House of Commons
Tuesday 30 June 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Norwich North in the room of Dr. Ian Gibson, who since his election for the said Borough Constituency has accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, in the county of Buckingham.—(Mr. Nicholas Brown.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
I met the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr. Spanta, in Trieste on Friday. Our embassy in Kabul is in regular dialogue with the Afghan authorities, particularly the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which is running the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s. We are also in close contact with the United Nations Development Programme, which is co-ordinating the international effort to support the election commission. In Helmand province we are working with the election commission, the governor and the Afghan national security forces to ensure credible elections on 20 August.
My attention has not been drawn to the example that the hon. Gentleman has given, but the United Nations and other authorities have been as vigilant as possible in ensuring that the extra voters who have been registered—4 million or so have been registered, which is obviously a good thing—are indeed real voters. I understand that about 85 per cent. of people in Helmand province have been registered, and we are confident that the appropriate procedures have been followed there. However, if the hon. Gentleman has any particular evidence that he wishes to supply to me, I should be happy to have it.
It is for the Iranian people to decide on their Government. The whole world has watched the post-election debate, demonstrations and violence against protesters with mounting concern. The grim effectiveness of the clampdown by the authorities has clearly not ended the debate inside Iran.
We are extremely concerned about the continued detention of some of our locally engaged staff in Tehran. That constitutes unacceptable harassment and intimidation, as European Foreign Ministers made clear in their joint statement on Sunday. I have discussed the issue with Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki, and we agreed in our second telephone conversation yesterday that a swift resolution was in both our interests.
It has not been possible for us to conduct an independent assessment of the total number of protesters who have been arrested, let alone the number who have been intimidated. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about British nationals, he will know of the case of a dual-nationality Greek-British journalist who was detained for a time. The handling of his case is being led by the Greek authorities, and I talked to Foreign Minister Bakoyannis about it at the weekend. Obviously any detention or intimidation of journalists or diplomatic staff is to be deplored, which is why we are working so hard on the case that is currently at the top of our list of priorities: that of our own locally engaged staff.
No, because one of the features of a strong and collective response is that we do not advertise its various aspects in advance. At this stage, it is important for the Government of Iran to recognise that the unanimous view was first that the arrest of the nine staff constituted intimidation and harassment of an unacceptable kind, secondly that it was imperative for the individuals concerned to be released unharmed as soon as possible and able to go about their business, and thirdly that there would be a strong and collective response in respect of intimidation and harassment.
It is important to understand that what is happening in Tehran and the wider country is not a bilateral dispute between Iran and Britain. There is a debate within Iran about how the people want to be governed, but it is also the case that Iran seeks engagement with the wider international community. The wider international community is determined that that engagement should take place on the basis of mutual respect, including respect for all our staff.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Iran two years ago, and we were greatly assisted in our visit by several locally engaged staff. Will he send a message, through whatever channels he has, to our people in Iran that the FAC greatly appreciates the work they have done for us and that our thoughts are with them at this time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important that so many Members now recognise that some 10,000 of the 16,000 Foreign Office staff are locally engaged, increasingly in positions connected with political reporting and economic analysis. The nine staff who were arrested on Saturday constitute the locally employed element of our political and economic section in the embassy in Tehran. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s thoughts and good wishes will be important to them, but there is a more general principle here: these staff operate for diplomatic purposes, and they should be given full respect for that role.
As the Foreign Secretary correctly says, it is a matter for the people of Iran to choose their own Government, but it is also a matter for the rest of the world that President Ahmadinejad exports anti-Semitism, exports fundamentalist terrorism, that he may, if he gets nuclear weapons, export some of those, and that he also exports regional instability. We must be much firmer and actually call this gentleman for what he is.
I take my right hon. Friend’s comment in the spirit in which it was intended. There has been disgust not just across this House but across the international community at the anti-Semitic remarks President Ahmadinejad has made in recent weeks and years. However, one thing that has become clear in the last few weeks in respect of other aspects of my right hon. Friend’s question is that all power does not reside in the presidential office in Tehran: the role of the supreme leader is absolutely critical, not least on the nuclear file. It is therefore very important that we not only make clear our own views, but also understand the different layers of governance that exist in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
May I place on record my support for the Government’s position on the British embassy staff arrested by the Iranian authorities, and reinforce the Foreign Secretary’s message that Britain has been restrained and measured in response to the unrest since the Iranian elections? Given such sensitivities and the uncertainties over the future of internal Iranian politics, will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that beyond the reasonable reaction to the unacceptable Iranian actions that we have seen, Her Majesty’s Government will refuse to be provoked by the supreme leader, President Ahmadinejad and anyone else in the Iranian conservative leadership, and instead recognise that silence, patience and restraint at such a time can be the most powerful of diplomatic weapons?
First, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the preliminary part of his remarks. I am not sure that I can sign up to “silence”, as that may be going a bit far in the conduct of foreign policy, but I certainly think we should be firm but not macho in the way we go about it, and that is what I shall try to do.
It is of course utterly unacceptable intimidation that Iran continues to detain four locally engaged staff from our embassy, and in making that clear the Foreign Secretary has the united support of the House. This transparent ruse by Iran to portray what is a crisis of the credibility of its own Government, using violence against their own people, as a dispute with the United Kingdom is totally unjustified and will deceive, and should deceive, no one. We also support the proportionate steps the Government have taken in response to this, and strongly welcome the supportive stance of the other EU Foreign Ministers. When the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday to Mr. Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, did Mr. Mottaki repeat the assertion by the Iranian Foreign Ministry that there was no wish to damage or downgrade relations with the United Kingdom, and if so, how did he square that with the continued detention of four of our staff?
Foreign Minister Mottaki was clear that he wanted to raise the level of engagement not only with this country but with other European countries. It is a matter of record that it is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran which goes around arresting people, but I made it very clear, and Mr. Mottaki understood and responded, that we did expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage actively in securing the release of the remaining staff. We want to take that process forward, and that is what is going on at the moment.
Let us look ahead on this matter. Given the failure in the past to agree meaningful European sanctions with real bite on Iran on the issue of its nuclear programme—that has been illustrated by the fact that oil and gas sanctions announced by the Prime Minister 18 months ago were never implemented—is it not vital to start work across the European Union during the rest of this year on the serious economic penalties that ought to follow if Iran does not enter into negotiations on its nuclear programme by the end of the year? Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to send a strong message to other European capitals that although we all want to see a positive Iranian response to President Obama, if no meaningful progress is made by the end of the year, it will be necessary for the EU to take a dramatically hardened stance and demonstrate the will that has eluded it in the past?
I genuinely say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am disappointed by the first half of his question. He said that no meaningful sanctions with bite were being imposed by the European Union, but for the record I should point out that the sanctions imposed by the EU as a result of Iran’s flouting of the United Nations Security Council go beyond, and well beyond in a number of respects, the requirements of the Security Council. To portray the situation as one where there is a lonely voice on the Opposition Benches calling for tough sanctions in respect of the Iranian nuclear programme—[Interruption.]—and similar voices on the Government Benches against those of 26 recalcitrant European colleagues says more about his attitude towards his European colleagues than it does about the reality of the situation. This is not a matter where he needs to bring his Europhobia to bear, because there is a strong and united view among a number of countries in Europe on it and there is unanimous support for the actions that have been taken by the European Union. We will need to go further; private work needs to be done on the when and the how, but I should emphasise the word “private”.
As one who visited Iran during a period of great tension, when we had nobody at our embassy and the American embassy was similarly closed—this was prior to the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan—may I gently urge my right hon. Friend, despite the fact that I welcome everything he had to say, to accept that there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in these issues and the humanitarian perspective that he brings to all our discussions. I agree that, of course, there is a difference between rhetoric and diplomacy. In this case, we have tried to be absolutely clear about things because, whether in respect of rhetoric or diplomacy, clarity helps. In this case, there is a clear and united demand from across the House and the country, from across Europe, and from the United States and others that these hard-working diplomatic staff, who are of Iranian origin and have Iranian citizenship, and who are doing an important job in a completely proper way, should be released and allowed to get on with their work as soon as possible.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the repression in Iran is already having consequences far beyond the borders of that country and has dealt a body blow to Iran’s aspirations to be seen as the champion of Islam in the middle east? Has not President Ahmadinejad been revealed, not as a popular President who is governing with the consent of the people of Iran, but as a local despot who is sustained in power merely by the work of the militia and the police?
Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question gives me a chance to point out the important independent role that has been played in Iran by the BBC Farsi service. Since its inception last year, it has established itself as an authoritative and independent reporter on that nation’s affairs, and it has a very wide following in Iran. It is important to say that although it receives public money, it receives no public instruction as to how it should behave or what it should report. Crucially, in response to his question, I should point out that it has given an unvarnished view of the sort of violence that has been meted out by state authorities in Iran since the election. That has contrasted most strikingly with the passion of the debate that took place before the election day, which was a credit to Iran.
EU Regional Aid Programmes
Delivery of the EU structural and cohesion fund programmes was discussed at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 15 June. We are awaiting detailed proposals from the European Commission on an amendment to the structural funds regulation to allow accelerated funding, as suggested in its communication of 3 June on employment.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s response, and given the uncertainty about and the cuts to the Learning and Skills Council, the Higher Education Funding Council and the regional development agencies budgets in the UK, what reassurance can the Minister give the EU Council and deprived UK regions, such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, that those convergence programmes will not suffer from the lack of UK match funding?
I can make an absolute guarantee that not a single extra penny needed for match funding in the UK would be brought forward by this proposal, which has not yet been outlined in full detail by the European Commission. There would not be a single penny missing in relation to the European social fund, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has already delivered significant extra benefits in Cornwall through the EMBARK programme and Workforce Cornwall. I hope that he will not be touting round the myth that the proposal would bring in extra money—every penny of match funding has already been provided.
The Foreign Secretary last raised the status of Tibet with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang during his visit to the UK in February during the UK-China summit. He called for substantive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama’s representatives to address the underlying issues in Tibet.
Will the Minister urge his Chinese counterpart to end the outdated rhetoric of hostility towards the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters? Will he tell him that that autonomy is a genuine and workable concept within an overall China, that it is not independence, as the hardliners pretend, and that it can help to provide an important degree of self-determination and can protect the unique Tibetan culture? Will the Minister take practical steps, such as offering to mediate, to help resolve this long-standing injustice?
First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his long-standing interest and commitment on this very important issue? It is possibly early days for me to start mediating in such an historic dispute, but it is absolutely clear that we believe that the only way forward is for the Chinese authorities to resume bilateral discussions with the Dalai Lama’s envoys. It is worth noting that it has always been the Dalai Lama’s position not to advocate independence but to advocate autonomy. We believe that that is now consistent with the British position and that this window of opportunity should be used for the benefit of Tibet.
The UK Government have rightly promoted the idea of dialogue, as the Minister has just set out. Is not the reality that over many years the Chinese have engaged in dialogue but have never given any ground, even of a limited nature? What action are the Government taking to co-ordinate a response with other European Union countries, the United States and other allies to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to be a little less intransigent and to recognise the basic human rights of Tibet?
Our position has recently become aligned, for the first time, with that of the European Union. There is a clear, strong and united position, and the European Union uses its dialogue with China constantly to raise the question of Tibet. For example, during the last round of our bilateral human rights dialogue we called for due process in Tibet and full transparency to allow unhindered access for diplomats and journalists. We also called for reform of the use of the death penalty to limit the scope of its application. Now that our position, for the first time, is aligned with that of the European Union, I believe that we have the best possible opportunity to influence the Chinese to do the right thing by Tibet.
Following the recent end to military operations, Sri Lanka has an historic opportunity to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict and to ensure a lasting peace. We have made clear our view that that can be best achieved through an inclusive political solution based on respect, equality and the rule of law, which addresses the legitimate grievances of all Sri Lankan communities, including the Tamil population.
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the continuing conflicts concerns the events that happened in the last weeks and days of the conflict in the north of the island and whether or not criminal actions took place. Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to persuade the Sri Lankan Government that they need to produce a report on those issues if they are to carry the peace process forward?
It is important to put it on record that our immediate concern is for the safety of the more than 280,000 people who fled the fighting and are now being held in camps for internally displaced persons. That has to be our immediate concern, and we have allocated £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance to help Sri Lanka address those issues. In addition, we have been at the forefront in calling through the EU for an independent investigation into any violations. We have also supported the UN Secretary-General in his agreement with the President of Sri Lanka to conduct an appropriate investigation into any violations that have taken place. It is really important that we send the message today that we expect the President of Sri Lanka to convert that rhetoric into action.
The Minister will be aware that this country, as well as having a significant Tamil population, also has many people from the Sinhalese area. What steps is he taking with the high commissioner in this country to ensure that there are harmonious relations between Sri Lankans living here in the UK?
The best solution is to have a political dialogue that leads to peace and stability in Sri Lanka. One difficulty for the Tamil population and all minority communities has been to ensure that the Sri Lankans honour their commitment to enter into serious political discourse. We are very exercised about that, as we must put historical enmities behind us and start to build more inclusive relationships with Sri Lanka.
The UK continues to support a two-state solution in the middle east. We urge the parties involved and the Arab world to continue to build on the Arab peace initiative as the best basis for establishing long-term regional peace. We urge Israel to implement a complete freeze on settlement construction in line with its roadmap commitments, and we call on all Palestinians to be prepared to engage in peaceful negotiations with Israel. Facilitating peace in the middle east will remain a top priority for this Government, alongside developing the institutions of a Palestinian state.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I offer you my belated congratulations? Will my right hon. Friend maintain a commitment to persuading the Israeli Government to accept the idea of a Palestinian state? Does he accept, however, that if that state is too bound in by conditions and a commitment to retain settlements it will be absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinian authorities and the international community?
I maintain that commitment very strongly. The Government’s position is very clear: a two-state solution must be based more or less on the 1967 borders, Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and there needs to be a fair settlement of the refugee questions. That is at the heart of securing any stability, never mind security or justice, for Palestinians—and, I argue, for Israelis too. That is why it will remain at the heart of our policy.
In the past, whatever we thought of the regime running Iran, the EU3 plus 3 countries recognised that it ruled by some form of consent. In the light of the recent elections, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the new president—or President Ahmadinejad—rules by consent? If not, how can we begin negotiations to solve problems to do with the middle east or the nuclear issue?
As I said earlier, there is no way that we are able to count the ballots, and we are not in a position to say whether President Ahmadinejad got 63 per cent. of the vote. Debate remains intense in Iran, and we are watching the process extremely carefully. We will have to address questions about the Government of Iran, and I understand that the inauguration of a new president is scheduled for 26 July. Over the coming three weeks, we will work intensively with our partners to ensure that there is a united international position in respect of dealings with the Iranian Government.
As soon as this Question Time is over, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary contact his Israeli counterpart about the civilian ship, the Spirit of Humanity, aboard which is a constituent of mine? Its cargo of medical and humanitarian supplies was thoroughly inspected by the port authorities before it left Larnaca yesterday, but the vessel is now surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters. The Israeli forces have disabled the ship’s equipment, have threatened to fire on the ship and have now boarded it. Will he insist to the Israeli authorities that they desist immediately from these blatant violations of international law?
I shall certainly follow up my right hon. Friend’s question; he mentioned the issue to me on the way in to the Chamber. If the contact has not been made already, it will be made as soon as Question Time is over. It is obviously vital that all states respect international law, including the law of the sea. It is also important to say that we deplore the interference by the Israeli navy in the activities of Gazan fishermen, which has been brought to my attention on previous occasions. Resolution 1860 was clear about the basis of peaceful progress in respect of Gaza, and we are determined to uphold all of its aspects.
Can the Foreign Secretary indicate when he last discussed the middle east with President Barack Obama of the United States? He will agree that the United States probably stands a greater chance of exercising influence in the middle east than any other major power in the world. It is important that we create a stable government in both Palestine and Israel.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the United States has a pivotal role in promoting a peace process and a peace plan for the middle east. I think he will agree with me that the determination of the Obama Administration to engage on this issue from day one has been a welcome contrast to the rather belated interest in the middle east which has been shown by previous Administrations. Before 20 January, the European countries unanimously asked for that engagement, and since then the stance of the US Administration has been clear, principled and forceful. I welcome that wholeheartedly.
While I agree with my right hon. Friend that at last we have an American President who recognises the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian people, is it not unfortunate that this wretched Israeli Administration continue to build illegal settlements in defiance of international law? What action is going to be taken by the leading powers over what Israel is doing?
The position of the Government on settlements is clear—settlements are illegal under international law and a major blockage to peace in the middle east on the basis of a two-state solution. Reports are coming through that the Israeli Ministry Of Defence yesterday granted permission for 50 new housing units at the Adam settlement, which we completely deplore. This is the worst possible time for new settlements to be initiated or for construction to be started. We are at a vital moment as the new American Administration come to a decision about how they will prosecute their commitment to a two-state solution, and the call for a settlement freeze is clear and wholehearted.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be hard to build trust and peace in the middle east while hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are still without sanitation, adequate medicine or the materials that they desperately need to begin reconstruction? What action are the British Government taking to find ways to allow supplies into Gaza in order to end what the International Committee of the Red Cross described a couple of days ago as an
“unending cycle of deprivation and despair”?
I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman continues to draw attention to the Gaza issue, because so do we. The danger is that Gaza gets left behind in discussions of a peace plan or peace process. On Friday at the G8 meeting, I made a point of saying that the UK believed that we could not pursue a Gaza-last policy, that practical help in Gaza was essential—our £46 million of aid is just a part of that—and that adherence to the call of the UN Security Council resolution for an immediate opening of the crossings is in the interests of all right-minded people in thinking through how we can build any kind of solution or trust, to repeat the word that the hon. Gentleman used, in the middle east.
My right hon. Friend has been very clear about the Government’s position on Israeli settlements. President Obama, in his Cairo address, made it clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop. On 26 June, the G8 too was entirely clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop, but they are still carrying on, so perhaps the key question is: what can the international community do to ensure that Israel implements in practice its obligations under international agreements?
That is indeed a key question—or the key question. Defence Minister Barak is in Washington or New York today for talks with former Senator Mitchell. That is a key part of the engagement between the United States and Israel in preparation for further development of the American peace plan. We should see how those talks go, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a settlement freeze is now universally recognised as absolutely key to progress.
The provincial reconstruction team’s mission in Helmand is to help the Afghan Government to deliver effective governance and security. The number of UK civilian staff working on a joint civilian-military operation has more than doubled since 2008 to more than 80, and all of them are delivering tangible results for the people of Helmand. The PRT has helped to built nearly 2,000 wells, benefiting more than 400,000 people. It has contributed to 160 district infrastructure projects, reaching more than 300,000 families, and provided paid work for nearly 19,000 people.
In the Opposition day debate on Iraq last week, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), a former Secretary of State for International Development, admitted that she deliberately instructed her Department to have nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the drawing up of reconstruction plans once the war fighting had stopped in March 2003. With no plan, chaos ensued for many years. We are now in our seventh year in Afghanistan. As US assistance is required in Helmand province, it seems that there are still lessons to be learned from Iraq. Is it not time there was a major overhaul of how the MOD, the FCO and the Department for International Development conduct modern stabilisation operations, as outlined in recommendation 16 in a powerful Institute for Public Policy Research report issued today?
That is indeed a good IPPR report, which fully endorses the idea of a joint civilian-military operation in Afghanistan. That has been pioneered by the DFID-FCO-MOD liaison in Helmand province. Of course, as I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions across the Dispatch Box, we should always seek to learn lessons and improve the operation, but I hope that he will agree that the shared leadership across the traditional civilian-military divide in our operation in Helmand is indeed the right way forward. I hope that he will also agree that the bravery of the civilian aid workers and diplomats, alongside that of the military, has made a difference. As for whether there is further to go, of course there is, and we will certainly look at the IPPR report and other ideas—including those of the hon. Gentleman, because he has experience in this respect—in order to take the matter forward.
Reconstruction cannot happen unless we have security. Security requires a national military and a national police force. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the progress that we have made in supporting and building up the Afghan national police force in Helmand?
No—or rather, I am satisfied that we have made an awful lot of effort, but I am not satisfied with overall progress, for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend will know from the debates that we have had in this House and elsewhere that the development of a trusted Afghan police force is perhaps the major challenge, or certainly one of the major challenges, that we face. The appointment of some of the new district governors under Governor Mangal in Helmand is making a sincere and real difference in that province, but to claim that things are better than patchy would be an exaggeration. The issue is certainly a priority that we intend to pursue.
Many hon. Members think that the Foreign Secretary’s comments about progress in Helmand province are optimistic. Recently, a lot more effort has been made in that area, but NGOs, hon. Members, and military and civilian experts believe that it is ludicrous that less than 10 per cent. of British aid to Afghanistan goes to Helmand province. I draw the Foreign Secretary’s attention to an article by an Army officer published in the most recent issue of the British Army Review, entitled “A Comprehensive Failure: British Civil-Military Strategy in Helmand Province”. We are catching up very slowly indeed. I am afraid to say that although there has been a loss of British military personnel, and there are threats to the lives of brave British civilians, the British Government have so far failed to pull together a comprehensive strategy. I am afraid, Foreign Secretary, that it has been a failure.
I think that the denigration of the efforts of the people on the ground, who have, as the IPPR report says, led the way on improving civilian-military stabilisation efforts is beneath the hon. Gentleman. The truth is that we pay our development aid through the Afghan Government, according to the best practice of international development around the world. We are not seeking to establish a British county in Helmand. We are supporting indigenous efforts, led by Governor Mangal, to build reconstruction as well as security in that province. As for the founding facts that I mentioned, facts are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I offered no optimism or pessimism. I recited facts about the number of people who have been helped by the efforts of the provincial reconstruction team. I also said to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who has taken a long-standing interest in this matter, that there are a number of areas in which we all need to do better, led by the Afghan authorities, and that is what we are determined to do.
We remain concerned at continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, violence and intimidation against the media, all of which appear to affect Tamil communities disproportionately. We raise these issues regularly in international forums and with the Government of Sri Lanka and call upon them to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses.
Does the Minister agree that after 25 years of bloody conflict in Sri Lanka, any reasonable Government would reach out to the defeated community, not incarcerate about 300,000 Tamils, many of them children and the elderly, in squalid and inhumane detention camps? What are the Government doing to improve humanitarian conditions in those camps? More important in the longer term, what are the Government doing to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to close down the camps entirely and allow those innocent people to return to their homes and families?
Since last year we have made sure that a total of £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance has gone specifically to deal with the displaced civilians. We have made it clear that we want the UN and humanitarian agencies to have full access to those civilians. But as the hon. Gentleman said, the long-term solution is political. On the political direction that the president of Sri Lanka has indicated towards a new inclusive Sri Lanka, we have to see step-by-step evidence of action. There have been encouraging words since the conflict was brought to a close, but confidence-building measures on the ground are now needed to demonstrate that the Government of Sri Lanka are serious about a new inclusive country where Tamils and other minorities feel that they have an authentic voice and equal status.
I thank the Minister for what he just said. Does he agree that the continued incarceration of large numbers of Tamil people in refugee camps is a form of imprisonment, and that denying the right to return home is illegal under international law? Will he make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that they must not try to resettle the Tamil people outside their traditional homelands, villages and towns, in order to bring about some degree of stability in the future?
My hon. Friend is right. The first test of the good intentions and political will of the Government of Sri Lanka is how they treat the displaced civilians. It is imperative that those people return home as soon as possible and that they are given the opportunity to begin to rebuild their lives. That will be the greatest evidence that things are changing for people on the ground in that country.
The Lisbon agenda was not discussed at the recent General Affairs Council. However, the incoming Swedish presidency and the forthcoming Spanish presidency have indicated their intention to progress work on the EU’s next strategy for sustainable jobs and growth as a successor to the current strategy, which expires in 2010.
I think that the hon. Lady wrote that question before the Council meeting, when it was made clear that there would be no fiscal implications for the UK and that we would be able to maintain our competitiveness. Most of the City has welcomed the fact that we need to make sure that across the whole European Union there is a proper system of risk management so that we can compete with the rest of the world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Lisbon agenda is about setting up the mechanism whereby Europe can effectively tackle the problems of the international economy, of trade and of the environment by bringing together mainstream groups from every country? That is the way forward, rather than opting out to the fringe—lunatic and otherwise—which is the Opposition’s policy.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The most important point, surely, is that we know that, as a country, we do not have a hermetically sealed economy. Our economy is reliant on trade with other countries throughout the European Union, and if we are not to undermine that trade, we have to ensure that there are strong economies throughout the whole continent. That is precisely what the European Council is doing.
Given today’s remarkable legal judgment in Germany to suspend ratification, it is a great shame that the original question was not about the Lisbon treaty. But as it is not, I shall observe that the Lisbon agenda was intended to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010—and that with one year to go, there is clearly a lot still to do. Will the Minister assure us that there will be no weakening of the British position on our critical opt-out from the working time directive, which is now used by 15 EU countries and directly affects some 3 million people in this country alone?
As the hon. Gentleman did not ask about Germany’s Constitutional Court judgment today—because you, Mr. Speaker, would not have allowed him to do so under this question—I shall not answer today that, of course, that is a matter for Germany, and not for the United Kingdom to reply to. However, I can say to him that of course we need to ensure that our opt-outs stand firm, and that is precisely what we intend to do.
I hope that the House will join me in welcoming the UN Secretary-General’s determination to visit Burma this week. The political and human rights situation in the country is dire and demands the world’s attention. Ban Ki-moon’s personal engagement underscores the concern of the international community. It presents an opportunity for the military Government to respond to those concerns by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, and by beginning a credible and inclusive dialogue that leads to political reconciliation and a new start for Burma.
I certainly wish to associate myself with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, but may I take his attention back to Iran, and in particular to the situation facing the seven Baha’i spiritual leaders who have been in detention for more than a year and are apparently to stand trial on 11 July, whose lawyers are reported to have suffered intimidation, and who do not yet know the nature or the number of charges against them? Will the Foreign Secretary bring pressure to bear from this country and others to ensure that their trial conforms to the principles of natural justice?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have long spoken up about the treatment of the Baha’i minority; they were featured in the Foreign Office’s human rights report, and he is right to draw attention to the importance of the events on 11 July and beyond.
It is a cruel irony that the regime should have tried to schedule the next date of the trial for this Thursday—the day that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon goes to Burma. Our best hope is to support his mission and to be absolutely clear that there is unanimous support for it from the international community. We very much hope that either he will come back with progress or the Security Council will return to the issue.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to cite our support for Pakistan; if he was in fear of radicalisation, I would have one answer. In respect of India, he will know that British aid now amounts to about £240 million over this spending review period, but it is on a declining trend, and by 2011 will have stopped, not because of the Indian nuclear programme but because India is becoming a richer country. It is clear from international development legislation since 1997 that development aid should be directed according to poverty, and that is the basis on which India is pulling itself away from aid, according to its own wealth-generating potential.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his US counterparts on the BBC’s allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base? Is it not a fact that two British prisoners have either been held there in the past or are being held there now? Will my right hon. Friend take some action on that important issue?
Obviously, this is a US issue, not a UK issue. All detainees taken under British control are governed by our memorandum of understanding with the Afghan authorities, which requires the passing of detainees to those authorities. I think that the US Administration themselves have made clear their determination to get to the bottom of the issue of detainee treatment at Bagram. A review by the US authorities is currently under way, and we look forward to its being concluded as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I raised precisely this issue with Foreign Minister Lieberman when he came to London six or seven weeks ago. I understood that there had been some progress, but on the basis of the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked, I shall be happy to write to him as soon as possible to give him the latest position. He is absolutely right to say that the vehicles are needed for humanitarian delivery purposes. They are essential, they are from the British taxpayer, and there is no reason why they should not be taken out of their compound and delivered as soon as possible.
Neither the Palestinian people nor the middle east peace process are well served by divisions among the Palestinian voices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis and the desperate need for reconstruction in Gaza are doing exactly what is not in the interests of the Israeli Government either—fuelling militancy and creating disunity among the Palestinian voices? Will he therefore redouble his efforts to bring pressure to bear on Israel to allow humanitarian and reconstruction aid into that living prison?
I am happy to redouble my redoubled efforts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the closure of the crossing serves no one except those who want to say that there can be no peaceful resolution. I think that she would also agree, however, that the divisions among the Palestinians themselves are an important impediment that needs to be overcome. That is why we strongly support the Egyptian-led reconciliation process, in which I know that she has taken an interest.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the excellent work of the Foreign Policy Centre, especially in this regard. The number of children executed in Iran was rightly highlighted in the Foreign Office’s human rights report. Not only does this run directly contrary to all sorts of humanitarian considerations, but Iran is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights; that at least, if nothing else, should guarantee proper safety for the children.
Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the situation with regard to the Turks and Caicos Islands? Notwithstanding the serious problems that have arisen there, does he agree that it would be far better for Her Majesty’s Government to work with the new democratic Government than to take the draconian step of returning the islands to colonial rule, which would be unpopular not only in TCI but right across the wider Caribbean?
It is important that we make sure that there is no corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I pay tribute to the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on this matter, which pointed us to the process that has led, first, to an interim report, and secondly to a final report, which we hope to publish soon. It would be wholly inappropriate for us to take no action whatsoever with regard to very serious issues that have been highlighted by the commissioner.
I certainly think that it is time that the Foreign Secretary reviewed the exchange that the hon. Gentleman had with the former Prime Minister two years ago and then updated him on our reflections on it. One has to be slightly careful about saying that the comprehensive peace agreement has completely failed, because that is what is holding the situation together, to the extent that it is held together at all.
The Minister of State from the Sudanese Government was in Trieste with me last Friday, and one thing that the UK Government have prioritised is the maintenance, development and implementation of the CPA, which is the only basis for legitimate government in Sudan. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that in no way should the UK Government support vile regimes, and will we certainly look into that.
When I was in Afghanistan with the European Security and Defence Assembly slightly more than three weeks ago, the commanders in the international security assistance force made it clear to me that in many ways there was a common view between the Iranian Government and ISAF on how to deal with the Taliban. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a very important issue, and an area of some common ground?
Iran certainly has a very strong interest in counter-narcotics work there. Until I have more details of what my hon. Friend thinks the Iranians said to ISAF, I think I should restrain my comments on that, but Iran certainly has the potential to contribute to stability in Afghanistan, and we should certainly work with it on that prospect.
Last week, the Foreign Secretary repeated the Prime Minister’s claim that the Iraq inquiry had not been set up to establish civil or criminal liability. Does that mean that the Government propose to grant legal immunity to any witness who gives evidence to the inquiry—and if so, by what means?
I remember no discussion of legal immunity in our debate last week. We have a clear mandate for Sir John Chilcot to pursue a wide-ranging inquiry. He will do so, and I hope that he will publish in the not-too-distant future his views on how he is going to conduct his inquiry, covering all the issues that were raised in the debate last week. That is the right next step.
In view of the Secretary of State’s view, now shared by the US and clearly restated a few moments ago, that settlements are the absolute key to progress, and in view of Israel’s repeated refusal to institute a freeze on settlement building, does the Minister agree that the stalemate can be broken only if a sanction of some kind is imposed on the Israeli Government for their defiance of international law?
We have made it clear that, as my hon. Friend says, settlements are illegal and a major impediment to peace. We are encouraged by the fact that President Obama’s speech in Cairo was seen as such a significant development, and we regard Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response as a step forward, although only a small one. At this stage in such a delicate process, the question of sanctions may be best put on hold. However, our feelings about settlements are clear: settlements are illegal, and they are getting in the way of the peace process.
Regarding the seven Baha’i leaders detained in Iran, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he will meet me, as the chair of the all-party Baha’i group, and a delegation of Baha’is, to understand the issues and see what representations might respectfully be made to secure their release?
The Foreign Secretary has registered his concern about the announcement yesterday of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s plans in respect of Adam. Is he further concerned that the overall master plan is for 1,450 units there and involves the immediate relocation of 50 hard-line settler families from Migron? Beyond the screensaver diplomacy and the backing vocals for George Mitchell in the House, what clear, strong message will go to the Israeli Government, and what reliable and credible message will go to the Palestinian Authority?
I think that Senator Mitchell’s efforts are far more than screensaver diplomacy, because they are backed by the President of the United States and have the wholehearted support of the European Union, never mind the Quartet, along with a battery of UN Security Council resolutions. That is why people are now talking about a middle east peace plan, not just a process—or another process—that fails to deliver. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency and frustration about the issue, but I believe that there is now a more united international effort than has existed previously. It needs to be brought to fruition.
The excellent charity Kidz In Kampz, which is based in my constituency, reports increasing difficulty in delivering aid on the Burma-Thailand border because of political turmoil. As well as putting pressure on Burma, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary held with the Thai authorities in trying to read that difficult situation?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows that in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the UK was the second largest donor to humanitarian help in Burma. We think that that was the right thing to do. I was not aware of the particular case that he raises, but I spoke—not recently but some time ago—to the Thai Foreign Minister, and I shall be happy to get an update from our embassy in Thailand about the latest Thai effort. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Thailand has an important role to play.
The deployment of British troops in Helmand province in 2006 was once described as being as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade. At that time seven soldiers had died; now the figure is 169—far more than died in the charge of the Light Brigade. What has happened in that impossible war to justify the loss of 169 brave British lives?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the bravery, intelligence and skill of our servicemen and women in Helmand. They have made a huge difference in that province, which was previously ungoverned space. As I said earlier, there is still a long way to go, but the help that people are getting, the security forces that have been established, and the role that Governor Mangal has played in political leadership for that province would not exist without the efforts of our troops and their supporters. The further intensive activity as a result of American efforts in neighbouring provinces means that the next few months will be important in Helmand, as well as in the rest of Afghanistan. Voter registration has happened for 85 per cent. of the population of Helmand, which would have been impossible before 2006.
21st Century Schools
May I take this opportunity to welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to your position and congratulate you on your elevation?
Over the past 12 years, school standards have risen significantly in our country, and our education system has changed beyond recognition. The number of secondary schools with at least 30 per cent. of pupils failing to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, has fallen from over half in 1997 to just one in seven schools today. We now have more than 40,000 more teachers, backed up by more than 200,000 more support staff. We now also have 200 national leaders of education, compared with none in 1997.
Our best state schools now match the best schools in the private sector and anywhere in the world. The reason is that we have rebuilt the school system on a foundation of sustained record investment, matched by tough accountability. That is why we can now go further and transform our school system to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Our country faces an economic imperative, because every young person now needs skills and qualifications to succeed, and a moral imperative, because every child and young person has potential and can do well with the right help and support. It is to meet those twin imperatives that I am today publishing our 21st century schools White Paper, based on new guarantees for pupils and parents; a significant devolution of power and responsibility to our school leaders, matched by strengthened school accountability; and an uncompromising approach to school improvement, because we want every child to succeed and we will never give up on any child.
First, we will now legislate for our pupil guarantee, to ensure: that all young people get a broad and balanced curriculum and high-quality qualifications, whether their strengths are practical, academic or both; that every secondary pupil has a personal tutor; that all pupils get five hours of PE and sport every week and access to cultural activities; that gifted and talented pupils get written confirmation of the extra challenge and support that they will receive; that all pupils with additional needs get extra help, with 4,000 extra dyslexia teachers; and that all pupils in years 3 to 6 who are falling behind in English or maths get one-to-one tuition to help them to get back on track. We will now extend the offer of one-to-one or small-group tuition to all pupils at the start of secondary school who were behind at the end of primary school. Following the report of the expert group on assessment, we will now introduce a new progress check at the end of year 7, so that parents can be confident that their child has made up the lost ground.
Our new parents’ guarantee will ensure that all parents get regular online information about their child’s progress, behaviour and attendance. It will also ensure access to their child’s personal tutor and fair school admissions in line with the admissions code, as well as ensuring that parents’ views will be listened to and reported in the school report card, so that all parents know what other parents think when choosing a school. Where parents are unhappy with the choice of schools on offer to them, local authorities will have to listen to and respond to their concerns, based on an annual survey of parents.
Because all parents want their children to learn at an orderly school, where they are safe from bullying and lessons are not disrupted by bad behaviour, we will now legislate to strengthen home-school agreements, so that all pupils and parents will accept the school’s rules when they apply for a school place and will be expected to sign up to renew their commitment every year; schools will have stronger powers to enforce discipline through intensive support, parenting contracts and parenting orders; and parents will have the right to complain and expect action if schools fail to act to enforce the home-school agreement.
Building on the success of the literacy and numeracy hours of the national strategies, which will continue in all schools, with Ofsted continuing to inspect them as now, we will devolve power and funding to school leaders to decide, with ring-fenced funding, what support they need, school by school, to drive up standards further. We will also ensure that schools can get the support that they need from other services through children’s trust boards and encourage multi-agency teams based in schools. The new chair of our independent bureaucracy watchdog will review any unnecessary obstacles that get in the way of delivery. Building on the success of our national leaders in education and academies programmes, we will now act so that our best head teachers can run more than one school, with better pay for executive heads. We will accredit high-performing schools, colleges and universities to run chains of schools in not-for-profit accredited schools groups, with the first providers up and running by January. Already nine schools, one multi-academy sponsor, four colleges and four universities, including today Nottingham university, have come forward, and I am today setting aside funds over the next years to support their growth.
We will match this transformation in school leadership with a transformation in school accountability. School league tables are easy to read, but because they present a narrow view of performance, based solely on the attainment of the average pupil, they cannot provide the full picture that parents need. Our new school report card will include full information on school attainment, but will go beyond that. It will set out clearly for parents how the school is improving standards and how well it is helping those pupils who fall behind to catch up and stretching the most able. The school report card will also report on discipline, attendance, sport, healthy eating and partnership working, and set out what parents and pupils think of the school. We will begin pilots of our school report card this September, but although we will consult further, I am now convinced that if parents, newspapers and websites are to make fair, clear and easy-to-understand comparisons between schools, our school report card will need to include a single, overall grade.
As a world-class schools system needs a world-class work force, we are making teaching a masters-level profession, and we will now introduce a new licence to teach, similar to that used by other high-status professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Teachers will need to keep their practice up to date to renew their licence, and they will be given a new entitlement for continued professional development. We will start with newly qualified teachers beginning their training this September, those returning to teaching from September 2010 and all supply teachers shortly afterwards. We will make governing bodies slimmer and more highly skilled, and require all chairs to undergo specific training.
The primary responsibility for school improvement lies with head teachers and governing bodies, including their chairs, but where progress is too slow and performance does not improve, local authorities have a responsibility to act. Since we set out our national challenge and our coasting schools challenge, local authorities have drawn up improvement plans and we have already announced 55 new academies and 27 national challenge trusts. Today, I am giving the go-ahead to two new academies, in Halton and in Redcar and Cleveland, and confirming funding agreements for two further academies in Nottingham and Hertfordshire—all replacing national challenge schools.
Some argue that where underperformance is entrenched, where locally led change is not working and where excuses are being made, the right approach is to stand back, to let schools wither and slowly decline, and to allow the children and young people in those schools to pay the price. I disagree. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to step in and demand improvement. I will not shirk that responsibility.
Following Ofsted’s December 2008 assessment of Milton Keynes, which found children’s services there to be inadequate, with serious weaknesses in secondary school attainment and improvement, we commissioned an independent performance review. The review concluded that, despite some progress, urgent improvement was still required. The Children’s Minister has today written to the council in Milton Keynes, directing it under section 497A of the Education Act 1996 immediately to appoint Mr. Peter Kemp to chair an independent improvement board that will report directly to Ministers, and to submit and agree an improvement plan.
The Schools Minister and I are concerned about the rate of progress in Leicester, where we issued an improvement notice last June. So I am today asking Sir Mike Tomlinson, the chair of our national challenge expert advisers, to provide us with a progress report in September. On the basis of his report on Leicester and of this summer’s results, we will consider whether further action is needed.
I am also asking our expert advisers today to work with Blackpool and Gloucestershire—areas that need to make more progress—to identify what more needs to be done to deliver the national challenge and to report back to me on progress in September. If this year’s exam results reveal serious weaknesses in those areas, or in any other area of the country, I will do whatever it takes to secure the progress of children and young people.
With this White Paper, we match continued investment with reform and higher expectations, so that we can meet the economic imperative by ensuring that every young person gets the qualifications they need, and so that we can meet our moral imperative by ensuring that every child can succeed, whatever barriers they face. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. This is high summer, the season when the BBC’s screens are filled with repeats. It has nothing original to offer, so it serves up old material that flopped on first appearance simply to fill the airwaves. As it is with the BBC, so it is with the Secretary of State. No wonder this document is printed on recycled paper. Indeed, the White Paper is about as original, fresh and innovative as the Secretary of State’s performances on the BBC’s “Today” programme.
May I ask the Secretary of State why he is today offering one-to-one catch-up tuition, personal tutors for all pupils, and tuition groups for those in secondary schools as though those proposals were new and exciting, when in June 2007, the Prime Minister promised one-to-one catch-up tuition, personal tutors for all pupils, and tuition groups for those in secondary schools? And he has still failed to deliver. I know that the Secretary of State relishes his role as the Government’s attack puppy, and his special vocation as the Prime Minister’s “mini-me”, but when will he realise that simply repeating the same old nonsense over and over again ad nauseam has not exactly helped the Prime Minister to new heights of popularity, and it will not help him?
In the White Paper, the Secretary of State pledges to guarantee a whole series of high-falutin’ promises on better discipline and higher standards, and says that he will legislate to ensure that every school delivers its legal obligation. Is it not the case, however, that every time this Government have introduced a law saying that something wonderful must be delivered, it is only because they have demonstrably failed to deliver that goal in the last 12 years? We have a new law saying that child poverty must be abolished by 2020, because the Government have failed to hit their target of halving child poverty by 2010. We also have a new law compelling public bodies to promote equality, because this Government have presided over a catastrophic drop in social mobility and a widening gap has opened up between the poorest and the rest.
Now we have new laws to guarantee to every child better discipline, even though school discipline is running out of control, with 425,000 pupils suspended last year, 200,000 of them for violence, and with 100,000 teachers having left the profession in disgust. We also have new laws to guarantee every child higher standards, even though we are falling down the PISA—programme for international student assessment— international league tables for achievement and the gap between independent and state schools is widening.
Is it not the case that we do not need new laws, new entitlements and new guarantees? We need a new Government. All the good ideas in this White Paper are Tory ideas. Let us take enforceable home-school contracts. When the idea was put forward, the Secretary of State said:
“I do not think a commitment to helping children to read and behave well should be put in a contract”.
His junior said:
“The Home School Agreement should not be a contract forced on parents”.
But today we have enforceable home-school contracts with penalties for recalcitrant parents—Tory ideas winning the argument.
I very much regret that we have not had more influence on the Secretary of State. We have been calling for less bureaucracy for teachers, for example, but in this document there are just four brief paragraphs on cutting red tape, with just two suggestions—a new cross-disciplinary review and a new quango. I ask why, on parental choice, the Secretary of State has nothing worth while to say. When parents are denied a good choice of school, he proposes a survey, then an opinion poll, then a consultation, then a plan and then further consultation. By the time all that happens, the children denied a good choice of school will be drawing their pension. This Secretary of State has never seen a bureaucracy he did not want to protect and entrench in its complacency.
I hope that there is one other area on which the Government will U-turn—their proposals for school report cards. We have outlined plans for sharper accountability, with tests for which one cannot cram and proper robust and reliable league tables. Today, however, the Government propose abolishing league tables altogether and replacing them with fuzzy measurements of perception, well-being and partnership working. Parents will be left in the dark about which schools are failing.
Is it not the case that this Secretary of State has run out of ideas, run out of money and run out of time? Should he not make way for a party ready to reform, act on discipline, back parental choice and focus remorselessly, at last, on higher standards for all?
I was waiting to hear the alternative policy programme from the shadow Education Secretary, but there was nothing on offer—just the normal well- rehearsed speech, well written in advance; I guess that if one is charging £1,250 an hour, the script has to be well written. The fact is that we have set out one-to-one commitments and we are now delivering 300,000 more places next year. It is this Government who are taking forward the commitment to one-to-one teaching.
As for discipline, we introduced parenting contracts and parenting orders; we have had more than 50,000 parenting contracts and more than 8,000 parenting orders to enforce discipline—and because it has worked, we are now going to extend it and make it more effective, so we can deliver what parents want. They want their children’s lessons not to be disrupted by bad discipline so that children can get on and learn and teachers can get on and teach. That is exactly what we are going to do.
We are making it very clear that we are going to reduce bureaucracy where it gets in the way, while at the same time we are going to extend parental choice and allow a greater parental voice. As for the school report card and the idea that we are taking information away, the people who want to reduce accountability and the reliability of information, and who are proposing or pretending to abolish key stage 2 tests, are the Conservatives, not the Labour party.
I looked at other representations regarding the White Paper. I considered whether we should hold back for a further year in primary school children who failed to make the grade, but I decided that that would be a bad idea, and I therefore rejected it. I considered whether pupils who failed the year 7 test should be sent back to primary school, as proposed by the Conservative party, but I rejected that idea. I considered whether we should abolish key stage 2 tests, and decided that we should not, because it would be a bad idea.
Most of all, I considered the Swedish model and the idea that the way to deliver school improvement is to try, by diverting £4.5 billion from school building budgets, to open one new school a day for the next 10 years—the proposal from the Conservative party. I have to say that I looked at that with interest, but at the weekend, I read in The Sunday Times that according to “insiders” in the Conservative party, the policy was “in disarray”, and that a senior Conservative had said:
“I have not met anyone who understands the policy and don’t understand how we have a hope of explaining it on the doorstep”.
The Conservative party is hoping that no one understands it, because if people did understand it they would understand the chaos and the cuts that would ensue.
The last time the hon. Gentleman and I faced each other across the Dispatch Box, it was my job that was supposedly in doubt. I have to say that I think it is his job that is in doubt now. His colleagues are whispering behind him, and his policy is in disarray. It is our party that will deliver for every child and every school in our country, and that is why ours is the party that is leading the charge for higher standards in the future.
I welcome you to your new responsibilities, Mr. Speaker. I also thank the Secretary of State for allowing me advance sight of the statement and the White Paper.
We welcome the licence to teach and the principle of the school report card—provided that it is not diluted by a fuzzy focus on issues of partnership, which I think would detract from its ability to hold schools more effectively to account—but I want to ask the Secretary of State about the two issues that give us the greatest cause for concern. I refer to the issue of how all the proposals are to be funded, and the issue of what I thought was supposed to be the Prime Minister’s big idea yesterday: the idea of moving from a system of targets to one of entitlements.
We saw this morning how the White Paper had been spun by the Government across the media. The BBC website, for instance, speaks of
“legally enforceable rights to schemes such as one-to-one tuition”.
Yesterday we heard about the right of exit to the private health sector that would be given to people who were not seen rapidly as NHS patients. However, I am not sure what has happened to that idea of entitlements. The Secretary of State’s statement made no mention of parental entitlements, and as for the paper that the Prime Minister issued yesterday, not only has it nothing to say about people’s rights to leave the NHS and obtain private treatment if their entitlements are not being delivered, but on the issue of enforcement of entitlements to one-to-one tuition, it states that
“we will not legislate”
“redress… through the courts.”
That appears directly to contradict the spin that we were given this morning.
Perhaps the Secretary of State can explain—in the context of education and, if he wishes, in wider contexts as well—whether the idea of entitlement is meaningful and will give extra power to consumers of public services, or whether it is a bit of spin. If it is not a bit of spin, how will parents denied access to one-to-one tuition for their children exercise their right to ensure that it is received?
Our other major concern is, of course, the extent to which the Secretary of State’s proposals can be funded. He has promised one-to-one tuition for what could turn out to be 20 per cent. of the seven to 11-year-old cohort—the youngsters who are falling below national standards. Is the money really there to deliver that? The Government promised a year ago that they would deliver one-to-one tuition, and they promised 30,000 places, but we now know that they delivered only 3,500.
The Secretary of State has been notably active—more active, perhaps, than the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the last couple of weeks—in talking about the Government’s public expenditure plans. However, he has apparently been unwilling to accept that his own budget’s real level of expenditure will decline between this year and next year, or that, despite his efforts generously to give away part of his capital budget for home building, the Building Schools for the Future programme will be entirely undeliverable in its existing form against a background of 50 per cent. cuts in capital expenditure across all areas of Government. If we are really expected to believe that some of the aspirations in the White Paper will be fulfilled, will the Secretary of State tell us how on earth they will be funded in the light of the cuts that would have to be made on the basis of existing public expenditure plans?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s interest in these matters and for the more serious way in which he has addressed the statement and the White Paper. I welcome his support for the idea of the report card, and I hope he agrees with me that it will strengthen accountability and provide more information that parents actually want in order for them to understand the progress of every child in the school.
On partnership, it is important that this issue does not make the report card fuzzy, but we also know that it is only by schools working together that we can deliver good behaviour and strong discipline. Also, as I have announced today, it is schools working together in federations that is driving up standards. I think that when the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail, he will be reassured on this matter.
On targets and entitlements, we have announced that on the basis of this White Paper in the next Session we will legislate to make the pupil and parent guarantee statutory. That means that it will be set out in law. The analogy is the admissions code. We will make sure that in the first instance the parental right to complain is to the school through the governing body. There will then be an independent appeals mechanism, in most cases to the local government ombudsman, but in some cases to the school adjudicator. If they find against a school, the Secretary of State has power to intervene. This is a legal entitlement, so judicial review is, of course, available as a backstop, but we are not seeking to make this legalistic. We want to make sure that the existing complaints procedures that we are putting in place will work effectively. I think we can make this work for both the pupil and the parent guarantee.
On funding, in the financial year 2010-11 we will spend more than £300 million on delivering one-to-one or small group tuition for 300,000 children, and we are currently training 100,000 teachers to teach that one-to-one tuition. The funding is there.
We have also set out a September guarantee. That will mean that this September every young person leaving school will be guaranteed a place in school or college, or an apprenticeship. I can now make that September guarantee only because I have made some difficult choices to shift £650 million from parts of my budgets and individual agencies to fund the 55,000 places that I need to meet it. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman supports that guarantee, but I hope that he and his party can make it clear that they do. What I do know is that other parties in this House will not match that September guarantee. The reason why is that if they make efficiency savings, the first call on resources is not young people getting school, college and apprenticeship places; it is an inheritance tax cut that will go to the 3,000 richest estates and cost billions and billions of pounds.
That is the choice in politics; that is the funding issue. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support me. Tough choices are needed to invest in the future of our country, our children and our young people, not simply to give tax cuts to a small number of millionaires. That is the choice in values, that is the choice in policy, and that is the choice for the future of our country.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s reaffirmation of the central role of the literacy and numeracy strategy. In reaffirming that, and in devolving the substantial funding for support and advice, will he agree to kite-mark or accredit those organisations or bodies that will be providing support, in order not to drift back into the complete mess that we had before 1997?
The fact is that the reason why we have made such great progress in numeracy and literacy is the foundations that were laid by my right hon. Friend in the early years of this Government after 1997. He is right to say that the innovation of the literacy and numeracy hours were critical, and the role that the national strategies played was vital. I think we have won that argument. I think we can now make sure that schools themselves choose how to commission support, but we will still deliver that literacy and numeracy. We will deliver those hours, and I will make sure that schools are buying from quality providers that are accredited, in order that I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance he seeks.
The Education Secretary says that he is going to step in to demand improvement where schools are failing or coasting. Is it not also time that he recognised that where schools are succeeding or improving he should get out and he should intervene less, and that such schools will thrive when they are left to their own devices?
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my statement, he would have heard me say that this White Paper devolves substantial power from the centre to individual head teachers so that they can make their own decisions on how to commission support. However, either we let the market work and children suffer when schools fail or we intervene, and I am determined to intervene because I do not agree with the philosophy that defines the Conservatives’ approach.
Will my right hon. Friend agree to come before the Select Committee at an early date to talk about this statement and the White Paper? Perhaps he will also agree to a pre-legislative inquiry before we have legislation. Will he bear in mind the fact that it does nobody any good to believe that nothing has been proved in education in this country over the past 12 years? Will he be very careful about putting too much—
If you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, I should say that this statement builds upon the fundamental reform, which was the Education and Inspections Act 2006. It was substantially improved by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the work of his Committee, so I believe that my Ministers and I will benefit from the scrutiny and interrogation that we will receive when we appear before his Committee in the coming weeks.
In his statement, the Secretary of State talked about gifted and talented pupils and the support that they will be given as a result of this White Paper. Can he tell us the current state of the gifted and talented programme that the Government brought in?
The answer is that 11 years ago the programme did not exist and now it is flourishing. We will ensure that every parent of every child who is gifted and talented receives written confirmation of the support that they will receive, because we want to stretch every pupil, including those with talents and gifts.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks about a review of secondary education in Gloucestershire, because some of us have been calling for such a review for years. Many schools, particularly those in the comprehensive sector, have been let down because of the local obsession in Gloucestershire with purely the grammar school sector. That obsession has led to the comprehensive schools being completely ignored, to there being no trusts and no academies and to the trebling of funding for primary schools in rural areas with sparse populations rather than for schools that face challenging circumstances in areas such as my own, which have proximity to those comprehensives. Will he ensure that that is considered as part of this review?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. The fact is that that local authority performs well in many ways, but we need to address some worrying issues to do with the national challenge and underperforming schools. I have asked Sir Graham Badman to produce a report and to report back to me in September. We will carefully consider all the points made, and I shall ensure that the points that my hon. Friend raises are included. If we need to act to ensure that not only some schools but all schools achieve, we will ensure that the action is taken.
Mr. Speaker, do you think that the Secretary of State regrets addressing the nation this morning on the “Today” programme, because it has meant that very little was added in his statement and it went completely against your advice to Ministers?
Anyone who heard the “Today” programme interview would have found that there was not a single question on education policy and therefore not a single answer on that matter either. The interview was almost entirely about the Conservative party’s inheritance tax cuts and how it was going to pay for them. Today, I have announced proposals in respect of the expert group and the test in year 7 and on the licence to teach, and I have proposed the details of the pupil and parent guarantee, all of which are new to this House. There have been no leaks from my Department, and I have been conscious at every stage to ensure that I have conformed with Mr. Speaker’s guidance.
On accountability and the school report card, the Secretary of State recognises that measures of progress are more effective than simple raw scores in assessing a school’s achievement. Does he agree, however, that the current measure of progress—the value-added score—is still unintelligible to most parents, and could he simplify it in the new school report card?
I look forward to the scrutiny that we will receive from the Select Committee. When my hon. Friend examines the detailed prospectus of the report card that we published today, he will see that how we measure progress and, in particular, how we contextualise to take advantage of deprivation is crucial. We must get it right in the report card, and I look forward to his expertise being shone upon this.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is sincere when he says that he will now act so that our best head teachers can run more than one school. Will he or the Schools Minister visit my constituency to see the work of the inspirational Mr. Jonathan Tippett, who has transformed three schools and who runs all three of them. Unfortunately, Tory-controlled Essex county council plans to shut two of them. Will the Secretary of State visit Colchester?
Over the past 12 years, I have repeatedly raised my concerns about teaching methods. The critical difference between success and failure in schools is to do with teaching methods and classroom cultures. How will my right hon. Friend address that and, once and for all, determine how we secure the best teaching methods in all our schools?
I am going to build on the reforms that have meant that we have the best generation of teachers we have ever had. I will empower school leaders to ensure that they get the best teaching practice into their schools and I will introduce a new licence to teach, which will mean that over time every teacher will be reaccredited to ensure that they are keeping up to date with best practice. We will match that with personal development and training so that every teacher can be world-class.
I think I answered that question a moment ago. In the first instance, the parents will complain to the school. There is then an independent complaints procedure. If the independent complaints procedure shows that the children are entitled to one-to-one support and are not getting it, the school should address that immediately. If it does not, parents can appeal to me. In the final analysis, it can go to judicial review, but I am sure that we will get it sorted out before we get to that stage.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that local authorities have a responsibility to act. How will he assist them and make them act in Hove where we have a shortfall of more than 100 places, which means that parents have to take three buses to a local school? How will he ensure that Brighton and Hove Tory council acts with the urgency that parents and children need?
It is obviously vital that local authorities respond to those shortages of places and respond to the views of parents. It is their job to ensure that they have the right number of school places. I brought forward schools capital from 2010-11 to 2009-10 so that there was more money for local authorities to spend. It was a great disappointment to me that a large number of Conservative authorities refused to take up that offer of more spending now, and that included Brighton.
All these announcements come with a huge price tag. The last time encouraging more 16 to 18-year-olds to stay on in sixth form came with a price tag, it was not budgeted for, as I was told by the Secretary of State. Are all these innovations fully budgeted for?
The point is that the hon. Lady is right. When it became clear in March that we had a shortfall in our budget for places for 16 to 18-year-olds, I found £650 million of efficiency savings so that I could pay for 55,000 more places. Despite my seven letters to her Front Benchers, she cannot get that commitment matched by them. I am spending the money on apprenticeship places; the Opposition would spend it on inheritance tax cuts. That is the difference, and that is why she should be so concerned.
The Building Schools for the Future programme is one of the best routes to school improvement, but it relies on local authorities delivering it. My local education authority, Hammersmith and Fulham, is in chaos. I am a governor of an outstanding sixth-form college, William Morris, which has been refused permission to move to a new site, which it says has cost £70 million. Will he ask Partnerships for Schools to look at the debacle in Hammersmith and Fulham and make it improve most of its plans?
I was in my hon. Friend’s borough this morning and I saw a school that was making real progress and working with another school. I understand his concerns. Local leadership should ensure that the BSF commitments are delivered, although some authorities in this country are anticipating the £4.5 billion cut promised by the Opposition and are therefore not making plans. I will ensure that the Schools Minister meets my hon. Friend to ensure that we can move this forward as soon as possible.
I am concerned that the Secretary of State’s remarks this afternoon about Gloucestershire will have a demotivating effect on hard-working teachers up and down Gloucestershire. Will he confirm that the national challenge schools that he has mentioned this afternoon are less than a handful out of 42 schools, that Gloucestershire is the 15th lowest spending authority for education and that, in his own words this afternoon, it produces some very good results?
The difference between us is that the hon. Gentleman is willing to dismiss the handful of schools that are not succeeding, and I am not. I want every school to succeed and I will require local authorities to take the actions and use the investment to ensure that that happens. If local authorities are not making sufficient progress one can either say, “Well, the rest are doing fine,” or one can step in and intervene. I am willing to intervene, but the Opposition are not, and that is what would let children and parents down.
I welcome the Badman review of education in Gloucestershire, which is long overdue, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that Mr. Badman takes evidence from local representatives and from head teachers and chairs of governors? In that way, he will get to the bottom of what is happening in Gloucestershire, and beyond the superficiality too often found in the news that we hear.
I will make sure that Mr. Graham Badman does that. I think that I inadvertently knighted him a moment ago, but we will make sure that he talks to all the national challenge schools in the area. Of course it is true that many schools with great leadership are making real progress in the national challenge and will get through the 30 per cent. threshold, but I want to make sure that that happens for every school and every child in every area. When we have concerns, it is right that we bring them to the House and act to make sure that all local authorities take their responsibilities seriously. That is our approach to school improvement.
In the small number of areas that have three tiers of education, we will make sure that the accountability system is tailored to meet their needs and that catch-up tuition is introduced in a sensible way. I know that there is a debate in Bedfordshire about whether it is sensible to move to a two-tier system. That decision should be made locally, and it is not for me to impose it or dictate it from the centre. We will make sure that our support for parents and pupils meets the needs of all, regardless of whether they are in a two-tier or a three-tier system.
Even the strongest supporter of the comprehensive education system, which is what I am, cannot deny that over the decades it has not served the gifted and talented pupils in state schools well. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be adequate resourcing for the confirmatory statement on the challenge and support that gifted and talented students will receive? There is a good deal of evidence that we still lack a common definition of who those students are, or even common information about them.
I have said in the guarantee that all gifted and talented students will get written confirmation of the support that they need and deserve. We have the funding to ensure that children will get that support if they are gifted and talented. I can make that commitment for this side of the House, but I do not think that the Opposition can match it. They know that, were there to be a Conservative Government, the cuts would start to fall on the this Department on day two.
How does the Secretary of State reconcile what he has said about Gloucestershire in his statement and in some of his answers to questions with the fact that a few weeks ago his own Department described the local education authority’s management of the national challenge as exemplary? Indeed, in a letter today that he sent personally, the right hon. Gentleman said that the officers on the council had provided “excellent” support and development opportunities for national challenge schools.
I know the director of children’s services, Ms Jo Davidson, very well. She has done a lot of work with us on the child and adolescent mental health agencies review. The council’s officers have engaged with the national challenge very well, but that does not mean that we are not concerned about the lack of sufficient progress in schools below the threshold, or about the lack of leadership, or about the structural change that we think may be necessary. The right thing for me to do is to send in Mr. Graham Badman to give us a report. We should not be complacent: we should get the report done and then see whether we need to do more.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that he has appointed Sir Mike Tomlinson to undertake a progress report on Leicester. Although considerable progress has been made there, a number of secondary schools still fall below an acceptable standard. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Sir Mike to talk not just to the local authority but to the other education professionals locally who have considerable expertise and a real commitment to a collaborative approach to raising standards in the city?
The local authority has a range of choices; it can consider academies or national challenge trusts. We will make it easier to use one of the accredited schools groups, which we are now going to support. There is a range of choices for Leicester, but one choice that is not available is not to act when it is clear that a school is not making progress and is stuck below the 30 per cent. threshold. I will make sure that my hon. Friend speaks to the school improvement experts, the head teachers and parents. What we cannot have are excuses. We want to know what the plan is to ensure that we deliver for every child in Leicester.
The Secretary of State knows a lot about private schools because he went to one, although he does not always put it on his CV. I was wondering whether he could tell us about the notable omission from his statement, which was his Prime Minister’s promise some time ago that his Government would match state school spending to the average of private school spending. Is that just another Labour failure to match their promises?
I was proud to speak at the speech day of my old school, Nottingham high school, which is an excellent school doing good things in Nottingham working with other schools in the city. It is right that we do our best to meet that pledge to see year by year the amount that we spend in state schools moving towards the private school benchmark. What we are doing with one-to-one support is all about that, but I tell the House that it will not happen if the education Department is No.1 in line for the cuts to pay for the reversal of the national insurance rise, the reversal of the top rate of tax and an inheritance tax cut that is uncosted and unpaid for and will cost billions of pounds. The idea that—
I welcome the Secretary of State’s intervention in Milton Keynes because, although educational performance has improved, it has not improved fast enough. Can he assure me that the improvement board will look particularly at the underperformance of children from minority ethnic families and working-class families and of looked-after children, who have fallen far too far behind the average in Milton Keynes?
I will do so, and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and my hon. Friend the Schools Minister speak to my hon. Friend. We do not take decisions to move to formal intervention lightly. We had an independent report prepared first. There was progress, but I am afraid that it was not sufficient and we decided that intervention was needed, with the board reporting directly to Ministers. The issues that my hon. Friend raises are at the centre of our concerns. Many children are not making progress, and we want to address that. That is what the improvement board will do, and we will make sure that my hon. Friend is fully consulted.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, his September guarantee and his commitment to education, which is clear to everyone. Will he step in to stop Essex county council closing one of Castle Point’s six secondary schools, given that we have waiting lists for our secondary schools, thousands more houses promised to be built—against the borough’s wishes—and the leaving age for compulsory education increased from 16 to 18?
As the hon. Gentleman—or am I allowed to call him my hon. Friend? [Interruption.] Well, he is certainly not the Opposition’s hon. Friend. As the hon. Gentleman declares, there are some causes for concern in Essex. My hon. Friend the Schools Minister has rashly decided to offer a meeting to Essex Members of Parliament to discuss these matters. Perhaps they should have the meeting first, and then we can follow up afterwards.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and congratulations.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on what impact the White Paper will have on the children in my constituency? As he knows, I have three primary schools where 95 per cent. of the children entering at four have no English whatever. There are arguments to be had about why they are in that situation, but that is how it is. What will help those children? These are not failing schools; they have buckets of value added, but we still have the problem of children really struggling because they enter school at four with no English. What will help them?
At the centre of the White Paper is the idea of schools working with schools, parents and other children’s services to break down all barriers to progress, whether those barriers are in the classroom or outside it. Our vision of schools working with children’s services, and taking an interest in the progress of pupils before they get to school by working with Sure Start and children’s centres, is vital, particularly in areas such as the one that my hon. Friend represents. Programmes such as Every Child a Talker, which are about getting children to start communicating and speaking English at the ages of two and three, are particularly important for her constituency, and I am happy to meet her to discuss that further.
Both in this Chamber and on the wireless this morning, the Secretary of State studiously avoided detailing the hard, tough choices that he has made to raise £600 million from within his Department. Will he undertake to place in the House of Commons Library as soon as possible a detailed breakdown of the internal budgets or initiatives that were cut to fund that £600 million?
I am very happy to have that debate. We announced on Budget day that we would require a 1 per cent. efficiency saving from all schools and colleges offering 16-to-18 provision in order to provide extra places. We are putting £650 million more into 16-to-18 funding, so that we can deliver that guarantee. That is matching efficiency with more resources to get more outcomes. One can do that only if one is willing to put in the resources. If parties cannot match the guarantee, they cannot deliver the places. That is the difference between the parties.
I welcome the idea of continuous improvement for teachers through the Government’s masters-level programme, and the idea of teachers keeping their practice up to date. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the operators of Ofsted, who frequently lack insight and experience, and many of whom have not been in a classroom for 20 years or more, need a rigorous—very rigorous—period of training, so that they can understand what is happening in the classroom, in order to give a proper report to us about the classroom practices that they see?
Of course Ofsted is independent of my Department and reports directly to Parliament, so it is not really for me to provide that scrutiny; it is for Parliament to do so. However, I agree with my hon. Friend: of course inspectors must have the highest standards of integrity and training. That is a matter for the director general of Ofsted, and I am sure that she is absolutely committed to ensuring that, because it is vital to our school accountability.
The Secretary of State spoke in his statement about the moral imperative for every child to get the best possible education. How can he square that with the fact that, notwithstanding his April announcement, one of the best-performing schools in my constituency, Mascalls school, has had its sixth form frozen, despite the fact that 50 more pupils want to go there? Will he agree to meet me and the head teacher of that school to see whether the issue can be resolved before the end of term?
To be honest, I am happy to meet any hon. Member who would like to discuss their September guarantee funding. I would quite like to discuss it with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who refuses to make a commitment on the subject. I have written to him seven times; perhaps face-to-face meetings would be more effective, although I rather doubt it. I am happy to look at the details of the case raised by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). There is £650 million more, and it would surprise me if not a penny was going to his local school or sixth-form college, but if that is the case, we will look into the matter and see why that is so. I have the means to deliver more funding for more places this September, unlike the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
The responsibility rests with head teachers to deliver discipline in schools. The home-school agreement is all about clear responsibilities for the pupil, the parent and the head teacher. In the past, head teachers have often felt that parents were not properly committed to the home-school agreement, and head teachers did not have powers to enforce that agreement. In the White Paper, I am setting out how we will strengthen the powers that enable head teachers to act. They have the powers to act, but we will strengthen them further. I think that parents will expect head teachers in schools to act, so that we can tackle the issue of discipline.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the very welcome announcements that you made when you first took the Chair was that Ministers had to make important announcements to this House first. The Secretary of State announced his change on home-school contracts and parenting orders in the pages of the Sunday Mirror. He made announcements about chains and federations in briefings to newspapers yesterday, and announcements on the legal guarantee for parents and pupils were briefed to broadcasters this morning. What action will you take to ensure that the rights of this House are protected, and that the Secretary of State does not continue to flout your rulings and the rules of this House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. A number of the matters that have featured in the exchanges today have been the subject of political debate over a considerable period. I attended closely to what the Secretary of State said today, and also to earlier media coverage of the gamut of issues that have been addressed today. I have not found evidence that there has been prior briefing, which I think is the term that the hon. Gentleman used. It is very important that Ministers who come to make statements to the House give the statement first to the House and do not divulge things in advance to the media. I shall be watching closely to ensure compliance with the ruling that I gave last week, but I have not yet identified a breach.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that yesterday the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) raised a point of order relating to my conduct. I do not believe that was a matter for the House, as it concerned my role as a prospective parliamentary candidate. However, I did not have the opportunity at that time, not having noticed the subject, to correct what I believe was an entirely inaccurate statement, and I would like to do that for the record.
Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. I am grateful to him for doing so. I heard the point of order from the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) yesterday, and I heard the response of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter). I hope he will understand when I say that I do not want a continuing and essentially political debate to take place through the device or contrivance of a point of order. I feel that I have heard quite enough on the matter from both hon. Gentlemen who are parties to the dispute, and I do not think the House will benefit from any further utterances on the matter today or, probably, for some time.
Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will have welcomed your remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), following your welcome ruling that announcements should be made first to the House. The Home Secretary released a written statement on ID cards at 3.45 this afternoon. At 1.45 pm journalists were briefed at the Home Office about the contents. Indeed, I was informed about the contents by some of those journalists before any of us in the House had seen the statement. Quite apart from the fact that that should have been an oral statement, it is a flagrant breach of your ruling. I am sure I can offer you the support of many in the House in your efforts to stop Ministers behaving badly towards you and towards the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his courtesy in providing me with advance notice of it. The Table Office has found no evidence that a written ministerial statement that was laid in the Library at 3.45 pm, as the hon. Gentleman says, was made available to the media any earlier than that. However, if it were to be established that that is in fact what happened, I would certainly expect the Minister responsible to report to me and to the House.
The hon. Gentleman is an extremely experienced political campaigner. He will be familiar with the opportunities that exist for him in the media, including his local media, to put robustly on the record his version of events. I have a hunch that he will not long delay doing just that.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have been lucky today to be able to welcome to the House of Commons some of our armed forces. Many of us think that is important in showing support to them. Is it possible that that can be recorded in the Official Report?
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons in certain premises; and for connected purposes.
This Bill will end the use of hydrofluorocarbons—HFCs—in the refrigeration units of large supermarkets. I seek to introduce it because urgent action is needed to end the devastating impact of HFCs on global warming, and because supermarkets are responsible for more than half of all HFC emissions.
Before I set out my case, I must stress that I do not seek to impose additional financial burdens on small retailers, which we all recognise as small, corner convenience stores. I should expect smaller retailers to be required to introduce equipment that does not add to global warming when their old units need to be replaced. There are already many environmentally friendly alternatives for smaller supermarkets, and they generally use different refrigeration technology from the larger stores. Small stores tend to use what is called “plug and play equipment”, which does not involve large centralised systems, is often much less likely to leak and increasingly uses low-global-warming alternatives, such as hydrocarbons, which also offer improved energy efficiency. Those alternative carbon-based systems are neither more expensive to purchase nor more expensive to run.
The Bill seeks to deal with emissions from larger stores. Hydrofluorocarbons, are part of a group of gases known as F gases. F gases, according to Greenpeace, can be up to 20,000 times more harmful in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide. HFCs were introduced into widespread use under the Montreal protocol in the 1990s to replace chlorofluorocarbons—CFCs—and end the depletion of the ozone layer that their widespread use caused. HFCs do not harm the ozone layer, but they are powerful global warming gases.
In 2005, stationary refrigeration was the biggest source of F gas emissions in the UK, accounting for almost 27 per cent. within the sector. HFC emissions from supermarkets account for more than half the total emissions, and direct emissions from leaking refrigerant gases can account for up to one third of a supermarket chain’s carbon footprint. The phasing out of HFC use in the supermarket sector by 2015 has the potential to save 175 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2050, which is more than one quarter of the UK’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2005, the amount of HFC emissions leaking from supermarket refrigeration was estimated to be equivalent to 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, I should say that that equates to one person flying in a plane from London to New York more than 2.5 million times; to the production of 10 billion plastic bags; to one billion car trips to the supermarket over an average distance of 7.5 miles; to the annual carbon foot print of 200,000 people; or, to driving round the circumference of the earth 300,000 times—if that were possible.
The issue of HFC emissions by supermarkets was highlighted in a report called “Chilling Facts” from the Environmental Investigation Agency earlier this year, and I commend the agency for its work to highlight this important issue. The report confirmed that supermarkets are the biggest source of HFCs in the UK. It investigated the progress that had been made by supermarkets that signed up in 2007 to reducing emissions of HFCs, and the agency asked 11 of the large high street supermarkets what they were doing to reduce the climate change impacts of their refrigeration. The results did not make for encouraging reading. The best-performing supermarket had succeeded in introducing climate-friendly refrigerants in only three out of 620 stores. For others, the figure was four out of 1,700 stores, and for one supermarket, it was one out of 2,250 stores.
My intention today, however, is not to name and shame any single supermarket. There is widespread agreement, from the campaigners and the supermarkets themselves, that action is necessary, and my Bill aims to bring everyone together to secure an agreement to end the use of HFCs in refrigeration units. In response to the publication of the EIA report, supermarket representatives indicated a willingness to make more progress in this area. They said that they wanted the Government to regulate to create a level playing field for their industry, suggesting that that would allow the large supermarkets to plan in the knowledge that their competitors would be required to do the same. This is a highly competitive market in which supermarket giants are constantly seeking to exploit any advantages over one another. The Government should take the industry at its word and legislate for a level playing field in relation to emissions of HFCs.
The UK Government are committed to an 80 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. Today, HFCs equal 1.5 per cent. of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. However, if emissions continue to grow at about 3 per cent. per year, then while we make efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by 2050 HFCs will constitute 12 per cent. of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
The Bill does not seek to introduce a complete phase-out of HFCs, but that is an attractive option for climate protection. A phase-out would be based on production and consumption of HFCs. A total HFC phase-out would cover all types of HFCs. Based on 3 per cent. annual growth from 2006, a phase-out schedule would save almost 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between now and 2050—more than three quarters of the UK’s current total annual greenhouse gas emissions. The fast phasing out of HFCs in supermarkets would save about one quarter of the UK’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions in that period.
In 2007, the value of the food market as a whole was estimated at £72.8 billion, with supermarkets accounting for more than half of these grocery sales. In April, Tesco said it had rung up sales of £1 billion a week, with annual pre-tax profits of more than £3 billion for the first time in its history—up 8.8 per cent. In May, The Guardian reported that Asda had unveiled a market-leading 8.4 per cent. increase in first quarter sales, and that Sainsbury’s had delivered profits of £543 million on sales of £20.4 billion. This sector, even in these difficult economic times, could sustain the costs of changing from HFCs to climate-friendly carbon alternatives.
The time to act is now. We are going to experience the most harmful impact on HFCs in the next 20 years, and the earlier we act to reduce their use, the greater the impact of our actions. Urgency is not just about the end users. Action now would send a message to manufacturers that it is time to start investing in new forms of coolants for refrigeration that do not accelerate global warming. That would prevent the production of more of these harmful gases and avoid their having to be stored and eventually disposed of in safety.
I know that my Bill is unlikely to progress in the time remaining in this parliamentary Session. However, let me stress to the Minister that the supermarkets themselves are seeking regulation for a level playing field, and supporting this Bill could offer the opportunity to get an agreement on the way forward: something that is urgently needed. If the Government do not act by supporting this Bill, the responsibility will remain for them to act, and they must do so quickly.
Question put and agreed to.
That Clive Efford, John Austin, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Steve Webb, Norman Baker, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. David Drew, Jim Dowd and Andrew George present the Bill.
Clive Efford accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 127).
Parliamentary Standards Bill
[Relevant Documents: Memorandum from the Audit Committees on the Parliamentary Standards Bill, and written evidence received by the Justice Committee on Constitutional Reform and Renewal, HC 791-i.]
[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]
The Committee will be aware of the considerable pressures of time today and tomorrow. Yesterday, some 40 additional amendments and new clauses were tabled. In view of the speed with which the House is being asked to proceed with this Bill, the Chairman of Ways and Means was prepared to select the majority of them, even though they are starred on today’s amendment paper. One result is that there are four additional groups, raising significant and distinct points, to be dealt with today.
Hon. Members will see that a measure of restraint will be very much in their interests and will allow us to deal with as many issues as possible. For example, I would hope that there might be little or even no debate on clause 1 stand part, as all its provisions arise in subsequent groups of amendments. I hope, too, that the Committee will resist the temptation to rerun the Second Reading debate that we had yesterday, and instead will focus closely on the substance of each group of amendments.
Finally, might I point out two printing errors on the first page of the amendment paper? In amendment 50, the word “third” should be omitted, and amendment 52 should refer to line 23 on page 11, not line 3.
Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority etc
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 1 sets out the basic structure and architecture of the new regime: the new bodies—the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations, which are detailed in schedules 1 and 2—and a special Committee of this House to oversee the work of IPSA. I went into further detail yesterday in my Second Reading speech, as did others. Of course, I stand ready to respond to any questions that are raised about the clause.
In the interest of the brevity that you have called for, Mrs. Heal, the need for which we quite appreciate, I merely point out that the very name of the Bill and the new authority are not a perfect description of what they will do. It would have been much better if they had been called something like the parliamentary payments authority and the parliamentary payments Bill. We have a proliferation of the use of the words “standard” and “standards”, but this is really about money—money paid to a Member of Parliament by an allowances system and by any outside interests. The name is not perfect, and I hope that it will not be misused in our public prints in future.
I shall obey your injunctions, Mrs. Heal, and not make a long speech, or even a proper speech at all. What you said to the Committee a few minutes ago underlined the serious nature of the Government taking a Bill of constitutional significance through the House at the gallop and without time properly to consider and reflect.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) made was extremely good, and it is a pity that we do not have the opportunity to discuss a different name. I very much hope that the Government will reflect on what was said yesterday during a debate that pointed out the widespread concerns in all parts of the House about what they are doing and the speed with which they are doing it. I hope that this afternoon and tomorrow, in this indecent haste, the Government will respond with a degree of sensitivity to the points that colleagues and I will make to try to make a very, very bad Bill just a little bit better.
I strongly object to the time limit on the Bill. Some of us withdrew from the debate yesterday, conscious that many hon. Members were trying to catch the Chair’s attention in a very full day’s debate. We would have liked more opportunity so that we, too, could have spoken about the big underlying principles. Of course, I accept your injunction, Mrs. Heal, because I want as much of the detail as possible to be examined in the Committee stage, which is too short.
However, I cannot let clause 1 go without asking the Minister on duty why the complex and expensive bureaucracy will be better than the current bureaucracy. Why is it thought superior to beefing up, amending or improving the current system? We should have some idea of what salaries will be paid, and some budgets for the complicated authority. We should know how it will be superior to the system of recent years in carrying out payment and audit functions.
The Government have not made the case for the new authority. There was little detail in the remarks yesterday about the sort of people it would comprise, the cost, and how the job would be done differently from the way in which our staff currently undertake it. More reassurance is needed for current staff so that they know what the terms and conditions of transfer are likely to be, who will be transferred and so on. As an employer, we owe some sort of duty to our staff, who must feel rather concerned about the peremptory discussions. Has the Secretary of State properly consulted the staff concerned? What has he told them about what their future holds? Is there any sort of guarantee that they will be transferred and get jobs, or is the idea to put all the jobs out to tender and have new people? Are different sorts of people from the current staff being sought, or is it intended to transfer as many as possible, but make them go through some kind of competitive process? We have a right to know those things. I accept your instruction, Mrs. Heal, but we really need two or three hours to debate those issues.
I, too, would like to place on record my concerns about the management of the Bill. It is proper to reflect on the fact that many hon. Members would be present for today’s debate but for being members of the Select Committee on Justice, which will meet in 13 minutes to take evidence from the Clerk of the House on the aspects of the Bill that cover privilege. That highlights the inadequate way in which the measure is being tackled.
The Liberal Democrats do not take issue with the principle of contracting out the functions of the Fees Office. It is a necessary part of restoring public confidence in the House and its operation. However, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, several issues of substantial and practical concern arise from that. There is little about it on the face of the Bill and, if the debate is truncated, it would appear that we are simply to take matters on trust. I am disinclined to take a great deal from the Government on trust, in view of my experience as a Member since 2001.
As I said yesterday, we have yet another fisher in a fairly small pond, and what we do is all without prejudice to the possible conclusions of the Kelly commission, which we will doubtless learn this autumn. I hope that, once we know those conclusions, it will be possible to review the number of actors because piecemeal development, which responds to each individual crisis as it arises, leaves us with a far from satisfactory landscape.
I support the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) made. As a member of the Committee on Standards on Public Life, I get correspondence about matters with which the Committee on Standards and Privileges is dealing because of the public’s confusion about those two bodies. To add another body with the word “standards” in the title is just asking for trouble. I just suggest that the Secretary of State think that over and perhaps come up with a name that refers to payments or something different. The whole purpose of the exercise is supposed to be to try to make the thing more transparent and understandable, but it is actually making it more confusing.
I would like to draw the House’s attention to clause 1(2), which states that schedule 1 provides for the new body’s
“administration functions to be carried out by its chief executive in accordance with paragraph 17 of that Schedule”.
The Secretary of State will know where I am going with this—at least I think he will—because paragraph 17 of schedule 1 refers not just to administrative functions, but to regulation functions. I invite hon. Members to glance at page 13 of the Bill in order to follow what I am about to say.
Paragraph 17 distinguishes those two functions from one another, so that, “So far as possible”—whatever that means—
“the…administration functions and…regulation functions must be carried out separately”.
That must happen
“so that one set of functions”—
by the way, the word “functions” means powers and duties—
“does not adversely affect the carrying out of the other.”
Paragraph 18 of schedule 2 gives the meanings of “administration functions” and “regulation functions”, but I have to say—I say this as gently as possible—that it is utterly disingenuous. I know the Justice Secretary well enough to be surprised that he has allowed the drafting of the Bill not to refer to the regulatory functions in clause 1(2), but they are hugely important, for the reasons that I am about to give.
Paragraph 18 of schedule 1 says that the new body’s administration functions are
“its functions under…section 2 (payment of MPs’ salaries)…section 3(1) (payment of MPs’ allowances)”
“section 4 (dealing with allowances claims)”.
That raises a raft of issues, which I do not need to go into now. The paragraph continues:
“and the function of maintaining and publishing the register under section 5.”
Paragraph 18(2) says that the regulation functions of the body are
“its functions under…section 3(3)…(preparing and revising MPs’ allowances scheme)…section 5 (preparing and revising MPs’ financial interests rules),”
and, in paragraph 18(2)(c), “determining procedures for investigations”.
I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—or, indeed, any other hon. Member—might be interested in that provision, in relation to the question of the entry by the police into this House, on which I have spoken on many occasions. I have also got into some severe altercations about that with the Attorney-General, who alleges that it is for the courts to decide such matters, not the House of Commons. You will forgive me, Mrs. Heal, if I make it abundantly clear that I still totally and utterly repudiate the reasoning in her memorandum. I believe that that was the first occasion on which a memorandum from the Attorney-General was placed in the Library, at my insistence—and, to give her credit, the Leader of the House agreed to ensure that it was put there.
The issues are profound, because they relate to article IX of the Bill of Rights, in respect of which I have tabled a new clause, which I am glad to see that you have selected for debate tomorrow, Mrs. Heal. I therefore do not need to go into that in detail now, but I do need to go into the supremacy of Parliament, which relates to new clause 7. New clauses 7 and 8 deal with the supremacy of Parliament and article IX of the Bill of Rights, which relates to the internal regulation of the proceedings of this House by this House. That is where the Bill gets into deep trouble. I shall not go into that now, although not because it is out of order—it is not—but because I prefer to reserve my arguments for the new clauses tomorrow, on which I shall have a certain amount to say.
Indeed, although my hon. Friend might well be warned as well, because whereas those matters can be taken with jocularity in certain circumstances, they can lead to arrest of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford was under, and many other matters, which I will deal with when we come to those new clauses tomorrow.
Indeed. I am glad to be able to say that, in Committee, it is appropriate for us to go into these matters. If my hon. Friend believes that we can deal with the whole history of the House and its power to determine its own internal proceedings simply by referring to a few jottings on the back of an envelope, I am afraid that he has a lesson or two to learn.
To return to my hon. Friend’s point about clause 1, he drew our attention to the fact that IPSA will be both a regulatory body and an administrative body. Does he foresee any difficulty with that, given that its regulatory functions will primarily involve its regulating its own administrative functions? Is not that a rather unusual arrangement?
Perhaps the provision is set out in this way so that, as far as possible, the functions can be treated separately. This is typical of any hybrid arrangement, however; one is never quite sure which is the tail and which is the head. I am afraid that that is exactly where we are on this matter.
Clause 8 contains a whole stack of provisions relating to directions and recommendations. One of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the Bill—in addition to the length of time that we have in which to discuss it—is the impact that it will have on our ability to run our own affairs and the extent to which that will be taken away from us. I said this to the Prime Minister when he came to talk about so-called constitutional renewal and reform. He raised the manner in which we were going to deal with matters of this kind. I pointed out to him that he had just returned from the beaches in Normandy, where people had fought and died—as my own father did—so that we could maintain our democracy in this House. I said that they had not fought and died in Normandy to achieve what the Government now seem to want and what the Attorney-General stated in her memorandum that she wanted—namely, that the proceedings and privileges of this House, which are derived from the people exercising their freedom of choice and voting for us by putting a simple cross on a ballot, should be taken away and given to the judicial supremacy of the courts either in this country or in Strasbourg or Luxembourg. That matter remains on the agenda, and I shall return to it tomorrow when we discuss the new clauses.
We need an overarching way of saving the rights of this House, on behalf of the electorate who vote for us. It is their Parliament, not ours. I do not believe that it is the Government’s Parliament either, and they have not the slightest right to take away from the people of this country the right to govern themselves.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and a number of other right hon. and hon. Members asked about the name of the new authority. It will be called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but it is a rose by any other name, and it is certainly a very fine rose. As I said yesterday, the other place might well wish to latch on to these arrangements, and it seemed to us that the body ought to have a fairly generic title.
I pointed out yesterday that most of the contents of the code of conduct and guidance are concerned with financial interests, as are the central parts of the Bill. We spent a lot of time arguing about the name for the new body, but the proposed title certainly seemed to be acceptable to our party leaders. The word “independent” was added as a result of our cross-party talks, to emphasise that it will be independent of Parliament. We all know why we are here, and why we are having to go through this process. It is rather less a result of some serious abuses of the allowance system by one or two individuals, and more to do with a failure of the system, which we allowed to develop and for which we are all responsible.
I will, of course, reflect on what the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said. I have already made it clear from outside the House that we are ready to accept a number of amendments. Where I am in doubt, I will listen to the arguments, but I can tell the House now that we will certainly accept a number of amendments tabled in the names of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)—and some others.
Was there any discussion this morning about moving a Government motion to amend the programme motion to enable us to spend as much time as we want this evening by removing the 10 o’clock limit? There was a statement and an enormous number of amendments were added only yesterday, so did the Government consider that option?
There were discussions, but in the event, it was judged appropriate to keep within the time scale. From my perspective, we are seeking to proceed by consensus and to make as much progress as we can. I also remind the Committee about the judgments made less than three weeks ago across the parties—