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Commons Chamber

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

House of Commons

Tuesday 1 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—


Before the House rises for the recess, I will publish a shortlist of the locations that we believe have the best potential to be eco-towns and which will go forward for further assessment and public consultation. Later this year, we will announce up to 10 locations that we are satisfied meet our criteria.

In the selection of sites of eco-towns, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of existing communities to expand and regenerate, and resist attempts by organisations such as UK Coal to use eco-towns as a way of exploiting their existing land bank, which in some cases will affect the expansion of existing communities?

It is essential that the proposals for eco-towns not only meet high environmental standards but recognise where they sit in relation to other communities, particularly those that we seek to regenerate. It is also essential that they do not become simply commuter-belt communities, but have an identity of their own that includes homes, infrastructure and employment within the communities.

Will the Minister confirm that neither she nor the Secretary of State will entertain as suitable to go on the shortlist those sites that are no more than reheated and previously rejected or withdrawn applications? She will know, as will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), of the case in my constituency involving the Co-op, which has sought for the third time to build on its 5,000-acre farming estate. It withdrew its application in 1992 and tried again in 1996 with a sustainable urban extension. Will she confirm that this reheated application system should not be permitted?

We are certainly not interested in any reheated plans. For the next phase of consultation, it is important that we look at the locations that have the potential to be sites for eco-towns and that they undergo cross-government scrutiny, with advice from the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Highways Agency and others. It is important that we scrutinise the proposals in more depth to ensure that they fit the bill, and that is laid out clearly in the prospectus that we produced last year.

Will the Minister give an assurance that in the next phase to which she has just referred there will be an adequate opportunity for neighbouring local authorities to express their very real concerns about the potential effect of eco-towns on transport and regeneration?

Yes, we want local authorities and communities to look further into issues regarding infrastructure and transport, both in terms of getting from one place to another and reducing the reliance on the car by providing more sustainable transport options for those who will eventually live in the communities.

From the constructive and good-natured debate that I had on development in Aylesbury Vale with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), in Westminster Hall on 4 December, the Minister of State should be in no doubt that I am an enthusiast for sustainable development, including new housing which we need. Will she, however, accept it from me that the proposed impost in the minds of some of 5,000 new homes in Little Horwood in my constituency would represent a disproportional and unjust burden? If she chooses to trifle with the people of Little Horwood and to bite them, I can assure her that they will bite back.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in recognising that new homes have to be part of the future and that we need to build more. Part of the scrutiny for the eco-towns is to look at the housing supply and the housing need in the local communities where they will be placed, and we will look into that in great depth. One of the priorities for locations is housing need, and we cannot duck that because this is about homes for people who cannot get on the housing ladder and have a home of their choosing.

I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the amount of research that the Government have done into the development of eco-homes eclipses anything that we might expect from our opponents. Does she agree that the new homes entail a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use? Crucially for the British economy, those homes will also provide significant employment opportunities and opportunities to gain funding from countries such as China, because we will export that investment.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is involved in engineering—she is an eminent engineer—and who always looks for opportunities to support that profession. She is right: homes built today are 40 per cent. more efficient than those built a few years ago. Our aim through eco-towns and other approaches is to capitalise on the skills, ideas and innovation in this country to build homes and provide jobs and be a potent force for overseas export and investment back into this country.

Airport infrastructure in the United Kingdom is a subject of much interest. Is the Minister aware that small airports and airfields around the UK provide an important sub-infrastructure and that many business people use them? Will she provide an assurance that airfields such as Leicester airport and others will not be regarded as easy targets on which to build eco-towns, given that they are important parts of the infrastructure of the communities that they serve and are significant generators of wealth in the areas that they serve?

I declare an interest, because there is a growing airport in my constituency. It is very successful, and there has been house building and job creation as a result of that investment. I will not be drawn into specifics because, as I have said, I will publish the shortlist of locations before the House rises. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all factors in relation to eco-towns, including transport infrastructure, other amenities in the local area and the use of brownfield sites, are part of the mix, which we will study further to see what more we can get out of developers and to ensure that developers are meeting our exacting benchmarks.

On 4 March, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), told us that an announcement was imminent. Why has there been a delay, and why has it taken almost a month for the proposals to be published? Is the delay not a sign of the disarray in the Minister’s Department, which has ignored the need for proper infrastructure planning, failed to carry local support and even advanced proposals for sites that have already been rejected by planners? Will eco-towns join the growing list of botched projects, such as Thames Gateway and pathfinder?

Well, I do not know about reheated plans, but those are reheated Tory arguments. Behind the attacks on eco-towns, which is what this is really about, is a fundamental attack on the need to build more homes. We have not built new towns for 40 years. Of course infrastructure is important, which is why we are introducing the community infrastructure levy, the community infrastructure fund and all the proposals that will go through to the next round. There will be much closer scrutiny involving local authorities, Departments and other agencies to see what more we can get from those bidders to deliver on infrastructure. A community is not a community without infrastructure, and those eco-towns will show how it can be done well and how they can be the best.

Housing (Bournemouth)

The panel report into the draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west recommends an overall net increase in dwellings for Bournemouth of 16,100 for the period 2006 to 2026. That is the recommendation of the panel based on evidence submitted to and discussed at the examination in public held between 17 April and 6 July 2007. The panel’s recommendations are currently before the Secretary of State for consideration.

I am grateful for that reply, but it does not give the full picture. It is interesting that the Minister for Housing, who has just sat down, said that a community is not a community without infrastructure. The numbers of houses that the Under-Secretary has just read out will be built in Bournemouth with no investment in rail services, schools, hospitals or the fire service—as the Under-Secretary knows, there has been a 1 per cent. increase for the fire service. How can we continue to cram houses into Bournemouth unitary authority, which is already building 600 new dwellings every single year, without creating slums for the future?

The hon. Gentleman needs to have a closer dialogue with his local authority, which asked for the regional spatial strategy to include between 680 and 780 homes a year and which is currently building at a rate of more than 1,000 completions a year. Bearing that in mind, the hon. Gentleman would be best off working with the local authority to help to ensure that his local community gets the infrastructure that goes with those houses, and I am sure that that is possible.

Rough Sleepers

An estimate of the number of rough sleepers in England is published every September. It is based on the results of local authority street counts in areas with a known or suspected rough sleeping problem. The 2007 estimate indicated there were 498 people sleeping rough on any one night, which is a 73 per cent. reduction on the 1998 baseline.

I am grateful for that response. The success of the rough sleepers programme means that there are only eight rough sleepers in Northamptonshire. However, will the Minister explain why we are spending a total of £5 million of public money emptying a 66-unit three-storey block of flats to provide a centre for those eight rough sleepers in a part of my constituency that has a pressing need for accommodation for homeless families? Does he not think that there should be a better balance between the needs of homeless families with children and the needs of rough sleepers?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s hard work on housing and homelessness in Northampton. I greatly enjoyed my visit to her constituency a couple of weeks ago.

On the specific point that my hon. Friend raised, I understand that the proposed Robinson house, as part of the £160 million Places of Change funding, will help homeless people in her constituency to seek access to education and training. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that the grant, which totals £1.4 million for Northampton borough council, will not be drawn down until my Department is satisfied with the integrity of the scheme. I will keep a close eye on it, and I encourage my hon. Friend to do so as well.

We are all very concerned about rough sleepers. However, should the Government not also be tackling the long-term problems of family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependence? Should they not be doing more about those issues?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, we spent yesterday in the House discussing the Housing and Regeneration Bill, including the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency and the need for 3 million new homes by 2020 as a result of family breakdown. That is exactly what this country needs, yet the hon. Gentleman’s party is opposing the Bill. I would have thought that he would support the housing Bill that this country needs and deserves.

Will my hon. Friend look into how councils are not counting rough sleepers? In fact, all the evidence goes to show that they work around the town and away from where rough sleepers actually sleep. What will he do to ensure that we get the true number of rough sleepers in each local authority area? After that, what can we do to ensure that local people in desperate need on the streets get into accommodation with heating?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I have received parliamentary questions from him on this very important point. His hard work on this issue is probably at odds with his local authority’s.

My hon. Friend mentioned methodology, which is an important point. I will ensure that we continue to have robust data on the number of people sleeping rough. However, I should point out that before 1998 there was no measurement of rough sleeping levels and the Conservative party attached no importance to the issue. The current methodology has been applied consistently for a decade and shows a sharp reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. Furthermore, the methodology is backed up by the independent National Audit Office.

Listed Buildings

Government policy on planning and the historic environment is set out in planning policy guidance note 15, which highlights the need for effective protection of the historic environment, including listed buildings, as a central part of our cultural heritage and sense of national identity. Tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish the first heritage protection Bill in 30 years. It will give listed buildings greater protection, encourage greater public involvement in decisions and create a single, unified heritage protection regime.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. Is she aware that sites such as High Down on the West Wight currently have protection by dint of being sites of special scientific interest, but are not listed? What extra protection, for instance, would the listing of the structure at High Down—a quarter of a mile long concrete ramp for rockets—bring to the site?

I scratched my head when I saw the hon. Gentleman’s question. I thought that he might ask about Osborne house or any of the 1,900 listed buildings on the Isle of Wight; the island has more than its fair share of beautiful buildings. Clearly, the listed building regime is a key consideration in planning applications, and PPG15 says that local authorities must have particular regard to where there are listed buildings. Clearly, there is a process to undergo for areas that are not listed. As I said, tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish a draft Bill that will seek to improve the process for listing areas. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will take a great interest in that.

A large number of the listed buildings in my area have thatched roofs. That poses real problems for owners, not only because of the cost of replacing a roof but because there is a shortage of the appropriate cereal straw to do it. Will the right hon. Lady issue guidance to stop the inflexibility of many planners, who require an absolute like-for-like replacement of thatches instead of using the available material, which is visually impossible to distinguish from the original?

Goodness, it is amazing what one learns in the Chamber; certainly, I have learned something today. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring that the planning system retains its flexibility but at the same time seeks to protect the cultural and architectural heritage that is so important in this country. I think he will agree that getting the balance right is important. I had no idea that there were different colours of thatch, or perhaps different shades of thatching; I am now better informed, and I will look into it myself.

Ordnance Survey

5. What the respective responsibilities of the shareholder and client Ministers for Ordnance Survey are. (197686)

I am the Minister for Ordnance Survey responsible for the shareholder relationship between the Department and the agency, dealing with strategic and day-to-day issues arising in connection with its activities, particularly in terms of financial and Government matters. My ministerial colleague the noble Baroness Andrews leads for the Department on issues relating to the purchase of Ordnance Survey products and services.

It is a great relief that the Minister knows who he is.

Ordnance Survey is the envy of the world as a mapping institution; it is second to none, and it costs the taxpayer nothing. However, there is continuing confusion between its public duty and the private competition that it has to have as a trading fund. The pan-government agreement, which regulates how different Government Departments and agencies use Ordnance Survey, came to an end yesterday. We have no news of what is going to be put in its place, so will the Minister tell us? When will the regulatory framework be updated and amended to bring an end to all this confusion, which is getting in the way of Ordnance Survey’s excellent work?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ordnance Survey is a true success story for Britain and, given the importance in the 21st century of data collection and dissemination, is something that we can lead the world on. In respect of his important point about the pan-government agreement, that was established, as he is aware, to ensure that the Government have access to mapping data in order to develop and implement policy at a reasonable price. We are looking into that, and I will update the House accordingly.

The Minister is clearly the right man for such a range of responsibilities. He will be aware that Ordnance Survey is the second-largest Government trading fund and that it breaks even on its costs by selling its goods and services to the public and private sectors. There is an argument that such information should be made more freely available, free of charge. Has he read the book which was published alongside the Budget, “Models of Public Sector Information via Trading Funds”—quite a racy read—and which rebuts the claim that a move to free data would damage the work of Ordnance Survey? It should be made freely available to citizens of this country, and that can be done in a way that produces funds rather than absorbs them.

As a fellow accountant, I can imagine that I would find it racy as well.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the provision of data. He said that Ordnance Survey breaks even as a trading fund. In fact, it provides about £6.2 million in surplus that is then passed back to the public purse via dividends. That is to be encouraged. The business model, with changing market conditions and technology, is being considered and, as Minister with responsibility for Ordnance Survey, I will continue to do so.

I am so sorry to hear that the Minister’s ministerial duties also come at no cost to the taxpayer.

Is the Minister aware that the Atlantis initiative, which is very important in supplying information to support flooding and water management, is also unfunded? For how long, in the present climate, does he believe that that initiative will be sustainable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her consideration of my welfare. I shall look into the point she raises and get back to her. I seem to be doing that on a regular basis with regard to the questions she asks me, but I shall endeavour to ensure that I look into the points she raises and get back to her.

Is the Minister aware that Ordnance Survey is not only one of the oldest but one of the most efficient Government services? Other Departments depend on it, quite apart from local authorities and other institutions in need of accurate information. Will he urgently come up with an agreement that does not—as usual—lend some agency the extraordinary honour of a totally unworkable private finance initiative? This trading fund works, and we ought not to disturb it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that. As I said before, Ordnance Survey is a true success story, and its provision of data is an example of Britain leading the world. The business model is reviewed on the basis of changing market conditions and technology, and we will continue to do that. The bottom line, however, is to ensure that the success of Ordnance Survey continues.

Empty Properties

6. How many empty properties there are in England; and what steps she is taking to ensure effective use of the national housing stock. (197687)

The housing strategy statistical appendix completed by local authorities shows that there are currently 672,924 empty properties across England—that is a 12 per cent. reduction since 1997. Of these, 271,252 are privately owned properties that have been empty for more than six months.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I welcome the fact that the percentage has gone down, but surely 670,000 is a lot of houses to stand empty. What role should local authorities play, and what powers do they have, in ensuring that they can bring these houses back into use?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: progress is being made, and the figures also have to be seen in the context of rising house numbers, but we have to do more to reduce the number of long-term empty homes. That is why in the Housing Act 2004 we introduced empty dwelling management orders, which give local authorities power to take over the management of properties that have been empty for more than six months. The orders are often used as a last resort but, for example, Manchester city council’s threat to use them led to 40 properties coming back into use.

I am sure the Minister will agree that at a time when there is huge pressure on our countryside for new building, it is a national disgrace that there are 700,000 empty homes throughout our nation. She mentions empty dwelling management orders as if they are the be-all and end-all to solve the problem, but will she not admit that because they are so bureaucratic and difficult to bring in, the total of EDMOs so far has not been 700,000 but 11?

EDMOs are there to be used by local authorities—we provided that power for them. I am always keen to discuss how we can improve matters: Councillor Mehboob Khan of Kirklees council has sent me some constructive ideas about the way forward. Having said that, it is a matter of making sure that local authorities have ownership of the issue at a local level—some 200 of them have an empty properties officer, including in Gateshead, the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson).

It is also important that, as part of their housing strategic assessment, local authorities identify the right type of housing that needs to be built for the communities that they serve. That is why we must ensure we have the right balance between one and two-bedroom flats and affordable family homes. We will do what we need to do, but local authorities also have to be seen to engage in this matter and deal with the commercial market to ensure that the number of empty homes can be reduced further.

Our planning system stresses the need to stimulate house building on brownfield land before greenfield land. Has my right hon. Friend considered giving empty homes special status in planning, to try to stimulate the bringing back of empty homes into use, before building on brownfield or greenfield land?

Of course we want to see where we can bring empty homes back into use where possible. In fact, this year’s Budget proposals allow for a reduction in VAT where homes are being renovated that have been empty for two years. That is part of the process of using the tools we have provided locally to get a more wide-ranging view of how planning should be developed with regard to housing and infrastructure. However, we have to build more homes too. Even if we filled every empty property, it still would not give us the type and number of houses we need to meet demand in the long term.

Speaking of empty property, the Minister knows that 122 acres of Whitehall currently lie empty at a cost to the taxpayer of some £200 million a year—a substantial sum. Since the Government have a target and a plan for everything, how many acres will still be empty at the end of the year, and what saving will the Government achieve by then in their plan to reduce the number?

We are working across Whitehall to identify suitable surplus public land. We have considered some 900 sites and identified around 170 plus that could be suitable for housing. That is part of our engagement with local authorities in identifying the sites in their areas. I am pleased to say that some 62 per cent. of local authorities have identified their five-year land use plans. We will work with them to ensure that we put our land into the pot, but we must have local ownership for the housing, especially the affordable housing, that we need for the future of people in this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency the number of private empty homes has increased from 884 in 2001 to more than 1,500 in 2006-07? Is she also aware that the local authority has taken only four actions and is not using the powers that we have granted to tackle that problem? What can she do to ensure that local authorities are required to work in partnership with registered social landlords to enable those houses to be brought back into use for families in desperate need?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the position in Luton to my attention. As a Minister, I always think it is important to ask whether powers are available before devising new ones. If they are available but not used, my hon. Friend gives a good example of the Government’s role in asking why. I am happy to examine the matter in more detail. Clearly, I want to ensure that the orders that we provided can be used. If there is a reason that they cannot be used, I want to hear about it. However, simply not using them is no excuse.

Council Tax

7. What the percentage change in band D council tax has been between 1997-98 and 2008-09 in (a) Basildon, (b) London and (c) England. (197688)

Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the average band D, two adult council tax in the Basildon district council area rose by 118 per cent. That includes the precepts for Essex county council, Essex police authority, Essex fire and rescue and any parish councils.

The corresponding figure for London was 98 per cent., and for England the figure was 100 per cent. The average council tax increase of 4 per cent. in 2008-09 is the lowest for 14 years—and the second lowest ever—and 2008-09 will be the 11th successive year in which we have increased local government funding by more than the rate of inflation.

Given that the council tax in Basildon district has more than doubled in the past 10 years and that the Local Government Association believes that that is largely because the Government have offloaded responsibilities on to councils generally, without providing the necessary funding—24-hour licensing laws is one example—will the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why the Government expect them to pay the bill for those extra responsibilities when they are already labouring under higher fuel bills and food prices?

The hon. Gentleman knows that in the past 10 years services have improved dramatically in local authority areas throughout the country. More than two thirds of local authorities are good or excellent. I trust that he also knows that the average council tax per dwelling in England is £204 less for those living in a Labour area than it is for people living in a Tory area, and £143 less if one lives in a Labour area rather than a Liberal Democrat area. Labour councils cost you less.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the average council tax is the more accurate statistic for constituencies such as mine because many properties in Barnsley, East and Mexborough are in band A and band B?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Two thirds of the people in this country live in bands A, B and C, with 15.9 per cent. of the population in band D. I am sure that he welcomes the neighbourhood policing teams that were announced this week, the children’s centres and the fact that recycling has increased from 7 to 32 per cent. That means that Labour councils not only cost you less, but deliver a better deal.

I know that the Secretary of State is a fair lady, so will she concede that her figures disguise the reality that council tax has more than doubled since the Government came to power, and that the remorseless increase in council tax is shown by all independent surveys to be one of the largest drivers in the increasing cost of living for families? The Government promised that the cost of the Mayor and the London assembly would be no more than 3p a week, but her figures disclose that the cost of London-wide services to Londoners has more than tripled under this Government, although I doubt whether Londoners regard themselves as three times safer or better transported.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his view that I am a fair person, and I shall respond to him in that spirit. I do not know whether he is aware that the figures in London are even starker. Council tax for people who live in Labour boroughs in London is £198 less than in Tory boroughs, and I was astounded to see that people in Liberal Democrat areas pay £521 more in council tax than people in Labour areas. The record of Ken Livingstone in London, with safer neighbourhood teams and better—

This is all good knockabout so far, but does the Secretary of State understand that since council tax was introduced in Wellingborough it has increased by 422 per cent. —the largest increase in the whole country? Does she accept that that is causing problems for pensioners and those on fixed incomes?

I entirely understand that families and pensioners, and people on fixed incomes, have to manage their budgets and look carefully at value for money. That is why, rather than this being knockabout stuff, it was important to stress the fact that the people in local government—particularly in Labour local authorities—are trying to secure value for money. However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the average pensioner household is in fact some £29 a week better off as a result of this Government’s proposals on tax, benefits, pension credit, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences. Overall, pensioners are significantly better off, but of course I acknowledge that managing budgets is still pretty tough for some people.

Empty Business Property Rating

8. What assessment she has made of the likely effects of the empty business property rating rules that come into force in April; and if she will make a statement. (197689)

We set out the likely effects in an impact assessment alongside the Rating (Empty Properties) Bill last year, with a further assessment alongside the regulations in February. They showed that we expect an increased rate of re-letting of commercial property and a reduction in the business rents as a result.

There are many multi-storey Victorian mills in my constituency with unlettable upper floors, basements and outhouses. Some of those mills are listed buildings in a poor state that are home to scores of small businesses. What support can local authorities give from today to help the owners of those mills to stay in business, thus protecting thousands of jobs?

If they are empty and listed, those buildings are exempt from business rates. The crucial question is whether they are capable of beneficial occupation; in other words, are they rentable? If my hon. Friend and his constituents feel that those properties are not rentable, he should apply to the Valuation Office Agency, which will undertake an assessment and, if appropriate, provide the relevant relief or exemption.

Is the Minister aware that the Government’s proposals are going to cause big problems for small businesses? One such business in Kettering contacted me and said:

“We have purchased two new offices in Kettering. Unfortunately, with the economy slowing down they have remained empty since December. In future, I will not buy any new property until I have a secured tenant signed up. This means that there will be a lot less investment in Kettering.”

What kind of message is that to the business community up and down the country?

When the cost of empty property relief has stood at £1.3 billion, it is no longer easy to justify offering that tax relief for buildings that sit empty, when they are subsidised by other taxpayers. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about business rents and the prospects for business, I suggest that he consult the Federation of Small Businesses. The FSB recognised in its submission to Lyons that such reform could bring down rents for business, because it would increase the incentives to re-let, sell or redevelop property that would otherwise remain empty.

Sustainable Buildings Code

9. What progress is being made in assisting local authorities to implement the sustainable buildings code. (197690)

Local authorities are fully aware of the code for sustainable homes, and many of them are already using it to improve the sustainability of homes in their area in a range of circumstances, including in building sustainable social housing, in housing growth areas and, where local circumstances allow, in other suitable developments. Guidance and support are available as appropriate.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Where local authorities wish to introduce compliance with code levels above the scheduled national compliance dates in their local planning frameworks, is it the Minister’s intention to provide them with the support and guidance to do so?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. His long-term and sustained interest in this area has provided a real incentive for the Government to go further. In respect of the zero-carbon homes target for 2016—the most ambitious target anywhere in the world—I would say that the planning framework provided by planning policy statement 22 in respect of renewable energy and the draft PPS on climate change, published over Christmas, helps to incentivise local authorities to go further and faster, if local circumstances allow it, and we would certainly encourage that to take place.

Does the Minister agree that a block to making buildings more sustainable is often the planning process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested in his question about thatch—what I might call the “Heath-Thatcher” question. Local authorities will often say no when it comes to replacing a wooden window with double glazing, and prefer single glazing because they argue that if the window is on a listed building, it cannot be changed.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), I believe that the planning framework that we have put in place really helps with this problem. I mentioned PPS22 and the draft PPS on climate change, and I would also mention the recently introduced permitted development rights, which show that we are pushing as much as possible for greener homes and greener communities. That is our intention, and it is a key policy for this Government.

The Minister will know that part of the sustainable buildings code is the requirement to have lifetime home standards by 2013. Will he explain the logic of imposing that requirement on publicly funded homes before those built by the private sector?

The intention is very clear: that we want to be as ambitious as possible for public buildings—and that applies to our existing intentions and targets. In response to an earlier question about Ordnance Survey, I mentioned how Britain could lead the world, and I believe that the incentive provided by public investment in this sector can help Britain to lead the world in innovative and green products, which we can subsequently export. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

Gender Equality (Public Procurement)

10. What adaptations her Department has made to its public procurement policies and practices and its guidance to local authorities to take account of the gender equality duty. (197691)

Communities’ procurement policy emphasises to practitioners and stakeholders the importance of focusing on a raft of social themes, including gender equality. Local authorities are responsible for taking their own procurement decisions, subject to their legal duties, including the duty of best value and public procurement law.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The Labour Government have done a lot to help women at work, but there remains a stubborn equal pay gap and segregation between male and female job opportunities. Will the Minister take into account the recommendation of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee report “Jobs for the Girls” on the £125 billion of public procurement, and its recommendation that public bodies, including local authorities, could be subject to legal challenge for breaching the legal duty to promote gender equality if they do not use their purchasing power to ask suppliers and contractors to demonstrate an active commitment to equality principles? Will he also ensure that that guidance is given—

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is quite right to get across to the House the real changes in recent years around equalities legislation, not least the right to flexible working, maternity leave, paternity leave and the minimum wage, which has made a real difference—a disproportionate difference, in fact—to women. In terms of what more we have to do, much remains to do around equal pay with local authorities, 47 per cent. of which have implemented an equal pay review. Only 3 per cent. of them, in all, are still to begin that work. We are supporting them with £500 million of capitalisation to assist local authorities in this process. That, however, is just a beginning, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has already announced that we will provide further capitalisation for the future.

Will the Minister accept that the politically correct gobbledegook to which we have just listened is incomprehensible to most people in this country? Will he assure me that the guidance will be written in English, and will he try to address the House in that language in future?

I am not sure which bit the hon. Gentleman did not understand of the fact that it is only under a Labour Government that you get the right to flexible working, it is only under a Labour Government that you get rights around maternity and paternity leave, and it is only under a Labour Government that you get a minimum wage. I hope that is not too complicated for the hon. Gentleman.

Topical Questions

I have made my departmental priorities clear. They are to deliver the new homes that we have to deliver by 2020, to make sure that we give more power to councils and communities, and to make a priority of preventing violent extremism.

When council candidates declare next week, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all of them to make it clear that they will stand on a non-racist ticket? It is very important that these elections do not at any stage descend into the gutter, and that we make it clear that we need cohesive communities that can be built together.

Absolutely: my hon. Friend is so right! When people come to exercise their democratic vote and choose the kind of administration they want, it should be on the basis of good policy, value for money and the provision of cleaner, greener and safer environments. It should not be on any kind of platform seeking to divide people; rather, it should be on a platform that brings people together.

T2. The Government said they would fund concessionary bus fares, but Basildon district council finds that for the forthcoming financial year it will be three quarters of a million pounds—approximately 5 per cent. of council tax—down, which means that the introduction will be delayed by half an hour on a daily basis. Given that the council will have either to raise council tax further or to cut services in order to fund the scheme, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the issue—and if not, which option does she believe the council should take? (197708)

I am amazed that on the day that free travel is introduced, which will liberate many of our older and disabled people to be able to travel right across the country—11 million people will have opportunities they never had before—the hon. Gentleman should seek to cavil about this scheme. I can tell him that I was on the supertram in Sheffield yesterday—on the day that the scheme was launched—and every single person with their pass was absolutely delighted that they would be able to travel from Sheffield, perhaps even to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, although I cannot think of terribly good reasons why they would necessarily want to.

T3. The misleadingly branded Grovewood eco-town, which is proposed for the area between Swadlincote and Burton-upon-Trent, would build over farmland, would justify the construction of a major new road and would lead to the loss of a proportion of the national forest. When will the Minister give the coup de grace to that ridiculous proposal? (197709)

As I have said, I will make an announcement soon on the locations shortlisted for the next phase of the eco-town programme. Let me say to my hon. Friend, however, that it has been an exacting process to sift more than 50 bids down to the next shortlist, and during the next phase we will be looking at how we can raise the benchmark, endeavour to get more from the developers, and make sure that engagement with local authorities, communities and others is at the heart of the next six months of work. That will include steps such as a sustainability appraisal, a planning guidance note and, importantly, making sure that it is possible to have the infrastructure for these communities to thrive.

May I thank the Secretary of State for using the Conservative slogan at these elections—safer, cleaner, greener—in urging people to vote? Was she engaged in some kind of elaborate April fools’ joke when she suggested that Labour authorities have the lowest council tax, given that not a single academic, serious commentator or statistician agrees with her on that assessment? Is this, perhaps, the clearest example of what her colleague and neighbour the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), meant when he said:

“The Government is losing touch with what fairness means to the mainstream majority”?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the term “plagiarism”, and I must tell him that “Safer, greener and cleaner” has been Labour’s slogan for the past five years; indeed, I was beginning to wonder whether we needed to modernise it. As I have said to the House, the average council tax per dwelling in England in Labour areas is £204 less than in Tory areas, and £143 less than in Liberal Democrat areas—that is why it is excellent value for money. In the local elections on 1 May people will be able to make their choice, and they will see that Labour delivers for them, whereas Tories never do.

If we are using the same slogan, that perhaps explains why there are so few Labour authorities these days, and why the Prime Minister preferred not to have the Secretary of State at the campaign launch. Under Labour, council tax has doubled and the burden on pensioners has become unbearable; no wonder the Under-Secretary of State for Health is in a state of despair. Why did the Government give pensioners a £200 discount on their council tax in 2005 and nothing in subsequent years? Why do pensioners have to wait for an announcement of a general election before this Government show them any compassion?

Again, the hon. Gentleman may have had a little lapse of memory. He will know that this Labour Government have helped pensioners in every year since we came to power, which is why the average pensioner household is £1,500 better off in real terms than it was 10 years ago. He will also know that we have just announced the extra winter fuel allowance for pensioners. He will recognise that every year we try to think of another way in which we can help our older citizens, who make such a fantastic contribution to our community.

T6. Does the Minister agree that local area agreements are best when they are actually local, and that the reduction in the number of targets this year has been very welcome? Will the Secretary of State, or one of the other Ministers, also tell the House whether focusing on themes such as early intervention, as is happening in Nottingham, focuses the minds of not only the Government, but the Government office and all our local partners, so that we can achieve things through these plans, rather than have them sitting gathering dust on the shelf? (197712)

My hon. Friend has played a leading role in the negotiation of the local area agreement in Nottingham through his chairmanship of the local strategic partnership. I am grateful to him for that leadership, because alongside reducing indicators, mainstreaming grants, taking away ring-fencing and giving councils more power and communities more control, that leadership really makes a difference. Nottingham is concentrating on early intervention, and in that way it will ensure for the long term that it is a great place in which to live, work and bring up families.

T4. Has the Secretary of State read the recent article in the Municipal Journal by two eminent professors, Steve Leach and Michael Chisholm? They stated that the current local government reorganisation “is so flawed that it corrupts the body politic.”Is that not a dreadful indictment of what is obviously a politically motivated reorganisation that will do nothing to deliver better services, but will simply pile ever-greater burdens on the hard-pressed council tax payer? (197710)

We have looked at that analysis, and we do not accept it. We do not accept that the reorganisation is politically motivated. All the proposals in the seven affected areas have been produced and submitted to us by local authorities in those areas. The changes will mean that instead of 44 councils there will be nine. Once they are fully in place, the taxpayer will save about £90 million each year, and that can be used to improve services or keep council tax pressures under control.

Since the last housing market fall in the early 1990s, almost 1 million fewer social homes are available to rent, and in the past 10 years waiting lists have increased by 60 per cent. Given that Citizens Advice is reporting increases in the number of people coming to it with problems paying their mortgages, does the Secretary of State think that her Department should have done more to prepare for this looming housing crisis?

We have invested enormously over the past 10 years. First, we have invested to ensure that existing social housing stock is up to standard. Many people today live in more decent homes as a result of that investment. That is also why we have decided that we have to build more social homes for rent, and more affordable homes so that people can get onto the property ladder. It would seem from the tone of the hon. Lady’s question that she supports our proposals not only to increase the number of homes built across the country in rural and urban settings but to ensure that affordable homes are a feature of that increase. I would welcome it if Liberal Democrat councillors supported affordable housing in their own backyards.

T7. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that councils deliver the affordable homes that they promise? Is she as disturbed as I was that Warrington borough council promised to deliver affordable housing but, in its latest planning permission, delivered only 17 affordable homes out of 178? (197713)

Clearly, it is one thing to put aspirations on paper—my hon. Friend makes a point about Warrington, which identified the target that 50 per cent. of new houses should be affordable—but another thing to ensure that they happen. At the moment, I am considering the expressions of interest for growth housing points. I want to be reassured that affordable housing targets are realistic. In Warrington, and other parts of the country, we should ensure that affordable housing is set among other private housing to ensure that we get away from the mistakes of the past, when we had private housing in one part of the community and social housing in another, which is not sustainable. That is as important as the number of affordable homes that we build.

May I ask the Secretary of State specifically to consider the judgment of the High Court last week on Backdale quarry, and the important implications of that, as it overrode an inspector’s inquiry? While the Secretary of State is considering that position, will she also consider the history of the application? It has now been going on for more than 10 years, and has cost the Government and the Peak park planning authority a vast fortune. It has caused huge annoyance to all the local residents, who thought that once the planning inspector had ruled, they had a solution to the problem, only to find that the High Court threw that ruling out.

I certainly will look into that case—at the process, the procedures, and the outcome of the Court hearing. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is important for the planning system to provide a quick and efficient means of considering applications, while allowing the public to be properly engaged and to have their view expressed. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve through the Planning Bill, which is before Parliament. I shall certainly consider the application to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

T5. In the 1998 Command Paper “Modern local government: in touch with the people”, the Government stated: “The council tax is working well as a local tax. It has been widely accepted and is generally very well understood.”Does the Secretary of State accept that that is no longer true? Who does she think is responsible? (197711)

The council tax, following hard on the heels of the poll tax, was certainly an improvement. The hon. Gentleman will know that there has been an extensive inquiry by a well-respected individual, Sir Michael Lyons, who said that the council tax remains broadly sound, that it should be retained and that it has some welcome elements as it is a partial property tax and provides good local accountability. We believe that council tax is the right way forward. We are always conscious of the need for families and people on fixed incomes to ensure that they can balance their budgets. That is why I say again that Labour authorities cost less and are better value for money. So on 1 May people should vote Labour.

Can my right hon. Friend offer advice to councils across the country, including West Lancashire district council? In the age of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 it is simply unacceptable to have portakabins as polling stations, as they are not accessible to the disabled, either because they have steps or because the doors are not wide enough to allow wheelchair access. We need to send a message out from this House that all votes are valued equally.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Up and down the country it is important that people should have the right to vote. We should make all our polling stations as accessible as possible. I hope that her local authority will hear what she has said. All local authorities up and down the land should ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to vote.

T8. West Berkshire’s Conservative-run administration inherited from the Liberal Democrats a lamentable 18 per cent. of household waste being recycled. That is now rising to 50 per cent., with a power from waste contract resulting in 79 per cent. being diverted from landfill. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them? (197714)

I am delighted that local authorities in general have raised the amount of household recycling from 7 per cent. some years ago to 32 per cent., and some authorities are doing extremely well. Where local authorities are doing well, I am pleased to congratulate them. The hon. Gentleman inherited the previous state of affairs from a Liberal Democrat council. The record of Liberal Democrats, where they are in power, is pretty lamentable. If anybody looks at Liverpool council at the moment, they will see the state that it is in: it is officially the worst managed council in Britain.

T10. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in relation to the impact on local communities of the closure of our vital post offices? (197716)

I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on post offices. I welcome the intervention of local authorities of all political persuasions in looking at whether councils could play a bigger role in putting services through the post office, or indeed in hosting post offices in their own organisations. I am keen to encourage them to do that. I am also keen to encourage co-operatives, mutuals, village shops and a whole range of different ways of providing what are sometimes essential services to local communities.

Speaker’s Statement

Yesterday the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) raised a point of order on the release by the Ministry of Defence of the outcome of a procurement exercise for tanker aircraft in advance of its notification to the House. I have looked into the matter. I am satisfied that Ministers took reasonably appropriate steps in the circumstances to inform Members, and subsequently to inform the House. But I repeat my determination to ensure that wherever practicable, the House is the first to hear of such important announcements.


With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the security situation in Basra. Before I begin, I would like to pay tribute to the courage of all our servicemen and women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I know that the House will join me in paying tribute in particular to those who have been killed or injured in the line of duty, most recently Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh, killed in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, and the soldier killed in Iraq last Wednesday. I know that all our thoughts are with them and their families and friends.

Our policy in Iraq consistently has been to get the Iraqis to a point where they can take control of their own destiny and security. To that end, in December 2007, we transferred responsibility for security in Basra province to the Iraqi authorities. Of the four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, Basra was the last to transfer under provincial Iraqi control.

The transfer of security responsibility means Iraqis taking the lead in solving the challenges and problems that they still face in their country. It therefore means Iraqis taking decisions on their own future and taking responsibility for implementing those decisions. As the Foreign Secretary and I made clear when the multinational force transferred security responsibilities to the Iraqis, the UK military’s role in Basra was changing rather than ending. No longer were we in the lead, although our forces remained on hand to support the Iraqi security forces. But let me be absolutely clear: our forces continue to do a vital and necessary job in Iraq. Their roles include training and mentoring in the Basra area and on Iraq’s borders, providing capabilities such as fast jet support and surveillance for Iraqi operations, and facilitating reconstruction. We describe this mission as operational overwatch. We will continue to work alongside the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq until they are able to ensure security without our support.

One of the reasons why the Iraqis needed our continuing support into 2008 was that they and we recognised that improving security and enforcing the rule of law in Basra would require action over the longer term. As the Iraqi Government have made clear, the main problems in Basra are criminality and militia elements that act outside the law and are unwilling to embrace democratic politics. While UK and coalition forces have done much to deliver broad levels of security, over the longer term only the Iraqis can tackle successfully criminal activity and political violence, which are often linked to social and economic factors. The events of the last week should be seen in that context.

When I visited Iraq three weeks ago, I was briefed in detail about the Iraqi plan for improving security in Basra by General Mohan, the commander of the Iraqi security forces in Basra. General Mohan then visited Baghdad the following week to present the same plan to the Government of Iraq for endorsement. Prime Minister al-Maliki formally announced his intention to accelerate the implementation of the plan at a meeting on Sunday 23 March, where both the US and the UK were represented at a very senior level.

Let me be clear: what we have seen over the last week is action being taken by the Government of Iraq to fulfil their responsibilities for security in a province that has transferred to Iraqi control.

The Iraqi security forces, under the personal supervision of their Prime Minister, commenced Operation Charge of the Knights last Tuesday. As I have explained, it is an operation intended to tackle criminality and those in the city who continue to act outside the law, as a means of improving security for the people of Basra. The planning, timing and execution of the operation have been led entirely by the Iraqi Government and their security forces, and the Prime Minister’s presence and leadership in Basra demonstrate the importance that they attach to it.

Since last Tuesday, the Iraqi security forces have been conducting cordon and strike operations against criminal elements across Basra, supported by efforts to encourage militias to give up their medium and heavy weapons. An operation of that kind in a challenging urban environment was never likely to produce immediate success, and indeed the Iraqi Defence Minister, Abd al-Qadir, has acknowledged the strength of resistance that the Iraqi security forces have faced. But Iraqi operations continue, and the Government of Iraq are making steady progress towards achieving their aim of ensuring respect for the rule of law by all parties and factions. Moqtada al-Sadr’s call on Sunday for his followers to abide by a ceasefire and work with the Government of Iraq to achieve security is a demonstration of that progress.

It is too early to give a definitive or detailed assessment of how the operation has gone overall, and it would be quite wrong to seek to do so while the Iraqi security forces continue to conduct their operations in Basra and elsewhere. The situation remains fluid, although levels of fighting in Basra have reduced since the weekend. That trend has been reflected in other areas of Iraq where tensions rose in response to the operations in Basra.

In the other provinces in the multinational division south-east area, the Iraqi security forces have dealt successfully with the security challenges that have arisen in Dhi Qar and Al-Muthanna, and though there is more tension in Maysaan, militia elements there appear to have been complying with Moqtada al-Sadr’s statement. In Baghdad, too, the security situation has stabilised, and the curfew has now been lifted.

We and our coalition partners are providing support to the Iraqis in line with our commitments under overwatch and in accordance with our usual rules of engagement. Requests for support are being made through the coalition, and I can confirm that UK forces have continued to meet all their obligations as part of the multinational corps. The support that we have provided is similar to that given in previous incidents, most recently during the disturbances in Nasiriyah and Basra over the Shi’a Ashura festival in January. It is important that the House understand the extent of that support. During the last week, British forces have—as part of the coalition effort—provided surveillance, flown fast jet missions over the city as shows of force and used our helicopters to help to resupply the Iraqi security forces.

Logistic support to the Iraqis has included food, water and ammunition. Medical care is being provided to wounded Iraqi security personnel. We have a small number of liaison staff working in Iraqi headquarters, and as far as ground forces are concerned we have so far deployed elements of one of our three battlegroups, using tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery to provide in extremis support to Iraqi units in combat on the ground. We have deployed elements of another battlegroup to resupply one of the Iraqi headquarters. Once again, I pay tribute to the professionalism of our forces in those complex operational circumstances.

In October, we announced our plan for drawing down UK troops from southern Iraq, from 5,000 at the time of the announcement to around 2,500 by the spring, dependent on conditions on the ground and military advice. At the end of the year, when UK forces moved into overwatch in the last province of Basra, we reduced force numbers to around 4,500. Since then, numbers have been reduced further, to their current level of around 4,000.

Before the events of the last week, the emerging military advice, based on our assessment of current conditions then, was that further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement, although it remains our clear direction of travel and our plan. In the light of the last week’s events, however, it is prudent that we pause further reductions while the current situation is unfolding.

It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change. I am sure that hon. Members would not expect us to do anything else, so at this stage we intend to keep our forces at the current level of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements. I expect to be able to update the House on force levels later this month.

What is happening in Basra is a manifestation of our policy to give Iraqis control of their own security. That road will not always be smooth. It will require political and economic progress and reconciliation, as well as military action. I commend the continuing efforts of the British business man Michael Wareing to galvanise economic development in the south, working with companies and investors from Iraq, neighbouring countries and the wider world. I have no doubt that, despite the challenges, that combination of security, political and economic support is the right way to bring about lasting stability in Basra and beyond.

I begin by associating myself and the Opposition with the tributes made by the Secretary of State to those killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of the security of the people of this country. We are in their debt and our thoughts are with their families and friends.

I think both sides of the House agree that for our forces to remain in Iraq we need a military and not just a political role for them. To have our troops rocketed and mortared just to provide political cover would be wholly unacceptable. The Secretary of State has set out what he believes the military role now is, and on that basis I have a number of specific questions for him.

First, how much control do we really have over events in the area in the south of Iraq? At the meeting on 23 March, did our commanders agree with bringing forward General Mohan’s offensive? When the Secretary of State says we were represented at a very senior level, was it military or civilian and what was the exact level? Surely, it is not acceptable for us simply to end up mopping up if we do not have a say in what operations are being carried out and how. From what the Secretary of State has just told us, it appears that our commanders had only 48 hours’ notice, yet they had to deploy more than one battlegroup, with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that an acceptable model for the future?

Secondly, the Secretary of State was briefed by General Mohan, as were several of us during his recent visit to the House—we raised it on the Floor during our last discussions. At that time, General Mohan said that although he believed he had sufficient men to deal with the militia threat, he was short of equipment—in particular, medium-range artillery, electronic jamming equipment and off-road capability. He also said at that time that he believed that the Government in Baghdad were slow to provide that because of pressure being applied from the Iranian Government. What representations have our Government made to get more equipment available more quickly to the Iraqi forces themselves, so that they can better deal with the situation that they face and not have to rely so much on British equipment?

Thirdly, although we welcome the Iraqi Government taking on the militias and we all hope that they succeed in doing so, what if things do not go according to plan and the situation deteriorates further—something that we all hope will not happen? Under what circumstances would British troops ever be redeployed into Basra city and who would take such a decision? Would it be so important that it would be taken by Ministers, not just by commanders on the ground?

We have seen in recent months only a small reduction in total numbers on Operation Telic, to around 5,500 now in the region—considerably more than in Iraq itself. Have the Government completely ruled out redeploying any of those back to Iraq if the situation deteriorates further? What are the cost implications of keeping our numbers up to a higher level than the Government anticipated and said only a few months ago, because that will clearly have a marked effect on the overstretch of our armed forces?

I am afraid that the Government have been caught too often on the over-optimistic end of the spectrum. Only two weeks ago, in the Government-produced national security strategy, they said that

“we are entering a phase of overall reduced commitments, recuperation of our people, and regrowth and reinvestment in capabilities and training as much as equipment.”

That is simply not true in either Afghanistan or Iraq. What will they do now in the light of the changed circumstances?

I hope that the Government have now learned not to play party politics with projected troop numbers. That the Prime Minister’s performance last October reflects badly on him does little to help the families of those who will now be separated from them for longer than the Prime Minister led them to believe. We should spare a thought for them today. They are willing to make the sacrifices; they just expect the truth.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I am sure that they were appreciated by the whole House. I also thank him for his consistent support for our military, wherever it is deployed. He is entirely consistent and stalwart in that regard. I am grateful to him for that, and I know that our troops are, too.

I first challenge the peroration of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was that there was something either dishonest or misleading about the information that was given to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I personally take great, detailed care to ensure that, in relation to matters to do with both Afghanistan and Iraq, I keep the House updated. I ensure that every statement that comes from the Government keeps the House updated. [Interruption.] It is what should be expected of me. [Interruption.]

Great care was taken with the information that the Prime Minister gave the House in October: that information and the plan reflected the best military advice. The circumstances and conditions have changed, and the military advice has changed. There is no question of anyone using troop numbers for party political purposes, but there is a question of troop numbers being used in the way that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) constantly calls for, so that people have some indication of the sense of direction—particularly the families of those people who are deployed to dangerous environments.

The hon. Gentleman is constantly calling for detailed information. He is constantly calling for me to come to the Dispatch Box to anticipate where we will be in a particular period, and to the extent that I am able to respond to those questions, I do so. I do not think it appropriate subsequently, when my responses are qualified by the conditions or military advice—the conditions and the military advice change—to suggest that that anticipation is in any way misleading. It is not.

The second point that I want to make is that questioning whether we—the United Kingdom—have control over what is happening in southern Iraq is, with all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, not to understand fully the position that I explained in some detail at the beginning of my statement. This part of southern Iraq is under provincial Iraqi control, which means that the Iraqis have prime responsibility for security.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that he knows that. The Iraqis have control.

At the meeting, an assessment was made of whether the Iraqis could deal with the situation. I quote:

“Iraqis can deal with the challenges in Basra. Not only that, they should deal with the challenges”.

That was General David Petraeus, who was present at the meeting, speaking in an interview on Monday morning with John Simpson on the BBC. The view was taken that the Iraqis could deal with these challenges in relation to how their army was equipped and the reinforcements that could be provided, and that they should deal with those challenges, because that underpinned the decision to move to provincial Iraqi control in the first place. As I spelled out, the nature of the challenges that faced us in Basra could be dealt with in the longer term only by the Iraqis.

Day by day, the Iraqi army is better equipped, but of course there are still challenges. There is the challenge in the Ministry of Defence of ensuring that the Iraqi army can spend the resources available through its budget—that is improving day by day. When it is short of capability, we provide that as part of overwatch, which is exactly what we did.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that in Iraq, and especially in Basra, what our troops do is as part of a division of the multinational corps. The commander of that corps was in Basra, and decisions about the use of our troops are made through the proper chain of command—not by politicians, but by military commanders.

Is it not ludicrous to suggest that developments in and around Basra are somehow being determined by either the Iraqi Government forces or, indeed, British forces? Do not recent events show that any changes that take place are in the gift of the militias? Does that not in itself make the case for accelerating the withdrawal of our forces, rather than further delaying bringing them home?

The activity of our forces over the past week has been in support of the Iraqi security forces in a continuing operation. The operation made steady progress over the weekend, although it is acknowledged that there was significant resistance to it at the start. That has shown exactly the relevance of our forces and, frankly, the folly of bringing our forces home before conditions and circumstances allow.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I echo his words of condolence and his tribute to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Has something fundamental changed since the Prime Minister’s announcement in October on the intended reduction in the number of troops? Since that time, British troops have pulled out of Basra city, handed over the province and largely restricted themselves to the air base. The picture that has generally been painted is of an improving situation.

Against that background, does the Secretary of State appreciate that the British public will be rather surprised to discover that the Government have changed their mind over the troop withdrawals? Will he explain when the decision was made and confirm whether the military advice had anything to do with the minimum number of troops needed to protect the forces, which we have raised on several occasions?

The statement refers again to the concept of overwatch, which people will previously have understood to involve training, surveillance, logistic support and availability on stand-by. However, the Secretary of State told us today about fast jet missions and the deployment of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Is that still overwatch in the sense that is generally understood?

Will the Secretary of State confirm what commitments have been given to the Iraqi Government about what they can expect from British troops and over what time scale? Although I welcome his confirmation that the direction of travel is towards troop withdrawals, how long can the MOD continue to break its defence planning assumptions by operating on two fronts? What impact will this have on the promise of more troops and helicopters for the work in Afghanistan?

The plan and the direction of travel remain the same. As I made clear in my statement, it emerged that the rate of progress in that direction would not be sustained in the way that was planned in October, before the events in question took place. However, reducing the number of our forces is still our plan; we still intend to do that, subject to conditions on the ground and our assessment of the ability of the Iraqi security forces to sustain and develop security in the city of Basra. The nature of the challenge that they face there is such that it would not be possible for British troops to deal with it and sustain the position in the long term.

The problem is a combination of politics and economics; it is a combination of militia and criminal gangs, who are of the same ethnic and religious background. That can be dealt with in a sustainable way only by the Iraqis themselves. They have a plan—it is widely accepted to be the right plan—to deal with it, and it will take a sustained period to achieve that.

I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about specific stages in the plan. What I am saying is that because of the actions of the Iraqi Government and the reaction of the militia in the city of Basra over the past week, and because of what is going on, it is prudent for us to mark time at this stage—not to abandon the plan, but to mark time and review the situation.

We will review the situation while sustaining the troops, for whom we know we have a use and a need at the moment, because we have deployed them in support of the Iraqi operation over the past week in different ways, as I explained to the House and to the hon. Gentleman. The use of those troops to support the Iraqi forces in such circumstances was always part of overwatch; I have always said that it would be potentially part of overwatch.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s understanding was that such a use of force would not be part of overwatch, but the hon. Member for Woodspring, who speaks for the Conservatives, consistently asks me to spell out the exact circumstances in which we would deploy, in the context of overwatch. Nobody in the House could have been in any doubt about what was involved in overwatch.

Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether maintaining current troop levels in Iraq will have any impact on the prospect of reinforcing the boots on the ground in Afghanistan, if that proves necessary in an emergency?

We keep our troop levels under review in both operational theatres—in Afghanistan and in Iraq—and I have not found myself unable to do anything that we needed to do in Afghanistan because of Iraq, or vice versa. I do not expect to be in that situation.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Defence Committee has never understood the figure of 2,500? Does he agree that it is a mistake to raise hopes of withdrawal and then to abandon those hopes, because that makes the position seems worse than it is? My view is that the Iraqi operation last week was not bad news, because it showed the Iraqis taking back responsibility for a key part of Iraq. However, as has been asked, what does that do to the defence planning assumptions? Does he still intend to complete his review of those planning assumptions this spring?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security, particularly at the highest level, in their Government. They are also turning their attention to security in Basra and the south of the country. In particular, the Government are showing the whole country and the people of Basra that they are prepared to take on Shi’a militia; they are not seen to be picking and choosing the elements that they will engage with, but are showing that they are even-handed. Those are all very positive signs. It is a difficult and complex task that they have taken on, and it will take time. It will be some time before we can assess the success and sustainability of anything that they achieve.

The Government have endeavoured to spell out in detail to the country and to the House our plans that make troop numbers assessable, but we have always made it perfectly clear that those plans are subject to conditions and to military advice. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands, probably better than many hon. Members but certainly as well as any hon. Member, that those conditions and the military advice can change, and that is what has happened.

I accept the advice that the right hon. Gentleman gives for the future in relation to specific numbers, and I will take it on board. Defence planning assumptions continue to be under review, and when that review is concluded I will report to the House.

As the Secretary of State said, our forces in Iraq continue to play a vital role in support of the democratically elected Iraqi Government, but does he have any view on or assessment of the role of the Iranians in interfering in Basra and the region to assist the insurgents and the militias who oppose the central Iraqi Government?

It is well known that Iranian elements have been interfering substantially in southern Iraq in a number of ways. To be frank, it is not surprising that there is a connection between those who live in that part of Iraq and Iranians, because historically people moved freely around that part of the world, and during the time of Saddam Hussein there were strong relationships between elements that are now involved in Iraqi politics and Iranians. All of that is perfectly understandable. No one can move either of the two countries, and they will need to find some way of supporting and working with each other, but support by certain elements of militia and other insurgents by the provision of training, money or military equipment is unacceptable. We have exposed that on every occasion that we have been able to, not just to the Iranians and the Iraqi Government, but to other Governments in the region. It is not supported by anybody who wants to see stability in the region, and it should stop.

May I press the Secretary of State again regarding overwatch? Surveillance, fast jets, helicopters, food and water, ammunition, medical care, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are evidence not of overwatch but of active participation, which, if allowed to get out of control, could easily result in our being engaged in a civil war.

In the context of overwatch, it has always been planned that it may be necessary for our troops in southern Iraq to go to the support of the Iraqi security forces. There is no intention of allowing that support to get out of control, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests. All of that is done in the context of the multinational corps, carefully and after due consideration, and we allow our troops to become engaged in that fashion only after proper consideration of whether it is appropriate for them, they have the equipment and force protection to be able to do it, the action is in support of the Iraqi forces, and it will result in a positive outcome, which all the interventions have done.

But how seriously unstable is the position in Basra? Has the fighting among the Shi’as come completely out of the blue? My right hon. Friend will be conscious of the fact that it is less than a month since he said in a written answer that the Government were planning for a reduction of our forces to 2,500 in the spring. He said that he will tell us—no doubt after the recess—the new timetable. Can he assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq?

I assure the House that the Government are not considering another major military re-engagement in Iraq.

Is the Secretary of State for Defence aware of the weight of criticism by military strategists, particularly in the United States, of the dangerous position in which our troops have been placed near to Basra for mainly political reasons?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am well aware of that criticism, but I am also well aware of the sustained and consistent support of the most highly qualified and experienced American generals currently serving in Iraq, who have supported every single step that we have taken right along the line. General David Petraeus, who is rightly credited with having significant military experience and who has undertaken a long period of service in Iraq, so he knows the country well, supports every single thing that we have done, and he said that not only in Congress but in this city.

Having encouraged the Iraqi Government to take direct responsibility for security in Basra, it is only right to do everything possible to support them in that new role. Are there not two imperatives in this situation: first, to do everything possible to support, and above all nothing to undermine, the chances for nascent Iraqi democracy; and, secondly, to do everything possible to support, and nothing to undermine, the position of our American allies? Is that not the only possible, honourable and right policy to adopt?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct to say that we should remain on the same page as those who are in the coalition with us, particularly the United States of America. In the course of this week, the corps commander has been in Basra at the heart of the decision-making process with Prime Minister Maliki and some of our senior officers. We keep close to our American allies, who know, understand and support everything that we are doing. We all do that to support the democratic Government of Iraq, so that they can build their security forces and, more importantly, build strength in their political system and governance to allow them to sustain the level of security that the people of Basra want. The people of Basra overwhelmingly support their Prime Minister in what he is doing there.

The Secretary of State has said that even-handedness by the Iraqi Government is vital. Will he therefore explain why the six-day war in Basra was waged against only one Shi’ite militia, the Mahdi army, and not against Fadhila, an armed militia which controls oil production, or the Badr organisation, which is actually an ally of the Nouri al-Maliki Government? Is not the real reason that Moqtada al-Sadr is the biggest political threat to Nouri al-Maliki in advance of the elections? Would it not be entirely wrong to ask a single British serviceman or woman to risk their life in supporting one side in a bloody civil war between warring political factions?

The hon. Gentleman has a surprising ability, from a comparatively long way away from Basra, to explain exactly what is happening there. The information that is coming out of the city suggests that the Iraqi security forces are taking on a complex mixture of criminal elements and gangs, including the Jaish al-Mahdi. The JAM has attracted attention, because Moqtada al-Sadr speaks for it and is part of the political process in Iraq through those from his organisation who were elected—he is a significant player in that process. To suggest that the Iraqi security forces have been taking on only one element of the militia and criminal gang elements in Basra is to misrepresent what they have been doing.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that unless we are careful, we will get drawn into a quagmire that is not of our making? [Interruption.]

At the end of the day, talk of withdrawing 2,500 troops by the spring was wrong. The next time that we discuss a reduction, we should discuss withdrawal, which is what it should have been in the first place.

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s views on these matters, and he and the House are well aware of my view on when we will withdraw our troops from Iraq. As far as the first part of his question is concerned, we have no intention of being drawn into any quagmire and we will not be drawn into one.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the statement about the possible withdrawal of numbers of troops from Iraq was made, extremely unwisely and rashly, by the Prime Minister when he was in Iraq? Some of us believe that to have been a cynical pre-election stunt. Will the Secretary of State define for the House the overwatch obligations and commitments to which he refers but which he never enumerates?

I have spelt out the detail of overwatch in the body of the statement that I gave to the House on what we have been doing, in practical terms, in support of the Iraqi security forces in the past week. Beyond that work, of which there are many practical examples, we are also training the Iraqi security forces and working on the border to train the Iraqi border police.

When our troops took on the role of overwatch, it was always likely that criminal and militant elements would seek to test the resilience of the Iraqi forces. I for one am heartened by the fact that they are sufficiently confident and competent to undertake this exercise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest disincentive against those elements continuing their activity will be the sure knowledge that British troops will stay there, bolstering competence, until they are defeated?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Iraqi security forces’ ability to conduct and sustain an operation of that nature depends at present on support from the coalition. As the part of the coalition with the primary responsibility in that part of Iraq, we need to continue to support them.

How long does the Secretary of State think it will be acceptable for him to keep coming to the House to express condolences for the deaths of men serving their country in Iraq, and then going on to describe an unexpected and violent turn of events over which the British appear to have little or no influence or control?

Is not the present situation that a very violent military conflict has broken out between two Shi’a armies? We are providing logistical and military support in extremis to one of those armies, the Iraqi army, although the Iraqi Prime Minister gave us no warning of his change to the timing of the attack. No doubt he has swept aside whatever advice he had had from the British and the description of the operation that had been given to the Secretary of State himself only a short time before. Surely the purpose of having 4,000 people in Basra now is to make sure that they are in adequate numbers safely to withdraw, because they do not appear to be playing any useful or predictable part in the political development of the country.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman misrepresents the position in Iraq. Our forces, and those personnel who support them from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, have been making significant progress, not only in training the Iraqi security forces, but in helping the democratically elected Iraqi Government, after decades during which the country was destroyed by the tyranny of a dictatorship, build an Administration who are increasingly becoming more competent and able to serve their own people. With respect, it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that those achievements have not been made by those people, who have put their lives on the line.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks me how long it will be acceptable for me to come to the Dispatch Box to express condolences for the deaths of troops in operations. I do not think that it will ever be acceptable for me to do that—that is not a word that I would use. I find it deeply difficult—not for me, but for the people who I know grieve over those who have lost their lives. That will never be acceptable as far as I am concerned. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, I would much rather not have to do it at all.

During my time as Secretary of State for Defence, I have had some difficult statements to make from this Dispatch Box, but I do not recollect that I have had to make a series of statements of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman describes. I have never made a statement at this Dispatch Box of that nature.

This is the point at which provincial Iraqi control is being tested by the Iraqi Government themselves taking responsibility and taking decisions. It is a very difficult thing that that Government have chosen to do. There are many positive aspects to the fact that they are prepared to do it, not least the even-handedness of the Government’s approach and the fact that the Prime Minister took responsibility for it. It is a difficult thing to do. We need to stay with these people and support them, in the way that we have been doing, to the extent that they need to see this through.

Last month, I had the privilege of spending some time with our troops in Basra who are monitoring, mentoring and training the Iraqi security services, and doing a superb job. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although in the short term it is not possible to reduce the number of troops, it is in the long-term interests of everyone, not least the Iraqi people, that we have sufficient troops there to do that job, which will eventually enable the Iraqi security services to manage the job on their own?

My hon. Friend describes what we seek to do very eloquently and straightforwardly. We have, over a period of some years now, progressively been handing over responsibility across the whole of the south—indeed, the coalition has been handing responsibility to the Iraqi security forces across the whole of Iraq. Many determined terrorist and other elements have tried to stop that progress. There have been setbacks. There has been a significant improvement in security in Baghdad, but I have always described that security as fragile. The fragility of that security has been exposed over the past week or thereabouts, but it has sustained. The important thing about the nature of the progress is that every time it is challenged, and every time it sees off that challenge, it emerges from those circumstances stronger. The Iraqi people deserve the opportunity to have a secure, democratic future, and they will not get it unless we support them through this process.

Five months ago, to the sound of trumpets, the Prime Minister announced the reduction to 2,500 troops. Why is he not here today to listen to this statement? He should be here—

Order. The hon. Gentleman asks his questions on the statement; he does not ask about the presence or the absence of any right hon. or hon. Member.

When I visited Basra last year, it was made abundantly clear that the minimum force protection was more than 4,000, and that was confirmed last year by the Armed Forces Minister to the Defence Committee. Is it not time simply to withdraw our troops from Iraq, because they serve little purpose, their lives are being endangered, and they are there only at the behest of President Bush?

None of those assertions is true. I cannot believe that anybody who understands what our troops have done very bravely over the past week in support of the Iraqi security forces could suggest that they are there for no purpose. They are there for a very obvious purpose, and they have shown it over the past six days.

Will not the reduction to 2,500 by the spring be seen as a broken promise among a long list of broken promises in Iraq? Have not the Government been bounced by a factional Iraqi Government, the US forces who want to pull the strings, and new-empire-building generals? Is it not still an occupation that is massively unpopular both in Iraq and in this country? People will ask, “What has changed since the disastrous Blair policy?” What has changed?

My hon. Friend’s position on this issue is well known, and I suspect that his question is informed by his views on whether we should be in Iraq in the first place rather than an assessment of what is happening. I deny almost all the assertions that were contained in his question. There is a very clear direction of progress. It was never going to be progress that was not subject to changing circumstances and conditions on the ground. I am just thankful that our planning was such that we have the ability to be able to adjust when necessary, and that is what we are doing at the moment.

The Secretary of State said that the British forces are providing “in extremis” support to Iraqi combat units. Does not that imply that our generals in the south are having to respond to decisions taken by other armies, and that we are therefore the victims of events rather than the leader of a strategic plan?

We are part of a coalition and, in southern Iraq, we are part of a coalition that is going through a process of transition. We cannot have a situation where we hand over control to Iraqi forces and keep control ourselves. That is not possible. We handed control to them through a process known as provincial Iraqi control and came back into overwatch, making decisions on when we would deploy to support them according to the circumstances in which they found themselves and their ability. We did so in the context of being part of a wider coalition, consulting our allies. That is exactly what we do. There is no problem with our continuing to proceed in that fashion, and it does not subject our troops to any of the risks that the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests.

What did the Secretary of State’s words mean, when he referred to marking time and sending in artillery only “in extremis”? Is not our position becoming untenable or, indeed, something of a farce? The militias know that we will never have the political will to send in ground troops—the only way to defeat militias is on the ground. What are we doing there? Should we not just stop marking time and make a decision to go in and retake the city or, even better, start our withdrawal because we are making no difference?

The hon. Gentleman asks what “in extremis” support is. It is support provided to Iraqi security forces in circumstances where they were in extremis and, to be candid, needed our support in order to extract themselves from that set of circumstances. We deployed our artillery against people who were mortaring them. We deployed other troops who made their presence near to the situation very visible, so that they could be seen by the enemy, allowing Iraqi security forces to be extracted. That is exactly what we did in those circumstances.

I referred to marking time to summarise the part of the statement in which I explained that we would review the circumstances in the light of recent developments and that I would then report back to the House. What I mean by that is that we do not intend to continue the reduction of our forces in the meantime, while we review circumstances and wait for the situation in Basra to develop further to see which way it settles.

Does not the statement we have heard demonstrate the folly of the policy on which we have embarked? Is it not a fact that the disestablishment of the Iraqi army at the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall was the direct cause of the Iraqis’ failure to gain control of the streets of Basra and elsewhere in Iraq? The Government were associated with that decision. Is it not also a fact that our inability to reduce our forces in line with our planning demonstrates that the difficulties associated with getting out are a very powerful reason for not having gone in in the first place?

I do not think that I would be able to assist our troops in the circumstances that they face in Basra in any way if I concentrated my time or resources, when making decisions, on assessing whether a decision that was made five years ago was right or not. I am much more interested in the decisions that we need to make now concerning the ambitions of the Iraqi people, their security forces and the troops there for whom I have responsibility.

Is the Secretary of State as dismayed and embarrassed as I am that a large number of the criminal forces against whom this operation has been directed consist of the police whom we were responsible for training? There is every possibility that we shall repeat this process in Afghanistan. When are we going to have an inquiry into the matter?

The early attempts to create a police force in Iraq had exactly the results that the hon. Gentleman describes, as criminal elements came out of the police forces and may, indeed, have deliberately gone into them in order to obtain training. Under the generalship of General Jalil, of whom the hon. Gentleman may be aware, we have dealt with that very problem during the past year or more: a significant number of police officers have been dismissed from the Iraqi police force, while others have been retrained to ensure that that situation does not occur again. We have learned significant lessons from those early days of police training, and we shall implement them in Afghanistan to ensure that we do not repeat the problem.

May I remind the Secretary of State of what the Select Committee on Defence heard last time we were in Iraq? The military advice, to which he keeps referring, was that 5,000 was the minimum viable number for the base in Basra. Was it not therefore the height of folly to advertise a reduction in the number of troops in Basra in advance of withdrawal, even if that were the Government’s intention? Does not that leave us more vulnerable than we would have been, having advertised weakness and invited the intervention of hostile forces?

With respect, the elements of the hon. Gentleman’s question do not follow in the way that he suggests. The number of troops in the contingency operating base in Basra had no relevance to the behaviour of the militia in relation to the operation. The two matters are not related. I do not intend to swap military advice from the Dispatch Box with him. I know the military advice that I was given, and our decisions, plans and report to the House were entirely consistent with it.

How much does the Secretary of State see the hand of Iran in the fighting of the past few days? What discussions has he held with the Iranian Government about it?

I have had no discussions with the Iranian Government in the past few days about that matter. I have no doubt that Iranian interference in Basra and in wider southern Iraq has had some influence on those whom the Iraqi security forces have been engaging in the past six days. I have no evidence of malign involvement by Iran, specifically in the past six days, but there is no question but that some of those people have been trained and equipped by Iran. I have made no bones about the strategic threat that Iran poses to that part of the region. Its involvement in southern Iraq is only part of its malign intentions for the region.

Offshore Oil and Gas Industries (Health and Safety)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision to secure the health, safety and welfare of persons at work in offshore oil and gas industries; and for connected purposes.

In July, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, when 167 workers were killed in the world’s worst offshore oil and gas accident. There is no doubt that, following the implementation of Lord Cullen’s report, safety in the North sea has improved significantly, but recently there has been an increase in concerns. Much of the infrastructure offshore is old and requires high maintenance and investment to sustain it. There is concern that companies are cutting corners to save money or keep equipment operating.

In 2003, two workers were killed by a gas leak on the Brent Bravo platform. In the criminal and the fatal accident proceedings that followed, serious shortcomings in maintenance on the part of Shell, the operator, were highlighted. However, the problems are not limited to one company. Between 2004 and 2007, the Health and Safety Executive’s offshore safety division carried out an asset integrity programme involving targeted inspections of nearly 100 platforms. The report, now known as the “Key Programme 3” report, had some worrying things to tell us about conditions in the North sea. It states:

“There is a poor understanding across the industry of the potential impact of degraded, non-safety critical plant and utility systems on safety critical elements in the event of a major accident. The role of asset integrity and concept of barriers is not well understood… In some companies the decline in integrity performance that started following the low oil price has not been effectively addressed and there appears to be an acceptance of this knowing that the asset is likely to be sold… Declining standards in hardware is having an adverse impact on morale in the workforce.”

The offshore oil and gas industry is crucial to the economy of this country. It makes a massive contribution to the balance of payments and to Government tax revenue. It employs about 400,000 people—approximately 20,000 offshore—and accounts for 20 per cent. of the investment made in manufacturing industry in this country each year. It is also one of our most dangerous industries. It needs the highest standards of safety, but there are barriers to those high standards, which I can wrap up in one sentence. Oil companies are resistant to change, especially when it has an impact on their internal working arrangements and relationships. On most offshore facilities, only a small number of employees are employed by the operating oil companies. The majority are employed by contractors, which usually means one large offshore service company and a number of smaller contractors providing specialist services.

The senior person on a production platform is the offshore installation manager, who has all the powers of a ship’s captain. One of the more unpleasant aspects of the offshore culture is the NRB or “not required back” system. Because of their unique status, OIMs can order anyone off the facility or insist that a person is “NRB-ed”. The employer has no say in the matter. That means that unless an employer can find another job for the worker, onshore or on another platform, the employee will be dismissed. Employment tribunals have ruled that such dismissals are fair, because the contractor is obliged to accept the decision of the client.

That is a not a dark secret, hidden away by the oil industry employers. I am told by union officials that it is a standard part of offshore contracts that the contractor has to accept the situation. The industry body, Oil and Gas UK, publishes guidance for employers on NRB. That guidance is currently under review. Even at a time of serious skills shortages in the industry, the NRB culture remains. That culture leads to a sense of job insecurity offshore and, from there, to low morale among the work force.

In 2003, the Government introduced regulations to implement the working time directive offshore. For the past four and a half years, the oil industry has fought against implementation. The unions have won the legal argument twice, in the employment tribunal and at the employment appeal tribunal. After the expenditure of several hundred thousand pounds on legal fees by both sides, the major companies are finally accepting what was obvious to anyone who seriously studied the regulations in 2003—that those workers who do not receive the holiday entitlement set out in the regulations are entitled to extra holidays. The industry had serious issues on which it needed answers, but none that could not have been negotiated with the unions in the normal way.

In the meantime, a work force who had to suffer a long history of having a two-class employment system—first class for those who worked for an oil company, and second class for those who worked for a contractor—developed a real sense of grievance. They felt that they were being denied the holiday time to which they were entitled and which was already enjoyed by their first-class co-workers in the oil industry. The industry approach seemed a particularly insensitive and ham-fisted way of dealing with a human problem and one that took no account of the effect on the morale of the work force.

Then, there is the permit to work system. At the root of virtually every significant accident in the North sea oil and gas industry, including Piper Alpha, is a failure in the permit to work system. Every company insists on keeping its own individual system; yet the pattern of work offshore nowadays means that many workers, particularly those with special skills, work on a number of installations. In each different workplace, they have to deal with a different permit to work system.

It has been recognised for many years that safety would be improved if there were a common system that everyone could become familiar with. Experience suggests that there could also be economic savings in adopting such a system. The unions want it, the Health and Safety Executive wants it and many of the contracting companies want it. The Norwegians have it, as do, just recently, the Dutch. What we have is endless technical committees and companies trying to cling on to their special system. Again, that has a negative impact on the morale of the work force.

There is huge investment in safety in our oil and gas industry, but it is all meaningless unless the human aspects are addressed. I have raised three critical areas—maintenance, employment practices and working systems—where I believe the industry acts and has acted to protect narrow interests. It has ignored the wider impact of its decisions, particularly on the morale of its work force and therefore on the safety regime offshore.

In response to the issues that I have raised, my Bill would improve the safety system in the offshore oil and gas industry by doing two things. First, there are many areas of offshore work that require greater external scrutiny, consideration and perhaps intervention. The permit to work system is just one area where the industry collectively and individually has failed to take a wider view and recognise that the interests of safety override individual company preferences. My Bill would strengthen the powers of the HSE to make regulations in areas where there is evidence that common systems are necessary to improve safety.

Secondly, my Bill would bring the regulations dealing with safety committees and safety representatives in the offshore oil and gas industry into line with the regulations in onshore workplaces. The key difference between the two systems is that the onshore regulations have a statutory trade union involvement. The unions can appoint safety reps; they will support them and provide them with professional advice and support wherever necessary. They allow the safety reps to be much more independent of management, which strengthens the safety systems, gives workers confidence and encourages greater involvement and commitment to safety.

Those two measures, by giving the Health and Safety Executive the power to intervene to create common systems where appropriate and to bring a more independent element to the safety committee and representative systems, would, I believe, go a long way to improving the overall safety system in the North sea oil and gas industry. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Frank Doran, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Anthony Wright, Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Sir Robert Smith, Ms Dari Taylor, Andrew Miller, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Russell Brown and Jim Sheridan.

Offshore oil and Gas Industries (Health and Safety)

Mr. Frank Doran accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision to secure the health, safety and welfare of persons at work in offshore oil and gas industries; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 9 May, and to be printed [Bill 93].

Orders of the Day

Counter-Terrorism Bill

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Justice Committee on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, HC 405.

The First Report from the Home Affairs Committee on the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Proposals, HC 43, and minutes of evidence taken on 11th December 2007 and 19th February 2008, on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, HC 180-i and -ii.

The Second Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: 42 days, HC 156, the Ninth Report from the Committee on Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: Counter-Terrorism Bill, HC 199 and the Government Response, Cm. 7344, and the Tenth Report from the Committee on Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: Annual Renewal of Control Orders Legislation 2008, HC 356.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The primary duty of any Government is to secure the safety of all their citizens. The threat we face from terrorism today is very different in scale and nature from any that we have faced in the past. It is more ruthless, very often aiming to cause mass civilian casualties, without warning, using suicide attacks and even chemical, biological or radiological weapons. It is international, drawing upon loosely affiliated networks across the globe that share not only an ideology, but also personnel, training and funds. It is more complex, exploiting new technology to plan and to perpetrate attacks; and it is on an unprecedented scale, with more than 200 groupings or networks and about 2,000 individuals being monitored by the police and the Security Service in the UK alone. That figure is the highest it has been, and represents a new and sustained level of activity by those who wish to kill and maim and to undermine the values that we all share in this country.

The threat we face is serious and urgent. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out in his statement on the national security strategy, the new threats we face demand new responses from us.

The Home Secretary said in her opening comments that the threat to this country is unprecedented, rising and growing. Yet a mere two weeks ago, Lord West told the “Today” programme that Britain is a safer place today than it was a year ago. Is he right or wrong about that?

In response to that intervention, I am about to come on to our response to the serious threat that we face. It is because of that response that my noble Friend Lord West was able to make those comments.

My constituency in Essex supplies about 6,000 workers to the City of London and other parts of the city. Is the right hon. Lady aware that they will be extremely grateful to her for anything she can do to make their working lives in London safer?

That is, of course, my responsibility as Home Secretary, and our responsibility as a Government—and I believe it is our broader responsibility as parliamentarians as well.

We have made far-reaching changes to our strategy to deal with terrorism, and created the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism within Government to co-ordinate our response. We have significantly increased the resources available to deal with terrorism. We have redoubled our efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking hold, because our long-term challenge is to stop people becoming, or supporting, terrorists in the first place. With new funding to support communities and organisations tackling those who promote violent extremism, we will take on the ideologues and disrupt their efforts to radicalise individuals at risk in our society.

My right hon. Friend made a brief reference to increases in the numbers of facilities and individuals in counter-terrorism. What are we doing to ensure that information is shared effectively between the various agencies that now have responsibility in this area?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and in fact elements of the Bill will help to facilitate the sharing of information. We in this country can be proud that we have agencies and a police force who are able to work very closely together in sharing such information, and who are also willing to work with our international partners.

In the long term, we must find ways to prevent people from turning to terrorism in the first place, but in the short term we must pursue vigorously those who commit terrorist crimes and bring them to justice. Since the beginning of 2007 alone, 58 individuals have been convicted in terrorist cases, half of whom pleaded guilty to their charges. Police, prosecutors and others involved deserve our thanks for their efforts, but they deserve more than that. Just as the threat from terrorism evolves, so our laws must adapt to remain effective. We must ensure that those whom we ask to deter, to investigate and to prosecute these most serious crimes have the tools that they need to do the job.

Given that prosecutors can use the lower threshold test of reasonable suspicion to charge a terrorist, why is it necessary for them to be able to charge now and then furnish evidence later? Why is it necessary to extend pre-charge detention when they can charge and then question post charge?

The threshold test is undoubtedly important, and it has been used in terrorist cases. It was, of course, available at the point at which this House previously decided there were arguments for extending the period of pre-charge—[Interruption.] Well, it was available at that point, but the House still made the decision that it was necessary then to extend the period of pre-charge detention. The threshold test nevertheless requires the expectation that sufficient admissible evidence will become available within a reasonable period of time in order to reach the full code test for charging, and there may well be circumstances—although I hope fewer than would have been the case previously—when that might not be the case. Notwithstanding the important contribution that the threshold test can make, there might still be such scenarios, and I would certainly be willing to write to the hon. Gentleman on what they might be, and to copy that letter to others.

Will my right hon. Friend say something to allay the fears of the Muslim community that it might be targeted under this proposed legislation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In my opinion, the most dangerous threat to any of our communities, and particularly to our Muslim communities, comes from those who would perpetrate or support terrorism in the name of Islam and by doing so pervert what is an important and honourable faith and religion in this country. By protecting our communities against that threat by bringing to justice those who would choose to do that, we protect our Muslim communities in the most effective way possible.

The Home Secretary rightly said that we owe the police and prosecutors gratitude for bringing these people to book. Has she taken any notice of the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions? He does not believe that the extension to 42 days is required.

The DPP has taken the same position that those who saw me in front of the Select Committee on Home Affairs heard me take. I, too, accepted that there has not been, up to this point, a requirement to hold somebody for longer than 28 days. The argument is about whether or not we can all be confident that that would not occur in the future.

I have taken a flurry of interventions, so I shall make a little more progress and then take some more, particularly when I come to the issue of pre-charge detention.

Over the past two years we have comprehensively reviewed our existing legislation, identifying areas where we could do more to deal with the current and emerging threat. In particular we want to ensure, first, that full use can be made of all information when investigating and prosecuting terrorist crimes, and secondly that we have effective measures in place to deal with terrorist suspects after they have been charged and convicted.

On the first of those, the Bill contains measures to provide the proper statutory framework to retain and use DNA and other forensic material related to terrorism; to provide statutory gateways for the sharing of information with the security and intelligence agencies; and to make sure that all information can be used to defend challenges against asset-freezing decisions. The Bill will allow post-charge questioning of terrorist suspects, which many have called for. Taken together with the other measures in the Bill, that will help the police and prosecutors to ensure more successful terrorism prosecutions.

Post conviction, the Bill will ensure that those found guilty of terrorist-related offences receive a sentence that reflects the seriousness of their crimes. There will be a new requirement on convicted terrorists to provide the police with key personal information when they are released from custody, strengthening the arrangements for monitoring terrorist offenders in the community.

From the outset, my approach to this Bill has been to emphasise the importance of consultation and consensus-building. We have consulted widely, and at length, with hon. Members, the public, the police, civil liberties organisations, community groups and the judiciary. Our proposals have been scrutinised by relevant Committees here in Parliament, and by Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. I believe that many measures in this Bill have already achieved broad support.

May I caution my right hon. Friend on consensus-building? It is important and I salute the efforts that she and her ministerial colleagues have made, but may I caution her that some in this House, including myself, who voted in favour of 90 days last time are a little concerned that the pendulum is going too far the other way on trying to build consensus? I caution her in that regard, because there is a balance to be struck, and my side of the pendulum does not get as much airtime.

I hope that my hon. Friend’s side of the pendulum gets a bit more airtime. He rightly says that we have worked very hard, as I have outlined, to build a consensus around measures in the Bill, and I believe that we have succeeded in doing that in the vast majority of those areas. He is right, because in the end it is the Government’s responsibility, and mine as Home Secretary, to take advice—[Interruption.] It is also Parliament’s responsibility. We must take seriously the threat from terrorism and respond to the calls of those whom we task with protecting us from it to provide them with the tools that they need.

My right hon. Friend has made her case very well in the past few weeks, but is she not faced with the insurmountable obstacle that the DPP does not want the powers that she is determined to thrust upon him?

I do not believe that the DPP said at any point that he does not want the powers. He is, of course, a public servant, as are the senior police officers who have also made representations to us on the way in which they think we need to furnish them with the tools to tackle terrorism. It is therefore of some reassurance to people that the DPP has a significant role in our proposals for determining whether, as regards pre-charge detention, an application is necessary in an individual case or whether the powers that we propose should be brought into operation. I would suggest that that should at least act as a reassurance to people that we regard the provision as wholly exceptional and that we have placed significant safeguards around it.

The Home Secretary says that the DPP is a public servant, but to some extent we are all public servants. We need to take advice and listen carefully to those who know the coal face of counter-terrorism. Did the Home Secretary hear the remarks of Lord Dear on the radio this morning? He said that the 42-day pre-charge extension would be counter-productive and would fuel extremism rather than, as we all hope, being calculated to reduce the chances of terrorism exploding. Will the Home Secretary not listen to Lord Dear?

I am tempted to quote the words of a famous politician, who said that advisers advise, but Ministers—and, dare I say it, parliamentarians—decide. I hope that parliamentarians will decide on the basis of the wide range of advice, some of which I shall come to, that directly contradicts some of the other advice to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred.

I shall make a little progress on the issue of pre-charge detention before I give way again.

I want to turn now to the issue of the period of time that the police have available to investigate and question a suspect before charge—the period of pre-charge detention. That issue has divided the House before, and today has seen that yet again. It is the issue in the Bill that has been the subject of the greatest debate. Indeed, some have questioned why the Government are returning to this thorny issue once again. Quite simply, the response of the law cannot remain frozen when the scale and the nature of the threat are growing.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is being very generous. Is it not the case that if the 90-day limit had been accepted in November 2005, she would not have come here today to ask for a shorter period of time? She has chosen—or the Government have chosen—42 days with a trigger mechanism because that is the number of days that they believe they can get through the House of Commons; but there is no evidence whatsoever to support such an extension.

We listened to what Parliament said last time and to the results of the consultation and we have come back this time with a wholly different model, for which I am about to argue.

On 6 November last, when the Home Secretary was asked by how long the 28-day period should be extended, she said, “I don’t know.” When did she change her mind?

As I shall say when I make my argument, in my view the maximum time period is not the most important issue. The most important issue is whether people feel that in all circumstances in the future there would never be a time when 28 days would be insufficient. If people believe that, the argument arises how and through what process it would be possible to extend beyond that.

Like other hon. Members, I have participated in the police liaison scheme, and 18 months ago I had the opportunity to see the sheer scale and complexity of investigations undertaken by the West Midlands police that involved mobile phones and computers. Will the Home Secretary undertake, during the course of her speech, to demonstrate clearly just how necessary it is to have this extension so that such investigations can be undertaken thoroughly?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The complexity of the investigations that he identifies is part of the argument that I shall make. In particular, senior police officers are clear that the combination of the changing nature of investigations to pre-empt and prevent potential terrorist actions and the scope and complexity of modern-day terrorist plots has the potential to impact on their ability to bring charges against terrorist suspects in the time currently available.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for finally giving way. She said that she was of the same view as the Director of Public Prosecutions. Is she aware of the record of the evidence of the Select Committee on Home Affairs? The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Committee, who is in his place, questioned Sir Ken Macdonald personally. The right hon. Gentleman said:

“But on the last occasion you were quite open about it, you did support it, you said you needed it, but on this occasion you think that the 28 days is sufficient?”

Sir Ken Macdonald said—it is absolutely clear from the record:

“We are satisfied with the position as it stands at the moment.”

He is satisfied with the position, but the Home Secretary, bringing forward a new Bill, is clearly not. How can she say that she has the same position as him?

The argument that I shall make is about the trend of the complexity of investigations and the fact that we, as parliamentarians, need to be in a position to respond to what happens in future. I shall make a bit of progress and make that argument.

Is not a division clearly appearing in the House, between those who believe that we should remain passive and see what the terrorists inflict on us, and then react accordingly, and those who believe that at some stage we may need these extra powers, and that we should have them ready for the police to use before atrocities are inflicted on us? Those of us who quite rightly worry about the police abusing powers can look at their use of the existing powers. Is it not right that only a very small minority have been kept in detention for the maximum period? Most people have left. There is no evidence that if we extend the period, the police will automatically want to keep people for 42, 90 or 180 days, or whatever maximum we lay down.

My right hon. Friend is completely right. The police, like prosecutors, want to bring people to charge and to court as quickly as possible if they believe that there is a case to answer. The idea that it would somehow serve the police to maintain people in detention, when they were able to bring a charge, is fallacious. Also, it is a condition of the close work between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service during these investigations that a charge must be brought as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend also makes the important point that we have a decision to take in the House about whether to ignore the potential risk or act now. Later in my speech I shall explain how we do that.