House of Commons
Monday 7 January 2008
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
In the past 10 years our policies have helped to lift 600,000 children out of relative poverty. Our new policies announced earlier this year will lift up to 300,000 more children out of poverty.
The Secretary of State will have seen the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research only last week which shows that there are still 1.4 million children in households in poverty—the same figure as 10 years ago—and that there are 200,000 more households with children in poverty than there were 10 years ago. Given that failure over 10 years, and the fact that the target date for the Government’s goal is only two years hence, what is being done to ensure that the Government target not only those in families with no work, but those who may have someone in the household in work but for whom the benefits reduction means that they are trapped in a position as bad, if not worse, than before?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the IPPR report praised what we have done compared with the record of our predecessors—child poverty doubled under the previous Government—but it said that we have to do better. The hon. Gentleman is right to press me on that, and we shall address the issue with couple parents, especially whether it is worth the while of the second parent to work. I remind him of what we are doing in London, which affects his constituents. We are rolling out the in-work credit, which will be increased to £60 for lone parents for the first year to encourage them to go into work. We know that the child of a lone parent out of work is five times more likely to be in poverty than the child of one in work. We are extending child care, and we are making sure that couple parents also have access to the new deal. So we are addressing the issues, especially in London, but we have more work to do. However, we have made massive progress, compared with what we inherited.
Notwithstanding the Government’s significant progress on child poverty, official figures suggest that one in three children living in a household with a disabled adult live in poverty. Figures to be published tomorrow in a new report by Leonard Cheshire Disability suggest that that is a serious underestimate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that ending children poverty will require important measures to tackle the serious poverty faced by millions of disabled people in this country? Unless that is done, we will not achieve our laudable goal of ending child poverty.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who has championed the rights of disabled people, including children, for many years. Our policies are the right ones, because they will encourage more parents on disability benefit or who have a disabled child to come into work, with the right child care support, in order to make more prosperous futures for themselves. They are not policies designed simply to kick people into work regardless of whether they are disabled or of whether they have a disabled child and appropriate child care available—as the Opposition seem to be spinning. Our policies are the right policies to address child poverty, and that will remain our absolute priority.
If the Secretary of State is confident about achieving his targets of first halving and then doing away with child poverty, will he take a leaf out of the book of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is putting the carbon reduction target in statute in the Climate Change Bill, which will soon come here from the other place? Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions place his target on the statute book with a civil penalty for the Government in the event that they do not achieve it?
That is a novel suggestion from a Conservative Back Bencher, when the whole Conservative position is against targets. Indeed, they continually castigate us for having targets. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I will answer the question. We will stick to our policies. Some 600,000 children are already out of poverty and another 300,000 will be lifted out by policies that we have recently announced. More will come as a result of extra reforms that we will announce in the future, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our policies instead of continually opposing them.
May I ask the Secretary of State to make more of the Government’s success, given that if a single parent is working 16 hours or more a week neither she nor her children are in poverty? That is an extraordinary achievement. However, we may still have a real problem for many two-parent families who are in work and poor, because the formula does not take account of the second adult in the household. Now that my right hon. Friend has dealt rather successfully with the pensions underpayment, for Allied Steel and Wire, will he put his mind to this issue and similarly win the Prime Minister’s support for a change to be made?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said, as often he puts his finger on a serious issue. One thing that we have to address is that it is extremely costly to deal with this issue—extremely costly. We have been seeing whether we can find more innovative and perhaps less costly, more targeted approaches, but we are aware of the question for two-parent families—couple parents—and the disincentive for the second one to work is an issue to be addressed. However, as my right hon. Friend said, we are light years away from the situation we inherited. We would have been in dire circumstances if we had continued the old Conservative policies.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government will fail to hit their targets on child poverty in the south-west if nothing is done to tackle water bills in the area, which are the highest in the country? Will he ask the child poverty unit to meet to discuss that issue?
As the hon. Lady knows, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I have established a poverty unit, which I assume is the one to which she referred, and we shall certainly consider that issue. I am well aware of the question, and also of the world increase in energy prices, which affects people’s incomes. What we need to do is provide more opportunities for people to get into work by removing the barriers, as we are doing in the south-west, where record numbers have come into work and where there are record numbers of vacancies to get people off benefits and into work in the future.
My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency has the unenviable record of the highest levels of child poverty in the country. Does he recognise that in a city such as Manchester, booming though it is, many people are missing out on the boom and that the way into work, particularly for women who head single-parent families, is not just finding jobs but having access to basic education to guarantee that they are equipped for the world of work?
Yes, I agree. It is not just a question of going into any old job, as some of the rhetoric and spin of Opposition pronouncements suggest. It is a question of providing the right support—which is costly; it costs taxpayers’ money to provide that support—including the skills that will make sure that lone parents or couple parents both get a job, as they are increasingly under the Government, and that they keep the job and improve their position in work. That is the way to lift people out of poverty in inner-city areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency.
We of course welcome any moves that genuinely tackle child poverty. There is not a single child in this country under 10 years old who was not born under a Labour Government, so may I ask the Secretary of State why the number of those children living in poverty is rising?
As I have just explained to the House, including the hon. Gentleman, if he looks at what we are doing compared with the policies that would have been implemented if his party had stayed in power, he will see increasing numbers of children coming out of poverty. More and more parents are getting work, with a higher employment rate and a lower benefit level than under the Conservatives. That is the trajectory we are set on, and we are reforming all the time to make sure that we deal with some of the bottlenecks that have been in place for a long time.
Over the past few days, the hon. Gentleman has been going on about reducing incapacity benefit levels, which are partly responsible for child poverty and poverty generally. The level of incapacity benefit tripled under the Conservatives, as people were smuggled out of jobs and off the jobs count. We are reducing that and we will continue to do so as we get more and more people into work and conquer poverty.
The Secretary of State must think he is still on his sun lounger on the beach. He keeps talking about people coming out of child poverty, but the reality is that last year the number of children living in poverty went up. Why after 10 years of Labour government does Britain have a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other country in Europe?
Actually, we were lagging well below the average in Europe under the Conservative Government. We are now above the average, but that is not good enough for us and we will do even better. It would be interesting to know how the hon. Gentleman will pay for the policies he advocates. How will he pay for them? At the Tory party conference, he announced, along with his leader—
The Pensions Bill, having its Second Reading today, will introduce a requirement on all employers automatically to enrol workers who are eligible into a qualifying workplace pension scheme. Our estimates indicate that that will result in up to 9 million people newly participating or saving more in workplace schemes, with total pension contributions increasing by up to £10 billion.
Is not the key to the success of the Government’s proposals an obligation on employers to match, or make significant contributions towards, the sum paid by the employee or worker? Is it not that which creates a strong incentive for the employee to save?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under our Bill, employers will for the first time be required to contribute to workers’ pensions. The employee will contribute 4 per cent., the employer 3 per cent., and the tax system about 1 per cent. We estimate that more than 1 million workers who are already saving will see their employer’s contribution raised as a result, and millions more who have no occupational pension scheme will get the benefit of an employer’s contribution. Overall, annual pension contributions from employees and employers are estimated to increase by about £10 billion by 2015.
Since 1997, almost 2 million fewer workers are in final salary schemes. How will Ministers ensure that personal accounts do not lead to more employers quitting schemes into which they are paying contributions of 14 per cent., in favour of personal accounts, into which they need pay only 3 per cent.?
The figure that the hon. Gentleman gives is wrong. I understand that it came out last week in a press release from Conservative Front Benchers which was inaccurate. As I understand it, they double-counted the figures. When the BBC did its own research, it realised that the figures that the Conservatives had given out were entirely wrong.
We need to ensure that there is no levelling down, and that is why in the Pensions Bill we have introduced a number of conditions for personal accounts, which will ensure that people do not transfer in and out of them. There is a restriction of £3,500 on annual contributions. Also, 86 per cent. of employers have indicated to us that they are likely to maintain or increase the contribution that they make to their employees’ pension schemes. The Pensions Bill should therefore bring about a significant improvement to the pensions situation.
While I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s statement and the introduction of personal accounts, I am concerned that the proposed banding of contributions will discriminate against part-time workers, many of whom hold more than one part-time job, and most of whom are women. Will he look again at the possibility of allowing employer contributions on all earnings up to the £33,540 ceiling, and also at an option for employee contributions on the first £5,035?
We have had a very broad consultation on those matters, and we looked at the issue of part-time workers—an issue that has caused me great concern. We tried to find a way to assist part-time workers much more effectively. So far, it has proved very difficult to ensure that employers can register what are, in some cases, quite small jobs. We have not been able to find a way around that, but I am open to suggestions on how we might do that. I remain concerned about the issue that my hon. Friend raises.
For the new personal accounts to be successful, those on lower than average earnings will need to be persuaded that it is in their interests to invest in the new pensions. If they are not so persuaded, there is a danger that they will opt out, and that the whole system, and the benefits that it is supposed to bring, will collapse. The Pensions Minister himself said today that there was an issue in that respect; what can he say today to allay fears that those on lower than average earnings may opt out, and that the system may be fundamentally weakened?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that unlike the previous Conservative Government—who, pound for pound, took away all savings from those who saved, so that they did not benefit—we have introduced a savings credit, which enables those with savings to benefit, even if they are on pension credit. The Pensions Commission has made it clear that people have to save more. For the vast majority, the downsides of not saving outweigh the risk of saving that the hon. Gentleman identifies.
It is very difficult to predict which people will be in the group that the hon. Gentleman identifies. Those with pension pots of under £16,000 would have the benefit of trivial commutation. Those with pension pots of over £16,000 could get 25 per cent. back, so they would benefit from saving. Some of the suggested solutions are enormously expensive. None of them has been favoured by the hon. Gentleman’s party, as far as I am aware, although I heard a rather odd suggestion from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that everyone who made a contribution and did not benefit should have their contributions refunded—a suggestion about which, I suspect, the pensions industry would be very unhappy.
I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend has done to promote occupational pension schemes, but what reassurance can he offer my constituents who worked, often for many years, for BUSM and contributed to its pension scheme, only to be left high and dry when much of the firm went bankrupt and the remnants were sold on to other firms? Will he meet me to discuss their position?
I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. As I understand it, when the business went down, the assets were passed from one company to another, and there are difficulties in getting the trustees to bring together the required information. However, I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend and see whether there are ways in which we can help. If the company is in the position in which I think it is, the Pension Protection Fund would probably be able to provide help in due course, but I do not want to be categorical about that until I have had a discussion with her.
Did the Minister hear the chief executive of the personal accounts delivery authority on Radio 4 on 29 December, when he declined to commit himself to a 2012 start date for personal accounts? Does he agree that such a delay would be very worrying, and is he totally confident that the scheme will begin on schedule in 2012?
Local Employment Partnerships
More and more employers are joining local employment partnerships—around 300 so far—with the number rising each week.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. I visited my local job centre in Renfrew, and I was extremely impressed by the staff’s commitment to make the system work. What safeguards are in place to address the TUC’s concerns that work trials should not be used as a replacement for genuine paid employment?
I share with my hon. Friend and the TUC the objective that this should not be artificial job substitution. It must lead to a full-time job, and I am grateful to the TUC for the representations it made during the consultation on the Green Paper. Employers offer work trials genuinely to try to fill available vacancies, and the trials often open up full-time jobs for disadvantaged peoples, especially those on benefits. They often last only a few weeks, and we have put in place protections, including not allowing employers to use them to fill short-term vacancies, for which the trade union movement quite properly asked.
The test of success or otherwise of local employment partnerships is not the number of employers the Government sign up but the number of people whom those partnerships get back into work. How many people have got back into work so far as a result of local employment partnerships?
We have only just started, but only last Wednesday I met a company with the Prime Minister in Marylebone jobcentre that recruited 147 people when it opened a retail business. Those people came straight off benefit as a result of the local employment partnership. I have talked to Tesco, which is opening new stores around the country, and is doing exactly the same thing. It sees a win-win situation: employers can get people straight off benefit, and British benefit claimants take up British jobs to become British workers. It is win-win for society, and it is win-win for employers as well, as partnerships have proved to be extremely popular in filling job vacancies. There are about 660,000 job vacancies in Britain, and we want people to come off benefit to fill them. Local employment partnerships will help us to achieve that.
The Secretary of State has just talked about filling job vacancies with British workers. At the same time, the Government propose to reduce the coverage of the resident labour market test, which, as the Secretary of State will know, requires employers to look to UK workers before they can recruit from outside the EU. How does abolishing part of the resident labour market test help British workers to find British jobs?
The hon. Gentleman should support what we are seeking to do; just about every employer in the land does—the Confederation of British Industry does, as do most employers’ organisations. We are seeking to make sure that local employers try to get people off benefits and into work. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raised has nothing to do with that objective. It also contrasts strongly with a policy announced by his party in the past few days—one of “three strikes and you’re out”. That would reduce the claimant count by less than 0.5 per cent.; it is a typical bit of newspaper spin by a political party that has no real credible policies to offer.
To date, more than 150 credit union and community development finance institution outlets delivering the growth fund have made more than 53,000 loans, with a total value exceeding £23 million. The recent allocation of a further £38 million for the period 2008 to 2011 will mean that many tens of thousands more people will gain access to affordable credit.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that there are more than 20,000 members of the Glasgow credit union in Glasgow; it is one of our successes. However, there are still 2 million people in the country without a bank account. The Association of British Credit Unions is asking for more calling points throughout the country. Given the planned closures of post offices throughout the country, particularly in Glasgow at this time, access to credit union facilities will be reduced. Will my hon. Friend tell me how we will provide those new points where people can get their money?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will understand that the Post Office network needs to be viable; that is why it is undergoing further changes. He will also know that there have been post office branch closures in the past four years; however, during that period, 800,000 more people have gained access to basic banking services. We are well on the way to achieving our target of halving the number of people without access to bank accounts.
Currently, 11 credit unions offer full banking services and we expect another 20 to do so in the coming year—that will partly be due to the extra support that we are giving them as a result of the growth fund. The additional investment that we have secured for 2008 onwards will achieve a further expansion of the credit union movement, making available more opportunities and access points for affordable loans.
Is the Minister not concerned about the implications of the Church of England’s recent report “A Matter of Life and Debt”? Some 8 million people in this country have unsecured debts of £10,000 or more, an increase of 30 per cent. in a year. Will not that increased pressure due to debt cause more difficulties for those seeking access to affordable credit and impact most severely on the poorest?
No, I do not agree; the problem is the affordability of the credit. If affordable credit is not available to those on very low incomes or benefit—who may, for perfectly good reasons, need credit at some point to deal with expenditure pressures—their alternative is to go to an unaffordable source of credit such as a doorstep lender. Is it better for them to pay interest of 1,000 per cent. on their loan or to take out a much more affordable form of credit from their local credit union? The investment that we are making through the growth fund, in expanding the credit union movement and affordable credit, will help people avoid the kind of debt problem that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with local credit unions has been that only some of them have been accessible through post offices? We need a much more organised and strategic approach to the provision of credit via credit unions in local post offices. That would increase footfall in post offices and mean that more people attended them. It would also widen access to credit unions.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. He will therefore welcome the fact that part of the investment that we are making through the growth fund is in the physical resources and capacities of credit unions as well as just capitalising their loan books. He will see that the extra investment that we are putting in, in addition to the increased support that we expect to come from the banking sector, will help to create many more points of access at different areas in all the communities across the country, thereby helping again to increase access to affordable credit for many thousands of people.
There were 32,919 complaints in 2005-06, 43,214 in 2006-07, and 26,767 in the year to October 2007. Annually, Jobcentre Plus takes more than 15 million telephone calls, processes more than 3 million new claims and carries out more than 10 million interviews. In that context, complaints represent a small percentage, but we are not complacent and continually seek to improve services and, I hope, to learn from mistakes.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Over the past few months, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people in my surgery complaining about Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that the ever-increasing complexity of the benefits system, failures in technology and cuts in front-line service from Jobcentre Plus staff have led to a situation whereby the most vulnerable in our society are receiving a reduced service?
The number of complaints in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in 2005-06 was 117, and in 2006-07 it was 24. I will certainly look at any up-to-date information, but I think that that indicates what I said: we take every complaint seriously and there does not seem to have been an explosion in numbers. In his constituency, as elsewhere, whether in Wales, Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, people are being paid benefits more quickly than at any time in recent years. The number of outstanding claims has reduced significantly over the past year. I am pleased to say that today we have a record number of people going into work, and the numbers of people on all the main out-of-work benefits, whether income support, jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefit, are falling, as are the numbers of new claimants of those benefits. Clearly, in a period of change—certainly over the past 10 years—we have tightened procedures. We expect more people who can work to work; that sometimes creates complaints as well. We take this matter seriously and keep it under a watchful eye.
May I congratulate staff in Jobcentre Plus in Ellesmere Port and in Neston, particularly the regional manager, Mr. Mark Wilson, who has done a magnificent job in dealing with the process of change and getting more people back to work in my constituency, with great success? Now that we have a much smaller number of unemployed people, with a core group, some of whom are very difficult to place, will my hon. Friend ensure that the regional structures have sufficient flexibility to allow regional managers to plan to meet the needs of local communities, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his warm remarks about the services in his local area. We are seeing huge improvements across the Jobcentre Plus service. Anybody who compared walking into a Jobcentre Plus establishment today with doing so 10 or 15 years ago could only comment on how professional, modern and user-friendly it is. Yes, we have looked to centralise benefit delivery services, because we want to make best use of technology and to have better standards of best practice across the piece. That also allows us to consider how face-to-face interactions can better be served, whether in Jobcentre Plus, a children’s centre or a community centre. I encourage our regional managers to engage with their local authority partners, employers, the voluntary sector and local communities to see how best that service can be provided, and I hope that we can give them greater flexibility to do just that.
Health and Safety Executive
My colleagues and I have received representations from a range of stakeholders. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to maintain front-line inspector numbers for the next spending period at the March 2008 level.
In the UK last year, 30 million days were lost owing to work-related ill health and 6 million owing to workplace injury. The HSE has a vital economic and social role in driving down those figures. How confident is the Minister that the agency, which has seen staffing levels go down by 25 per cent. since 2002 and is subject to a continual review of procedures and structures, can effectively and efficiently service more remote and rural areas, especially in terms of inspection, enforcement and, where necessary, prosecution of health and safety breaches?
I think my hon. Friend’s statistics are slightly skew-whiff, if I may put it that way. He has included the 93 railway inspectors who were transferred from the HSE to the railway regulator. He has highlighted an important issue about the number of days lost because of work-related ill health and workplace injury, but I hope he will also accept that in the years from 2000 to 2002, 40 million days were lost in those categories. The figure now sits at 36 million in 2006-07. In 1974, there were 651 fatal injuries to employees. That number was reduced in 2006-07 to 241. We have one of the most sensible and robust health and safety regimes in Europe, partly owing to the efforts of the HSC, the HSE and their colleagues in local authorities. Of course, we should not underestimate the importance of trade unions.
Is the Minister aware that the new provisions of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 will come into effect on 6 April? They will implement the provisions on stray dogs and ensure that local authorities will have to find places for kennels. Is the Minister aware that each private kennel will have to be inspected for health and safety before the new provisions can come into effect? Will she assure me that the staffing cuts in the HSE will not have a negative impact on that process of assessment, bearing in mind the tragic incident before Christmas when a lady dog handler was so brutally attacked by a dangerous dog?
Will my hon. Friend commend the Health and Safety Laboratory, which is part of the HSE, on its increasingly proactive work in preventing the risk of injury and poor health caused by industrial consequences? Will she ensure that nothing is done to jeopardise the effectiveness of that ever more impressive organisation, which is based in my constituency?
I am sure that the laboratory will have cognisance of my hon. Friend’s comments and commitments. I wish to reinforce the fact that health and safety is an important issue for us all. Not only the HSE but employers and employees create safe workplaces. Those of us who are in such situations need to ensure that we each assume responsibility as our own health and safety officer.
Deaths in the construction industry have been running at a comparable level to those suffered by UK armed forces personnel in recent years. Why are front-line construction inspectors being reduced to the March 2008 number that was mentioned by the Minister, and why has there been a 40 per cent. drop in inspections when the death and injury rate is so bad?
As I said in my earlier answer, there has been a steady reduction in the number of deaths over the past 15 years, including in the construction industry, although there are some issues about the current set of statistics and we are looking carefully at them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions held a construction forum to address that rise and to seek a commitment to improvement in those sectors. That work is ongoing with the employers, the trade unions and the HSE. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the health and safety inspectors, working alongside those in the industry, will ensure a safer environment for our construction workers.
Allied Steel and Wire
On 17 December, I announced a package to make payments to 140,000 individuals so cruelly deprived of their pensions, and I am pleased that unions and campaigners welcome this.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving the 90 per cent. figure as the guarantee for pensioners. I thank him and previous Ministers for the many meetings that we have had on the long journey towards a settlement, which seemed impossible at the outset. Will he join me in congratulating the Community trade union on its persistence in fighting for its members’ interests? I remind hon. Members that the problem arose as a result of a commercial failure. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that in future people will not experience the pain that ASW workers and others in the same position suffered for some time?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to the way in which he campaigned so diligently on behalf of ASW workers, as did many other Cardiff Members and Members throughout the country—140,000 people were affected. Community, formerly the steelworkers’ union, played a leading role and deserves tremendous credit for ensuring that the pressure was kept up. As a result, the Government have not only brought justice to the affected workers, but established the Pension Protection Fund, which will stop that sort of thing happening again and ensure that pensioners can feel secure, when they have contributed and saved, as we are all urging them to do, that they will realise in retirement the fruits of those investments.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons that the compensation has been paid, after five years, to the 140,000 pensioners who had their pensions stolen was the work of Ros Altmann, who campaigned for five years with, in my constituency, the teams of former Dexion workers led by Peter and Jackie Humphrey? Without five years of action, the compensation that the pensioners deserve would not have happened. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Ros Altmann and others?
I happily do so. Ros Altmann played an important part, as did the hon. Gentleman’s two constituents, whom I have met. The Dexion workers, like the others, deserve justice. I know that they would have liked it earlier, but we had Andrew Young’s report, which identified £1.7 billion of residual assets. We needed to ensure that we acted on that and maximised the best return to protect the pensioners and provide good value for taxpayers’ money. We have now achieved the settlement for which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, joined by so many others, rightly campaigned.
The new deal for lone parents has supported more than 500,000 people into work.
Our recent document “Ready for Work” sets out how we will expect more lone parents with school age children actively to find work, along with a package of measures to provide lone parents with the skills, confidence and financial support to find and stay in work.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The new deal plus pilot project for lone parents in Cardiff and the Vale has been successful in not only getting lone parents into work but sustaining them there. One of the key elements has been benefits such as the £300 in-work benefit, which can help lone parents to stay in a job and assist with, for example, child care, which is many working parents’ nightmare. What does my hon. Friend propose to do to extend that sort of benefit more universally?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The number of lone parents who claim in her constituency has fallen by 39 per cent. since 1997 compared with a national drop of 25 per cent. I therefore give due credit to those who work on the matter locally for her constituents.
Our plans for our next steps are to roll out nationally the in-work credit from April. We are considering the way in which we extend the right to flexible working for parents of older children. The human resource director of Sainsbury’s, Imelda Walsh, has undertaken that review. We are also considering much more closely earlier skills assessment of lone parents—when they come on to income support—regardless of whether they receive jobseeker’s allowance or income support. The vacuum in their skills and basic education often inhibits lone parents. Again, we are providing support on several different fronts, but, as I said earlier, from next autumn parents whose youngest child is 12 will be expected to move on to jobseeker’s allowance. That is right because it is a something-for-something approach to our welfare system and the right mixture of rights and responsibilities.
Fylde Coast Employees
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Department is a major employer on the Fylde coast, with more than 5,600 staff in the area. Specific plans for 2008 include moving work and staff from the site at Lytham to Peel park, Blackpool, to move work out of the Pension Service at Blackpool pension centre and to move additional disability and carers service work into Warbreck house in Blackpool.
Many of my constituents currently work for the Child Support Agency, and they are in the process of transferring across to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. One of the things that worries them is why the new body needs to be non-departmental. On 2 November, I wrote to Lord McKenzie of Luton, who is a Minister in the Department, to ask him why that is the case. I received his reply just before Christmas, which stated:
“It is essential that we mark a clean break with the failures of the past and give the Commission a better platform for success”
by removing it from the Department. Does the Minister agree with Lord McKenzie that the Department is viewed as such a failure that the CSA’s replacement must be operated from outwith it, and what confidence does that give my constituents?
I have to say that the hon. Gentleman suffers from selective amnesia, because he has forgotten that the foundation stone of the Child Support Agency was laid by a Conservative Government. Obviously, I have not seen the specific details of the letter to which he has alluded, but if it was written by my noble Friend Lord McKenzie, I am sure that I agree with it.
Last week, we celebrated 10 years of the new deal, through which more than 1.8 million people have found jobs, which is one person every three minutes every single day. An 80 per cent. employment rate is now within our grasp as we move to the next phase of radical welfare reform, which will see hundreds of thousands more benefit claimants becoming active jobseekers rather than passive recipients. Our imperative is to get as many people off benefits and into work as possible, because that is the way to a better life for them and their families. Our policy is fair, coherent, costed and workable, which is exactly the opposite of Conservative policy. The Conservatives have been left desperately plagiarising our plans, because if one looks beneath the spin, they have no new credible policy ideas.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his good work, but one matter still requires his attention. Did he read the article in the weekend press about Ruby Gassor, who worked all her life but paid only a married woman’s national insurance contribution in the early years? She will receive only £7 in basic state pension, whereas her friend who stayed at home to bring up children benefited from home responsibilities protection and will receive £83 a week when she is 60. Will my right hon. Friend attend to that important matter?
We will certainly address the issues around ensuring that women can claim the pensions that they deserve. In 2007, we introduced legislation that will ensure that 75 per cent. of women can claim a basic state pension after 2010. We hope that, by 2025, 90 per cent. of women—the figure for men is about the same—can claim a full basic state pension. We are taking serious account of those issues, and I am also happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the wider issues that she has raised.
Bearing in mind the alacrity with which the Government acted last year in bailing out Northern Rock with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is it any wonder that pensioners in my constituency who lost pensions through no fault of their own agree with Ros Altmann of the Pensions Action Group? She said that
“the continued delay in settling the pension wind-up scandal is totally inexcusable”.
But Ros Altmann has just welcomed the announcement that I made before Christmas, which established that compensation would be paid to those 140,000 workers. I would have thought that the hon. Lady welcomed that.
As regards Northern Rock, the guarantees that the Government provided are nothing like the burden on the taxpayer that the hon. Lady suggests. It is a matter of ensuring that our financial institutions are not affected by the global financial turbulence that infected Northern Rock, and which spread and infected financial institutions more widely. Any Government who had not acted in such a decisive way would have been regarded as thoroughly irresponsible.
Pensioners who were previously workers at the Richards Textiles factory in Aberdeen are very pleased with the announcement that the financial assistance scheme will be brought up to the 90 per cent. level. That announcement was made just before Christmas, and judging by the last question, some people may have missed it. Will my right hon. Friend outline the time scales involved in making payments to pensioners who have lost out in the past?
One of the things we will need is parliamentary support for the necessary legislative changes—including the Pensions Bill, the Second Reading of which I am about to move—and other changes to regulations, to allow us to implement the announcements that I made. The hon. Lady’s constituents, along with the rest of the 140,000 people involved, can then get the early justice that they deserve. I hope that every Member of this House will support us in making those changes and that they will support the Second Reading of the Bill this afternoon so that we can make rapid progress with the scheme’s implementation.
It is the case that a large number of people have not seen the full benefit of their pension. There are various reasons for that. First, over a period of time, there were things such as pensions holidays, which were approved by the previous Conservative Government. There was also the pensions mis-selling scandal, which happened under the previous Conservative Government, and there was the ineffectual Pensions Act 1995, which, as the hon. Gentleman might remember, was passed under the previous Conservative Government.
It is the case, however, that this Government have done something about the situation. We have introduced the Pension Protection Fund; we have dealt with the issue of the 140,000 people who had lost their pensions between 1997 and 2004; and we have also introduced a pensions regulator, who is in a position to ensure that the basis of the running of the pensions system is far better than it ever has been. Those are major social reforms. They have happened quietly, but they mean a big change, and an important one.
I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman says. His record of campaigning on those matters is exemplary, and I pay tribute to him. However, questions should be asked in other directions in the House about whether the “three strikes and you’re out” policy will benefit the 100,000 young people he describes, or whether those people need the support of £170 million of psychological therapy that we will provide during the coming period to ensure that they get the specialist support, counselling and therapy they need to make sure that they can get into work. That is what we are doing: introducing practical, deliverable policies, not spin and hype.
One of my constituents, who is in his 70s, unfortunately had to have his leg amputated. He applied for attendance allowance, which was agreed to, but he was told that there would be a delay of four months owing to policy. Why is there such a delay? I will write to the Secretary of State, but I would like an explanation now.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I would need to ask him for further details and would be delighted to meet him as quickly as he wants, because there is no policy reason why any application for attendance allowance should be delayed. Indeed, we are turning round attendance allowance applications, subject to entitlement and so on, within the target time. I therefore do not understand why there is a particular problem in his constituency, although I would be delighted to look at it.
There is no question but that IT projects have had problems in both the public and private sectors, with a much higher failure rate than they should have. That is why we have put in place the necessary procedures to try to ensure that we avoid that in future, that we secure value for money from all our IT projects and that we continue to achieve record levels of delivery in terms of getting people into work, assisting them with pensions queries and delivering all the other services that my Department provides.
Millions of pensioners and other claimants rely on post offices to collect their pensions and benefits every week. As Government-inspired post office closures are rolled out across the country, will the Secretary of State reassure those pensioners and other claimants that they will continue to be able to collect their benefits through the Post Office card account—run by the Post Office, not some other organisation—and that further post office closures will not be inspired by a loss of income?
These are not Government-inspired closures. We are putting in hundreds of millions of pounds of support for local post offices, amounting over the period to billions of pounds. Because of many reasons related to lifestyle, people’s personal shopping habits and their use of local post offices have changed. People are not supporting their local post offices in the way that I, the hon. Gentleman and perhaps every Member of the House would like. That has created circumstances in which post offices have closed, as they closed in previous decades under the last Government, but we will ensure that everybody will receive the proper service that they need, especially the most vulnerable pensioners and others who depend on the benefits system.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government do not normally intervene in the energy market, but in this case Ministers are naturally concerned about the effects that price rises such as those announced by npower can have on vulnerable customers. The Treasury will seek the views of Ofgem on developments that have taken place in the energy market, to see whether such changes as have been announced can possibly be justified. However, the Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty. Winter fuel payments, which last winter helped more than 11 million older people with their fuel bills, and assistance for 2 million low-income households so far, through schemes to improve energy efficiency, are examples of how we have practically sought to help older people in particular to deal with increasing fuel prices.
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and many of his constituents take a close interest in the matter. He and I have already discussed it in debates in the House. As he knows, the decision to investigate the causes of the explosion was made through a major incident investigation board headed by Lord Newton, and we believe that that is the quickest way of finding out exactly what happened.
As I think the hon. Gentleman will understand in view of the complexity of the issues involved, the investigation is still in progress. At this point, the Health and Safety Executive cannot say when a decision will be made on prosecutions. Such a decision is for the HSE and the Environment Agency and not for the investigating board. Until the investigation is completed we cannot say more about it, but it is important for it to continue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, interim reports have been issued and a good deal of information is already available to him and to his constituents. We expect the investigation to be concluded shortly.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to read the excellent report prepared by the Scottish Affairs Committee and released before the Christmas recess. It drew attention to interest rates charged by not only illegal but legal moneylenders. One company was charging about 177 per cent. Is any consideration being given to capping interest rates in the so-called legal market?
I understand my hon. Friend’s deep concern, but there is a problem with capping the rates, which might have adverse effects on the availability of affordable credit. I think that our best response to the need to release people from the burden of interest rates at such levels—or, indeed, even higher levels in the case of illegal doorstep lending—is to pursue the policies that we have, financed through the growth fund, to make much more affordable credit available through credit unions and other not-for-profit financial lenders.
As my hon. Friend will know, we have already made a significant investment, and there will be further investment over the next spending round. As a result, tens of thousands of people are gaining access to affordable credit, thus avoiding the problems to which he has rightly drawn attention.
I have already addressed it. As I have said, we are investigating the methods that are most cost-effective to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as taxpayers, and to the rest of us. The truth is, however, that there are more jobs than ever before under this Government, that poverty has been reduced under this Government, and that there is more prosperity and wealth in the country under this Government. The hon. Gentleman ought to applaud that.
Pakistan and Kenya
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about recent developments in Pakistan and Kenya. I am grateful to you for allowing me to combine the two statements. Both countries are important to Britain, and rightly important to many hon. Members. I know that the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Pakistan in November 2006, and that it was a key focus of the Committee’s report on foreign policy aspects of the war on terror in July 2006 and its subsequent report on South Asia in May 2007. I think I am right in saying that several hon. Members are now returning from Pakistan, having gone there to observe the elections that were planned for next week, and will now try to rearrange their visit.
The situations in Pakistan and Kenya are very different, and I shall deal with them separately, but important elements are common to the recent crises that have afflicted both those regional powers. Both countries have experienced strong economic growth in recent years and the middle class is growing, but poverty is widespread and rising inequality is causing frustration and disillusionment. Both countries face violence and terrorism, and both are undergoing political transition. They are working to embed democratic systems and structures, but struggling to overcome the tribal or dynastic allegiances which have fed personality politics.
In these circumstances, there is a temptation to turn away. However, there are 800,000 British people of Pakistani origin; there are an estimated 13,000 British citizens resident in Kenya, and over a quarter of a million British tourists visit each year. The United Kingdom is Kenya's largest foreign investor, and our bilateral trade with Pakistan is worth some £1 billion; and, of course, both Pakistan and Kenya are key partners in the fight against al-Qaeda. That is why the Government are committed to using all their assets to help those countries on the path to peaceful and prosperous development.
I will begin with Pakistan. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in reiterating our condolences to the family of Mrs. Bhutto at this terrible time and to the other bereaved Pakistani families who are grieving for loved ones who were killed or who suffered injuries in the senseless attack of 27 December. There is cross-party condemnation in this House of terrorism and a determination to stand with the people of Pakistan against the power of the bomb and the bullet, and I welcome that.
Whatever the disputes about her periods in office, Benazir Bhutto showed in her words and actions a deep commitment to her country. She knew the risks of her return to campaign for election but was convinced that her country needed her. The target of her assassins are all those committed to democracy in Pakistan and it is vital that they do not succeed. The courage shown by Mrs. Bhutto is now required of others as they take forward the drive for democracy and modernisation.
The Government's aims and role are fourfold. The first priority is to ensure that the circumstances of Mrs. Bhutto's death are properly established. A five-member UK police team arrived in Pakistan at the end of last week and has begun work in support of Pakistani colleagues.
The second priority is to promote free and fair elections. The delay in the elections as a result of the assassination is regrettable but the period between now and 18 February needs to be used to build confidence in the democratic process. When I spoke to the House on 7 November, I made clear my conviction that democracy and the rule of law were allies of stability and development in Pakistan. Since then, President Musharraf has retired from the military. He has lifted the state of emergency. Almost all political prisoners have been released and most media restrictions have been rescinded. But more needs to be done, and we have continued to stress the Pakistani Government's responsibility to create a level playing field under which credible and transparent elections can take place. This means that all remaining political detainees need to be released and the remaining restrictions on the media must be lifted.
In my last telephone call with Mrs. Bhutto on 9 December, I pledged that the UK would work on the details of the election process. In recent days, the Prime Minister has discussed the elections on three separate occasions with President Musharraf. I have also spoken to interim Pakistani Foreign Minister ul-Haque. We continue to call on the Government of Pakistan to improve the prospects for credible elections, particularly by increasing transparency, both now and on election day itself. This includes setting out clearly and early where all of the approximately 54,000 polling stations will be, posting the results for each station publicly immediately after the count and ensuring that the media's ability to report is untrammelled.
I am glad that the EU is now working to put together a full-scale election observation mission. I understand that the American International Republican Institute mission may also be reinstated. I believe that the Commonwealth can make an important, positive contribution and I hope that Pakistan will decide to invite an observer mission.
Our third priority is further to improve counter-terrorism co-operation. The deadly attack on Benazir Bhutto shows terrorism to be a threat to Pakistan, not just to the west. Over the last year, hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in shootings and suicide bomb attacks in that country. We have reiterated the UK Government's commitment to build on the already significant counter-terrorism support that we provide to Pakistan. A team of cross-Government UK experts will travel to Pakistan next week for further consultations. This will be a precursor to a further British visit to deepen our counter-terrorism relationship.
Fourthly, we are determined to ensure that British citizens of Pakistani heritage and Pakistanis resident in the United Kingdom are informed about developments and engaged in the drive to build a decent society in Pakistan. I met some of their community leaders earlier today. Although the next five weeks are important, so are the next five years and beyond, and economic, social and political development in Pakistan need to proceed hand in hand, with international support.
Kenya provided the second crisis of the new year break. When President Kibaki won the presidency in 2002, it was hailed as the most free and fair election Kenya had seen. Daniel Arap Moi's party accepted the result and ceded power. Tribal and ethnic divisions were overcome as the population rallied behind the new Government. It was a moment of great optimism. It is a marked contrast with the situation that has unfolded since the election on 27 December. I know I speak for the entire House in condemning the appalling post-election violence in Kenya, particularly the brutal killing of Kikuyu women and children in the church near Eldoret on 1 January.
Let me deal with the three issues that have preoccupied the Government and indeed the whole international community over the last week: violence and the resulting humanitarian crisis; the elections; and mediation. I have arranged for the nine statements put out by myself, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development over the last week to be deposited in a single file in the Library. I have spoken to our high commissioner in the last hour and I can confirm that his view is that of the media reports: that the urban violence of the middle of last week has subsided. That is obviously welcome, but the reporting from rural areas suggests that there are up to 250,000 refugees, and there is the potential for violence to erupt again. That is why since 2 January our travel advice, along with other countries’, has advised against non-essential travel to Kenya. That advice will remain in place until the security and political situation is clarified. We are advising Britons in Kenya to exercise extreme caution, to remain indoors in the affected areas, and to seek local advice, from the tour operators or local authorities, if they need to travel.
The humanitarian crisis we have seen unfolding on our television screens is due entirely to the post-election violence. The UN, World Food Programme and Red Cross are leading the international effort. The Department for International Development is monitoring the situation closely and has had a team on the ground in western Kenya. A £1 million contribution to the Red Cross was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development last week, and it has helped to provide shelter for those displaced and to facilitate major food shipments from Mombasa, which took place over the weekend. DFID stands ready to provide more assistance if it is needed.
In respect of the election itself, millions of Kenyans queued for hours, peacefully and with dignity, to cast their votes for parliamentary and presidential candidates after a relatively calm election campaign. It is vital not just for Kenya, but for the whole of Africa with important elections over the next 18 months, that the democratic process works and is seen to work. However, the counting of votes in the presidential election, and particularly the reporting of votes from local to regional and then national centres, has, according to reliable European Union observation, been plagued by irregularity. Those irregularities stand in the way of the formation of a stable Kenyan Government who would have the confidence of their own people and the international community.
All allegations of fraud need to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. That requires due legal process, but there is also a need for political mediation. Individual acts of fraud are reprehensible, but there is a deeper issue. Whatever the actual result, the country was deeply split. Kenya needs the diversity of its views to be respected, but the presidential system is designed to concentrate power when Kenya’s immediate and medium-term future requires the sharing of power.
Kenya’s political leaders must be willing to make the necessary compromises to find a way forward. They are more likely to do so with external help. That is why at the heart of all our conversations—with Kenyan, African, EU, Commonwealth, US and UN partners—has been the need for a credible mediation process. I am pleased that President Kufuor of Ghana, the current chairman of the African Union, is due to arrive in Kenya soon, and he will do so with our full support. He needs Kenyan leaders ready to engage. On 2 January Condoleezza Rice and I called for a “spirit of compromise” from those leaders. If they fail to compromise, they will forfeit the confidence, good will and support of their own people and the international community. The stakes are high for the Kenyan people, and we will remain fully engaged on the political and consular track.
May I conclude by thanking staff in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, in-country and in London, for their outstanding consular and political work around the clock in the very trying circumstances of the last 10 days? Their work is far from done, but both countries are better off for their engagement, and they deserve the thanks of the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for taking the earliest opportunity to make a statement on the situation in these two countries, as we requested last week. In both cases a flawed democratic process has given rise to tragedy, but in both cases democratically elected leaders and democratically enshrined institutions are the best hope for overcoming extremism, instability and corruption.
I echo what the Foreign Secretary said about the horror with which we have greeted the butchery of innocent people, including children, in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections. The result of that ethnic strife in the case of Kenya is a humanitarian tragedy, and providing urgent assistance to the 250,000 displaced both within Kenya and across its borders must be at the forefront of our concerns. On that subject, the Conservatives welcome DFID’s contribution of £1 million to the Kenyan Red Cross. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what is his latest assessment of the relief effort? How is that being evaluated? Given that the medical charity Merlin yesterday warned that Kenya faces a health crisis “within days” as “dangerously low” supplies of food and water are putting many people at risk of infection and dehydration, is it likely that international aid will need to be increased?
Is the Foreign Secretary confident that aid convoys are able to move freely and to reach those most in need, and that they themselves will not be vulnerable to attack? What representations have been made to the Government of Kenya about the need to protect and safeguard the people driven from their homes, and does he have any information about the number of refugees now in neighbouring countries such as Uganda, and the extent of their needs?
On the political crisis in Kenya, can the Foreign Secretary say more about the role that British officials and Ministers are playing? Are there any plans for any member of the Government to visit Kenya? Like him, we fully support the mission of the President of Ghana. It has been reported that the US Assistant Secretary of State has secured an offer from President Kibaki to form a coalition Government, and a concession from the Opposition leader that he will negotiate without preconditions. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm those reports? Is it not important that the EU monitoring mission issue a formal public report on the elections as soon as possible? Is the Foreign Secretary aware of any findings or recommendations from that mission, or from the Kenyan electoral assistance programme that Britain helped to fund?
Ethnic conflict is now threatening the decades of stability that have set Kenya apart from so many of its neighbours. In this situation, Kenya’s leaders have a clear responsibility to compromise and work together—whether this means joint rule or an eventual rerun of the elections under international supervision. Is it the Foreign Secretary’s view that a recount or re-tally of the election is not practical, given the likely destruction of ballot papers and records, and will he assure the House that he will not entertain the idea of sanctions at present, as some have suggested? Kenya is not a country hostile to Britain’s national interest, but a friendly country that needs our assistance.
I turn to Pakistan—a major ally, as the Foreign Secretary has said, in the war on international terror and another friend with whom we have immensely strong links and a united view that the demands that this country has made for the lifting of the remaining aspects of the state of emergency are wholly justified. The whole House will agree that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a sickening and appalling crime and that such violence is a major threat to the stability and future of Pakistan. This was aimed not only at her, but at democracy in Pakistan itself.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the team of detectives sent to help with the investigation; can he say what their precise remit is? It is vital that when the elections are held, international monitors have full access, that the elections are free and fair, that restrictions on press and broadcasting are lifted and that the results are respected. The Foreign Secretary said in November that a decision would be made about some £3.5 million of UK funding for the elections on the basis of the conduct of the Government of Pakistan. Can he say now whether any decisions have been reached about that? Is he confident that a robust election monitoring mission will be accepted by the Government of Pakistan, and that it will have all the access that it needs to the electoral process?
The Foreign Secretary also said in November that no
“spillover of the situation in Pakistan”—[Official Report, 7 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 134.]
into Afghanistan had been detected at that time. However, the outgoing UN special representative said last week that violence in Pakistan was affecting Afghanistan, and there are reports today of thousands of Pakistanis fleeing their tribal areas into Afghanistan. What is the Foreign Secretary’s latest assessment of that, and does it have any implications for our troops and their operations in Afghanistan?
Finally, once a way has been found through the present crises in both countries, is it not our responsibility to help guide both toward a secure democratic future? Will that not require a reduction in corruption, a free press and an independent judiciary, so that disputes can be settled through reason and law, rather than through violence and death?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the content and tone of his remarks. We wholeheartedly support his identification of the need in both Kenya and Pakistan for democratic institutions that are not just those of formal democracy, but which are supported through the judiciary, the media and political parties—never mind education, health and other systems.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about aid, and I am sure that he will recognise that, importantly, the aid and security questions are two sides of the same coin. Yesterday, the food convoy from Mombasa did get through to western Kenya without alarm or difficulty. That is obviously encouraging, but we will follow the situation very carefully. The ongoing assessment to which he referred is made partly by our staff or by DFID staff on the ground, working closely with the high commission in Nairobi. I am happy to keep the House informed on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the nature of the power-sharing arrangements that could come into play. A balance needs to be struck, because it is for the Kenyans to decide the nature of their power sharing, not for us to prescribe a particular type of coalition Government or constitutional arrangement. He reiterated the word that I use, “compromise”. It relates to compromise between the two main political parties, and it is important to stress that clearly. Of course, Kenya has a history of so-called “Governments of national unity”. It had such a Government in 2002, which did not lead to the sort of power sharing that is needed. I hope that he will understand my saying that at this stage we do not want to prescribe a particular type of constitutional or other reform, but we will all know it when we see it: when a Government reflects the divided will of the Kenyan people in respect of the political parties for which they voted.
The head of the EU mission has returned to Brussels, but the deputy head has rightly stayed in-country, so that he can brief President Kufuor and others as they come through. I shall find out for the right hon. Gentleman the formal timing of the write-up from the head of the EU mission, but it will, in part, want to reflect the ongoing investigations.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are significant obstacles to a full-scale recount. Some people have called for a rerun of the elections, others for a recount or re-tally, and I was careful to refer in my statement to the problems beyond the individual ballot stations as the results were referred onwards. What is important is that any allegations of irregularities are properly followed through—it would be wrong to sweep them under the carpet. I know that that is not what he was suggesting, but the first priority was to stop the violence.
The second priority is to get some sort of political mediation under way. The investigation of the irregularities and the possibility of a further future election obviously will be discussed by the parties. I am happy to confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that the £50 million that we are spending through DFID for the benefit of the Kenyan people, which will be spent on bed nets and other essential development assets, will not be harmed as a result of this process.
In light of the forthcoming debut of the Liberal Democrats’ new foreign affairs spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), perhaps I shall not condemn him until he condemns us, and then we can return—[Interruption.] He says that I will not be disappointed, so I shall save my best volleys until later.
On Pakistan, I was told as I left the office today that there had been agreement on the terms of reference of the Scotland Yard mission to support the Pakistani authorities, and I would certainly like them to be published. Secondly, in respect of the UK funding, which was to support democratic processes, they are as important as ever, and although we keep that funding under review, no decision has been taken to terminate it.
In respect of Afghanistan, I have heard the media reports that were mentioned. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) asked for our latest assessment. Our latest assessment on the situation in the federally administered areas is not a new one—it is that the lack of political integration between the federally administered areas in Pakistan and the rest of the country is a threat to the integrity and stability of not only Pakistan, but Afghanistan. I have received no reports of it being an immediate threat to our troops, but the sort of instability to which he refers provides a haven for some of those who are attacking our troops and is a real concern for us. I discussed it when I was in Helmand, and I guess that he and his colleagues have discussed it with people there too.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of corruption. He will know that none of the money in our bilateral aid is put through the Kenyan Government. We put the money through non-governmental organisations and other organisations precisely to ensure that it reaches the targets for which it is intended. Good government is an essential part of the sort of democratic process in which he and I believe, and it is certainly something that we are working to achieve.
Kenya needs democracy, not a political fix, because democracy is the way to make leaders accountable to the people. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the statement from the chair of the electoral commission of Kenya that his announcement of President Kibaki’s win was made under duress? Will the Government continue to fund work to strengthen political institutions and parties in Kenya in order to reinforce their commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and their ability to resist anti-democratic pressures wherever they may come from?
I am happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend, who speaks with authority on these issues from his long interest in them. His reference to strengthening parliamentary links is important. The role of political parties needs to be developed, and that is something to which hon. Members and colleagues in the other place can contribute.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and associate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches with both his tribute to Benazir Bhutto and his sadness at the violent deaths of so many others in the recent crises in Pakistan and Kenya. Benazir Bhutto was a politician of great courage. She put her life on the line for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan and her death presents the world with the nightmare of an unstable, divided Pakistan.
The Foreign Secretary has described well why we should all be alarmed at recent events in those two countries and the urgent need to restore law and order through democratic means. I pay tribute to his efforts and those of the Prime Minister and many British diplomats in these difficult and often frustrating days. May I say how strongly we agree with much of what the Foreign Secretary has said today—for example, about the decision to send Scotland Yard detectives to assist the investigation into Miss Bhutto’s murder and the humanitarian aid through the Red Cross for parts of Kenya cut off by the violence?
None the less, there remain some serious questions about the judgments made by Britain, the United States and the wider international community, not just in response to these events but well before. On Pakistan, why have the British Government failed to be more critical of the Musharraf regime and its deeply damaging actions, most recently in its attacks on the independence of the judiciary, which the Foreign Secretary failed to mention in his statement? Is it not the case that Britain has been totally complicit with the US policy of bolstering President Musharraf over the years? Does not this crisis show how mistaken that policy has been, with extremism having spread and democratic institutions having been so undermined?
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will at least agree that democracy is now the way forward, and we welcome the announcement of a new and early timetable for elections. It is clearly essential that Pakistan enjoys elections that are free and as fair as possible in a political climate that is as stable as possible. So can he tell the House what extra support Britain is prepared to offer to the election monitoring mission from the EU? While it is good that the EU is sending 50 so-called long-term observers for the new elections, does he believe that the increase of just seven on the monitoring mission for the 2002 elections is really sufficient, given the heightened tension and especially given that the Commonwealth election monitoring operation was suspended in November and has yet to be invited back to Pakistan? Is there not a danger that the February elections will have less international scrutiny than the flawed 2002 elections? Given the crucial role of the judiciary in supervising elections matters, what representations are being made to President Musharraf to insist that he reverses his recent dismissal of critical judges and ends the intimidation of the entire legal profession?
On Kenya, may I thank the Government in their various public statements for not referring to Mr. Kibaki as the new President? Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government still do not recognise Mr. Kibaki as having been re-elected President? Did the Foreign Secretary share my concern when the US State Department, in the first crucial hours after the poll, rushed to accept the flawed election result? Has he raised the serious consequences of that critical error of judgment with the US Secretary of State?
Is it not the case that a rigged election result was both predictable and preventable, when we saw—more than a year ago—the rigging of the electoral commission of Kenya by President Kibaki? When in January last year Lord Steel of Aikwood raised the issue in the other place, the Foreign Office said that it would take up the matter with the Kenyan Government. What representations were made and were they made at ministerial level? Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the stacking of supposedly independent electoral commissions seriously undermines the task of any international election monitoring mission even before they arrive? Is he aware that with elections due in Angola, Malawi and Ghana in the next 18 months concerns are already being expressed that certain Governments will “do a Kibaki”? Will he undertake to raise with the relevant officials of the EU and the Commonwealth Secretariat the need to reform election monitoring processes so that they begin with preparatory visits to report on the independence of the election authorities themselves?
I am sure that the Government and the wider international community are right to prosecute the case for political parties to work together, not least to end the violence and prevent further chaos, but does the Foreign Secretary accept that a coalition Government can be only an interim solution, not least because President Kibaki has previously reneged on power-sharing deals with Raila Odinga, as the right hon. Gentleman implied? Does not the only sustainable solution lie in fresh elections? Why have the British Government not already called for fresh elections? Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that there is a massive danger of more violence—
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position and look forward to his questions and to our debates. I welcome what he said about Mrs. Bhutto.
The hon. Gentleman raised some serious questions. The policy of the British Government throughout the period in respect of Pakistan, and in respect of other countries, is to support systems of government, not personalities. Before he starts throwing around allegations about whom we have bolstered and how we bolstered them, he should look at what has actually happened in practice. I defy him to find any example of the Government’s supporting the crackdown on the media or the rejection of the development of a state of emergency.
In respect of the judiciary, the judges who were dismissed were precisely those appointed by President Musharraf after 1999, so the hon. Gentleman should be careful about the allegations that he throws around. It is obviously vital that an independent judicial process is established and it is obviously right that we assert the case and continue to argue for an independent judicial process. I do not think it would be right for us to try to dictate about individual judicial cases or individual judges. Our position is to defend constitutional principles and the constitutional order.
In respect of election monitoring, the hon. Gentleman made an important point about the EU mission, which I raised with Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner just before the new year. She confirmed to me that the EU would up the number of monitors to 60 from the 40 who were present for the 9 January elections. Today, there has been some talk of the number being increased to about 100. We obviously want to make sure that, combined with Commonwealth and other monitors, they are able to provide the evidence we need. In addition, I point the hon. Gentleman towards the need for the processes to be very transparent on the Pakistani side, and I am sure he would agree.
I can confirm that we have recognised no new Government in Kenya. In respect of the United States position, I spoke to the Secretary of State on 30, or possibly 31, December. She made it absolutely clear to me that although the United States was happy to congratulate the Kenyan people on the way in which they had participated in the democratic process, it had issued no congratulation to an individual “winner”; that her concerns about the irregularities identified by the EU are serious and real; and that she shares our commitment both to the spirit of compromise to which we referred in our joint statement and, critically, to the sharing of power.
On the wider African elections, I referred in my statement to the forthcoming elections, which is why the engagement of the African Union is particularly important at this stage. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) asked about a British envoy. Although there are contingency plans for us to have additional Ministers or officials in the region, our first priority has been to try to ensure that an African mediator can go there, which is why we support so strongly the Kufuor mission.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) called for fresh elections. Whatever the irregularities of the recent election, they reveal a deeply divided country, and that will not be overcome however many times the election is rerun. Every allegation of irregularity must be investigated, but the deeper issue—the nature of the constitutional system, and whether a winner-takes-all system is right for Kenya—is one that many Kenyans are debating. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is an important part of the mediation process that needs to be under way. Of course, fresh elections will be part of the discussions between the political parties, but they will have to be the end of the process, not the beginning of it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the people of Kenya are looking to have a Government who reflect the diversity, and not just one particular tribe that happens to look as though it is successful in an election. Speaking from my experience in Kenya long ago, tribes were always important there, but so too was the ability to work together, certainly in the coastal province where I worked. I would appreciate hearing from the Foreign Secretary about how we intend to work with the international community and local people to get the compromise and accommodation that any democracy with such a diverse population needs to move towards.
My right hon. Friend raises the key issue. Her experience in Kenya and that of others in the House will be relevant. In the end, the spirit of compromise has to come from the top; that is why our messages have been direct from the Prime Minister to President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the Leader of the Opposition. There is also a need for a strong civic society, and political institutions at the local level that are able to bring people together. That process seemed to be starting in 2002. The re-emergence of ethnic divisions is obviously something that all of us deplore and want to avoid.
One of the many tragedies of Pakistan is the pathetically small amount of money spent on education—just 1.8 per cent. of gross domestic product. Illiteracy rates in Pakistan are more than 50 per cent., and are increasing. With the collapse of the Government school system, ever more parents simply have to send their children to madrassahs because there is nowhere else to send them. Pakistan is a good ally, but it could turn into a nightmare, as an increasingly illiterate nuclear state. When the Department for International Development engages with Pakistan through its country programme, will we make sure that we are encouraging Pakistan to spend more of its resources on education? Otherwise, it will be an increasingly faltering state.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. He will know from what my colleague the Secretary of State for International Development and I have said that we raise both publicly and privately the fact that less than 2 per cent. of national income is spent on education. Education is at the centre of DFID’s programme in Pakistan, and I discussed the matter last July when I was in Pakistan. It is absolutely at the heart of the development of a functioning society—development that that country will need.
The Foreign Secretary was right to say that what we need for Pakistan is free and fair elections, but also not to let up on counter-terrorism. He briefly mentioned Afghanistan. Even in more stable times, there are hundreds of thousands of people crossing the borders, both ways, on any one day. In the run-up to the elections, the role of Afghanistan will be even more important than it has been. Will he talk to his NATO colleagues so that they make sure that their troops are in Afghanistan to ensure security, and so that they can possibly look at lifting some of the caveats on deployment?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which was discussed at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in December. It is always discussed when I meet NATO and other colleagues, because obviously the problem with the Afghan-Pakistan border needs to be addressed on both sides of the border. That involves British and other troops on the Afghan side, and large numbers of Pakistani security forces on the Pakistani side. However, in the end, there needs to be a political and not just a military solution in the federal administrative areas.
I represent some 9,000 voters of Pakistani and Kashmiri origin, and many of them have made clear to me their horror at the murder of Benazir Bhutto. As the Foreign Secretary knows, nearly every serious al-Qaeda plot since 7/7 in Britain has had some connection with Pakistan, so what monitoring arrangements do his Department and the Government have in place to measure the effect of incidents such as the murder of Benazir Bhutto, or the recent storming of the Red Mosque, on communities in Britain who follow very closely what happens in Pakistan, and who are often influenced by what occurs there?
The hon. Gentleman is right that not least through media that are watched both in Britain and in Pakistan there is a common political discussion and discourse across the two countries. We try to stay in touch through our contacts both with community leaders and with ordinary members of the community. Personally, I am suspicious of opinion polls that are bandied around as definitive, and I prefer to rely on more qualitative information. I am sure, however, that he would agree that anything that helps to build a decent society in Pakistan that respects all its different communities can help to lessen tensions and contribute to the notion that the vast majority of Pakistanis, whether in Pakistan or Britain, are dedicated to fighting against al-Qaeda, rather than to fighting for it. That is the battle for hearts and minds in which we are all engaged.
It is unfortunate that two situations that are wholly different in kind, except for the element of violence, should be taken together. However, since successive British Governments have consistently ignored corruption in Kenyan Governments, may I ask the Secretary of State what attempts we have made to provide practical assistance both to protect the populations who have been abandoned in various areas, and to protect transport from Mombasa to western Kenya, which will not only be extremely difficult to keep up but will meet increasing opposition at various points?
I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend say that successive Governments have ignored the corruption in Kenya. As I said earlier, the fact that the British Government give no direct budget support for the Kenyan Government precisely reflects our concerns. Our determination to provide significant aspects of funding through NGOs and other trusted civic society organisations reflects precisely the concerns that she and I share. She is absolutely right to raise the security situation for aid convoys. As I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), so far those convoys have proceeded without interruption, and that is obviously something on which we want to continue to work. Practically, on the ground, the UN and the World Food Programme are in the lead, but our money and people—I referred to the DFID staff in western Kenya—are there to provide support, and to make sure that any reports of interference with those convoys are acted on swiftly.
Let me associate those on my Bench with the condolences to the Bhutto family. We very much hope that those responsible are tracked down and apprehended.
Ordinary Kenyans believe that they have the power to transform their future, and millions of them turned out to vote to do so last month. They think that their voice has not been heard, and they feel disfranchised as a result. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that what is required is strong, independent electoral commissions in developing countries, and will he work with the international community to deliver them and make sure that they are properly supported and resourced?
Yes; of course, independent electoral commissions that have the confidence of different communities in different countries are important. An earlier questioner referred to the electoral commission in Kenya. It would be quite wrong for any cloud to hang over the chairman of the Kenyan commission, who is long-serving and has done a very good job in difficult circumstances. I accept the concerns that have been expressed about the way in which the bodies are filled. It is certainly an important part of British Government policy to ensure that independent electoral commissions are genuinely independent.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that Britain’s Pakistani community is extremely exercised by events in Pakistan, and the circumstances of Benazir Bhutto’s death remain extremely contentious. We are glad that British police are going out to support the Pakistani police, but does he accept that most people in Pakistan have no confidence in an inquiry led by the Pakistani authorities, whose first act was to hose down the crime scene? Is he telling the House that he has completely ruled out the possibility of a genuine, independent inquiry led by the UN or another international organisation?
I understand and confirm the sense of grief and concern in many Pakistani communities in Britain. The question of an independent inquiry is obviously not one that we can decide; in the end, it must be decided in Pakistan. We have been very active, however, in ensuring that British expertise is available, without fear or favour, to report on the details obtained from a wide range of evidence—not just local forensic evidence, but the detailed video images that many of us have seen on our TV screens that was taken with mobile phones and other mechanisms.
My hon. Friend will recognise that an externally imposed solution has its dangers too. A country such as Pakistan needs to come to terms with its own circumstances and have the confidence of its own people; that is why the emphasis in all aspects of development policy is on generating local solutions. She has cried for independence in the system, and that is what our officials are dedicated to trying to provide for the mission that now exists.
In the light of the instability in Pakistan following recent tragic events and the need for security and calm in the run-up to the delayed general election, has the Foreign Secretary any information about the possible movement of Taliban members from Afghanistan to the areas of Pakistan where the Taliban are most strong? They may give further grounds for instability.
Obviously, we follow that issue very carefully on all channels—not just in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy such as that in Pakistan, but all the time. All reports are followed up; some are in the media, others are not. The best thing to say is that we take very seriously the need to act on both sides of the border to promote the security not only of our own people but of the development of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I mourn Benazir Bhutto, who was my friend. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in her final greetings card, Benazir prayed for peace in the world and happiness for family in 2008? That is bitterly ironic from a woman whose father and other family members were brutally murdered—as she was, ultimately. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest tribute to that brave and charismatic woman, whose final card showed the sun rising over Pakistan, would be properly conducted elections next month, resulting not in hereditary or military democracy, but in a deeply rooted democracy, which would be a memorial to Benazir?
My right hon. Friend has spoken powerfully and completely correctly about the memorial that needs to exist to Mrs. Bhutto, who acted with huge courage, knowing the risks that she faced. We are completely committed to the deep democracy to which he refers, and I know that we will pursue it with him and all his effort.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on the matter, raised by the shadow Foreign Secretary, of those who have fled Kenya to neighbouring countries such as Uganda? Will he give an assurance that, where humanitarian aid is concerned, those who have fled Kenya are also taken into account? A country such as Uganda has its own economic problems; the last thing that it wants is starving and hungry people fleeing from Kenya.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. The international community cannot get into the situation of determining the amount of help that refugees get according to which side of the border they are. We have an active programme in Uganda.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that we do not yet have reports of the issue becoming a cross-border one. The more than 120,000 or 130,000 people in the Rift valley remain there; they have not moved from that area, although they have moved from their homes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I that Kenya has a strong civic society that provides family and other support. That partly explains why, certainly to our knowledge, the vast majority of refugees are in the country.
Speaking as a Member of Parliament who represents a very large Pakistani community and a not insubstantial community of people who are Kenyan citizens, I believe that the thing that connects the two issues is the sentiment common to all people that if ordinary voters can decide the future of their country, they can have confidence in their Government. There is an opportunity for that to happen in Pakistan, but it requires not only an independent judiciary, to which other hon. Members have referred, but an open media. What can the UK Government do to help with that, because unless there is open reporting people will fear that the election is not independent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can best support the open media that she and I support by making direct representations to the Pakistani authorities, which we have been doing, and by ensuring that a free media is part of the demands that are made by organisations such as the Commonwealth and others. We are certainly determined to do that.
I join the Foreign Secretary in his words of condemnation of the violence in Kenya and in Pakistan and thank him for his statement to the House. In light of the brutal killing of the women and children in the church on 1 January and the fear that that has engendered, what contact has been made by the British authorities with British citizens in Kenya, especially missionaries, and what advice has been given to them?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point, which I have discussed regularly with the high commissioner. As he probably knows, there is a system of ward outreach to British nationals in Kenya, as in many countries, whereby we try to ensure that the vast bulk of them, if not all, are registered with the high commission. The best means of contact, whether that be telephone or other methods such as e-mail, are established so that they can be kept in touch with actions. If the hon. Gentleman has any contact with missionaries whom he thinks might not be part of that telephone or e-mail tree, I am happy to recognise that. However, we are determined to try to ensure that in all countries, such as Kenya, we have rapid systems for making contact with as many British citizens as possible. So far, the system seems to be working, because although we have put on call a series of crisis teams, the number of calls to the Foreign Office in London and to the British high commission in Nairobi has been relatively limited, usually in single figures on any one day. That suggests that the mechanisms that we have in place are working, but we are always happy to try to improve them.
The Foreign Secretary rightly drew attention to the rising and widespread growth of inequality in Kenya and in Pakistan. Would he care to reflect on the fact that the world is now seeing on its television sets the appalling poverty in the slums in Kenya and the failure of the democratic system to provide any sort of equality of opportunity for many people in Kenya, and that in Pakistan successive military Governments have spent a vast amount of the nation’s resources on weapons of mass destruction, which have obviously had an impact on many people’s lives? Does he have any hope that a restoration of a proper democratic system in both countries will help to close this yawning gap, which is at the heart of an awful lot of these problems?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this matter, and I am pleased that he does so. Yes, I do have hope, but there is no point in looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles. Hope needs to lead to decisions that make a difference. Economic growth is the first precondition for tackling the endemic poverty that he and I abhor. In 2005, I saw for myself in the Kibera slum in the centre of Nairobi the sort of conditions to which he refers. Hope needs to lead to choices, which are best made on the basis of a democratic mandate, in the interests of stability and equality. However, no one who visits Kibera can say that this is anything other than a long-term challenge and one that it would be absurd to be glib about. That is why it is right to talk about five, 10, 15 or 20-year challenges, not just five-day or five-month challenges.
The Secretary of State talks about combating terrorism, but fails to mention the one thing that links Pakistan to events in Afghanistan and to 9/11, 7/7, Bali and Madrid—the al-Qaeda training camps that are on the Pakistani border. Does he agree that Pakistan should now hold up its hands and say that it cannot contain that 400-mile mountainous border and that international help is needed, because otherwise we will continue to see a conveyor belt of suicide bombers coming out of that area, causing mayhem not only in Pakistan but in other places around the world?
The hon. Gentleman does not need to find division across the House on that point. He will have heard in my statement the reference to the joint fight against al-Qaeda. He will also know that we are strongly committed to the international support for the Pakistan and Afghanistan Governments that will be necessary. However, that cannot merely be military support. In the end, there needs to be a political solution in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. A military element is needed, but it will not do the trick on its own. There is room for common ground across the House on that point, and that is what I am determined to try to seek.
On Kenya, how will my right hon. Friend, who said that it is down to Kenyans to decide, and the international community assess the validity of any coalition Government? How will they expect such a Government to perform on power sharing and tackling corruption, and what will they expect the possible duration to be? If problems with electoral fraud are proven, Kenya needs not only to be able to move forward, but to do so with the full confidence and support of the international community.
I know that my hon. Friend has spent time in Kenya and has good contacts there. In answer to an earlier question, I said that I thought that any Government who would command the confidence of the Kenyan people needed to involve the main Opposition party. Government needed to involve both Government and Opposition. That is the first test.
Secondly, the duration would obviously be a subject of discussion. All sorts of time frames are being bandied around by the Opposition and the Government. Obviously, it could not be longer than five years, but a range of other durations are being suggested. Some would make the new Government more interim than would others. The diverse communities in Kenya and the diverse votes that they cast in the election need genuinely to be recognised, and that is the sort of Government that our Government would be keen to support.
While nobody would underestimate the difficulty of protecting any democratic politician, is it not concerning that the assassin was able to get to Benazir Bhutto so soon after her return to Pakistan? Is the Foreign Secretary concerned about the extent of militant influence over the Pakistan security forces? If so, is he convinced that when carrying out his entirely laudable aim to increase co-operation on terrorism with the Pakistan security forces any information would remain secure?
Obviously I am concerned about the ability of terrorists to strike at the heart of Pakistan, not only on 27 December but in October when Mrs. Bhutto returned to Pakistan. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have full confidence that the counter-terrorism co-operation in which we are engaged with the Government of Pakistan is in the interests not only of Pakistan but of the UK, too.
It is not often that I agree with the comments or views of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), but he makes a valid point today, writing in the Daily Record, that the tribalism in Kenya is another form of nationalism. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that if we are to learn lessons from Kenya, which was a perfectly stable country until recently, the people who promote extreme nationalism in this country should be careful with their language and also with their actions?
I am happy to agree that we should always be careful about our language and our actions while recognising that countries can be very different. I think that my hon. Friend and I share the view that the constitutional arrangements in the UK respect diverse views in a way that builds on what we hold together while recognising what is different.
The Prime Minister, on Kenya, has used expressions such as “these are the objectives I wish to see”. The Foreign Secretary has outlined the type of political system that he might like to see in Kenya and replied affirmatively to the point made by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) about the need for political parties here to get involved in Kenya. Those are all political objectives of the British Government, the merits of which can be debated in the House. However, the Foreign Secretary presides over a Department that will have to cut three missions in Africa, while the Department for International Development is unable to assist in the pursuit of British national objectives in the way described by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others. Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied that the balance of investment to support the British national effort is correct?
Yes. I would like to know where the hon. Gentleman thinks that DFID is not fulfilling an agenda that is in the British national interest—or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for that matter. The consular response in these cases has shown our ability to do so; the political response, ditto. As always in the seven years of discussion I have had with the hon. Gentleman, if he is willing to provide any details I will be happy to follow them up and get in touch with him.
It is good that the hon. Gentleman raises that matter, which was raised on the two previous occasions when I talked about Pakistan. I am happy to confirm that nothing has been reported to us since 27 December that would compromise our assessment of the integrity and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.
Given the ambiguous credentials of Pakistani intelligence agencies, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) referred, did the Government, in their conversations with Benazir Bhutto, offer her any advice about personal security, especially after the first attempt on her life?
At both ministerial and official level, discussions were held about Mrs. Bhutto’s sense of security and the provision that was being made for her. It would be wrong to pretend that I was in a position to offer her personal advice about that, but I know that representations were made at a high level to ensure that her concerns were properly taken into account.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, if an EU monitoring commission finds that the presidential elections were rigged, Kibaki’s position would be untenable and that he would rightly become an international pariah? Does he also agree that in such circumstances, smart sanctions aimed at Kibaki and his cronies, their travel arrangements and moving money abroad, would be justified?
Sanctions are only but always justified when they have a clear objective and contribute to that objective. It is dangerous at this stage to start dealing in the hypothetical position that the hon. Gentleman outlines because there is clearly a need to bridge the current gap between what the Government in Kenya and the Opposition say about their willingness to engage in discussions. They are both talking about the matter but they have not yet bridged the gap. Our focus is on bridging that gap. If we fail, we must examine all the consequences, including those of our actions.
Prisons (Industrial Relations)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on industrial relations in the Prison Service, and on my tabling amendments today to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The amendments are for debate on Report this Wednesday.
The aim of the amendments is to provide for a reserve statutory restriction on industrial action by prison officers. The powers in the amendments would be applied only in the absence of a suitable trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement between the Prison Service and the relevant trade unions. As I will explain, tabling the amendments fulfils clear undertakings given to Parliament by Ministers over six years.
The Prison Service is an essential public service. Prison officers do a difficult and demanding job. They deal with some of the most dangerous and vulnerable people in our society. Their work is often unseen by the general public. I pay tribute to their endeavours and those of all other staff in the service.
Prison officers are in a uniformed and disciplined service. When on duty, they are officers of the law with the powers of a police constable. They have a clear duty to uphold the law, protect the public and safeguard the welfare of the prisoners in their care.
In those respects, their position as officers whose role is essential to the security of the state and the communities in it is similar to that in other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces. Parliament has made it clear and laid down in statute that the risk to the public in each of those services is simply too great to allow them to take industrial action.
At the same time, it has been well recognised that, without that form of influence, staff need other legitimate means of pursuing grievances and concerns with their employer. In 2000, I established a pay review body for prison governors, prison officers and related grades. Subsequently, in 2001, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the then Home Secretary, introduced proposals for a comprehensive voluntary agreement with the Prison Officers Association. In 2005, this agreement was replaced by a joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, which provides mechanisms for resolving disputes between the POA and the Prison Service, including binding arbitration.
Under the JIRPA, the POA voluntarily agreed to legally enforceable constraints on its ability to take industrial action. It was explicitly on that basis that the Government sought parliamentary approval to disapply the statutory prohibition on industrial action in section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 for public sector workers in England, Wales and Scotland. The disapplication was made by an order under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. In making that order, with the Opposition’s broad support, my noble Friend Lord Bassam, on behalf of the Government, said in terms that in the event of notice of termination of the JIRPA the Government would have
“no hesitation in bringing forward legislation to ensure that that protection”—
in the disapplied statute—
“is there.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 March 2005; Vol. 670, c. 222.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), the then Prisons Minister, spelt this out to Parliament in a written answer the following year in which he said:
“If the POA gives notice to terminate the agreement with no alternative arrangements being in place, the Secretary of State would ask Parliament to reintroduce statutory constraints such as existed prior to disapplication of section 127.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 1897W.]
Regrettably, in May last year the POA gave 12 months’ notice, expiring on 8 May this year, of its intention to withdraw from this agreement in respect of England and Wales. An equivalent agreement remains in force in Scotland.
Experience underlines why there must be sufficient protection against industrial action. Most recently, on 29 August 2007, despite being bound by the terms of the voluntary agreement banning industrial action, the POA initiated a 24-hour strike, giving the service just one hour’s notice. As the JIRPA was still in force, that strike action was constrained by an interim injunction, but nevertheless it had a substantial impact on the operation of the public sector Prison Service. That included the cancellation of court appearances, transfers of prisoners and the extended use of police cells. The action led to serious disturbances at Her Majesty’s young offender institution Lancaster Farms, resulting in significant damage to cells that cost £220,000 to repair.
The public’s safety has to be my primary consideration, but it cannot be acceptable for prisoners to be locked in their cells for an indeterminate period, with great uncertainty about when they will next get a meal, exercise or medication, and with serious risks to their welfare. It has always been, and continues to be, my hope that the Prison Service and POA can agree a new trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement that would be binding on both parties.
Early last summer, the Government asked the Trades Union Congress to initiate talks between the Prison Service and the POA, aimed at improving industrial relations and at reaching a new agreement. The talks were conducted under the auspices of Mr. Ed Sweeney, a then senior member of the TUC General Council and now chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Mr. Sweeney’s report on the talks has now been sent to both parties and a copy has been placed in the Library. I am extremely grateful to him for his work. His recommendations offer a sound basis for further discussion and a framework for future agreement. I very much hope that the POA will continue to engage with that.
However, Mr. Sweeney also recognises that, given the current industrial relations climate, in which public safety cannot be guaranteed in the event of industrial action, the Government will need to consider what mechanisms must be put in place should an agreement not be achieved. I very much hope that between now and May a new and acceptable voluntary agreement can be made. I would much prefer the reserve powers in the amendment never to have to be used, but in proposing them I am fulfilling clear and explicit undertakings given to this House and the other place. I emphasise that the amendments reflect the wording of the current joint industrial relations procedural agreement, which defines industrial action as
“any action likely to affect the normal working of a prison”.
This provides no greater constraint than the one to which the Prison Officers Association voluntarily signed up in 2005.
The House will also wish to know that legislation of this nature is in accordance with European Union and international law. Similar measures can be found in the constitutions and laws of many other European countries, including France, Germany and Italy. I have placed a copy of a report in the Library that summarises the position in European and other OECD countries.
I repeat, however, that I am mindful of the need to establish a sound platform on which to secure constructive industrial relations between the Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. That is why the amendments provide a reserve power, to be activated or suspended by order of the Secretary of State. Should a suitable trade union dispute resolution and recognition agreement be reached—one that includes protections against industrial action—the statutory prohibition would be suspended. That is in line with Mr. Sweeney’s recommendation to make any reinstatement of section 127 of the 1994 Act what he calls a passive change, rather than an active way of conducting employee relations in the Prison Service.
Mr. Sweeney also recommends that an independent review take place two years after any agreement is signed between the Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. This review would re-examine the balance of arguments for and against allowing forms of industrial action by prison officers. If a suitable trade union recognition agreement is agreed and sustained, I will commit to this further review after a period of stability.
This year provides an important opportunity for us all to build a new and positive industrial relations climate for the Prison Service. We are committed to engaging constructively with all Prison Service trade unions on a programme of work force modernisation, and we are ready to pay for it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already made available significant additional funds from April 2009 to support the programme, which could be underpinned by a multi-year pay deal. I very much hope that the Prison Service and the Prison Service trade unions will engage to make the best use of those funds, in order to provide a brighter future for all staff, develop new and more flexible working practices, and create more stable industrial relations within the Prison Service. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.
Prisons are places of security, in which there can be no place for industrial action. That was why the previous Conservative Government legislated for the statutory prohibition of industrial action in prisons. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Labour party fought tooth and nail against those laws in opposition? Indeed, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair said that they were a
“wholly unwarranted attack on the working rights of prison officers”.
Is it not therefore extraordinary that, having dismantled the statutory ban, the Government should now be threatening to put it back in place?
We are now being asked to debate new clauses in 48 hours’ time, when the Secretary of State has known about the problem for months. Will he assure us that there will be sufficient time on Wednesday to debate those and other important amendments that the Government have tabled since the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill?
The Secretary of State said that the status of prison officers was similar to other essential services, such as the police and the armed forces, where the risk to the public is simply too great to allow them to take industrial action. In that case, what was the justification for repealing the statutory provision in the first place, when it placed prison officers on the same footing as the police and the armed forces? Has not the inadequacy of the Government’s no-strike agreement been revealed by the fact that the Secretary of State has been forced to make his statement today?
In 2001, when he was Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman made it clear to the House that independent arbitration on pay would be provided “in recognition” of the repeal of the statutory ban and its replacement with a no-strike agreement. That was the deal that the Government made with the unions. Why, then, are Ministers surprised that the Prison Officers Association considers that deal to have been reneged upon, when the Government have reduced the value of a pay award made by the pay review body?
When the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), announced the repeal of the statutory ban on strikes, that announcement heralded an era of modernisation, reform and change. Have we not actually seen crisis, incompetence and wildcat strikes? Why did the Secretary of State claim to have been surprised by last August’s wildcat action, given that it was clear to everyone else that relations with prison officers were deteriorating so fast? Does he accept that the Government’s troubles with prison officers go beyond pay? Is it not a fact that conditions for prison staff have worsened significantly over the past 10 years? Prison officer numbers have risen at half the rate of the prison population, chronic overcrowding is putting immense strain on the service, assaults on prison staff have soared by 80 per cent., and now budgetary cuts mean the prospect of prisoners’ being locked in their cells throughout weekends. Is it any wonder that prison officer morale is so low?
Coming into office, the Government promised
“partnership not conflict between employers and employees.”
Now we have conflict with the police and conflict with prison officers, and no doubt there are further conflicts to come. Has not this emergency statement been forced by a crisis entirely of the Government’s own making?
Ministers repealed no-strike legislation, and within three years they are having to reinstate it. Is that what they mean by a relaunch? They have mismanaged the public finances, mismanaged public pay and mismanaged prisons. Is it any wonder that this Government have acquired a reputation for serial incompetence?
Let me begin by wishing the hon. Gentleman and the House a happy new year. [Hon. Members: “The same to you.”] I thank Opposition Members for reciprocating.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman—while parenthetically advising him to change the pitch of his voice a little when he is making statements—that I do not suggest that the operation of the Prison Service over the past 10 years has been perfect or anything like it. If, however, he wants to establish whether it has been better during the past 10 years than it was during the previous 18, I shall be happy to engage in a contest, and I look forward to his using one of the Opposition Supply days for precisely that purpose. The level of industrial disruption within the Prison Service involving, for example, the use of police cells—which involved 3,500 cells at one stage and continued, more often than not, throughout those 18 years—makes our record pale into insignificance.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the timing of the statement. Last May, we were given notice that the Prison Officers Association intended to abandon the voluntary agreement that it signed in 2005. We decided, I think rightly, not to rush to reintroduce these powers, notwithstanding clear undertakings that they would be reintroduced if notice was given of intention to terminate the JIRPA. Instead, following an initiative from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—the Prisons Minister—we involved the TUC. Mr. Ed Sweeney has produced an important report, on which we are acting. I did not want to make my statement before we had received Mr. Sweeney’s report; I am conscious that it does not allow a great deal of time for debate, but I thought that this was the best possible moment.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s nonsense about an emergency statement, when I gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee in October, one of his hon. Friends asked whether I intended to reintroduce section 127. I said that it was under active consideration, and that remains the position.
The hon. Gentleman must do his homework.
My hon. Friend is always right about these matters. As she says, the hon. Gentleman needs to do his homework.
There are two things to be said about the position taken by the Opposition in 1994, about which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will doubtless ask a question. If the hon. Gentleman bothers to read the report of the debates that were held at the time, he will see that the allegation that we fought the proposals “tooth and nail” is hardly an accurate description of the criticism expressed from both the Liberal Democrat Benches and ours. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who led for the Opposition, made the point that if there were to be a restriction on prison officers’ right to strike, it had to be balanced by other measures. Moreover, in the three years when I was shadow Home Secretary, I never gave a single undertaking that we would repeal section 127; neither did I do so at any stage when I was Home Secretary, nor did my successors.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside would have preferred, as would the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, that the change to section 127 be made by way of its suspension, rather than its repeal. That was not possible in the circumstances, but when the measure came before the other place—with the support of the Opposition, who were not making these nitpicking points at the time—clear undertakings were given that in the event of termination of the JIRPA, we would re-introduce the ban.
I have dealt with the point about chronic overcrowding. There is a degree of overcrowding, but it is nothing like that within the Prison Service in the 1980s and early 1990s. The ratio of prison staff to prisoners has remained stable at between 1:21 to 1:22. However, quite a lot of the duties previously undertaken by prison officers are now undertaken by operational support grades—for example, people working in gatehouses who do not have direct contact with prisoners. Before the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) next makes that point, the question for him is whether he is proposing that a future Conservative Government, whenever that might be, would reinstate those jobs to prison officers. If not, what on earth is the point he is making?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and particularly for pointing out in his response to the Opposition that there is a long history of very poor industrial relations in the Prison Service. I hope we can move from the regulation and the statutory provision that he has proposed back to proper negotiation. Is he aware that from the point of view of the Prison Officers Association, there is a sense of imbalance in the relationship between it and the management of the Prison Service? Will he say a little about what the Sweeney report recommends in relation to that imbalance, if it is recognised?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the terms in which he makes his point. A copy of the quite lengthy report is available, but essentially Mr. Sweeney is seeking to produce a more effective voluntary agreement with different forms of arbitration; for example, to reduce the arguments about whether an issue is suitable for arbitration, which has been one of the problems of the JIRPA, and to make the arbitration more acceptable. Along with work force modernisation, for which more money is available from April next year, these and other improvements should lead to a major change in the industrial relations climate within the service, which is my commitment. As I said, I would much prefer us to achieve a situation—I think that this is possible—where these statutory powers do not have to be used.
I genuinely thank the Lord Chancellor for giving me early sight of his statement; it is a good start to the new year.
Is not the only thing that could exacerbate the chaos that the Government have created in the Prison System a wholesale withdrawal of good will by prison officers? Strikes are never appropriate in prisons, but no-strike arrangements can work only when there is effective dialogue and trust—an important word—between the work force and management or Government.
In the draft that the Lord Chancellor kindly sent me, there was an unfortunate typographical error. At one point, it said that the Government sought to “misapply” the statutory prohibition. Is not that exactly the problem of trust between many in the public service—particularly the uniformed branches of the public service—and the Government? They do not trust the Government not to misapply the arrangements in these areas and there is a strong feeling that they are increasingly taken advantage of as a result. Is that not exemplified in one of the problems with the Prison Officers Association—the staging of pay awards?
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the staging of a pay award is counter-inflationary when the same point is reached by the end of the year? It is rather a case of providing slippage within departmental budgets. Should not we have clear arbitration binding not only on the work force, but on the Government and the management ? Is the Lord Chancellor confident that any contingency plans involving the police will be substantive—if, indeed, the police are asked to intervene in circumstances almost identical to those of their own grievance with the Government?
Mr. Sweeney makes an important point in paragraph 4.7 of his report:
“In my opinion industrial relations between the SPS”—
the Scottish Prison Service—
“and the Scottish members of the POA are far more positive than those between HM Prison Service and the POA in England and Wales. This reflects the commitment of both sides to building a positive working relationship”,
which has been the case
“over the last six years.”
Why is there that difference between the circumstances in Scotland and those in England and Wales? Given the increasing permeability between the private and the public sectors, will the prohibition apply in similar terms to those working in the private sector within the prison system? Should we not recognise the very difficult job that prison officers undertake on our behalf and ensure that their efforts are properly recognised, along with those of other members of the uniformed services?
The Lord Chancellor did not answer the point made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The Bill now extends to two volumes and has more than 170 clauses and a second volume of schedules, and it addresses matters of huge importance to Back-Bench—and, indeed, Front-Bench—Members. The Lord Chancellor is now interpolating yet another section into the Bill. Does he really believe that this House is being properly dealt with in being provided with a single day to discuss the Bill’s remaining stages? Is it not inevitable that large parts of important proposed legislation will remain undebated by this House, and that the attentions of the other House will be required to put that right, as is so often the case?
I apologise to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for not answering his question; I meant to do so. I appreciate that there are pressures on time in the House. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has arranged for the business of the House on Wednesday to extend until 8.30 pm and I hope that that is sufficient.
I spotted the typo, and it was changed. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was, of course, breaking a trust in mentioning it, as all such material is provided in confidence.
The staging of any pay review reduces the total cost in the year concerned, and I simply say that the Government have not sought to stage any of these pay awards lightly. Indeed, we are well aware of the impact that that has had on relations, particularly with the police service and the Prison Service, but it was essential that we reduced inflation and interest rates. Prison officers and police officers, along with all other members of the public services, would have suffered disproportionately if we had not been able to take that effective action. That is why we had to do this.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the relationship between the pay review body and any joint agreement. The joint agreement does not directly deal with pay, and nor would it as it is a subject for the pay review body. We always hope to be able to accept in full the recommendations of the review body, but that is subject to overriding considerations of national economic interest.
The hon. Gentleman asks about contingency arrangements with the police. As we have to keep these matters confidential, let me just say that arrangements are in place and they will be used if necessary, but there is no way in which the police can do the job of prison officers and other staff.
As for Scotland, Mr. Sweeney said in the same paragraph as that quoted that
“it needs to be borne in mind that HM Prison Service”
for England and Wales
“are operating a larger and arguably more complex Service than the SPS”,
but we stand ready to learn from Scotland—Mr. Sweeney makes that point.
I am glad to see that one of the representatives from Scotland is nodding. I should add that it has always been ready to learn from England and Wales, and long may that continue. The private sector is already the subject of the 1994 Act, and that was not changed by its repeal under the order made in 2005. I of course accept and repeat that prison officers do a difficult job, and I praise them for it.
My right hon. Friend is right to point out that prison officers do a very difficult job, and we should be grateful for what they do. Nevertheless, the whole House will accept that we cannot afford to have this essential service disrupted by industrial action such as the recent one-day action. My right hon. Friend said that these powers will be reserve powers only and that, subject to proper agreement, he is prepared to suspend them indefinitely. Will he give a commitment to the House that not only he but the whole Prison Service will commit to improving morale within the prison service? Underlying all these problems is the fact that morale is simply not satisfactory.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and yes, of course I give that undertaking; we want to see far better industrial relations and a high level of morale. The evidence on morale is to a degree contradictory—there is what the Prison Officers Association says, while local surveys provide a different picture. Also, at 2 per cent., the resignation rate from the prison service is the lowest of any service in the public sector. That speaks volumes and is more substantial than other evidence, but I accept what my hon. Friend says and we will do our very best.
Is this not the most humiliating U-turn by the Secretary of State, who personally campaigned shamelessly for the votes of prison officers in the 1997 election by promising to give them the right to strike? Is it not all of a piece with the conduct of the Secretary of State, who, when shadow Home Secretary, described private sector prisons as morally repugnant and then espoused them with enthusiasm when in office? Has the right hon. Gentleman no shame?
Let me just correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman. No undertakings were given to repeal section 127—[Interruption.] Well, they were not—in the 1997 manifesto; not a word. He, too, should do his homework rather better. Moreover, he will remember—because I have a feeling that he was shadow Home Secretary for a short period—that quite quickly after I became Home Secretary following his august period, the POA sought to test whether I was serious about not repealing section 127. It took industrial action, and I then had to seek an injunction in respect of that. I had made it clear over the three years that I was shadow Home Secretary that although I of course wanted different relations, I did not believe that we should repeal section 127 without the equivalent of a voluntary agreement.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that when Paul Boateng, as Prisons Minister, set out on my behalf the arrangements that we were bringing in for the pay review body and for what then became the JIRPA, we were very clear that we were going to seek not the repeal of section 127 but its suspension as a reserve power. It was only as a result of the technical problems associated with the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 that we had to go down the route of repeal and, therefore, of reintroducing legislation now.
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor must look longingly north of the border to see why, as he said in his reply to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), industrial relations there are so much better than they are south of the border. The answer is the existence of a simple two-word phrase: a partnership agreement. Is it not possible to encourage the prison boards in England and Wales to move away from their often bovine, Victorian mill-owner approach to industrial relations? It will require, as the Prison Officers Association says, a complete sea change in the actions and attitudes of the people on those prison boards. What can the Lord Chancellor do to bring that about any time soon?
If I may say to my hon. Friend, I do not recognise that description of good, positive Prison Service management. However, we need a new future for both sides, and that is what is on offer and what I want to see. Not just that is on offer—money is available for work force modernisation. Although I fully understand that my statement today will not be comfortable for the Prison Officers Association, I hope that it will recognise that there is a chance here to take forward work force modernisation. Additional money will be available from April, and Mr. Sweeney made important and positive recommendations, on which we want to act.
While I accept the action that the Lord Chancellor hinted was going to become necessary when he appeared before my Select Committee, did he note the view in Mr. Sweeney’s report that relations at local level were generally reasonable or good and that it was at national level that relations between the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Service were at a particularly low ebb? Have there not been failings on both sides over the years that have brought this about? Is it possible to change them, given the background of the pressures of overcrowding and the mishandling of the police arbitration settlement, which has created a lack of confidence that the Government will stick to their side of the bargain when no-strike provisions are in force?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that relations at local level are on the whole good—he makes the point that I made earlier. The issue of relations at national level needs to be addressed. I hope that the House will acknowledge that my statement did not seek to start allocating blame; I want a different industrial relations climate for the future. I have long believed that that must be underpinned by a voluntary agreement, which excludes industrial action—I think that that is now the view of the whole House—or, if that cannot happen, by a reserve power making that statutory.
Given the acknowledged very poor state of industrial relations at national level, does my right hon. Friend have concerns that announcing the reinstatement of section 127 before any negotiations have taken place on the Sweeney report’s recommendations will make it a lot more difficult to reach a speedy and sensible agreement with the POA on those recommendations? We need an agreement that gives recognition to the POA as an independent trade union and replaces the JIRPA with an accepted and agreed process for resolving disputes, and, like the Scottish model, allows the union, rather than just the management, to initiate changes through that agreement.
My right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I have met the POA on six or seven occasions since we took office in June last year. Of course I would like to be in a different position, but there has never been any dubiety about this matter. Mr. Sweeney’s report states:
“I do not believe at this point in time it will be possible to meet this policy position of the POA. Employment relations in the Prison Service actually militate against meeting this policy consideration”
—which is for an end to any either voluntary or statutory ban—
“as does the absence of any form of minimum cover arrangements”.
In that light, I thought that this was the appropriate time to bring forward these proposals for legislation on the reserve power. It would have been false of me to have sought to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the POA without making it clear that if a voluntary agreement could not be achieved, we would have to introduce legislation on a reserve basis.
One would hope that the Lord Chancellor of England would always have an instinctive sense of what is fair. Governments of all persuasions have taken away the right to strike from various public sector workers, but in consideration of that, they have set up either independent pay review bodies or independent arbitration bodies. Surely what is fair about that is that the Government should then honour what those pay review bodies recommend. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will recognise that it is not fair for payments then to be staged, because that does not honour the pay review body’s agreements. Governments can take that approach but, as someone whose constituency, like that of many hon. Members, contains a prison, I must tell him that it leads to a sense of frustration, betrayal and mistrust, it is bad human relations and bad labour relations, and it is also inherently unfair.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s basic point that where a work force is prevented, by one means or another, from taking industrial action, the Government have a double responsibility to ensure that any disputes, including those in respect of pay, are dealt with extra fairly. In normal circumstances we would accept the recommendations of the Prison Service pay review board, but these were not normal circumstances for reasons that I have already explained and they involved difficult judgments. I know that they were not popular with prison officers, and I understand why. However, if we had gone down the alternative route across the public sector as a whole, it would have been that much more difficult to have convinced the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England that we were getting a grip on public sector pay-led inflation. The result would have been that interest rates would not now be on a downward path, and everybody would suffer.
Is the Minister really happy with the idea that a Labour Government should be effectively taking away the right to strike from a group of public sector workers? While he says in his statement that it is in accordance with EU and international law, is he really satisfied that it fulfils the obligations that we have under International Labour Organisation treaties on the right of workers to join and act in independent trade unions?
I am not in any doubt as to the latter point. My hon. Friend will be able to read the detailed report that I have issued today about practice elsewhere in Europe and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with an analysis of our obligations, and he will then see why I am so confident about saying that. Almost all jurisdictions have prohibitions on the police and armed forces taking industrial action and many, across Europe and other OECD countries, have similar restrictions, which are entirely lawful internationally, in respect of prison officers, for the same reason. Of course I understand the argument that my hon. Friend makes, but it must be balanced against the impact on public safety and the welfare of prisoners if industrial action is taken in that particular case. I have asked the Prison Officers Association time and again what it would do were it in my position and faced with industrial action by prison officers that meant that prisoners could not be fed, would not know when they would next be able to exercise and, in the case of many prisoners who unfortunately have mental health problems, would not know when they would next receive medication. Those are the considerations that have to be balanced, and that is why we have now reluctantly reached a consensus across the Chamber that such industrial action must be restricted by one means or another. At the same time, we have to put in place better and alternative arrangements.
Canterbury prison is in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the key reasons behind the huge rise in attacks on prison staff and the inevitable effect that that has on morale is the progressive undermining of the disciplinary climate by human rights legislation? What message does he have for those warders who were unable, in a well reported case last week, to deliver a prisoner to court because he was deemed to have a right to continue to occupy his cell because somebody else might otherwise take it?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I am writing to all right hon. and hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies setting out in more detail what I have said today. In the well publicised case that he mentions, I asked for immediate information because I would have found it no more acceptable—if the reports were true—than did the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to write to him with more detail, but I have been told that it simply was not the case that the prisoner stayed back because he was claiming human rights to his own cell—there is no such recognised right in domestic or international law—but because his legal advisers had told him that his visit to court was not necessary. The Prison Service is clear that if a prisoner is due in court and has no good reason for refusing to go—such as legal advice—he will, if necessary, be forcibly removed from prison to appear in court. That remains the case.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems is the apparent inconsistency of approach? Some of us believe fundamentally in the right to strike, and we also ask public sector workers in very responsible positions to show restraint. We need consistency, and we need to recognise the hurt felt by the POA. There is no substitute for good negotiation.
Of course I recognise the conflict of principles, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) in this case the principle of safety of the public and the welfare of prisoners has to take precedence. Meanwhile, there can be no substitute for good relations and it is that to which I have committed myself, as has my right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister, the director general and all his staff. We want a different way of resolving disputes in the Prison Service.
However much the Lord Chancellor tries to patronise my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), or shamelessly reinvent history, he cannot escape the fact that today’s decision is a humiliation and a consequence of the Government’s management of the whole Prison Service. There are two prisons in my constituency, one of which—HMP Downview—was a leading centre for treating addiction in male offenders. Under the Lord Chancellor’s time as Home Secretary, the Government managed, at only two weeks’ notice, to turn it into a women’s prison with the complete destruction and loss of the valuable programmes in the prison. Changes at HMP Highdown mean that the prison has to accept 360 new places in three months, with a vast increase of detached duty officers going to the prison to make the changes work. That is a consequence of the Government’s inability to cope with wholly predicted increases in prisoner numbers, male and female. The decision today is a reflection of the Government’s mishandling of the Prison Service and the consequent anger of the Prison Officers Association.
I simply disagree. We have been far more effective at managing prison numbers than the Administration the hon. Gentleman supported for 18 years ever were. That is measured by the fact that we have not had to use police cells anything like as often or as extensively as happened repeatedly under the previous Administration. Nor have I ever had to come to the House as Douglas Hurd did to announce the release of 3,500 prisoners just like that, so I want no lectures at all—
And continuing—on executive release.
On consistency, it was made absolutely clear to prison officers, by me back in 2000 and again in 2005 by Prison Ministers, that if they gave intention to terminate the voluntary agreement, with a voluntary ban on industrial action, section 127 would be reintroduced. The difference is that I am reintroducing it as a reserve power, and I very much hope that we can achieve another voluntary agreement before the beginning of May.
May I shine a wee bit of light on industrial relations in Scotland? As my right hon. Friend knows, when I was head of health for Unison in 1997 industrial relations were poor, so we set up a model—called partnership working—that was legislated for and had the same legal standing as clinical governance and financial governance. To the credit of the last Scottish Government and the current minority Scottish Administration, they both signed a memorandum of understanding, which has had a big impact on industrial relations. We will happily give my right hon. Friend the expertise of the Scottish health service and the Scottish TUC if desired.
On 29 August, I visited HMP Wellingborough where I met 30 striking prison officers. Those hard-working, decent men and women did not want to be on strike, but they felt that the Government had broken their agreement. I am sure members at the prison would be happy to accept a no-strike agreement if the Government agreed to binding arbitration, not arbitration that can be changed, as the Lord Chancellor said, in the national interest.
May I make it clear that of course I understand the anger of the prison officers, although I do not think that it justified their industrial action on the 29th? Presumably that is the hon. Gentleman’s view, too. We broke no undertakings or agreements, because it has been made clear by successive Governments that we will always be minded to accept the recommendations of pay review bodies, except where there are overriding economic considerations in the national interest. An important detail is that the joint industrial relations procedural agreement, or JIRPA, does not deal directly with pay, which is, and will continue to be, dealt with under the pay review arrangements.
The Lord Chancellor spoke of the POA walking away from the JIRPA. The reality is that the POA could not make the JIRPA work because the management—a management that is prepared to discipline people for wearing a trade union badge—were interested in going to court at the drop of a hat. Will he tell us what exactly will be done to improve the quality of management? If there is no such improvement, the new agreement will not work either.
Of course opinions differ, as they often do in respect of industrial relations. In the case of the Prison Service, the employees and employers have different perceptions; I do not want to comment on that. In my view, the report from Mr. Ed Sweeney provides a positive way forward. My hon. Friend will know from his trade union experience that there have been plenty of occasions on which although relations have not been all that good, they have got better as a result of good will on both sides and new agreements. That is what I hope will happen in the four months before 8 May.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you would use your good offices to invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement about newspaper articles over the weekend, which said that Prince Andrew has—
Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman before he has even got going, but I understand that his point of order relates to a matter of security. He should know that it is not the practice to discuss the security of individuals on the Floor of the House, for obvious reasons. The Chair has no responsibility for security matters, except in relation to the House.
No, I have dealt with that point of order.
Orders of the Day
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is the duty of every Government to keep the contract between the state and the individual under constant review to ensure that the balance between rights and responsibilities is properly maintained. At the end of last year I set out how that contract will be renewed through welfare reform, as we move from a regime of passive benefits to one of active benefits. The Bill will enact the remainder of the landmark pensions reform package set out in May 2006 in the White Paper, “Security in retirement: towards a new pension system”, the first part of which became legislation in the Pensions Act 2007.
The Government have achieved a lot since 1997. We are spending £11 billion more on pensioners each year than would be spent if the policies of the last Conservative Government had been followed. This year we have spent £75 billion on provision for pensioners—around 13 per cent. of all public spending. Pension credit, winter fuel payments, free TV licences and above-inflation increases to the basic state pension have brought more than 1 million senior citizens out of relative poverty. Rolling out free bus travel right across Britain has also extended opportunities for pensioners. However, the challenges posed by our ageing society mean that we have to look ahead not a year at a time, but decades at a time.
Our changing demographic profile opens up increasing opportunities for baby boomers—those of us born between 1945 and 1965—in the “active ageing” category. Looking around the Chamber, I see that we are well represented. However, those changes also present immense challenges, not least in preparing for the future. The reality, and perhaps the irony, is that as our society gets older, pensions increasingly become a young person’s issue. In the next 50 years the number of people over pension age will increase by more than half, meaning that there will be only two people working for every one person in retirement, compared with four working people today, and 10 working people 100 years ago.
The cost implications of that increasing longevity for our children and grandchildren are arrestingly stark. Many more people expect to be active longer in retirement and need the resources to fund that. Unless we act now, and act decisively for the long term, we will bequeath a nightmare for future pensioners plunged into poverty, and for future taxpayers grappling with the consequences. We have already addressed some of the issues identified by Lord Turner’s commission. We have legislated for a simpler, fairer and more generous state pension system. In addition, about 75 per cent. of women retiring in 2010 will receive a full basic state pension, and by 2025, over 95 per cent. of men and women will retire with a full basic state pension.
Does my right hon. Friend have any plans to address the difficulty faced by the other 25 per cent., or whatever it will be? If his answer is that that is too costly to address at the moment, can he tell us what the cost and the likely difficulties are?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. As I indicated, we will move towards the 90 per cent. figure. We looked sympathetically—and I know that he takes a close interest in this—at Baroness Hollis’s proposal, but when we considered the details, it proved costly and poorly targeted. The poorest women would be unlikely to benefit, first, because they would lose means-tested benefits such as pension credit and, secondly, because they could not afford the several thousand pounds needed to buy back their contributions. In addition, many of those who would benefit—we estimate 67,000—would be either expatriates or foreign nationals who worked in the UK, but retired abroad, including many wealthy men and women. We prefer to find a better-targeted way to help low-income pensioners in the UK, and I know that my hon. Friend shares that concern, especially regarding women pensioners.
The Secretary of State made the valid point that expecting women to find thousands of pounds up front to pay for missing years and receive some pension would be prejudicial to poorer pensioners. In the past, however, his Department has allowed people to offset such contributions. If someone had to pay £2,000 to get £3,000 back, they would simply be paid the difference. The Government currently do so in a different scheme, so could that principle not be applied in this case?
We have only done that in limited cases, but we are looking at it all the time. If we could find a way—we are open to suggestions, and we looked carefully and sympathetically, as I said, at Baroness Hollis’s proposal—of targeting such a provision at women on low incomes, preferably living in this country, although that does not exclude others, that would be our priority. It is costly, however, to implement the proposal introduced in the summer by Baroness Hollis, who has long expertise in the area, to which I pay tribute.