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Commons Chamber

Volume 491: debated on Monday 20 April 2009

House of Commons

Monday 20 April 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Lap-dancing Clubs

1. How many times temporary event notices have been issued for events organised by lap-dancing clubs in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (269383)

We do not hold information on the type of temporary event for which a notice is given. Although the Licensing Act 2003 covers the provision of regulated entertainment, it does not censor the content of such entertainment.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, although I am disappointed by it. He may or may not be aware that local councils’ licensing offices are getting more and more concerned about temporary event notices because they are being used increasingly by lap-dancing clubs, and also bars and pubs; one notice can be applied for per month. One owner of a lap-dancing club told me that the notices would be good for business because he would be able to move his “stable” of girls from venue to venue more often and develop his business. This is a big loophole. Will the Minister meet me and agree to look into that loophole as soon as possible?

Certainly. I appreciate the work that my hon. Friend has been doing on the Policing and Crime Bill and on the issues relating to the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs. There clearly is an issue, although I am not sure that the way to resolve it is through temporary event notices. When my hon. Friend is able to see me, we can have further discussions on how we can look at using the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 and the new Bill to try to prevent the occurrences that she has referred to.

Given the proliferation of lap-dancing applications throughout the country, is the Minister convinced that the interests of local residents are best served by the new licensing authorities—or by the magistrates courts, which were part of the regime before the 2003 Act came into force?

The 2003 Act is working and powers are available to local authorities and the police to close down premises, including lap-dancing clubs, that are not operating in a proper manner. But there certainly is an issue around lap dancing; that is why it is important that while the Policing and Crime Bill is before the House we seek to strengthen any provisions that would stop the proliferation of such clubs.

Is the Minister aware of Newcastle’s “Sinners” bar, which is one of these horrible places? Young Newcastle university students went there recently and saw a notice saying “Whoever shows her”—the word begins with t and ends in s—“to bar staff gets a free shot! Girls only!” Will the Minister congratulate Newcastle university students who launched a boycott and a demonstration outside that wretched establishment? One of them, a young lady, said:

“it promotes the degradation of women and binge drinking and I think it’s demoralising.”

Will the Minister encourage other university students to take on that feminist message? I declare an interest: that young lady was my daughter.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend’s daughter and the other Newcastle university students. What he mentioned was clearly irresponsible advertising and it is not what we want to see, particularly where alcohol is concerned. However, the powers are there to deal with irresponsible advertising and with lap-dancing clubs when local people do not want them. If we can strengthen those powers, we will do so.

Will the Minister please look seriously at the democratic loophole that prevents elected representatives from making representations to the decision maker in respect of temporary event notices? Only the police can make such representations, and only on very narrow grounds.

We have to be careful. Temporary event notices came about at the request of many Back-Bench MPs, who wanted village halls and parent-teacher associations to have the opportunity to put on events for which licensing requirements were in place. More than 120,000 temporary event notices have been granted, and there has been no real trouble. However, during our discussion of the Licensing Bill, we said that if there was a problem we would look at it. If the police feel that events will be inappropriately dealt with, they have the power to stop them. The temporary event notices have been a power for good, not for evil.

I should like to pick up the point made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). Is the Minister aware that there is a little hypocrisy in the Government on the issue? Last year, Jobcentre Plus advertised 351 vacancies in the adult entertainment industry, including for topless and semi-nude bar staff. If the Government are to start looking anywhere to sort the matter out, they had better look at themselves.

I do not want to get into a debate about offers of jobs in the adult entertainment industry—and you would not allow me to, Mr. Speaker. We are here to talk about the Licensing Act 2003, and its provisions dealing with the establishments under discussion. I do not think that there has been any hypocrisy on the part of the Government; we are trying to do our best to make sure that people can pursue what they want to pursue within the framework of the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) talked about the responsibility and conduct of these establishments. As the Minister will be aware, the so-called designated premises supervisor is legally responsible for the conduct of any pub, club or lap-dancing establishment. However, there is no requirement for that supervisor to be present in his establishment at any time; he can verbally hand over responsibility to an untrained manager with no qualifications. Will the Minister examine whether that is the best way to ensure that pubs, clubs or lap-dancing operations are run properly? The feedback from local authorities with vibrant town centres is that it is not.

Designated door supervisors have been a force for good in the sense of working with establishments, the police and local authorities. I made an enjoyable visit in my Bradford constituency to police on the licensing route late one Friday night, to see at first hand how door supervisors were working. [Interruption.] No, lap dancing was not on at that venue that evening. We are trying to ensure that local authorities, the police and the industry are working together in trying to protect the public.

“Digital Britain”

Good progress has made been since publication of the “Digital Britain” interim report on 29 January. On 13 March, we published, jointly with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, a discussion paper, “Copyright in a digital world—What role for a Digital Rights Agency?”, and on 17 April we held a successful “Digital Britain” summit at the British Library. We remain on course to publish the final report by the summer.

As the Secretary of State knows, the interim report proposes a universal service commitment to broadband speeds of a minimum of 2 megabits per second from 2012. However, given that speeds of up to 15 Mbps are regularly available in urban areas, does he acknowledge that that is a very unambitious target that is likely to push rural areas even further behind urban areas by 2012?

These are primarily matters for the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but Lord Carter is looking at them closely in the context of the final “Digital Britain” report, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are brought to his attention. In any universal service obligation it is important that all parts of the country are able to benefit; indeed, that is the purpose of such a commitment. It has an historic potential to ensure that, as with postage and telephony, all citizens of this country have access to the highest quality communications infrastructure —and that applies to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Does my right hon. Friend agree—this was touched on in the Lords Communications Committee report—that contestable funding is needed if we are to fill the gap in relation to public broadcasting and ensure that regional news survives? Has he looked into that, and what will he do to support it and to ensure that it is in the “Digital Britain” report when it is produced in full?

I share my hon. Friend’s passion for regional news and welcome the determined role that he has played down the years in making the argument for the importance of high-quality, impartial news at a regional level. At this stage, I have had a chance to read only the headline conclusions of the report from the Lords Communications Committee. It makes some interesting observations, and it will be important in the context of our final considerations on the “Digital Britain” report. In general terms, I agree with him about the crucial importance of regional news. It is vital that the final report comes up with specific proposals to encourage the continuation of high-quality news at not only a regional but a local level.

In following up the excellent question from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), will the Secretary of State take account in the “Digital Britain” review of the fact that this year licence fee income to the BBC is likely to exceed total advertising revenue for commercial television? Does that not strengthen the case for making part of the licence fee available for other public service broadcasting objectives such as regional news, children’s television, and supporting Channel 4, as was recommended by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee more than 18 months ago?

I always listen very carefully to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Last week the hon. Gentleman’s Committee made some broader points—although on the more narrow subject of BBC Worldwide—about preserving high-quality public service broadcasting. I would say to him, if I may, that it is a little premature to make assumptions about any supposed surplus in this licence fee period. We are only at the very beginnings of digital switchover. We will not have a clear picture of how the costs of the digital switchover help scheme are panning out until the Winter Hill transmitter for the north-west region is switched over later this year. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. Of course, Labour Members want to see a strong BBC as well as high-quality provision beyond the BBC. We are working through our final consideration of these issues and we will come forward with clear proposals in the final “Digital Britain” report.

Next week we mark the 30th anniversary of black Thursday, when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. In the period—[Interruption.] In the period for which she was in power and indeed since, it has been impossible to propose public spending to underpin industrial policy. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the remarks last Friday of that dangerous radical Lord Mandelson, who suggested substantial public investment to provide 50 Mbps broadband so that people, families and businesses in city, urban and rural settings will at long last have something adequate to support their lives and businesses? If Australia can do it on a grander scale, with 100 Mbps broadband and a rather left-of-centre Prime Minister, perhaps we can aspire to something similar.

I do not know what event my hon. Friend has planned for next Thursday, but I look forward to receiving an invitation.

This issue is critical not just to the creative industries or TV and broadcasting but to the entire economy. The way in which all businesses operate will be determined by the capability and quality of this country’s communications infrastructure. It will determine their productivity and efficiency, as well as how their staff can work in future—whether they can do more home working and whether there can be more opportunity to work flexibly using the highest-quality new technology. This is a matter of the highest order for the country.

Stephen Carter has made his proposal for a universal service obligation for broadband, which, as I said to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) a moment ago, is a significant and historic commitment. Of course, working with private sector partners and other Departments, we want to ensure that we put in place an infrastructure that will set up the whole economy for the future and, crucially, enable all citizens of this country to play their part in the communications revolution.

On Friday the Secretary of State admitted that his Government were playing catch-up on their digital responsibilities. Today we have heard from Members on both sides of the House real concern about the measly proposal for 2 Mbps broadband in this country. As we have heard, many other countries are willing to go to much higher speeds. Given that the Secretary of State has said that the matter is mainly the responsibility of his noble Friend Lord Carter, will he at least tell the House whether he accepts that 2 Mbps broadband for this country is woefully inadequate?

These are matters that will be concluded in the final “Digital Britain” report, and I repeat that they are not primarily for me. However, I accept that they are crucial to my Department and the industries that it sponsors. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he would have to acknowledge that a bigger commitment to higher capability for all parts of the country would have significant public spending implications. It is not possible to make the claim for ever greater capacity and capability without recognising that there will be a difficult judgment to be made about the level of public sector investment that we can put in. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) a moment ago, this matter is fundamental to how the whole economy and all businesses will operate in future, so the case for investment is overwhelming.

The future of public service broadcasting is at the heart of the “Digital Britain” review. The executive chairman of ITV has described the Government’s decision not to reduce the regulatory burden on ITV as “perverse” and as leaving the channel

“in a curious twilight zone”.

Given the Secretary of State’s refusal to deregulate, what is his alternative solution to the pressures that ITV is under?

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat pre-empting the final discussion on “Digital Britain”. We have had discussions with ITV, and I have said on the record that I will take a pragmatic approach to ensuring that it can make the transition from the old media world to the new, as all media businesses are struggling to do.

The hon. Gentleman’s comment related to product placement. I know that he favours a relaxation of regulations in that area, but I have said strongly that I believe that British broadcasting has a reputation around the world for integrity, quality and high standards in programme making. Those things should not simply be thrown away because we feel pressure as we move to the future. It is right to say that we should keep what we are known for and good at, which is high-quality programming. Let us keep the line between editorial and advertising where it should be, so that people know which is which, but at the same time let us face the future pragmatically and help good British businesses keep quality programming at the core of everything that they do.

Minton Archive

On 12 March I hosted a meeting, which was attended by interested parties, including my hon. Friend, to discuss the future of the unique artistic and industrial archive and to consider what action might be taken to keep it in Britain, should its new owners, KPS Capital Partners, agree to release it. I have also written to KPS to ask about its plans and I hope to speak to its representatives in the next 24 hours to establish a dialogue. The Government welcome and support in principle any proposals that would keep the archive in its entirety in an appropriate UK collection.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary—I know that she appreciates the importance of the collection and the archive, not only nationally but internationally. With those of Spode and Wedgwood, it is one of the great ceramics industry archives, with all the designs of great designers such as Christopher Dresser. It would be a tragedy if it were broken up, so I urge my hon. Friend to take whatever steps she can to persuade KPS. I believe that the company is well intentioned, but that support and pressure from Her Majesty’s Government are needed to stress the extreme importance of keeping the archive together, not only in one piece, as one archive, but in Britain, and especially north Staffordshire.

I commend my hon. Friend for the hard work that he and others have put into getting the archive recognised and saved. As Minister for tourism, I recognise its unique value because there is huge interest in our industrial heritage, which we need to exploit. I will work as hard as I can to keep the archive in Britain, especially in north Staffordshire. I know that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is working in collaboration with Advantage West Midlands through a small working group to ascertain what can be done.

Could South Staffordshire come to the support of north Staffordshire and express the hope that the incomparably rich archive will be kept in this country? Once it is broken up, that is it for ever. Does the Under-Secretary realise that the matter has genuine parliamentary significance? After all, Minton made the tiles in the Palace.

Trust the hon. Gentleman to know such a detail. I commend him for that and his interest in all things artistic—he is an example to us all. I am glad that South Staffordshire is weighing in with north Staffordshire on the matter. We need as much help as possible, and we stand ready to do what we can to save the archive.

My hon. Friend touched on the wider problem of our industrial heritage in general. I am especially concerned about the motor industry and what might happen, especially in times of economic downturn, such as now. Is there not perhaps a case for giving local authorities more powers to preserve our industrial heritage and provide more resources to museum services to help ensure that we retain such archives in Britain?

I understand the concern of my hon. Friend, as one of the Members for Luton. In fact, local authorities have quite wide powers in this area. They also work with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and they have money for that. We have to encourage local authorities to be aware of the value of such matters to local identity and local tourism.

The hon. Lady says rather glibly that local authorities have money for that, but I do not think that anybody has money for anything at the moment. Local authorities would have money to secure archives of such national importance—as well as importance to this House, as we have just heard—by adopting Conservative plans for the national lottery, because those archives are precisely the sort of things that could be secured with lottery funding. It is not too late, but the clock is ticking. Why does the hon. Lady not persuade her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to adopt our policies for the national lottery?

Climbing

7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s expenditure on climbing in raising participation levels of young people in the sport. (269389)

No overall assessment of the effectiveness of expenditure on climbing in raising participation levels of young people has been commissioned by my Department. However, the school sport survey demonstrates that mountaineering is offered by 13 per cent. of schools, which is up from 7 per cent. in 2003-04. Climbing is also proving very popular among young people through the Sport Unlimited project, which is managed by Sport England as part of the Government’s PE and sport strategy for young people. Nottinghamshire county sports partnership alone is investing around £8,000 in the period 2009-10 in climbing schemes that will involve more than 200 children and young people.

Given that so many hon. Members are desperate to join the parliamentary climbing club—and they are welcome to do so—will the Minister, in the week of the British Mountaineering Council’s annual general meeting, congratulate the sport on the way in which it has involved a wide range of young people in recent years? Will he also undertake to liaise with his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families about the excellent myplace initiative, which involves the funding of more than 20 new climbing walls this year, and ensure that the BMC and his Department are fully involved in the design features of those walls?

I am happy to support what my hon. Friend has said. I pay tribute to him for his work with the British Mountaineering Council. I was happy to host a reception at No. 10 last year for the council. What impressed me most was the breadth and depth of skills among those mountaineers and climbers. The point that my hon. Friend mentioned about the offer of climbing in school sport is also important. We are trying to widen participation and the number of sports available to young people, and climbing is one of the sports that can help us do that. We will continue to work with climbing and the BMC.

Horse Racing

It is too early to make an assessment of the effect on horse racing, but we continue to monitor the situation in close consultation with industry representatives. I remain confident that the industry is taking the right action to sustain itself and prepare for recovery.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but given the current economic situation, does he agree that now must be the time to modernise the future of horse racing by replacing the out-of-date levy system with a new system that is fit for the 21st century? That can be achieved only by all sections of the racing industry working together constructively to get that system off the ground.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with the all-party group on racing and bloodstock industries. He has heard me say before that the important thing for racing is for the industry to work together to succeed. That means all parts of the industry: the owners, the trainers, the jockeys and the betting industry. They have to come together, and the mechanism for doing that is through the levy. We want to see a successful outcome to the levy discussions, but that does not remove the need to continue with the modernisation programme and ensure that a great industry goes from strength to strength.

We all agree that the levy needs modernising, but does the Minister agree that the three-year deal offered by the bookmakers will provide stability for racing through difficult economic times and give some breathing space to allow a new, modernised levy to emerge, which probably would not happen if we continued with a year-on-year roll-over of the levy?

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work with the all-party group. He is right to say that, in these difficult times, a three-year deal would give a stability that no other sector would have, but that would certainly not prevent any modernisation from taking place. The two can go together in tandem. I would be very happy if a three-year deal could be agreed, but I would also want to ensure that we continued with the modernisation agenda.

Lottery Funding (Sport)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the likely effect of the recession on lottery funding for sport. (269391)

So far, national lottery ticket sales and returns to good causes have held up well. We expect to see an increase when end-year results are announced in May. The National Lottery Commission and Camelot, the operator, are working hard to ensure that the lottery is in the strongest position and that it will generate maximum returns for all good causes, including sport.

Since Labour came to power, lottery funding for sport has halved, yet administration costs have doubled. Is that a record to be proud of?

There is a fact that Opposition representatives continue to overlook when it comes to the lottery and sport: the new good causes fund—previously called the New Opportunities Fund and more recently named the Big Lottery Fund—has put considerable funds into sport. The average figure for the past five years is £100 million a year. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stop misrepresenting this position—

I hope that he will stop not giving a fully accurate reflection of this position. Because of the changes that this Government have made—including the creation of the New Opportunities Fund, which enabled lottery funds to be spent in schools and hospitals for the first time—a £1 billion investment was put into school sport in 1999. That enabled the creation of floodlit astroturf pitches in schools up and down the country, and those that were created in my constituency at that time are still heavily used to this day.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the success of his team in yesterday’s FA cup semi-final?

The right hon. Gentleman sent me a letter just before Christmas refuting the claims that I had made about the decline in funding for grass-roots and community sport—claims that have been echoed today by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). Just a few weeks ago, however, the Secretary of State supplied me with parliamentary answers that confirm precisely the fact that there has been a dramatic fall in lottery funding for grass-roots and community sport. Which of his two answers is correct?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. It was a marvellous day at Wembley yesterday, and I apologise for being a touch croaky today. It is not always possible to be an impartial Secretary of State, and that has produced a bit of a rift in the Department today, although we are patching things up as best we can.

I will give the shadow Secretary of State a similar response to that which I have just given the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). The figures that he cites not only miss out the funding from the Big Lottery Fund, significant sums of which have gone into grass-roots sport, but exclude funding provided by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in accordance with the PE and school sports strategy, which the DCSF and my Department co-sponsor. We are now talking about £200 million a year in that regard, so I hope that, if we are to have a debate about funding for sport, we can put all the facts on the table and take into account all the investment that is going into grass-roots and school sport. If I have heard the shadow Chancellor correctly in recent times, I must conclude that if he were standing where I am now, he would be having to explain to the House on what level he was cutting sport funding. I understand that it is Conservative policy to cut Department for Culture, Media and Sport spending now, this year, and we would be interested to hear where the axe would fall on grass-roots sport.

If we are to believe what we read in the papers this morning, Government briefings suggest that it is the Chancellor, not the shadow Chancellor, who is talking about spending cuts of £15 billion. The last Conservative Government set up the lottery precisely in order to support grass-roots sports, the arts and our heritage when times are tough. Is not the reason that funding for grass-roots sport has halved under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government the appalling way in which they have managed the national lottery, in particular by diverting more than £1 billion to supporting Government spending programmes, so that, in the crucial run-up to 2012, when we want more people to be able to enjoy community sport, fewer people will actually be able to do so?

It is simply inaccurate to say that funding has halved. This Government have invested at every level of sport—school and community sport, club sport and elite sport—which is why sport in this country is in a better position today than it has been for many years and why nine out of 10 young people do two hours of sport in school every week. What was the position when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government? It was appalling; it was terrible. I was at school and I remember what happened—sport simply dried up. The hon. Gentleman keeps talking about a big diversion of funds and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics—

Local News Media

11. If he will bring forward proposals to provide support to news media organisations for the provision of local news. (269393)

I am well aware of the intense challenges facing local news providers, including radio and television as well as local newspapers. Building on my recent discussions with relevant bodies, I will hold a summit at the end of this month to discuss options for local news services.

While the town of Congleton retains its local newspaper, the Congleton Chronicle, which is not part of a national news media group, many offices in rural constituencies, including mine, have closed because of the centralisation of news coverage to places such as Manchester. Is the Secretary of State concerned that local people will not be able to access news about court proceedings, council proceedings and so forth unless they have a local news service? How can that best be delivered?

I certainly understand the hon. Lady’s concerns; indeed, they are shared across the House. Part of the answer is market forces, as newspapers operate in a market, but I think we would all agree that local newspapers perform a vital public service at local level and are crucial to the health of local democracy. I hope that the hon. Lady will attend the seminar I have called in Portcullis House next week, as I would be interested in debating the available options. It is, of course, difficult for local news organisations to make the transition to the fully digital era. There is pressure in respect of the cost of newsprint and a difficult advertising market, and structural challenges are arising together with the pressures in the economy. We all care enough to hope that we can plot a way forward for local news organisations, which we should work towards.

City of Culture

I have set up a working group, chaired by Phil Redmond. The group’s remit is to consider what the vision for a UK city of culture should look like, the criteria for eligibility and how the bidding process might work. The working assumption is that the first UK city of culture could be in 2013 and would work on a four-year cycle.

I am anxious that the criteria—whatever they are—do not discriminate against newer cities such as my own, Milton Keynes. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that the criteria allow a bid, which could build on the marriage of Milton Keynes’s history with the varied heritage of the large numbers of communities that have moved into the city from elsewhere in the UK and from abroad.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I attended one of the meetings of the working group I mentioned, and I can assure her that the consensus around the table was that we should work with the broadest possible definition of city of culture, which would allow as many parts of the country as possible to join the competition.

This UK city of culture proposal has real potential, as we saw in Liverpool last year when there was an £800 million boost to the regional economy. More than anything, the association with culture gave the whole city a lift and brought some real civic pride to Liverpool. We will pursue the proposal carefully, but we believe that it has real potential for areas all around the country, not just for the larger cities.

Topical Questions

Last week, I attended a memorial service at Anfield to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium disaster. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying respects to the families of the 96 people who tragically lost their lives on that terrible day. In advance of this, working with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), I called for the full disclosure of any documents held by public bodies relating to the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, and I will work closely with her and other colleagues across the Government to determine the process by which to take this forward.

Following formal concerns raised by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, we recently announced an inquiry into the provision of library services in the Wirral.

If the Government are successful in achieving their target, announced in “Digital Britain”, of reducing illegal file sharing by 70 per cent., that will still leave 2 million individuals to be sued. That is clearly an unrealistic possibility. Will the Secretary of State look again at the technological possibilities of excluding the miscreants, rather than clogging up our courts? “Digital Britain” should be a huge opportunity for creative industries to lead the country out of recession, but at the moment, for every file legally downloaded, 600 are stolen.

I find myself in the unusual position of wanting to agree with the hon. Gentleman—a very unusual position—because I do not believe that the right way to approach this matter is via a legislative route. Clearly, behavioural change on a large scale is required. Lots of downloads are not paid for. That is true of music in particular, but other creative content could follow shortly.

The right approach is to encourage better dialogue between rights holders and internet service providers so that new opportunities emerge for how people may pay differently for music, film and other content in future. That would keep within the spirit in which the internet has been so good: people could explore music and could have full access to all the creative content they wanted. We believe that that is the right approach, but be in no doubt that the Government are determined to find solutions, because unless we have a workable system of copyright in the digital age we will weaken our creative industries in the long term.

As a lifelong Liverpool fan and someone who was at the Hillsborough disaster, may I say that my right hon. Friend’s presence at last week’s memorial service was most welcome? Most people there wanted to hear with interest what he had to say. On that point, will he say more about the papers that might be released as a result of work being done currently and whether that includes not just police files, but Government, health authority, health agency and local council papers that might be relevant to what happened on that day? Can he also give me the assurance that the families will be involved in this process and that no one in government will stop it continuing?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. He more than anybody will know that those events are still unbearably painful and very difficult to talk about, particularly in a public context. I agree with everything he said. I believe that it is not right to expect the families who have suffered so much in the 20 years since the disaster to wait a further 10 years to see full disclosure of documents. I favour very much the full disclosure of all documents held by any relevant public body that was connected with the tragedy. I am happy to give him the assurance today that, at all times, the Hillsborough Family Support Group should be fully consulted about the manner and the process by which this is taken forward.

T4. I was very pleased indeed to hear the Secretary of State announce the summit on media options, particularly as journalists and other workers on the Stockport Express were given their redundancy notices over Easter. In future, newsgathering will be in the hands of an overcrowded newsroom in Manchester. What are some of the options that he will put on the table for the summit to consider? (269426)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The summit has been called in response to a suggestion from the all-party National Union of Journalists group in the House. The idea is to bring forward all relevant organisations in this debate. That will obviously include the Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors, the Local Government Association and others.

At this stage, we want to consider all potential options, and I am open-minded about what they might be. It may be that, rather than titles simply being closed, we allow a space whereby other local solutions could be considered to sustain a newspaper title that has been important in any local community down the years.

As I have said, I am open-minded. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take part in next week’s debate, but I believe that we could take a broad range of measures to help local news organisations, and I intend the final “Digital Britain” report to contain clear proposals on this important topic.

T2. I appreciate that there is to be a summit on the future of the newspaper industry, but does my right hon. Friend realise that the rationalisation process has been going on for about two years? The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said that redundancy notices had been received fairly recently, but the process has been going on for a long time in the west midlands, and it requires a little more than a summit.Why cannot the newspaper industry be treated like any other industry? The Government have gone out of their way to give the motor car industry large sums of taxpayers’ money. Why do they not take a good look at the newspaper industry at the same time? Many local people—particularly pensioners and those who are housebound—depend on their local newspapers as much as they depend on benefits. (269424)

I agree with my hon. Friend that we may have taken local papers for granted for a little too long. We all know from our constituencies how important they are to the quality of local debate and information, and it is high time that the House devoted some of its time to considering them.

As I have said, I believe that a broad range of measures could come to the aid of local news organisations. It may also be possible to establish stronger partnerships with other media organisations, notably the BBC, to ensure that local newspapers have attractive content that people will wish to access via websites. The problem this year is the combination of structural change, with people turning increasingly to online news sources, and pressures in the economy. Our aim, however, must be to help local newspapers through these difficult times and set them up for the future, and that is what we intend to do.

T7. I know that the sports Minister shares my desire to widen opportunities for those with learning disabilities to participate in sport. Will he join me in congratulating the initiative of Wingate and Finchley football club? I visited the club recently, along with the leader of Barnet council, Mike Freer. It had worked with the local branch of Mencap to host a disability open day on which more than 30 adults with learning disabilities were able to play football and then watch a match. That set a very positive example, and I believe that we should encourage similar initiatives throughout the country. (269430)

I am happy to congratulate the club on that event, because it showed that we can provide sport for all. People with learning disabilities should have an opportunity to play sport at a number of different levels. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s local authority on the work it has done, and congratulate him on his own work in the House.

T3. May I return to the topic of Hillsborough? Ten years ago I worked with trade unionists in Liverpool to support people who had gone through that trauma, and the fact that they are still seeking justice 10 years on beggars belief. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his colleagues on the work that they have done, but let me tell the Secretary of State very clearly that what is being done now may well not be enough. Will he undertake to work closely with support groups and families to ensure that the truth comes out? (269425)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to support those families. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), I was at the other semi-final on that terrible day, and I shall never forget seeing the news of six dead at Hillsborough on the score board at Villa Park. Our delight turned to despair as we thought of friends at the other ground, and of what they were going through.

Those events are still unbearably difficult to deal with, but we must now finally answer questions that are still unanswered, and ensure full disclosure. It is important for us to uncover the full picture. Obviously that may resurrect difficult and painful issues, but judging by the public comment and debate of recent days, I think that the mood in the country is very much in favour of a process that will enable us finally to answer the questions raised by that terrible day, to ensure that it never happens again, and to bring some—I emphasise the word “some”—respite to families who, while suffering terrible indignities and injustices down the years, have conducted themselves with enormous dignity at all times.

T8. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on the vast scale of digital piracy and the impracticality of suing such immense numbers of people, will the Secretary of State agree to meet representatives of the creative industries to discuss the possibility of introducing technical measures such as throttling bandwidth? (269431)

The hon. Lady sounds more technically up to date than me; I do not know whether “throttling bandwidth” is a technical term, but it certainly sounds interesting. I think that technical solutions may well hold the answer, but the hon. Lady will know from the Pirate Bay court case in Sweden last week that there are enormous technical challenges in tackling illegal downloading. The Government have clearly and unequivocally said that there has to be a solution and that there has to be a solution quickly. In my view, that solution has to be international; there has to be an international consensus, because that is the very nature of the online space. Later this year, having concluded our own discussions on this issue in “Digital Britain”, we will seek at the Cabinet forum in the autumn to build an international consensus on the right way to tackle illegal downloading in the long term. The signs are very encouraging, and the rights holders and internet service providers are engaging very well on these issues, but the Government are absolutely clear that if there is not a solution we will, in the end, have to legislate.

T6. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, I am lucky enough to have the world’s first ever football club, Sheffield FC, in my constituency. Given the fantastic work it does in the community, particularly through community football, will my hon. Friend commit to working with Sheffield FC in promoting England as the venue for the 2018 World cup? (269428)

I can do that. Clearly, the 2018 World cup bid is important to the country, and we want all who can contribute to do so, and particularly Sheffield FC, which is now based in Dronfield. It was founded in 1857 and it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007, so it clearly is well placed to help us bid successfully for the 2018 World cup.

T9. Given that we spend far too much time in this country celebrating cultures other than our own, is it not time to start redressing the balance by creating a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day? (269432)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in promoting Englishness and the flag of St. George. I would have to discuss with Government colleagues the idea of holding a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day, but I hope that people will follow the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and celebrate St. George’s day, while also remembering that we will also be celebrating the birth of William Shakespeare.

Olympics

The Minister for the Olympics was asked—

Expenditure

1. What her latest estimate is of expenditure on the London 2012 Olympics, and if she will make a statement. (269375)

The estimate of public expenditure on the London 2012 games remains within the £9.325 billion package that I announced in March 2007.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Now that the Olympic Delivery Authority has decided that Woolwich is to be the site for shooting events at the Olympics, will she arrange for the KPMG report on the venues to be published in full? I know that it has been published, but only with all the rather interesting financial information missed out, and British shooting does not feel that it has been given a fair crack of the whip. Will she therefore arrange for that report to be published in full and placed in the Library of the House?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I met the advocates for the Bisley case very particularly, as I also met the advocates for other venues, and the Olympic Board confirmed its decision at its last meeting. It is certainly my intention to publish the KPMG report once the issues of commercial sensitivity have passed and the relevant negotiations have been completed.

What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that at least some of that expenditure will positively aid the regeneration of the Olympic boroughs?

The reassurance that I can give my hon. Friend is that of the ODA’s baseline budget of £6.1 billion, plus the provision for £2 billion for contingencies—so far, 20 per cent. has been allocated from both sources of contingency funding—75p in every pound spent is spent on regeneration: on the physical regeneration of the area. She will be aware of the enormous efforts that we are making, of which she has been such a powerful advocate, to make sure that in the post-Olympic period the east London boroughs, one of which she represents, have a higher level of skill and more people in work than before the Olympics.

On the subject of shooting, we all know that one of the factors in choosing Woolwich was cost, so will the Minister today tell us the cost estimate for staging the shooting at Woolwich, and for staging it at Bisley?

No, not today; I shall do so once the negotiations, which are inevitably sensitive, are concluded. I know of the hon. Gentleman’s great concerns about Bisley, and his advocacy for it. He will understand that there were two factors that led the Olympic Board to conclude that Woolwich should be the preferred venue for shooting. The first was on the grounds of cost, to which he referred. The second was certainty, the judgment being that, at this stage, Bisley simply involved too much risk, in terms of delivering an acceptable venue.

Is the Minister aware that the way in which large amounts of public money—£500 million, I believe—have been distributed by UK Sport through the governing bodies of sports is threatening the viability of state-of-the-art facilities in places such as Gateshead stadium? Will she look into that? Will she assure the House that the way in which money is distributed will not threaten the future of facilities such as those in Gateshead stadium, and that the preparation for the Olympics will, as she has said in the past, benefit all regions?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will have been listening to his concern. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the benefit being brought to venues around the country from their designated status as potential training-camp venues. I am sure that he will be a powerful advocate for the venues in his region that have been so designated.

The European Investment Bank website has revealed that an application for a £255 million loan for the athletes’ village was lodged in February and approved on 7 April. Given that this is the first that many of us have heard of the matter, is the Minister able to throw some more light on the subject today? In particular, will she tell us at what interest rate the loan was agreed, what conditions govern that loan, and what their effect will be on the Olympic balance sheet?

The European Investment Bank has certainly given in-principle agreement to a loan in two parts. Part of it would assist with the financing of the social housing; the other part would assist with the financing of the Olympic village. The hon. Gentleman will know, because of the transparency in the financial briefing of the Opposition parties, of the background to that, and of the negotiation with the private sector partners. Obviously, once a decision has been taken about how much of that loan facility will be taken up and applied to those two projects, I will make a statement to the House.

Olympic Legacy (Young People)

The Olympics sporting venues in east London and around the UK will be available for use after the Olympics in a way that involves residents of all levels of ability, from starters to elite athletes. That is a fundamental aspect of the Olympic legacy ambition.

The legacy business plans being prepared for the sports venues—including the stadium in the park, the aquatics centre and the velodrome and velopark—have the provision of affordable access for young people at their heart. Some 500,000 visits a year are anticipated for the aquatics centre, of which more than 100,000 will be use by schools for swimming lessons.

The stadium will include, in addition to a 25,000-seat, International Association of Athletics Federations-compliant athletics facility, provision for a school and a sports academy, providing skills training focused on the 18 to 24 age group. Central to that is the affordability of entrance. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—who is no longer in her place—making the point some years ago that the legacy will mean nothing if the facilities cannot be afforded by people who live in the area. I absolutely and wholeheartedly endorse that point, and we are working to ensure that that promise is delivered.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response, which gave good news of progress. How far have we gone in obtaining an anchor tenant for the Olympic stadium?

The question of an anchor tenant is a bit of an obsession—[Interruption.] It is a misguided obsession, because we already have a commitment to a school, so that between 300 and 400 young people will attend school at the Olympic stadium and legacy every day. Hundreds of young people will use the stadium as the base for their skills learning and development. It will be a base for the English Institute of Sport, and it will host major athletics events. Although there will be a management structure, there will be not a single anchor tenant—on the basis of present negotiation—but a wide range of central sporting interests that will ensure that it is a living stadium, used every day of the year.

Will the Minister give the House a little more detail of what practical action is being taken now to ensure that these expensive venues have a long-lasting legacy for all the people of London and beyond in future years?

I can give the hon. Gentleman a lot of practical information about that, including the way in which, in several instances such as the aquatics centre, the designs have been amended—sometimes at additional cost—to ensure that they can be properly adapted for community use after the games have finished. Extra money is being spent on the velodrome which will be the best and fastest in the world. I have also outlined specific proposals for the Olympic stadium. No city has ever been this advanced before in planning the legacy use of its Olympic venues and honouring its commitment to young people, who will be the principal beneficiaries.

One proposed legacy use for the Olympic park is as a university, and the Government are in discussions about that. What is the estimated cost, how much public subsidy might be required and how much finance has been proposed by private financiers?

There have been discussions with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and, particularly, with the Higher Education Funding Council. There is an agreement to carry out a feasibility study, and there is also interest in collaboration with a Beijing university, which the Mayor and I have been discussing since the games in the summer. Once the feasibility study is concluded, the hon. Gentleman’s questions will be answered.

Operation Pathway

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the 12 arrests which took place in the north-west of England on 8 April under the Terrorism Act 2000.

Those arrests are part of an ongoing and fast-moving police investigation. I am sure that hon. Members will understand, therefore, why I cannot go into detail on the investigation or the individuals involved.

On Wednesday 8 April, the north-west counter-terrorism unit, working with Merseyside police, Greater Manchester police and Lancashire constabulary, arrested 12 men under the Terrorism Act. Of those 12 individuals, 11 remain in custody and have had their detention extended to 22 April. Ten of the individuals are Pakistani nationals and one is a British citizen. The 12th individual, who is believed to be an Afghan, has been transferred to immigration detention. In addition to the arrests, a number of premises have been searched.

The arrests were pre-planned as the result of an ongoing joint police and Security Service investigation. The decision to take action was an operational matter for the police and the Security Service, but the Prime Minister and I were kept fully informed of developments. The priority at all times has been to act to maintain public safety.

The House will also be aware that during the course of Wednesday 8 April, photographs were taken of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick as he was going to a meeting in Downing street. Mr. Quick was carrying papers that contained sensitive operational detail about the investigation and some of that detail was visible in the photographs. As a result, a decision was made by the police to bring forward the arrests to a few hours earlier than had been originally planned. The fact that these papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests—it simply changed the timing by a matter of hours. Assistant Commissioner Quick offered his resignation to the Metropolitan Police Authority on the following day and it was accepted. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his work on counter-terrorism and for his many years of service. He has made an enormous personal contribution to making our country a safer place.

I am sure the House will want to join me in thanking all the police forces involved in this operation. They are to be commended for the professional manner in which they carried out the arrests. I would also like to express my thanks to members of the public in the communities most immediately affected by these arrests, including those at educational institutions, for their patience and measured response to events. The police, with support from local authorities and elected representatives, are working closely with local communities to discuss issues or concerns linked to the operation.

Last month, the Government published our revised strategy to counter the threat to this country and to our interests overseas from international terrorism. A key theme in that strategy, Contest, is the need to co-ordinate our work with our international partners. The Prime Minister has already made it very clear that we need to continue to enhance co-operation on counter-terrorism with Pakistan. He has spoken to President Zardari and they have agreed that our two countries must continue to work together as closely as possible to counter this threat.

We are working with the Government of Pakistan to bolster their efforts to build civic society, tackle violent extremism and help build resilience in Pakistani society against radicalisation—just as we seek to do here in the UK. That work includes support for the modernisation of Pakistan’s security apparatus, support for governance and the rule of law, and work to undermine extremist ideology. Our counter-terrorism programme with Pakistan is worth approximately £10 million a year and is our largest such programme. In addition, to help the Government of Pakistan reduce poverty, the UK has doubled its aid programme to £480 million during 2008-11.

The House will understand that I do not wish to compromise an ongoing investigation by discussing the specifics of the case. However, there has been some speculation that the investigation raises wider questions about the criteria for obtaining student visas and about the issuing of licences by the Security Industry Authority. I would like to clarify the position on both those points.

We are currently delivering the biggest reform of border security and the immigration system for a generation. Last year, we completed the roll-out of biometric visas across the world. Fingerprints are checked against counter-terrorism and crime databases, as well as UK Border Agency records. In posts that we have classified as high risk, such as Pakistan, we have a risk-management network that helps to ensure that the right visa decisions are made, for example by working with local authorities to ensure that the qualifications of prospective students are independently verified.

The impact of those changes is demonstrated in the increased refusal rate for visa applications from Pakistan nationals. Under tier 4 of the points-based system, educational institutions that wish to bring in international students for more than six months must now be accredited by an independent body and licensed by the UK Border Agency. There will for some time be a number of students who have continuing leave under the old system. Many of them will be studying at colleges now on the PBS register, but some will not. Over half these students with existing leave will see their leave expire within 12 months; the vast majority within two years; and almost all within three years. Any student who does not bring themselves within the new PBS regime or leave the country when their leave expires will be subject to appropriate enforcement action.

Before the PBS was in place, about 4,000 institutions brought in international students. Now, under the PBS, there are about 1,500 institutions registered to do so. I have asked UKBA to prioritise enforcement activity on institutions: first, on those which applied but have not made it on to the PBS register; and subsequently on the remaining colleges that have brought in international students in the past, but have not applied for a PBS licence. Where there is evidence of criminal activity, we will prosecute. Where colleges have decided that the requirements of our new, tougher regime are too onerous, we will not allow them to bring in international students.

On the issue of Security Industry Authority licences, applicants have to satisfy a number of criteria before a licence can be issued. In particular, nobody is awarded a licence without a criminal record check and without having their right to work in the UK confirmed. I have asked the SIA to conduct an urgent review to look at whether the existing processes need to be strengthened, at the extent to which students, particularly foreign students, apply for SIA licences and, importantly, at whether that has implications for the security checks conducted by the SIA and the advice provided to employers.

The threat level to the United Kingdom from international terrorism is still assessed as “severe”. A terrorist attack is considered highly likely, so I would like to repeat my thanks to the police and the security agencies for their work in relation to this investigation, and for everything that they do to protect this country and the people who live in it from the threat of terrorist attacks. I commend this statement to the House.

I start by thanking the Home Secretary for giving me an advance copy of her statement. May I join her in congratulating the police on the work that they did, both in the investigation and in making the arrests promptly and without incident following the extremely unfortunate leak in Downing street?

I was asked after the event in an interview whether I blamed the Home Secretary for the fiasco. I said no—for once she was blameless, and I am glad that she recognised immediately that Bob Quick had to go. Such a blatant breach of the relevant protocols meant that his position was completely untenable. That is as far as I am going to go in praising the Home Secretary. The past few weeks have been another chapter of chaos in the Home Office. We have warned for years about abuses of the student visa system for immigration purposes, but the emergence of a terror threat within the UK from this system is a worrying but perhaps unsurprising new development.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the security services have in the past year issued a number of warnings about flaws in the student visa system? Can she explain why the Home Office’s response to these warnings has been to cut back the visa operation in Pakistan? The UK Border Agency’s monthly report for February says:

“The UK hub started handling all…settlement applications from Pakistan…from 26th January. This will enable us to fully test the concept of the UK hub…whilst enabling a reduction of staff in Islamabad (along with the hubbing of all other application categories in Pakistan to Abu Dhabi).”

Before she picks up the phone to Scotland Yard again, I reassure her that the document I am quoting from was not leaked to me—it was published on the internet.

So why are student visa applications from Pakistan being handled not from Pakistan but from Abu Dhabi; and why is Pakistan, of all countries, being used to “test a concept”? Is the Home Secretary not aware that high-quality fake documents that will help applicants get visas are on sale for £100 in Pakistan? Is she aware that there are companies doing what one described to a national newspaper as a “roaring business” in helping student visa applicants? Will she confirm the extraordinary fact that under this Government, the British high commission in Pakistan previously estimated that half of all students to whom it grants visas disappear after reaching the UK?

If the security services say there is a big problem, why is the right hon. Lady cutting front-line staff in Pakistan, so that we cannot do adequate local verification? Why does she think that people in Abu Dhabi are better placed to judge an application? Will she confirm that one of the suspects in the case was allowed into Britain even though he had suspect papers? If that is the case, does it not blow apart the absurd claims made by the Immigration Minister that all this will be solved by the e-Borders database? And is it not true that even biometric data will not help us catch previously unknown terror suspects?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) knows, this Home Office is paranoid about bad news. Is it true that three years ago, a chief immigration officer who wrote an internal report criticising the way in which student visa applications in Pakistan are handled was disciplined and the report suppressed?

These are key issues that the Home Secretary has to address in relation to national security, but it is to her discredit that her statement today fails to address many of the problems that her Department faces. This should have been a statement that allowed the House to ask her why her Department made wildly exaggerated claims about leaks and national security, which led to the utterly unjustified arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford—the stuff of police states, not democracy. It should also have been an opportunity for the House to question her about the worrying issues that have arisen as a result of the policing of the G20 protests. However, this is hardly surprising. The right hon. Lady is the latest in a series of beleaguered Home Secretaries—three already in this Parliament. If we believe the Downing street rumour mill—despite everything, it still appears to be operating—she will be on her way before long, as well. Of course, the truth is that we do not need just a new Home Secretary. What we need is a new Government, if we are to sort out all this mess.

The fact that the hon. Gentleman chose to spend a significant proportion of his response to my statement talking about me rather than about the issue says rather more about him than it does about me.

To return to the issue, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I spelled out in my statement, that we have considerably tightened the process for issuing student visas, not just from Pakistan, but more widely. I have seen the visa operation myself at the high commission in Islamabad. I believe that there are committed people working hard, as there are throughout our visa operation across the world, supported by the introduction of biometrics, before time and on budget, which enable us now to check every applicant for a visa—student and otherwise—against watch lists and to weed out those who should not come to this country.

That is supported by the risk assessment that we introduced in Pakistan from 2005, which enables us to do additional checks on student visa applications made there, including on the nature of the qualifications that applicants have. The process is further supported by the tightening of the points-based system, which now means that any institution that wants to bring in international students has to be both accredited by a professional academic body and licensed by the UK Border Agency. The impact of all these measures has been an increase in the refusal rate for student visas from Pakistan from just over 50 per cent. in 2006 to nearly 70 per cent. in 2008—proof of the tightening of the regime over recent years.

I reiterate, however, that the vast majority of students who apply to come to this country are coming here because of the high quality of our higher education and international recognition of it throughout the world, and because they want to benefit from that and bring their talents to the UK. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that we should make it more difficult than it needs to be for legitimate students to come here—while recognising, as we have done, the need to ensure that a tough and rigorous regime is in place.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on individuals in those investigations, but as I said at the beginning, the priority is the successful investigation and either release or charge of the individuals who have been arrested. I shall not say or do anything to put that in jeopardy.

Finally, I would find the hon. Gentleman’s protestations about the strictures and robustness of our immigration system and, in particular, our approach to student visas more credible if he had not opposed us on the issue of foreign national ID cards, which help to tie foreign students to their identity, and on the e-Borders system, which helps us to count people in and out of this country and track those who should not be here. Standing at the Dispatch Box and pontificating is no alternative to practical action, and that is what I am engaged in.

May I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the steps that she has taken? I remind her that the Select Committee on Home Affairs has, on a number of occasions in recent reports, pointed out its concerns about the entry clearance operation in Islamabad and, especially, that people are not routinely interviewed there. Will she confirm that part of the operation actually takes place across the road from here, in King Charles street, where some visas are granted?

The Home Secretary will know that I wrote to her recently to express concern not about the leave of absence for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the entry clearance Minister—we wish her well on her maternity leave—but about the arrangement that the Home Secretary has made to divide up that Minister’s post between four other Ministers. Surely what is required now, with all the initiatives that the Home Secretary is quite properly undertaking, is one Minister to oversee the entry clearance operation, rather than dividing it between other Ministers, who are extremely busy at the moment.

On the point about interviews, I know that the Home Affairs Committee recently looked at the visa operation, but I do not agree with all my right hon. Friend’s conclusions about its success. I do not think that he questioned this point, but I must reiterate the professionalism of certainly the staff whom I met when visiting our visa operations overseas. I have outlined the much more robust approach that we now take when dealing with student visas, and, rather than intervening in every single case, which some experts suggest is not the most effective way of dealing with the risk in these cases, it is better to have robust information and biometric information, as we now do, and to focus interviews where necessary—telephone interviews, where appropriate —on those people who are most likely to be risky. That is precisely the reason for setting up early the risk assessment unit in Pakistan—so that we are able to make that judgment and focus resources there.

I have written to my right hon. Friend about the arrangements that have been made for the maternity leave of the entry clearance Minister, but, once again, I am afraid that I disagree with him. We have put in place exactly what is necessary, including bringing in an additional Minister to cover my hon. Friend’s absence and to ensure the correct level of ministerial oversight during that leave.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. She will be aware of the press reports that some of the arrests were weeks premature, and she said in her statement that the fact that the papers were inadvertently made public did not make any difference to the decision to carry out arrests, but that it simply changed the timing. Will she confirm that all those who were going to be arrested were arrested, and that all those who were arrested were going to be arrested within hours? Has any lasting damage been done as a result of Assistant Commissioner Quick’s indiscretion?

On the issue of bogus colleges, will the Home Secretary tell us the latest state of play on the validation of colleges? Should validation be given a higher priority in the light of those arrests, and can she estimate how many students who are in this country attending, or perhaps not attending, have not been validated?

On Pakistan, greater co-operation is welcome; the Home Secretary says that there are now greater checks on the qualifications of applicants. Can she give us more detail on what else is being done to improve checks on Pakistani nationals who come here to study and work? On the Security Industry Authority, the Home Secretary points out that there is a requirement for Criminal Records Bureau checks—those, of course, relate to UK crime. However, in these cases of foreign nationals, what steps are being taken to ensure criminal record checks in the country of origin? Surely that is the key point.

We still cannot be sure that someone who is granted a student visa will leave when it expires; thanks to the last Conservative Government, we abolished exit checks. Can the Home Secretary say how effective exit checks are in the principal ports used particularly by Pakistani students? What estimate can she give on likely over-stayers, and how many Pakistani students who have come here in the past 10 years can definitely be said to have returned home? How many cannot be accounted for?

May I contrast the serious approach taken by the hon. Gentleman with the previous-but-one intervention?

As I outlined in my statement, the press reporting was wrong. The arrests were not brought forward by weeks; as I said, they were brought forward by a matter of hours. That goes for all the planned arrests, and the police were satisfied that the operation was carried out as they would have carried it out had it happened several hours later. So, in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I do not believe that there has been any lasting damage, either to this investigation or more widely, from the events of 8 April.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the nature of the current “validation”, as he describes it, of colleges. As I outlined, there have been just over 2,000 applications for colleges to go on to the list for the points-based system. Of those, 1,500 are now on the list and 500 have either been refused or have withdrawn during the process. All the 1,500 will be visited within the next 12 weeks; a third already have been. As I also said, I have asked officials to focus enforcement activity on those colleges that either previously accepted international students and have not applied to go on to the list, or, even more urgently, on those that have applied to go on the list and, for whatever reason, were refused.

As I outlined in my statement, some thousands of students have leave to remain under the previous system. In 50 per cent. of those cases, that leave will be tested or will expire within a year; for the vast majority, that will be the case within three years. Also as part of the enforcement activity, I have asked officials to focus on those colleges, and therefore those students, about which there may be concerns in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the international nature of criminality and the information around that. It is precisely to do better on that issue that we are working both internationally and within Europe. We asked for the review carried out by Mr. Magee so that we could look at how we could better use information, particularly that which comes internationally. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do more work on the issue, but that is under way as well.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I should say that, as my the Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), and I have pointed out on numerous occasions, our work through e-Borders will enable us to put right the gap in our ability to count and monitor people in and out of the country. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that ability was removed from us as a result of the actions of the previous Government.

Can I seek an assurance from my right hon. Friend that the circumstances that led to the photographs being taken in Downing street do not lead to further pressures on the rights of photographers, both professionals and amateurs, to take photographs in this country, especially as this event coincided with an incident in the past few days where somebody was allegedly challenged by a police officer for taking photographs of a bus garage? We need to learn lessons from the event and draw together the common-sense work being led by my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to come up with the right code of practice to ensure that photographers can do their jobs and amateurs can take photographs with freedom.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who has met the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to discuss his concerns. I see no reason why the unfortunate events on 8 April should limit the ability of photographers to take photographs, and neither do I believe, as he knows, that some of the limits result from recent legislative changes that we have made, as has been suggested. There is more work that we can do to ensure that photographers are clear that their right to take photographs is protected in all cases where it is not causing a specific risk. That is certainly a right that my hon. Friend and I would uphold.

Does the Home Secretary agree that if the crucial objective of safeguarding national security, on which she has rightly placed so much emphasis this afternoon, is to be achieved, it is essential that there is among those in authority a shared understanding of what constitutes a threat to national security? That shared understanding clearly does not exist as between her and the Director of Public Prosecutions. If he is wrong on such a fundamental matter, how can she have confidence in him? If he is right, how can we have confidence in her?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman quotes—or purports to quote—the Director of Public Prosecutions, perhaps it would be helpful if I pointed him to paragraph 30 of the DPP’s lengthy statement of last week:

“One of the principal concerns at the Home Office was that whoever was responsible for the leaks in question may have had access to Ministerial papers and that there was a potential risk that highly sensitive material relating to national security might be disclosed. This damage should not be underestimated and once the pattern of leaks was established in this case, it was inevitable that a police investigation would follow.”

That closely mirrors the points that I have made in this House when answering questions at the Dispatch Box and in front of the Home Affairs Committee.

Without prejudice to any ongoing operations or any inference about judicial proceedings, I am sure that the Home Secretary would agree that if any misuses are discovered in our immigration and visa system, then of course we must have an open mind and try to strengthen it. However, can I tell her that there is a common awareness of two things? First, whatever needs to be done, the present visa regime is much more stringent and strict than it ever was before, including in March this year, and certainly more so than that which we inherited. Secondly, the way not to protect national security is to set our face against or dismantle e-Borders, the use of biometric technology or identity cards. That makes as little sense as trying to protect a house against burglary by taking out every lock and dismantling the burglar alarm.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. He knows, because he was involved in much of the early planning and preparatory work, about the strength of the toughening of the regime that is now in place under the points-based system. I share his analysis. It is easy to talk about security, but if one opposes the methods of counting and monitoring people in and out of this country, opposes the methods that help us to tie people to their identity, and opposes the methods of ensuring, where necessary, that that security is in place through technology, all that one has left is empty talk.

While in relation to certain recent incidents the police have understandably received what might best be called a bad press, would the Home Secretary agree that both outside the capital, as in this case, and inside it, the police do an enormous amount, often at personal risk to themselves, to protect the British public from mayhem, violence and destruction? For that, they deserve our gratitude.

I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is wholly right that the police should be held accountable when things go wrong, but it is fundamentally important that, as I believe we have, we remember and provide support for the role that they play every day in keeping this country and those within it safe. I have to say that in this operation, the flexibility that was shown, the planning that was in place and the execution of the operation demonstrated British policing at its most effective.

The Home Secretary rightly referred in her statement to increased activity to verify the qualifications of those who apply for student visas here. Are she and the Foreign Secretary having any discussions with the Pakistani Government to pursue organisations that habitually issue students with certificates that turn out to be bogus, or individuals who appear to be sponsors of those students, and to take action against them in Pakistan?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have now put in place work with the Pakistani authorities, particularly through the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, to verify the academic qualifications that are presented to us by those who seek to enter the UK as students. She makes a very useful point about whether there is scope for pursuing further work in Pakistan on people whose documents, because of the tighter checks that we have put in place, are shown to be bogus or forged. That is certainly an area that we want to examine and work on closely with the Pakistanis.

Mr. Quick’s leak is one of a long line of breaches in information security, and it is clear that there is widespread ignorance of data protection procedures across some key agencies. In light of that, will the Home Secretary undertake an urgent review of the knowledge and awareness of both senior and junior figures in those agencies, to ensure that overall awareness of the manual of protective security is up to date and that this mistake does not happen again?

First, it is important to say that what happened with Assistant Commissioner Quick was not a leak. It was an unfortunate episode for which he has paid an extremely high price. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all of us need to maintain extremely high standards when it comes to dealing with information that is potentially sensitive or may relate to national security, I wholeheartedly agree. That, of course, is why I will always put a high premium on protecting that information, which is used to protect the British people.

Given the real threat to this country from international terrorism, does the Home Secretary agree that the language that the Home Office and the Government generally use must be very carefully chosen? The public do not understand when something that is quite clearly not an issue of national security is treated as it has been. I refer, obviously, to the case of the honourable Member of this House. The public saw, despite hugely scarce resources in their own communities, hordes of police officers trailing around after an individual Member of Parliament over something that ended up having nothing to do with national security, as should have been clear from the beginning. Does the Home Secretary not think that that is really what is bringing our handling of international terrorism in this country into disrepute?

First, I do not think that the way in which we handle international terrorism in this country is in disrepute. Secondly, as the previous question suggested, we all have a responsibility to safeguard information about which there might be concerns if it got out. Thirdly, as I have said, the DPP himself pointed out that given the systematic nature of the leaks that had been identified, the damage should not have been underestimated. Once that pattern of leaks was established, it was inevitable that police investigation would follow. Once that police investigation—[Interruption.]

Once that police investigation started, it was, of course, for the police to follow the evidence without fear or favour. It was, as rightly happened last week, for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether it constituted the basis for a charge.

Is the Home Secretary expecting the 12 people who were arrested to be charged with serious crimes soon, or were the arrests speculative and part of a fishing expedition against others? We need to know, given the length of time that they are being detained.

The arrests were certainly not speculative. The right hon. Gentleman’s serious point is that, as we have previously discussed at some length in the House, given the potential risk of terrorist attack and the nature of that risk, the police and security services felt that public security was best served by intervening early—at the point that they did. Such circumstances bring specific challenges to police investigations. That is part of the reason for the specific arrangements for extended periods of pre-charge detention for arrests under the Terrorism Act 2000, which these are. The priority for the investigation is to investigate and, as I said earlier, release or charge as soon as possible.

In the light of that answer, I stress that concern was expressed at a meeting of the Pakistan Welfare Association in Slough that the young men arrested include people of good family, those who are innocent and so on. My constituents responded positively to my response that we have a fair justice system here, but they require quick and transparent action. Will the Home Secretary reassure the House that we will get swift reports about what happens?

I recently wrote to the Department about the behaviour of Gerry’s/FedEx in Pakistan, which I believe to have been corrupt in some cases. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could put in place steps to ensure that that organisation does not interfere in the visa operation in a corrupt way.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I will look out her letter and respond as quickly as possible. On her first point, I agree that communities’ understanding is important in such circumstances. The results of the investigations will become clear reasonably soon. I also believe that, as has been the case throughout the process, it is important that the police, community groups and local authorities work closely alongside local communities to explain what is happening and the reasons for that, as far as possible. I know that such work will continue in each of the affected areas.

Will the Home Secretary tell the House how many people are now in this country who made an application from Pakistan under the student visa system?

Of those who are students in this country, just over 5 per cent. are from Pakistan. Approximately 200,000 visas were granted in 2007, the last year for which there are figures.

May I ask the Home Secretary about our prestigious postgraduate research institutes, such as Imperial college and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine? What assurances can she give the House that we know what research is being conducted? In layman’s terms, what is at the back of the fridge? When I spoke to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien) when he was a Home Office Minister, there were signs that those institutions were reluctant to collaborate with our security and intelligence services on the bogus grounds of academic freedom. These people need to be probed, and no assurances have been given to the House that that is being done. That is the danger.

I do not think that academic freedom is always a bogus defence, but I agree with my hon. Friend that if there are security concerns about the specific activities of higher education institutions, they should not be immune from consideration. I assure him that, in examining the nature of student visa applications from international students, specific attention is paid to those for courses that could involve technologies that might be subject to national security considerations. Specific consideration is therefore already given to that in the application process.

Does the Home Secretary understand my puzzlement at the fact that she has chosen to make a statement that was wholly empty? She could say nothing at all about the arrest of the alleged terrorists because of the contempt of court rules that we all know about. What she could have done was make a statement about the policing of the G20 demonstration or her Department’s role in the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Indeed, she could have made a personal statement setting out the reasons for her resignation, all of which—

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that he is going very wide of the statement. I know what the right hon. Lady could have done, but that is not what she did. She made this statement and that is what he must question her on.

I entirely understand, Mr. Speaker, and you are entirely right. Then would the Home Secretary explain why she has chosen to make this statement? Is it to enlarge her political life by giving the false impression of activity? If so, let me tell her that it will fool nobody at all.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question has entertained him. When there have been a large number of arrests on terrorist offences, it is the responsibility of a Home Secretary to come and report to the House in the way that I have done—and in the way, incidentally, that I undertook to do on every such occasion during the discussions on the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Mr. Speaker decided that an urgent question that had been tabled about the G20 was not appropriate to be taken today. However, I note that if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had really wanted me to talk about the DPP’s statement last week, he or any other Opposition Member could have tabled an urgent question on that topic, and no one did.

I am interested to hear the Home Secretary express confidence in the border security regime of this country. However, last week on the BBC, the former Mayor of London said that

“whatever changes you make to student visas…They”—

I assume that he means our enemies—

“will find a way round it. If it isn’t students coming in it will be tourists.”

Why does Mr. Livingstone not share her enthusiasm for and confidence in the Government’s regime?

I think that Ken Livingstone was probably making the practical comment—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with it—that it is our responsibility, whether in our border security, our intelligence or our law enforcement, to ensure that we are as fully resourced and effective as possible in identifying where a terrorist risk might occur. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, although we have been extremely successful in foiling terrorist attacks, the nature of terrorists and those who seek to perpetrate such attacks is that they will increasingly try to find ways around even improved security arrangements. That is why we need to remain continuously vigilant and keep strengthening the systems in the way that we are.

The Home Secretary is to be congratulated on her tough action over many years to protect the public from terrorists. She knows that 6,000 of my constituents work on the front line against the terrorist threat in London. They want her to continue with her tough action. Will she therefore continue always to put public safety first, as she has in the past, even though regrettably that sometimes compromises terror suspects’ personal freedoms?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those words and, most significantly, for his thanks to those in our law enforcement and security agencies who work hard, day in, day out, to keep this country safe. I can assure him that my highest priority will continue to be the security of people in this country.

My right hon. Friend has rightly praised the police. No one would dispute the important role that they play in securing our country and protecting it from terrorism. However, would she also bear in mind the fact that there is much concern about one or two individual police officers who have acted in a way that is totally incompatible with policing? We have seen outright police brutality shown to some of the demonstrators. Will she take the opportunity to make a statement as early as possible—

Order. The hon. Gentleman applied for an urgent question on this matter and he is now trying to raise it. That is totally out of order and he knows it. I call Mr. Evans.

The Home Secretary says that she does not want to see legitimate students from Pakistan being hampered because of what has happened, but is it not the reality that they are going to be? The fact is that Pakistan is a problem, and terrorists have come into this country from there. We want to do all that we possibly can to assist legitimate students who are coming in, but there are going to be real issues. As she will know, two of those involved were arrested in Clitheroe in my constituency. That is not a town that would normally be associated with terrorism. Does not that spell out to everyone in this country that no part of the United Kingdom is immune from the threat of terrorism, and that anyone who sees anything suspicious should pass it on to the police immediately, irrespective of where they live?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have previously said that public vigilance and, alongside it, the important work of the security agencies and the police are the ways in which we will do our best to keep this country safe from terrorism. He is right to identify the need for continued public vigilance, and to make it clear that the terrorist threat is not isolated in any particular part of the country. I am sure that he will want to join me in congratulating the north-west counter-terrorism unit on its work, which forms part of our approach of bringing together on a regional basis the Security Service and policing staff in order to ensure that the whole of England, Wales and Scotland have the law enforcement coverage necessary to counter terror. The hon. Gentleman has made a very fair point.

When the Home Secretary made her statement on 4 December about the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), I immediately tabled a question for written answer, asking her to list any security issues that might have been compromised. I accept that she might not have wanted to answer that question. I had a holding answer on 9 December, and I had to wait more than 15 weeks—

In my constituency surgery every week, I see people who want to apply for indefinite leave to remain in this country. When I ask them how they got in originally, they say that they simply came in on a student visa and overstayed. If that is happening in Wellingborough, I am sure that it is happening across the country. Will the Home Secretary give the House her estimate of how many people come into this country on a student visa and deliberately overstay?

That issue is precisely the reason for strengthening the conditions through the points-based system, as we have done, and for introducing the e-borders system that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) opposes.

If I heard the Home Secretary aright, she said that 200,000 visas in total were issued to Pakistani students in the last academic year. How many Pakistani students who were legitimately issued with visas failed to complete their university or college course last year?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, it would be well nigh impossible to know that statistic. However, it is important for us to know whether someone who has overstayed is still in the country or whether they have left. It is precisely for that purpose that we are rolling out the e-Borders programme, which is opposed by Conservative Members.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Now that we know that no proceedings are to be taken against the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), have you had a request from the Leader of the House to come and make a statement on the future of the Committee which was to consider the implications for the rights and privileges of Members arising from the raid on the hon. Gentleman’s office, and, in particular, on whether she is now willing to abandon the condition that would oblige you to ensure that there was a Government majority in the selection of members of that Committee—an unnecessary restriction on your discretion in a matter that concerns the whole House and not just the Government?

I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I am looking into this matter and I will return to the House on it.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In column 998 of Hansard on 8 May 1998, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said the following in relation to the disclosure of documents on Hillsborough:

“Our attitude to the disclosure of documents has been simple. We believe that anything relevant or material—anything that throws any light on to any of the events of that day—should be made available unless someone can demonstrate a very good reason why it should not be, although I have not so far come across such a case.”—[Official Report, 8 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 998.]

My right hon. Friend was very strong on that, and he was very helpful during that debate.

Therefore, while I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement that she will allow full disclosure of Hillsborough documents, is it not a scandal that we have had to wait 11 years for further information when we were told that all the relevant information was published back in 1998? Can you, Mr. Speaker, do anything to investigate why this information was not given to the House as promised, and will you ensure that the information that has now been promised gets as quickly as possible to Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman has put this matter on the record. I realise the difficult situation that he is in, as he has to represent his constituents as best he can, but he will understand that this is not a matter for the Chair. Those in authority who have responsibility will have heard what he has had to say regarding this matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not having been skilful enough to have linked my earlier question sufficiently closely to the statement, but I say as a point of order that I know that you have many times expressed your concern about ministerial answers taking too long. I would like to hear your view on this one. I put down a question for a written answer on 9 December. I asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department

“if she will publish a list of the systematic leaks from her Department referred to in her statement of 4 December 2008, Official Report, columns 134-36, as having led to her to approve referring the matter to the police; and whether any of the leaks listed concerned issues of national security.”

I received a holding answer on 9 December, saying that I would get a reply as soon as possible. I received a reply more than 15 weeks later, on 26 March this year. This reply was from one of the Home Secretary’s junior Ministers, referring me to the statement of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on 4 December and giving the same column references that I had given in my question in the first place. Is not that a pretty contemptible way to treat hon. Members?

I will not comment on the content, but questions should be as helpful as possible to right hon. and hon. Members.

Pardon me. The hon. Gentleman is right—I mean answers. Forgive me; I have been out of practice, having had a bit of a holiday. The answers should be helpful, but the questions should be as well.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the context of the police’s entry into the offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), I raised with the Leader of the House in business questions just before the House rose the question whether the Attorney-General’s opinion could be made available in the Library of the House. That was deposited the day after we began the recess. My point of order is that this whole issue raises matters of freedom of speech for Members of this House; the question of the confidentiality of our correspondence; and questions of national security. In particular, I have in mind the case of Mr. Duncan Sandys in 1938-39. Regrettably, the Attorney-General has not referred in her opinion to this case or, indeed, to several other precedents and conventions that apply. In those circumstances, I would be grateful if you would be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that a motion coming before the House is allowed to be debated, and that the matter is referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is legally qualified, so he will know that an opinion does not always provide the answer that someone wants. The same applies to the opinion of the Attorney-General; it may not necessarily be what the hon. Gentleman wants. I am not responsible for the reply that a Law Officer gives.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is well established, as I said in business questions, that it is the Attorney-General’s role to advise the House and Parliament as a whole in matters of this kind. Furthermore, the fact that the Attorney-General is in the House of Lords perhaps creates certain difficulties in appreciating the effects of such actions on the freedom of speech of Members in this House and, indeed, of our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman has the same length of service in the House as me, or almost the same, and there has often been a situation—I shall choose my words carefully—where a Law Officer has been in the other place. I have no responsibility for the answers that a Law Officer gives. It is up to the Law Officer to give the response.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, and as the House knows, there is a large demonstration going on outside the Palace of Westminster, in Parliament square, involving the friends and relatives of thousands of Tamil people who are being killed in Sri Lanka. That demonstration has gone on for some time, but today it is blocking part of Parliament square and Whitehall. Have you had any intimation from the Leader of the House as to whether she has agreed that the topical debate for Thursday will be on the situation in Sri Lanka, or any indication from the Foreign Office as to whether a statement is to be made to the House?

The demonstrators met the Foreign Secretary on a previous occasion, and the Prime Minister’s envoy is having discussions at the United Nations at the moment, but to bring the demonstration to an end, is there any possibility of the matter being discussed in the House as soon as possible?

It is up to the Leader of the House to decide, in consultation with others in the House, what the topical debate should be. It has been reported to me not only that a demonstration has been blocking off our entrance, but that young children—little children, and sometimes toddlers—have been put at the perimeter, or the outside, of the demonstration, which puts the police in a very difficult situation.

Policemen who have been under criticism for the way in which they have handled adults are being put in a situation whereby they cannot make any clearance because little children have been put to the perimeter of the demonstration. That is very sad and not an act of democratic demonstration—the type of demonstration that I have been used to as a Member of Parliament and as a former trade union officer. I am saddened that the police have been put in this situation and that little children have been put in their way.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What powers do you have to order the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to secure what used to be taken for granted in the House—that we, as Members, would have free access to Parliament? That used to be the Sessional Order that was passed at the state opening of each Session of Parliament. I submit that it is completely outrageous that Members of the House have been subjected to this inconvenience, and that the people of London have been subjected to it.

The situation in Sri Lanka is nothing to do with the House and it is an affront that we should have been subjected to this inconvenience. Is it going to continue? I have just spoken to a police officer. He tells me that there is no police officer out there who will take action because the police are fearful that the television cameras will be on them and that if they show anything other than a softly, softly approach, they will find themselves in court. Surely law and order has broken down outside the Houses of Parliament.

My contact with the Commissioner is the Serjeant at Arms. I will take the matter up with the Serjeant at Arms to find out what is happening today.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to your comment about what is happening in Parliament square, does not all this start with our being lenient about allowing three or four tents to be permanently encamped in Parliament square? If we are not tough on an operation of that sort, how on earth can we expect to control something as large as what is happening today?

That matter has been going on for some years, and I think the hon. Gentleman knows my views on it. However, each and every one of us has to abide by the law. I stop there as I had better get on to the main business of the day.

Defence Procurement

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of defence procurement.

Providing good equipment is a fundamental component of the military covenant. We ask our armed forces to risk all on our behalf and in return we must support them properly, giving them the equipment and the training that they need to do the job that we ask them to do today, and the job that we may ask them to do tomorrow.

We are committed to that, which is why the defence budget has risen consistently at a rate above inflation since 2000. In real terms, by 2010-11 it will be over £3 billion, or 10 per cent., higher than in 1997. That is why defence spending has risen by about £1 billion a year over the past five years—a clear contrast with the last five years of the Tory Government, who cut defence spending by £500 million pounds per year.

I will give way in a while.

Separately and additionally, since 2001 the Treasury reserve has provided about £14 billion to ensure that our forces are properly trained and equipped for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, including £4.2 billion approved for urgent operational requirements, the majority of which related to force protection equipment. In allocating funds, we must give priority to current operations. However, we cannot take that too far, because we must continue to insure against the threats that we may face in the years to come.

The national security strategy, published in March last year, highlights the sheer range of potential security threats facing the United Kingdom, from international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states to pandemics and transnational crime. We live in a complicated and unpredictable world. It is that unpredictability which makes it so important that in fighting today’s war we do not irreparably damage our ability to prepare for tomorrow’s, whatever it may be.

No matter how good the equipment package that we procure through our core budget, the unpredictability of conflict means that we need a rapid procurement system of some kind to allow us to tailor and supplement the kit that we give our forces. Our urgent operational requirement programme has done that job. Working with industry, we have used it to slash procurement lead times dramatically and to fast-track equipment tailored specifically for the demands of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For example, in 2005 we used the urgent operational requirement process to introduce new Kestrel and Osprey body armour for our forces in theatre. That represented a step change in capability in comparison with the body armour that they had before, but we cannot rest. The feedback from troops is, predictably, that they like the level of protection afforded but do not like the extra weight. We are now working on a better fit of body armour, which will make carriage easier and which we expect to be in theatre by summer. We are also making further improvements to the infantryman’s helmet.

As the Minister knows, we have just returned from a two-week recess during which a number of announcements were made about defence issues. It was announced, for instance, that the Territorial Army might be cut by 10,000, that we might be sending 900 more troops to Afghanistan, and that as a result of a strategy change led by President Obama we would examine the Anbar awakening project in Iraq with a view to allowing militias in Afghanistan to be paid to do their own patrolling. Those actions will have huge significance for the way in which we operate the British Army.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify what is going on? Many people in uniform are wondering what on earth the Government are doing. They read about decisions in the press that do not—

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention has been very long, and he has asked a number of questions. I think that the Minister would be entirely within his rights to answer only in terms of defence procurement, which is the subject of today’s debate.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have made the point for me. I cannot go further than the debate allows without risking your wrath. It does not surprise me that the hon. Gentleman was as out of order as he has been on a number of other occasions.

I got good feedback on the equipment package that we are now providing from the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade, whom I visited in Afghanistan in December. Everywhere I went, Royal Marines of all ranks had nothing but praise for the Jackal vehicle. There are now 200 Jackals in service, and the new, improved Jackal 2 is due to be delivered later this year, six months after the requirement was first raised.

Jackal is only one small part of the vehicle fleet that we are delivering to the front line under the UOR regime. We have approved more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations, with a focus on providing our commanders with a range of options to allow them to select the most appropriate vehicle for the task in hand. As well as heavily armoured vehicles, they must have more mobile vehicles that can penetrate the narrow streets of villages in the green zone in Helmand, and vehicles that can cover rough terrain in pursuit of the enemy.

We have been making good progress in delivering this comprehensive programme. In October 2008, the Secretary of State announced that we would be procuring approximately 700 new and upgraded armoured vehicles. This included £350 million for more than 400 new light, medium and heavily protected utility vehicles, to be known respectively as Coyote, Husky and Wolfhound. We have now signed contracts for Husky and Wolfhound and expect to sign the contract for the Coyote vehicle very shortly.

Will the Minister explain to the House the problems associated with the UOR system, particularly as in historical terms it now accounts for such an enormous proportion of equipment procurement, and what that means for the maintenance of that equipment in the Army’s inventory over a prolonged period?

The hon. Gentleman is right in that integrating programmes bought through the UOR process with the main programme is problematic, but surely he would accept that, as we cannot always predict every military circumstance, we need our ongoing procurement capability and the UOR process in order to be able to supplement quickly the urgent needs of troops in theatre. That is exactly what it is designed to do. Governments then have to try as best we can to integrate and mesh the UOR process, and the equipment we have bought through it, with our ongoing core equipment programme. That is, of course, problematic, but leaving troops without both the vital equipment they need and a rapid response to changing threat scenarios would be a lot worse.

The Minister’s explanation of why UORs are important would be absolutely right if they were, indeed, simply a way of providing our troops with the equipment they need at times of war such as now, but is there not a problem with UORs in that the Treasury has capped the budget—if my memory serves me right, at £700 million a year—and anything more than that comes out of the ordinary defence budgets in subsequent years, which will be after the next general election? Is there not something rather bogus about the whole UOR project, therefore?

Order. For the benefit of those people outside this House who are not specialists, will the Minister explain what UORs are in his reply to that question?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The urgent operational requirement programme is in theory not capped but becomes refundable for the Treasury at a point in time. However, it is an academic argument at the moment because we have not gone over that capped amount. There may well be issues at some time in the future, but we have not gone over it yet, so no repayment is required at present, and it is a hypothetical argument to say that it might present a problem at some time in the future.

I was talking about vehicles. Mastiff continues to prove its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deliveries of the enhanced Mastiff 2 began in late 2008, bringing the available Mastiff fleet to more than 280. Ridgeback, which will provide similar levels of protection to Mastiff but is based around the smaller Cougar 4x4 chassis, is expected to start arriving in theatre later this month. The first batch of the Panther command and liaison vehicle has arrived in theatre. It is expected to become operational in the next few weeks.

We use the urgent operational requirements programme to ensure that we are prepared for operations today. We have to ensure that our core budget is properly balanced between equipment designed for the kind of operations that we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those that we may face in future. In his budget earlier this month, the American Defence Secretary, Bob Gates, said that the USA is shifting its emphasis to equipment designed for counter-insurgency operations. His analysis is that the US needs to be realistic about what kinds of conflicts its armed forces are likely to face in the years to come, and to tailor its equipment accordingly. In future, the enemy is more likely to be the masked insurgent than the Russian tank commander.

Last December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced the conclusion of the equipment examination. That, too, was designed to prioritise current operations. Among other measures, he announced that we would prioritise the future rapid effect system Scout vehicle and the Warrior upgrade programme for the Army. He announced that we would redeploy the Merlin helicopter from Iraq to Afghanistan, making significantly more helicopters and flying hours available to commanders, and that we would invest £70 million to upgrade 12 Lynx mark 9 helicopters with new engines, allowing them to operate in the high altitude and heat of the Afghan summer. Those helicopters are expected to be ready to deploy in 2010.

The Minister says that priority will be given to the FRES Scout vehicle, as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has said before. May we have an indication of the time scale in which that vehicle will come on stream? This FRES story has been going on for a little bit now.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence has just told me that he is hopeful that we will get to the initial gate with the FRES Scout vehicle within the next 10 months. I hope that that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question.

The US’s shift towards procuring equipment for counter-insurgency operations has been well reported. Perhaps less well reported are the measures in its budget to maintain the US contingency capability for state-on-state conflict and power projection, measures such as the commitment to the joint strike fighter, an extra $700 million for theatre missile defence systems, and the announcement of a replacement programme for the US Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The US is making sure that its programme stays in balance.

Given the relative sizes of our armed forces, maintaining that balance is more difficult for us. We need to make sure that we do not abandon our high-end capabilities on the altar of the needs of today. Once abandoned, those capabilities, dependent on complex equipment and highly trained personnel, would be difficult to re-grow. In our uncertain world, our armed forces will need the tools to deal with many potential threats. Equipment such as Trident, Astute, the Type 45, the new carriers, Typhoon, the JSF and the future surface combatant is essential to our ability to defend ourselves and our ability to project force.

The Minister mentioned the joint strike fighter. Will he inform the House of what the Obama Administration’s initial reaction was to sharing the technology so that we can operate that aircraft entirely independently? Will he also tell the House whether the variant that we will get will be the same, in stealth terms, as the one that the United States will have? Or will we get the “export” variant, which I suspect will be much less stealthy?

The programme for the joint strike fighter is in the early days, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but we are involved in it and securing our position by the purchase of three aircraft. That will ensure that not only do we obtain the very highest capability—including full stealth capability—but we are able to understand and maintain the aircraft in the future, and we have full access to the technology. That is the whole reason for our involvement, and we are determined to be embedded in the programme to achieve independence of control in the future. We are receiving every indication of co-operation from our American colleagues in that regard.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the future surface combatant programme. Does he agree that, as with the future rapid effect system, or FRES, it will suffer from having a name that nobody understands? Will he please call a spade a spade and call it the future frigate programme?

I try desperately to avoid falling into MOD jargon—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should say, “Ministry of Defence” jargon. I try to avoid it, but it is impossible. Some of the names that we give to our equipment defy any ordinary person’s understanding of what we do, so there is a lot to be learnt by the Department and those involved with it in trying to call equipment by names that are understandable to the ordinary person. I insist on calling a carrier a carrier, not a CVF—a carrier vessel future—much to the annoyance of many people in the Royal Marines.

As always, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) makes an extremely good point. Can we not accept that the FRES brand is now broken and should be dropped? We should move to a system of vehicle procurement that people can understand.

My hon. Friend was making a point about the titles that we hang on the kit and equipment that people do not understand. The fundamental capability embodied in what has become known as the FRES programme is still something that the Army wants and needs in the future—vehicles that are capable of operating in different theatres of war, not just in counter-insurgency.

I thought that my right hon. Friend had agreed that plain English should rule the day. As far as I am concerned, FRES is French for strawberry. Could he not refer to it as a suite of utility vehicles?

I cannot do that, because FRES is more than that. It does not just involve utility vehicles. In any case, I think that the French for strawberry is “fraise”, not FRES, although my French is not brilliant.

The language issue is like “The Hunting of the Snark”. Perhaps the Minister of State can explain what a “Boojum” is when he finds one.

On the question of Typhoon, can the Minister of State explain what is happening with tranche 3? I understand that it has been split into tranche 3A and tranche 3B, and there is international agreement that tranche 3B should proceed with us counting 30 aircraft off to Saudi Arabia as part of our tranche. Why will not the Treasury agree that? Or is every major procurement decision now being stalled by the Treasury?

We fall straight into a trap when we talk about tranche 3A and tranche 3B of Typhoon and nobody other than ourselves understands what anybody is talking about. We are in discussions with our partners about this tranche of aircraft, but I am not able to make an announcement on that at the moment and I am sorry to have to say that to the hon. Gentleman. We will make an announcement as soon as we can on our intentions to buy tranche 3 and we will try to keep the House informed on that.

My constituents, particularly those who live close to RAF Leuchars, understand well and truly that the Eurofighter Typhoon is a new fighter aircraft. They are particularly pleased that the Government have yet again committed themselves to the deployment of three squadrons to replace the two squadrons of Tornado that are based there. However, my constituents are a little concerned at reports that 43 Squadron, which has a strong Scottish tradition, may be disbanded. If that is to be the case, would not the effectiveness of one of the new squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoon to be based at RAF Leuchars be more than enhanced if the new squadron were renamed 43?

I shall come back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the naming of squadrons. We will try, if we can, to give assurance or at least certainty to his constituents. I am not sure, to be honest with him, what the consequences are of what he is talking about. However, I will talk to him outside and separate from the debate, if he wants, and will try to give him at least some clarity.

May I inform my right hon. Friend how important tranche 3 is not only as regards jobs and skills in the north-west but to the RAF, too? It is a crucial, world-beating aircraft and we are sending out a clear message around the world that says, “We believe in this aircraft; come along and buy it.” What is he doing to ensure that those export orders are coming on board to ensure that the skills will remain in the north-west?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This fantastic aircraft is spoken of very highly not only by all those who have flown it but by those who have seen it perform. We have tried, wherever it is appropriate, to make the aircraft available for export, as have other partner nations. People are aware of it. The doubts that people in this place and elsewhere have cast on the Eurofighter, going back some years, have largely been removed as people have seen the real capability that the Typhoon provides.

When there was a gap in production between tranche 1 and tranche 2 of Typhoon, the MOD had to pay £100 million in compensation to cover that gap. Will the Minister tell us what the figure would be if there were a gap in production between tranche 2 and tranche 3 of the Typhoon?

The hon. Gentleman describes a hypothetical situation, which would include the questions of whether there would be a gap and of how big that gap would be, so I cannot answer his question. We will come to the House, as I said, and we will inform people as soon as we can about the situation regarding tranche 3 of the Typhoon.

High-end equipment, such as that which we have been talking about, can be used very effectively across the spectrum of conflict. That is borne out by the experience of current operations. The armed forces are using equipment designed with very different theatres in mind for roles for which they were not originally intended. Such equipment includes the Tornado, which was bought as a deep-attack bomber but is employed in Iraq for close air support and will soon perform the same role in Afghanistan. However, making the right decisions about the equipment that we need is only one side of the equation. The other side involves ensuring that when we go on to procure equipment, we procure it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Delivering equipment programmes has always been challenging. In 1958, the then Ministry of Supply estimated that defence equipment cost 2.8 times as much as forecast, so delays, slippages and cost overruns are nothing new, and nor are these difficulties something with which the UK alone struggles. In his budget speech, Secretary Gates said:

“The perennial procurement and contracting cycle—going back many decades—of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end.”

I agree with the Minister and accept the point that he is making—procurement is not easy, and many other countries have great difficulties—but there is no need for us to have those great difficulties. American defence procurement is on a scale vastly bigger than ours, and is vastly more complicated and vastly more complex, covering many more areas and systems. What we choose to require of our desperately small armed forces should not be as complicated and difficult as it is. The Government need to make things run much better, whichever Government they are.

Our problems are different, but that does not necessarily make them easier. We procure relatively few things, so we cannot utilise the economy of scale available to the Americans, which brings its own set of problems. Yes, our problems are different, but they are not always easier—sometimes, indeed, they are more complicated as a result of our smaller procurement runs and equipment runs on individual items.

Previous generations have warned the House about perceived threats, and have been shouted down, not least Winston Churchill in 1930s, when he was in the House and talked about the need to rearm. On the perceived threat of cyber-attack, which has manifested itself in countries such as Estonia—and we have recently heard how China has indulged in cyber-technology that could be used to attack countries in the west such as the UK—what assurances can the Minister give the House that he understands that threat and has built it into his procurement policies?

I think that that is the thrust of what I have said. It is enormously difficult, and it would be challenging for any Government—it is challenging to the USA, and it has always been challenging—to get the balance right. We have to face up to the situation and provide our troops with the equipment that they need now for the conflicts in which they are involved, which cost lives in real theatres of war, yet we must try, too, to look at the spectrum of potential threats, including cyber-attack, to ensure that we are best placed in an uncertain world. The question of how we get that balance right is fundamental to the issues that we face. If in the near future we wind up in an environment in which the threat increases because of the global pressures that may flow from the current economic climate, those difficulties will become even more acute.

That is not to say that we can bend our procurement programmes entirely towards the perceived threats of tomorrow, and not give priority to those threats that we face and that threaten our people today. Surely, they must come first. We have an enormously difficult thing to do, and everyone who talks about defence today talks about that issue and getting the balance right.