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Commons Chamber

Volume 467: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

House of Commons

Monday 12 November 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Safety

Over the past four years, the Government have introduced new legislation, new guidance and new structures to make children safer and to strengthen the vetting and barring system. The recent cross-government Staying Safe consultation and the new public service agreement to improve children’s safety will ensure that children’s safety is a top priority. We will shortly introduce the children and young persons Bill to improve further the services for our most vulnerable children, including looked-after children.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is aware that we have been holding parliamentary hearings to try to find better ways of protecting children who run away or go missing. Will he, however, give his immediate attention to the case of the 18,000 children who are being placed outside their local area by local authorities? Many of them are hundreds of miles away from their networks of support. Will he also ensure that a child can be placed away from their family and friends only when it is in the best interests of that child to do so?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done for looked-after and missing children. The meeting that she held in the summer with colleagues, including the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and me, was directly responsible for the inclusion of a looked-after and missing children’s indicator in the local government indicator set. She has raised a particular point today and she is completely right to do so. We, too, have concerns about the number of children in care who are looked after out of area. We think that that currently involves about one third of children in care. In the Bill that we will publish later this week, we will require local authorities to secure a placement for a child within their own local authority area unless to do so would be inconsistent with the welfare of the child—for example, because of complex disabilities or because a child needed to leave an area because of domestic violence.

The Minister will probably be aware that Mencap has recently published a report called “Don’t stick it, stop it”. One of its conclusions is that 82 per cent. of children and young people with a learning disability have experienced bullying, and that such children are twice as likely to be bullied as other children. Has the Secretary of State seen the report? If so, what does he propose to do to try to improve this dreadful situation?

I have read a report of the Mencap report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that all bullying of any kind is completely wrong, and I am keen to work with Mencap to ensure that we give priority to bullying against children with disabilities as well. We produced new guidance on bullying a few weeks ago, and I will ensure that we include Mencap in the current consultations, to make sure that we can eradicate that terrible occurrence.

Fifty-three per cent. of children and young people in Stockport are from other boroughs. There is already advice from the Government to local authorities that children and young people should be placed within their locality if possible, but it is clear that some local authorities are completely ignoring that advice. During the passage of the children and young persons Bill, would the Secretary of State be willing to look again at the registration process and the Ofsted inspection process, to ensure that we can monitor the way in which independent homes that often encourage the placing of children with extensive criminal records in those homes manage the children in their care?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I also congratulate her on the work that she has done in this area. As I have said, the Bill will make it clear that a child should be looked after in their own area unless it is in the interests of the child to do otherwise. We will look at the provisions that will require that of local authorities, to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place.

Key to the safeguarding of vulnerable children is the engagement of dedicated social workers. Key to the findings in the Victoria Climbié report was the failure of health service professionals and others to engage with those social workers and to adopt a multi-agency approach. Why, then, has the National Children’s Bureau today published a report on safeguarding arrangements that reveals that, five years on, 53 per cent. of hospitals do not even have hospital-based social workers, despite the Government’s own guidance in the national service framework for children that was introduced after the Victoria Climbié case? How does the Secretary of State hope to remedy this situation, given the worsening vacancy rates for children’s social workers revealed in the latest work force review? Has he had an opportunity to read the Conservative party’s report on social workers, “No More Blame Game”, in which he might find some of the solutions?

Unfortunately, I have not yet had time to read that particular document, but I look forward to studying it along with the range of other documents that I read in the course of my duties. I will raise the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked with the Secretary of State for Health and we will look at the issue to see what more needs to be done. I have a joint responsibility on this. I met the Secretary of State last week to discuss these issues as part of our consultations on the children’s plan. I will happily have a conversation with him about this and provide a report to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

Educational Standards

Standards have risen over the past decade and the reforms that I have announced to offer more personalised learning in schools and to give teachers more power to enforce discipline in the classroom, as well as our local strategies to tackle poorly performing schools, will all help to drive standards up even further, especially when backed up by the doubling of real-terms per pupil spending since 1997.

Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the fact that the brand-new £24 million Bishops Park college in Clacton, which was opened by the previous leader of the Labour party a week before the last general election, now faces closure? Does he agree that closure after only two years represents appallingly bad value for public money and appalling failure to raise local standards?

I will not take that responsibility. The decisions to open the school and to plan places in the local area are both the responsibility of the local authority. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how those responsibilities have been taken forward, I suggest that he raises them with the local authority rather than with myself.

At the launch of past education policies, the Prime Minister and Ministers rushed down to the flagship private finance initiative Highlands school in my constituency. I appreciate that it is more awkward now that Enfield, Southgate benefits from Conservative representation, but I invite the Secretary of State to visit Highlands school to explain why it should rush to introduce diplomas next year, given that the school has only just decided not to go ahead with the international baccalaureate tests, which failed the school, so it is now setting about reintroducing A-levels. On second thoughts, perhaps the Secretary of State should keep away from Highlands school and let it get on with doing a better job of A-levels.

I am very happy to come and visit. When I do, I will discuss with the school—and with local parents, if the hon. Gentleman would like me to—our policy on diplomas. Let me be clear that we are not going to force parents or schools to teach diplomas, as it will be a matter for local schools and parents to decide, but we will ensure that diplomas are introduced in a comprehensive way. We have added in new diplomas for science, modern languages and humanities to ensure that we have a comprehensive and first-class choice of diplomas, which should be available for all young people by 2011. As I have said, I believe that the diplomas system can be comprehensive and first class and that diplomas could become the qualification of choice, but that will be a matter for the market, parents and schools to decide and not for me to impose.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although standards have risen progressively at secondary level, there is something in the “Teach First” document that is to be published this week about the size of schools? Does he agree with the authors that in the secondary world, small can sometimes be beautiful?

The “Teach First” report is very interesting. It does not say that smaller schools are the way forward, but rather that within schools a case can be made for using house systems or mixed-year tutorial groups to help drive up performance while at the same time providing pastoral care in a more personal form that can be achieved in very large schools. I do not think that the evidence shows that standards have risen either faster or slower in larger or smaller schools. As my noble Friend Lord Adonis said at the weekend, the “Teach First” report definitely deserves study.

The Secretary of State will know that all the research shows that good quality sports facilities and having sport in schools raises standards. Why, then, given the welcome building schools for the future programme, is a school such as Stockwell Park in the most deprived part of Lambeth, which currently has a good 25 m swimming pool, to be totally rebuilt minus its swimming pool? Surely that does not show that we mean what we say when we talk about joined-up thinking, bringing together and tackling obesity in our inner-city areas.

As my hon. Friend will know, a quiet revolution has been happening in school sports over the last few years. In 2002, 25 per cent. of young people were doing the required amount of sport a week; 85 per cent. are doing it now. Just a few weeks ago, I visited the school that my hon. Friend mentioned and met the head teacher—and I know that she did an excellent job. We will ensure that “Building Schools for the Future” provides the flexibility that we need in order to drive up standards and provide the facilities necessary to support the needs of all children in our society.

How can the Secretary of State talk about improving discipline in schools when even the most basic elements of home-school contracts are not legally enforceable and when, in dealing even with the most disruptive pupils, head teachers and boards of governors can be overruled by independent panels?

The fact is that we have implemented the Steer review and given head teachers and governors the powers that they need. I stand ready to give any extra powers that they ask for, so that we have the discipline in the classroom that we need to ensure that we continue to drive up standards in our schools.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should congratulate the city of Nottingham on the fact that the number of pupils who attain GCSEs at A to C grade has gone up by six times the national average, admittedly from a very low base? Does he have further plans to alter that persistent attainment gap?

I join my hon. Friend in passing on those congratulations. In the figures that I published a few weeks ago of the top 20 local authorities that had the largest improvement in grades in the last year, Nottingham was, I think, fifth on the list and therefore deserves all the congratulations of my hon. Friend, myself and all hon. Members. However, there is more that we can do. The extra funding that we have given to personalise learning to make sure that we have extra help for those who fall behind in primary and secondary schools will do more to ensure that we help Nottingham to do even better in the years to come than it has done already in its GCSE performance.

Coming back to the issue of vocational diplomas, what level of take-up would constitute a success in the Secretary of State’s view?

I am not going to prejudge that now. While the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) continue to call the diplomas “vocational”, I think that they will be both academic and vocational—both practical and theoretical—and can become comprehensive and first class. I disagree that they are somehow a fantasy or second-class qualification. To give the impression that vocational qualifications are second class is quite wrong. As I said, I think that they can become the qualification of choice. That will mean that the majority of them will be taken in schools in the next decade. However, I am not going to prejudge the timetable for that. As I said, I will let the market—parents and teachers—decide. In the end, they will listen not to me, but to universities and employers, which are increasingly saying that these are good, excellent and, indeed, better qualifications for young people to be studying. But of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will see that over the next few years.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that school standards and child poverty are inextricably linked because if a child’s home circumstances are difficult it is very difficult for them to achieve at school, and if they do not get decent qualifications, that poverty is perpetuated throughout their life. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House whether the Government are still committed to the target of abolishing child poverty? If so, what does he hope to achieve in his role to push that forward?

The answer is yes, definitely. As my hon. Friend will know, because she was with me and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in No. 11 only last week when we met Save the Children, it is the view of the Chancellor and myself that the child poverty goal is essential. We will not be able to deliver excellence for all unless we tackle the causes of poor performance in schools. One of those causes is child poverty. Therefore, if we are to be an “Every Child Matters” Government—if we are to ensure that we tackle all the barriers to poor performance—it is essential that we stay on track to meet our child poverty goal by 2010.

The Secretary of State will have seen the comments by Simon Lebus, chief executive of the Cambridge Assessment exam board, who said:

“There is no doubt that confidence in the value of the A-level currency has suffered in recent years.”

Do the Government accept responsibility for that? Are they not making matters worse by creating academic diplomas in science, the humanities and languages, in direct competition with the GCSE and A-level, thus creating a two-tier system? Does the Secretary of State share our view that we need to retain the A-level, but restore its rigour so that it can once again become the gold standard of the British education system?

I am very confused. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] One moment the hon. Gentleman tells me that A-levels have fallen in their standing, and then he tells me that I am being accused of undermining the excellence of the A-level. It seems to me that on this issue, as on many others, including grammar schools and diplomas, Opposition Members should sort out their own lives before they start asking questions of me.

The fact is that we are taking steps to improve A-levels, but introducing diplomas at the same time. Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at Cambridge university, has said:

“I welcome the fact that these new Diplomas will be HE-led and anticipate that many of our academics would welcome a role in their development.”

He has also said that he

“strongly welcomes any moves that will encourage young people to study the sciences, maths and modern languages in particular at a higher level.”

At our press conference, he expressed the view that a diploma in maths for engineering would be a better preparation for studying education at Cambridge university than a maths A-level. I think that rather than lecturing me about Cambridge university reports, the hon. Gentleman should listen to Cambridge university himself, and get his facts right before coming to the House with questions of that kind.

So no acceptance of responsibility there, either.

The Secretary of State just said that the market would decide which exams were taken up, but the market is already deciding. At least 200 independent schools have already adopted the more rigorous international GCSE in maths and science rather than the regular GCSE, but state schools are not allowed to adopt the international GCSE. The Government have been reviewing that position for some months. When will they put state schools on an equal footing with the independent sector, and allow them to adopt the IGCSE?

The reason the exams are not allowed in state schools is that they do not conform to the national curriculum. I think that rather than running down the achievements of our state schools, we should celebrate them. The fact is that their share in A grades in A-levels has been rising, not falling, in recent years.

May I urge the Secretary of State to employ some caution before taking the advice of the privately educated Schools Minister in the other place? Downsizing schools does not necessarily drive up standards. In Leicestershire, the comprehensive system produces schools like my old school, Ashby, a specialist technology and languages college with 1,600 students, which is achieving very high standards. I urge the Secretary of State to visit Ashby school, where I used to be chairman of the governors and am still a governor.

I should be happy to go and look at the school, and I commend its achievements. I do not think we should criticise the Opposition spokesman simply on the grounds that he was privately educated. I am not sure whether that is a fair criticism. It would be fairer to say that he should ensure that he is on solid ground before he makes accusations.

Truancy

I did not realise that I was so popular.

Our focus is on reducing all forms of unnecessary absence, and in particular on reducing the number of persistent absentees with very high levels of absence. We both support and challenge local authorities in areas where those problems are concentrated. Our success is demonstrated by record low rates of absence last year, and by the 10 per cent. reduction in the number of persistent absentees.

Given that truancy is at its highest level for 10 years, and given the Government’s scrapping of the target introduced by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1998 to improve school attendance, what hope have we that, when the Government eventually insist on children staying at school until the age of 18, those children will turn up at all?

I should have thought that, as a member of the esteemed club of ex-Government Whips, the right hon. Gentleman would realise that we should be concentrating on persistent absentees rather than the quality of the note provided by the person who is absent. The Government are concentrating on persistent absentees, and as a result there are 75,000 more children at school every day than there were in 1997.

My hon. Friend may recall that when we last had a debate about truancy there were seven Members in the Chamber, of whom there was a photograph in The Times. I might add that I was one of the school creeps who were present at the time.

May I ask whether any studies have been undertaken of truancy in other countries, where truancy rates may be much lower, to identify the drivers of truancy and how we might make a real success of driving it downwards?

Far from giving my hon. Friend an ASBO, I will give him a gold star for being here so often. He is certainly not one of the persistent absentees—unfortunately sometimes, I hasten to add. If he looks at the international comparisons, he will find that this country’s record is improving considerably. The reason is that, instead of concentrating on the meaningless and perverse incentive of looking at unauthorised absences, which simply means that schools can decide whether to authorise an absence, we are looking at overall absence. As a result of that, every day we have 75,000 more pupils in school than there were in 1997. Absence among persistent absentees fell by 10 per cent. last year, and 20 per cent. in the schools that we targeted, and it is down overall from 7.23 per cent. in 1995-96 to 6.44 per cent. last year.

Is the Minister surprised that, given that this is in effect Education questions and the Liberal Democrats are so concerned about education, all their Back-Bench MPs are playing truant at the moment?

My hon. Friend the Minister is right to acknowledge that persistent truancy is a major problem, but there is also the problem of peer pressure on younger people to stay away from school, which leads to drink and drug problems and petty crime. What can we do to ensure that local education authorities across the country have the right funding and do not cut back on truancy and welfare officers? Giving them powers to act is important.

It is very important. Through the national strategies and other schemes, we are concentrating on behaviour, truancy, peer mentoring, bullying and all the things that may impact on truancy. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should emphasise persistent absence because about 2 per cent. of pupils are responsible for over half of those unauthorised absences that we talked about earlier. Therefore, it is important that we focus on them. We have done that through concentrating on 400 schools with the most problematic records, with considerable success: there was a 20 per cent. reduction last year in persistent absentees from those schools.

Ten years ago it was announced that school truancy would be cut by one third, and in fact there are now 1.4 million children playing truant every year. That is almost 500,000 more under this Government. Given that failure, how certain can the Minister be of his proposals to increase the number of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in education by fining them up to £200 when they do not turn up? I am sure he will be aware that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, recently said that he felt that that idea was in “cloud cuckoo land”. Is the Minister expecting to quietly drop that proposal, in the same way as he quietly dropped the failed truancy target?

It is simply not right to say that truancy has gone up in the way that the hon. Lady suggests because she is confusing the statistics for unauthorised absence and truancy. They are not the same thing. She does not have to take my word for that. I refer her to Martin Ward, who is the deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He said:

“It is a mistake”—

I hope she is listening to this—

“to refer to unauthorised absence as ‘truancy’ since this figure includes the many holidays taken in term-time, which remains a major problem for schools.”

We could tomorrow, if she really wants us to, say to schools that we want them to reduce the figures for unauthorised absence and they could do that, without having any impact on truancy, simply by becoming stricter on excuses for absence. If she is serious about truancy, she will concentrate on overall absence, not on the figure for unauthorised absence. We will bring in measures to make sure that young people are in employment, education or training up to the age of 18, with training for them all, including modern apprenticeships.

Science Syllabus

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the new science syllabuses for secondary schools. (161958)

The new science GCSEs have had an enthusiastic welcome from teachers and pupils alike. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has commissioned research evaluating them.

I am pleased to hear that response. The other day I visited two Bolton schools, where the new 21st century science syllabus was being taught by two extremely enthusiastic teachers to enthusiastic pupils. Will my hon. Friend continue to monitor those courses and compare the different science syllabuses that are being taught? Does he accept the criticism that I have picked up from children that they would prefer more practical work to be built into those syllabuses? However, that would require—I hope that he will accept this—massive investment in bringing school laboratories into the 21st century.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing in the House the cause of science education. I will be talking to the QCA about how it will monitor the different syllabuses—or syllabi; I am not sure of my classics—as they are rolled out. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about enthusiastic teachers. He will welcome today’s figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools, showing that the number of trainee science teachers recruited has reached more than 3,000 for the fist time. He will also welcome the increase in the numbers choosing physics, 31 per cent., and chemistry, 32 per cent. Those are good strides forward and what he says about practical work will mean that he, unlike the Conservative party, will welcome the new science diploma that will deliver much more practical learning.

When I completed an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with Universities UK a couple of years ago, the universities’ concern and despair about having to bring on young science undergraduates who had not had the quality of science education at school that enabled them to keep up even in their first year was noticeable. Does the Minister take note of the concerns of universities and of what they would like to see in the science syllabus? It is all very well defending something new, but unless it is producing the quality at school that we need before university we are not serving our young people very well at all.

We take careful note of what universities are telling us, which is one of the reasons why we have strengthened the A-level—the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the increases in entrance to physics, chemistry and biology A-levels—with the A* and the extended course. We are responding to universities’ concerns by bringing forward the science content in all 17 of the diplomas, but particularly with the science diploma, which has been welcomed by Russell group universities, by Oxford and Cambridge, and by universities such as South Bank university that have been working with us on diploma design.

Youth Services

It is for each local authority to determine its own budget on youth services, but the recent comprehensive spending review settlement for local government included an increase in formula grant of 4.2 per cent., 3.5 per cent. and 3.4 per cent over the period 2008-11 that will enable local authorities to build on 10 years of sustained growth to improve outcomes for children and young people. As well as that continued funding, there are specific areas where we will be allocating new money over the CSR period, including the expansion of the Youth Opportunity Fund in the most deprived areas, and investment in new and improved youth facilities and in positive activities for young people.

My right hon. Friend will have seen the imaginative programmes put together by students and young people from my constituency under the Youth Opportunity Fund. Mr. Speaker, you will be particularly interested to know that one of those schemes was entitled Destination Westminster and involved a group of young people coming here to learn about this place. I thank the staff of the House for their support for that scheme. My right hon. Friend knows that young people such as those and others within the cadet forces and other youth organisations do so much good in our communities. Will she ensure that they continue to have some control over their budgets under the youth opportunities scheme, especially with the expanded amounts of money that she has just described?

Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his support for and interest in the cadet forces and the work that they do with young people throughout the country. It is true that the Youth Opportunity Fund has produced some spectacularly good projects. One of the reasons for that is the fund’s condition for the direct participation of young people in developing bids for projects, deciding how money will be spent and monitoring and overseeing that expenditure. Secondly, voluntary organisations such as the Sea Cadets, which can provide those structured and positive activities and trusted adults that we know are so important for the development of young people, have a key role.

Positive Activities

7. What steps the Government are taking to provide facilities and opportunities for productive activities for young people. (161960)

In July this year, the Government launched “Aiming high for young people: a ten year strategy for positive activities”. Supported by £184 million of new Government investment, the reinvestment of unclaimed assets and £495 million of continuing funding, the strategy will improve young people’s life chances through participation in positive activities, improved youth support services and, over the next 10 years, new and improved youth facilities in every constituency.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response. We all know the good that such positive and structured activities do. I have in my constituency many disadvantaged young people who do not always have the family support networks that enable them to attend such activities. Will the Government be able to give any help to such people in my constituency?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest in this important topic—as, sadly, it does not seem to be exciting much interest on the Opposition Benches. There will be additional funding specifically for extended schools to enable children from poorer families who cannot afford to pay for activities to take part in them. Also, the “Positive activities for young people” scheme will be extended, with an additional £82 million over this period specifically for very disadvantaged areas. The youth opportunity fund will also have an additional and separate element of money specifically for the most disadvantaged areas, so we can make sure that all young people can take part in these activities.

Could the right hon. Lady comment on a problem that one of my tertiary colleges has? That college, in Cirencester, has responsibilities that come under her remit—such as the agenda for 14 to 19-year-olds, GCSEs and A-levels—but other responsibilities, such as vocational courses, come under the remit of the other Ministry concerned. Now that such responsibilities have been split up, it seems that the two ministries do not have joined-up government thinking. What is her Department doing about that?

I am grateful for that hastily thought-of question. We are working closely with our colleagues in the other Department. More to the point, it will be the responsibility of local authorities, with support from both Departments, to ensure that, through measures such as their 14-to-19 provision in schools and further education colleges, and bringing Connexions into the local authority arena to support young people with positive mentoring, every young person can get both the flexible package they need to make the best of themselves and the personalised support to make sure they can access the improved provision that the diplomas and other reforms will bring in.

School Finances

As I made clear in my statement of 30 October, schools and local authorities must work to reduce revenue balances substantially over the next three years, making full use of existing local authority clawback powers, because revenue funding is for today’s pupils and capital funding is for future investment. The operation of a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense but, at £1.7 billion, the national total is unacceptable, and if balances remain high we will act to release some of the money for the benefit of current pupils.

I am sure that the Minister knows of, and will want to recognise, the high quality of the head teachers in my constituency. Perhaps he would also like to know that when I wrote to them about his proposal, the balance of the sentiment of the replies was that it is “absolutely ridiculous” and “ill thought-out”, and

“will undermine the whole concept of financial independence”

and

“create a perverse incentive to spend money before the year end to prevent clawback rather than”

prudently to roll money over for the next year for higher priorities. Against that background, will the Minister not take the message that the best thing would be not only to remove the retrospective element of the calculation but to take away the entire scheme and think again, as it is creating disillusion and concern for responsible and prudent head teachers?

We certainly believe that, as I have just said, a modest surplus year on year makes sound financial sense. In the Bromley authority, in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents, the net revenue balance was relatively modest, and I am sure his head teachers are doing a good job and enjoying spending the increased capital money to invest in their pupils, which has increased from £1.66 million 10 years ago to an allocation of £576 million in 2011. That reinforces the point that if schools continue to build up excessive surplus balances, they need to be dealt with so that the money can be spent on current pupils. However, we have now given schools good notice—at least a couple of years—of the need to get their act together, to work with local authorities and to reduce excessive balances, while maintaining a prudent surplus.

Does the Minister recognise how welcome it was to schools throughout the country when this Government introduced money that can be spent at the discretion of head teachers, which has enabled schools to develop transformative projects that are not necessarily part of the national priorities, but that best fit those schools’ needs? Will he reassure head teachers that that approach, which allows them to decide local priorities, will continue?

I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue that discretionary approach of allowing head teachers the freedom to allocate funds. In capital terms, we now delegate directly to schools more money than was in the whole capital fund under the previous Government. In the schools funding announcement that I made this morning, the school standards grant, the SSG personalisation element and the school development grant will all increase in line with the minimum funding guarantee. All those funds go directly to schools, and head teachers decide how to spend them.

Specialist Sports Colleges

9. What the criteria are for designating secondary schools as specialist sports colleges, with particular reference to facilities. (161962)

All successful applicants to the specialist schools programme must demonstrate that they have the capacity, including access to the relevant facilities, to take on the challenge of specialist status, to raise standards in the specialism and across the school, and to become a centre of curriculum excellence in their area. That includes raising £50,000, combined with a £100,000 contribution from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, to undertake a capital project to enhance specialist facilities.

Southfield school for girls in Kettering was designated a specialist sports college in 2004, yet three years later it is still struggling to find appropriate funding for its changing room facilities. A recent Ofsted report said:

“Accommodation is poor and a constraint on students’ achievement.”

The school tells me that the provision of the proposed five hours a week of high-quality sport and activity will be impossible unless funds are found. Will the Minister assure the House that when designating schools as specialist sports colleges, he will also ensure that they have the funds that they need to provide the appropriate facilities?

We certainly provide sufficient funds to do that to the local authority. I understand that when that school was designated a specialist sports college there was a sports hall, but it had to be closed after asbestos was discovered. I am pleased to hear that phase 1 of a new sports hall worth £1 million is being opened, with a £100,000 contribution from my Department, £168,000 from new opportunities funding and £250,000 from the county council. We have also just allocated a further £135 million to Northamptonshire—up from £7.5 million 10 years ago—so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk to his friends the Tories at county hall in Northamptonshire and get them to fund the next phase.

Education Leaving Age

11. If he will make a statement on the Government's proposals that all young people should remain in education or training until the age of 18. (161965)

We announced last week our intention to legislate to raise the participation age so that all young people can continue in education or training until 17 from 2013 and until 18 from 2015, building on the Green Paper published in March.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that this country needs a bigger and better skilled work force, but nothing can be gained by forcing young men and women to stay on at secondary school. What is important is to increase dramatically both apprenticeships and the appropriate courses in colleges of further education, such as Macclesfield college. Will he make money available to enable those things to happen?

Yes. May I also say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely? If our proposal was to raise the school leaving age to 18, he would be right to criticise us, but it is not: our proposal is to raise the education leaving age. From 2013, we want 16 and 17-year-olds to be in full-time school or college, in work with training or on an apprenticeship. We plan to increase the number of apprenticeships by 92,000 a year by 2013, precisely to achieve what he wants us to achieve. I hope that in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech debate, when we can go into this in more detail, I will be able to persuade him, and other Conservative Members, that they are wrong to oppose our proposals on this. They should be supporting us in raising the education leaving age so that we can equip young people in our country for the 21st century.

School Exclusions

We back heads when they take the difficult decision to exclude a pupil permanently. The intention must be to intervene early to nip misbehaviour in the bud and so reduce the need for permanent exclusion. Since 1997-98, the number of permanent exclusions has fallen by almost a quarter, from 12,300 to 9,330.

I welcome the improved figures set out by my hon. Friend. Will he say whether any thought is going into getting his Department to work closely with local police forces to deal with some of the antisocial behaviour that results from school exclusions, and to use that as a mechanism to pick up the most difficult young people and get them back into school?

Yes, I can confirm that. Of course, we have also introduced responsibility for parents during the first five days of absence after a pupil is excluded from school and greater responsibility for schools, local authorities and pupil referral units to ensure that those young people are not languishing around the streets, as they were in the past, but are receiving an education, as they should be. We are making significant progress in that area.

Topical Questions

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the first topical question in this new Question Time slot, as part of our drive to modernise Parliament? As the first Department to take part in this innovation, we will do our best and see how it goes.

This morning, my colleague the Minister for Schools and Learners laid a written statement before the House on school funding for 2008-2011. It, too, is a significant first. This is the first time that three-year revenue budgets have been set for schools. Together with recently announced three-year capital allocations, it means that schools will be able to plan ahead more effectively. The overall level of school revenue funding will increase by 4.3 per cent. in 2008-09, 4.7 per cent. in 2009-10 and 5.3 per cent. in 2010-11, building on 10 years’ strong growth in school funding as we move from below average to what is now above average performance on the road to a world-class education system in our country.

If I had thought this was modernisation, Mr. Speaker, I would not have asked the question! What the Secretary of State has not just said about the announcement today is that he is cutting the guaranteed minimum funding for schools from 3.7 per cent. to 2.1 per cent. Is that not just another way in which bureaucracy steals money from good schools?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman should be congratulating us on raising the amount going to schools, including those in his area. The fact is that the minimum funding guarantee, at 2.1 per cent., is consistent with a 3 per cent. growth in overall schools funding over this spending review period, which contrasts with a growth of 1.4 per cent. between 1979 and 1997. So we are still doing more than twice what the Conservatives were doing. He should be congratulating me on delivering for Hampshire over the next three years a 12.9 per cent. increase in funding per pupil for spending in his area, and on the fact that Hampshire is 63rd of 149 local authority areas—in the top half—for the amount of extra money being received in school funding over the next three years. The authorities are getting more money to invest in schools in the hon. Gentleman’s area, and in the areas represented by all Conservative Members.

As a result of an announcement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners last month on capital funding, Derbyshire schools have seen their capital funding increase by almost 480 per cent. But what will happen to revenue funding?

I can give my hon. Friend the figures, which were announced this morning by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners. The overall amount is a 13.2 per cent. increase, which puts Derbyshire 41st, and it includes £13 million more for personalised learning and £1.9 million for pockets of deprivation in her area. It is an above average increase that will continue the excellent improvement in standards that she has achieved in her constituency.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on dodging so magnificently the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and ignoring the point that he made—that the minimum funding guarantee has been cut from 3.7 per cent. to 2.1 per cent. There has been much debate recently about the extent to which the Secretary of State wants to carry on the reform agenda that was begun under Tony Blair. May I ask the Secretary of State directly if he believes, as the former Prime Minister did, that academies can drive up standards by pioneering new policies where inner-city local authorities have failed to innovate, and in so doing provide a new competitive pressure in the state system that increases parental choice and quality for all?

The answer is yes, of course. That is why we are increasing the number of academies and working with the best local authorities, which are now proposing academies. On the minimum funding guarantee, I have to point out that a 2.1 per cent. increase a year for three years is an increase, not a cut. We are increasing the amount of money going to schools year by year. It is certainly true to say that the rate of increase in the next three years will be slower than the rate of increase in the last three years. There will be a need for more efficiency gains to deliver more spending per pupil and to continue with a rising share of education and school spending in our GDP. I know that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is not in favour of modernisation, but he must still agree that a 2.1 per cent. increase is an increase, not a cut.

The whole House will be interested to note that the Secretary of State could not wait to get off the question of academies. In particular, he did not explain why academies have lost the freedom that they used to have over the curriculum. There is a real worry that the Secretary of State may not be serious about reform.

In a new BBC film to be screened next week, entitled “The Blair Years”, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) recalls the Secretary of State, when he was a Treasury aide, egging him on to revolt against the Blair education reforms. The Secretary of State apparently said to the hon. Gentleman:

“Gosh, you’ve been on the TV and radio a lot recently, keep going, excellent”.

Can the Secretary of State now put our minds at rest, deny that he said that, confirm that the hon. Member for Norwich, North got it completely wrong, and assure us that when he was at the Treasury—

Order. The Secretary of State is here to answer on his responsibilities for education, and the hon. Gentleman is questioning him about his previous employment. It is not on.

T2. Perhaps I should start by congratulating the Secretary of State on behalf of children in the New Forest as well as children in York. York schools receive less funding per pupil than the national average, and the Secretary of State knows that I have been campaigning on that. We have some real pockets of deprivation in York, so will the new school funding settlement, announced today, give York schools a larger increase in funding than the national average, in order to start closing that gap? (161994)

The answer is yes. I know that my hon. Friend has been campaigning on those issues for some time, and that York is a member of the F40 group. The extra £2.8 million for personalisation for York and the £700,000 for pockets of deprivation, which will deliver an above-average 13.5 per cent. increase over three years, will mean that York is 24th in the list of local authorities in terms of their three-year increase. My hon. Friend’s campaign has clearly worked. We have listened to his concerns, and because of the extra money for personalisation and pockets of deprivation there will be more money available per pupil for spending in York in the next three years.

T3. The campaign undertaken by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) will work only if this year’s figures are sustained year after year, so that the gap is closed. Will anything in today’s school funding settlement make a significant contribution to addressing the fundamental unfairness that results in a 600-pupil three-form entry primary school in an affluent area of Birmingham getting £1 million more a year—over £1,600 per pupil more—than a primary school of identical size in a less affluent area of Worcester? (161995)

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done, but I pay particular tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has done to raise concerns on behalf of the county. If the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) looks at the figures for Worcestershire, he will see that its dedicated school grant is up by 13.4 per cent. per pupil over the settlement period. That is above the average. It is narrowing the gap between Worcestershire and the more highly funded authorities, and I am sure that he welcomes that.

T9. I am sure that Staffordshire and other members of the F40 will want to thank the Secretary of State, first for the stability of a three-year settlement, and secondly for recognising that, as has long been argued, pockets of deprivation are not being acknowledged in the present formula. He will know that the authorities that are always at the bottom of the funding league table do not really argue about their position relative to others, but they do argue about the size of the gap between them and the authorities that receive the most money. Will he say whether in the next three years he expects that gap to stay the same, get bigger or get smaller? (162001)

Again, I should commend my hon. Friend for his campaigning on those issues. As he says, the £2.5 million of funding for pockets of deprivation will help Staffordshire, which will have an increase above the England average—13.4 per cent., compared to 13.1 per cent. There is clearly a narrowing of the gap, and it is right that there should be, but at the same time we need to make sure that our funding reflects the needs of rural areas, as well as deprivation and special needs, and we will continue to make sure that that is central to our thinking on education funding.

T4. What responsibilities does the Department for Children, Schools and Families have for post-16 education, training and funding, and what responsibilities does the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills have for those matters, and which Department has responsibility for further education? (161996)

Responsibility for funding 16-to-18 provision lies with my Department. Responsibility for ensuring that we implement the diploma programme and for apprenticeships for people up to the age of 18 is the responsibility of my Department. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has responsibility for adult education; within that, it sponsors the further education sector. On apprenticeships and further education, it is clearly important that the two Education Secretaries in the Cabinet work closely together, and we will. That is how we will deliver on our ambitions to raise education and skills among people up to the age of 19, which is my job, and among the adult work force, which is the job of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

T6. In the light of the forthcoming Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and the recent debate on abortion, what plans does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families have to make comprehensive sexual health and relationship education compulsory in our schools? (161998)

I agree with my hon. Friend that sex and relationship education of a high quality is fundamentally important for many young people, and it is important that our schools, with parents, deliver that kind of education to our young people. However, I have to tell my hon. Friend that whether that education is on a statutory basis is not to the point. What matters much more is how good that education is. We have taken our advice from Ofsted, which, having considered the issue, said in a report this year that too much time and effort had been spent discussing whether personal, social and health education should be a statutory subject. Making something statutory does not ensure that it is provided effectively, or indeed at all, so we are introducing a range of measures to make sure that the quality of that education is driven up, through guidance, continued professional development for teachers, subject association for teachers and a website for them. Through Ofsted, we continue to monitor whether the quality is good, and whether the teaching is preparing our young people for difficult issues to do with relationships as they grow older.

T5. According to the Department’s own statistics, Devon will have to find an additional 3,500 places to meet the Government’s target of raising the school leaving age to 18 by 2013. Can the Secretary of State say what guidance he is giving local authorities so that they can meet those targets? Furthermore, will he speak to his Cabinet colleague about Exmouth community college, the largest secondary school in Europe, and support its plans to expand into the Rolle college site, which is being vacated by Plymouth university? (161997)

I remember visiting Exmouth community college last summer with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families. The issues with that site were pointed out to us, and I have sympathy with the college’s plans.

On raising the participation age, I should say that, as the Secretary of State has said today, it is important that people understand that we are not talking about raising the school leaving age. It is perfectly in order for people to leave school at 16 and go to work, as long as they carry on training. Indeed, it would be in order for them to do voluntary work, as long as they carried on for the equivalent of a day a week in training, which would be provided by the likes of Exmouth college, other training providers and 14-to-19 partnerships. I am sure that there are some excellent ones in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

If my hon. Friend thinks that the fast-track programme for promoting gifted young teachers into headships fast is so good—and everyone who has done it says that it is—why are the Government cutting it back and taking the most expensive residential elements out of it?

Naturally, I listen carefully to the concerns of my hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, and I shall talk to him further. Fast Track Teaching is an important scheme, as are Future Leaders and Teach First; all work extremely well. We are now expanding Teach First into Manchester and the black country because it has been working so successfully. I look forward to continued conversations with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his appointment to the new Select Committee.

T7. Why, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, do more children now attend private schools than had recently been the case? Does he think that more parents are trying to buy privilege by sending their children to private schools, such as the ones that he, the deputy leader of the Labour party and I attended, or does he think that, notwithstanding the excellent work done by huge numbers of teachers in our schools, there is a lack of confidence among parents about the standard of education that children are receiving under this Government? (161999)

The opposite is true. A study published today by Keele university shows that nine out of 10 parents are happy with their children’s schools. Peak attendance at private schools, as a share of all schools, was in 1990. It is true that private school attendance has risen in the past few years; that tends to happen when the economy is doing as well as it has been. However, the vast majority of young people are in state schools. As I said earlier, the percentage of A-level A-grade passes obtained by state school pupils is rising, not falling. People will look at that and say that a state school education is not only the majority option, but increasingly the best option for young people.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful for your guidance on a point of order of which I have given you notice. Last week, you issued some helpful guidance and advice to the House on various matters. Would you consider also giving guidance and advice on the working of Select Committees? It has always been my understanding that Select Committees are for holding the Government to account. I think that you would agree that it would be preposterous if the Foreign Secretary, who is due to address us in a few minutes, suddenly became the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

This morning, I received a note—doubtless other Members did, too—that stated that on Wednesday the Modernisation Committee is to hear evidence from the Leader of the House. It may not have escaped your notice that the Chairman of that Committee is the Leader of the House. That is preposterous and absurd, and I ask you to give careful thought to whether we should take possession of all Select Committees.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I believe that the evidence to be given it by the Leader of the House will be helpful. Furthermore, the Committee will be in very good hands, as I shall be chairing it.

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has been very helpful indeed. I was going to suggest that of course a Chairman of a Select Committee can give evidence, because a Select Committee is there not only for the purpose of calling the Executive to account but for the working of this House. Select Committees such as the Modernisation Committee and the Administration Committee seek to improve the facilities of the House. As Sir Nicholas said, we have a very capable Vice-Chairman who will take the Chair and allow the Leader of the House to give evidence. That is a very good arrangement indeed; I see nothing wrong with it at all.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware of the league table that has been compiled by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) showing the very wide variation in departmental substantive answers to written questions? Whereas some Departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, give more than 80 per cent. of substantive answers on the due date for a named day question, the Ministry of Defence is the worst of the lot, with only 22 per cent. One of the answers that I received recently was to a question asking the Ministry of Defence whether, when it responds to an hon. Member by referring them to a previous written answer to another hon. Member’s question, it would make it its policy to include a copy of that answer in with its reply. The reply to that was one word: “No.” Is there any reason you can think of for this discourtesy to hon. Members?

I am not responsible for these matters. As for league tables, I am not particularly interested in those.

Bill Presented

National Insurance Contributions

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Hain, Andy Burnham, Jane Kennedy, Angela Eagle and Kitty Ussher, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the upper earnings limit for national insurance contributions (including in particular provision about the upper accrual point): And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 7].

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Fourth Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 November],

That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:

Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.—[Mr. Caborn.]

Question again proposed.

Foreign Affairs and Defence

I consider it an enormous privilege to open today’s debate as Foreign Secretary. My purpose is to set out how the Government will engage abroad to help to build security and prosperity at home.

Today, I laid a wreath and led a service of remembrance in the Foreign Office to remember those members of our staff who have been killed in the line of duty, including two in the past year. It is therefore appropriate that I use this debate to recognise the dedication, bravery and skill of Britain’s diplomats, armed forces and aid workers around the world, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in doing so.

Members in all parts of the House agreed last Wednesday that Pakistan must be close to the centre of our foreign policy concerns. I am sure that the House will therefore understand if I start with the crisis in that country. I will not rehearse the proximate causes of the crisis nor our short-term aims and objectives—clarity about free and fair elections, General Musharraf’s resignation as head of the army, restoration of media freedoms, and release of political prisoners—but I spoke yesterday and this morning to our high commissioner in Islamabad, and this is the current position.

The commitment of General Musharraf to elections by 9 January is welcome. Less welcome, however, is the lack of clarity on when the state of emergency will end. Current conditions stand in the way of free and fair elections, and there are mixed signals about the amendment to the Army Act, which allows civilians to be court-martialled, primarily for terrorist charges. This lack of progress on the position of political prisoners, which I discussed with leading human rights campaigner Hina Jalani in London last week, is a major concern for all friends of Pakistan. I am sure the whole House will also deplore the deportation of three British journalists and continuing restrictions on media freedom.

Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied with the operation of the entry clearance system in Islamabad during the crisis? I have had representations from constituents who have been unable to get visitor visas while the situation is ongoing. Is he arranging for any further help to be given, resources-wise, to help the entry clearance operation?

Yes, I am confident that processes are being taken forward with normal speed. If my right hon. Friend wants me to look at a particular case, I shall of course do so. I visited the visa centre last July and saw the work that is going on to deliver 200,000 visitor visas a year with a 24-hour turnaround. I am happy to take up individual cases, but as far as I know from discussions with the high commission, there are not any problems.

The House will agree that the best interests of Pakistan—its security and development—are served by a managed transition to democratic rule, with elections that are genuinely free and fair and allow the voice of the moderate majority to be heard. There is also a Commonwealth dimension. Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and I, as well as the Secretary of State for International Development, will attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kampala next week. Today, the Commonwealth ministerial action group will meet to discuss Pakistan.

The focus of the Commonwealth conference will be on broader issues of governance, democracy, climate change and the millennium development goals. It is right that the issue of Pakistan is on the agenda for the Commonwealth conference, and if there is no progress on the current position the Commonwealth will have to look at all available options, including suspension, as we discussed last week. The Commonwealth ministerial action group will consider the situation today and take stock, pending the discussion by leaders next week.

As I recall, the ground rules for membership of the Commonwealth that are enshrined in the Harare declaration mean that a dictatorship cannot be a member of the Commonwealth—or at least, that such a state must be suspended from it. At what point will the British Foreign Secretary deem that the line has been crossed so that we must consider suspension of a state from the Commonwealth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clear rules were set out in, ironically, Harare. In 2002, we showed that suspension is a tool to be used, and Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth. We have to judge each case against the criteria as it comes up, but I assure my hon. Friend that matters will be properly dealt with.

The crisis in Pakistan raises many of the central questions facing UK foreign policy. I want to address, first, democracy building and the rule of law, especially the situation in Iraq and the middle east; secondly, counter-terrorism, especially the situation in Afghanistan, which is a key test for the future of NATO; and thirdly, nuclear proliferation, especially the position of Iran. I will then address the important legislation we will consider on the future of the European Union and its institutions.

With those important considerations, is the Secretary of State not concerned that Lord Malloch-Brown has been described by Foreign Office officials in the newspapers over the weekend as a liability? The Prime Minister actually said, in The Spectator and The Times, that had he known it would have caused such a fuss, he would not have appointed him at all.

Lord Malloch-Brown is an experienced diplomat with a huge amount to offer to British foreign policy, and he has an important contribution to make in his work on Asia and Africa. He has already shown in his work on Darfur and Zimbabwe that his experience can be put to very good effect, and I suggest that we judge the noble Lord by his actions, which will show excellence, rather than by rumours that concern the past.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for assisting me even further with the question that will follow. Given that Lord Malloch-Brown is such an experienced diplomat, why has the Foreign Secretary had to reprimand him for describing Burma by a term acknowledged by the United Nations, but not by Britain?

The hon. Gentleman takes the proceedings of this House and the other place very seriously. I am sorry that he did not look at the debate to which he referred. On more than 10 occasions in that debate—

I am about to answer the question. On multiple occasions, the noble Lord referred to Burma, which is exactly how we do it, and on one occasion he referred to Myanmar. The noble Lord will make a major contribution to British foreign policy, his experience will be put to good effect and I suggest that we deal with actions rather than words.

I am happy to take further interventions, but I suggest that there are major issues that we want to get stuck into during this debate.

As we are talking about the competence of lords, will the Foreign Secretary say what happened to Lord Drayson, who until last Wednesday was due to open a debate on the very subject we are talking about? I understand he then got into his car and disappeared. Would the Secretary of State explain exactly what happened to him? Why did he depart so quickly?

No, I am not able to shed light on those matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can take his questions about Lord Drayson elsewhere.

The Foreign Secretary talked about liabilities. What role does he believe Baroness Vadera played in closing down the Defence Export Services Organisation?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to address that question to other quarters. Baroness Vadera is making a major contribution in the Department for International Development and I suggest that we allow her to get on with it.

I just want to inform my right hon. Friend that I have had a very constructive meeting with Lord Malloch-Brown. I went to see him precisely because of his extensive knowledge of Africa and his role with the UN. I think he will prove an invaluable Minister.

On the issue of Pakistan, will my right hon. Friend confirm our position with respect to continuing to fund the Pakistani Government and the development of their systems and democratisation process?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I explained to the House last week, we are determined that no actions that we take could hurt the people of Pakistan. The focus of our development aid on health and on education is widely supported across the House, as is the funding that we are giving for free and fair elections. This is certainly not the time to withdraw that aid.

I said that I would address first the situation in Iraq and the middle east peace process. The decision to go to war divided the country, but nearly five years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein, now is the time not for historical reckoning but for practical engagement. Without prejudice to the sincere views about the original decision to invade, now, following unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions and the democratic vote of 11 million Iraqis, we have the chance to unite around the vision of an Iraq proceeding step by step to self-government on the basis of better security, stronger economic development and enhanced political reconciliation.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was in Iraq last week and he will speak for himself and for the Government later. However, our priorities are clear: to fulfil our obligations to the people of Basra as we move towards Iraqi security control in December; to work with the Government in Baghdad to promote an inclusive political system and culture; to ensure that the terrorism of the PKK is addressed head on in the north of the country in partnership with the Government of Turkey; to support economic reconstruction across Iraq; to engage all the neighbours of Iraq, Sunni and Shi’a, in a shared commitment to stability in the country; and, finally, to rally the international community around the globe behind the goals set out in UN resolution 1770.

My right hon. Friend quickly passed over the question of the PKK’s working with the Government of Turkey. He made no mention of the autonomous government of Kurdistan. The people there have had a democratic structure since before the invasion and clearly have a role to play in the solution—and that includes the Kurdistan Democratic party, which controls the part of the country where the PKK is hiding out.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Both the Baghdad Government and the Kurdish regional government in the north are critical partners of the Government of Turkey, along with coalition forces led by the United States, in bringing security to that region.

The middle east needs a stable Iraq, but it also needs security for Israel and a viable state for Palestinians. The stakes in the next year could not be higher, with a choice between the best chance for many years to deliver a two-state solution and the alternative of bloodshed and instability on the basis of failed talks. I will see and hear for myself the current prospects when I visit the region next weekend.

Anyone who has stood in the olive groves of Bethlehem or the town centre of Hebron will have seen the deprivation and poverty of a country under occupation. Apparently, the situation in Gaza is 10 times worse. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he aims for a two-state solution, not a three-state solution with Gaza and the west bank treated separately?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we have been addressing in this House since the attempted coup in Gaza in June. It is absolutely clear that as well as ensuring a two-state solution and reaching out to all those committed to peaceful means we must also ensure economic, social and humanitarian development in all parts of Israel and the occupied territories. I can absolutely confirm that, although the initiative lies with President Abbas, and it is for him to lead a reconciliation among the Palestinians, we are clear that we must aim for a two-state solution.

I do not for one moment question the right of Israel to exist—that has been my view from the very beginning, in 1948—but how can it be said that Israel is genuinely committed to a two-state solution, with a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, when there is not the slightest prospect of Israel’s giving up so much of the land occupied since 1967? Israel not only refuses to give up that land in negotiations but continues to build settlements. How, therefore, can it be argued that Israel is genuinely committed to the peace process?

I know the passion and long-term commitment that my hon. Friend has brought to the issue. He is absolutely right, and it is our view as well, that the settlement process is not helpful towards the two-state solution that he and I seek. Indeed, I have made clear our views on that to Foreign Minister Livni, too. However, Prime Minister Olmert’s speech to the Saban forum eight days ago was an important and even landmark speech in the way that it followed up his previous speeches in the Knesset and discussed the most difficult issue of Jerusalem. His were the words of a politician who realises that it is in Israel’s vital security interests to help build a two-state solution with a viable and secure Palestinian partner. Israeli security fears and Palestinian economic suffering are two sides of the same coin and they need to be addressed together.

My right hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the apartheid wall that Israel has built. The Antonine wall, the last wall of the Roman empire, ran through Falkirk in my constituency, where ordinary people have formed a friendship link group. They ask how it can possibly be correct for Jayyous, the Palestinian village with which the group is twinned, to be cut off from all its fertile land and for the people to have to travel 20 km to get round the wall. Surely the wall must be an issue that the UK Government should take up with the Israeli Government as something that it is necessary to remove for peace and for two states to be established.

We have indeed taken up the issue, but I say this to my hon. Friend in all seriousness. The wall, he believes, is a cause of problems in the middle east; however, it is also a symptom of problems in the middle east. It is a symptom of Israeli security fears and the fact that the Israeli people were subject to terrible suicide bombing and terrorism. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand when I say that we have to address the causes as well as the symptoms. That means taking seriously Israeli security fears, which are well founded, as we have seen all too tragically.

When the Foreign Secretary travels to that part of the world shortly, will he try to impress on the Israeli Government the fact that they cannot continue to use the cutting off of energy resources into Gaza as a threat? Also, the choking off of Gaza is beginning to exacerbate an already tricky situation, so will he stress the importance of opening up the border with Gaza again, so that that population can continue to trade?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was the subject of a report on the economic road map to peace that the Government published just a month or two ago. Trade is critical to the future there, but it depends on security; if the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall come to our contribution to Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan.

If I may continue, I shall come back to my hon. Friend in a minute.

I said that I thought that we had an opportunity now that did not exist before. Condoleezza Rice, the American Secretary of State, has visited the region seven times this year. The Arab states are committed to the Arab peace initiative, while the EU action plan has united European opinion behind the Annapolis meeting and practical support for its aftermath. The UK is determined to play its part, politically, economically and on security, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made. We will help to address Israeli security fears through support for Prime Minister Fayyad’s security plan. We will also help to address Palestinian misery, through nearly £32 million in aid, including support for schools, clinics and basic services. We shall work with all those committed to peaceful means to advance a two-state solution.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Does he not realise that, all the time we are talking, more and more settlements are being established on the west bank, more and more Palestinians cannot move around, and more and more of them are living in poverty? While I absolutely and totally condemn suicide bombers and the killing of any civilians, the reality is that more Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli bombardments, that more people are dying as a result of poverty and a lack of health care, and that we—or, if not we, the world—are imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghastly situation. It is a powder keg waiting to go off unless a serious effort is made to bring about the recognition of a Palestinian state.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s concluding comment that the only answer to this dangerous situation is a two-state solution, although I have to take issue with him on a number of other points. Gaza was sealed off as a result of the murderous attempted coup by Hamas in June; it is important to be clear about that. I do not think that we should be in the business of weighing up Israeli deaths from suicide bombings with Palestinian misery; they are two sides of the same coin and they need to be addressed together.

The suffering of the Palestinians is used to support a narrative of terrorism and extremism globally, but the front line of terrorism in 2001 was Afghanistan, and it is again the front line today. The situation in Afghanistan is tough and dangerous, but, as President Karzai emphasized during his visit here last month, the efforts of UK, other allied and Afghan military and civilian forces are making a difference. The fighting in Helmand is tough, but Helmand is not a no-go area; in fact, British troops are driving back Taliban forces. The Afghan army is not at full strength, but 40,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained and equipped to fight alongside international forces. Afghanistan is very poor, but last year the legal economy grew by 8 per cent. Afghan health and education services are very basic in some places but, since 2001, the number of functioning health clinics has risen by 60 per cent., 2,000 schools have been built or repaired, and 5 million children are now at school—more than a third of them girls. Drug supply in Helmand is rising fast, but 13 provinces are now poppy free.

The next steps are to work with key allies on the big issues: promoting good governance, marginalising extremists, establishing better co-ordination on the borders and among the international forces, developing local civil leadership, and, of course strengthening security. The Prime Minister will say more on this in the House next month.

Lord Malloch-Brown said that the best way to deal with this situation would be to crack down on the three main drug barons. One is a relative of President Karzai and two are provincial governors. Does the Foreign Secretary really think that there is a practical chance of the Karzai Government cracking down on themselves?

I will say two things to my hon. Friend. First, I wish it were as simple as there being only three people responsible for drug production in Afghanistan. Secondly, President Karzai is the elected leader of the Afghan people, and there are good reasons for understanding the support that he has in the community. There are also good reasons for the international community being absolutely clear about taking action against corruption and in favour of good governance. We must be clear about what we expect from the Afghan Government, but it is up to them to deliver. Some of the actions that President Karzai has taken recently have contributed towards that goal.

The hon. Gentleman has a special interest in Afghanistan and, on that basis, I am happy to give way to him.

The Foreign Secretary paints a rosy picture about what is happening in Afghanistan. I agree with what he says about health and education, but I am afraid that we are not able to contain what is going on with the Taliban and we are not seeing the necessary co-ordination between the international bodies. I am afraid that the Karzai Government are seen more and more as being corrupt. Unless we, as part of the international body, recognise what is going on in Afghanistan, I would give the country only a couple more years before it implodes. We need to look at this matter seriously. To start with, we need one central co-ordinator to unify the operations being undertaken by the United Nations, the USA, the Department for International Development and the European Union. Until that happens, we shall be on a losing wicket.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in Afghanistan. Given the litany of problems that we are discussing, I do not think that anything that I have said could be judged to have painted a rosy picture. I referred to international co-ordination, and there is an essential need for the present UN representative—who leaves in February—to be replaced by a figure who can not only command respect but rally the different international forces. I believe that he will find a lot to agree with in the work that is being discussed with the Afghan Government. In the end, this process has to be Afghan led and international community supported, rather than the other way round.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned border security. Given the current climate of troubles in Pakistan, what kind of co-operation is there with the Pakistan Government?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. It is a 2,600 km border and, as I said last week, 90,000 Pakistani border police are there. We have seen no change to their deployment in the last eight to 10 days of the Pakistani emergency, but we are obviously watching the situation very carefully.

The operations in Afghanistan, and also in Kosovo, are test cases for the new NATO that we want to see. This April, allies will meet in Bucharest to agree means of further transforming NATO to meet the needs of the 21st century, to improve the way it works with other organisations, to integrate civilian and development efforts with military activity and to build more flexible, deployable and sustainable forces.

The Government will be active in building democracy in the middle east, active in countering terrorism in Afghanistan and active in countering nuclear proliferation, not least in the debates this and next month on Iran. Last June, along with our E3 plus 3 partners, we gave Iran a clear choice: join the international community in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and reap the economic and technological benefits, including for civilian nuclear power; or promote proliferation and suffer isolation. Dr. el-Baradei and Dr. Solana will report on Iran’s progress later this month. Unless those reports are positive, the E3 plus 3 Ministers have agreed to seek a vote on a third UN Security Council sanctions resolution. That strategy is agreed across the international community. Meanwhile the EU is considering further sanctions. This is the right strategy to ensure that Iran can take its place as a respected member of the international community while also defending the integrity of the non-proliferation treaty.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned Kosovo, but just in passing. May I encourage him to accept that part of his job is not simply to deal with existing crises, but, along with our allies, to anticipate what may be a future crisis? Within the next month, a very serious crisis could arise about the status of Kosovo. We must try to learn the lessons of Bosnia: if the United States and the countries of western Europe do not try to reach a common position in advance and stick to it on both sides of Atlantic, then Kosovo, which is already a very difficult matter, could become incredibly worse.

I completely share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s position. As it happens, that issue comes a page or two later in my speech. I wanted to say that we need to find time for the House to discuss the conclusions of the troika mission, which concludes on 10 December. The Government have been meeting the Unity team from Kosovo, the Serbian Foreign Minister—and the Greek Foreign Minister, who was here last week. I believe that the following points could be shared ground between us.

First, all sides have responsibilities during the current 120-day troika process. Secondly, we must keep open the long-term prospect that EU membership will be open to Serbia and to Kosovo as an incentive for their behaviour. Thirdly, we must continue to maintain international unity on the issue, but not at the price of a Russian veto on any decisions. Fourthly, the EU has major responsibilities in this area, not just in the traditional aspects of foreign policy, but in the deployment of a European security and defence policy mission into Kosovo. Fifthly, the Ahtisaari plan, in which 14 to 15 months of careful work were invested, provides the right basis if further compromise cannot be found by the troika over the 120-day period.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have seen the article I wrote with the French Foreign Minister saying that while additions to the Ahtisaari plan—Ahtisaari plus, if you like—should be on the table, we cannot compromise on the basic principles that Ahtisaari accepted. I completely understand his point that the matter requires further and detailed discussion in the House. The Minister for Europe and I are keen to have such a debate—[Interruption.]

I really must make some progress. I looked up last year’s debate and I know that the right hon. Member Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) spoke for about 36 minutes. I do not want to overdo my stay here. Although I am delighted to have many interventions on various topics, hon. Members might also want to discuss the European reform treaty when we come to it. I want to save up my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for the appropriate moment. Does the hon. Member for East Devon have a really pressing point?

I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary. Further to the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), when the Foreign Secretary discusses Kosovo, will he ensure that he does not ignore the situation in Republika Srpska and in Bosnia itself, as it is beginning to deteriorate quite seriously?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I cannot do justice to it now, but the short answer is yes.

Very simply, the Foreign Secretary referred to not being faced down by a Russian veto, but will he also give an indication to the House that any veto by one or two smaller European states will be unacceptable, as Kosovo’s conditional independence under the Ahtisaari plan is surely the only way forward?

There have been encouraging signals from the successive discussions at every Foreign Affairs Ministers’ meeting that I have attended over the past three or four months. I think that we can build proper European unity.

In all these areas, there is an international coalition of which Britain is a leading member. In three countries marked by repression and destruction, when they should be marked by development and progress, there is also international consensus that needs to convert pressure into action. In Zimbabwe, the suffering of Zimbabweans of all races is the direct result of President Mugabe’s misrule. The next step is the imminent announcement of the conclusion of the Southern African Development Community’s mediation role. We will be looking to see how commitments by the ZANU-PF party to level the playing field for next year’s elections are translated into real improvements in democratic governance on the ground, because it is only through genuinely free and fair elections and an end to political violence that Zimbabwe will be able to start back on the road to recovery.

In respect of Darfur, we have a UN resolution for the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission, but there are problems translating it into troops on the ground. There are peace talks, but not all the parties are engaged, and the comprehensive peace agreement, which ended 20 years of war in southern Sudan, is under pressure. We are working with the UN and allies to overcome impediments to action and to promote security, political reconciliation and economic development.

Finally, in Burma we await this week the report of Ambassador Gambari to the UN Secretary-General. Aung San Suu Kyi’s first statement to the world in four years will have been encouraging to the whole House. The release of some prisoners to meet her is also welcome, but those are only the first steps towards genuine national reconciliation and democratic rule, and the road to what Aung San Suu Kyi has called “meaningful and timebound dialogue” is the only basis on which the international community could be convinced that the Burmese regime is serious.

I say in all candour that on all the issues that I have described, the coalition of international support, of which the Government are a leading member, is strengthened by all-party support in the House. That is why I read the shadow Foreign Secretary’s party conference speech with interest. I have to say that I thought it was a bit odd that Iraq merited 19 words, Afghanistan 18, Iran four, and Kosovo and the middle east peace process none at all, compared with 640 on the European reform treaty. However, I was willing to be charitable because he used his speech to raise the standard for something that I think he and the shadow Secretary of State for Defence believe in—it is what the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks called “humanitarian intervention”. He promised

“to uphold our highest values of promoting human rights, economic liberalism, political freedom”

and concluded with the rallying cry that

“very little matters more than a Conservative foreign policy unceasing in our efforts to make a better world”.

I believe that he was sincere.

However, last week there was a different and opposite message. The Leader of the Opposition explained to a German audience that liberal conservatism is the opposite of humanitarian interventionism. The word he used twice to describe how he believed Britain should engage on the great international issues is a familiar one—the word is “sceptical”. He knocked down a straw man about building utopias, but also sent a clear message—that there would be not just isolation from Europe under the Leader of the Opposition, but introspection on the great causes facing the world. I hope that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will reiterate his commitment to humanitarian intervention and to a vision of Britain that rejects the lazy cry, “It has nothing to do with us,” because in the modern world, it does.

Tonight at the Guildhall the Prime Minister sets out our agenda. Labour Members know that our shared planet faces shared problems and needs shared solutions—in the UN, the Commonwealth and the European Union. When we joined the EU in the 1970s, there were six members. Now there are 27. Europe has changed for the better. It is the biggest single market in the world. It has decent social rights. It sets high environmental standards. It is a force for good on its troubled borders, although we have to ensure that the last piece of the Yugoslav jigsaw in Kosovo is properly settled. The European Union also needs serious reform.

This is the parliamentary Session in which we can end the institutional navel-gazing in respect of the European Union, and proceed with the drive for Europe to engage with global problems. The European reform treaty will amend the way in which Europe works. The weight of United Kingdom votes in the Council of Ministers will go up, not down, and I cannot believe that anyone in the House objects to that. The treaty also cements enlargement and paves the way for more in the future, including Turkey. I thought there was cross-party agreement on that.

Cross-party agreement, not intra-party agreement.

The treaty will cut the number of Commissioners. Not only will there be nine fewer of them, but there will be nine fewer teams of officials supporting them, nine fewer official cars, and nine fewer expense accounts. Does anyone seriously object to that change? We will also replace the six-monthly merry-go-round of the changing presidency with a full-time chairman of the European Council, appointed by Heads of Government and accountable to them. Surely that is common sense.

Will the Secretary of State say something about the European Union high representative for foreign affairs? Will he disown the comments of his colleague Lord Malloch-Brown, who said that the EU was heading for a single seat in the United Nations and that he hoped

“it will happen as quickly as possible”,

or does he agree with them?

The United Nations is certainly not heading for a single European seat on the Security Council; it is heading for a continued United Kingdom seat and a continued French seat. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the reform treaty bolts down those commitments. I am sorry that he has signed an early-day motion not just calling for a referendum after ratification but rejecting the treaty—rejecting fewer Commissioners, rejecting the reforms of the way in which the European Union works, and rejecting greater weight for United Kingdom votes.

Will the Foreign Secretary now answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands)? Does he agree with Lord Malloch-Brown?

I do not agree with any suggestion that the United Kingdom should give up its seat on the United Nations Security Council. More important, it is the policy of the Government not to give it up.

There are also significant things that the treaty does not do. As Giuliano Amato, deputy president of the European Convention, has said:

“If someone in the UK is calling for a referendum, that is not because the text we have in front of us is a Constitution.”

The German Conservative President of the European Parliament, who is from the sister party of Conservative Members here, has said:

“Since making the Charter legally binding and extending Community competence to JHA were two of the most important features of the original constitution, the deal struck by Tony Blair in June means that—for better or worse—much of its substance will simply not apply”

in the United Kingdom.

Let me say more about what the treaty does not do—about the myths that are simply that, myths. First, the treaty contains an explicit, legally binding guarantee that the UK’s existing labour and social legislation will be protected. A legally binding protocol states that

“the Charter reaffirms the rights, freedoms and principles recognised in the Union and makes those rights more visible, but does not create new rights or principles”.

A legally binding document also states:

“The Charter does not extend the ability of the Court of Justice of the European Union… to find that the laws, regulations or… provisions… of the United Kingdom are inconsistent with… fundamental rights”.

It is worth noting the CBI’s statement in its lobby briefing that the commitments secured by the Government mean that it is time for us to move on to other big policy issues rather than becoming bogged down in this one.

Secondly, the treaty extends our existing right to opt into co-operation on visas, asylum and migration to cover co-operation in police and judicial processes. It is right for the UK to decide what is in our interests, and to opt in where we want to and not opt in where we do not.

Could the Foreign Secretary add something to the reply given by the Prime Minister when he returned from the Council meeting? I asked whether the Prime Minister could guarantee that any Bill that was presented would include clear provisions allowing the House to discuss, and voice its opinion on, where we should and where we should not opt into matters that would be ruled on by the European Court of Justice and the Commission, and would no longer be in the jurisdiction of the UK courts.

The new treaty creates rights for this Parliament for the first time in a range of areas. As for the so-called passerelle clause—which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks described as the “ratchet” clause, although it has a lock from every country and a lock from every Parliament—the Prime Minister has said that he wants Parliament to have not just scrutiny powers, but decision-making powers to be used on the Floor of the House. If there are specifics in respect of the Prime Minister's reply or the specific issue of JHA, I will be happy to go into them in detail. My hon. Friend’s Committee is no doubt looking at them.

Thirdly, the treaty makes explicit the independence of our foreign and defence—

The hon. Gentleman should let me carry on because I need to make some progress.

There is a legal lock that says that unanimity will remain the rule for setting the common foreign and security policy. The treaty makes clear and stark the limits on European Court of Justice jurisdiction and it includes, for the first time, a guarantee that national security is the sole responsibility of the member states. Fourthly, we have a strengthened veto on social security.

Fifthly, and this was a concern not only of my hon. Friend’s Committee, but of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, there is no question of the treaty forcing Parliament to do anything—the famous debate about the word “shall”. There is no requirement on this Parliament from any other body to decide how it does its business. That is a matter for this Parliament, but there are rights for this Parliament that we should use.

How is what the Foreign Secretary has just been saying consistent with what is happening on the Galileo project? Has he seen today's devastating report from the Transport Committee, which shows that, on that project, this country is being outmanoeuvred and our veto is being circumvented by the European mafia who wish to impose that project on us at tremendous cost to the taxpayer?

I am afraid that I have not read the report of the Transport Committee, but I look forward—[Interruption.] It was on the “Today” programme, but we try not to make policy on the basis of that programme. I am happy to look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.

With all due respect, the hon. Gentleman has already had one go and I have been speaking for too long probably.

In each and every area where we promised to secure our red lines, they have been secured. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I defy the Opposition to come up with one area in which the red lines have not been secured: the opt-in on every aspect of JHA, the independence on the common foreign and security policy, the veto in respect of social security. The Opposition do not have any argument. They have a series of myths.

Clearly the right hon. Gentleman has not read the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, which looked at the red lines in great detail. The Chairman of the Committee, who is here now, said that one of the red lines, that on justice and home affairs, will “leak like a sieve”. The right hon. Gentleman needs to start reading the reports published by our Committee and to examine the issues, because all his red lines are severely frayed and the one on justice and home affairs has been practically erased.

I have read that report; I just have not read the report of the Transport Committee. As the hon. Gentleman should know from the very long discussion that we had about this, we have the right to opt in to every single area—those aspects of the existing third pillar and those aspects of the first pillar and any amended aspects on justice and home affairs—on the basis of what is right for the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is not right to suggest otherwise. As we go through further debate in the House, we will be able to see that.

In many areas, the treaty constitutes less change than previous treaties. On the Single European Act 1986, with its blueprint for the single market, the treaty of Maastricht in 1992, with the famous EMU, or economic and monetary union, and the less significant treaties of Amsterdam in 1997 and Nice, we never held a referendum to approve changes to the functioning of European institutions. Here is why:

“Only in a country with a strong Parliament is there genuine representative democracy; only with a strong Parliament is government genuinely accountable; only with a strong Parliament is political decision making both robust and sensitive, and only with a strong Parliament do the people of that country have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

That is not me speaking. That is the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks speaking in 2000 at the launch of his own Commission to Strengthen Parliament.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman waits a moment.

There is something else that the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Opposition, said. In a book that deserves wider sales, entitled “Speaking with conviction”—not to be confused with another Conservative central office publication “Dealing with convictions” by Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer—

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman contains his enthusiasm for a moment.

On page 90, under the heading “The relationship between government and the people”, the right hon. Gentleman said in 1998:

“Democratic accountability is under threat—paradoxically—from the Government’s regular use of referendums”.

That is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the threat to the United Kingdom constitution does not come from Brussels. It comes from precisely the referendum that he is now advocating. The man demanding a referendum today, the man who says that only a referendum can save the nation state, the man who says that a referendum is necessary to restore faith in politics and the man who said in his party conference speech that he wanted a referendum on every transfer of competence, however small, turns out to be the same man who, in 1992, voted against a referendum on Maastricht and who said in 1998 that the greatest threat to our democracy was the use of referendums. It is not speaking with conviction; it is bathing in opportunism that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of.

The Opposition can run away from their principles, but they cannot run from their record and I look forward to the debates on the Bill to show just how hollow and contradictory their position is today.

I agree entirely with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about the referendum and strengthening Parliament, but will he explain why the previous Prime Minister, who I always thought had held those views, committed himself and his party to a referendum on this subject? Will the right hon. Gentleman say in terms that never again will such an arrangement be entered into with Rupert Murdoch or anybody else by any Labour Prime Minister?

The former Prime Minister, if I quote him correctly, said before the general election that the importance of the referendum on the treaty was not because of its constitutional status, but because he wanted to “clear the air”. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can go back and look at the quotation from Hansard. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to say that referendums should be used only for shifts in the fundamental balance of constitutional power—I think he would accept that the euro, for example, should be the basis for a referendum—I certainly agree with him. This treaty does not match that standard.

In 10 years, Britain has gone from the impotence of the beef ban in the European Union to leadership on energy and climate change; from cheapskate pariah in international development to acknowledged leader; from marginal actor in the great global debates to central player. Now is not the time for Britain to retreat from the world. In the EU, in the UN, in the Commonwealth and in our relationship with the US, our voice is strong and our message clear. As long as this Government are in office, so it will continue to be so.

Mr. Speaker, may I begin by echoing what the Foreign Secretary said about the dedication, often bravery, and sometimes loss of life of people working in government service? May I also give him firm support for what he has said about recent developments in Pakistan? It is right that the international community should demand elections to be held on schedule, the separation of the presidency from the command of the army, the release of political detainees and an early end to emergency rule.

It is obviously welcome that President Musharraf has taken one or two steps in the right direction in recent days, although elections held by 9 January will lack credibility unless opposition activists are out of jail and able to speak freely well before that date. We hope, as the right hon. Gentleman hopes, that today’s Commonwealth meeting and the forthcoming Commonwealth conference will add to the pressure on the Government of Pakistan to make this possible.

It will be no surprise to the Foreign Secretary that I agree with the tone and general direction of much of what he had to say, although one would never have thought that it was the speech of someone who thought we talked too much about Europe. Like him, we recognise that these are important days for the long-stalled middle east peace process. We support, as he does, the vision set out in the road map of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, both at peace, both prosperous and neither threatening the other’s security. The conference in Annapolis later this month is the best opportunity in years to relaunch negotiations on a final settlement and we trust the Government will use British standing and relationships to the full to urge the fullest possible support of, and attendance at, the conference.

We await with interest the Prime Minister’s speech on international affairs this evening. The Foreign Secretary will forgive my hon. Friends and me for waiting to see whether all the varied comments of Lord Malloch-Brown have been incorporated into the text. The noble Lord has described himself, modestly of course, as the

“wise eminence behind the young Foreign Secretary.”

It must be so comforting to the Foreign Secretary to have that presence. He has said today in defence of his colleague that we must judge him by his actions rather than his words, which is what we all say about people who have made a string of verbal blunders. Unfortunately, according to The Sunday Times “Gordon” will not be brave enough to sack him, which is all too believable after all the other things the Prime Minister has not been brave enough to do over the last few weeks, including calling a general election.

The challenges of foreign policy are now such that there is vast scope, even where we agree, for the discussion and scrutiny of Government policy. Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of foreign and defence policy are no bad starting points for this debate. The Government consultation paper on limiting Executive power over war powers and treaties is most welcome—we called for it in an Opposition day debate earlier this year—but of comparable importance once a conflict is under way is Parliament’s ability to scrutinise its conduct, so far as the need for secrecy in military operations allows. The Government should now set an example by improving Parliament’s ability to hold regular and informed debates on those conflicts where our troops are engaged in theatres of war. We have called for, and I call for again today, regular quarterly statements to Parliament on Iraq and Afghanistan, accompanied by the Government’s definition of the military and political objectives in view, and our success, or otherwise, in meeting them. As things stand, the US Congress receives far more extensive evaluations and reports, and can hold far more informed debates on a regular basis than is possible in our Parliament. That the Prime Minister made a full statement on Iraq last month and is expected to do so on Afghanistan next month is proper and welcome, but when so much of our foreign policy, our national reputation and, above all, the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake, parliamentary scrutiny should be extensive and habitual, not limited and sporadic. I hope Ministers will commit themselves to such regular scrutiny as part of the constitutional innovations the Prime Minister is fond of proclaiming.

The issue of scrutiny inevitably brings me back to a subject we have debated on several occasions in the last year and more: the need for a high-level and independent inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war. On the most recent occasion that that was debated in this House—11 June—Ministers accepted the principle of an inquiry, but insisted that the time to commence it was not yet. It will be important to revisit the subject in this Session, for recent events mean that the arguments for delaying the inquiry that we now all agree is necessary are shrinking by the day. By the end of this Session, important decisions made in the run-up to the war will be seven years distant, and it will soon become impossible for the events and discussions of those times to be recreated. By that time, too, only a small number of British troops—or a relatively small number, compared with the previous deployment—are expected to remain in Iraq and they should be in an overwatch role. In the meantime, memoirs, lectures and diaries of the time multiply, and often give controversial but incomplete assessments. It seems to me, therefore, that if we are ever to have a serious inquiry—which is so important to understand how we can improve the machinery of government, how mistakes made in Iraq can be avoided in Afghanistan, and how our troops can best be used in the future—it must begin sooner rather than later. If the Government do not grasp this issue and make their own proposals, it will return—and to their cost.

Let me turn from accountability to the substance of what is happening in the theatres of war. The operations in Afghanistan remain one of the most challenging tasks NATO has ever taken on. Our troops have done an outstanding job there, always prevailing militarily in some of the most difficult terrain on earth, but unless there is a strengthened and better co-ordinated drive to deliver long-term strategic success in Afghanistan, those hard-won tactical successes will ultimately have been in vain. Some of the mounting difficulties are apparent: Taliban attacks have increased in scope; public support for the Afghan Government appears to have diminished; the contribution of NATO forces, even by some allies who have been highly present and active in recent years, is in doubt; and proceeds from drug trafficking are fuelling the insurgency. Do Ministers think there is a case for an immediate high-level independent assessment of the state of Afghanistan, similar to the Iraq Study Group in the United States, in order to acknowledge publicly that state of affairs and the need for reform? With or without such a study, we have been advocating for more than a year the appointment of a senior co-ordinator of the international effort in Afghanistan approved by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, with a clear mandate to lead the aid effort on the ground and non-military aspects of the mission there. Has not the need for that now become urgent?

Do we not need also a renewed effort to bring together the different military commands in Afghanistan and to remove more of the national caveats that lead to differing tiers of commitment from NATO forces there? I hope that the Government will be able to tell us more, perhaps in the Defence Secretary’s winding-up speech, about what role the UK is now playing in the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan, since we are no longer designated as lead nation. What alternative approaches to combating the spread of poppy cultivation are being thought about, evaluated or piloted? The problem is immensely difficult, but we cannot give up on it.

Many more of our soldiers, of course, are now deployed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. We have supported the troop reductions in Iraq announced by the Government and we expect to support further reductions, although we hope that future announcements will be unencumbered by spin, double counting or any search for political advantage. The anticipated handover of Basra province to Iraqi forces is of course welcome, but there are, naturally, important questions about the role of our remaining forces in their overwatch capacity. Who will assess when the Iraqi army is capable of operating without British support? In what circumstances would our forces be redeployed, and will the remaining forces be able to protect themselves in all eventualities?

Beyond the involvement of our own forces, we have a continuing responsibility to do all we can to assist the overall strategic position in Iraq. The progress made towards national reconciliation by the Government of Mr. Maliki is disappointing, and I hope that Ministers will intensify the pressure on Iraqi Ministers to make the necessary progress.

Although we are no longer in the headlines because we have withdrawn back to the airport, does my right hon. Friend agree, first, that we should pay tribute to the 4th Battalion the Rifles, which is part of 1 Mechanised Brigade and which has returned to the airport, and also that, although they are not in the headlines over here, the ever-present dangers have not gone away? The Mahdi army, for example, runs rife, and the police do not have people’s respect. The situation in Basra has not changed at all and people are now pointing back at the period between 2003 and 2004, that critical window of opportunity when the Department for International Development failed to get involved with the peacekeeping and reconstruction development that should have happened. That led to the current situation.

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the forces involved, and again I do that on behalf of the Front-Bench team. He is right to say that there must be no complacency. He has made the point about the specific situation in Basra, and I make the same point about the situation in Iraq overall: we have our responsibility to the overall strategic situation. Last year, responding to the Baker-Hamilton report, we called for the creation of an international contact group—a formal group with a permanent secretariat to ensure continuous international co-ordination on the crucial issues facing Iraq. The idea has not been taken up and much time has been lost. Beyond the periodic meetings of representatives of neighbouring countries and the major powers to discuss Iraq, there is no long-term strategy of political support for the Iraqi Government or their security forces.

The difficulty of the issues in Iraq is now rivalled by the dangerously destabilising policies of the Government of Iran. I had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would say more about Iran. A new Security Council resolution on Iran is now six months overdue, as the last one expired in May. That resolution stated clearly that Iran must

“suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities”,

but since then Iran has continued to install, test and feed nuclear material into its centrifuge facility and has reached, or is thought to be close to reaching, the threshold of 3,000 centrifuges. The US Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns referred a few weeks ago to

“an agreement that we have with the P5 of countries…made on September 28 in New York…if there is not substantial progress by the middle of the month of November… there will be a third Security Council resolution.”

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Iran has legitimate reasons for wanting nuclear weapons? That is the official position of the Conservative Muslim forum, headed by Lord Sheikh in the other place.

No, I do not agree with that. Anyone who has listened to anything that I have ever said could not possibly think I agreed with that in any way. Iran is in breach of the non-proliferation treaty and of all the agreements and commitments that it has ever entered into, so I do not agree with the quote that the right hon. Gentleman mentions.

I hope that the new Security Council resolution will include a ban on new arms sales to Iran, more effective steps against those involved in its nuclear programme and action to tackle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Conservative Members continue to argue for much tougher action by European nations—peaceful, multilateral and legitimate action—to place Iran under economic pressure, which, difficult though it may be, is necessary to reduce the chances of others taking far less peaceful action in the future.

The advent of the Sarkozy Government has seemed to be a major opportunity for Britain and France to drive this agenda forward together, but it must be said that the October meeting of EU Foreign Ministers appears to have been a wasted opportunity, finishing merely with an agreement to

“consider what additional measures might be taken in order to support the UN process”.

Is it not time for an energetic effort by the British and French Governments to secure EU agreement to implement sanctions parallel to those of the United States, banning certain Iranian banks from our financial system and progressively cutting export credit guarantees?

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in this process concerning Iran it would be a good idea to open a dialogue with all sections—I stress “all sections”—of Iranian society in order to build some degree of confidence and, we hope, peace in the future? Does he share my concern that all the talking being done by him and many others leads us inexorably towards the same kind of crisis we faced in 2003, when we ended up bombing Iraq? That has resulted in 500,000 people dead.

We are certainly in favour of dialogue at all times, but the strong, peaceful action that I am advocating is essential in order to avoid military confrontations in the future. The way to avoid the future crisis is through strength now rather than weakness now—that is the choice now facing Europe and the rest of the world. I hope that Ministers can explain which European Governments are opposing the type of initiative that I have been describing. Since the French Government have said that they are advising French energy companies not to invest in Iran, will Ministers confirm that the British Government are now doing the same?

I hope that Ministers will also be able to elaborate on the specialised teaching or training of Iranian nationals in the UK in disciplines that might contribute to Iran’s nuclear programme. I was told by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor:

“A voluntary vetting scheme is…in place”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 238W.]

However, it was said that a “mandatory scheme” would be introduced “at the earliest opportunity.” Why therefore do we learn, five months later, that 60 Iranian nationals have been granted places at British universities to study advanced nuclear physics and engineering in this year alone? Given that European sanctions are already clear that states must

“prevent specialised teaching or training of Iranian nationals within their territories…of disciplines which would contribute to Iran’s proliferation sensitive activities”,

is it not time for the Foreign Office and others to pull their fingers out and get this mandatory scheme in place?

The subject of Iran brings us naturally to the matter of human rights around the world, as the human rights record of the Iranian Government is truly appalling. I would not want this debate to take place without bringing to the fore the torments of the people of three quite different nations—the very three mentioned by the Foreign Secretary—whose Governments are grievously at fault when it comes to respecting the rights, liberties and lives of their subjects.

One of those countries, of course, is Burma, which we debated in this House only two weeks ago. I will not cover all that ground again, but I repeat the request that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow International Development Secretary, made in that debate. We ask that the EU tightens targeted sanctions against the military regime, and that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, demonstrates the huge importance attached to this issue by the international community by going to Burma himself to demand talks between the regime and opposition leaders without the farcical normal preconditions.

A second country at fault is Sudan. The adoption at the UN Security Council of resolution 1769 in July mandating a 26,000 strong hybrid peacekeeping force by the end of this year was a major step forward, on which all the Governments involved are to be congratulated. But Ministers will be aware that momentum has seriously stalled since then, with a sharp increase in attacks on peacekeepers and relief workers.

The latest report from the UN Secretary-General warns that the deployment of the peacekeeping force is being delayed because of such problems as obtaining land for the construction of offices and feedback regarding the list of troop-contributing countries submitted to the Government of Sudan. Bringing peace to Darfur is no easy matter, and the refusal of many of the rebel groups to attend the peace talks in Libya clearly demonstrates that, but this country and others must prepare to step up the pressure if necessary, including implementing further sanctions against members of the Sudanese Government and rebel leaders; implementing a UN arms embargo to cover the whole of Sudan; and looking again at the possibility of a no-fly zone over Darfur. If such things are not done, how many more innocent people will die in Darfur and how many more global days for Darfur must there be?

The third great offending nation in our mind at the moment is Zimbabwe. We cannot know how long a political system will survive with inflation at 13,000 per cent.—or whatever it may now be—and shop shelves empty, but I put it to the Government that we should be preparing now for the day after Mugabe, when Zimbabwe may be plunged into a period of change and uncertainty. That preparation should include a clear package of international assistance that would follow as soon as a new Government, committed to democratic reform, are in place. That assistance should include help with the restructuring of the army and police and the disbanding of paramilitary groups, and readiness to supply humanitarian assistance.

In the meantime, international efforts to place pressure on Mugabe and his odious regime are pathetically ineffective. We all understand that the ability of our country on its own to influence these events is very limited, and we certainly support the stand that the Prime Minister has taken on attendance at the EU-AU summit, but is it not a shocking failure of responsibility by the European Union that Mugabe has now been invited to the Lisbon summit next month, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s objections?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was very disturbing to read about the last British Airways flight from Harare? It seems that the only people who could afford a plane ticket were those close to the regime who were coming here to do business or to see members of their family who are studying here or using our health service. Should not the Government do more to ban a wider group of people who are close to that evil regime, to put pressure on them to bring an end to Mugabe’s rule?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are people who should be added to the reserve list and banned from the EU. But what is the point of having a banned list of individuals from the Mugabe regime who are generally refused visas to travel to Europe when the dictator himself is able to come to Lisbon and be paraded, fed and feted there? Mugabe’s presence at this summit will damage the cause of development in Africa and the moral standing of the European Union. I hope that Ministers will soon explain who will represent Britain at the EU-AU summit and that they will go on to ensure that the prime responsibility of whoever it is—

Well, it might be another job for the Minister of State, but perhaps it should be someone who watches their words more carefully. The prime responsibility of whoever is appointed to do that job should be to lay before the summit the extent of the crimes of the Mugabe regime so that a complacent gathering of national leaders can hear in detail what they currently chose to ignore.

The utter failure of EU ministers to show any collective strength over Zimbabwe is not a good advertisement for the European Union. That brings us, of course, to European Affairs. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that we are approaching a time when we must be extremely vigilant about developments in the Balkans—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has referred to that. The future status of Kosovo remains the primary challenge for the Balkan region and we agree with the Government that the status quo there is not an option, and that UN Special Envoy Ahtisaari’s comprehensive proposal represents the best way forward.

I hope that Ministers will also agree that any independence package the international community settles upon must enshrine the protection of Kosovo’s minorities and a sustained international presence. Depressingly, the situation in Bosnia is also now giving rise to alarm. The recent report of the Political Directors of the Peace Implementation Steering Board said that the situation had deteriorated further, that responsibility lay with political leaders from both entities and

“that the situation is now of the utmost concern to the international community.”

It is extremely important that the international community’s high representative in Bosnia is given all the support that he needs to implement measures aimed at making the country more functional, and that threats by Serbia to back the secession of the entity of Republika Srpska if Kosovo wins independence will be most rigorously resisted.

Of course, it is on European affairs that there is the sharpest differences of view across the House. The weakness of the Government’s arguments is exposed by the fact that the actions of Ministers are now often characterised by embarrassment or concealment. First on the list is the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which is to have its Second Reading next Monday. It is the first piece of legislation to be presented to the House after the Gracious Speech, yet for some reason it received no mention whatever in that speech, or any previous one. Could that possibly be because it involves giving up £7 billion of the British rebate to the European Union, for nothing concrete in return—a rebate that the Prime Minister once described as non-negotiable—and because it represents a total failure of negotiation, and a betrayal of the national finances, never mind the national interest?

Second on the list is the Prime Minister’s ludicrous statement at the time of last month’s summit that the Government would not support further European political integration in this Parliament or the next, having just agreed to a treaty that sets up a continuing process of political integration, specifically designed to gather pace in the coming years. That is why the treaty contains a ratchet clause: so that many surviving vetoes can be abolished without any further treaty, and the positions of permanent president of the European Council and high representative in foreign affairs are designed to accrue more power as time goes on. Whether Ministers have secured their few negotiating objectives in that area is obscure. Their July White Paper said that the new president of the European Council cannot also hold the job of President of the Commission, yet nowhere in the text of the treaty is there anything to say that he cannot. There is already talk in Brussels of combining the two posts, so we would like to know whether the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary forgot about that objective, or whether they rolled over, as they have done in respect of so many other parts of the treaty.

I must give way to the former Minister for Europe, the author of the famous remark about The Beano.

I cannot understand why the shadow Foreign Secretary is against qualified majority voting, bearing in mind the fact that any analysis of the voting of the European Council shows that in the vast majority of cases Britain is on the winning side. What does he fear about extending QMV in certain areas?

I fear that the extension of qualified majority voting takes more and more decisions away from the people—not only the people of this country, but the people of the other countries of the European Union—by removing their veto, and that the progressive removal of decisions from national Parliaments and national Governments will ultimately create immense discontent with the functioning of the European Union across Europe. Our objection to that extension is therefore fairly fundamental.

Third and most prominent on the list of concealments is the Government’s faltering pretence that the European treaty is not the constitution at all. In the summer recess, I tabled a written question to the Foreign Secretary, asking him to set out in full the similarities, differences, omissions and additions to the articles comprising the EU constitution and the new EU treaty. The European Scrutiny Committee produced a comparative table, and one might have thought that Foreign Office Ministers who wanted an open debate would do the same when asked to do so. Instead, the Foreign Secretary took well over a month to provide any answer at all, and then in effect refused to answer the question—that was long after Parliament had come back, so the recess is not an excuse—simply repeating instead the discredited mantra that the constitution concept is abandoned. That is an argument described by the European Scrutiny Committee as “likely to be misleading”. In the words of Giscard d’Estaing on Saturday:

“You wouldn’t be honest to tell the British voters the substance of the text has changed—because the substance has not changed.”

Right hon. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The right hon. Gentleman was making a powerful case, as is his wont. He is obsessed with Europe. We remember that before the 2001 election he said that if people voted Labour, Britain would become a foreign land. I wonder if he still endorses that statement. Will he tell the House whether, with all his animadversions on the new treaty, it is now his policy that once the treaty is ratified in the House, it will be Conservative party policy to move to a referendum on it?

I am sorry not to have called the right hon. Gentleman “right hon.”; I did not realise that former Foreign Office Ministers stood on their dignity as much as the current ones.

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that the best time for a referendum is now, so that the British people can have their promised say. If we did not succeed in forcing a referendum in this House, if we failed to win in another place, if all other EU member states implemented the treaty and if an election were held later in this Parliament—that is a lot of ifs—we would have a new treaty in force that lacked democratic legitimacy in this country and in our view gave the EU too much power over our national policies. That would not be acceptable to a Conservative Government and we would not let matters rest there; the right hon. Gentleman can be assured of that. In such circumstances—[Interruption.] Does the Foreign Secretary wish to intervene?

The Government’s defence relies on their four so-called red lines. We look forward to debating those in great detail when the Bill is presented, but it is already clear that the foreign policy red line is not even legally binding. The charter of fundamental rights red line has already been dismissed by one of the European Court’s advocates-general, the criminal justice red line leaves national vetoes abolished and, as the Government have admitted, the tax red line was only ever a bit of a con and purely presentational. In such circumstances, the Government’s abandonment of their manifesto commitment to a referendum is a breach of trust with the nation as serious as any that any of us have known in modern times.

The right hon. Gentleman said “we would not let matters rest there”; does that mean that we would have a referendum in those circumstances or not?

It means what it says. It means exactly what I said earlier. Let us remember that this Government promised a referendum; all political parties in this House promised a referendum before the ratification of the treaty. I shall give way for a helpful intervention from my right hon. and learned Friend.

My right hon. Friend has just given a helpful new statement of Opposition party policy, although it came to a rather vague conclusion. It seems to me that the alternatives are as follows: the repudiation of a treaty that this country has ratified; an attempt to renegotiate or reopen that treaty; a parliamentary process of some kind; or a referendum. May I ask whether the leadership of the Conservative party has yet taken its thoughts further down that road and decided which of those options it might be veering towards? In the past, we have always accepted treaty obligations accepted by previous Governments whenever we have taken office.

I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that there will be no veering in any direction. I assure him that if all the things that I have listed happened, there would be wide consultation in the Conservative party as we decided how to proceed.

Even from their own point of view, it is a huge mistake by Ministers not to support a referendum, because a treaty passed without a referendum will not enjoy democratic legitimacy or acceptance in this country. That is the background against which we would have to set our future policy; let me make that