in mind, I wish to ask the Prime Minister about three main issues: the reduction in troop numbers, the goals and the safety of our remaining troops, and the steps being taken towards a political settlement.
On troop numbers, decisions should clearly depend on the build-up of the Iraqi army and the state of security in southern Iraq. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the border between Iraq and Iran can be policed effectively, in what is called the second stage of overwatch, without the involvement of British troops? Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the 13,000 Iraqi troops that we have trained in the south are sufficient to maintain the security of southern Iraq?
That question leads to the second issue: the goals for our remaining troops and their safety. When troop numbers continue to be reduced, there comes a point at which they will lack a critical mass and cannot protect themselves properly. Is the Prime Minister absolutely satisfied that the reductions will not take us past that point? Furthermore, does he think that that is the minimum number necessary for such protection?
As the Prime Minister has said, Basra air station was subject to attack even before the move out from Basra palace. Is he now satisfied that the protection at Basra air station is adequate?
One of the purposes of the overwatch role is to deploy the troops again if necessary. So can the Prime Minister tell the House under what criteria such redeployment would take place, who would make that decision, and what size of force is required to make the potential to redeploy credible?
However much the international community does, there is clearly a limit to what outsiders are able to achieve. It is up to the Iraqi communities themselves to come together and achieve political stability. As anyone who has been to Iraq knows, political progress is painfully slow. The independent Government Accountability report in the United States last month said that just three of the 18 benchmarks that had been set for the Iraqi Government had been met. Will the Prime Minister confirm that no de-Ba’athification law has yet been enacted, and that laws governing the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues have been drafted but have not yet been passed?
The Prime Minister spoke about neighbours conferences. Does he agree that it is now time for a permanent international contact group, with a permanent secretariat, to ensure co-ordination with Iraq’s neighbours on the crucial issues facing the country?
It is essential that we learn from the mistakes in Iraq and that we do not repeat them in Afghanistan: too little co-ordination, too little political progress and lack of a realistic plan. Now that more troops are coming home, may we have the independent inquiry we need to learn the lessons? The Chief of the Defence Staff said that when it comes to reporting on progress all we get are
“snapshots…sometimes really good and sometimes really bad”.
Does the Prime Minister accept the need to provide Parliament with full, regular updates on progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will he take up our proposal for at least a full quarterly report?
On reflection does the Prime Minister agree that the way in which he made the announcement about troop withdrawals last week and the way it was briefed to the press were mistakes? He promised to make such announcements to the House of Commons, but he did not. He promised that 1,000 of our troops would be brought back before Christmas, yet is it not the case that 500 had already been announced and 270 were already back in the country?
I have to say to the Prime Minister that this is of a different order of magnitude from what we have had from him over the past decade. This is not double counting of Government spending. This is not just spinning the good bits of a Budget. This is about dealing with people’s lives and the families of our brave servicemen, and does he agree that this is not an acceptable way for a Prime Minister to behave?
Let me say first where I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I agree about the tribute that we both paid not only to those who have given their lives but to those who serve our country every day in the most difficult circumstances in Iraq.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, too, about the slow pace of political reconciliation in Iraq. It was precisely for that reason that I wanted to impress on Prime Minister Maliki the need for progress in bringing all the parties together and on the de-Ba’athification law, the distribution of oil revenues and setting up local elections, so that provincial elections, where councils are more representative, can take place. It is precisely for those reasons that I and others have to press Prime Minister Maliki and all the other sectarian groupings so that they can come together to form a Government who can work. We will work hard for political reconciliation.
The right hon. Gentleman’s proposal for a permanent group is covered by a United Nations resolution at the moment. What is likely to happen over the next few months is that there will be a second UN resolution, and of course what happens after that can be part of the discussions with our allies about a UN resolution.
On troop movements and reconfigurations, let me explain to the House that overwatch is in two phases. The first stage gives us a re-intervention capacity and the capacity to operate supply lines and to look at the border issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. It also gives us the capacity to train and mentor Iraqi forces. That is the position in three of the four provinces and we are likely to be in that position within two months in Basra province, which means that we shall be in a position to support Iraqi troops and also to re-intervene.
The next stage of overwatch can be entered only when we are satisfied that the security situation on the ground has improved. That is why we put so much emphasis on getting 30,000 security and police forces into Iraq, and it will be only when we decide, with military advice on the ground, that it is possible to move to the next stage that the main role of our troops will be training and support.
Of course, issues related to the Iraq-Iran border will be taken care of in that part of our work and we will also have to look carefully at whether there is a re-intervention capability in the spring, but the main work of our troops is what we have been aiming to achieve for years—to train Iraqi forces so that they can do the job for themselves. As far as the numbers are concerned—[Interruption.]—I am coming to exactly that point: 5,500 troops at the beginning of September, 4,500 immediately after provisional Iraqi control is declared, then down to 4,000 and then 2,500. That was not the announcement I made in Iraq last week. The announcement I made in Iraq last week was about what would happen in the next few weeks. This is the long-term strategy for overwatch—[Interruption]—which means that the number of troops falls from 5,500 to 2,500. An additional 500 troops will be outside Iraq—it would not be helpful to say where for security reasons—in the region, supporting the efforts of our troops in Iraq.
I make no apology for visiting our troops in Iraq. I would have been criticised if I had come to the House without visiting our troops in Iraq. I make no apology for spending time talking to the Iraqi Government, the Prime Minister, the Vice-President, the Economic Ministers and the military commanders on the ground. If we are to have responsible politics in this country—[Interruption]—Ministers who hold responsibility for the safety and security of our armed forces must visit them, listen to what they say, draw on their advice and then make the decision, which is what I am announcing today.
The Prime Minister began with a tribute to those who have died and been injured. Let me, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with that tribute. Let me, too, as he did, salute the professionalism and bravery of our armed forces—something that is too often taken for granted. The truth is, though, that they were given an impossible task in Iraq. Who now in the Government takes the blame for what the Chief of the Defence Staff called the “false and inflated expectations” of what they could achieve in Iraq?
Obviously, we welcome the Government’s change of heart in relation to interpreters and other civilians, but we are entitled to ask why it has taken so long and precisely how generous the terms will be. What is the Government’s estimate of the number of people who will be entitled to take advantage of that change of policy?
The Prime Minister has mentioned the target of 2,500 by next spring, but that is well below the figure that is thought appropriate for force protection. That has certainly been said by Ministers in recent times. In addition, from what the Prime Minister says, at 2,500, he does not anticipate any intervention taking place. If that is so, the question that immediately arises is what purpose will those troops serve.
The harsh truth is that Britain’s involvement in Iraq has been a catastrophe. We have paid dearly in lives, resources and reputation. Is it not time to acknowledge that the presence of British troops in Iraq no longer serves any realistic military or political purpose. Is it not time, too, to acknowledge that, after four and a half years, Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to the people of Iraq and that our obligation now is to our young men and women in our armed forces? Is it not time to acknowledge that the deployment in Iraq, where little more can be done, is prejudicial to our efforts in Afghanistan, where success is still possible? Is it not time now to set a framework and a programme for the complete withdrawal of all our forces from Iraq?
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about our obligations to our armed forces—I am pleased that he said that both at the beginning and the end of his remarks—but we also have obligations to the international community, and I would have thought that the Liberal party, with its Gladstonian inheritance, would recognise the obligations that we have internationally, particularly in relation to UN resolutions that have been passed, calling on us to support the democracy of the Iraqi people.
On the specific questions about interpreters, let me give the House the information. There are probably 200 who would immediately qualify as past staff members. There are 250 who are staff members at the moment. There may be others who will join that list once they have done a year’s service. We will discharge our obligations that they will either gain help to go to a country of their choice or be able, in agreed circumstances, to come to the United Kingdom. We will provide the support that is necessary for that to happen.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument about force protection, I am acting—as are the Government—on military advice when I give the figures that I have given to the House today. If we are to move to the second stage of overwatch, which is primarily a role in respect of which we are giving training and support to the Iraqi security forces to operate in Basra with the police and armed forces themselves, then the figure that we have decided in consultation with our allies, and after taking military advice, is the figure of 2,500 that I am able to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That figure will be reached in spring next year, subject to military advice; then we will look again at the situation. But I want to dispel any suggestion that he makes that that number is insufficient for the force protection that we are talking about. The decisions that we make are made on military advice.
Sometimes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises us for having too few forces; he then criticises us for having too many. The correct position is this: we owe obligations under the United Nations to the Iraqi community. We will discharge our obligations. The Iraqis will take responsibility for their own security, and we will support them in doing so. Despite our disagreements about the decision to go to war, I hope that he will support us in the support that we give to the Iraqi people.
As one of the 139 Labour MPs who both spoke and voted against the invasion of Iraq, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind, when faced with carping criticism from the Tory party, that it was enthusiastically and overwhelmingly in favour of the invasion and never raised any quibbles at the time?
I also ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that everybody in this country welcomes the reductions that he announced last week and the further proposed reductions, and would welcome the announcement as soon as possible of the total withdrawal of British troops—wherever, however, and in whatever circumstances he decides to announce it.
We will discharge our obligations to the Iraqi people; I have to say to my right hon. Friend that that means that there will be no artificial timetable now for the final withdrawal of troops from Iraq. We will discharge our obligations during the two phases, but we will continue to review the numbers necessary to do so. I say to other parties in the House that if they have questions about the security situation at Basra airport, I shall be happy to offer them a briefing, on Privy Council terms, with our armed forces about both the numbers required and the jobs that will be done over the next few months.
I have to say to my right hon. Friend that there will be no artificial timetable. We shall continue to report to the House on what is necessary to discharge our obligations.
The Prime Minister will forgive me, but I do not think that we heard an answer to the question, posed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, about whether 270 of the troops whose withdrawal the Prime Minister announced last week had already returned home. Is that true?
I said that the figure on 1 September was 5,500 troops. It is now falling, after provincial Iraqi control, to 4,500. It then falls to 4,000, and then it will fall to 2,500. The idea that we are not reducing the numbers is completely—[Interruption.]
Order. I want hon. Members to allow the Prime Minister to speak.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that we were militarily engaged in Bosnia for 15 years, in Northern Ireland for 38 years and that we are still involved in Kosovo after eight years? Does he agree that after four difficult years in Iraq, we now have measurable and quantifiable success—not failure, as some people are trying to talk up?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for what he did as Minister for the armed forces. We appreciate his work in meeting and discharging his responsibilities to our forces. I have nothing but praise for our armed forces, because the work that they have had to do is not simply in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Ireland and the Falkland Islands. The work that has been done by our armed forces, at every stage, has been magnificent. It shows a professionalism, a commitment to duty and great courage. We are very proud of them.
The Prime Minister seeks to equate himself with Mr. Gladstone—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.
Order. Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Is the Prime Minister aware that it was said of Mr. Gladstone that he could convince most people of most things and himself of almost anything? As the Prime Minister was the second most powerful member of Tony Blair’s Government and one of the few people who could have stopped this country going to war, and as the result of not doing so there are more than 100,000 Iraqis dead and more than 2 million have fled their country, will he now accept his share of personal responsibility for what has been the greatest error in British foreign policy in recent times?
What I would say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that we are building a democracy in Iraq, free of Saddam Hussein. We are engaged now in political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. The situation I saw on the ground in Basra was one of a reduction in violence that makes it possible for provincial elections to be held and for economic reconstruction to yield results. I would hope that even if he disagreed with us on the decision to go to war, he would agree with us now that we must combine the political reconciliation we are pushing for, the economic reconstruction that we are financing and the security measures that I have announced to make it possible for the Iraqi democracy to play its full part in the region and the world.
Unlike some, I have never tried to hide the fact that I supported the measures that led to the destruction of the Saddam tyranny, and I am not in the process of apologising. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that it was never the intention that British troops in Iraq should stay indefinitely and therefore that there will be much welcome for a continued policy of the troops leaving Iraq at the most appropriate time?
The numbers that I have announced today make it clear that there were 45,000 UK troops at the time that Saddam Hussein fell and there will be 2,500 troops, subject to military advice, in the spring. That is a very substantial reduction in the numbers, but it is possible only because the Iraqis are now able to take responsibility for security themselves. I cannot emphasise enough that 30,000 people in the Iraqi security forces are being trained up in the police and the armed forces in the region. It is because there are 30,000 Iraqi security forces personnel in the southern parts of Iraq that it is possible for us to reduce our troop numbers. But I will not give my hon. Friend an artificial timetable that suggests that we can leave Iraq overnight. We will review the situation and discharge our responsibilities to the Iraqi people
On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, may I add my condolences to those previously expressed in the Chamber?
The latest invitee into the Prime Minister’s big tent—one Alan Greenspan—recently said that he thought that the Iraq war was all about oil. When the Prime Minister discusses economics with Mr. Greenspan, will he discuss his opinion of the reason for the war in Iraq? Can the Prime Minister give a reasonable and reliable figure for the likely number of ex-Ministry of Defence Iraqi employees who might come to Britain to seek asylum in due course? Finally, the Prime Minister has frantically been trying to row away from the Blair project and the Blair war—frantically rowing away from the Blair mother ship, as it were. Will he really make a difference, and show why he is so different, by apologising to the British people for this debacle?
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning and for his condolences in relation to those who have died in Iraq. I know that the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh are in Iraq at the moment. I think that I told the House the numbers of interpreters and other staff who would qualify under the scheme we have announced today. There are 200 who have already completed their work and 250 or so in situ. There are others who may qualify once they complete their work with us over a period of a year or more. Those are the kind of figures involved. They will either be people who will go to another country, with support from us, or, in agreed circumstances, come to the United Kingdom. Those are the figures that we are able to give at the moment. As far as the war itself is concerned, let us not forget the evil that Saddam Hussein did. Let us not forget also that we are building a democracy in Iraq. I can disagree with Dr. Greenspan as well. Our contribution must be to sustain a democracy in Iraq.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that I am absolutely sure that his innovative proposals for civilian staff in Iraq will be much welcomed, not only in the House but by the military, who recognise the vital importance of having good links with local staff, in this intervention and perhaps in others? I have a constituent who was involved in international protection for an international statesman who was visiting Iraq, and his life was saved by two local Iraqi security men. Are they the kind of staff whom my right hon. Friend envisages might be given access to the United Kingdom, as my constituent has requested?
The persons I am talking about are mainly interpreters and translators who have worked for the British forces in Iraq—our direct employees, some of whom have finished their work but are vulnerable to attack, and some of whom are still working with us but do not meet the year’s qualification, although they may do so at a later date. Those are the men and women who would qualify for the proposals that we are putting forward today.
Does the Prime Minister not accept that it is becoming almost impossible to see how the cause of democracy and development in Iraq can be served by the continuing presence of British troops? It is almost impossible to see how a rapidly reducing number can play any worthwhile part in overwatch, given the disorder in southern Iraq, and it is quite inconceivable that the Prime Minister will ever come to the House to suggest re-intervention, with a surge of troops or whatever, at any stage after today’s statement. If the statement is intended as political cover for removing the troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, will he give an undertaking that the only consideration will be the safety and reputation of British forces, not domestic political pressures, either here or in the United States?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the British forces are serving no purpose, that is not the view of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government want our support, and not only with respect to the supply routes that we manage at the moment and the re-intervention capability that we have. They want our support to train and mentor the Iraqi troops. We had a responsibility, which we are discharging, to train up 15,000 Iraqi armed forces, and we are helping with the training of Iraqi police. I met many of the people who have come from the United Kingdom simply to train those forces when I was in Basra last week.
I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is no purpose served by our presence. What our presence is designed to do is to make it possible for the Iraqis to take over security of their own country. I say this to him: look at the reduction in violence in Basra; look at the attempts that we can now make on economic reconstruction to give people a stake in the peace; look at the progress that has been made over these last few months. If that progress can continue, the Iraqis will not only be in a position to have their security forces in place to take over from ours, but will build, through local provincial elections, a local democracy that is capable of making decisions, based not on violence, but on people coming together to decide what is the common good. I am far from agreeing with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that our forces serve no purpose; our forces are doing an important job—an important job that will end up, I accept, as simply one of training and mentoring the forces of Iraq.
Does the Prime Minister accept that well over 500,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the invasion started, and that more than 2 million Iraqis have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries, or into internal exile in Iraq? What support is being given to them? What support is being offered to Syria and Jordan, so that they can look after those people? If the Prime Minister is proposing that employees of the British armed forces be allowed to enter this country as a place of safety, is he also prepared to say that those Iraqis who have sought asylum in this country will not now be deported to Iraq?
First of all, I do not accept my hon. Friend’s figures. Secondly, the position of those who have served our armed forces, and put themselves at huge risk to do so while in the employment of our armed forces, is one that we ought to safeguard. Under the measures that I announced today, they will be able to apply for help outside Britain and will be able, in certain circumstances, either to go to another country with support from us, or to come to Britain. I accept that there are large numbers of Iraqis now outside Iraq, but one of the reasons why they are outside Iraq is that they need the security of a safe Iraq to come back to, and it is precisely for those reasons that we are building up the security forces of the Iraqis.
I think that it is often misunderstood that over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Iraqi security forces—both the armed forces and police—capable of managing their own security, and when the transfer of three provinces took place, it worked in a way that has been relatively calm. We believe that when we move to overwatch in Basra, there is a very good chance that we will have calmness as well, but we will work towards that, aiding the Iraqi security forces.
Can the Prime Minister confirm his response to the question—which he will well recall—that I repeatedly asked of his predecessor in office, in those long months in the build-up to the war, and which he never answered? I asked whether there could or would be circumstances in which the Americans would go in without the benefit of the backing of a second United Nations resolution and the British would not. Is not the sad fact of the matter, as we all now know, that there were never circumstances in which an American intervention would not be accompanied by British back-up? As the principal bankroller of that Government policy over those years, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that underlies all the difficulties that he is talking about this afternoon, and that it is our very presence in Iraq that is now the problem? Is it not an impossible wish, following a weekend in which he has been talking a lot about vision, for there to be a vision for a political settlement in Iraq because of the very circumstances to which our presence has contributed?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely. We tried very hard for a second UN resolution. We worked very hard to achieve it, and unfortunately did not. Intervention in Iraq is now covered by a UN resolution. He should accept that the UN resolution is about our presence supporting the security, democracy and prosperity of the Iraqi people and, in my view, there will be a further UN resolution in the next few months. Instead of arguing about the causes, perhaps we could come together to support the democracy of the Iraqi people and to ensure that they have the security to run their own affairs and the economic reconstruction necessary for a stake in their future. I believe that that should be common ground among all of us in the House.
I believe that the men and women of the British armed forces, their families and the British people will welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. Is it not a fact that we are able to withdraw troops from Basra because of the success and professionalism of the British armed forces? Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be celebrating this announcement, rather than seeking to engage in party political posturing from the comfort of these Benches while the men and women of our armed forces are putting their lives on the line?
I agree with my right hon. Friend and I thank him for the work that he did as defence Minister and as veterans Minister. Over time, people will come to realise that the draw-down of British troops in Iraq is possible because the security situation has improved, and it is only because we have those 30,000 security forces being trained up that it is possible to make this announcement today. Over the past month, we have proved that, as a result of the transfer from Basra palace to Basra airport, the security situation in Basra has improved, and I hope that there will be a general acknowledgement that, as the security potential of the Iraqi forces improves, it will be possible for the numbers of our troops to fall.
As the Prime Minister is taking and listening carefully to military advice, will he assure the House that, as our troops return—whether temporarily or permanently—they are properly welcomed, properly recognised and properly housed?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is where we must make progress over the next few years. We have set aside £5 billion over the next 10 years for accommodation for our forces. That money will upgrade the existing single-person accommodation and help young families with someone serving in the forces to buy their own homes. The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the housing situation, and much more needs to be done. That is why we have set aside in the public spending review £5 billion over the next 10 years, and I assure him that the welfare of our troops is our first consideration.
I appreciate the Prime Minister’s caution in carefully describing the circumstances under which we will support those who worked for us in Iraq and also the interpreters. However, may I urge him to be generous and positive in the interpretation of those rules so that we do not end up with people feeling that they have been let down by this country?
There will be a statement later this week about the details of the scheme. If my hon. Friend has any particular points that she would like to raise, she would be very welcome to talk to Ministers about them. We have to deal with the people for whom we have a direct responsibility—interpreters and translators, people working in the employment of the British armed forces. That is what the scheme is essentially about, but if my hon. Friend has any particular representations to make, we will be happy to listen to them.
I agree with the Prime Minister that valuable work remains to be done for British troops in Iraq, but will he clarify his answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader the Opposition about what reserves will be available to the commander of overwatch troops in the later phases of this operation? Secondly, will he compare and contrast his own slippery manoeuvrings of the last weekend with the courage, steadiness and resolution of British troops on the ground in Iraq?
Like the hon. Gentleman, I praise the resolution, determination and courage of our British troops in Iraq. We will talk to our allies in detail about the next stage of overwatch. We have forces outside the border of Iraq as well, but the principal intention of moving to the next stage is to enable us to be the trainers and mentors of the Iraqi security forces who are taking responsibility for problems themselves.
Speaking as one of those who did not support the intervention in Iraq, I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister on the responsibility of his statement today. While we are talking about responsibility, does he agree that in respect of our obligations to the Iraqis and the international community, the people who would be let down most if we cut and run prematurely from Iraq would be those very British forces whose courage and professionalism has brought about the achievements that my right hon. Friend described, of which we can be so proud?
I met British forces in Basra who are proud of what they have achieved and I am proud of them. I am proud of what they have achieved in defending people in Basra itself, proud of what they have achieved in all the other provinces and also proud that they are training up the Iraqi security forces to do the work themselves. Although my hon. Friend disagreed with me about the origins of the war, I am glad that he has come to the view that it is necessary, in supporting both our troops and the Iraqi people, to take decisions in the measured way that we are doing by setting out the different stages through which we will draw down our forces.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement about the extra 140 Mastiff vehicles, which will be exceptionally welcome to our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Will he confirm that the cost will be borne by the Treasury and will not come out of the Army budget? In addition, will he ensure that any necessary medium-protected patrol vehicles—they are greatly needed, particularly in Iraq—will be provided and that modern doctrine will be overturned so that those vehicles that are procured will be designed to ensure maximum protection for our troops? I am talking about V-shaped hull vehicles.
As the Defence Secretary has pointed out to me, we are looking into those smaller vehicles to which the hon. Lady has drawn our attention, as there are important issues about security and safety. As for her more general question, the £120 million that we are spending is covered by the defence settlement. Where there are urgent requirements, we are prepared to meet them and we have spent several hundred millions in the last few months and years in meeting those requirements of our troops.
My constituents will very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of troop reductions, but does he agree that that is not only the right policy for this country, but demonstrates that the policy of political reconciliation, economic development and the Iraqi people taking responsibility for their own security is now working?
I hope that there will be general recognition in the whole House that, whatever the disagreements on Iraq and whatever the views on the slowness with which economic reconstruction has taken place, there is a unique opportunity now, as the security situation improves in the Basra province, for the work of economic reconstruction to give people a new means by which they can have a stake in the future.
What I would like to see over these next few months—I think we will see it, if we can bring the parties together—is the security situation improving as, at the same time, we invest in Iraq and in the Basra province, I hope with British businesses involved, as well as businesses from other countries, so that we can end the very high unemployment in that area and make people see that prosperity can go side by side with peace.
Was the Prime Minister’s statement in Iraq that 1,000 British troops were to be withdrawn agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence and provided by information from him?
These are all agreed figures: 5,500 to 4,500 to 4,000 to 2,500. I really do not understand. If we are reducing the number of troops to 2,500, that is a reduction, and that is the reduction that I am announcing today.
I do not think that the Prime Minister has answered the point about the border between Iran and Iraq. What assurances can he give about our capacity and that of the coalition forces to impede the bringing in of weapons and destructive explosives, which hit both Iraqis and coalition forces, bearing it in mind that his own Secretary of State for Defence said that so much that has been hurled against British troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan has its provenance—that is the word he used—in Iran? We are too nice to Iran, frankly—too diplomatically nice. I want to hear a more robust response.
Let me remind my hon. Friend that in my statement I made it absolutely clear that we call on the Iranians to stop people coming across the border, to stop weapons coming across the border and to stop the support of terrorists who are coming across the border. As for the policing of the border, there has been some success as a result of the work of the coalition troops, and we will continue to see the coalition troops police that border.
May I put again to the Prime Minister the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind): why did the Prime Minister not support Robin Cook from the start, when he opposed the atrociously foolish policy of invading and occupying Iraq, from which the Prime Minister is now struggling to extricate us, almost certainly leaving chaos behind?
We now have a democracy in Iraq, which we did not have before. We have the people of Iraq voting for a new constitution and in elections for representatives. I think that the task ahead—I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees with it, despite our disagreements on the war—is to support that democracy, to enable it to take over its own security, to build political reconciliation in that country and to have an economy that gives people a stake in its future. If that were the case, it would make a huge and significant difference to what happens in the rest of the middle east and the Arab states.
As we withdraw our troops from Iraq—I look forward to the complete withdrawal of all our troops—can we invest more in rebuilding Iraq and attracting back the many hundreds of thousands of professionals who have become part of the Iraqi diaspora, namely, the engineers, the teachers and others who are desperately needed to rebuild that benighted country?
It was precisely those matters that I was discussing last week with the Economic Ministers in Iraq—how, through encouraging new investment in the infrastructure and then through getting business development, particularly in the Basra area, which is potentially very rich, we can attract people back to Iraq and give Iraqi people a stake in the future. I say to my hon. Friend that the next stage, where we will be under test because we have to show that it will work, is to get the economic reconstruction process moving forward and show that we can bring prosperity to that area of the world.
When the Defence Committee visited Basra in July, we found that 90 per cent. of attacks were on our forces. Is not the logical position that we should withdraw our troops, as our withdrawal from Basra palace has led to significantly fewer attacks in the area? We are therefore part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I have to say that it was before our troops withdrew from Basra palace that the security situation in that area became a great deal calmer. Because we are training up the Iraqi security forces, they are in a position to police and provide security to that area. Far from moving quickly out of Iraq helping the Iraqi security forces, our presence to train and mentor them is an important element in bringing about a calm, or calmer, security situation. On the basis of that calmer security situation, we can build a better future for the Iraqi people.
I welcome the conditions-based approach, about which the Prime Minister has told us, on draw-down of troops, which will hopefully mean many more coming back to communities such as Plymouth. Does he associate himself with the calls made over the summer by General Dannatt and others not only for the Government, families and fellow service people to welcome our armed forces back, but for businesses and communities to do more to mark and recognise their service than they do at present?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does in her constituency on exactly that. I want us to recognise the contribution made by our armed forces more than we have done, and to support the families of our armed forces when they are abroad, in combat and in the firing line. I also hope to be able to announce new measures to help those who have been injured fighting for our country with compensation schemes that are more generous than they have been in the past.
The Prime Minister mentioned in his statement that the stability of the Iraq that our troops will leave behind depends very much on the behaviour of Iraq’s neighbours. Will he update the House on what recent connections, or at least correspondence, there have been with Syria? Will he also comment on the story in the papers that he has entered some agreement with the American President about treatment of Iran if it continues to threaten global stability?
There is no truth in that statement attributed to me in the papers at the weekend. As far as Syria is concerned, we continue to press it to play a far more positive role, to end support for terrorists in Lebanon, and to play a constructive role in the middle east peace process. Those matters are common ground on both sides of the House.
Foot and Mouth/Bluetongue
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on this summer’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease and on bluetongue.
On 3 August, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in Surrey. In line with the contingency plan, control measures, including a national ban on the movement of susceptible animals, were put in place immediately. The following day the strain of virus was confirmed as 01-BFS-67. As this strain was not currently circulating in animals, that pointed to the Pirbright laboratory site as a potential source. I therefore commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to investigate and Professor Brian Spratt to lead a team of experts in a review of biosecurity arrangements. I am today placing in the Library a copy of those two reports, along with all the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs epidemiology reports.
It cannot be said with complete certainty exactly how the virus escaped from the Pirbright site. The reports concluded, however, that the most likely explanation was accidental release from the drainage system. Whatever the route of escape, it should not have happened and we are determined that it will not happen again. I have accepted all the recommendations in the reports from the HSE and Professor Spratt, and have set up a review of the regulatory framework for handling animal pathogens led by Sir Bill Callaghan.
A rigorous improvement plan has been developed for the Pirbright site, to be implemented before full operations with live viruses can recommence. A review, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will assess the funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health. In addition, a safety alert was issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by a round of inspections.
Epidemiological surveillance indicated that it was highly unlikely that the virus had spread outside the Surrey area. Therefore, given that the surveillance went beyond the EU requirement, that the 30-day minimum time had elapsed and that no further cases had been identified, the protection and surveillance zones were lifted on 8 September. Unfortunately, as we now know, there was undetected infection outside the surveillance zone. On 12 September, foot and mouth disease was confirmed in a third case in Surrey and controls were reimposed. There have now been eight infected premises in total.
On 25 September, given that the disease was confined to Surrey, we created two foot and mouth disease areas in Great Britain: a temporary risk area in the south-east and a lower-risk area in the rest of the country, where certain movements were permitted under licence. Markets reopened in the low-risk area last Thursday. On a visit to Skipton market, I saw the difference that that will make to the farming industry. The EU has now confirmed that the export of meat can resume from this Friday from Scotland, Wales and the north and south-west of England. We will continue to work with the Commission to increase the areas from which exports can be made.
Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach to responding to the outbreak. I have listened to the views of the industry about what further steps can be taken to alleviate real economic and welfare pressures. Because the outbreak has arisen from an unusual set of circumstances, I am announcing today a package of assistance for the English livestock sector amounting to £12.5 million. The devolved Administrations are proposing to introduce their own schemes.
Subject to the EU state aid rules, I intend to make the following available to the farmers most affected: first, £8.5 million of assistance to hill farmers, who have been particularly hard hit. This one-off payment will be paid directly to them, using the system already in place for the hill farm allowance, and will be equivalent to just over 30 per cent. of their 2007 payment. I intend to make available an increase in the level of subsidy for the fallen stock scheme for farmers in the foot and mouth disease risk area, from 10 to 100 per cent. The increase will not only apply to existing members of the scheme, but will be available to all livestock keepers in the risk area. It will apply to stock that has had to be killed on farm for welfare or other reasons. I anticipate the cost to be less than £1 million.
I also intend to make available an additional contribution of up to £1 million to the Arthur Rank centre for disbursement to farming charities, which focus on providing advice and practical and emotional support to farming families, and £2 million for the promotion and marketing of lamb, beef and pork, both domestically and in our export markets. The public sector is a major purchaser of meat, and I am asking ministerial colleagues to increase the opportunities for small and local producers to tender for its business.
We are also determined to do as much as possible to reduce the burden of red tape on farmers at this difficult time. Therefore, I have agreed a delay, from 5 January 2008 to the end of April, in enforcing the requirement for livestock hauliers to have a certificate of competence for non-export journeys of more than 65 km. I have agreed to seek a derogation from the Commission for grassland farmers to apply above the annual nitrogen application limit of 170 kg per hectare, which is one of the requirements for farmers in nitrate-vulnerable zones. I have also agreed a one-month extension, until 13 December, to the closing date of the current consultation on the implementation of the nitrates directive.
I should also point out that Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency are not enforcing certain cross-compliance requirements for agri-environment schemes and the single farm payment where breaches of those requirements are caused directly by restrictions relating to foot and mouth or bluetongue. The Secretary of State for Transport announced last week that to assist movement of the backlog of animals, the rules governing drivers’ hours for livestock hauliers would be relaxed for a limited period as markets reopened.
I also welcome the European Union’s decision on 3 October to raise the age at which vertebral column of cattle is considered specified risk material from 24 to 30 months, which will facilitate the sale by butchers of beef from animals in that age bracket. The decision is subject to a three-month scrutiny by the European Parliament, and in the meantime the Food Standards Agency will undertake a public consultation.
As if an outbreak of foot and mouth were not enough, on 22 September the first case of bluetongue was found in East Anglia. Bluetongue is very different from foot and mouth disease. It is spread by midges rather than from animal to animal, and we cannot stamp it out by slaughtering infected animals. However, the cases that we have seen so far are in a limited geographical area, and seem to result from midges being carried over the North sea on the wind. As it happened in August, when movement controls were in place because of foot and mouth disease, that may help to control the spread.
By 28 September, the increase in the number of cases indicated that the disease was circulating in our midge population, and we confirmed the presence of bluetongue in Great Britain. The bluetongue temporary area was therefore replaced by a control zone and a protection zone.
A clear understanding of the spread of the disease is now crucial to help the industry, with the support of Government, to anticipate what may happen and what the appropriate response should be. That requires farmers in the zones to be vigilant and, for the sake of their industry, to report all new cases so that we can monitor whether spread is occurring. We will keep that approach under review with the industry, not least because the effects of bluetongue movement controls mean that decisions on control should be taken by the industry and not just by Ministers.
This has been an exceptionally difficult summer for the farming industry. I know from talking to many farmers and their representatives just how hard and distressing it has been and still is, and I am grateful to the industry for its forbearance and support. I also want to thank all those from DEFRA, the Institute for Animal Health and other organisations whose professionalism, dedication and commitment have helped us to deal with these outbreaks. I am sure that the House will wish to express its thanks as well.
I will, of course, keep the House informed of developments.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the relief package that he has announced, although it will go nowhere near meeting the huge economic cost of foot and mouth to the farming and related industries. As the Secretary of State said, this has been a terrible year for the farming community: between them, bluetongue and foot and mouth have effectively closed down the livestock industry over huge areas of countryside at the busiest time of the year. That has caused economic hardship, but we should not underestimate the emotional hardship that it is causing in rural communities, the impact on animal welfare, or the blow to the reputation of farming and the integrity of our scientific establishment.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, by a cruel twist of irony, work on a vaccine to protect against bluetongue has been put on hold because it was taking place at Pirbright, the source of the foot and mouth outbreak? When does he now expect a bluetongue vaccine to be available?
Bluetongue may be a misfortune but foot and mouth disease is different. The Government have been caught red-handed and are damned by their negligence. We know that the source of the outbreak was a Government-regulated and licensed laboratory. We also know from Professor Spratt’s report that the most likely cause of the infection was leaking drains. The Secretary of State has attempted to maintain that foot and mouth escaped from Pirbright through an extraordinary combination of circumstances, but the really extraordinary thing was the state of the drains at Pirbright.
The Government’s initial reaction to the outbreak was, I am afraid, characteristic. The Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge and immediately sent his spin machine into overdrive in an attempt to pin the blame on Merial, the private company at the site. That was shabby and dishonest and it smacked of desperation. The reason for the Prime Minister’s desperation to find a scapegoat has since become clear. As long ago as 2002, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stated in an official report:
“Some laboratories and other areas of the Pirbright estate are not close to the standard expected of a modern bio-medical facility and are well below that expected of a facility of such importance”.
It recommended awarding funding for biosecurity at the site. What was the reaction from the then Chancellor? In the following two years, funding from DEFRA and other Government Departments to the Institute for Animal Health was cut.
It gets worse. In July 2004, Merial wrote to DEFRA with proposals to replace the drains. Nothing happened for two years. Tenders for repairing the drainage systems were finally received in October 2006. Why did it take so long to obtain those tenders? Why did work not start until July this year? Why were repairs to the drainage system not prioritised? Is it not clear that if the Government had acted in a timely way on the repeated warnings about the integrity of the effluent pipes at Pirbright, the farming industry would not be facing a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds, and the reputation of British science would not have been dealt a body blow?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that among the dangerous pathogens held at the Pirbright laboratories are viruses lethal to humans, such as E. coli, BSE and avian flu? Is it purely a matter of chance that it was the foot and mouth virus which escaped from Pirbright and not some more deadly disease?
Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's failure to secure the laboratories at Pirbright amounts to gross negligence? What provision has been made for compensating the farming community for the costs that it is suffering as a result of the Government's negligence?
The Pirbright site was last inspected in December last year. What were the findings of that inspection? Why was the licence to operate not withdrawn? Can the Secretary of State confirm that if a dairy farm had been found to have such poor biosecurity, it would have been closed down?
The Secretary of State states that a safety alert has been issued to all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, which will be followed by inspections. On the basis of the inspection regime at Pirbright, what confidence can we have that they will be thorough and that any recommendations will be acted upon?
I represent a Surrey constituency. I know how traumatic this whole affair has been for Surrey farmers and others in the immediate area, but I have also recently met with hill farmers in Wales. They too are deeply concerned about the viability of their businesses, about the welfare of their animals and about their own families and future. The same is true across the country. People want to know exactly how this disease got into the environment, yet that is the one question that the Government refuse to investigate further. How very convenient.
How many people have been disciplined or removed from their posts as a result of this catalogue of negligence? Who is going to take responsibility? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise? Can we not conclude that if this is what happens when the Prime Minister takes personal charge of a crisis, he is better off out of it and that, if the Labour Government cannot be trusted to deal with the foot and mouth virus, they cannot be trusted with anything?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his conduct during the summer, when we spoke on a number of occasions about the matter, has not been matched by the tone of the points he has made today. I will respond directly to the legitimate questions that he has raised.
Answer all the questions.
I recognise the emotional hardship that this has caused. It is a real blow for the farming industry—I know that from the conversations that I have had with farmers—and people are genuinely worried about the future. I know that some people are angry, too; I acknowledge that completely. What is the best way to help the farming industry to recover from these two blows? The first is to make sure that we make every effort to control the spread of these diseases and to eradicate them. Sixty-six days on from the first outbreak of foot and mouth, we have eight cases, all confined to Surrey. The whole House will wish to keep it that way. Our first line of defence in beating both of these diseases is the vigilance of farmers. I am genuinely grateful to the farming community for the efforts that it has made in that—
What about the drains at Pirbright?
I shall come to the drains in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
A vaccine for bluetongue may, we hope, become available next year. It depends on the speed with which those who are working on a vaccine can develop one, the speed with which it can be shown to be safe and effective, and the speed with which sufficient supplies of it can be manufactured so that all farmers—not just those in East Anglia but those in northern Europe who have been affected by bluetongue as it has spread across the continent—can have it available.
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) Surrey said that the Government refuse to investigate how exactly the virus got out. With respect, that is not the case. As soon as it became clear that the likely source of the outbreak was Pirbright—we knew what the strain was and that it was not currently circulating in animals—what were the first two things that the Government did? One was to ask the HSE to come in and investigate and the second was to ask Professor Brian Spratt to come in and look at biosecurity, with a commitment to publish in full their reports, which we did on 7 September. With great respect, to advance the argument that the Government have not been interested in trying to find out what happened does not bear examination when the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts.
What do those reports say? They say that it was most likely to have been caused by—they cannot say for sure—an inactivated virus going into the drainpipe, the condition of the drains, the heavy rain and the flooding that brought it to the surface, and the movement of vehicles. Why were there vehicles on the site at Pirbright? They were on the site because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the process of investing a considerable sum of money in upgrading the facilities. The answer to his question is that, in 2002 and 2003, reports were produced. In 2005, the Government decided that we would invest £121 million—[Interruption.] I will come to that point in a moment. One of the two reviews that I have established in the light of the reports will look into that fair point.
Why were there vehicles on the site? It is because work is under way to spend the money on renewing the facilities at Pirbright. Some £31 million of that money has already been spent on the site. It is a very fair question to ask and I have asked it too: if people thought that the drains were that much of a problem, why was some of that money not spent? The answer was that until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention, and everybody else’s, as a result of the HSE investigation, nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.
The next question relates to the inspection and licensing regime. I have asked Sir Bill Callaghan to look at the way in which we license, regulate and inspect institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens. Frankly, it is not a good system—reflecting upon it now—to have an organisation that is a significant customer of an institution also the licensor and regulator. That is something for Sir Bill Callaghan to reflect on when he reports back to me by December. My view, subject to his advice, is that we need to have a different system in future. We have taken seriously what happened: not only have we put a mechanism in place for looking at what should happen to the licensing of the handling of animal pathogens, but we have issued a notice to all institutions handling category 3 and 4 pathogens affecting human beings as well as animals. The review will look at that, as will the second review overseen by the BBSRC; it has responsibility for the Institute for Animal Health, and it will look at the management and governance of that body.
On compensation, I have made an announcement about support. We can best support the farming industry to recover from this very difficult time by controlling the disease, winning the confidence of Europe and reopening farm-to-farm movements. We must also reopen markets, which we have done: despite the difficult history, last week we got an agreement from the EU that meat product exports will resume. All the farmers I have spoken to have said that the single most important step that can be taken is the resumption of meat product exports, and we are determined to help make that happen, but it depends on persuading our European colleagues.
Finally, am I sorry that this has happened? I have already said that I am. Nobody would have wished this to happen, and I repeat that it should not have happened. But when something like this goes wrong—as it has—what is the most important thing that we should do? We should learn the lessons, sort it out and make sure that it does not happen again.
It was very interesting that the Secretary of State mentioned the vaccine for bluetongue. As he is aware, Cumbria was in the middle of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which was a major outbreak. There was a lot of debate at that time about vaccination. That was rejected then, and it appears that vaccination has been rejected once more. Will the Secretary of State tell me why it has been rejected and under what circumstances we will use vaccine in the future?
The contingency plan for foot and mouth stated that we would consider whether vaccination had a part to play in helping us to control the disease after the first measures were taken, such as the use of protection and surveillance zones and the culling of infected animals and of dangerous contacts. Extensive surveillance has been undertaken by the vets and the staff of the Institute for Animal Health—and I know that some Members present have met some of the teams that have been working so hard since the beginning of the outbreak to make sure that we have the necessary information to discover whether the approach we are taking will work. On both occasions—the first and second parts of the outbreak—we stood up vaccination capacity and made an order for vaccines, but in both cases we have decided that the measures we have taken appear to have contained the outbreak: there have been eight cases in Surrey 66 days on. If we were to reach a point where we thought that vaccination was necessary to help us control the spread of an outbreak, I would be willing to consider it, but that has not so far proved necessary.
The source of this outbreak of foot and mouth was the Pirbright laboratory, which is regulated, monitored and licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In short, a facility designed to protect British farming from infection was responsible, to quote from the DEFRA report, “beyond reasonable doubt”—which is, after all, the test in a criminal case—for the infection, and DEFRA was in turn responsible for its biosecurity and safety. Do the Government now accept that they have a legal obligation, and certainly a moral one, to compensate those whose businesses have been damaged by the outbreak, and what is the Government’s estimate of the losses to British farming?
What is suggested for hill farmers is welcome, but it does not go far enough. Also, what support does the Secretary of State propose to give to lowland farmers across England? What about farms within the control zones? Why has a similar scheme to that proposed in Scotland and Wales, giving a minimum price per animal, not been proposed in England? English farmers are on the brink, too, and DEFRA’s incompetence has put them there.
The second key point is that the Secretary of State must end the culture of impunity in his Department. We saw that with the fiasco over the Rural Payments Agency, and we now see it again with the Pirbright scandal. How long did it take the Department to establish biosecurity at Pirbright once the foot and mouth outbreak had occurred? When was the Secretary of State satisfied that there was no further risk of a leak of dangerous virus from Pirbright?
We know that specifically the drainage system—not merely the general state of Pirbright—was a subject of concern from correspondence from July 2004, so DEFRA had known about the health and safety issues at Pirbright and Compton for at least three years. Who was the most senior official, or Minister, to be informed of the problems with the drains at Pirbright? Why was work on dangerous pathogens not stopped as a result of these concerns? Will those responsible now be held to account, and will they resign? Will the Secretary of State name the official responsible for the licensing of Pirbright, and state whether that official is still in post? If they are—if they are not held to account—what encouragement does the Secretary of State think that that gives to anyone else in his Department to perform creditably in future?
So far, the reports from the Health and Safety Executive and Professor Spratt have given us a snapshot of the problem, but not an analysis of the organisational failings. Will the Secretary of State set up a public inquiry into how this débacle could have happened—an inquiry that will make recommendations to ensure that it never happens again?
On the question of legal obligations, in the end, that is a matter for the courts to determine. We are aware that some of those affected by this outbreak are consulting lawyers, so it is only right and proper that we should await any proceedings that anyone may choose to bring in those circumstances.
Secondly, the best help that we can give to those in the lowlands is to do what we have been doing: to try to get economic activity restarted. The single most important thing that we can do is to allow farmers to trade again, which is why so much effort has been devoted to that, and why we divided the country into a risk area and a low-risk area, regionalising the country in order to try to allow farm-to-farm movements and the resumption of markets as quickly as possible. In effect, we put a bigger buffer zone around the protection and surveillance zones in Surrey—Europe said that it wanted to add an extra buffer, which is why other counties have been brought in—thereby enabling a decision to be taken on the resumption of meat product exports. I hope that before long, the matter is in the hands of the Commission and of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, not me, and that the size of that buffer zone can be reduced, so that more farmers in more counties can benefit from the steps that have taken place.
Why have we not introduced a welfare disposal scheme? One reason is that I have not received representations from the National Farmers Union and others saying that that is the single most important thing that we should do in England. I recognise that the situation is different in Scotland and Wales, which is why they are proceeding with such schemes. Indeed, the farmers’ leaders whom I have spoken to have stressed the importance of getting economic activity started again.
With respect, I reject what the hon. Gentleman says about a culture of impunity within DEFRA. There is a very important point that he needs to bear in mind, particularly in relation to the drains. DEFRA’s role is as licensor and regulator. The consultation that took place with it, as licensor and regulator, was about whether, if the drains were changed, a new system would be adequate for the purposes of licensing and regulation. DEFRA was not at any time asked for funding to replace the drains. Why not? It is for the very simple reason that it is the licensor and the regulator. A factory that had a problem that the HSE identified would not say to it, “By the way, you are the licensor and regulator—can we have some money to put it right?” The proper place to go is of course the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is the organisation responsible.
The second point concerns what I said to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who speaks for the official Opposition, about the considerable amount of money that has been put into this site already. I share with him the question as to why, if it was so important, some of that money was not directed to it. The answer is that people did not think that it was as important as it turned out to be. That is the truth.
Will there be a public inquiry? No, there will not. What am I doing in addition to the two inquiries that I set up immediately we discovered the likely source of the virus? In addition to those two inquiries and the reviews by Bill Callaghan and the BBSRC, we have asked Iain Anderson, who reported on the 2001 outbreak and therefore appears to be the most appropriate person to do it, to reflect on how this outbreak has been handled. He can look into all the matters that he wants to and then he will report back to us. The report will also be published.
In other words, there will have been two inquiries, two reviews and another inquiry led by Iain Anderson. I hope that the House will agree that that shows that the Government take their responsibility seriously. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to point fingers at individuals; I am much more interested in putting things right.
Had it not been for the fact that a third outbreak was detected on 12 September, we would have been much more advanced than we are today, and perhaps many would not have felt their plight so severely. When my right hon. Friend mentioned that case, he spoke of undetected infection. Is he able to tell the House how long that undetected infection had lain there before it was picked up by anyone at all?
Yes. The epidemiological report that was published suggested that the lesions in the animals at infected premises 5 could have been three or possibly four weeks old. That gives us part of the answer to the question that we all asked on 12 September—where has the virus been for a month and a bit? The answer was that it had been outside the original protection and surveillance zone, undetected and, as a result, unreported. That reinforces the point that inspection is the first line of defence and it fills in a gap in the timeline. That is what has transpired, and I am not interested in pointing a finger at anyone else in relation to this issue; as I said to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), I want to fix it.
In paying tribute to the fortitude of the farmers, the smallholders and the villagers of Normandy in my constituency, where the foot and mouth outbreak began, and of Pirbright, the home of the two much respected organisations of the animal health institute and Merial, may I also thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw) for their kindness in keeping in touch with me so regularly as constituency MP during the crisis? It was much appreciated.
Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the problem has been resolved, as far as Surrey is concerned? Can he guarantee that the investment in the institute at Pirbright will continue and improve over the next few years? Finally, can he be specific about the compensation that he has in mind and how it can be obtained by local farmers and smallholders in the Surrey area?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and his support and interest during what has been a very difficult time for his constituents. In truth, I cannot guarantee that it is over. I can simply tell the House that, 66 days in and after eight cases, there has not been one for a week. I am sure that the House will understand if we say that in the light of the experience that we have all been through this summer, I am inclined to be a bit cautious about trying to predict the future, but I am working as hard as I can to try to safeguard the present.
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the investment that the Government had previously announced—and that has already started to go into Pirbright—will continue. It is important that we have first-class facilities. Old is not necessarily unsafe, which is the point that Professor Brian Spratt made in his report. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the vital role that Pirbright plays in protecting us from animal disease more generally and the role that it has played in turning round test results really quickly, which has enabled us to take quick decisions about how to deal with it in the circumstances.
On compensation, we have of course compensated all the farmers who lost animals through culling and we paid for primary and secondary disinfection in all the infected premises, but if farmers wish to pursue further compensation cases, I refer the House to the answer I gave a little earlier.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State has listened to farmers and done something about the terrible plight that they face this year. The outbreak happened at the worst possible time of the year for hill farmers and when I talk to farmers in the Lune valley they point out many of the same concerns that the Secretary of State has raised. The resumption of exports was extremely important to them, as was an aid package for hill farmers. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the aid package will be paid quickly, and can he give me some idea of the time scales, because cash flow is important to farmers?
I hope that the payments will be made by the beginning of November and, like my hon. Friend, I am anxious that that should happen as quickly as possible. The outbreak did indeed happen at the worst possible time, especially for hill farmers, which is why I have announced the package of support today. Hill farmers—some of whom I met on Thursday—have bills to be paid and decisions to make about when to take their animals to market to sell them, so the support will give farmers slightly more opportunity to see how the market unfolds and take decisions about what is best in the circumstances. At Skipton market on Thursday it was heartening to see that although prices were down they were slightly better than some farmers had feared. I hope that remains the case.
Quite rightly, the focus of attention today has been on the economic damage to the livestock farming industry and the terrible trauma suffered by some of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who have been directly affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but as the Secretary of State knows, the area affected is not primarily a livestock farming area. Is he aware that the movement restrictions in the protection zone are having a serious impact on other, non-agricultural, businesses and can he tell the House what measures he is considering to support businesses, some of which are under extreme pressure? Will he please not tell the House in response that owners of other affected businesses will have to look to taking legal action against the Government to get compensation or support for the loss they are suffering?
I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but as he is aware, it has been the policy of Governments—not just this Government, but other Governments—that compensation is not paid for consequential economic loss, so I can give him no comfort on that score. The nature of the area in which the outbreak occurred has meant that it is relatively lightly stocked, which is an advantage, but it has also meant that animals kept there are not necessarily on the registers, which is one of the difficulties that vets and animal health staff have faced. We ease restrictions where it is right and proper to do so, having taken account of the veterinary risk. I know it is tough and difficult, but the one thing the House would not forgive me for would be if I were to lift those restrictions—on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, which I have taken on every occasion—in a way that undermined our chance of containing and ultimately eradicating foot and mouth.
Can my right hon. Friend advise the House whether he has any plans to pass to the Scottish Executive responsibility for all decision-making processes affecting livestock movements and associated matters relevant to future foot and mouth outbreaks in Scotland?
As my hon. Friend is aware, a lot of those decisions already fall to the Scottish Executive and one of our tasks in dealing with the outbreak has been to make sure that we work in partnership with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government. My hon. Friend’s question gives me the chance to pay tribute to them for the co-operation and support we have received.
The outbreak has thrown into sharp relief for me the issue of cost and responsibility in the industry. I cannot help reflecting on the fact that some of the decisions that it falls to the holder of this office to take during the course of the outbreak are ones that, in a different way of doing things, might fall to the industry or some form of organisation representing stakeholders. I say that because last Thursday afternoon when I talked to farmers in Newmarket affected by bluetongue, I saw that there was a difference of interest between those caught by the bluetongue control area and farmers in other parts of the country. Once this is all over, I for one will come back to discussions about cost and responsibility in a new light because in future we ought to be looking at different ways of taking decisions about how restrictions are put in place and lifted.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for keeping me closely posted of developments. Does he accept that the outbreaks of both foot and mouth and bluetongue raise wider issues about biosecurity on farms in this country? As part of the inquiries he is holding, will he include an assessment of how well prepared farmers are in terms of the effectiveness of their on-farm biosecurity arrangements, especially taking into account the fact that in the livestock sector they are under economic pressure, they cannot always afford the best veterinary or biosecurity advice and there is an overall shortage of vets with large-animal experience?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I will pass on exactly what he has said to Iain Anderson. He has a very wide remit, but the right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will ask Iain Anderson to look at it as part of his work.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about involving farmers and stakeholders in wider discussions about biosecurity and about the need to look at insurance-based risk policies. I congratulate him particularly on learning the lessons from the 2001 outbreak, by declining to close the countryside to visitors, because it is the value of people using our footpaths, pubs, shops, restaurants and attractions that keeps the rural economy going. We need to be clear that, although farming makes an important contribution to the rural economy, other drivers are there as well.
I agree, particularly with the last point. In the end, we have to strike a balance, and we have all been at great pains to emphasise that the countryside is open, although there have been concerns about footpaths in the protection zones in Surrey—an issue that a number of Members who represent constituencies there have raised with me—and we have found a sensible way forward in those circumstances.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to look at some of those wider considerations in relation to the industry, because these are fundamentally diseases that have a very severe economic impact. That goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about what more can be done to try to anticipate such things and to find out what kind of insurance might be available and, bluntly, to work out how the cost of dealing with this will be shared in those circumstances. Those are precisely issues to put into the discussions about cost and responsibility once this is over.
As a humble and active crofter, I declare an interest. In Scotland, we have 250,000 lambs stuck on hills or slowed from moving from hills or islands. The export market has been closed for the crucial two months of the autumn, resulting in massive grazing pressure. Of course, the situation is similar in Wales. Following advice from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the chief vet on welfare concerns for livestock, the Scottish Government have responsibly prepared a sheep welfare scheme, details of which will be announced tomorrow. However, as Westminster still exercises powers to collect Scottish taxes and given that this emerged from a Westminster Government laboratory, will the Government live up to their responsibilities and fund the Scottish and Welsh schemes fully? A proper welfare scheme is, of course, needed to offset the loss of millions of pounds suffered by Scottish and Welsh crofters and farmers. Will the Minister please remember the crucial point that sheep numbers across the nations of the UK do not follow normal Barnett percentages?
I am indeed conscious of the last point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, as he says, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are developing their own schemes to deal with the circumstances. I grant entirely the point that he makes about the hills in Scotland and Wales, where the pressures are particularly acute, given the weather and the time of the year, and it is for each Administration to decide on the most appropriate way forward. We do not yet know the total cost of dealing with this outbreak, and there is a genuine debate to be had about the extent to which welfare disposal schemes constitute an animal health issue, as opposed to support for the industry, which is facing real economic difficulties. One of the issues that I must address in time, once the total cost is known, is whether it can be managed within my budget and, if not, there are traditional routes that one turns to, including conversations with the Treasury, and the devolved Administrations can, of course, do the same.
A number of colleagues have already referred to this happening at the worst time possible for the farming industry and for the impact that it has certainly had on the sheep sales of hill farmers in Wales. However, the solution is clearly to get trade back to normality as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend’s statement did not refer to the possibility of resuming live exports, particularly of sheep and calves, which are a mainstay of the dairy industry. Although it is welcome that a compensation package is in place in England, Wales and Scotland and that meat exports will resume from Friday onwards, can he tell the House any more about what pressure can be brought to bear on the European Union, so that we return to normality with live exports?
The resumption of live exports is some way away yet; that will depend on the passage of time following the confirmation of the last case—currently, the eighth infected premises. Exports to the rest of the world will follow later, because of international animal health organisation rules. Product exports are worth about £40 million and live exports about £2 million, so the single most important thing that we can do is support the resumption of product exports. That is what the Commission has agreed to do for large parts of the country from this coming Friday. As I said earlier, I hope that the area from which such exports can come will increase with time.
I draw the House’s attention to my declarations of interest as a livestock farmer.
The losses suffered by the livestock industry absolutely dwarf the compensation scheme that the Secretary of State has announced today. Lack of marketing opportunities, increased costs and a dramatic fall in the price of breeding stock and stock for slaughter have caused those losses. Will the Secretary of State commission an independent review on the losses that have been suffered by the agricultural industry, so that the Government can be in a position to offer a realistic compensation scheme when those losses are known?
I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with our current best assessment of what we think those economic losses are. I undertake to put a copy of that letter in the Library. Clearly, the situation will change over time; as product exports resume, losses that might otherwise be incurred may not be.
As I have learned during the past couple of months, farmers face really difficult decisions in deciding whether to sell now or not; they are wondering where the market will be in a week’s or a month’s time. In truth, we do not yet know what the full economic impact will be; nor do we know how much it might be possible to recover some of that because of the changes in movement, markets and product export that are about to come upon us. That is why we do not yet know the full answer to the fair question that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Doug Hoyle.
Lindsay Hoyle: Lindsay—I am looking older, but not quite that old, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At least, I hope that I do not; it would have been a bad summer.
The bluetongue virus is a worry for sheep farmers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware. Does he believe that a hard winter could eradicate the virus in the UK, or that it would lie dormant, only to reappear early next spring? If the latter were true, the pressure would be about where it would appear next. That is the first part.
Secondly, I should say that the issue is about money that farmers need, and my right hon. Friend is right about that. However, we ought to push supermarkets and the middlemen to pay fair prices and ensure that farmers can survive, rather than be squeezed, as they have been in the past 15 years. Please, let us put pressure on the supermarkets and the middlemen—fair farm-gate prices are the future for farming.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. At the beginning of this outbreak, I spoke to the heads of all the main supermarkets to make that point—“Farmers are having a difficult time; anything and everything that you can do to assist would be much appreciated.” That is why money for promotion and to help with exports is part of the package that I announced today; those are practical steps that we can take to try to get the market operating again.
On the bluetongue virus and the winter, I cannot predict how cold or otherwise the winter will be, but as the weather gets cooler there will undoubtedly be less midge activity. The evidence from Europe last year was that the midges with the virus did overwinter and came back with a bit of a vengeance at the start of this year. So winter may provide a temporary respite, but if the experience of northern Europe is anything to go by, the virus will be back next year. That is why the development of a vaccine is so important.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his visit to Skipton market in my constituency and for the package of measures he has announced today. If he wished to do a little extra, he might look at the veterinary fees that auction marts have to pay when they are in session. He will know that upland farmers make a significant part of their livelihood from sales to the lowland. In Skipton next week, the most crucial sales of the year—sales of stock for breeding and fattening to the lowland—begin. Many farmers do not have a great deal of choice about whether they sell, because there is no grass or keep left. But they do not know whether there are going to be any buyers, because many of the buyers are in the bluetongue zones in the south of England and they do not know whether they can afford to buy.
The Secretary of State might wish that somebody else would take the decision, or that there was another means of taking the decision, about the extension, maintenance and life of the bluetongue protection zone, but if the sales are to be economically effective, it is crucial that people know where they stand. Please will he recognise the urgency of taking the decision about the bluetongue zone? The fortunes of foot and mouth disease-struck farmers depend a great deal on that.