House of Commons
Thursday 30 April 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Innovation, Universities and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government have rescued and expanded apprenticeships. Apprenticeship starts have more than trebled from 65,000 in 1996-97 to a record 225,000 in 2007-08. We are taking further action to promote apprenticeships during the downturn. This week, we announced an extra £7 million for up to 10 new apprenticeship training agencies to help small businesses take on apprentices. We have recently announced a further £140 million to provide 35,000 extra apprenticeship places this year. In January, we launched the online apprentices vacancy matching service to make recruitment of apprentices easier.
The disruption of Britain’s industrial base in the early years of the last Conservative Government denied many thousands of apprenticeship opportunities, particularly in engineering. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend ensure that as we come out of this economic downturn, we have an entirely different outcome, and emerge with more skilled young people, not fewer?
As a former apprentice himself, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. There is a sharp contrast between the Government’s investment in expanding apprenticeships, the industrial policy that we outlined last week to develop our real economic strength, including in advanced manufacturing industries—the industries of the future—and the do nothing approach of the Conservative party when it was in power in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The Government have rightly focused on the pay gap between men and women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of tackling that is to get more women into what are seen as non-traditional sectors for them such as science, engineering and technology? What can the programme of apprenticeships do to ensure that that happens?
One of the most important things that we can do is to ensure that in promoting apprenticeships in schools, young women are introduced to apprenticeships that are not the traditional ones for them to enter. The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill introduces for the first time a statutory duty on schools to promote information about apprenticeships. As part of the guidance that follows that through, we will want to ensure that non-traditional apprenticeships are promoted to young women, and young men, in school.
Just two weeks ago, the university of Cumbria announced a 40 per cent. increase in recruitment to its farm apprenticeships course, and 50 per cent. of those new recruits were from non-farming backgrounds, which is incredibly positive. At the same time, I spent much of my Easter recess visiting more than 300 small businesses in my very rural constituency, and found that the overwhelming majority had not even considered taking on an apprentice and were not aware of the scheme. Will the Secretary of State agree to give additional support not just to small businesses but to those in the tourism sector in rural areas, so that they can take advantage of the apprenticeships scheme?
May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the announcement made, I think, at the end of last week, or the beginning of this week, by my noble Friend Lord Young, about funding for group training associations to promote apprenticeships? One of the key ways of getting apprentices in smaller businesses is to ensure that a central agency run by groups of employers provides the administration and support for the apprenticeship scheme. He might like to look at his local economy and consider whether it might be appropriate for him to encourage such an application, because that is part of the practical solution to the issue that he has raised.
Will my right hon. Friend’s Department link into the fund announced in the Budget that will enable local authorities and voluntary bodies to offer employment to young unemployed people? If people get the opportunity of the six months’ employment under that scheme, that could lead to a formal apprenticeship afterwards. That is a path out of unemployment and into a better future for young people.
My Department will be involved in the jobs fund in two ways. We will receive additional funding—well over £100 million—to offer more than 80,000 additional training places to young people who have been out of work for 12 months, to ensure that they gain new skills. We will also want to work with employers who create new opportunities to ensure that young people doing those jobs can get the skills to sustain their future employment.
In a parliamentary answer on 20 April, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), assured me that funding will allow every person who has started an apprenticeship to complete it. So why are providers approaching us to warn that funding cuts for next year are so severe that they cannot be confident even of being able to maintain their current apprenticeships, let alone meet the Government’s ambitious targets for more apprenticeships? Will the Secretary of State consider our proposal for a nationwide clearing house for all apprentices who are now in danger of losing their apprenticeships before they are completed?
Two issues are involved. On the funding for apprenticeship training, it should not be the case that training providers are unable to pay for or receive funds for the completion of current apprenticeships. On the second issue of those who lose their jobs because their employers are unable to keep them in work as a result of the downturn, we already have a clearing house in construction apprenticeships, which is obviously one of the most pressured areas, and that has managed to place more than 600 apprentices; we have changed the rules so that an apprentice can continue training for up to six months at college even if they do not have an employer, so that their training is not interrupted; we have reached agreement with the Department for Work and Pensions that—this is unusual—apprentices will automatically be able to continue for up to 13 weeks seeking work solely in the line of occupation of their apprenticeship; and we are discussing with the DWP the best way of ensuring that apprentices whose technical training might be interrupted are able to do intensive work in college to complete their training. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that I think is feasibly possible to ensure that we continue to support apprentices who might lose their jobs while they are training.
I heard what the Secretary of State said, but I have to tell him that there are training providers who, having seen the provisional proposals for their funding in 2009-10, are not sure that they will have the funding to continue providing the training for apprentices whom they have already recruited. We will be holding him to account for the assurance that he and the Under-Secretary have given. I warn the Secretary of State in respect of any thought he may have had that further education capital spending was under control. He has a plan for 50 per cent. of students to go to university next year, yet he has cut his plans for university student numbers so that it is absolutely impossible for that figure to be reached. Given the current funding pressures, will he consider suspending the reorganisation of all the quangos, which has been estimated to cost £140 million, and devoting that money instead to ensuring that apprentices and students are supported during this Labour recession?
I would remind the hon. Gentleman that on 5 January his party announced that it would be cutting my Department’s budget by £610 million in this financial year, and he has yet to reply to my letter of 15 January to explain where those cuts would fall, so he is not in a position to talk about this Department’s spending.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to follow up with me the points that he has made about training providers. I understand that although it is, of course, necessary to ensure that budgets are adhered to within the Learning and Skills Council on apprenticeships—he will entirely understand that—there should be no question of someone having the funding for an apprenticeship that they have already started withdrawn. I am perfectly happy to follow that issue up.
The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is committed to maximising skills training and apprenticeship opportunities through its procurement programme. In Building Colleges for the Future, we have introduced a firm requirement that contractors working on college construction projects provide a formal training plan and maximise apprenticeship opportunities. We estimate that about 500 apprentices are currently being supported on further education college capital projects—that is equivalent to one in every 20 workers employed. We will ensure that this requirement is extended to cover all future FE college capital projects. We are also encouraging research councils and higher education institutions to seize opportunities to provide skills and apprenticeship opportunities through their contracting processes.
I thank the Minister for that very positive response. Good employers have nothing to fear from investing in apprenticeships for the future, but can he assure the House that those requirements will also be placed on subcontractors involved in this work? More importantly, will he ensure that any company that is found to be engaging in blacklisting people will be excluded from these contracts?
Blacklisting is an abhorrent practice. We thought that it had been stamped out in this country under Labour, but if reports of its re-emergence turn out to be true, I know that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will take it very seriously and examine it urgently. I can tell my hon. Friend that apprenticeship procurement runs throughout the supply chain and that the guidance from the Office of Government Commerce given only earlier this month sets out how Departments can find their way through the significant legal and technical complexities to ensure that they can agree contracts that provide high quality training as a fundamental requirement.
An academically talented young constituent of mine, who is dyslexic, obtained nine A-C grades at GCSE, but failed to obtain English, and was therefore debarred from taking up a level 3 apprenticeship. Will the Minister have a discussion with me to see whether we can encourage the sector skills councils to pay special attention to the creation of apprenticeship places for those who have learning difficulties?
I assume that my hon. Friend refers to the same young constituent about whom we have corresponded, in which case I recall that he is now studying his level 3 apprenticeship and progressing well. However, I know that that does not eradicate the problem and, as my hon. Friend knows, we must strike the balance between accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities and difficulties on the one hand and maintaining the rigour of the qualification on the other. I met the chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People earlier this week to talk about these issues as they might affect the specification of apprenticeship standards for England, which sets out the overarching definition of the apprenticeship framework. I would be glad to meet my hon. Friend to talk about such issues in greater depth.
Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker—almost overlooked. [Hon. Members: “Never!”] I welcome the wide extension of apprenticeship schemes into many trades in recent years. What can my hon. Friend tell the House about the demand for places on science, engineering and technology-based apprenticeship schemes and what more can be done to encourage young people into such trades so that we are properly prepared for whatever upturn comes at the end of this recession?
My hon. Friend is very unlikely to be overlooked, not only because of his physical size but the magnitude of his personality and authority. He has hit the nail on the head when he talks about demand for advanced and engineering apprenticeships. The provision of such courses is led by demand. Apprenticeships are jobs, and need to be required by the employer. I am glad to confirm that the number of advanced apprenticeships continues to rise and, contrary to what we often hear from the Opposition, continues to rise as a proportion of the total number of apprenticeships.
South Thames College
My Department has regular discussions with the LSC on the funding for capital projects and I am aware of the position regarding South Thames college following recent discussions with my hon. Friend and the college principal.
Budget 2009 announced that an additional £300 million of capital funding will be made available in the current spending review period to support a limited number of the most urgent projects. Selection of these projects must be based on objective criteria that the LSC is developing in consultation with the sector.
The Minister has been most helpful, meeting the college principal and me, as has the Chancellor in providing the extra funds. However, the Minister will know that the cranes and contractors are on site, so can he give any better indication of when the LSC is likely to reach a decision?
I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact date, but we expect the process that the LSC is leading, to make rapid decisions on the most urgent and high priority projects, to be completed in the near future and the colleges to be given the final go-ahead early this summer.
The Minister’s last answer gives me cause for hope that the predicament of Havering sixth form college might be resolved. That college has already spent £6 million on its capital project and the enabling works have included the demolition of a sports facility and three classrooms. These enabling works will have to be reversed if the money is not forthcoming. Will the Minister commit to the future of Havering sixth form college’s capital project now, so that it has some confidence that it will make the improvements as intended?
I can tell the hon. Lady that I am truly sympathetic to her predicament and that of her college. Many college principals all over the country have undertaken development and preparatory works and have borrowed and spent money on the assumption that they would be able to deliver capital projects that they now find themselves unable to deliver according to the time scales that they first thought. She knows that I will not be able to make commitments about her college now. Indeed, it is not for me to make commitments about the proposals for any college in detail. These decisions have to be made by the Learning and Skills Council through a transparent and open process, particularly in the current difficult climate. We are confident that we will get decisions on the urgent and high priority cases very quickly and on the other cases that do not make it into that category soon thereafter. Colleges that find themselves in difficulties with costs will be supported.
Further Education Colleges
While East Devon college has received capital support in the past, there are currently no capital projects under way at either East Devon college or Bicton college. Therefore, there is currently no planned expenditure on approved capital projects in the East Devon constituency in 2009-10.
Budget 2009 announced additional capital funds of more than £300 million for this spending review period—2009-10 and 2010-11—and the total further education capital budget for 2009-10 is £827.6 million. That budget will cover expenditure on projects which have already been approved as well as on new projects.
I was hoping to get the Secretary of State rather than the twitterer. The Secretary of State, who is a good east Devon boy, will have heard, if not from the excellent chairman of Uplyme parish council, about the continuing discrimination against schooling and funding for schools in east Devon.
The Minister’s reply was very telling inasmuch as he said that there were no plans for capital expenditure in east Devon, which just goes to underline what I have just said. However, he will possibly be aware of plans to secure the Rolle college campus site in Exmouth following the vacation by the university of Plymouth. We are making strident moves to achieve that. Will he instruct the Learning and Skills Council—or have a discussion with it on this subject—to prioritise that plan, should we be successful?
I am happy to speak to the Learning and Skills Council about the hon. Gentleman’s project. I certainly was not saying that there would never be any capital expenditure in east Devon, but simply that, as I understand it, there are no plans for FE college capital expenditure at the moment.
The news of the £3 million capital will be most welcome for Hereward college in Coventry. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that that college is also a national college for people with learning difficulties and various disabilities. That situation contrasts with the years when the Opposition were in Government, when they never properly funded capital programmes for colleges.
As ever, my hon. Friend speaks wisely and convincingly on behalf of his constituents. He makes the unerring and fundamental point that the college capital building programme budget under the Conservatives in their last year in government was precisely nil, whereas we have invested £2.3 million in the current period and are committed to investing as we go forward.
The Government and the LSC have said that the programme will go ahead on the basis of those schemes that deliver the biggest return on capital in terms of the enhancement of skills. Will he ensure that the criteria are drawn so that colleges with well-developed programmes that serve predominantly rural areas, which tend to be heavily dependent on a handful of relatively low-paying industries, compete on a level playing field? The move of Craven college from 11 sites to a new site is part of the regeneration programme for Craven as a whole. The upgrading of skills is desperately needed and the college has an extremely good track record in delivering that.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The importance of skills in the rural areas is absolutely understood, as are the different requirements and conditions there. I have been made aware of that in the meetings that I have had on this matter, and partly through meeting hon. Members from rural constituencies who, like the right hon. Gentleman, have raised the issue. It is something about which I am talking to the LSC, as it and the Association of Colleges put together their open and transparent process to prioritise which colleges get the go-ahead.
I fully understand the need to speed up those projects and colleges to which a financial commitment has been made, but Loughborough is well down the track in terms of planning and development. Will my hon. Friend ensure that colleges such as Loughborough are not precluded from the process? More importantly—and this ties in with the industrial strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned earlier—will he ensure that the smaller capital projects that would probably involve colleges such as Loughborough do not get lost in the morass of existing problems and difficulties? Loughborough has a close proximity to the university and is developing many advanced manufacturing technologies. Many good but smaller projects can have a significant impact and they should not be lost in the big picture.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of his college in Loughborough, as one would expect. No college is precluded from the process: the LSC, in partnership with the Association of Colleges, is prioritising the most urgent and highest priority cases, but all colleges will be part of the process. The LSC is considering its decisions on this matter, and its criteria will include value for money, education and skills and the impact of investment, but I would have thought that it is also bound to take into account the potential benefit of being able to fund relatively small projects. Being small will certainly not be a bar to being considered in the future.
The West Herts college is a fantastic facility that looks after students in Watford and Hemel Hempstead. The capital programme that has been going on for some time has finished in Watford, but now the LSC has said that the final part of the project—the part for Hemel Hempstead—is to be regarded as a new project. The LSC has moved the goalposts halfway through the capital project, so will the Minister meet me and the college’s principal, Elizabeth Rushton, to explain exactly how it was able to do that? Coming halfway through the programme, the change will have a devastating effect on the town centre redevelopment that the college is part of.
The £300 million announced in the Budget is not nearly enough to fund the approvals in detail or the approvals in principle that are already with the LSC. Clearly, that means that a rationing exercise will have to take place, and that an awful lot of college schemes simply will not proceed. We need some certainty for colleges and students, and for the building contractors and architects whose jobs are at stake. When will the Minister or the LSC be able to tell the colleges that the plans that they have already worked up and spent resources on will not be able to proceed any further?
Nobody is claiming or pretending that the £300 million of new cash that we got in the Budget to spend on building new projects this year is enough to solve a problem that clearly will not go away overnight. The process will remain difficult and will continue to take some time, but we will be able to bring certainty to urgent and high-priority cases within a few weeks. Colleges that are not able to move at that speed know that we have £750 million available to spend on new college building programmes, going forward. Over the course of the next period we will be able to prioritise, so that, relatively soon, colleges can begin to have a sense of where they stand, and of roughly when they can begin to build.
It is quite clear that our colleges were driven by the Government to spend a fortune on new building plans. Owing to economic mismanagement, the Government now say that they do not have the cash to deliver on their side of the bargain. As a result, hard-pressed colleges up and down the country have lost huge sums of their own money. I recently visited a victim of the crisis, Matthew Boulton college in Birmingham, Erdington, and it stands to lose tens of millions of pounds. So, Mr. Speaker, I would like to offer the Minister, who is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box now and apologise to the students, his college and his constituents. The offer is an open offer. Will he take the opportunity?
I hate to point out to the hon. Gentleman that he does not know what he is talking about, but Matthew Boulton college is not in Birmingham, Erdington. Everything else that he said was wrong, too. We will be spending £827 million on college building projects this year, £300 million of which is new money. The LSC mismanaged this project, but it is being resolved and we are bringing clarity and certainty to colleges, which is much needed and in good order.
Learning and Skills Council
As the House would imagine, I have received many representations about the LSC capital programme, and I have endeavoured to keep the House informed about it. I am grateful to Sir Andrew Foster for setting out clearly how, despite record investment in FE capital programmes, the LSC capital programme came to be over-committed.
In the Budget, we announced an additional £300 million of capital funding for the current spending review. This will enable a limited number of projects to start soon. The LSC is now working with the Association of Colleges, the wider FE sector and my Department to agree the criteria for prioritising the projects that are the most urgent and of the greatest need.
Does the Minister agree that the decision on which colleges should be given the go-ahead should be based on need and not on who jumped the gun like in some wild west land grab? If so, does he agree that youth unemployment should be a major factor in assessing need? South Tyneside has more than 2,000 young people unemployed, so should it not be top priority?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is vital that the prioritisation reflects real need, value for money and the impact of the investment that is proposed in a college. My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for South Tyneside college, and I commend him for it. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said, we cannot and should not prejudge the decisions that the LSC will take, but they must be taken according to criteria that are seen to be fair, transparent and right.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his letter and to the Minister for agreeing to meet me next week along with the principal of National Star college. We hope to establish that the college is one of the most deserving cases as it works entirely with young people with extreme physical disabilities and is half way through the capital transformation of its campus. If the additional funding that is being provided is taken from subsequent years’ budgets, will we not be solving some of the problem this year, but creating further problems in future years?
The Budget settlement has two elements that are important in bringing certainty and clarity, or as much certainty and clarity as we can, to the current situation. The first is that we have an additional £300 million to spend in this comprehensive spending review, so far as possible front-loaded towards the coming months rather than the latter end of the CSR. The second is the ability to plan into the next CSR at an indicative target of at least £300 million, which gives us the ability to look not just at the work that can be carried out in the next two years, but at how the programme beyond that can develop. By doing that, we hope that we can bring the greatest certainty and clarity to as many schemes as possible, not just in the next couple of years but in the years beyond that.
Where the LSC has agreed to a merger between two colleges, as has happened with Sparsholt college and the former Cricklade college in my constituency, and part of the deal was agreement to substantial capital investment on both campuses to deliver the benefits of the merger, can the Secretary of State confirm that those circumstances will have a high priority in deciding which schemes will go ahead?
I do not think that I should go further than what I said in my answer about the need for the criteria set out by the LSC to be fair and transparent and to produce the right educational priorities. Every right hon. and hon. Member can clearly argue for the priority that would most fit their case, but my comment is that we should have, so far as possible, a set of criteria that people would think fair. As Sir Andrew Foster set out, we are in a position where expectations were raised in a much larger number of colleges than could be met, albeit with the record expenditure of £2.3 billion that we have. [Interruption.] That is set out in Sir Andrew Foster’s report.
This is clearly a failure of the implementation of a good policy, and it is clearly something for which the former chief executive of LSC took responsibility. The report also sets out clearly Ministers’ role—or, indeed, lack of role—and the lack of information to Ministers as that situation developed. I now have to try to manage the situation in a way that is as fair as possible to the largest number of colleges. That is the commitment that I can make, but I remind the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who intervened from a sedentary position, that his colleague, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), went to the Association of Colleges conference last year and said that no one could rely on a Conservative Government even to maintain the then planned expenditure for 2010-11. So there is a huge question mark over the Conservative party’s commitment to FE capital, as there was in the past.
The Foster report on the Government’s mismanagement of the Building Colleges for the Future programme states that the crisis is both predictable and probably avoidable. Colleges across the country are suffering at present, and many plans have had to be suspended. Concerns about the project were raised as long ago as February 2008. The Secretary of State’s Department was represented at subsequent meetings where those concerns were repeated. As his officials knew of an impending crisis, why did he not do something about it sooner? Is he not ashamed of the shambles surrounding the programme?
The Foster report sets out very clearly where responsibility lies, and as the hon. Gentleman says, it sets out missed opportunities in the LSC to bring the issue to a head and to resolve it. We have accepted the conclusions and recommendations of the Foster report. It is a matter of fact and of record, which was accepted by Sir Andrew, that Ministers were not informed of the scale, nature and, indeed, existence of the problem until the last two months of last year, by which time all the decisions that had contributed to the current problem had been already taken. One of Sir Andrew’s recommendations was that my Department should look at the relationship and accountabilities between my civil servants and the non-departmental public bodies for which we are responsible. In part of my response to Sir Andrew Foster’s report, I asked the permanent secretary of my Department to review all our relationships with our non-departmental public bodies, so that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about the responsibilities and accountability of officials who have relationships with those bodies. I think that that was the right response for me to make to Sir Andrew’s report.
Adult and Community Learning
We will invest £210 million in adult community learning in England in 2009-10. We also recently published “The Learning Revolution” White Paper, setting out our ambitious vision for informal learning in the 21st century, with an additional £30 million funding for such learning this year.
I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman repeat that, because he will know that what his constituents need, particularly at this time, is investment in skills, particularly through Train to Gain, in the workplace. That is precisely what we have done and what we are continuing to do. He should separate that from the learning revolution strategy and, quite rightly, the new investment that we are now making in learning for learning’s sake and in all the fantastic activity that is going on in constituencies such as his in supporting book clubs and work funded by other Departments. That is what we are doing, and it is the right thing to do.
Adult education in Wolverhampton is run by the city council, which is controlled by the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in a rotten coalition. I urge my right hon. Friend to take no lessons from the Conservative party—the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) referred to cuts of £1.5 million—because in Wolverhampton alone, the Tory coalition has cut £640,000 from adult education. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that as disgraceful?
Will the Minister pay attention and look at the college of West Anglia, which has a fantastic reputation for adult and community learning provision? Is he aware that it was granted in principle funding for two new sites, with capital expenditure of £150 million, but that that has been put on hold? The college has spent all its reserves and made major commitments. Is he aware that the project was to have been part of a major regeneration programme in south King’s Lynn and an aspect of a key skills agenda in an area where unemployment is going up?
In 2005-06, 3.85 million adult learners resident in England participated in LSC-funded skills courses. In 2007-08, that total was 3.28 million. The corresponding figures for the Billericay constituency were 5,960 in 2005-06, and 5,060 in 2007-08.
Given that answer, may I raise the issue of bureaucracy? According to the Association of Colleges, the funding system for FE colleges is too slow and too many rules restrict the flow of money between funding pots. Given the fall in FE enrolments that the Minister outlined, not would it be wise for the Government to cut bureaucracy and red tape instead of increasing it by creating new quangos?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to follow closely the passage of the Bill before Parliament that brings into being, with precisely that aim, the Skills Funding Agency. One of the first things that I was able to do as skills Minister was to ensure that we made more moves to deal with any bureaucracy attached to Train to Gain. We are making progress and we will continue to do so.
We heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), that potential apprentices are being turned away and from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) that the capital funding crisis could have been avoided. While the ship is on the rocks, the Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) said, intend to reorganise the crew. The changes to the Learning and Skills Council will cost £42 million in vacating properties and a further £190 million in transferring pensions. In confirming those figures, will the Minister recognise that it is time that his lot jumped overboard and gave way to a new team who can steer us to calmer waters?
I always look forward to facing the hon. Gentleman across the Dispatch Box. As always, we do not recognise his figures. We have just had a lengthy Budget debate in which we set out the efficiency savings that we intend to make, and I am surprised that he was not paying attention.
Building Colleges for the Future Programme
In 2008-09, the Learning and Skills Council FE capital budget of £547 million helped to support the development of 253 projects. The LSC has supported more than 700 projects at nearly 330 colleges, with only 42 colleges not benefiting from any capital support. More than half the college estate has been modernised, and we remain committed to the FE capital investment programme. The 2009 Budget announced that an additional £300 million of capital funding will be made available in the current spending review period. Also, for planning purposes, we are working on the basis of a provisional programme budget of £300 million a year in the next spending review, with the final level of investment to be confirmed during that review.
The £300 million is about one twentieth of the amount required to meet the expectations of those colleges that have—[Interruption.] I tell the Secretary of State that I would not, but the key question for him is: who was asleep at the wheel when this debacle unfolded? How much of that £300 million will filter down to Brockenhurst college?
As I said to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), nobody is pretending that with the new money that we have got in the Budget, we will solve the problem in its entirety. We will give some colleges—the most urgent and high-priority cases—immediate go-ahead to start building this summer, and in the near future we will give the rest of the colleges in the pipeline a great deal more clarity and certainty about who can start building what, when.
The Minister spoke of meetings that he has had with representatives from a number of colleges to discuss the impact of the funding crisis on them. Cornwall college and I are very disappointed that our meeting, scheduled for Monday, has been pushed back to June. Given that the project in question will have an important impact on the wider regeneration of the area, and given that we are expecting a decision by the time of the spending review in the summer, will the Minister do all that he can to bring that meeting forward, so that the college can make representations before any decision is taken?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady. I have had more than 40 meetings with hon. Members and dozens of principals, and there are dozens more such meetings in the diary, because the issue is so important, and because I recognise how difficult the situation is for college principals and how that can put hon. Members in a difficult position. I genuinely want to help people talk through the issues, and give what reassurance we can. Inevitably when trying to hold that number of meetings in a relatively short time, as the queue stacks up, people get jumped about.
I can tell the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), in response to his comments earlier in the week, that his meeting was not cancelled—it was rescheduled. He was given another date a week in advance. While he was making statements that were factually quite wrong, I was meeting a delegation from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s education advisers. As the hon. Lady asks so nicely, I will certainly do my best to see whether we can reprioritise her meeting, because she is looking after her constituents, rather than playing cheap party politics with people’s colleges.
Even in difficult times, a degree is one of the best routes to achieving a good job and a rewarding career, but recognising the current global economic climate, the Government are taking action to help ensure that graduates are able to sustain and improve their employability. Yesterday I announced the creation of the graduate talent pool, a new service matching employers with graduates, which is to be launched in the summer. Businesses such as Microsoft, Marks & Spencer and Network Rail have already signed up. We believe that the pool will support about 5,000 internships, building on the 2,000 already achieved through the Higher Education Funding Council’s economic challenge innovation fund. Graduates who have already been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months or more will be able to do an internship for up to 13 weeks while claiming benefit and looking for work. We anticipate that universities are likely to offer about 14,000 additional postgraduate places, supported by 30,000 professional and career development loans in the coming year.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the considerable success, by any measure, of the higher education sector in recent times has been in no small part due to its academic autonomy, and that any state interference in that area could seriously damage the very high standards of our higher education, which is the envy of the world?
I am happy to repeat a statement that I have made before at this Dispatch Box: one of the reasons why our universities are so good is that I do not run them, and I do not aspire to run them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the autonomy of university leadership is important. What the Government need to do is set the framework within which universities operate. Most important, from our point of view, has been the massive increase in real funding of the higher education sector, both for teaching and research, over the past 10 years. I am afraid that that is in sharp contrast to the period when his party was last in power, when funding per student fell by 30 per cent. in a very short period. [Interruption.]
I very much agree. We have had quite a lot of occasion over the past year or so to draw a sharp contrast between the Government at Westminster, and our determination to invest in apprenticeships, to build up opportunities and, indeed, to legislate for a right to an apprenticeship for a suitably qualified young person, and the situation in Scotland. I congratulate John Park MSP, in particular, and his Labour colleagues in Scotland on forcing the nationalists to concede that extra money had to be invested in apprenticeships for the sake of giving Scottish young people the same opportunities as English young people. I congratulate everybody who was involved in that campaign.
There were a number of questions within that question, but perhaps I can deal with the central one. We have been developing, and are proud to have developed, a demand-led training system, but the hon. Gentleman will entirely understand that no Government budget is entirely unlimited. It is quite reasonable for the LSC to take action to ensure that, on the growth of adult apprenticeships in particular, the budgets that we have set, and the budgets that are available, are the budgets that are spent. The LSC was right to take action as early as possible to indicate to training providers the budget that will be available over the coming 12 months.
In so far as meeting the hon. Gentleman and the college is concerned, I am always happy to do so, wherever possible. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has quite a lot of college meetings in the diary, perhaps I will be able to meet the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that important work by the National Union of Students, and I look forward to attending the reception in a few hours’ time. Although I know that there are complications with the questions that we ask of students at the application stage, the matter is important. We want a system that is flexible and supports part-time studies, in particular, and the Department is looking closely at those issues in relation to the higher education framework that we will publish in the summer.
More people will start undergraduate full-time education this September than ever before. The number of new university places that are available has increased by 40,000 in just two years. That reflects this Government’s commitment to expanding higher education. We want to make the largest possible number of opportunities available to young people, whatever their aspirations. We have expanded higher education, we are funding more places this September, we are investing hugely in ensuring that young people who are long-term unemployed are guaranteed training or a job, and we are investing extra money in apprenticeships. I do not wish to be partisan about this—
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The reason the Department has been running, with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the advertising campaign fronted by Sir Alan Sugar is to raise awareness of the opportunities of apprenticeships with small employers up and down the country. The regional forums that we have had with Sir Alan have been very effective at raising awareness and interest. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the recent announcement of the possibility of new funding for group trading associations, which, as we have found around the country, are often the best way of reaching the small employer who might assume that it is too difficult or time-consuming to have an apprenticeship. A group trading association can reassure people and make apprentices available to a wider range of employers.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will have heard me say that we now have, at least to a modest level, an ability to plan into the next spending review in a way that has not previously been possible. That does not give us a 10-year programme, but it does at least give us a five-year programme, which we have never had previously. That will help to bring as much certainty and clarity as possible to as many colleges as possible.
The Government have brought forward substantial sums of money in order to stimulate growth in the economy. If my right hon. Friend has not already done so, can I urge him to contact the construction industry and other Departments that are involved in such projects to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for training for young people and others who want to learn new skills so that they can benefit in future from that stimulation of the economy?
In our discussions with the construction industry training board, it has urged us to do what we have now done, which is to produce Office of Government Commerce guidance about how public sector construction contracts can include a requirement to train young people as apprentices in construction. It is already the case that in the substantial capital programme in my Department, we are expecting apprentices to be provided as part of contracts. The Building Schools for the Future programme has now introduced a similar requirement. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should maximise the impact of public procurement by ensuring that construction contracts include the requirement to provide apprenticeships whenever possible.
That is a very important point. In addition to the investment that we announced in the Budget, which is focused on guaranteeing young people work or training, my Department has already secured funding for more than 100,000 additional training courses for those just losing their jobs or who have been out of work for six months, to ensure that people can gain new skills. In the last recession, the people about whom the hon. Gentleman talks were written off. Nothing was done about them, and they were shovelled on to incapacity benefit and forgotten about. We are determined to ensure that that does not happen this time.
May I ask the Secretary of State, with regards to the further education capital programme, to look at Shipley college, which has been finalising its in principle application? The uniqueness and urgency of that case relates to the fact that the college leases the buildings in which it operates, and the leases are due for renewal. It therefore needs to know where it stands with regard to the capital programme. I know that the Under-Secretary has been very generous in this regard. Will he consider meeting me and the college principal of Shipley college, so that he understands the urgency of the situation there?
As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made clear, he has already made substantial provision in his diary to meet colleges, so I am sure that he can add another one to the list. It is important to do so. We are working as hard as we can, with the additional investment that we have from the Budget, to bring as much certainty and clarity to colleges as we possibly can. That is what the LSC has been charged with doing, and it will be the LSC rather than Ministers that ultimately decides the priority programme.
I make the point that 10 years ago there was no FE capital budget. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) told the Association of Colleges that it could not rely on the Conservatives even to commit to the current level of spending on capital. Although the current situation is very difficult, let us not forget that more than 330 colleges have already benefited from capital investment under this Government, and the programme already included 253 active projects. Just yesterday I was able to go to Northampton college with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and cut the first sod on the £80 million project that is taking place there. A great deal of very valuable investment is taking place in the FE estate thanks to this Government.
I am not only happy to do so, but I add that I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the renewed commitment to carbon capture and storage announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change just after the Budget. From my point of view, we will be very keen to work with his Department to ensure that, with the universities, we develop the research, technology and skills that are necessary to make Britain a world leader in that technology.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 4 May—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 5 May—Remaining stages of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.
Wednesday 6 May—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 7 May—A general debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee annual report 2007-08.
Friday 8 May—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 May will include:
Monday 11 May—Second Reading of the Equality Bill.
Tuesday 12 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 13 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 14 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate: subject to be announced.
Friday 15 May—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 and 14 May will be:
Thursday 7 May—A debate on meeting the Government’s commitments to children affected by HIV/Aids in developing countries.
Thursday 14 May—A debate on the report from the Health Committee entitled “NHS Next Stage Review”.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on running the marathon on Sunday and, more to the point, completing it. He has asked for my cheque, but I think that the whole House will approve of his raising money for the Army Benevolent Fund.
In my first exchange in January with the right hon. and learned Lady in my role as shadow Leader of the House, I raised the Government’s apparent reluctance to debate the UK’s preparedness for a flu pandemic. As I said at the time, Conservative Members had been calling for such a debate for well over two years. Although we appreciate the Health Secretary’s willingness to update the House—he has done that twice this week—may we none the less have a full debate, perhaps on 14 May, as Members of Parliament should have an opportunity to discuss the matter more widely than the strict limitations of a statement permit?
Two reports have today been published on the problems in Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. None the less, may we have a ministerial statement on those reports, because, in our view, they do not reduce in any way the need for an independent public inquiry?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her willingness to listen to the House last week when we asked about the investigation into privilege in the wake of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). What is the status of the two potential committees of inquiry that have been suggested, and when might she be able to give a statement to the House on the proposed way forward?
Yesterday, the House soundly defeated the Government’s policy on the Gurkhas. However, there is another group of people whom the Government treat with deep contempt: the policyholders of Equitable Life. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm what I have heard—that, a full three months after the Chief Secretary to the Treasury established an independent review into supposed ex gratia payments for those who have lost out from Equitable Life’s collapse, the man leading the investigation, Sir John Chadwick, has not yet been in contact with Equitable Life or any representatives of those affected? Does not that further underline the speciousness of the review and the Government’s intention to bury the issue? When will the Leader of the House ensure that Ministers come to the House to give us a statement about their plans to compensate—I use that word deliberately; I mean “compensate”—policyholders, as the ombudsman demanded?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady also give us a statement on the status of the Government’s misguided policy on ID cards? On Tuesday, it was reported that a—inevitably unnamed—group of senior Cabinet Ministers were lobbying the Prime Minister to drop the scheme altogether. Later, the former Home Secretary who gave birth to the idea said that he favoured using biometric passports instead. After telling us for the past year—and even before that—that ID cards are essential for national security, the Government are clearly somewhat split on the issue. After this week’s U-turns on Titan prisons and national databases, perhaps the Prime Minister will return to YouTube and give us a U-turn on ID cards, too.
May we also have a debate on our relations with Poland, in which we could take the opportunity to congratulate the Polish Prime Minister on his forthright honesty and sage advice to our Prime Minister on the rigours of fiscal probity and economic management?
May I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on the publication of her leadership manifesto in the guise of the Equality Bill? I know that she is very proud of it, but can she perhaps explain to the House why she will not be entrusted with steering it through on Second Reading? Will she confirm that, in tune with the stardom that she seeks, when the Bill was launched at a press conference earlier this week, she was asked to sign copies of it, as though it were a celebrity photograph? In the spirit of our regular exchanges across the Floor of the House, rather than going on to eBay, may I please have one too?
The hon. Gentleman talked about swine flu, and I acknowledge that he has been asking for a debate about preparedness for flu since December last year. His suggestion that we select flu preparedness as the subject of either the topical debate or the general debate on 14 May is sensible. As he acknowledged, the Secretary of State for Health will come to the House as often as necessary, in order to be accountable to the House for the plans that have been made. However, as I am sure hon. Members will be aware, that is an issue not just for the Department of Health, but for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and a range of other Departments. Local government is also involved and Cobra is meeting daily, joining work from across Departments and the agencies.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a ministerial statement on Stafford hospital. The Secretary of State for Health will make a statement. He wants to make an oral statement, because he knows that the House will want to hear from him personally and ask him questions. We have had to prioritise the swine flu statements, as we do not want to make too many statements on any one day. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State for Health will recognise that the Secretary of State wants to come to the House as early as possible to make that statement, so that he and other hon. Members can ask questions.
On the questions of privilege and the Speaker’s Committee and the request for a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee, I need to be clear about the exact position of the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats and about their preparedness to nominate their Members to sit on the Speaker’s Committee, which the House resolved to establish earlier this year. I shall have to check the state of play and perhaps discuss the terms of reference for a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman said about the inquiry into Equitable Life not yet having made any investigations is correct. However, I cannot give him a categorical answer on that, so I will discuss it with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and work out how best to communicate with him and all other hon. Members, whom I know are concerned about Equitable Life, in case what he has told the House is wrong and they need reassurance about that.
As for the policy on ID cards, it is important for foreign nationals to be able to have biometric ID cards. Removing any uncertainty about identity can allow visa sections all around the world to operate much more quickly. When the House was in recess, I spent two days visiting Ghana, where many of my constituents come from, and was taken through the process of taking biometric data. The people there say that they can now issue visas within two days to people who want to visit Britain, because they do not have to worry about what their identity is or make massively expensive checks—the biometric data are captured. That relates to biometric cards for foreign nationals. Hon. Members should also recognise that airport security is very important indeed; biometric identity cards are important for that, too. They are important and we should be pressing on with them.
I was pleased to hear that some Opposition Members welcome the Equality Bill. Although not all of them have been convinced, we will not give up hope and we hope to persuade them finally to enter the 21st century. The Bill was a manifesto commitment for the Government in 2001. I will introduce the Bill’s Second Reading debate on Monday 11 May, but the lead Minister will be the truly excellent and flawless Solicitor-General. I look forward to her dealing with all those who seek to take a different view of the Bill.
I am disappointed that there will be no Liberal Democrat Supply days in the next two weeks, as they seem to be going rather well at the moment. Following the historic win after yesterday’s debate, I should like genuinely to thank the Minister for Borders and Immigration for responding to my request and coming back to the House to make a statement yesterday evening. That was the right thing to do. May I ask the Leader of the House a specific question relating to that? The Minister made it clear that he would “publish”—his word—revised proposals for Gurkha settlement before the recess, but I do not think that publishing will be sufficient. The proposals need to be presented to the House, and Members must have an opportunity to express an opinion on the Government’s solution. I hope that we will have either a statement or a debate on that issue.
Today, the Metropolitan Police Authority is discussing the demonstrations associated with G20 and the police response to them. It is extraordinary that the House has had no opportunity to discuss those matters yet, either by means of a statement from the Home Secretary or of a debate. May we have an opportunity for such a discussion?
One of the changes in the machinery of government that the Prime Minister introduced when he became Prime Minister was to split the Education Department into two. The two Departments are now competing to see which can be the more incompetent. We have had the issues relating to college buildings, to sixth-form numbers and to SATs, and we have had the unseemly dispute with the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. May we have a debate on how we are running education in this country, and on why those two Departments have become so shambolic?
Pigs have been uppermost in our thoughts over the past couple of weeks, mainly because of pig flu. I welcome the Secretary of State for Health’s statement and his undertaking to keep the House updated, and the Leader of the House’s offer of a debate. That is exactly the right thing to do. However, there seems to be another contagion around the place, and I would call it pig’s ear syndrome. The Prime Minister seems to turn everything he touches into a pig’s ear at the moment. Whether it is the economy, the issue of the Gurkhas, Members’ allowances or even appearing on YouTube, he has not dealt with any of these issues with great competence. Perhaps what we need is a therapeutic debate—a cathartic debate—on the conduct and performance of the Prime Minister, so that Labour Members can have the opportunity to say in the Chamber what they are saying in the corridors and the Tea Room, and it is not desperately complimentary about the Prime Minister.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about our response to the result of the Opposition day debate. The Minister made it clear in his statement that we respect and accept the will of the House, and that further action will be taken, as announced yesterday. The House will be kept informed.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a number of official inquiries are under way into the policing of the G20 demonstrations. Hon. Members will no doubt tell me if I am wrong, but I think that the Home Affairs Select Committee has begun an inquiry.
Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families answered questions on Monday, and we had Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questions earlier today. Therefore, any questions about increasing the number of students staying on at school and taking A-levels, about the increasing number going into further and higher education, or about the guarantee of committing to education up to the age of 18 could have been put to Ministers this week. Furthermore, the Prime Minister answers questions every Wednesday.
Order. We have a statement on Sri Lanka, which the House will be anxious to hear, and the main business of the day appears to have attracted a certain amount of interest. I must keep a tight control over business questions today, so I appeal to hon. Members to co-operate by being extremely brief. I do not think it will be possible to call every Member who is seeking to catch my eye. I hope that the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) will get us off to a good start.
Many hon. Members have experienced problems with unjustifiable service charges. I have a constituent who has experienced a service charge of £285 per week on a studio flat. Do not the Government need seriously to address the issue of service charges on such properties?
Following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on future strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will the Leader of the House try to secure a debate on some of the details that were not made plain, particularly the serious problems of the chain of command and its structure, which are causing real problems in Afghanistan? Without a resolution to that problem, there will be no success.
We have had a debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan since Christmas, but perhaps we should split our debates on 14 May between swine flu and Afghanistan and Pakistan. I do not want to give a running commentary on my thoughts, but that might be a sensible suggestion.
Three weeks ago, the High Court decided that four Rwandans accused of involvement in genocide could not be extradited to Rwanda to face justice. There is a gap in UK law between the War Crimes Act 1991 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001, so may we have an urgent debate, either in Government time or in Westminster Hall, to discuss plans to close the gap in the law and ensure that those who are accused of mass murder do not reside with impunity in our country?
Does the Leader of the House accept that a Member who is not called to speak on the Second Reading of a Bill or put on the Public Bill Committee can contribute to such an important debate only in the remaining stages or on Report? Will she assure the House that programming will be abolished for the Report stage of Bills?
No, I will not. Without programming, all the debate can be on the first part of the Bill, and subsequent issues do not get debated. Programming helps to ensure that all the different elements of a Bill are scrutinised on Report. That is why programme motions were so liberally used by the Conservative party when it was in government.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware, as we have discussed the matter previously, of the important role of carers in our society. She is also aware of the great stress put on carers by looking after someone who is infirm, elderly or disabled—it is often so stressful that the carer’s own health suffers. Such caring is as stressful as looking after a child, yet child allowance is paid to parents regardless of their income as a matter of right. Carer’s allowance is paid only to certain categories of carers, can be cut off if earnings rise a few pence above £95, and is not paid to retired carers. May we have an early debate on carer’s allowance to come up with a fairer system for carers?
I will look for an opportunity to debate carers, which is an issue of growing concern. My hon. Friend might be able to choose the issue for a Westminster Hall debate. He will be interested to know that the Equality Bill includes provision to prevent people from being discriminated against because they are carers: for example, someone who applies for a promotion at work and is told, “Sorry, we know you are caring for your elderly mother, so you can’t have promotion because we don’t think you are committed to work.” We must do everything possible to support carers and to enable them to work as well as care, if that is what they want to do. The number of over-85s in this country is set to double over the next two decades, so family care is a central issue.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on nitrate-vulnerable zones. Is she aware that the Environment Agency believes that 6 per cent. of all farmland has been wrongly designated, but that farmers are still expected to invest tens of thousands of pounds on additional slurry storage that may prove unnecessary?
It is four years since the high hedges legislation was put on the statute book. May we have a ministerial statement on departmental monitoring of the legislation, and what advice is being given to local authorities to make it more effective?
Last night, the immigration Minister was not able to say in detail how the Government intend to respond to the declared will of the House on the Gurkhas. Will the right hon. and learned Lady therefore arrange for the Prime Minister, who was clearly the principal architect of the Government’s ungenerous proposals, to make a statement in the next two weeks? Will she also be good enough to sit next to him, so that she can prevent him sneaking out before he is called?
I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who was a Member of the House when the Conservatives were in government, that neither he nor they proposed any rights of settlement for Gurkhas. When we came into government, we arranged for all those from 1997 to have rights of settlement. We will respect the points raised in the debate on the Liberal Democrat motion and take them forward.
I have raised previously the use of hazardous chemicals in nail bars in this country. However, research has identified a new hazard—the use of ultraviolet lamps—associated with skin cancer. Will the Leader of the House suggest how the Secretary of State for Health might revisit the non-interventionist approach to the beauty industry and its potential health hazards, and be more active in protecting women’s health?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Whether it is mostly women—and some men—who get melanoma skin cancer from sun beds, hazardous chemicals having a terrible effect on women’s fingernails, breast enlargement surgery or facelifts—[Interruption.] I will get back to her on those matters. Ministers for Women will work with Health Ministers on a set of proposals.
This week’s Helensburgh Advertiser starts off by saying that
“shocked staff at Faslane naval base have hit out, claiming they were kept in the dark over radioactive leaks.”
The Ministry of Defence must be completely open when such incidents happen. Attempts at excessive secrecy cause great concern locally and play into the hands of those who would like to see the base closed for ideological reasons. May we have an urgent statement from the Ministry of Defence about the recent radioactive leaks?
The Health Secretary has published two important reports today about Stafford hospital. Given that one says that there are further urgent actions to be taken at the hospital, and the other has wider implications for the NHS about public and patient involvement and the responsibilities of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, may I stress the urgency of the need for an oral statement, and will the Leader of the House say whether we will get it on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday next week?
My hon. Friend has pressed on the issues of concern for patient care and safety and good treatment for his constituents. There will be an oral statement, although I cannot give the specific day at this point. When the Secretary of State is nearer to being clear on the matter, I will ask him to write to constituency Members at least to ensure that they know that the statement is happening.
On 25 March, the right hon. and learned Lady was incredibly kind in arranging a meeting between my constituents and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Today, I have received a letter in which he says that his officials have met my constituents, and in view of that he does not feel that a meeting is necessary. Will she explain why the noble Lord Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire is so unwilling to meet people from that constituency in the county of Herefordshire?
Can the Leader of the House assist those Members who wish to come to work by public transport? The pavements and roads around Parliament square have been dug up, fenced off and left abandoned, resulting in significant traffic congestion and danger to pedestrians. Will she therefore make representations to the appropriate authorities to find out how long this will last?
Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”
Why is there nothing about grace and favour homes for Ministers in the motions that the Government have laid before us for debate later today, given that that matter was included—very welcome it was too—in the Prime Minister’s original proposals?
Can we have a debate about early-day motion 1297, which I have co-sponsored?
[That this House, observing that the intention of the founding Act of the Bank of England in 1694 was ‘that their Majesties’ subjects may not be oppressed by the said corporation’, notes that those subjects have been seriously oppressed by the Bank’s failure to control the greed, risk-taking and speculation of the banking system over which it presides; and therefore suggests that this oppression should be dealt with as the Act provides by fines three times the value of the abusive trading.]
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) is not in his place, but he will see that the early-day motion deals with a failure to control the greed, risk-taking and speculation of the banking system. When community banking is turned into casino banking, when training is in sales and not in banking, and when over-centralised decision taking has relegated local staff to box-ticking with no room at all for initiative, we need to review the ethics of our banking system.
Can we have a debate on the National Offender Management Service and, in particular, the ongoing contract with ClearSprings to provide bail hostels in the community? I recently received conflicting replies from ClearSprings and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is responsible for prisons. When I asked whether there were any future plans for bail hostels from ClearSprings in Crewe. ClearSprings’s reply was that it had no such plans, whereas the reply that I received from the Minister stated that
“one new property will be sourced.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1120W.]
There is apparent confusion in the Government’s policy, so can we have a debate to clear it up?
I shall bring the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Department. He might wish to ask a written question if he is not satisfied with the answer that he has received in the letter. May I congratulate him on running the marathon, although he did not run as fast as my deputy?
I welcome the Government’s concessions to the Gurkhas yesterday, but when they are published can we have a debate in the House? I sincerely hope that they will put the mistakes of last Friday behind us, because we will then be able to focus on the sheer naked opportunism of the Leader of the Opposition, whose party did nothing for the Gurkhas during 18 years of government.
It appears that the resource required in Northern Ireland to fund adequately the transfer of policing and justice powers in Northern Ireland is increasingly significant. When might we have a debate in the House to discuss and consider the long-term implications of such a possible move?
May we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the important report of the Rose review on the primary school curriculum, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), amidst the enjoyable badinage in which he invariably specialises, declined or omitted to mention?
May we have a debate on the iniquitous tax, IR35, which for the past 10 years has caused chaos and confusion for freelancers in this country? The tax is ambiguous and confusing, and it does not bring any money into the Treasury, so can we please debate it?
May we have an urgent debate on women’s rights? The Leader of the House will know that, like her, I have been a champion of women’s rights over many years. I am not talking about the half-baked plans in the Equality Bill; I wish us to discuss, in particular, the extension of sharia council powers, which, in some circumstances, discriminate against some women in some ethnic minority communities.
The Secretary of State for Justice has said that when private arrangements based on sharia law are raised with the courts by way of an argument for a contract or a particular disposition in a family case to stand and those are contradicted by our laws on equality, they will not be taken into account.
May I correct what I said about Sir Jim Rose’s review? It is actually a review, which the Government have accepted, that will raise standards by prioritising literacy and numeracy and embedding them across the whole curriculum to ensure that all children leave school secure in the basics. It is not a consultation exercise—that has already taken place.
The Leader of the House may know that the two reports that have just come out on Stafford hospital will not deal with the underlying lack of confidence in that hospital, welcome though they are in shedding some light on the situation. Does she accept that in order to get to the bottom of what has been going on, we need to have evidence on oath and the production of papers? Some evidence is emerging, which I am looking into, that some people in the hospital, who would be whistleblowers, are effectively being shut up by the authorities concerned—this is a very serious situation.
May I say to the Leader of the House that she cannot keep running away from a debate on Equitable Life? Her deputy is a long runner, but this is a marathon that the Government are not going to win. We need a debate on this, because thousands of people have lost out. They need the compensation that they deserve and that they have rightly been told they will get. May we have a debate on Equitable Life soon, before more of these people, sadly, die off and do not get the compensation that they deserve?
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1296, which concerns the case of Margaret Haywood, who was disgracefully struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council for blowing the whistle on the neglect of older people in the hospital at which she worked?
[That this House supports nurse Margaret Haywood who raised issues of concern around poor patient care; believes that Margaret was justified in exposing the worrying conditions at her local hospital and that the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) was wrong to strike her off the nursing register; notes the e-petition in support of Margaret Haywood organised by the Royal College of Nursing; calls on the NMC to reverse its decision; and further calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that the procedures and protection afforded to whistleblowers are understood and applied by all in positions of responsibility in the NHS.]
Is it not right that this House should have the opportunity to express its view about that case and the urgent need for this House to legislate to provide proper protection for frail and vulnerable older people and for those who blow the whistle on those who abuse them?
There will be a great deal of sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I shall draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health. We must also ensure that there is consistency, so that if there are stringent penalties on nurses, such penalties operate in respect of people at all levels of the system. We should not find that there are much tougher rules for, and more stringent penalties on, nurses.
Next week, will the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House chairs, be meeting? If not, can she tell us when it last met? If that was some time ago, will she consider transferring its responsibilities to the Procedure Committee, so that all Select Committees of the House are chaired by Back Benchers and not by members of the Cabinet?
If the right hon. Gentleman has issues that he would like the Modernisation Committee to address, perhaps he could write to me or just tell me what issues he thinks it should turn its attention to. The Modernisation Committee has worked well in partnership with the Procedure Committee and, on many issues, the Procedure Committee has taken things forward.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1190?
[That this House notes that many firms have introduced short time working for employees during this time of recession; further notes that many workers who are in receipt of tax credits are facing difficulties as the reduction in hours takes them below the minimum hours required to qualify for tax credits; and calls on the Government to take action to ensure that those who are so affected are deemed to still be working for the minimum hours and that their tax credits are maintained until such time as their hours are reinstated.]
This is an increasing problem during the recession. May we have a debate in Government time on the possibility of reducing the minimum hours necessary to qualify for tax credit during the recession?
The early-day motion and the hon. Gentleman’s comments show a good recognition of the flexibility of tax credits in making up for shorter working hours by boosting the family income. He makes a proposal in the early-day motion, supported by other hon. Members, and I will ensure that the Treasury responds to him.
Can the Leader of the House arrange for a general debate on London so that we can raise a wide variety of London issues and highlight the successes of the first year of the Boris Johnson mayoralty?
I do not know where to start on the complaints and concerns of many hon. Members who represent London constituencies. The most alarming has been the abandonment of the requirement that developments must include a minimum amount of social housing. That is a big problem when we need more social housing. Perhaps I should ask the Ministers with responsibility for housing whether we should have a debate on the Mayor of London’s sell-out on social housing.
The Christie charity, which supports the world-famous Christie cancer care centre in Manchester, stands to lose some £6.5 million as a result of the Icelandic banking collapse. As there are some 30 charities that stand to lose more than £50 million for the same reason, is it not time that we had a debate on the Government’s handling of the situation?
I will consider how best Ministers can update the House on this issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that constant work is being done on the issue by various Departments and the administrators of the Icelandic banks. It is hoped that most of those caught out by the collapse will get a large portion of their deposits back.
According to the leaked British National party manual “Language and Concepts Discipline”, the term “racial foreigners” should be used to describe black and Asian Britons, because such people “do not exist”. Given the forthcoming candidacy of BNP leader Nick Griffin, may we have a statement from the appropriate Minister on the role of proportional representation in making it far more likely that fascists, racists and neo-Nazis will get into the European Parliament?
Justice questions is on Tuesday, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those issues with the Department with responsibility for electoral law. He makes an important point, and the message from all of us who deplore and abhor racism and division of the sort peddled by the BNP is that everybody must vote on 4 June. Anybody who does not vote is helping the BNP get into the European Parliament and it would be shameful if Britain were to be represented by racists and fascists.
May we have a debate on the safety implications of the operation of the Calor Gas Canvey Island site in the light of the spillage on 27 October last year of 163 tonnes of liquid propane gas, the operation of the leak detection equipment and the abject failure even now to inform Canvey residents about the leak—especially in the light of Buncefield?
May we have a debate on the situation of the nuclear academies, the Government’s flagship method of training for the future civil nuclear programme? In the south-west, the regional development agency is holding up the funding for the nuclear academy in Bridgwater. We need an urgent debate on that because we must start building soon to provide for the future of the civil nuclear programme.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the civil nuclear programme. He highlights the important role of the RDAs, and I point out to him and to other hon. Members that they would have an opportunity to hold RDAs to account for the work that they do in their regions if they attended the Regional Select Committees.
Thousands of former council tenants in south Manchester were promised that they would be no worse off if they voted for transfer to a housing association, but they are now being short-changed by the Government’s decision not to include housing associations in the lower rent increase. Will the Leader of the House meet the Minister for Housing and make proposals for fully compensating those people?
Several housing issues have emerged today, including the need to ensure that a certain percentage of social housing is included in planning permissions, the question of service charges and the housing association rents that the hon. Gentleman raises. All those issues bear examination and we may look for an opportunity to debate housing. The House will know that the housing sector has been affected by the global credit crunch, but we need many new houses.
I know that hon. Members want me to answer briefly on these points, but I shall now take a little more time. I know that the House is looking forward to the Foreign Secretary’s statement, but unfortunately he is not here yet.
The Leader of the House will know that the ministerial code says that when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament. Last week, when she published the Equality Bill—which was not available to Members until Monday—she should have restrained herself from giving on-the-record briefings and making media appearances over the weekend on details in the Bill that were not previously available to Members. If the Leader of the House, who is supposed to be the guardian of the interests of Back Benchers, cannot make announcements to the House first, the concept of the Government’s accountability to Parliament is clearly dead and buried for this Government.
The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is especially relevant to statements. If hon. Members are coming to the House to hear a statement, they should have the opportunity to ask the first questions on it, rather than being the second in line after those questions have been asked by a presenter on the “Today” programme or another media outlet. On the publication of Bills, the situation is slightly different. Action on gender pay gaps, positive action and the duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor have all been the subject of consultations and statements. I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to me on this issue, and I have thought carefully about it, but I find myself not guilty in that respect. I am sure that that will reassure him.
We need a debate on the conduct and competence of Home Office staff at immigration appeal tribunals. I attended one such hearing on 30 March in Bradford for my constituent Enid Ruhango, who is a victim of torture and rape in Uganda. As the hearing was about to start, the Home Office staff withdrew the entire decision, meaning that no appeal could be made—it was a complete farce. They then promised a new decision within 10 working days, but it has now been a month. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 30 March, but I have had no reply. This is not good enough for someone in such a position. When can MPs call the Home Office to account for such farces?
There will always be occasions on which the Home Office decides on appeal that it will withdraw its case. I have more immigration cases coming through my constituency office than any other Member, and I know that there has been a big improvement in the promptness, accuracy and courtesy with which the Home Office deals with cases, and we should put that on the record. There will always be cases in which things go wrong, including human error or facts that are discovered later in the process that mean that a decision has to be changed. Overall, however, Home Office staff are doing a good and important job, and improving how they do it.
We all hope that pandemic flu, even though it now seems pretty inevitable, will not prove too dangerous for people in the United Kingdom. However, has the Leader of the House thought through the implications for this place if it does prove dangerous? On the face of it, gathering a representative from every community in the United Kingdom, putting them in one Chamber, forcing them through old-fashioned crowded Lobbies and then redistributing them to every part of the United Kingdom sounds like the perfect transmission mechanism. Is this perhaps not a good time to try out more modern methods of voting, such as electronic voting?
I am not sure whether I can compete with that number of questions and answers in the next 45 minutes, but we will try our best.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka. I am very grateful to all Members of the House who contributed to yesterday’s important debate on the subject. I returned this morning from a visit to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. I regret very much that the Sri Lankan authorities declined to allow our Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, to join us. Our visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by our increasing concern and that of many international colleagues, as well as of many Members of this House, for civilians in the north of the country, and in particular for the plight of the civilian Tamil population.
There are in fact two crises: that of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone as the Government enter the final stage of their fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists, and that of the thousands of civilians who have crossed over the front line in recent days. The purpose of the visit was threefold: first, to highlight the need to bring the conflict to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties; secondly, to press the case for the humanitarian relief effort to be ratcheted up, as the United Nations and the European Union have been calling for; and, thirdly, to make clear the need for a long-term political settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka.
Foreign Minister Kouchner and I met President Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the leader of the Opposition, Tamil and Muslim mainstream politicians and a series of permanent secretaries of the relevant Government Departments. We were briefed by the heads of the main United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We also visited a Government-run camp for internally displaced people at Vavuniya and visited a field hospital donated by the French Government. I heard a number of personal testimonies from recent arrivals in the camp. I am grateful for the way in which the Sri Lankan Government facilitated our visit.
The fog of war makes it difficult to be certain of the facts of the present situation. This is compounded by the lack of access for international agencies and the media. I heard widely different estimates of the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. Government estimates ranged from 6,000 to 20,000 people. The UN, the ICRC and most others believe that there are at least 50,000. Some thought that the number could be as high as 100,000. Whatever the truth, it is clear that significant numbers remain, living under appalling conditions, under-nourished and in fear for their lives. I heard reports of civilians hiding in trenches to escape the shelling and of horrific injuries. I also spoke to people in the internally displaced person camps who recounted how the LTTE had forced them to stay in the so-called no-fire zone against their will and shot at them when they tried to flee.
We were told that 30 tonnes of food were delivered to the conflict zone between 1 April and 27 April, apparently enough to feed 60,000 people for just one day. A further ship delivered limited supplies during our visit. The ICRC has been able to send in only very limited medical supplies, despite having plentiful stocks in Sri Lanka. The block on deliveries of food and medical supplies hinges on security. To deliver these essentials to those innocent civilians trapped in the conflict zone, there needs to be safety. Ships take time to unload and the pauses provided by the Sri Lankan Government have not been long enough. As the House knows, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to so-called combat operations on 27 April. The President and Defence Secretary confirmed this to me personally and in definite terms. These commitments must be upheld.
In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement on 25 April, we were also very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now.
We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed this exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments that the Government of Sri Lanka made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told was in contradiction to the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies.
Let me go through the facts as we understand them. According to the UN, 161,765 Tamils have left the conflict zone since October last year, including an estimated 119,000 in the past 10 days. This is very welcome, but the numbers have seriously challenged the Sri Lankan authorities. The UN agencies we spoke to were frustrated that the Government appear to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of them and others who are trying to assist the Government in dealing with this crisis. The agencies lack any access to IDPs until the IDPs have already been through the preliminary “screening” process. They do not have full access to the camps, and visas and authorisations to move people and goods into and around the country are too limited. Meanwhile, people are not being allowed out of the camps and many families have been separated. Some men, alleged to be LTTE cadres, have been taken from families and placed in so-called rehabilitation camps. All that reinforces the need for full and unhindered access by the UN and other agencies.
We therefore in the course of our visit returned again and again in our talks to five specific points in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, the need for visas to be issued swiftly to international humanitarian staff; secondly, the subject of travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, the need for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and the monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, the need for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government's commitment to have 80 per cent. of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on all these issues.
At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home. We were given assurances by the Sri Lankan Government that they had nothing to hide. We responded that it could therefore only be to the benefit of the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan Government to work with the international community in a fully transparent way. By giving UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations the freedom to operate to capacity in all areas, the Sri Lankan Government would not only bring much needed relief to thousands of traumatised or injured people but attract greater confidence from the international community.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) will take up the invitation of President Rajapaksa and visit Sri Lanka as part of a cross-party group of MPs next week and will pursue these points. The other members of the group will be the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). I share the gratitude of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that they have agreed to take part in this important visit at short notice. I will be visiting New York on 11 May for UN Security Council business and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Secretary Clinton tonight, as well as with other like-minded colleagues, how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.
No one should underestimate the murderous damage done to Sri Lanka over the last 26 years by the LTTE, or the sheer hatred felt for its leadership. That is recognised in the international community, but while terrorist organisations work by killing people, democratic governments exist to protect them. That is why the fighting in Sri Lanka must end now. The LTTE is apparently cornered and trapped, having inflicted grievous suffering on the people of Sri Lanka, primarily Sinhalese and Tamil, but also Muslims. How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government there must win the peace as well as the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead.
May I begin by thanking the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement? It was surely right for him to travel to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister to highlight our deep concern about the civilian situation there and about the other issues that he has mentioned. He was also right to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to live up to their obligations, and to call on the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone. All hon. Members across the House support the right hon. Gentleman in making that mission and in what he has said today. We also wish to register our emphatic dissatisfaction that Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, was denied a visa to join him on the visit.
I want to raise two sets of questions—the first about the needs of civilians caught up in the fighting, and the second about efforts to secure a real ceasefire. On the humanitarian situation, the UN has said that there have been 6,500 civilian deaths since January. Moreover, as the Foreign Secretary said, according to the UN at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone. Those are the statistics, but we should always bear it in mind that they mean that entirely innocent human beings are caught up in a situation of absolute horror, and that many thousands of people in Britain are deeply worried every minute of the day about the safety of their friends and relatives.
Is it not a deeply depressing aspect of the conflict that both sides appear to have contributed to such massive civilian suffering? Reports that the LTTE has forcibly recruited young men to fight and used civilians as human shields are abhorrent. There are still conflicting reports about the use of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone. The Sri Lankan Defence Minister said yesterday that there would be
“absolutely no more heavy shelling”,
but reports this morning suggest that that promise may have been broken. Has the Foreign Secretary made any assessment of that, in view of the definite assurances that he has received and to which he referred in his statement?
We accept, of course, that the lack of access to the conflict area makes it very difficult for the Foreign Secretary to know the answer to this question, but can he give us his understanding of what the
“cessation of heavy military combat”
means on the ground? Does it mean that civilians are still caught up in fighting with lighter weapons? The Foreign Secretary has been to Sri Lanka, although he was not able to visit that specific area—what is his view on that?
There are also two crucial issues related to access to the conflict zone. First, we understand that aid agencies and convoys are still not allowed in to help, and secondly, we also regret the fact that the UN Secretary-General’s humanitarian team has still not been allowed to enter. Did the Foreign Secretary receive any rational explanation of why the Government of Sri Lanka continue to reject that vital assistance? Did he get any indication that their attitude will change?
It is clear that the Foreign Secretary has tried to insist on greater access. Considering the situation in the camps, what else does he think can be done to persuade Colombo to change its position? In his view, is the apparent screening of people held in camps leading to breaches of human rights? In the light of the reports of screening, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the Sri Lankan Government are on track to meet their commitment to return 80 per cent. of the people in the camps to their places of origin by the end of this year?
Finally, does the Foreign Secretary also agree that recent sustained signs of a deterioration in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as a whole are of concern? In particular, there have been reports of abductions and disappearances, as well as of intimidation of the media and so on. Does he agree that it is strongly in Sri Lanka’s interests for those reports to be thoroughly and independently investigated?
My second set of questions concerns efforts to secure a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has been quite rightly pressing for a ceasefire that allows the humanitarian situation to be dealt with. It is disappointing that his efforts and pleas have been refused, subject to how we are to define what the Sri Lankan Government have announced so far. Does the right hon. Gentleman see any prospect for any further initiatives, and what is the next step in the process? Is there any prospect of formal UN Security Council involvement? Presumably, that would be very difficult to secure, given the position of Russia and China. Can he confirm reports that the US Government have suggested that they might withdraw their support for the $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund package for Sri Lanka’s central bank unless the Government do more to help trapped civilians? Has he discussed that with the US Secretary of State, and what is the UK Government’s position on the matter?
Does the Foreign Secretary see any scope for the Commonwealth, of which Sri Lanka is of course a member, to use its influence to bring about an improvement in the situation? That is especially important as Sri Lanka sits on the Commonwealth’s ministerial action group, and is responsible for upholding the Commonwealth’s core principles and values.
We all hope that the forthcoming visit by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and his colleagues will help to improve matters, and we wish him well. Some kind of end to the immediate fighting may be in sight, but we agree with the Foreign Secretary that long-term stability can be achieved only through a settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and that preserves democracy in that country.
We all hope that Sri Lanka’s longer-term future will be one of peace, stability and economic development, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that the country will need allies and partners across the world, and respect for the policies that it pursues? Does that not make a compelling case for Sri Lanka, in its own interests, to heed international calls to protect civilians and to prevent human rights abuses for the remainder of this tragic and continuing crisis?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for his broad support for the calls that we have been making. It is notable that they have been echoed right across the House, and that can only be a good thing. He almost asked 46 questions on his own, never mind leaving room for 46 in the whole session, but I shall try to run through as many answers as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are continued reports about the use of heavy weaponry since Monday, when the first announcement was made by the Government of Sri Lanka that heavy weaponry would not be used. I deliberately did not refer to those reports in my statement, because at this stage they are only reports and it is very important that we get to the bottom of the facts. However, I am absolutely clear that the international community has been assured—very clearly and in definitive terms—by Sri Lanka’s President and Defence Secretary and others that heavy munitions as well as aerial and naval bombardments will not be used. In that context, credible evidence that they have been used would have very serious repercussions for the relationship between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the end of heavy combat operations meant that civilians in the conflict zone were somehow safe. I cannot give him that assurance but, as he intimated, the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to capture the leadership of the LTTE will continue, with the result that the danger of civilians being caught in crossfire will remain.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the aid agencies. There was a delivery on Monday, and a further one yesterday. A 1,000-tonne ICRC vessel is waiting to make another delivery, but the way that shipments are unloaded means that that takes three or four days. The fact that there is not the security to allow that to happen has been a major focus for us. I know that the House will have seen that the ICRC has put out a very strong statement today setting out its concern about the situation, and that tallies with what I have reported this morning.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon’s team, which was the product of talks that his chief of staff, Mr. Nambiar, held with the Sri Lankan Government nearly two weeks ago. It was reported to the UN Security Council that a team would be allowed into the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs. In addition, however, and rather separately from what the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the team would try to make provision for civilians to leave. That mission is now being denied by the Sri Lankan Government, and in fact they are saying that there never was any agreement for a UN Secretary-General mission to go to the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any rational explanation for Sri Lanka’s rejection of that assistance. The Sri Lankan Government have said that the team would not be safe in the conflict zone, but it is obviously a source of great concern that something could be reported to the UN Security Council as an agreement but then not followed through. The UN Secretary-General’s determination last Thursday after I spoke to him to dispatch the team to Colombo shows that the UN sees no practical obstacles to its reaching the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the return of 80 per cent. of people in IDP camps to their places of origin by December, and I think that the most important thing is to get a proper schedule. The main practical obstacle is the number of mines that exist in the country. The Sri Lankan Government want help with demining, but they must make sure that there is proper access if that help is to be forthcoming.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to mention the humanitarian problems in Sri Lanka as a whole, and that is a problem to which we have referred in written and oral statements to the House before. The killing of journalists is notable among those problems, and all friends of Sri Lanka will be concerned to ensure that its democratic heritage is upheld, because this is a time when Sri Lanka needs its democracy more than ever.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of the UN. He will know that Britain, France and the US raised the issue at the UN last week, under any other business. We have not yet been able to get it on to the formal agenda of the UN. The blockage does not come only from the two countries that he has mentioned, but obviously the New York special session on the middle east on Monday week will be an opportunity at least to try to take the agenda forward.
We are duty bound to look extremely carefully at the situation on the ground should any plan be presented to the IMF board. It is a basic tenet of the work of the IMF that any money should be put to good use, and that requires taking a close look at the situation on the ground, which is what we will do.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that Members of this House as well as the Government have approached the Commonwealth Secretary-General about Sri Lanka. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prospects of progress in that sphere are rather limited by the make-up of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and its practice of taking action only against countries that suspend their own democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lanka’s need for allies in the future. That is evident from the scale of the humanitarian crisis with which it has to deal. Certainly my message and that of Foreign Minister Kouchner to President Rajapaksa yesterday was that Sri Lanka needed its friends and the international community, but the only way to keep them was to live up to the standards expected of a democratic Government.
I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on undertaking this initiative along with the French Foreign Secretary. It shows the priority given by the UK and French Governments to achieving a ceasefire. I refer my right hon. Friend to his letter to Members yesterday. He outlined three priorities, the first of which was to bring the conflict to an end. We all recognise that that is the most important initiative if we are to undertake the two further priorities that he outlined. My right hon. Friend said that he would be going to the UN and meeting the American Secretary of State over the weekend. Can he outline some of the discussions that he is likely to have and what initiatives he will put to them to ensure that we achieve that objective at the earliest possible time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a long-standing interest in this issue. The discussions will focus on the items that we all agree are essential—the humanitarian crisis and how to get access for the UN agencies and their aid, but also how to fashion a halt to the fighting, and then in the longer term to ensure that some kind of political process is developed to respect all Sri Lanka’s minorities. I will discuss that with Secretary Clinton tonight.
Last night when I met many from the diplomatic community, I found one of the remarkable things was that high commissioners and ambassadors from countries around the world wanted to talk about how they could join the coalition for change in Sri Lanka. There is a real sense in the international community that there needs to be a coherent and focused engagement. When I spoke to Foreign Minister Bildt this morning on his way to Washington, he was clear that he wanted to remain engaged despite the denial of a visa to him.
May I start by wholeheartedly thanking the Foreign Secretary for making his trip to Sri Lanka and reporting back to the House immediately on his return? He has clearly read at least some of the debate that we had in the Chamber yesterday, and I hope that he finds the unity that we achieved and the tributes paid to him in his absence a small reward for his efforts. However, I also know that the rewards that he and all of us really seek are a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance and a settlement that brings peace and justice to all in the island of Sri Lanka.
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that he was promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government. Can he say what that actually means in terms of the timetable for enabling humanitarian assistance to get through, for media access and for the access of UN monitors, which is so important? He may also have noted the calls yesterday in the House for a major increase in diplomatic pressure on the political and military leaders on all sides, on top of what he is already doing, in order to secure a ceasefire. For example, surely we should be using the proposed IMF loan as leverage, telling the Sri Lankan Government that unless they listen to the reasonable humanitarian requests of the international community, that loan will not be forthcoming. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other Governments, especially Japan’s, about producing a package of financial sanctions, such as an end to non-emergency development aid, that will be imposed on the Government of Sri Lanka if they fail to listen to the humanitarian requests?
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm a pledge that the Government made in the House yesterday that they support an early investigation into all allegations of war crimes and crimes against international humanitarian law? Has that message been conveyed to both sides? If not, will he ensure that all leaders in the conflict are reminded directly that there can be consequences, including personal consequences, to their actions?
The right hon. Gentleman will also know it has been alleged that what is happening in Sri Lanka amounts to genocide. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yet sought legal advice on whether that is what might be happening? If not, can he now request that such advice is sought?
Can the Foreign Secretary make special arrangements for all Members of the House, from all parties, who have worked so hard on this issue to be fully briefed by the FCO over the next few crucial days, weeks and months so that we can provide as much information as possible to our constituents who have families and friends who are suffering in Sri Lanka?
I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue and for the spirit of unity that he has sought to help to develop. I think that that can be sustained. The timetable for the intensive work started this morning. Sri Lankan time is four and a half hours ahead of us, but as I left the Foreign Minister last night in Colombo, he was clear that he would be attending to this as a matter of urgency. He had cancelled various trips and was focusing on it. We will continue to engage. Meetings are planned by people in the country, and I will be making sure that they happen. Some of them are still to be scheduled, but time is of the essence. That is why there is a sense of real urgency about this work and why the bold statement by the ICRC today is further testimony to the need for urgent action.
As I said in response to an earlier question, any IMF programme needs to be credibly implemented. That depends on the situation on the ground. We will look carefully and with due diligence at any proposals by the IMF authorities to take forward the suggestion of the Government of Sri Lanka that they want an IMF loan.
I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Japan on Tuesday morning. Obviously, Japan is an important player; it is a co-chair as well as a generous donor. In all the work that we do, we shall be concerned to avoid harm to the citizens of Sri Lanka of any community and to make sure that they do not lose out but, in saying that Sri Lanka needs its friends, it is implicit that it must uphold the standards of behaviour expected by its friends. I believe that that is important.
I stand four-square behind what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said last night at the close of the debate. Our standing position is that any allegations of war crimes by any side in any conflict need to be urgently, independently and credibly investigated, and that remains the case in this conflict. As it happens, the focus of the aid agencies yesterday morning, and of the UN, is on the immediate issues, for obvious reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, but I am happy to reaffirm the position of the Government on war crimes.
A British Foreign Secretary must be incredibly busy. I would like to just say to my right hon. Friend how proud I am of him for changing his diary and travelling thousands of miles in search of peace. The whole House is grateful for what he has done.
Echoing the sentiments of the shadow Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I suggest that the IMF loan is important. In his conversation with Hillary Clinton this evening, I hope that my right hon. Friend will convey to her the feelings of the whole House on the matter. In all his conversations and the huge efforts that he is making, please will he not forget the Indian Government? It is vital that we keep in touch with the Foreign Minister of India. I know that India is in the middle of elections, but it has a crucial role to play in ensuring that there is peace in this troubled island. I thank my right hon. Friend again for all that he has done.
I am extremely grateful for the heartfelt thanks from my right hon. Friend although, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, there will be no reward for any of us unless there is some alleviation of the suffering in Sri Lanka. I know that that is very much my right hon. Friend’s position as well because he has campaigned long and tirelessly on this issue.
The IMF question will certainly be addressed in many of the conversations that occur about this issue, and the situation on the ground will be very important in those discussions.
I spoke to Foreign Minister Mukherjee last week, and although he is in the middle of the election campaign, he has given important priority to this issue. As my right hon. Friend says, India is a vital player when it comes to change in Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the challenges of the election campaign, I spoke to the Indian high commissioner in Colombo last night. He reiterated the Indian Government’s concern, and I reiterated that I would soon be in touch again with Foreign Minister Mukherjee, because—election campaign, or no election campaign—this is obviously a matter of high concern to the Indian Government.
May I join colleagues from both sides of the House in thanking the Foreign Secretary for what he is trying to achieve for peace? I have taken on board everything that he said about the Commonwealth committee, but has the time not come, as people are dying every day, to call for Sri Lanka’s suspension from the Commonwealth?
I totally understand the sense of frustration that the hon. Gentleman feels, given that the circumstances are indeed dire in Sri Lanka. As he knows, the Commonwealth has only ever suspended countries on the basis of the violation of its democratic norms, which are at the heart of the rather ironically titled Harare declaration—irony is not really a strong enough word, but the House will know what I mean—and that may be a good or a bad precedent, but that is the fact of how the Commonwealth works. Sri Lanka is one of the members of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which works only by consensus, and that is why the secretary-general has appointed to the limits of what the Commonwealth can do in this area. Obviously, we have a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting coming up, but frankly that is too far away, given the immediate needs that exist, and that is why it is right that we pursue progress via other channels at the moment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making the trip that he has just made and for acting to protect innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. I hope that other leading politicians and statespeople around the world will see that as an example that it is important to stand up and be counted, and we are grateful that he has done that on behalf of the whole House.
My right hon. Friend referred to the statement of 27 April and the Government of Sri Lanka saying that they had ended combat operations. I wonder whether he could say a little bit more about whether we can have confidence in that, particularly given that we have not achieved a ceasefire.
May I press another point with my right hon. Friend? I am pleased that he is going to the UN shortly, but despite the difficulties of achieving a UN resolution for the reasons that we have discussed before, it is very important that we continue every diplomatic effort possible with all members of the Security Council to make it absolutely clear that if it is not possible to achieve a resolution because of the veto, the overwhelming majority of that council’s members totally support such a resolution if achieving one is possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue. I wish that a large majority of the UN Security Council supported action on the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made the rather important point when I met him last week that, when he was in New York last week, all the demonstrations happening there were outside the buildings of countries that supported UN action. I fear that that number is not very large and certainly not large enough, but she can be assured that I will continue to work with all countries around the world on the issue.
The first question that my right hon. Friend asked was about the commitment to end so-called combat operations, or heavy mortar fire and the use of naval and air power. What I and Foreign Minister Kouchner said to the President and what we repeated to the Foreign Minister was that there could be no greater word of honour placed by the President and Defence Secretary of a country to two visiting Foreign Ministers but that the use of such weaponry will end. That is why, given that the stakes are so high on that word being its bond, we ensure that we bottom out all reports before we comment on them. The consequences could not be more serious for a country to promise that it will not use heavy weaponry and then to do so. That is why all reports or rumours need to be investigated. Equally, it is incumbent on me to be careful before making accusations that are not wholly well founded and well researched.
May I echo the words of thanks of other hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary and the comments made from both Front Benches that there is clearly fault on both sides in the dispute? The Foreign Secretary will be well aware that the humanitarian crisis for innocent Tamil civilians concerns the whole House. Although we take on board his comments that he was assured that the Sri Lankan Government had nothing to hide, given the blockages at the UN can he tell us what confidence he has that the Government of Sri Lanka will react to international pressure, particularly on the five points that he outlined and especially on the humanitarian visas given to outside organisations?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will not start giving percentages, marks out of 10 or grades of confidence, but those five issues are much higher on the agenda today than they were on Tuesday, before Foreign Minister Kouchner and I went. Tragically, for some Tamil civilians it is too late. That should drive us forward, to ensure that no time is lost on following through on these issues. It is very important that we recognise that democratic Governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organisations. I made that point in my statement. It recurs in a number of parts of the world where democratic Governments may feel frustration at the limits that are imposed on them in how they conduct their operations, but those limits are imposed for very good reason: if we do not defend the values that we are meant to uphold in the way that we attack terrorism, we fall to standards that we should not even consider. The fact that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the combat zone says everything that we need to know about where its interests lie, but it is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka rise above that—they need to find a way that builds a peace as well as wins the war, and we are trying to work with them to achieve that.
I do not want my right hon. Friend to become big-headed, but on behalf of my constituents may I say how proud I was that he took the time to go to Sri Lanka? That was a really brave decision, and we will be for ever in his debt for doing it. But we always want more of our friends, so may I ask that he does everything he can at the UN Security Council? I do not wish to frighten him, but a number of Members are going round to all the London embassies of the Security Council’s members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and I have recently come back from the Austrian embassy. We went to see the Costa Ricans last week. We are overwhelmed by their great confidence in the leadership of the UK Government and their willingness to support them in any way they can. We therefore believe that a large number of countries want to support my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his efforts and are there to back him up. Finally, if he can find the time in his busy day, could he possibly meet a similar delegation of UK young Tamils to talk about his visit to Sri Lanka?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has shown determination and passion in abundance in standing up for her constituents on this issue. The work done by parliamentarians and civilians around the world is exactly what we want in a democracy, and I applaud the peaceful and diplomatic discussions that she has undertaken. Well, perhaps they are not always diplomatic, but she knows what I mean—the sometimes diplomatic but always passionate discussions that she undertakes. I can certainly confirm that we are in touch with as many countries as we can find, because this important issue requires the coalition that we have been trying to build for some time but that is now beginning to come to fruition.
May I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for the courageous and determined way that he has pursued peace in Sri Lanka? What reasons did the Sri Lankan Government give for not agreeing to an immediate ceasefire, for blocking relief aid into the area and for not allowing transparent, independent access to the media and human rights organisations? Will our Government now consider ensuring that the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in 2011 is not hosted by Sri Lanka, as it wishes?
As I said in my statement, the Sri Lankan Government did not have the same rendition of the facts as the agencies about the delivery of various forms of aid. They denied allegations that they were blocking aid, and it is important that we follow through on that in detail. On the ceasefire, they argue that they need to prosecute their military campaign against the LTTE to its end. They point—rightly, actually—to the fact that they have made more advances in the past three or four months than anyone expected and that 120,000 citizens have been got out of the conflict zone. While they put forward those arguments we, in return, have emphasised the paramount importance of protecting civilians’ lives, as we will continue to do.
Given the Sri Lankan Government’s stated intent to continue this “war without witness”, to use the Foreign Secretary’s term, will the Government suspend any UK arms export licences to Sri Lanka with immediate effect? What steps is he taking to prevent the sale of munitions, including artillery shells, to the Sri Lankan military by EU countries? If we did not take such steps, would we not be complicit in any further civilian deaths?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we, alongside other European countries, have the toughest arms export criteria in the world. There has never been a shred of evidence to suggest that the Sri Lankan Government have used British artillery. We will continue to impose that tough arms control regime in everything that we do.
May I add my thanks to the Foreign Secretary? My constituents in the Milton Keynes Tamil association will be heartened by the seriousness with which he is taking his concerns, as he demonstrated by going to Sri Lanka with Mr. Kouchner. May I focus on one of his five points—full access to the IDPs? There is huge concern among the Tamil community about the way in which men are being screened out of the IDPs and assumed to be part of the LTTE, just because they are male Tamils. Will he ensure that that point is not lost as part of all the other issues that he is rightly pursing at the UN and in other places?
This is an important point. Some young Tamil men have been taken for “rehabilitation”, although not all of them. It is important that I say that I talked to many young men at the IDP camp that I saw yesterday, as well as women—both younger and older. One reason why we have been emphasising the need for UN access throughout the non-conflict area is precisely to address that concern of my hon. Friend and her constituents, which we will continue to raise.
On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to end a conflict that has caused such suffering and destruction. Given his statement that this is a war without witness, will he prioritise ensuring that there is proper UN monitoring and freedom of the press so that democratic values and a respect for human rights can be restored to Sri Lanka and, especially, the Tamil people?
On behalf of the Tamil community in my constituency, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his trip and everything that his Ministers are doing to raise my Tamil constituents’ concerns.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about seeking legal opinion on whether genocide, under the convention definition, is indeed happening? Has legal advice been sought, and if not, will he do so? Does he agree that only a political process, not a victory on the battlefield, will in the end deliver the justice and peace that people in Sri Lanka deserve?
May I say, hopefully by way of encouragement to the Foreign Secretary and all of us, that in response to the strong, united view of the House yesterday and his actions, the last of the hunger strikers in the UK gave up his hunger strike this afternoon? Will the Foreign Secretary continue to concentrate on ensuring not only that we have the ceasefire that is immediately wanted, but that independent people will have the ability to watch what then happens on the ground, because only such presence in the days following any end to conflict will give confidence that there will not be further human rights violations of people in the Tamil community in the north of Sri Lanka?