House of Commons
Tuesday 16 October 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Broads Authority Bill
That the promoters of the Broads Authority Bill, which was originally introduced to this House on 23rd January 2007, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament, according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—[First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Secretary of State recently met Ofcom and I met Paul Hughes, Digital UK’s national manager for Scotland, over the summer. In addition, I will address a conference in Scotland next month on the opportunities presented by digital switchover. Book early to avoid disappointment.
The Minister knows that there are currently teething problems in Whitehaven, especially with people not knowing about the switchover. My constituency has an above average number of elderly people, whose television is not a luxury but a necessity. What contact has my hon. Friend made with, for example, Glasgow city council, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Citizens Advice Scotland and the electricity boards to ensure that information is issued especially to the elderly about the changeover?
My hon. Friend mentioned Whitehaven, which is the first part of the UK to switch over. That will happen tomorrow. I was not aware of the teething problems that he mentioned. When I last examined the matter, I was told that awareness in Whitehaven was 100 per cent., which sounded suspiciously North Korean, but I am prepared to believe that the percentage is high. He is right that the key to it all is public awareness. No single organisation—be it Digital UK or the BBC—will achieve that on its own. We need to work together—the councils, the Scottish Executive and the registered social landlords, who also have a role to play—so that, when the scheme is extended throughout Scotland, beginning in Borders in 2008 and in the rest of Scotland in 2010, there is awareness of it, ensuring that people know that switchover will happen and know the steps that they have to take. In addition, a help scheme will be in place for the elderly and vulnerable people to whom my hon. Friend referred, so that they do not lose out on that opportunity.
The help scheme will not kick in until close to switchover. What is happening now to develop new handsets for the visually impaired, those with disabilities who have difficulty accessing digital TV, and those, mainly the elderly, who may need to buy a new TV before the help scheme kicks in in their area but also need access to digital advice now so that they do not miss out when the switchover happens?
That is precisely why Digital UK appointed a national manager for Scotland, Paul Hughes, and why I met him earlier. I pay tribute to him for raising the issue of the handset for people with disabilities. After he prompted me, I spoke to Vicki Nash of Ofcom Scotland about the matter. I also discussed it with the Scottish Consumer Council because it is a genuine concern. Ofcom Scotland has conducted some research on how useable the handsets are, the results of which are being fed back into the former Department of Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—taskforce on the matter. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), it is important that no one loses out, especially those who have visual or other disabilities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that digital television provides opportunities, especially for my constituents through North Lanarkshire local authority, which provides information and tremendous services? Will he encourage other local authorities to conduct a similar exercise?
My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, she pre-empts excerpts of my keynote speech next month. North Lanarkshire has proposed a creative and imaginative scheme, which is a way to disseminate information throughout the area so that everybody knows the services to which they are entitled and that they can access. It is an excellent programme, which I thoroughly recommend to other local authority areas, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.
I understand that the frequency and format of my meetings with the First Minister are consistent with those of our predecessors. I have also had a series of informal meetings with the First Minister. For example, I met him as recently as this Saturday when we watched Scotland’s magnificent victory over Ukraine at Hampden Park.
What recent discussions has the Secretary of State held with the First Minister about Glasgow’s Commonwealth games bid? What advice has he given the First Minister, who will shortly lead a delegation of 46 members to Sri Lanka to hear the announcement? Does he agree with Glasgow city councillor John Mason, who says that the size of the delegation is “very excessive”? Will the right hon. Gentleman join the delegation?
I have no plans to join the delegation. The appropriateness of the size of the delegation will be determined by the outcome of the lobbying. If Glasgow—as I expect that it will—wins the Commonwealth games, we will look back at the size of the delegation, and if every member has made a contribution to that appropriate outcome, we will celebrate them. It is not in my gift to determine who goes—I have no expertise in such lobbying; perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. If so, he should let Glasgow have the benefit of it. We all look forward to a successful bid. I am sure that he will cheer as loudly as the rest of us when Glasgow makes a successful bid for the Commonwealth games.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will take the opportunity, next time he meets the First Minister, to remind him that my constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire expect to see him working co-operatively and constructively in Scotland’s interests, not using the opportunity for party political grandstanding.
I say to my hon. Friend, and I have said in the past, that my interest as the Secretary of State for Scotland is primarily in making devolution work for the people of Scotland. I am in absolutely no doubt that it will work in the interests of the people of Scotland only if I personally have a constructive relationship with the First Minister, which I believe I do, and if he and his Ministers develop constructive relationships with my colleagues. Some of the activity of the past week suggests that, in order for us to do that, they might need to resist the temptation to develop confrontation out of what appeared to be co-operation.
With that good spirit in mind, will the Secretary of State endeavour in his next meeting with the First Minister to join him, the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Scottish Government in battling for Scottish farmers and Scottish crofters? Will he lend his weight to the campaign for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to live up to its responsibility and fully cover all welfare and compensation payments arising from foot and mouth?
Like everyone else in the House—and everyone else in Scotland—I have enormous sympathy for farmers and the plight that they face. I am among the many hon. Members who have constituents who are directly affected by those circumstances. Our concern for them is heightened by the fact that the events that generated those circumstances were well beyond their control. They were the victims. The hon. Gentleman will know from his colleagues in Scotland that Scotland Office Ministers have been working closely with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues that arose out of the outbreak of foot and mouth, from hours for haulage drivers all the way to support for farmers. Indeed, I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this morning to discuss that very issue.
I commend the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for leading a genuinely cross-party initiative and for engaging constructively. I understand that he will be meeting farmers later today with the Secretary of State. He is to be commended for that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and some of the members of his party could take a leaf out of that book, by working in co-operation and not in confrontation.
Next time my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the question of our armed forces returning to the UK? If our service personnel return to an English local authority, they receive priority treatment through the health service, but in Scotland they do not. Will my right hon. Friend raise with the First Minister the important question of how our service personnel are treated in Scotland?
My hon. Friend may well have uncovered an application of what I thought was a cross-UK policy to give veterans priority in relation to health service treatment. I suspect that that is not the only area where there are differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland in relation to veterans’ access to public services. For example, he will know from the work that he has been doing on the Select Committee on Defence that we are making quite significant progress here in England, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government among others, on removing some of the impediments that armed forces personnel face in accessing social housing. Those are of course challenges that the Scottish Executive face, too. I am sure that, with the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and others, they will be up to those challenges, but there are still gaps in their provision of service.
May I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of making communication work between London and Edinburgh? If communication between his Department and the Scottish Government in Edinburgh does not work, the devolutionary settlement will not work, and that can lead in only one direction. The people who will suffer in the meantime are those whom we are supposed to represent here, such as those in the Scottish livestock industry, to which he has referred. I am having to take representatives of the industry, along with people from other parties, to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this evening, simply because relations between the two Departments have broken down.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the parties to a successful devolutionary settlement, at Government level, must be able to work with each other openly and with confidence. Undoubtedly, some of those currently in that partnership appear to have something to learn about such work, and about the degree of trust necessary; I am certain that they will learn. On support for the livestock industry, I have commended the hon. Gentleman on his action, and I assure him that he will find support from Ministers in the Scotland Office. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the issue is resolved, not only in the best interests of the farming community but in those of the welfare of animals.
Instead of constantly picking a fight with Westminster, the policy-light and heavily aggressive Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh should provide solutions to the everyday problems faced by our constituents, whether in health or education, and help to make Scotland a better place. Does the Secretary of State agree that the £30 billion comprehensive spending review settlement for Scotland—which, incidentally, is double what Scotland received in 1999—is a good deal for Scotland, and that enough policy measures can be implemented with that generous budget?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive have at their disposal a budget that, on any measure, is twice what Donald Dewar had when devolved Government took responsibility for areas of public policy delivery. More immediately, the Scottish people are watching exactly what the minority Administration in Scotland deliver. They promise announcements: by my calculation, they have told us that about 60 of their policy promises have been delayed pending the generous settlement that they have received. Their manifesto made several very important promises, and they ought to know that the people of Scotland are watching. Those who were voted in to keep an eye on them in government will bring to the attention of the Scottish people their failure to deliver, I suspect, on every single one of those promises.
We heard today, and in the last Scottish questions on 10 July, the Secretary of State’s commitment to co-operate. At the beginning of this term of the Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said that under his stewardship the Scottish Parliament would be about compromise, concession, intelligent debate and mature discussion. The Secretary of State will accept, however, that the people of Scotland have not seen that over the past two weeks, and that they expect and deserve better from both their Governments. Does he now accept that the memorandum of understanding on managing the relationships between the UK Government and devolved Administrations is no longer fit for purpose? Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Justice should review it as soon as possible?
The memorandum of understanding to which the hon. Gentleman refers says, in particular, that most contacts between the Government and devolved Administrations
“should be carried out on a bilateral or multi-lateral basis, between departments which deal on a day-to-day basis with the issues at stake”.
That is how the UK Government want things to work in practice. There is a long record of such arrangements working in practice, benefiting not only the people of Scotland but those of Northern Ireland, Wales and London. There is no reason why we cannot return to that basis, within the context of the existing memorandum of understanding. We ought to be able to get to a situation, within the existing memorandum of understanding, in which not only can the words of co-operation be used but the deeds of co-operation are manifest.
On foot and mouth compensation, surely the whole episode was entirely predictable as soon as the draft statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was changed. Why did not the Secretary of State for Scotland move to manage that situation? Will he tell the House when he knew that foot and mouth compensation had been offered by DEFRA, and when he knew that the terms of that offer had been changed? Will he clarify newspaper reports that the Minister of State has been charged with running round Whitehall Departments to tell them now not to give information to Scotland?
The Minister of State has been charged with no such responsibility. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspaper, even if he has briefed the newspaper himself—indeed, especially if he has briefed the newspaper himself: that might be a reason for not believing what is in it.
In relation to the issue—[Hon. Members: “When?”] Perhaps Conservative Front Benchers would have the good manners at least to wait until the question has been answered before deciding that it has not been answered.
At no point was I aware that an offer had been made and withdrawn, because no such offer was ever made and withdrawn. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made that absolutely clear. He has personally made it public that he played no part in the sort of behaviour in which he was accused of taking part, and in withdrawing an offer that had been made.
All of us who have been in government—and there are still some Members on the Conservative Benches who have experience in government—know fine well about discussions on access to the reserve. If the scale and nature of a bid is appropriate to a reserve that is held for particular purposes, there will be arguments about access to it, but all who have been in government know full well that that involves a debate with the Treasury. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we shall be able to see whether it supports such a bid as the situation evolves.
Post Office Closures
I have regular such discussions with ministerial colleagues. The Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr McFadden), recently visited Dumfries and Galloway, where he saw different methods of postal services provision working well in rural areas.
Under this Labour Government, a quarter of post offices in the west of Scotland have already closed. Next week, when the public consultation starts, we shall learn which of the remaining 300 will face the axe. Does the Minister think that the consultation will be meaningful? Does he expect that if the public voice strong opposition, a significant number of the post offices earmarked for closure will be granted a reprieve?
As I have told the hon. Lady in the past, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining a viable and sustainable post office network. That is why we have already invested £2 billion and are investing a further £1.7 billion. As the hon. Lady knows, however, the Post Office is subject to all sorts of pressures, and there are all sorts of reasons why individual post office branches must close. The hon. Lady found that out for herself recently when she campaigned to save a branch, only to discover that the reason for its being threatened with closure was that the local Liberal Democrat council was selling the building that housed it.
My hon. Friend is entirely right, but I would go further: the problem is not just the length of the journey but the impediments in the way of it. I have encountered examples in which a journey described as being only about half a mile involved a motorway which prevented people from travelling the half-mile. That is why the consultation will consider factors such as the placing of motorways, as well as bus routes, sea crossings, rivers, mountains and so forth. All those factors must be taken into consideration. We are committed to ensuring that people can still have access to postal services, because we believe in the value of the Post Office. That is why we are investing so heavily in maintaining a post office network.
The official consultation period shows that there are a mere 12 weeks between the announcement of the proposals to the public and their implementation. The Post Office seems reluctant to engage in public meetings throughout the process in the areas concerned. As the largest stakeholder, will the Government ensure that Post Office management face the public in those areas and answer their questions? Will they also ensure that the benchmark used in deciding which branches are closed relates to whether people view a post office as a necessity rather than a convenience?
The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: there must be a proper and transparent process. People need to see the criteria against which decisions on individual post offices will be made. We are not adopting a purely commercial stance on this issue; if we were, the Post Office would be decimated not only in Scotland but throughout the UK. Instead, we are capping a maximum number of closures, and we are continuing with sustained investment. I must also say that this transparent, open and sustained programme of post office closures stands in stark contrast to the 3,500 post office closures when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, when there was no proper management, no proper investment, no proper strategy and no proper help and support for the communities left bereft.
Child Poverty (Glasgow)
The Scottish measurement of poverty unfortunately does not provide numbers for households in each local authority. In Scotland, however, the number of children living in relative poverty, after housing costs, has fallen from 330,000 in 1998-99 to 250,000 in 2005-06—a drop of 80,000.
As a regular visitor to my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that the statistics should be measured by local authority area? Is he aware that almost 33,000 grants for clothes and shoes for schoolchildren were made to needy families in Glasgow last year? That is an unacceptably high figure in this day and age. Will he therefore agree as a matter of urgency to meet the leaders of Glasgow city council and the Scottish Executive to discuss what additional resources can be made available to lift many more Glasgow children out of poverty and to give them a better chance of a decent life in future?
As my hon. Friend points out, I have occasion to be in his constituency the odd time, and I also pass through it. I commend him on his campaigning work for decades against poverty among his constituents. I have over the past 10 years witnessed a transformation of his constituency. Housing has been generated in greater numbers than I have ever seen before in a lifetime of being in and around it. I can also think of at least two shopping centres that have been developed, and a significant number of employment opportunities have recently been developing there. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that, despite all that improvement and all the support from this Government to help people out of poverty through a number of measures, there is still a hard core of poverty in his constituency. That is a result of decades of neglect, principally by the Conservatives.
I will be perfectly content to meet the leadership of Glasgow city council—I have done so on a number of occasions since I took up this post—and others, to ensure that resources and initiatives are appropriately directed into Glasgow, because it deserves the opportunity to continue to improve as it has done over the past decade.
Trade Links (Scotland/Malawi)
The Scotland Office does not have a remit for developing international trade, but I am happy to report that UK Government spending on Malawi amounts to some £70 million. For the sake of completeness, I should add that the Scottish Executive’s contribution to international development in Malawi is £3 million.
Notwithstanding Scotland’s close links to Malawi dating back to Dr. Livingstone, does the Minister share my concern that when the new chief of Blantyre—also known as the British high commissioner—was in charge of Scotland, albeit briefly, he set up a Scottish international aid charity and that that charity might be competing with, rather than complementing, the excellent and important work of the Department for International Development, which is, of course, a reserved matter?
If that were the case there would be a concern, but there is not a concern because DFID officials are working closely with Scottish Executive officials on that. I should point out that some 560 DFID officials work in East Kilbride, where a large part of the Department is based, and that extends Scotland’s contribution to international aid and development. When I saw that this question had been tabled, I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on an 11 per cent. increase in international aid, reversing years of decline and cuts to the international aid budget under the last Tory Government, so that we are now well on the way to meeting our international obligations.
The employment level in Scotland stands at 2.54 million, with the rate of employment at 76.7 per cent. The current employment level and rate are both at near historic levels.
The Secretary of State is well aware of the huge improvement in employment throughout Scotland, but particularly in my constituency, since 1997. Indeed, 25 per cent. more people are now in work than in 1997. However, unemployment and low pay remain major problems in many parts of Scotland, particularly Ayrshire. What does the Secretary of State believe can further be done to improve employment levels, so that we reach full employment—our manifesto commitment—in Scotland?
As a fellow Ayrshire MP, I am well aware of the challenges that the economy of Ayrshire faces in sustaining and increasing employment. Given the systemic difficulties that Ayrshire has faced over a long period, the level of improvement over the past decade is nothing short of miraculous. However, none of us are entitled to rest on our laurels, and we will not achieve our objective of full employment, whatever that measure might be—against the accepted standards of a few decades ago, we are well past the benchmark that was set for any Government by economists—unless we sustain and maintain a stable economy, as we have been able to do, and unless we address the issues of skills, resources and economic development, with the co-operation and help, of course, of the Scottish Executive, who have the major responsibility in that regard. I have absolutely no doubt that, if we do more of what we have been doing in making work pay and encouraging people into work, we will achieve the objective that my hon. Friend and I share.
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Home Information Packs
Home information packs are proving to be fast to produce, and are providing the market with important early information. They have already proved a trigger to cuts in search costs. Estate agents have encouraged people to market early, in advance of HIPs, with predictable short-term impacts on the timing of listings. However, the overall market is currently affected by wider factors, such as attitudes to interest rates and uncertainty in the financial markets.
Does the Minister not see that home information packs have harmed the housing market, and does she not realise that inspectors, whom she promised would earn up to £70,000 a year, will be lucky if they take home £10,000 this year? Are we not right to say that, when we return to office, we will scrap this ridiculous scheme?
No, the right hon. Gentleman is not right. HIPs are already having an impact on search costs, for example. More than 80 local authorities have cut the cost of searches as a result of HIPs’ introduction, some by more than £100. The right hon. Gentleman should admit to energy assessors and home inspectors across the country that his party’s policy would put them all out of work, because he would abolish energy certificates altogether.
Research carried out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has found a direct link between the introduction of home information packs and the reduction in new instructions by a staggering 37 per cent. Is this the Minister’s idea of bringing about stability in the housing market?
Shock news! The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors opposes home information packs! It has been opposing HIPs and trying to block the introduction of energy certificates for a long time. It even introduced a court case to try to block them, which is tragic, because energy certificates are hugely important and provide vital information for people across the market. We know that new listings have been falling across the market since June—long before HIPs were introduced—and that there are other factors. For example and as most commentators would point out, buyers’ decisions are perhaps currently the most significant factor in the market.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to see this afternoon’s Evening Standard, which contains an article stating that Conservative Front Benchers have written to the Department’s permanent secretary giving
“formal notice that”
“project faces cancellation under the Tories.”
Will my right hon. Friend instruct the permanent secretary to keep that letter in safe keeping, so that we can bring it out when the Tories make a U-turn on this very good policy?
My hon. Friend can rest assured that the permanent secretary will be able to keep that letter in a drawer for a very long time indeed. Opposition Members should consider that, by opposing EPCs, they are opposing a measure about which Friends of the Earth has said that
“without them, there is absolutely no hope of making significant progress on low-carbon homes and tackling climate change.”
EPCs are about providing important information to help consumers cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. They are something that we should support, not oppose in the way that Opposition Members are trying to do.
Contrary to the vision of housing Armageddon that the Opposition predicted when HIPs were introduced, does not my right hon. Friend agree that we have seen no discernible impact on new properties coming on to the market? They have been introduced at a third of the cost, and without the lengthy delays caused by the shortage of inspectors predicted by the Opposition. Given the successful implementation of HIPs for three and four-bedroom properties, will my right hon. Friend consider how quickly she can introduce them for one and two-bedroom properties, as that would be a real help for first-time buyers? Will she also give further consideration to bringing in compulsory home condition reports, as they would make HIPs more effective in the future?
My hon. Friend makes some important points. We are working with a range of stakeholders in the industry, including Which?, about what the next steps should be. For example, we are looking at promoting e-conveyancing as part of our consideration of the wider issues to do with the buying and selling of homes. Back in May, we identified key issues to do with the number of inspectors in place, the impact of HIPs on the market, and how they could be implemented smoothly, and we will take a sensible decision about the timing of the roll-out in the light of those factors.
As yesterday’s Hansard shows, the Minister has been forced to admit that a mere 4 per cent. of those who have ordered HIPs have also ordered the optional home condition report. Is it not about time, therefore, that she came to the same conclusion as the public and scrapped HIPs in favour of the simple EPC system that operates in Northern Ireland?
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that EPCs have not been introduced in Northern Ireland? In fact, the Administration there are learning from our experience and from the measures that we have taken. Moreover, people in Northern Ireland will not benefit from the reduction in search costs already evident across the market here as a result of the introduction of HIPs.
Opposition Members sound a bit like Chicken Licken in their belief that the sky is always falling. They said that HIPs would cost £1,000, take months to produce and increase council tax, but all of that has turned out be barmy nonsense. We need a sensible debate about how we take forward improvements to home buying and selling but, unfortunately, Opposition Members remain incapable of taking part in it.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to look at what is happening in Denmark? In the UK, and especially in England and Wales, it takes something like 12 weeks to exchange contracts, and a third of transactions fall through. In contrast, the introduction in Denmark of the equivalent of HIPs caused the time for contract exchange to fall to seven days and reduced to almost zero the proportion of contracts falling through.
My hon. Friend is right. Denmark was one of the first countries to introduce EPCs and HIPs, with the result that there have been very substantial improvements to the process of buying and selling homes there. We should learn from other countries’ experiences and recognise the benefits that such reforms can bring to that process.
Local communities know their areas best. That is why all decisions about how services are funded and monitored, including on satisfaction, are made at local level. It is central Government’s role to provide support and funding, and that is precisely what we are doing. My Department is providing £1.7 billion to local authorities for the supporting people fund this year. That money allows 800,000 older people to live independently, and more older people are getting the help that they need. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of older people getting housing support went up by nearly 20,000.
No, I do not accept that. Being able to be flexible in the way that supporting people funds are used means that we can use the money to best effect, so that it is not only people in sheltered housing who can get support but, increasingly, people in their own homes. As I said, we are helping 800,000 older people to live independently. The important thing is that the support is not tied to bricks and mortar; it is about assessing people’s real needs and having the flexibility locally to meet those needs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants many more older people to be helped irrespective of their tenure.
But does my right hon. Friend accept that the process has added a level of complexity to the way in which most sheltered housing schemes work? They are tenanted and rented through local authorities or housing associations and the biggest problem is that the supporting people budget has not been the most stable one. Will she look at it again to ensure that older people have the security that they want and the stability of funding that they should expect?
Yes. Stability in funding is important, and I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that the amount of money that has gone into the fund has been very significant in recent years—£1.7 billion. The important thing is that local authorities should take into account the views of not just older people but the whole range of vulnerable people helped by the funding to ensure that services are tailored to the needs of those people. Built into the framework there is an absolute emphasis on making sure that the services are suitable for the often complex needs that supporting people funds are designed to meet.
I am surprised that the Secretary of State sounds so happy. Is it not the case that supporting people budgets have been slashed in recent years, largely because the Government underestimated the cost of provision, leaving councils to pick up the bill? The costs to councils of social care and support of the elderly are soaring, made worse by the NHS cuts that have shunted costs directly on to council bills. The Local Government Association issued a cross-party warning last week that council tax will be above the rate of inflation for the next three years. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment? Does she agree with it or is she still in denial?
Far from being in denial, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that in many cases excellent Labour councils are providing more services. I am sure that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) is aware that his council in Manchester is a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel. It is providing services to more older people this year than in the past. I have to tell the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that, unfortunately, Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk county council have implemented significant cuts in support for older people. The contrast is absolutely obvious.
We are increasing investment in new social housing, and I can today announce more than £10 billion funding for the regional housing pot over the next three years, to invest in new social housing, new shared ownership housing and housing renewal. That is an increase of nearly 40 per cent. compared with the previous three years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that announcement and congratulate her on making it in the House today. Is not it important that all communities in the United Kingdom build increasing amounts of social housing? Following the research that has enabled her to make her announcement today, what advice can she offer the devolved Administration in Scotland—unfortunately, there are no Members of devolved Administrations in the House today—that would be useful in devolved areas?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, housing is a devolved matter. We know that throughout the country we have a growing ageing population, with more people living alone, which means that we need more homes and more affordable housing. That requires new investment, which cannot be provided if unfunded tax cuts are being proposed.
What hope does the Minister offer the 330,000 families on the housing waiting list in London, or the 1.6 million families on the waiting list nationwide, of ever getting decent social housing? Is not it the case that it will take 35 years for those people to be taken off the list? With house prices still rising—the average is £400,000 in London—the chance of their ever having an affordable home is shrinking. Does not she accept that we need to increase dramatically the amount of social housing and affordable housing, and that the figures in the comprehensive spending review do not go nearly far enough towards achieving that?
I agree that we need to build more social housing, more shared-ownership housing and more housing across the board, and that we need to raise more resources from planning gain to provide additional funding. We are putting in several billion pounds of additional funding over the next three years. It is important that we take a responsible approach to the public finances, and increases in public investment have to be paid for. For London, we are supporting a 27 per cent. increase in the regional funding over the next three years, in addition to extra help for people who want to move out of London to find more affordable housing.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the acute shortage of social housing in Leeds, which has prompted the Leeds Tenants Federation to launch its “Right to Rent” campaign? Does she understand the federation’s concern that Leeds is not sufficiently committed to providing more social housing or putting pressure on developers to deliver the proportion of affordable housing laid down in planning permissions? Will she examine these concerns?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that there has been hostility from some on Leeds city council to supporting sufficient additional and affordable housing. Every council and every area needs to do more to support more affordable housing for their local communities. We are supporting a 32 per cent. increase in the funding for Yorkshire and Humberside, which will enable substantial increases in social housing and continued housing renewal to be supported. I urge Leeds city council to work with other housing associations and local developers to bid for that funding in order to support tenants in my hon. Friend’s area.
The social homebuy scheme is a pilot scheme, as we have always said. The pilot concludes in March and we will then take decisions about how to take the scheme forward. It is right to examine different innovative ways to help more people on to the housing ladder and to help first-time buyers. I must say to Conservative Members that they cannot help first-time buyers if they are not prepared to back the building of the new homes that Britain needs.
Affordable Homes (Wirral, South)
In the housing Green Paper, we announced a 50 per cent. increase in investment for affordable homes of at least £8 billion over the next three years. Furthermore, the Housing Corporation is inviting local providers to bid for affordable homes investment.
Wirral metropolitan borough council is working to make better use of public sector land assets, which has already enabled it to provide 270 additional affordable homes in one area. It is also reviewing its affordable housing policy.
Does my hon. Friend accept that that demonstrates that the policy of restricting house building in parts of Wirral, South often, if not always, works well and results in appropriate development? Does he understand that its reduction or removal is likely to lead to the development of executive homes rather than low-cost housing and result in a victory for a well-funded housing lobby?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. He knows the importance of mixed communities and diversity in the housing offer, particularly in terms of affordable housing. Housing has the potential to be a source of inequality over the next few years. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has announced an £801 million cash boost for the north-west region to tackle affordable housing. I hope that Wirral, South receives its fair share.
Using the methodology of Kate Barker’s review of housing supply, the Department estimates newly arising need that cannot be met in the market or by existing stock of at least 40,000 new social rented homes per annum. In the housing Green Paper, we announced an increase in new affordable housing to at least 70,000 per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 homes will be for social rent. We have a goal to go further in subsequent years, to 50,000 new social homes a year in the next spending review period.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong and long-standing commitment to affordable and social housing. I also welcome the announcements today and the statement yesterday on a proposed independent, stand-alone regulatory body for housing, including affordable housing. Will my hon. Friend look carefully at honeypot areas, such as Hebden Bridge in my constituency, where there are many second homes in converted mills, but very few houses for families?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and I hope that she will refer it to the regional assembly to consider. With regard to housing allocation, it is well worth considering other affordable housing options. Since 1997, 400,000 new affordable homes have been built—the figure also includes refurbished properties, which goes to show what can be done with existing properties.
The Government always look at the supply side of housing, not the demand side. Will the Minister confirm that more than 1 million of the 3 million houses that the Government wish to build over the next 15 years will be needed for future immigration? Will he tell us what assessment he has made of the impact of immigration and asylum on affordable and social housing over the past 10 years?
The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that more than 70 per cent. of the demand for housing between now and 2020 will be due to people living in single-person households and other demographic factors. It is not all about migration. We have a migration impacts forum, which I chair jointly with a Minister from the Home Office, but we should also consider the contribution of migrants to this country. They contribute more, in terms of gross domestic product, than they take out, and the percentage is growing over the years.
Historically, my constituency had a large, poor quality housing stock and a low-value private stock. Now, it has a thriving private sector market and a hugely improved social housing stock, but an acute shortage of affordable housing. In spite of all the developments, not enough property is coming on to the market. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will work with the local authorities and developers to ensure that that supply of housing improves?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has mentioned the enhanced allocations in the west midlands, including some 41 per cent. for his own area. The national allocation will be 70,000 more affordable homes per year by 2010-11, which will, I hope, make a huge difference to his constituency and region, and to the whole country.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that all too many affordable homes are not affordable at all when they go on the market, being far too expensive for many first-time buyers. Will the Government commit to putting large quantities of public land, such as that belonging to the Ministry of Defence and the NHS—which they have talked about releasing—into community land trusts, which hold the land and sell on the bricks and mortar at an affordable price?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; we are piloting such schemes presently. In terms of getting people on to the housing ladder for the first time, he should be aware that 26,000 key workers have benefited since the scheme was put in place in 2001 and 80,000 people have also been helped by shared equity schemes in recent years.
I welcome the Government’s proposal for eco-towns, but can the Minister reassure me that the same high environmental standards will be applied to new affordable housing, so that they are not just affordable for the people who rent or buy them, but affordable to run, in terms of heating bills?
Planning Decisions (Local Accountability)
Our proposals for nationally significant infrastructure projects will involve the public at every stage—on the development of national policy, on project proposals as they are being developed, and at the inquiry stage. We propose to create a legal requirement for promoters to consult the public before submitting an application for a nationally significant infrastructure project. That will be a big step forward, bringing about the early engagement of people affected by proposals for new or changed infrastructure.
The question is who takes the decision, and although the Secretary of State has helpfully suggested that there should be less control on local authorities, through reduced targets, which I very much welcome, the fact is that in recent years responsibility for planning decisions has moved away from local councils to regional government, then to unelected regional development agencies, and now to a national body. Does she not agree that local decisions are best taken locally by elected people?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our increased flexibility for local government. There will certainly be both ministerial and parliamentary involvement in drawing up the national policy statements, which will provide a robust, accountable framework for the policy for major infrastructure projects. Through that system, we want to achieve increased certainty, more transparency and key accountability. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that five years to get major infrastructure proposals agreed to is far too long for the future of the country. If we want to ensure economic prosperity, balanced with environmental sustainability, we need a new planning regime that gives us certainty, timeliness and accountability.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the planning policy guidance note that Opposition parties largely hold responsible for reducing councils’ room to manoeuvre was replaced some time ago with planning policy statement 3 on housing? That planning policy statement largely leaves local councils discretion on housing planning matters, including on the density of development, and on garden development policy. Every time that a Tory or Liberal Democrat councillor—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the way in which local authorities have increased flexibility to meet the needs of their local communities. I am sure that he will agree that the best local councils do exactly that through housing and planning decisions for their neighbourhoods. Coincidentally, those best councils, who are in touch with their communities, may well be the kind of councils that my hon. Friend mentioned.
As a result of Government diktat, Kettering borough council has had a statutory duty placed on it to draw up plans for an extra 13,100 houses. That will increase the number of homes in Kettering by one third in the next 15 years. If there were a local referendum on whether local people agreed with those plans, would the Secretary of State take a blind bit of notice?
I am disappointed and rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s way of expressing himself. He said that there is a diktat that requires the homes to be built. I would ask him to think a bit more carefully about the views of his community and the people whom he represents. Many of those people will have families—sons and daughters—who are in desperate need of new homes. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not want to provide new homes for first-time buyers, and that he will continue to betray them?
Recently, Bolton’s planning committee turned down an application to erect a mobile telephone mast right in the heart of Little Lever precinct in my constituency. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to the angry residents of Little Lever, who found that T-Mobile turned up early one Sunday morning and erected the mast without planning permission? Should not firms like that be fined for their absolute arrogance?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of importance to local communities, and it is vital that the companies that are involved are sensitive to the needs of local people, conduct their business in a proper way with integrity, and consult the local community. If in the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions, local views have simply been ignored and trampled on, clearly that is a matter that we will want to look into, because the basis of the system is trust and confidence. Where that is lacking, decisions will not have the support of the constituency.
We are committed to ensuring that the areas hit by the floods in the summer recover as soon as possible. So far we have made available comprehensive support of up to £57 million. However, we know that full recovery for many households, businesses and communities may yet take months. We will remain available and give the support needed for them to achieve that.
Given that some houses that were flash-flooded in Cheltenham in June and July now face spiralling insurance premiums and, possibly, a fall in price, is it wise or unwise to plan to build more homes in flood-risk areas such as Leckhampton? In time, houses built in such areas could be unsaleable and uninsurable, and could exacerbate flooding in nearby communities in Cheltenham.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have tightened up considerably planning legislation and regulations; we did so in December last year. That means that the preference now is for locations with a low flood risk. Given the area from which he comes, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not always possible to avoid flood risk altogether. Therefore, where there is a flood risk, we have built into the process a requirement for the Environment Agency to offer an assessment of the risks entailed to the planning authority. That is reducing the risk for developments in the future.
It is clear from the evidence that we have received on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as part of an inquiry into flooding, that the advice of the Environment Agency on development on flood plains is far too often set aside. What plans are there to toughen up the framework so that at least those who can predict reasonably accurately where floods might take place will not see their advice rejected and floods taking place in the years that follow?
That is exactly why we tightened up the regulation and process in the first place. First, the new guidance requires developers and planners to take account of the flood risk. Secondly, it directs development to areas of lowest risk. Thirdly, where there remains a flooding risk, the guidance requires that the Environment Agency assessment and advice should be made available as part of the planning authority’s decision. Although it is early days, the evidence so far suggests that the number of go-aheads given contrary to Environment Agency advice is falling.
Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require persons of 17 years and under to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle; and for connected purposes.
From reading The Highway Code, one would think that it is already compulsory to wear a safety helmet when cycling. It states that
“you should wear a cycling helmet which conforms to current regulations”.
Yet, that is not the law. It is, however, mandatory for children to wear safety helmets when playing cricket or riding a horse. Why should they not do so when riding a bike, the dangers of which are far greater?
My proposed Bill has received support from both sides of the House, and I thank my fellow sponsors. When it was originally drafted, I proposed that the upper age limit for the mandatory wearing of a cycle helmet should be 17 years. However, having listened to representations from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC—the cyclists’ touring club—and other interested groups, I shall propose an amendment in Committee to reduce the maximum age for the compulsory wearing of a cycle helmet to 14.
The issue was first brought to my attention as part of my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign. In addition, my excellent and informative local weekly newspaper, the Herald & Post, has been actively campaigning for a change in the law. Lawrence John, the senior reporter at the paper who has led the campaign, started a petition to make it compulsory for children to wear cycling helmets when riding their bikes.
After researching the issue extensively, I felt that I needed to do all that I could as a Member of Parliament to seek legislation further to protect child cyclists. The Bill is designed to save lives and reduce injuries, including very serious head injuries, and to save the NHS millions of pounds of costs in treating and rehabilitating injured child cyclists.
In 2006, child cyclist deaths rose by 55 per cent. In 2005, there were 20 deaths. Last year, there were 31 deaths, or nearly three a month. In response to a parliamentary question that I asked of the Department of Health, the Minister stated that, in a three-year period from 2003, 17,786 children aged 14 and under were admitted to NHS hospitals in England because of injuries incurred while cycling. This is not a minor matter. That figure does not include the many thousands who attend accident and emergency, are patched up and then sent home, nor does it include those who are admitted to hospitals in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In the past three years, more than 1,600 children were killed or very seriously injured when riding their bikes. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust estimates that 85 per cent. of head injuries to child cyclists would be reduced or eliminated entirely if a helmet was worn. A cycle helmet absorbs 12 mph of energy and reduces the energy impact by that amount in all crashes.
One argument that I have come across against compulsion is that if a juggernaut crashes into a child at 70 mph, a cycle helmet will not prevent injury. Of course it will not, but that is not what I am saying. I am saying not that children wearing a cycle helmet will emerge from a crash scratch-free but that the impact of the crash will be reduced by 12 mph of energy, thus lessening injury and saving lives. That could be the difference between a child having a serious head injury that will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life and a child suffering a minor concussion. For a child with a serious head injury needing long-term rehabilitation, the cost has been estimated at £250,000 for the first year alone. Children who have suffered severe head injuries require a lifetime of long-term help at the cost of millions of pounds. That, of course, ignores the pain and suffering of the victim and their family. Their quality of life, and that of their family, suffers greatly as a result of such an injury.
My Bill would not make it mandatory for those over the age of 14 to wear safety helmets when cycling. Older children and adults can make up their own minds about the risks involved. However, a child’s skull depth is less that half that of an adult and only reaches full depth in his late teens. Therefore, a child’s head has less natural protection than that of an adult. Children are also less experienced cyclists than adults and are more likely to have an accident when riding on the public highway.
Throughout my campaign, I have had meetings with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC, RoadPeace and the Minister of State for Transport. I was very encouraged by the meeting I had with the Minister in June and welcome the Government’s independent investigation. I am, however, concerned about its time scale, which could be up to two years. I believe that we need legislation now to help to prevent further serious injury and death to children when riding their bikes.
Last November, I presented to Parliament the petition organised by the Herald and Post. I should like to praise the Herald and Post for all its work in raising awareness in this field.
I have been presented with some arguments against my Bill and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I think those arguments are not enough to prevent legislation from going through.
One argument against the Bill—often made with great force—is that it is yet more legislation intended to turn our country into a nanny state. Well, speaking as a right-wing son of Thatcher and a member of Cornerstone, I am not known for supporting an enlargement of the nanny state in any way, shape or form. This measure is not intended to dictate to adults how they should live their lives. It is designed for children who, at the age of 14 and under, are not able to take the decision for themselves. When they reach 15, they will have the choice of whether to wear a cycle helmet. I reiterate that I have no intention of bringing in this Bill for adults or anyone over the age of 14.
Another argument against the Bill is that it will put children off cycling. I can safely say that my six-year-old son, Thomas, has no problems with wearing a cycle helmet when riding his bike—and what a good job he is doing at it! [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I see no reason why the Bill would persuade other children to give up cycling or not to take it up in the first place.
Many countries across the globe have introduced legislation to make it compulsory for children to wear cycle helmets. In Canada, a study of the level of cycling following such legislation showed that there had been no reduction. Likewise, cycling rates are among the highest in the world in Australia, where similar legislation was introduced 16 years ago. I believe that if people oppose this Bill, they are actually saying that children should not wear cycle helmets. It is either right or not right for children to wear safety helmets when riding—and if it is right, we should make it compulsory.
The Bill is about plain common sense. It is about protecting our children. It is about saving millions of pounds for the NHS. It is about reducing injury to children and saving their lives. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Graham Allen, John Bercow, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, Andrew George, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Mr. Eric Martlew, Andrew Miller and Sir George Young.
Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets)
Mr. Peter Bone accordingly presented a Bill to require persons of 17 years and under to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 186].
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Roy.]
I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the family and friends of Lance-Corporal Sarah Holmes of 29th Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who died in support of operations in Iraq.
I welcome this debate on defence policy. I particularly welcome the opportunity to focus on the strategic direction for our armed forces, which is all too often overlooked in the understandable focus on day-to-day issues. The UK’s defence policy was laid out in the strategic defence review of 1998 and re-confirmed in our White Paper in 2003. The vision is
“to defend the UK and its interests, including against terrorism, strengthen international peace and stability, and act as a force for good in the world”.
That vision defines the role of our armed forces in the world. It requires us to have forces capable of acting across the full spectrum of military activity, from conflict prevention to war fighting. It requires us to work effectively across Whitehall with other Departments—notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development—and with our allies and partners around the world. We could not deliver that vision without the men and women of our armed forces.
Last Friday, I was reminded of all those who have lost their lives in the service of this country since world war two. The dedication of those involved with the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire is an appropriate and timely reminder of the debt that this nation and others owe to the men and women of our forces.
As we debate our defence policy, it is important to remind ourselves of the challenges that we are likely to face in the future: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, fragile states and intransigent regimes. Of course, other pressures will complicate our response to such challenges: climate change, energy security, pressure on natural resources and social, technological and geopolitical change.
The UK has a significant part to play in improving the international community’s preparedness for such challenges, not least through our armed forces. Our foreign and defence policies decide where, how and with whom we are likely to deploy our armed forces. The judgment made in the SDR in 1998 was that we were likely to deploy alongside allies and partners, and that has been validated by recent operations. That will continue to be the policy for the foreseeable future for any medium or large-scale military operation.
The House has questioned Defence Ministers regularly and appropriately in recent months about tour intervals and harmony guidelines, so it is worth my taking some time to explain that important part of our defence policy. We have planned on the basis that we should have armed forces capable of conducting one enduring medium-scale operation and one enduring small-scale operation at the same time, while retaining the capacity to conduct a third small-scale operation for a limited period—all while keeping within harmony guidelines, which, for the Army, are to have 24 months between six-month operational deployments. Having such a force structure also enables us to conduct a large-scale operation, such as that in Iraq in 2003, or a second medium-scale operation, such as that in Afghanistan, for limited periods, albeit with the consequence that those ideal tour intervals will not be achieved. That is the position that we have been in for the past few years.
I am pleased to say, however, that conditions in Northern Ireland mean that the Army no longer has to maintain forces dedicated to assisting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Conditions on the ground in Bosnia have also allowed us to reduce our presence there and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House last week, we plan to reduce our forces in Iraq by the spring of 2008.
Those reduced commitments go some way towards allowing our servicemen and women the time at home that they need to recuperate and to see their families. The overriding lesson has been that our defence planning assumptions and our force structure have succeeded in generating the sort of capabilities that we need to deploy. But that is not the whole story, as many right hon. and hon. Members know. Emerging technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and the need to respond to a rapidly evolving threat, present commanders with new opportunities and new constraints. We need to match that with the necessary force structure—involving additional UAV units and battlefield helicopters, for example—but perhaps balanced by fewer anti-submarine warfare assets.
We keep our force structure under regular review, with an eye to what we need to protect our interests both nationally and in the multilateral context in which we are most likely to deploy. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review allows us to do just that. It provides 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms growth in the defence budget to 2010-11, thus cementing a decade of real growth. By 2011, the defence budget will be more than 10 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1997-98.
I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me for conveying the sentiment of many in the armed forces that he seems to be putting a very brave face on the situation in his Department. Although it is true that defence spending may have risen by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, it is also true that the United States has increased its spending by 60 per cent., the Russian Federation by 148 per cent., India by 40 per cent., and China by 129 per cent. Why are we falling so far behind so many of our international comparators?
The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman—and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from—is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms. The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.
The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air. The circumstances of the US, Russia, China or India are not our circumstances. I am talking about a continuum of which we should be proud: real increases and real investment in defence, which are reflected in how we are able to support and equip our troops in the operational theatre.
The hon. Gentleman can make a speech if he wants to. I am sure that other hon. Members will want to intervene on me.
Multilateralism has been a cornerstone of our defence and security policies for over 50 years. The United Nations stands at the pinnacle of the world’s efforts to create a coherent and effective multilateral approach. We fully support the role of the UN to resolve tensions and crises around the world. Currently, it is running an unparalleled number of peace support operations, with more than 100,000 military and police personnel from numerous nations deployed by the UN in operations around the world. During the past year, 110 nations have contributed troops to UN peace support operations.
There are currently about 300 UK military personnel deployed on 10 UN operations, including missions conducted in partnership with the African Union and the European Union. Such partnering between organisations is essential if we are to cope with the increasingly complex and demanding missions that we face.
I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I find myself blaming the United Nations for not co-ordinating efforts in that country. I appreciate that the Secretary of State shares my frustration, but does he not think it is now time to have an individual co-ordinator—an authoritative voice—to link the work of the UN, the European Union, the Department for International Development, the United States of America and, indeed, the international security assistance force? I believe that the window of opportunity is closing in that country, and a lot of the blame lies with the United Nations.
I know that the hon. Gentleman recently visited Afghanistan, and I am still examining the interesting list of issues that were raised with him when he met tribal leaders, and taking advice about it. I will respond to him, and I await the letter that he promised, which will raise other issues. I am grateful for the constructive way in which he has contributed to the debate relating to strategy and development after his visits to Afghanistan.
I am not surprised that, as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s visit, he has come to the same conclusion about Afghanistan that I came to some time ago. Several things need to evolve out of the present circumstances in Afghanistan if we are to make progress towards the success that the situation there can still be, despite the efforts of the Taliban and others to disrupt it. One of those things is that the international community involved in this operation throughout the country needs a single leadership. There is no question about that.
I have to say—I believe that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear this—that none of our international partners thinks otherwise. [Interruption.] He asks from a sedentary position, “What about the Foreign Office?” He should know that the Foreign Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, has advocated for many months the policy that he mentioned. We have worked closely together to achieve the point that we have reached.
In summary, everybody is convinced of the merits of the argument. We will quickly move through the current phase of identifying the appropriate person and getting them in post. That is only the beginning. The challenge that follows is to ensure that that person can give focus and direction to all the organisations and others that operate from the international communiqué in such a way as to support and build, not undermine, the Afghan Government. That is the next stage of the challenge that the international community faces. I am pleased—and reinforced in my view—that the hon. Gentleman, who thinks long, hard and deeply about such issues, has reached the same conclusion. He should rest assured that most decision makers in the world share that view about Afghanistan. We now need to put it into practice, which might turn out to be a greater challenge than simply expressing it.
The United Nations, like all non-military organisations in Afghanistan, faces a challenge with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar. It must consider how one can sustain the duty of care to those whom it deploys into those operational theatres while recognising that there is some insecurity about them that one seldom encounters in other parts of the world where the United Nations operates. That balance is a challenge to the United Nations, but the part of my speech about that organisation was included at my insistence simply because there is a lack of knowledge in this country about the extent to which the United Nations carries out its role throughout the world and the scale of its operations in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Most people in this country believe that our armed forces are here to act for the security of our state and in the interests of the United Kingdom. Does not the Secretary of State genuinely feel that we may be extending our armed services too far in the number of operations in which we are prepared to take part? If we are to give soldiers the equipment that they need to give them the life that they deserve and the best chances of survival in any operation, perhaps we need to be more selective about the number of operations in which we participate. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
I agree that we should be discriminating about where we deploy our troops, and I believe that we have been. Indeed, the early part of my speech was designed to give hon. Members and others who may read it an indication of the way in which I am putting into practice the objective that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently sets out of allowing our armed forces the opportunity to recuperate and rebuild from the challenges that we have asked them to face, through reducing our commitment and providing space. Early in the job, I learned something that was counter-intuitive to me, given that I do not have a military background. Outside the military, if people are trained to do something and then deployed to do it, they get better at it. The military has taught me that military skills are sustained by training people, and degraded—or at least in danger of being degraded—by deploying people into operational theatres. That is counter-intuitive, but I learned that quickly from the advice and briefings that I received. I subsequently consistently sought to reach the current position and move further. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
However, I do not want to give the impression that I agree that it is not in our national interest to deploy our troops where they have been deployed. For example, it is manifestly in our national interest to deploy to Afghanistan. We lost the greatest number of UK citizens in a single terrorist incident in the attack on the twin towers in New York, and that terrorist atrocity was planned in Afghanistan. Ninety per cent. of the heroin that is abused on the streets and in the communities of the United Kingdom comes from Afghanistan. I understand that we will not deal with the supply of narcotics from Afghanistan in the longer term unless we deal with the issues here in the United Kingdom, but we need to do both.
Our deployment is manifestly in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom for those two reasons, if not for the fact that we as part of the international community owe the people of Afghanistan a debt of honour to support them out of the decades of conflict that they have had to suffer. Some 2 million of Afghanistan’s own people have died in getting the country to the point at which it now enjoys a limited and fragile freedom. On each occasion in the past on which the international community has promised to support Afghanistan out of conflict, it has not done so. People in this country think that it is in our interests, as a responsible member of the international community, to live up to those commitments. For all those reasons, it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that we should have troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Is it not important that we remember that such actions must be in our mutual interests? Does my right hon. Friend recall meeting, along with me, women from Helmand province who are now councillors there? They told us that it was important that we kept the security that they needed to operate as councillors in the province, so that they could take the important decisions that they need to take for themselves. Without our support, they cannot move forward in their important emerging democracy, while we at home cannot tackle the terrorism that we are experiencing unless we secure the emerging peace that we, too, vitally need.
My hon. Friend puts her argument clearly. Enabling people in countries such as Afghanistan to enjoy a quality of life and to be governed in a way that they manifestly want to be will guarantee our long-term security. Future generations in the United Kingdom will be much safer if countries such as Afghanistan and other places that had become ungoverned space—places that could be used as training grounds for terrorists and that gangsters and others could maraud around—become more stable and settled.
We face a problem in getting that across to the people of the United Kingdom, although I never find any difficulty in explaining the narcotics issue on the streets of my constituency. People understand the heroin issue clearly, because it is present in their communities. However, part of the problem in getting the argument across is that we need better to describe the end state that we believe we can allow the people of Afghanistan to take forward themselves. Part of that is substantially dependent on engaging more women in the decision-making process in such countries. I do not think that there is any doubt about that.
I intend to come to a passage later in my speech that is devoted to Afghanistan. I seem to have triggered the debate on Afghanistan a wee bit earlier than I thought I would, so if my hon. Friends want to question me specifically about Afghanistan, they might want to wait until later.
I wish to raise the issue of Darfur. We are talking about being discriminating, but there is no greater conflict in our world today than in Darfur. As we move from the African Union Mission in Sudan—AMIS—to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, we, along with all other nations in the UN, are committed to ensuring that that force is properly resourced and logistically supported. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that we will play our part—not with troops on the ground, but with support behind the scenes—to ensure that, when we increase the troop numbers to give the people of Darfur the security that they pray for, we also learn the lessons from AMIS’s inability to secure the ground, so that people can begin to return to their homes and live their lives in some hope that the conflict will come to an end?
My hon. Friend speaks for everybody in the House when he makes a plea for the plight of the people of Darfur, given what they have gone through, to be given the appropriate priority. I do not think that anybody would contradict him. However, as he also rightly points out, we must increasingly accept that there are different ways in which we can support different operations. I am proud, as I am sure others are, of the cross-party political leadership that we in the United Kingdom have given on Darfur and of the contribution that our Prime Minister made, along with other international partners, in leading the United Nations to an unequivocal resolution that allowed the forces that he recognises as necessary to be deployed. That is underpinned by consistent and persistent investment in development for Darfur, and the support of others.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, however, that the sustainable improvement of the security of people in places such as Darfur can be supported in many other ways. One of the most important is to make an appropriate contribution to the training and development of security forces in Africa, so that people who have a direct national interest, as has been mentioned, in the settlement of some intransigent conflicts in Africa have the capability and capacity to do that. Our military personnel’s valuable ability to train others in the skills learned by the British Army over centuries has been used across Africa. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to do everything that we can to support the deployment of forces in an appropriate way. The most important part of that is to give consistent international political leadership on the issue.
This week the EU announced its 3,000-man peacekeeping mission to Chad. No one suggests that that is not an appropriate action or an important role, but it will require airlift capacity and other logistic support. The Secretary of State was at the discussions with his EU partners. Will he tell the House what excuse they gave for being able to find airlift capacity and logistic support for the mission to Chad but not being able to provide additional support in Afghanistan, where we seem to be extremely short on the ground?
We will not help to encourage others—which I do a great deal—to become involved and to develop their capability and capacity to make an appropriate contribution to operations if we get into a futile bidding war about this priority as opposed to another. [Interruption.] My point is that neither the hon. Gentleman nor I are in a position to point to any atrocity in any part of the world and say that the people there are more or less deserving than others. Our responsibility, as some of the richest countries in the world collected together, is to do what we can to try to meet all those challenges, if possible, but I recognise that we cannot deal with every challenge. I do not look for such things as excuses or explanations.
On the deployment into Chad, what is happening there is, on any view, a clear extension of what is happening in Darfur, and needs to be challenged and dealt with just as much. If we do not challenge at both sides of the border, we will find ourselves in a difficult situation. As a matter of fact, strategic airlift is still a challenge there, and is not yet resolved. We are not in the comfortable position that the hon. Gentleman suggests, in which people say that they can do that but they cannot do something else. People are trying to do, in good faith, what they believe is right—to deal with difficult circumstances in different parts of the world. His point in relation to people living up to their commitments is not lost on me, and I shall return to it shortly.
Beneath the United Nations, NATO remains central to our collective defence and security needs, as it has been for almost 60 years. We also recognise the important benefits that the EU, with its wide range of civil and military capabilities, can bring to resolving crises. We are working hard to build the capabilities and effectiveness of both organisations in a mutually supportive way, so that their efforts and capabilities complement each other rather than duplicate or compete.
We expect NATO allies and EU partners to meet their responsibility in sharing the risks and costs of collective action. Many are doing so and we salute their efforts. But the contribution of some European nations is quite disappointing. All are answerable to their own people and Parliaments, but NATO and European solidarity do not have an opt-out clause.
Our armed forces do not work in isolation. We must use effectively all the levers available to Government: reconstruction and development, foreign diplomacy and the military. That has become known as a “comprehensive approach”. Crucially—because it is these other efforts that will eventually bring lasting peace—the strategic military effort should be driven by political and economic needs, not the other way round. However, at tactical and operational level the military are often leading, and need support from diplomats and development experts. We are working across Government, with non-governmental organisations, allies and partners, to improve our collective ability to do that. Nowhere is the comprehensive approach more vital than in Afghanistan.
In reply to an earlier intervention, the Secretary of State made the point that in Afghanistan the United Nations agencies were under pressure from the Taliban, whose members were effectively trying to kill their people on the ground. May I put it to him that wherever we are up against militant Islam—or, indeed, other forces such as those confronting the troops deployed in Darfur—we are subject to such risks? It is a fact of the modern military environment that civilians are targeted. I suggest that part of the solution lies in a degree of blurring of the military-civilian interface, and in bringing more civilian skills and expertise to the military framework through reserve forces and other wider measures, rather than simply trying to persuade what are essentially civilian agencies to do work on which they will ultimately be unable to deliver.
On the basis of my experience—particularly in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq—and my observation of other areas that I have not visited regularly, there is much in what the hon. Gentleman says, but his suggestion brings with it other challenges. We must be careful not to create a scenario in which we blur the distinction between NGOs and the military to such an extent that we create an environment in which people other than those described by the hon. Gentleman can operate. I think he will understand that that is a trap. We do not want to drive NGOs out of the environment; we want to create an environment into which we can bring them with a degree of security.
This is a lively and current debate between Governments, NGOs, allies and others. It is an engaged debate: no one is shirking the responsibilities that it brings us collectively. But we must find a way of giving NGOs confidence to deploy their workers and others in the environment that we create, where they do not become the target because they are accused of being part of the military structure. That is important. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement.
We need to consider the issue carefully. It is difficult to establish exactly how it should be dealt with. I should be happy to continue this conversation with the hon. Gentleman—here and in other locations—to try to resolve it, but resolve it we must. I should point out to him that one of the first decisions I made in relation to Afghanistan was to increase our forces there by the deployment of engineers. As he knows, those engineers had a significant effect on the ability to deliver reconstruction in a way that increased the confidence of local people that the challenges posed by the Taliban in their communities were worth taking up, because there was an immediate reward.
I do not mean to make an excessively partisan point, but one of the parts of the Territorial Army that was cut the most was the TA section of the Royal Engineers, although there has been some build-back in the future army strategy. Many of the skills that the Secretary of State has mentioned are readily available in civilian life. The deployment of TA Royal Engineers units would be a very good way of dealing with the present circumstances—until, obviously, an environment is created in which NGOs can once more play a part.
I entirely agree. I do not wish to compete with the hon. Gentleman as a cheerleader for the Territorial Army—I know he has many more years’ experience of that than I have—but I have been astonished and impressed not just by the skills but by the commitment that its members bring to their job. I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in relation to the specific issue, but I am also glad that he recognises the complications of doing that on a grander scale. We must work our way through these matters.
Afghanistan is a noble cause. We cannot allow it to slip once more into disorder, or again to become a haven for international terrorism, nor can we abandon the Afghan people, who have embarked on a course of democracy and peace. We have made significant progress since 2001, but Afghanistan remains a fragile state. To show that it is heading in the right direction, let me repeat some of the indicators of progress there—I hope that those who have heard them before will forgive me. Forty thousand Afghan national army troops have been trained and equipped—indeed, I think that that figure is now out of date and that there are significantly more such troops. Of its refugees, 4.8 million have returned home; that has not been matched by any other country in the world, as nowhere else is there evidence of so many people voluntarily returning because of a change in the political and social environment of a country from which they had sought refuge. Eighty-three per cent. of the population now has access to medical facilities; for substantial parts of Afghanistan before 2001 that figure was in the teens rather than the 80s. More than 5 million children are in education, in excess of 1 million of whom are girls who were not educated at all when the Taliban ran the country. President Karzai recently observed in passing—although it is a significant fact—that for the first time in almost 40 years Afghanistan was close to becoming self-sufficient in food production; that is a major achievement, and it has been achieved in a comparatively short time.
However, these advances must be protected and built upon, and doing so will involve facing up to some serious challenges, most of which are not military. Our armed forces are doing the most superb job in protecting the Afghan people from the Taliban, but we must continue to help the Afghans exploit the space that we create, by helping them to govern effectively, to establish and administer fair laws that reflect their society and to spend the international aid they receive. The results must be felt for generations, not for months and years. The will is there, but we must help them develop the means.
Although I take issue with the Secretary of State on the wisdom of our continued presence in Afghanistan, I am sure that we both agree that our troops on the ground are doing excellent work and that we must seriously consider their welfare and morale. Has he received reports of, for example, forward units in Helmand spending 40 days on ration packs and it not being possible to resupply them? Is that the case? Is the Secretary of State aware of such reports, and if so, what does he think that does for the morale of the soldiers?
I am certainly now aware of such reports, but there is not a jot of truth in them. My hon. Friend ought to be very careful about what he says, because of the possible effect on troops’ families back here in the UK of repeating some of the dishonesties that are at large about the circumstances of our forces on the ground in Afghanistan. I know that he will be careful, because he is a responsible person. He asks me directly whether there is any truth in this; I tell him directly that there is no truth in this.
That having been said, however, we must understand that war fighting is dirty, difficult and dangerous. Part of what has been happening over the past months is that because of mass communications, the people of this country, including a generation that has never seen this before, are being exposed in real time—or as near to that as one can get—to the reality of what war fighting is like. Frankly, as I have said, it is dirty, difficult and dangerous. We ought to understand that that is what we ask some of our young people to do, and that it is what we train them for. It devalues their skill, commitment and bravery to point out every single deprivation that comes with war fighting as being somehow a failure on the part of the Ministry of Defence, the Government or some bureaucrat to support them. Sometimes, some of the circumstances in which our people find themselves—and in which their morale is at its highest—are simply a consequence of the very violence that they have to deal with, and from which they have to deliver the communities that they seek to protect.
I make that point clearly to Members and others. We ought to be careful not to devalue the bravery and contribution of the people whom we train to do this difficult and dangerous work by describing all its difficult aspects as some sort of failure by a bureaucrat. And as a matter of fact, what my hon. Friend described is not happening.
Of course, the country that has lost the most men in the Afghan conflict is Pakistan. More than 800 Pakistani soldiers have been killed as the Pakistani armies tried to help on the eastern flank. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast bulk of the Pakistani military have to be on their eastern flank, facing Kashmir, because of the half a million Indian soldiers there and the continuing troubles? If India could cut Pakistan some slack on Kashmir, more Pakistani troops could be heading west to patrol and to help us as we try to solve problems in Afghanistan.
My right hon. Friend is right, to the extent that none of the challenges, difficulties, conflicts and confrontations that exist in that region can be resolved on its own; they are all interrelated. Beyond the issues that we have been debating in the past few minutes, there is no doubt that the fact that the ethnic Pashtun people stretch beyond the Durand line into Pakistan, and that parts of the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan—in which there are very significant issues about radicalisation and radical Islam—that are substantially ungoverned, are related to and interrelated in the Afghan situation. That is why we will never find a solution to these problems for the Afghan people without the recognition that there is a significant Pakistani element in this, but also vice versa. That has to be part of the international community’s objective in dealing with this issue. As my right hon. Friend points out, once one gets to Pakistan and into the issues that the Pakistani Government face, one very quickly finds oneself on the other border, considering other issues. So all these issues are, as I said, interrelated.
The challenges that we face in Afghanistan are significant and will take decades of hard work to address, but tackle them we must. Only through an effective and truly multilateral approach will we and the Afghan people have a chance to make that country free from the oppression of the Taliban, and to give all its people—men and women—the opportunities that we, thankfully, take for granted.
In the past 17 months, I have visited Iraq six times. There has been progress, but it has not been easy. However, we have remained true to our strategy of transition, building the Iraqis’ capacity to take responsibility for their own security. Frankly, this is the only sensible strategy, and I believe that the last year has shown that it is working. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed last week, we have now transferred three out of four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, and we are on track for Basra to follow suit before 2008. This represents very real progress, which is firmly driven by objective assessments of the evolving situation on the ground. It has become manifestly clear over the past weeks that that is not only our assessment, but that of the Iraqi Government and of our principal ally—the United States of America.
It is our servicemen and women who have set the conditions to enable this forward momentum, often at great personal cost. The UK has trained more than 13,000 Iraqi soldiers, and I pay tribute to their achievements in what are some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Yes, there have been difficulties along the way, which it would be wrong to understate, but the handover of Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna has shown that Iraqi security forces can cope. More recently, the successful handover of Basra palace has allowed our personnel to place more emphasis on training, governance and border security. In this context, we have been able to take the very welcome decision to plan to reduce our force levels in Iraq to 2,500 by the spring of next year. We believe that this is a measured response to the evolving security situation and the increased capability of the Iraqis.
Although we are seeing progress in the security situation, the political arena remains very difficult, with sectarian and regional interests still too often being put before national interests. Progress in Anbar province and negotiations between General Mohan and Shi’a militia groups in Basra show that the political landscape can change for the better, but that that takes time. We also welcome the enhanced role of the UN in that regard. Ultimately, it is for the Iraqi Government to formulate and deliver policies to help the Iraqi people, but we will do all that we can to assist them.
At the time of the invasion, British military forces comprised some 30 per cent. of the UN mandated coalition’s combat power in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s announcement envisages that we will now provide perhaps less than 2 per cent. of the coalition’s combat power. Do we still stand shoulder to shoulder with our American ally?
We could not be closer. Knowing the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Iraq, I am sure that he will have pored over every word uttered by General Petraeus when he was here explaining how closely we had worked to achieve what we have achieved in southern Iraq. If that was not good enough for him, he probably pored over every word uttered by Secretary Gates on his visit here only last week, when he confirmed that what we are doing was entirely consistent with what the Americans are doing. We therefore could not be closer to the US, and that is to be expected, although I know that the reduction in British troop numbers is counter-intuitive, especially given that it happened when the numbers of US troops were surging. However, those who understand the diversity of Iraq and the extent of the differences between provinces know that our action was entirely consistent with what the Americans were doing, given the different environment facing our troops. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the people in the US who know best about these matters—and they include General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who for some months now have been responsible for US policy in Iraq—have given evidence that confirms that.
In the summer, quite a few people argued that if we drew down our troops from Basra palace and handed it over to Iraqi troops, there could be a danger that the number of attacks on British troops at the air base would rise significantly, and that the security problems faced by civilians in Basra could get worse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that exactly the opposite has happened?
I can, of course, confirm that exactly the opposite has happened—thus far. I make that qualification because I recognise that the situation is very fragile and that it is very important that the negotiations between General Mohan and those others who seek to exercise political power and economic influence in southern Iraq are sustained. We can create the opportunity for such negotiations and discussions to take place, but we cannot be a party to them, as they are for Iraqis to sort out between themselves. As long as progress is being made in that regard, the relationship that I have described will be sustained.
We hear constant predictions that things are about to melt down in Iraq, but it is always possible, at any stage in the transition, that things will go either right or wrong. Many people out there know that it is a 50:50 bet and so always opt for pessimism, on the basis that that gives them a 50 per cent. chance of being right, and being able to say, “I told you so.” Thankfully, however, our judgments are a bit more sophisticated than that. At the points of transition, we do not take any step unless we are assured that we are doing so in the context of preset conditions, measurements and tests that we have agreed with others.
Until now, we have managed to make the progress that we have planned for, and broadly within the planned time scale. At each step, we have told the House and the country what the next stage of the plan would be, but I am not complacent: I know that we face a volatile and fragile set of circumstances, and that many people do not have the best interests of the UK or the Iraqi people at heart. In their briefings to me about what is going on in the operational theatre, many military commanders have told me, “You have to remember, Secretary of State, the enemy get a vote too, and we don’t control that.”
Thus far, therefore, our actions have been correct, but we must not be complacent. In the interests of the Iraqi people, and of our people too, we have to recognise that we must take the same care when it comes to the next stage of the process.
We cannot debate defence without addressing the threat of terrorism, which can emerge from abroad or at home and manifests itself against both armed forces and civilians. Its method is indiscriminate killing. Its aim is to promote an extremist ideology. As a Government, we are committed to tackling that threat at every level—its fundamental values, its spread to the disaffected, its planning, actions and representation. To do so requires hard power, to minimise the actions of terrorists, and soft power to minimise intent and recruitment.
The military play an important role in countering terrorism and British forces are working to that end as I speak, both at home and across the globe. Through capacity building we help other nations bolster their defences and contribute to the international effort.
The British Government could not make clearer their position in relation to Iran’s ambition to be a nuclear weapons state. As I have said from the Dispatch Box time and time again, my view is that Iran’s behaviour—its interference in a malign fashion in Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq—suggests that the country poses a strategic threat to the peace of the region in which it wants to play an important role. The irony is that Iran could play a positive role in the region; the country has shared interests with the countries in whose internal politics it seeks to interfere. I am in no doubt that the international community has adopted the right position in relation to Iran, and also that we have to stay together and pursue the arguments with the Iranians. Most importantly, we have to recruit in support of the arguments as many of the regional partners as possible, because they are the people to whom Iran will pay the greatest attention.
I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that a significant number of people want to contribute to the debate, so I shall now sum up. It is the first duty of Government to protect their people and the national interest. The Government have a clear policy framework for delivering that duty. I have endeavoured in my speech to cover some of that broad front, but of necessity I have had to make discriminating judgments and have not been comprehensive. By working with friends, allies and international institutions to reduce threat and prevent conflict, and by ensuring that our forces have the capability to intervene around the world if necessary, we will achieve our objectives.
The Secretary of State has given a comprehensive analysis of the state of play in terms of defence. He is aware of my interest in the deaths at Deepcut army barracks. A memorial was recently dedicated to those who have died in the military, whether on active service or otherwise. It has been brought to my attention that the names of the four recruits who died at Deepcut have not been recorded on the memorial. The Secretary of State may not be able to answer the question now, but he will understand that the parents are eager to know the reasoning behind the exclusion of the names from that memorial.
I speak advisedly, but if the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me refer to that memorial, which was dedicated last Friday. I am sure he will join other Members who approved of my words when I said that it was a timely and appropriate memorial to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I am aware of the issue that he raises but, entirely appropriately, decisions about the memorial do not lie in the hands of Government and it would be wholly inappropriate if they did—they lie in the hands of trustees. It is of the essence of such a memorial that somebody has to define the descriptive phase for those whose names are entitled to be put on the memorial. The trustees sought to do that—it is a difficult thing—and, almost by definition, it is the case that people will consider that some names are so near the margin of the definition that they would be offended if the names were not included. The trustees of the memorial recognised that.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will visit the memorial, because if he does, he will see that it contains not only the names of approximately 16,000 people who have lost their lives, either on duty or to acts of terrorism, but an obelisk, which has been put there for the purpose of commemorating the deaths of those who do not fall within that necessary definition. If that is any comfort to the families whom he properly represents, that is the explanation, as I understand it. The decisions were made entirely in good faith and appropriately, but by definition, people will feel aggrieved because someone whom they consider to be very close to the description of those who are included cannot be included. That is probably an appropriate issue on which to end this speech.
May I fully associate myself and the Conservative party with the praise for the courage, professionalism and sacrifices of our armed forces? I echo the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families of all those who have lost loved ones who were defending our country’s wider security in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I intend to talk about the impact of the comprehensive spending review on our defence policy, on the state of our armed forces and on the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. In 1997, the former Prime Minister said that if the Conservatives were re-elected, he worried that defence spending would fall to 2.6 per cent. of gross domestic product—that was his choice of measurement at the time, not ours—yet we know from this year’s CSR projections that, proportionally, what we spend on defence is likely to fall to as low as 2.018 per cent. by 2010-11.
While our military commitments have increased under this Government, the Army trained requirement has been cut from 108,500 to 102,000, the size of the Army is more than 9,000 below that initial target, one fifth of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships have been cut since 1997—more potentially face the axe—and the RAF has more than 100 fewer front-line fixed-wing aircraft than in 1997. I say that because the Government’s strategic defence review set out what they believed we needed to protect the country and its overseas interests, yet we are falling well below that and no explanation is ever given as to why the international environment justified those particular changes.
As a share of total Government spending, defence expenditure has fallen from 7.8 per cent. in 1998 to 6.1 per cent. in 2006. That is indicative of where defence comes in the Government’s list of priorities—that despite our being involved in two wars, those in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which have had a huge impact and an inevitable reduction in the life expectancy of much of the equipment involved. Funding from the Treasury reserve for urgent operational requirements does nothing to diminish what is, in effect, a long-term liability, which will need to be met from the core budget at some point. It is against that background that we must examine Ministers’ boasts that they will achieve a 1.5 per cent. annual real-terms spending increase.
The previous settlement that was trumpeted in those terms resulted in three infantry battalions being cut, and the loss of three destroyers and three frigates, so we are entitled to ask what the casualties will be this time around. We have heard rumours of further cuts to the surface fleet, to the size of the Army and to the RAF. I hope that today the Secretary of State will categorically rule out further cuts to the surface fleet or the Army establishment.
We would love to have had a widespread debate on this issue in a general election—if only the Government had had the courage to call one. As they say in fashion circles, “This year, Brown is the new yellow.” Who am I to comment on that?
Last week, we had an interesting debate on procurement, which some hon. Members present today attended. The point was made on several occasions about the difficulty of assessing the defence budget in the UK compared to other countries. For example, it is impossible for us to know what the commitment is for the years ahead. We asked specific questions, the answers to which are needed for the House to have a sensible debate. However, when we asked about the carriers, for example, the answer was that disclosure of the detailed estimated annual costings over the five-year period for the procurement would likely prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided. On the future rapid effect system, or FRES, the answer was that details would prejudice the commercial interest and cannot be provided.
The House would benefit from knowing the figures and being able to examine what is in the pipeline for front-line procurement. Only when we know the details will we know what we definitely want to commit to and what the necessary expenditure would be. If the Government were to make all those figures available to the House—I intend to ask the Public Accounts Committee to obtain them—we could have a much better debate. It would be foolish for the Opposition to make estimates or commit to figures without having full access to the books. We would want to institute immediately a proper strategic defence review, which we have not had for 11 years now, to see what we believe the future shape of our armed forces should be. As the shadow Chancellor has said, when we see what we need to spend for our defence, we can decide appropriately.
There was a much less complicated answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), if the hon. Gentleman had chosen to give it. He started by referring to percentages of GDP. If that is the best part of his argument—I assume it is, because he started with it—he must have some figure in mind. He and his right hon. and hon. Friends tell us that they were ready for an election some days ago. He must have had some figure in mind then: can he share it with us?
When the Government have the courage to face the voters and call an election, we will know what spending years we are talking about and we will set out our plans in the appropriate way. At the moment, we have no idea what budget or public finances we will inherit. The reason I started with the GDP figure was that it was not our choice of measurement, but that of Tony Blair, back in 1997. He chose to make that figure the measure of Labour’s success in dealing with armed forces expenditure.
Ministers have been trumpeting the generosity of the settlement. However, as with all the Government’s announcements, it pays to look at the small print. The settlement requires the MOD to find £2.7 billion worth of “cashable efficiency savings” on top of the £2.4 billion served up to the Treasury in the 2004 spending review. Perhaps the Secretary of State, or the Minister for the Armed Forces when he winds up later, can give us some idea where those savings will come from in the current budget.
I also note that the MOD will be required to sell off £1.5 billion worth of assets and “a significant proportion” of its electromagnetic spectrum holdings. Will the Government give us a firm commitment that all the receipts from that fire sale will be retained by the MOD? Will the Minister of State today tell us how much of the receipts will be appropriated in aid for the defence budget and how much will be returned to the Treasury? Those figures are very important in working out how much of the new procurement programmes can be afforded in the years that have been mentioned in the figures.
This is not good enough. The hon. Gentleman started his speech by saying that the present contribution of 2.018 per cent. of GDP is not enough and should be more. We are not asking what he thinks the figure should be next year or the year after, but what it should be this year. If he is not prepared to say what the figure should be for this year, it is all party political posturing and he should be ashamed of himself.
Let me go back to what the former Prime Minister said before the 1997 election:
“By 1999 defence spending will have fallen to 2.6 per cent. of GDP”—
in his eyes, a terrible failure. He went on:
“The people who have had to bear the burden of these cuts are our servicemen and women, overstretched and under strength as never before.”
However, according to the Government’s own argument, they have fallen below that GDP figure. They have increased their commitments and reduced our manpower. It is for the Government—a Government unafraid to put their record before the electorate—to defend their record in the House of Commons today. When we come to office, we will clearly set out all our proposals—and we will defend them, unlike the Government, who are clearly unwilling to do the same today, having failed by every measure that they themselves set.
I want to give my hon. Friend maximum support in resisting all the rubbish that is being thrown at him by the Government. The Government are responsible for current expenditure and for current levels of commitment. We have no idea what commitments we will face in two or three years’ time, when a general election comes around. That will be the time to determine how to match those commitments with the necessary resources.
My hon. Friend must not allow his common sense to get in the way of the Government’s red herring, or of Government Members having a good time in the Chamber. I doubt whether the arguments that they make today will carry much weight with those who have to carry out those commitments overseas, and who find themselves increasingly overstretched.
I wish to turn to the circumstances that our armed forces face, and I begin with the issue of bonuses for those on operations. As the press reported over the weekend, there is understandable animosity between military and civil personnel on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with regard to the amount of bonus that civilians get paid, compared to their military counterparts. Let us take a major and a grade C2 civil servant as the comparators and, using monthly figures, let us see how military pay stacks up against civilian pay for those in Iraq or Afghanistan. A major—a company commander responsible for the well-being, training, health and safety of more than 225 soldiers and marines—will earn roughly £4,320 in taxable income a month, including separation allowance, plus a £386 tax-free operational allowance.
A civilian grade-C2 civil servant on the same deployment will earn £2,333 a month, plus an operational deployment allowance of £1,750 per month and an operational working allowance of between £3,500 and £6,500 a month. That means that the civilian will receive a minimum of £7,583 a month in taxable income. The civilian in headquarters is therefore at least £2,500 a month better off than the major, who is acting as a company commander in the field, and who is leading soldiers and marines in combat. It appears that the X factor needed to make civilians deploy is more than 225 per cent. of their salary, or 3.25 times their salary. Keep in mind that those figures are for a Ministry of Defence civilian, as compared to a field rank officer. Of course, the pay difference between an MOD civilian and a private or corporal is even greater, and it is the latter who are doing the shooting, the fighting and, in most cases, the dying.
I understand that civilians volunteer for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, but we have an all-volunteer military, too. I would like the Government to reflect on the following question: although civilians play an important role in supporting the armed forces on operations, are the bonuses that both parties receive balanced and proportionate? I think that the general public would answer in the negative. What about the question of eligibility for bonuses? What about the 1,000 or so soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who thought that they were going to Iraq and would receive the tax-free operational allowance, but who will find that they are going to Kuwait, Oman or other places in the Gulf?
I am sure that I do not need to remind either the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Armed Forces that the Kuwait border is only 30 miles from the Basra air base. As a result of that small difference, service members will lose out on hundreds of pounds a month, although their American counterparts receive the same bonus regardless of whether they are in Iraq, Kuwait or Qatar. If the Secretary of State made it clear that those allowances will apply to all those in the region, and not just those in Iraq, that would be a major step forward.
That is a classic example of the sort of thing that I was talking about. Based on absolutely no research, not even the courtesy of asking the MOD whether what he has described is the reality, the hon. Gentleman has asserted his case at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. But it is not true.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Good.” Perhaps he will now explain the basis on which he made the assertion in the first place. Is there a factual basis for it, or did he make it up for political advantage?
I am delighted that those operational bonuses will apply, because those issues have been raised with us by members of the armed forces so that they can get clarification from the Government. If it is clear that we will get such clarification, I will be delighted—and so will they be.
The hon. Gentleman now says to the House that he was asked to inquire. Why did he choose to inquire by asserting an untruth at the Dispatch Box, rather than asking me or a Minister?
Excuse me, but I thought that the purpose of the House of Commons was for us to be able to question Ministers directly. It is an entirely appropriate place to raise such issues. Now that we have clarification on those, perhaps the Secretary of State will clarify other issues—[Interruption.]
The armed forces compensation scheme has recently received wide publicity, and we welcome the fact that a review was undertaken on what is obviously a broken compensation system. We still await the full results of the review. However, I was, as other Members would have been, a little perplexed that the first time we heard about that review was on 28 August, when the Minister for the Armed Forces mentioned it on Radio 4’s “PM” programme. Why was the statement not first made in the House of Commons?
As for the scheme itself, the maximum amount payable is £285,000 plus the guaranteed-income pension for the rest of a service member’s life. That is in contrast to the recent RAF civilian’s lump sum of £485,000; they would not, of course, require a guaranteed-income payment. Those numbers are widely in the public domain and have an effect on the perception of the fairness with which the systems are applied. It is important that the Government’s view on the matter should be clearly set out. Do they regard that discrepancy as fair and reasonable?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify that canard as well. He is not comparing like with like. As he should know, the civil courts seek to capitalise a sum of money that will, among other things, represent the loss of income over the lifetime of a person such as those whom he describes. That would be added to the amount awarded to the person for the injury that they had suffered.
What we do is guarantee that income over the lifetime and inflation-proof it. It is possible to get actuaries and others to capitalise that and add it figuratively to the maximum sum for the pain and suffering. However, if the hon. Gentleman is to continue to make the comparison, as he has now done for a significant period, he must take into account the fact that he is not comparing like with like. The person gets a lump sum and is obliged to invest it to generate an income for the rest of their working life, until they retire; what we provide is a lump sum plus a guaranteed inflation-proofed income.
What the public will see is this: for losing limbs or major organs, someone would get a maximum of £285,000 plus a guaranteed-income pension, while someone working as a civilian who got a wrist injury would get a much larger sum and probably be back at work and able to generate their own income within a relatively short time. The public do not appreciate that discrepancy or the legalities that are being put forward—they view one as overly generous in relation to the other. I hope that the Government understand that when they finally review the matter, because the public perception of the fairness of the treatment of our armed forces is extremely important.
Let me turn to a matter that has recently been raised in the press: the treatment of military personnel in hospitals in the United Kingdom. Having visited the field hospital in Iraq, where our personnel are treated magnificently and not a single person has contracted a case of MRSA, I find it amazing that Private Jamie Cooper, the youngest British soldier to be injured in Iraq, is now back in Selly Oak with a C. difficile infection and two MRSA infections. We have to do an awful lot more about the quality of the medical care that is given. In general, the quality of care is superb, but surely something is very wrong when a field hospital can manage to have minimal infection levels, but on coming back to the UK our military personnel find that having fought off the enemy in Iraq they are having to fight off infections in the national health service of the world’s fourth richest country. Something is very wrong with a medical system that allows that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman is making me very angry. I have visited Selly Oak, and it is nothing short of shameful for him to denigrate the hard-working staff there. If he actually read the newspaper article about the case that he mentions, he would see that the consultant said that the individual contracted the disease because he had a stomach wound and that the condition related to that, not to dirty hospitals.
Now the hon. Gentleman is making me angry. I am not in any way denigrating the quality of the staff; I have already said that people get excellent care. However, there is something very wrong in our health service given the levels of infection in our NHS, to the extent that hospitals are having to be closed down.
Let me turn to the wider picture, particularly Afghanistan, and the conditions of our troops.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a tradition of this House that a Member who makes an honest and inadvertent false assertion in debate subsequently accepts that it was a false assertion and then withdraws it and formally apologises for it? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has accepted that he made a false assertion this afternoon, but he seems to be coming towards the end of his speech and we have not yet heard the apology.
In a moment.
With winter approaching in Afghanistan, and already in some higher-altitude locations, we clearly have to do everything to ensure that our service personnel are sent into theatre with the right cold weather kit. Winter conditions in Afghanistan make it challenging, at best, to resupply ammunition, kit, food and fuel. The House will want to know from the Minister for the Armed Forces that all possible measures have been taken to ensure that British forces receive all resupplies in a consistent and timely manner, as required in Afghanistan in winter. What steps will be taken to ensure that, during the lull in fighting that is traditionally experienced throughout the winter months in Afghanistan, we maximise the reconstruction effort in the south of the country? The Secretary of State dealt with that at length in his speech. It is during the harsh winter months that the Afghan population most need help from the international community, so that is when we should be able to increase local support for the British and coalition presence in the country.
When it comes to reconstruction, we really must take a properly enlightened approach. We need to ensure that our efforts are conducted in a way that empowers the people of Afghanistan. Our reconstruction efforts must foster ownership of and accomplishment in Afghanistan, not dependence on the west. We must make every effort to involve local communities and put an Afghan face on all reconstruction projects. I hope that Ministers will agree that that is the most sensible approach.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and I apologise for having temporarily overlooked her.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My point was about the nursing situation in field hospitals. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I recently met a Territorial Army nurse, who told me that the standard of hygiene in field hospitals was second to none for the simple reason that they had fallen back on the old-fashioned nursing techniques whereby every single person was to be responsible for themselves in their own area of expertise and for cleaning up afterwards. That was why there was virtually no infection in field hospitals in Iraq or elsewhere.
When I was a junior doctor, I learned never to argue at all with nurses and I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.
When it comes to reconstruction in Afghanistan, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of including local Afghans in our reconstruction efforts. The more they participate, the more they take ownership and pride in rebuilding their country, which is shattered after years of warfare. A local villager no doubt views an attack by the Taliban on a school that he helped to build very differently than he would if that school had been exclusively built by western forces. However, reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have to produce quick and tangible results for the people. Smaller projects that benefit a wider population in a shorter amount of time can have a more enduring effect than longer drawn-out projects that may indirectly benefit a large proportion of the population. In effect, the simple physiological needs of the Afghans have to be met by the international security assistance force or else the Taliban will fill the vacuum created by our inaction. That is especially true during the winter months when times get rough for many ordinary Afghans. Something as basic as food and water has to be provided before more ambitious projects can be launched.
I echo what I believe the Secretary of State said earlier: we need broadly to learn the lesson from Iraq that the military can create and hold space only for so long. The politicians and the non-governmental organisations need to fill that space. We cannot wait for a zero-risk environment to begin wholesale reconstruction. We must also deal with the rising internal tensions in Afghanistan resulting from what is seen as the endemic corruption within the Afghan Government, running all the way to the highest levels.
The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home from Iraq and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. We in this party have never called for precipitate reductions or a timetable for withdrawal. We have to do what we believe to be right on the basis of the advice of our commanders on the ground. On that, we have always stood with the Government. In Iraq our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission that we set out to accomplish and to minimise the danger to our troops.
There are still a number of questions that need to be asked and answered. There are the ongoing questions about the safety of the British forces remaining in Iraq, particularly at Basra air station, the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the protection of the Iraqi-run border and the steps towards a political settlement, both internally and regionally. The Secretary of State dealt with some of those questions in his speech.
There remains one crucial question, however, that we need to ask today: now that our military forces are in an overwatch posture, can the Secretary of State or his Minister of State say under what circumstances they believe British troops would redeploy and intervene while conducting that role? Who would determine those criteria and who would take the decision? Would it be taken by the British Government and military alone or would it be a joint decision between Britain and Iraq? That is a very important question to which the Government have never provided a very clear answer, even though it lies at the heart of the entire overwatch question.
Some Members still seem to want a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq. In southern Iraq, a premature withdrawal—one without sustainable security architecture—could easily result in the escalation of the armed power struggle between the rival Shi’a militias. That would be likely to draw in the fledgling security structures. There would be the risk of further political destabilisation and a heightened threat to the Sunni population in south-east Iraq.
A timetable that was set out would also provide perverse incentives. It is particularly important that the Liberal Democrats start to justify exactly why they would be willing to take the risks of a timetable that is set out with the clarity that they seem to want. Afghanistan would also feel the chill wind of prematurely departing British troops, as known Iraqi fighters would be immediately given the signal to move their caravan on to Afghanistan if they chose to do so, believing that they had accomplished their goal of defeating the coalition forces in Iraq. It would be a terrible signal to send to the Taliban that violence could succeed in hastening the departure of coalition armed forces, and the last thing that we want to do is to further them in that belief and aim.
I am happy to agree with that part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He might find the answer to his question in a remark that was not reported but made by the now former leader of the Liberal Democrats at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. He said in response to the Prime Minister at one stage during questioning him that the UK had sometime ago discharged its moral obligation to the people of Iraq. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are in that very enhanced position?
It would be nice to think that we could talk about that in the past tense, but we gave a commitment to the people of Iraq that we would not leave until the job was done and we had produced a sustainable security situation within which a civil society could properly flourish. When that has been achieved, that will be the time for the international coalition to leave Iraq. Exactly when that will occur is a very difficult thing to assess, but anyone who believes that we have already reached that position does not fully understand the reality of what is happening on the ground in Iraq.
The Secretary of State is better placed to answer that than I am, but the experience so far is that we have had a successful handover to civilian authorities in Iraq, and the advice of our commanders has obviously been that they believe that, militarily, it was the appropriate time to do so. The fact that the level of violence has been containable and comparable with, if not lower than, that before the handover is testament to the correctness of that decision. It is very difficult to conceive of either the military or public opinion tolerating any increased deployment to Iraq, not least because of the overstretch in our forces, but it is fair for us to know under what circumstances we might redeploy the force that is there on overwatch and in what circumstances. That is reasonable, but the Minister might want to deal with that during his winding-up speech; I am sure that the House would like greater clarity on the issue. The incremental approach must be right, as long as we are getting progress in Iraq and can guarantee sufficient numbers for force protection. It is perfectly reasonable for the House to demand that of the Government.
We briefly mentioned Iran earlier. The whole House will be extremely concerned that it is now becoming clear that factory-grade and other weapons are increasingly going from Iran into both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those weapons include roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades capable of piercing armoured vehicles and killing our troops. Elements of the Iranian regime are therefore involved, and must understand that they are involved, in the attacking and killing of international forces that are upholding UN mandates. We need assurances from the Government that the Iraqi border in Iraq is sufficiently patrolled by coalition and Iraqi forces to minimise the risk of such weapons being used against our forces.
On the Iranian regime’s interference in Afghanistan, it has been reported that officers of the Iranian revolutionary guard are supplying weaponry to Taliban insurgents, reportedly including sophisticated SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles—a serious threat to our helicopters. I would like the Minister of State to deal with that specific issue in his winding-up speech.
The real strategic question is whether Iran should be allowed to become a nuclear weapon state. I suggest to the House that there are three reasons why Iran should not be allowed to do so. The first is the nature of the regime itself. It has already been shown to be involved in destabilising Iraq and it is almost certainly involved in providing weapons to Afghanistan. We have heard the rhetoric from the leadership of the regime and we know what that could mean for the wider region.
Secondly, if Iran is allowed to become a nuclear weapon state, other countries will want to follow. We would be likely to see nuclear proliferation, which might affect Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries in the region, creating a destabilising, expensive and pointless nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. Thirdly, we know, as the Secretary of State mentioned, that Iran has been more than capable of carrying out terrorism by proxy. What that could mean in terms of terrorist blackmail from a nuclear armed state is something that none of us would want to imagine.
I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman in that I do not want Iran to develop a nuclear capacity, which is why I support the European efforts to keep up important negotiations. However, if the United States of America were to propose military strikes on Iran, would he encourage it to do so, or would he actively oppose that?
I understand and sympathise with the importance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but if we get into the hypothetical debate of ruling things in or out at a time when we are involved in high-level, delicate negotiations with Iran, the only people we are likely to give comfort to are the Iranian regime. It has to be made clear that we do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapon state. Iran is, indeed, signed up to the non-proliferation treaty, in which it pledges not to become a nuclear weapon state. The international community is taking the correct approach at the present time, and to rule anything out would be to weaken our hand in negotiations. I do not think that we should be any more specific than that.
I visited Iran a few weeks ago, and having been there and discussed the matter with Iranian politicians, I understood just how complex those negotiations can be and how difficult it can be to get across to some Iranian politicians that this is a quarrel not with the United States or the United Kingdom, but with the whole international community. The better that that community is able to speak with one voice—not splinter into what-ifs—the better our chance of getting a properly negotiated settlement in Iran that is to everyone’s benefit.
In the environment we currently face, one thing stands out above all else. In a truly global, interdependent economy, we have a far greater risk of exposure than in the past. Indeed, it has been said that today’s multi-polar world resembles the second half of the 19th century much more than it did at any time during the cold war years. That means we have to get the structures right. Our global economy is using political structures designed for the environment after the second world war, and military structures largely designed for the cold war.
The structure we need to get right the most is NATO; the Secretary of State touched on it in his speech. It has to be made clear to all NATO members that those who benefit from collective security are morally bound to a collective effort. Being part of NATO does not mean becoming involved in the conflicts or type of warfare that we like, and not the ones that we do not. There is a duty on all of those in the alliance to play a fair role, which means we have to bring an end to the fighting-funding link. People in this country already think it wrong that we in the UK play a disproportionate role in the military burden, along with the Americans and Canadians in the south of Afghanistan. The way in which NATO is funded means that we also carry a disproportionate level of the financial burden. The breaking of the fighting-funding link is necessary if NATO is to prosper and survive in what will be a threatening world.
The bottom line is this: the Government issued an extremely competent and widely supported strategic defence review, from which flowed several planning assumptions, yet they have exceeded them in all of the past six years. Our manpower has reduced but our commitments have increased. Defence has fallen as a proportion of GDP and of the Government’s overall expenditure, and the major procurement projects, which are widely supported by hon. Members of all parties—the carriers, the future rapid effect system and the joint strike fighter—are likely, without a change in the budgetary settlement, to mean cuts in other parts of the core budget. Our personnel exceed too widely the harmony guidelines and retention is a growing problem. Ten years into office, it is not a happy story for the Government to sell to the British public. It reflects badly on the Labour party and its priorities, but—worse—it badly lets down our armed forces. That is the real shame.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you got your retaliation in first, so I am constrained in the language that I may use in response to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). To say that his speech was not the most encouraging, competent, wise or factual contribution is an understatement. Anyone who is neutral—I doubt whether any neutrals are present; there are not many Liberals, but even fewer neutrals—would be disappointed. I do not wish to be hostile, but if the official Opposition aspire to be the future Government, I fear that we are being short-changed. I must point out that a few delusional characters support the Tory party—they do not do well in court cases. Indeed, I am looking at some delusional characters now.
No, let me first outline what I am going to say.
If the Opposition want to demonstrate that they are capable, they must show that they are different from the Conservative party that I have observed in my 34 years as a Member of Parliament, mostly in opposition. If one cannot get much from the future—from what might happen, according to the Opposition’s proposals—one is forced to revert to the past.
The Opposition’s past is even more dispiriting than their proposals for the future. One gains the impression from listening to the hon. Member for Woodspring that the Conservative party is the SAS of Opposition defence teams, confident in its abilities and its history. One would also believe that the Government were somehow the descendants of a semi-pacifist or pacifist Labour party led by Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Frank Allaun and Ramsay MacDonald, who ended up as a Conservative. Neither of those extremes is true.
The Government have been accused of all sorts of things, such as cutting defence expenditure. If the Opposition want to talk about cuts, they should consider the template under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Most of the increase in Government expenditure went on replacing kit lost during the war against Argentina. The previous Labour Government—Fred Mulley was Secretary of State—promised that we would commit ourselves to a 3 per cent. real increase in defence expenditure. Labour did that—the cut came under Michael Heseltine. If one looks at the chart of defence expenditure and what the Library has produced—I do not want to embroil the Library research department in a political argument—one sees that the statistics are clear. The picture of Tory defence expenditure, following a little spurt after the Falklands war, is: drop, drop, drop, drop, drop until the Defence Committee, then led by a wonderful Conservative Chairman, the late Michael Colvin, argued that Government expenditure was projected to fall to 2.2 per cent. Therefore, before too many rocks are thrown about any failings, I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will look at the many Defence Committee reports that were published during his party’s period in office.
Charges have been laid against the Government on Defence Medical Services, but just look at what the Defence Committee said about hospitals in “Defence Costs Study No. 15”. It said that the situation was appalling and that the cuts had gone so far that it doubted whether medical services would ever recover. That was a Tory-led Defence Committee.
The Tory-led Defence Committee said in 1996 that defence cuts had gone so far that if they proceeded in the same direction, the defence of the realm would be severely endangered. I advise the shadow Secretary of State to look at my A to Z of Tory procurement foul-ups—the word “foul-up” was suggested when my first word was deemed inadvisable by the Clerks. All I am saying is, yes, we have made mistakes, but, on balance, this is not the Labour party of the early 1980s. This Labour Government have behaved, if not impeccably and perfectly, then in a way that has defended this country’s interests well, and they will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Woodspring does neither himself nor his party any good by imagining that we are a party of extremist troglodytes who have somehow found their way into office and are now doing their best to undermine the security of the state and the welfare of our armed forces.
I am interested in these lessons in the history of expenditure, but when did we last find ourselves fighting a war on two fronts while our defence expenditure, including the Treasury reserve element, was falling as a proportion of GDP and Government expenditure?
We fought a war on two fronts against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. We almost lost that, as a consequence of the Conservative party’s leaders in the 1930s, so I will not take any spurious examples of our failing this country, when it was the hon. Gentleman’s party, with names that he—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can look contemptuously if he wants. He might not remember Stanley Baldwin or Neville Chamberlain, but he can read. They were the Prime Ministers who almost brought our country to the point of destruction. That is why I am not prepared to accept the trivia and, not the distortion, but the misinterpretation of facts that I have heard and am likely to hear over the next two or three years.
The shadow Secretary of State will have noticed that the GDP of this country has grown quite significantly since his party has been in opposition, although I am not going to deliver a eulogy on the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. Therefore, if we look not simply at the percentage of GDP but at the amount spent on defence, we realise that the figure is favourable. This will give a crumb of comfort to the Opposition and cause the Minister to look threateningly at me, as he has previously, but I believe that we should spend more on defence. I really do. Not simply more money—
We do not know how much the Opposition are going to spend on defence. They are copying the Labour party. We did not invent identity theft or perfect it. I recall, however, that the Labour party’s strategic defence review idea was not just to ease the transition to sanity in the Labour ranks but to buy a little time to get its defence policies together. David Clark, for example, was one of a number of people in the Opposition team who brought the Labour party back from the brink of fantasy—this was partly how we got re-elected—and showed that we were and are a responsible party.
My right hon. Friend says that we do not know how much the main Opposition party will spend on defence. There is a clue, however, in the address by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to the Conservative party’s annual conference. He promised to restore the three infantry battalions cut by Labour
“once we have seen the MoD’s books and identified the savings to pay for them. A bigger Army for a safer Britain.”
Therefore, he will fund that expansion from other areas of MOD expenditure. There will be no net increase in expenditure.
I do not need to be revived, but I would like to advise the hon. Member for Woodspring, and I will send him a copy of my book on how the Staffordshire Regiment survived amalgamation—it was amalgamated in the end, but at least it survived a decade longer. It was going to be amalgamated, as were many other regiments, by a range of Ministers, some of whom I have seen popping into the Chamber in the past couple of days.
The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in the House, whereas I am a relatively new Member of Parliament. Will he therefore advise me on how to operate, as a Member who feels passionately about defence issues, when former Army colleagues and constituents tell me what is going on? We try to probe the Government on issues, but we are then accused, as one of my hon. Friends was, of talking down our armed services or armed services medical support. In what way are we supposed to hold the Government to account on such important issues?
It would be improper of me to offer advice, but the hon. Gentleman should read a book, sit in on debates and keep his mouth shut until he has had ample time to make a proper contribution. I will willingly coach him as best I can, and tell him when he is ready to launch a speech on the House of Commons. I will ask him to read my book on what his Government tried to do to the Staffordshire Regiment. It is important to talk to people in the military, for whom I have the deepest respect—I would never call them congenital whingers, because they are not. They say many things that can be picked up by Members of Parliament and used, as I have done many times over the years. One must not necessarily treat a snippet of information, however, as the end of the line for research. It is incumbent on all of us who have not been doctors—if we enter a profession that has any pretensions to scientific analysis, competence and verification, to take a different approach—to be more serious about it. We should not throw away our lessons and, if someone drops us a titbit of information, rush in with a speech in the House of Commons.
Many members of Her Majesty’s armed forces will recognise the improvement in salaries. The shadow Minister, however, told us how badly a major is paid—using, no doubt, the bottom of a major’s salary scale. I would like to be at the top of a major’s salary scale—Members of Parliament would have a considerable increase in salary if we were—but, in saying that, I in no way disparage the armed forces. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) looks at the armed forces review report, he will see the salary structures. He is a good friend, even though he is a Conservative—many of my good friends are—but a major’s salary at the top of the scale is not bad at all.
My right hon. Friend has spoken of snippets and titbits of information. He might be interested to know of one such piece of information that I picked up earlier in the year when I visited Basra, and enjoyed meeting members of the Staffords, who were serving there among other units. An “other ranks” told me that the kit in which he was dressed was the best equipment with which he had been issued for 13 years.
I hope that my hon. Friend will say more about that if he decides to speak this evening.
We should consider the shabby kit that our armed forces had in 1991. The world’s worst tank was imposed on them—Challenger 1. I should like to engage in debate with anyone who disputes that, although Challenger 2 is one of the best tanks, if not the best.
The Tories’ record on procurement was a little unsatisfactory. We are now hearing about the Government’s procurement failures: the Eurofighter, the future rapid effect system, Trident, the joint strike fighter and two real aircraft carriers. When the Tories were in office, they tried to sell off one of our three little aircraft carriers to the Australians, and we had to beg them to give it back. Now, we have two serviceable aircraft carriers—which I think is wrong: I think we need three—until the proper ones come along. Ours has been a pretty impressive procurement programme, given the amount of money and what it has purchased.
I have looked at the National Audit Office’s press report, “Major Projects Report 1997”. Sir John Bourn had a bit of trouble recently, but I think he has done a superb job, and that the National Audit Office is one of the most professional audit offices in the world. In the report, which reflected the position on 31 March 1997, he said that
“the overall cost variance for the 20 projects common to the 1996 and 1997 Major Projects Reports has increased by £341 million”,
and spoke of
“the average delay to in-Service dates of just over three years (37 months)”.
That is not an impressive figure. At the end of a period of Tory rule, that report was describing the Tories as pretty profligate and incapable of running the defence procurement process successfully. That is why I feel a little unhappy.
We hear endlessly about defence housing. I can think of three Members who are present, on the Conservative Benches alone, who will remember Portillo giving away vital defence housing—for a sum that was subsequently lost in the Tory budget—to the Nomura Corporation masquerading as Mannington Homes. That disaster featured in four Defence Committee reports, all of which were critical.
I shall read the hon. Member for Woodspring’s speech very carefully. I shall consider his criticisms of Labour’s expenditure, medical service provision, housing and equipment, and try to decide whether his speech provides any inspiration or satisfaction—whether it gives any indication that a new Tory Government, if there ever is one, will be any better than the last. On the basis of what I have heard today, I believe that a new Tory Government would not be any better, and indeed could be much worse.
Under his wise leadership and chairmanship. The Committee produced a report on the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. Although our report was quite critical of some of what the Ministry of Defence was doing, including cash limiting, we recognised that for the first time ever a Labour Government were introducing lump-sum payments for members of our armed forces. Not once during the process did Conservative Front-Benchers raise any objections.
I am not sure whether to thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, as he is only half proud of what we did. One thing that we did was appoint better advisers than the MOD’s, and we gave the MOD a rough time. However, we recognised that much had happened with compensation and other forms of benefit.
Much has been done, but more remains to be done. We can never be absolutely happy until members of our armed forces who have been injured are properly compensated, regardless of whether they were injured while facing the enemy, in peacetime operations or while serving at home; we owe them a debt of honour. They must be properly compensated not only so that we can be happier about that and our consciences can be clearer, but so that more people will be prepared to join the armed forces.
We must examine how our defence forces are evolving, the equipment we are purchasing, the training we are doing, the alliances of which we are a part, and whether our Government are displaying political wisdom in respect of our allies and potential adversaries—we hope that they are. In doing so, we must move beyond the immediate future. I recall Ministers such as Archie Hamilton—a great guy—coming before the Defence Committee, and our saying, “Minister, you are thinking about the fact that the Soviet Union has now collapsed, but is the threat to the UK over? Why are you rushing to cut regiments? Why are you cutting defence expenditure? History teaches us that, regrettably, war is sometimes inevitable.”
That must have been in the early 1990s. As things proceeded, we realised that the world was a dangerous place. People should go along to the defence academy. I am sure that the Tory Front-Bench team has found out where it is, and that some of them have gone there; perhaps some of them have actually studied there. If they have not, they should, because there is an open-source document there on the considerable threats to this country. From reading that document, we can see that the Ministry of Defence is thinking about what will happen not in the next five or 10 years, but in the next 25 years.
What happened in the 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union? There was a belief that everything was now coming right: that the United States was the single world hegemon, that everyone would now bend their knees in respect, that the Soviet Union was gone and Russia was broken-backed, and that the world was about to enter a century of stability. Defence cuts proceeded in accordance with those optimistic scenarios, but now, only 15 years or so later, we are discovering that that is not what has happened.
The US dominance of the world—mostly for good, sometimes not so—might be coming to an end, although I hope it is not. Will the European Union step in and fill the vacuum? We can make assumptions or have wishes about that, but it will not do so. Did we foresee the economic and military rise of China? No, we did not. We should read what has recently come out of this House and the US Congress on the potential dangers from China. I hope that such dangers will not arise—I hope that there will be a Government whom we can deal with—but we cannot be certain; and in defence planning, assumptions must not be made. There is also the threat of emerging nuclear powers. I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring on the threat from Iran, and other threats could also be mentioned.
We are spending too little on defence, and our budget should not simply be increased but be increased wisely. I am not saying that it should be increased by as much as 250 or 500 per cent., but we must imagine what might happen in five, 10 or 15 years, and take into account those countries that are trebling or quadrupling their GDPs—[Interruption.] Well, I would like the figure to be at least 2.5 per cent. and, if necessary, higher. I am not an official spokesman, and perhaps that is why. Should the international situation deteriorate, one would, as a result, be able to adjust. As I have mentioned previously, when the Ottomans lost the battle of Lepanto, most of their fleet had been sunk. Those who survived sailed home, chopped down hundreds of thousands of trees and, six months later, were back, causing trouble in the Mediterranean. It takes 15 to 20 years to build a new generation of almost anything.
I hope that the gloomy prognosis of Russia becoming autocratic again does not prove right. It would be almost an affront for Russia to say, “You have to accept that we will be providing you with oil and gas, and if you try to take alternative measures, this is being disrespectful.” We have to recognise that, for Russia, it is now score-settling time. I hope that I am wrong, but, even according to a half-gloomy perspective, we will be in for a difficult 10, 15 or 20 years. Even though many people do not like the United States, we have to hang on in with the US. We hope that there will be a Democrat leadership—not a supine one, but an intelligent one—and close links with the European Union. The US should not take all the decisions: if we on this side of the Atlantic want to be taken seriously, we have to do things that we perhaps have not done so far, such as getting proper armed forces in countries that do not really have them.
In the world that lies ahead, I hope that we are not going to drift aimlessly, as we did in the 1930s when we were left almost at the mercy of a country that ruled with an iron fist, and with armed forces that left us for dead. If we are to avoid that, we must be a bit more intelligent about defence, look to the future and spend money wisely on the right equipment, so that, should the worst happen, we and our allies—not just the countries of Europe and north America, but many other countries—will not be bullied by military force or the threat of it, or by the misuse of energy, which can be a far cheaper but equally deadly way of achieving objectives.
I begin by echoing the Secretary of State’s words of condolence and by paying tribute to the superb work of the men and women of our armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world.
We had a debate last week on defence procurement, so I will not go over ground that we covered then. However, I welcome the opportunity to have a broader debate on defence policy at a time when overstretch in the armed forces is a subject of discussion not only among politicians and the media, but, in the past few months, among present and former heads of the Army. We are having this debate at a time when, as has already been stated and acknowledged, defence planning assumptions have been exceeded for several years, harmony guidelines have been breached too much, and the state of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan means that a toll is being taken not only on the men and women of our armed services, but on the equipment.
There are particular units in the armed forces that we turn to again and again because of their suitability and excellence in undertaking work such as that in which we are currently involved. I am thinking in particular of the Marines, the Paras and others whom we go back to again and again for such operations. Each of those units will, in time, need to rebuild their contingent capabilities, but they will be unable to do so if we keep sending them out quite as regularly as we have done in the past few years.
I welcome the fact that the Defence Secretary began to acknowledge and address some of those issues in his speech this afternoon. He said that he believed that changes were afoot that would ease some of these pressures. I hope that that is right. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will watch developments closely to see whether the hopes outlined today come to fruition.
We welcome the Government’s recent announcement that they intend to reduce the number of our troops in Iraq in the early part of next year. That is a very welcome step in the right direction. The British mission in south-east Iraq has been in progress for some time. Originally, we had responsibility for four provinces; three have been handed back, and we are in the process of withdrawing from Basra province at present, but I remain curious about one matter.
I assure the house that I raise this not to score a point but because I am genuinely puzzled, and hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will be able to offer some clarification when he winds up the debate. As recently as 26 July, the Minister was discussing with the Defence Committee the prospects for reducing the number of our troops in Iraq. He said:
“The force is not self-sustaining and able to protect itself and do the other work that it has to do below about 5,000”.
He went on to say that
“in an…over-watch situation we cannot get much below 5,000 because we have to be able to sustain the force and self-protect the force itself, so over-watch in itself does not take us down a lot lower than that.”
I repeat that I am not referring to those remarks because I oppose the reduction to 2,500—far from it. As I said, that is a move in the right direction, but I want to understand what has happened in the past couple of months that has caused the Government to make an assessment today that is different from what they were saying as recently as late July. Perhaps they have revised their assessments; if so, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation later on.
I believe that the work in Iraq is progressing towards some sort of endgame and that, increasingly, the focus will move to our ongoing operations in Afghanistan. In my opinion it is widely accepted that we are in for a long haul there, and the public remain somewhat confused about what we are trying to achieve. As a political community composed of all the parties, Parliament must set about trying to explain that more clearly if we are to ensure that the public continue to support and understand—and see the justification for—what we are going to be doing in Afghanistan for some years to come.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he supports the view expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who until very recently was the leader of the Liberal Democrats? He said that he believed that our debt to Iraq had been discharged, and that we should withdraw now. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party’s position on this matter?