The Secretary of State was asked—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular meetings with the First Minister on the Welsh economy. We are working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the Welsh manufacturing sector receives all the assistance necessary for it to emerge from the global economic downturn well placed to meet the challenges of the future.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the good news for my constituents in Cardiff, North? Quotient Bioresearch is to take over the business of GE Healthcare, thus saving 75 highly skilled jobs, many of them belonging to my constituents in Whitchurch. In addition, the company is to invest up to £15 million in a new facility in Cardiff. Is that not a vote of confidence in manufacturing in Cardiff and the rest of Wales?
Indeed it is. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the hard work that she has done on that and other issues in her constituency. I am aware of the announcement and I welcome the fact that £15 million is to be invested and 75 posts are to be saved. That shows that we are wholeheartedly committed to helping people and businesses in Wales through the economic downturn, and that we always put the Welsh economy on the road to recovery—unlike the last Conservative Government, who let tens of thousands of young people become a generation of lost workers. We are being proactive in helping the economy to get through these difficult times, and that is the truth.
Is the Minister aware of the excellent work conducted by the support unit at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, together with Lord Mandelson’s office? It helped to secure a very substantial loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland so that a new manufacturing operation called Regal Fayre can be set up in the town of Montgomery. Will the Minister pass on my thanks, specifically to John Stewart in that department? Will he also praise the Royal Bank of Scotland for living up to its requirement to support new business? Finally, may I, through the Minister, ask whether the Secretary of State for Wales will consider opening that new plant, which is a real success story and will lift the town of Montgomery out of recession?
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned some very good news; I have seen his early-day motion 1877 on the subject. The Secretary of State has been very involved and has made what appear to have been effective representations. I say on my right hon. Friend’s behalf that I am sure he would be delighted to open the facility, which is another clear example of how the Government are being proactive to make sure that in every part of Wales, in every sector of the economy, we are doing everything possible to ensure that we get through this economic downturn as quickly as possible.
Last month, when I asked the Secretary of State why France, Germany and even Italy had delivered on their automotive assistance programmes while our £2.3 billion scheme, which was announced back in January, had not paid out a penny, he said:
“The money is coming through”—[Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 777.]
In a written answer to me last week, a Business Minister confirmed that still not a penny in loans or loan guarantees had yet been given to support the industry. Is a grand announcement followed by seven months of inaction this Government’s idea of being proactive and providing real help now?
Let us be clear about the effectiveness of the measures being taken. The car scrappage scheme is being very effective; it is having an effect on the automotive sector and a positive impact on British Steel and Corus. It is extremely useful. We also need to recognise that we have—[Interruption.]
The reason the Opposition are wittering away, as you so correctly put it, Mr. Speaker, is that they do not like the answers. The answers show clearly what the Government are doing effectively in intervening in the Welsh economy. We have mentioned the car scrappage scheme; let us also not forget that the future jobs fund will create 150,000 jobs across the United Kingdom as a whole—about 7,500 in Wales—with an investment of about £50 billion. That is effective. There is also the ProAct scheme, from which 63 companies and nearly 4,000 workers benefit, and the ReAct scheme. All those measures contribute materially to improving the lot of the people of Wales and improving the Welsh economy.
At least the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) was not Twittering in the House.
I commend my hon. Friend on his tireless efforts on behalf of the workers of Anglesey Aluminium. As he knows, I have had regular discussions about the future of the company with colleagues in Government and the First Minister, as well as with Rio Tinto and the unions.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and for his efforts, as well as those of UK Government Departments and the First Minister on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government. Does he agree that although these are very difficult times, the parent companies of Anglesey Aluminium in my constituency, Rio Tinto and Kaiser Aluminium have a moral and social obligation to accept the generous offer that the Government have made—nearly £50 million—to assist them through this difficult period so that they can continue to commit to the work force and the local economy for the next 30 years, as they have indicated?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. We have put nearly £50 million on the table as a result of cross-Government collaboration, including with the Welsh Assembly Government, and that should be taken up by Rio Tinto and Anglesey Aluminium. Many businesses would give their right arm for that kind of support. Anglesey Aluminium and its parent companies have benefited from decades of loyal work on the island, and I hope that these companies will think again. Meanwhile, we are exploring all options to try to secure employment in that factory.
No one will underestimate the importance of aluminium smelting to the island of Anglesey, but other smaller companies throughout Wales, such as Kaye in Presteigne in my constituency, which is involved in aluminium casting producing components for the automotive industry, have been badly affected by the recession. The scrappage scheme introduced on the continent has been very successful, and Kaye has benefited from that because it exports most of its production. However, the scrappage scheme in this country has not been so successful, and it is due to end in March 2010. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Treasury and to his colleagues in Cabinet to ensure that the scrappage scheme is extended and enhanced to increase car sales throughout the UK and to allow companies such as Kaye to see a way through the recession?
We will certainly look at the hon. Gentleman’s request and bear it in mind, because the company is an important local employer. However, the truth is that the car scrappage scheme has had a big effect on new orders for cars. The de-stocking has ended and a lot of car plants are now starting to produce again, and it is partly because of the Government’s action that that has happened.
Health Care Provision
The UK and Welsh Assembly Governments have worked closely together to agree the revised protocol for cross-border health care provision. I have long promoted the integration of conventional and complementary health care. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work as chair of the all-party group on integrated and complementary health care.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Did he, in his discussions with the First Minister, refer to his work as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the pilot study there? Has he discussed the cost-effectiveness of integrated health care? Will he be discussing that with the new Secretary of State for Health in England?
I have discussed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the success of the pilot to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which I established as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 2006 and 2008 and which had spectacular results. As a result of doctors being able to prescribe complementary health care free on the NHS, some two thirds of participating doctors agreed that their patients’ health had improved. About half the patients took fewer painkillers, half took less conventional medication, including prescriptions, and two thirds had less time off work. This is therefore a win-win situation. I hope that the pilot will be extended to England, to Wales, back into Northern Ireland—because the new Government there have not extended it—and to Scotland.
Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that there is a strong relationship—as strong as ever—concerning orthopaedic surgery, especially with Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Oswestry? I have to declare an interest, as does the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), because about 12 years ago we were patients there. It is important for patients in north Wales and mid-Wales to be happy in their minds that the relationship will continue.
I agree with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Minister and I will certainly bring that up with our counterparts in Cardiff. It reflects the fact that waiting times are coming down in Wales, that patient care has been improving, and that there are more nurses, doctors and health care staff than ever before, all of which would be put at risk if the Conservatives came to office with their savage cuts policy.
I have recently had discussions with representatives of north Wales GPs about the practice of placing in institutions people who have complex medical needs, often psychiatric needs, without adequate referral or adequate support services being in place. Will the Secretary of State discuss with his colleagues who have responsibility for health in England the possibility of writing to health and social services bodies prevailing on them to refer properly and to provide proper services when they place people with complex medical needs in Wales?
The Secretary of State will know that the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on cross-border health services identified the inadequate payment of English hospitals by the Welsh Assembly Government as one of the principal barriers to the timely treatment of Welsh patients. To what extent does he regard it as part of his role to co-ordinate discussions between the Department of Health and the Welsh Assembly Government, with a view to ensuring that English hospitals receive fair payment and Welsh patients receive fair and timely treatment? To what extent is he actually doing so?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, a protocol has been agreed that is designed specifically to deliver what he is asking for. If he knows of any shortcomings, I am happy to make further representations. That is my job. However, the protocol achieves what he wants, and I hope that it is working effectively.
Training and Employment
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions on training with Ministers, including the First Minister. Investment in training is key to ensuring future prosperity in Wales and placing Wales at the heart of economic recovery.
Does my hon. Friend believe that the future jobs fund could be used for a suggestion by my constituent Gerald Hughes to set up a scheme in which young people would take part in training and preparing for floods by dealing with flood defences and by learning how to fill sandbags and help people whose homes are flooded? Will my hon. Friend meet me to see whether that can be taken up in other areas of Wales as well?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right that the future jobs fund is extremely important to the UK, and especially Wales. There are more than 200 bids nationally, and we will examine the Welsh bids closely in the very near future.
My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion with regard to young people, because it is extremely important that we do everything possible to ensure that young people benefit from as many Government schemes as possible. There is a clear contrast between the commitment that we have given to young people and what happened under the previous Administration, when young people were forgotten about and a generation was literally ignored.
Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned that flood prevention schemes are important. I know that that certainly is the case in her constituency because of the River Loughor. Her suggestion would be a good example of using the future jobs fund for the needs of young people and the particular needs of her constituency.
Does the Minister agree that employment and training will be badly affected in Abergavenny as the result of the closure of Hill college? Will he speak to the Welsh Assembly Government about reinstituting the money that they have slashed from Coleg Gwent’s budget, which has brought that closure about?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, discussions have taken place as far as that college is concerned, but a tremendous amount of investment has taken place in further education in Wales. There have also been a number of schemes, such as the ReAct programme, that have fitted in well with what has been delivered by further education colleges in Wales. Such co-ordination and symmetry is absolutely essential to ensuring that education expands to benefit the population as a whole, and we must do our utmost to ensure that there is training and retraining for all people.
The Minister will know that work has already started on the £1 billion, 2,000 MW gas-fired power station at Pembroke, in my constituency, and that there will be up to 2,000 construction jobs. A local firm, Dawnus, has already won a contract and is employing local labour. Will he join me in encouraging other Welsh and UK contracting companies to bid for work on the power station, so that we maximise the number of local jobs and UK jobs for UK workers?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend that, the fact that a new power station is being built in his constituency is a massive vote of confidence in the local economy. Indeed, that very point was made in The Economist only a few weeks ago. On his specific point about employment, there is a marvellous opportunity for the work force of the area and the region. We in the Wales Office are certainly doing our utmost to ensure that local people derive the greatest possible benefit from that investment. To highlight that fact, I know full well that my hon. Friend had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday to discuss the matter. He can be assured that we are fully behind him on it.
The defence training project at St. Athan would bring huge opportunities to Wales. Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Defence and that the pre-contract agreement letter will be issued to the preferred bidder this week, on time on 17 July—or will the Government delay that?
The hon. Lady is correct to stress the importance of that investment to Wales. It will be the largest single investment ever in the Welsh economy. The defence technical college will be of tremendous benefit, not only to the Welsh economy but obviously to the United Kingdom armed forces. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fully recognises the importance of that; he has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and they are going forward together. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we recognise the importance of the project for Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with Home Office Ministers and, as a member of the National Policing Board and the National Crime Reduction Board, I am involved in discussions on a range of policing issues, including funding. The funding settlement that we have provided for the next three years clearly reflects the Government’s continuing commitment to improving policing and further reducing crime.
South Wales police is facing possibly the worst financial crisis of any force, due to systematic underfunding under the police funding formula and the lack of extra funding for capital city policing. It is already closing four police stations in central Cardiff and now the new head of the Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that police officer cuts are likely. Will the Minister make urgent representations to his Home Office colleagues to ensure that South Wales police finally receives extra funding for policing the Welsh capital city?
It is important to put the hon. Lady’s question in context and recognise that the number of police officers in Wales has increased by almost 1,000 in the past few years—a significant improvement. Throughout the length and breadth of Wales, including south Wales, people will testify to the fact that they want more proactive local and neighbourhood policing and that it is being delivered. I recognise the hon. Lady’s points about the situation in south Wales, but let us also be clear that her Liberal party colleagues on the local authority in Cardiff have been reluctant to make the necessary increase in precept, which would allow proper funding. I am meeting the chief constable of South Wales in the near future to discuss her concerns and I am sure that she will mention the need to discuss the possibility of designating Cardiff as a capital city.
In these days when finances are so important to the police, we must praise their work at community level. That key role is recognised in the Building Britain’s Future document. In my constituency of Swansea, East there are several community organisations, such as J.R. GroundForce in Blaenymaes and Portmead, which do a brilliant job. During the summer recess, will the Minister visit that excellent community project, which works hand in hand with the police in my constituency?
Yes, I am aware of the excellent work that is being done in Swansea by the police, my hon. Friend and local authorities working together to create a strong community partnership to ensure safer communities. I am well aware of the Blaenymaes and Portmead community endeavours. I would be more than happy to visit her constituency and perhaps some of those projects in the summer recess.
European Structural Funds
As a result of the Government’s efforts, European structural funds have made a huge contribution throughout Wales, with some £1.54 billion awarded in the last spending round generating more than £3.8 billion in investments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and for his brave decision in 1998 to include Denbighshire and Conwy in the objective 1 bid for Wales. We were left out and my right hon. Friend included us. Over the course of objective 1 funding, we hope to draw down £500 million in those two counties alone. Why did the previous Conservative Government not draw down objective 1 funding, despite the closure of Shotton steelworks, and the decline of agriculture and traditional seaside tourism? [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. Indeed, it was his persuasive case on that issue, put together with his colleagues, that allowed us to extend the boundary to include his constituency. Yes, he is absolutely right: because of their anti-European stance, our predecessors in government refused to draw down the enormous funding available for west Wales and the valleys, first under objective 1 and now under convergence funding. If they got back into power, that funding would be at risk again. That is the choice facing the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and right across west Wales and the valleys.
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We will not let short-term job losses turn into long-term unemployment, nor will we allow communities to be scarred by worklessness for a generation once again.
The Secretary of State is right to mention long-term unemployment, because Wales was disproportionately affected by the loss of traditional industries, which took place as long ago as the ’80s. Certain regions of Wales are still suffering from that, so will he redouble his efforts with the Welsh Assembly to ensure that further education is funded and that there are no cuts? That is the way forward.
Yes indeed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the period of Conservative Government in the 1980s and 1990s devastated communities right across Wales, including in my constituency. That is why, this time, compared with the 1980s and 1990s, we are investing in people, new jobs and skills, including in further education colleges, to ensure that the recession of this period is not as devastating as the misery that was caused in the 1980s and 1990s.
The latest unemployment statistics show that young people in Wales are among the hardest hit of any group in this recession. They are bearing the brunt of the downturn. Youth unemployment is going up and the pool of those not in education, employment or training is going up. Young people are also being hit as apprenticeships are being cut, as jobs are being lost, so could the Secretary of State please tell us today what he is doing to help Wales’s young generation in 2009?
Yes, I am very happy to. First, the Welsh Assembly Government have announced a £20 million package to support new apprenticeships. Secondly, we established the future jobs fund. Thirdly, we have guaranteed help for all young people aged 18 to 24 who have been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for 12 months. That will provide opportunities for young people, who I agree are facing genuine problems at the present time—a stark contrast with the 1990s and 1980s, when a whole generation of youngsters was thrown on to the scrap heap by the hon. Gentleman’s Tory Government.
Armed Forces Day 2010
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were both very proud to have played a part in Armed Forces day 2009. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. I have already had many discussions with Ministers about the preparations for next year’s Armed Forces day, and I am very pleased that the 2010 national ceremony will be held in Cardiff.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response. During this year’s armed forces celebrations, veterans’ organisations in Bridgend and Porthcawl held wonderful celebrations. Will he ensure that the Assembly Government help to co-ordinate and promote the various towns and local communities that will want to hold their own celebrations on that national day next year in Wales?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. It is important to have effective co-ordination in national celebrations, but a lot depends on what happens at the local level. One of the things that we have been doing successfully is having negotiations not only here in London, but with the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities. I am sure that, in preparing for next year’s Armed Forces day, those discussions will continue and bear fruit.
As part of those celebrations across Wales and beyond, will the Minister make a specific commitment to endorsing the work of the Royal British Legion and, in particular, the huge amount of pastoral work that it does in supporting ex-servicemen across the country? We are talking not just about an act of remembrance, but about an act of celebration of work that is ongoing.
One of the good things about Armed Forces day, and Veterans day before it, is the close co-operation with the Royal British Legion. I pay tribute to the commitment that the Royal British Legion has displayed, and I am sure that those discussions will continue to be effective in planning for the future. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that Armed Forces day is not simply a celebration of the tremendous commitment that our armed forces have shown in the past, but a celebration of the dedication that they display today.
Wales has a—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Wales has a long, proud history of steelmaking, and the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government remain committed to supporting the industry. We fully recognise that these are difficult times, but my hon. Friend can be assured that this Government stand four-square alongside the industry.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In order to build on the very good relations that have long existed between the steel unions—led by the largest union, Community—and the employers, Corus, will he and the Secretary of State consider working with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government to call a Welsh steel summit to ensure the long-term security and integrity of steelmaking in Wales?
I know that the UK-level steel summit has been extremely successful, and I believe that my hon. Friend has made a good point. Wales would certainly benefit from having a similar summit, bringing together Corus, the union Community, members of local communities and everyone who has a stake in the future of the industry. I certainly believe that that would be useful.
The Prime Minister was asked—
In 2006, we sent 3,000 troops into Afghanistan as part of a reconstruction mission. Now, our objectives are to defeat terrorism and to make Afghanistan a stable and effective state. Many of my constituents are not convinced that we have a credible strategy for achieving those objectives. Will the Prime Minister look again at those objectives in the context of what is achievable, so that I can explain to people in my constituency how we are to judge success?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that, since 2001, our objective has been to restrain, contain and defeat terrorism by acting in Afghanistan and working with the Pakistan Government. It was true that, in 2001, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and given cover by the Taliban there. It is also true that it is now based mainly in north Pakistan. We have to make sure that terrorism cannot hit the streets of Britain, and that is why we cannot allow the Taliban or al-Qaeda-related activities to flourish in Afghanistan, and why we cannot allow the Pakistan Government to be overrun by people who are operating through al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. What I think is encouraging—and why I think that the hon. Gentleman should be able to tell his constituents that things are moving forward—is that, for the first time, the Pakistan Government are taking direct action in a systematic way, with the support of the population of Pakistan, against the Taliban and against al-Qaeda in Pakistan. That means that we have complementary action in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is a necessary means of defeating terrorism in the world.
My right hon. Friend asked your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, to set up a Speaker’s Conference to report on how we could increase the numbers of women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people being elected to this House. This morning, the conference has published an interim report that makes proposals to increase the diversity of candidates standing for all the parties at the next general election as a step towards restoring people’s faith in the democratic process, and in this House in particular. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to giving their wholehearted support to the important recommendations in the report, and encourage the leaders of all the parties in the House to do the same?
We should thank my hon. Friend, who was vice-chairman of the group that has submitted the interim report today. This is an important opportunity further to increase the number of women and disabled, black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our Parliament. The Government are committed to ensuring greater diversity of representation in public and political life—
Yesterday, the whole country shared in the sorrow of our armed forces’ families as they saw their loved ones come home. We support our troops and the reasons for their being in Afghanistan, but is not there a need for an even tighter definition of our mission? We are not trying to build a perfect democracy; we must focus solely on building security and stability so that the terrorists can never return. We have been in Afghanistan for eight years now. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, if we are to maintain public support here and, vitally, in Afghanistan, we will have to show greater urgency and make more visible progress?
The whole country joins the people of Wootton Bassett in the dignified way in which they recognise the service and sacrifice of our armed forces. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people of Wootton Bassett who have to endure great tragedies and effectively see them happen as they welcome back the people who have died on behalf of our country. I hope—in fact, I know so—that everybody in the House will thank them for what they did yesterday.
The purpose of our mission in Afghanistan is very clear: it is to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain. We are complementing the military action we are taking with action to build up the Afghan forces—the police and the military forces—and with economic and social development programmes that we are pursuing in Afghanistan to give people in that country a stake in the future.
As I have said, we must work on two fronts. We must ensure that we attack terrorism in Pakistan as well as defeat what is happening in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we increased the number of forces from 8,100 to 9,000 so that we could clear ground and make it safe for the population of many areas of Afghanistan to vote in the coming general election and at the same time to enjoy the schools and the hospitals that are denied to them by the activities of the Taliban.
I want to thank our forces involved in Operation Panther’s Claw for what they are doing. They have the support of the whole country, and they have the resources and equipment they need. Of course we keep under review the numbers and the equipment needed for the future. I have said that we will look again at this after we have seen the Afghan election pass, peacefully and democratically, we hope. At the same time, I have talked to President Karzai about Afghanistan’s own responsibilities—that the Afghans should provide army and police to Operation Panther’s Claw. President Karzai has promised that he will provide additional resources for that purpose, and I believe that that is now starting to happen. I have also said to President Karzai that after October—[Hon. Members: “Come on”] I think it is important for the House to know this—after October, we are prepared to do more work mentoring and training the Afghan security services. We will consider that as we make our decisions on what we do after October.
Of course, the most recent focus on building up the Afghan army and on the co-ordination between Afghanistan and Pakistan is right, but I think it would help to acknowledge that some of the early objectives were slightly lofty, slightly vague and the co-ordination was not there. I think we will take people with us for the future if we actually admit to some of the things that were got wrong in the past.
Let me ask some specific questions about helicopters and Afghanistan. Is not the basic problem this: the number of helicopters in Afghanistan is simply insufficient? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the American marines, who have approximately the same number of troops as us in Helmand, are supported by some 100 helicopters, whereas our troops are supported by fewer than 30? That is the case, isn’t it?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise issues about the equipment so that I can assure him that we are doing everything that we can. [Hon. Members: “Answer.”] I must point out that Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, who is on the ground in Afghanistan, has said:
“There’s much speculation about helicopters and have we got enough. It’s a sad fact that helicopters would not have saved the lives of the individuals last week.”
The commander on the ground, he said,
“has sufficient to get on with the task with which he’s been given.”
And why? Because we have increased the number of helicopters by 60 per cent. over the last two years and we have increased the capability of helicopters by 84 per cent. I visited RAF Benson on Monday to see the Merlin helicopters that will be deployed in the field by the end of the year, and the training is being done immediately in America—[Interruption.] Look, as they move from Iraq to Afghanistan—I need to explain this—those helicopters are dealing with different terrain. They have to re-equip for the functions in Afghanistan, where they have to deal with heights and problems connected with temperatures and the weather. The helicopters are being refitted for that purpose. The crew have to be trained in different environments to be ready for Afghanistan.
Over the next 10 years, our helicopter budget will be £6 billion, spent to improve our helicopters in the future. We are working with NATO, which is providing through contracts helicopters for the transit of equipment, and at the same time, we have created a helicopter fund, which was our initiative, and others among our allies are now contributing, I believe, 11 helicopters to the allied effort in Afghanistan over the next period. We have done everything that we can to increase the number of helicopters and there will be more Merlin helicopters in the field.
I ask the Conservative party to look at the statements being made by those who speak for our armed forces on the ground. They have made absolutely clear that in this particular instance, while the loss of life is tragic and sad, it is not to do with helicopters.
We must be frank about the difficulties and dangers in Afghanistan, and one of the difficulties is a shortage of helicopters.
Let me take each of the Prime Minister’s arguments in turn. He talks of a 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters. That is in comparison with the position three years ago, when we had half as many troops. There has not been a proportional increase in the number of helicopters. Even the 84 per cent. increase in capability relates to helicopter hours. Clearly one helicopter can be in only one place at one time. If we want to move more troops around the battlefield more quickly, we will need more helicopters.
Let us take the argument about Nick Richardson. Of course I listen with respect to the official spokesman of the Army, but I think that the Prime Minister should also listen to someone like Stuart Tootal, who commanded 3 Para and who has said, for instance,
“In Afghanistan in 2006 repeated demands for more helicopters fell on deaf ears.”
He should also listen to Lord Guthrie—[Interruption.] I do not know why Labour Members do not want to listen to what was said by the former Chief of the Defence Staff. He said this:
“of course they need more helicopters. If there had been more, it is… likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs”.
Those are important points, and we should listen to them.
Let me ask the Prime Minister this. Is not the reason we do not have enough helicopters that we did not plan to have enough? When the Prime Minister looks back to 2004 and his decision to reduce the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion, does he remember that the National Audit Office said in that year:
“There is a considerable deficit in the availability of helicopter lift”?
Does he now recognise that that decision was a bad mistake?
First, the number of troops in Afghanistan has risen from just over 7,000 to 9,000 over the last two years. The number of helicopters has risen by 60 per cent. That is a higher percentage rise. Secondly, I have talked to Tim Radford—[Interruption.] That is an increase from 7,000 to 9,000, and a 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters.
Secondly, I have talked—[Interruption.] I do hope that we can conduct this debate properly, because our troops will be paying attention to it as well.
I have talked to Tim Radford, the brigadier on the ground, and he has assured me that his troops have the equipment that they need. What we want on the ground are additional Afghanistan national forces, and that is what I have been talking about to President Karzai.
As for the defence spending programme, we have experienced the longest sustainable increase in defence spending in any period over 20 years. The reason is that, in addition to the defence budget, £14 billion has been spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, and £4 billion of that has been spent on urgent operational requirements for the troops. Part of the spending is on helicopters, and we have now committed £6 billion over the next 10 years to helicopter spending. We have already announced that more Merlins will arrive in the field later this year, and the helicopter fund is producing helicopters from allies as well. We have an order for more helicopters for the future. So the helicopter equipment programme continues, and we work with our allies to deliver the best services on the ground.
I think that we should look at this particular operation, Operation Panther’s Claw, and be absolutely clear that it is not an absence of helicopters that has cost the loss of lives. We are dealing with improvised explosive devices on the ground, bombs that are against—[Interruption.] Since April, we have brought in more engineers to deal with that problem. Moreover, Operation Panther’s Claw is making progress—despite the implication of some of these comments—and is gaining ground. That too is an important aspect of this operation. I hope that we can have a cross-party consensus on what we are doing to help our armed forces.
Order. Before the Leader of the Opposition asks another question, let me say that I am very conscious today that we are hearing long questions and long answers from the Front Benches. I want Back Benchers to get in on this session, and I appeal to the Front Benchers to take account of that.
The Prime Minister is right that our armed forces and their families are watching this debate, but on this issue they expect responsible questions to hold the Government to account and proper answers from the Government. The Prime Minister mentions the international helicopter fund. Will he accept that so far—it was announced 16 months ago—it has not yet added one single helicopter? The public will find it hard to understand why as a country we have 500 helicopters, yet fewer than 30 of them are in Afghanistan. Let me take one group specifically: why is it that only one of the eight Chinooks that were delivered in 2001 at great cost is now ready? Why has there not been greater urgency to deliver? That is a legitimate question, and it requires a proper answer.
The Chinooks are in the process of being adapted for Afghanistan. On the allies’ contribution, three helicopters have either arrived or are about to arrive, 11 in total have been promised, and £30 million has been put into the helicopter fund by us and others. May I just explain to the right hon. Gentleman that helicopters have got to be adapted for the terrain in Afghanistan because they need to deal with excess heat and with height? Our helicopter crews have got to be trained for that particular operation in Afghanistan, and the reason that we have greater capability now is that we not only have more helicopters in the field, but more flying hours are being done by helicopter pilots and more staff are available, and we have readapted some of the helicopters to be able to make those flights.
It is important to recognise that, yes, our military commanders will always want more equipment—and rightly so—but Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence forces, has said that our armed forces are better equipped than ever before. I am not complacent—we will always be vigilant—but I do not believe this should be a subject of cross-party disagreement. I believe that we are making the provision that is necessary both for helicopters and for equipment on the ground.
There is one way to help settle this important debate. The Ministry of Defence asked Bernard Gray to conduct a review of our helicopter procurement. That report is meant to be out in July, but there are rumours that it is being delayed and rewritten. Can the Prime Minister make it clear that this report will be published in full, and unredacted, before the summer?
We said last week that we are doing work related to a new defence review. We are looking first of all at the strategic aspects of that review, and then in the next Parliament there will be a full defence review. I think that is the right way to proceed, and I believe that Bernard Gray’s report will be a significant part of the review, but we will start the review with the publication of what we believe are the strategic tasks ahead.
That was absolutely no answer to the question about this important review. What the public want to know is that the Government have a relentless commitment to getting this right, but I have to say that they look at the fact that we are on our fourth Defence Secretary in four years, that defence procurement is shared by two unpaid and basically part-time Ministers, and that the Secretary of State ranks 21st out of 23 in the Cabinet. Are not the public right to ask, is the commitment and relentless activity really there?
I hoped that this debate could have escaped party politics and partisan points. I believe that at this particular time we have a duty to our armed forces. I think it is right that I explain to the House what equipment is available, what we are doing on helicopters, what we are doing on other equipment and what we are doing on the numbers of our armed forces. These are all legitimate questions and they should be answered by the Government, but I hope that the all-party agreement on what we do in Afghanistan and what we have to do to defeat terrorism will remain in being, and I hope we will recognise that in this particular exercise, Operation Panther’s Claw, we are doing everything we can, and will continue to, to support our brave and courageous armed forces, who are both professional and determined, and who need, and will have, all our support.
Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the Ministry of Defence decision to appeal against the judgment that would allow hearings of cases of nuclear test veterans seeking compensation against the military for injury that they or their relatives may have suffered as a consequence of their exposure to nuclear explosion?
After everything that has happened over the last few months, people are crying out for change, yet we have the spectacle of a Prime Minister busy doing nothing. He pretends to control bankers’ bonuses; they rise. He pretends to want to have a serious discussion on the economic mess we are in, yet he fiddles the figures. He pretends to want to reform this place and to clean up politics, yet nothing has really happened. People want action. They want something different, so what has been stopping him?
What the country wants us to do is take us through this difficult world recession, and that is what we are doing. The Opposition parties have no policies for jobs, no policies to tackle the recession, no policies for a recovery, no policies to help home owners and no policies to help small businesses. We have the policies and we are taking people through this difficult time.
Who does the Prime Minister think he is kidding? We have seen huge executive pay packages in the banks that we own, city bonuses back in fashion, still no action taken to split up the big banks, no action on electoral reform and no action on party funding, and he has recently blocked giving people the right to sack disgraced MPs. Is this not just business as usual: a deliberate betrayal of people’s demand for change?
We are bringing in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the Constitutional Reform Bill and the Bill to reform the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition should go away for the summer and think why it is that the Opposition parties have no policies to deal with the recession, no policies for recovery, no policies to help us create jobs and no policies for the future of this country. Perhaps, having gone back to the drawing board, they will think again.
Comrade leader, in these difficult and troubled times, do you agree that what the country needs more than anything else is a third aircraft carrier? [Interruption.] I repeat, in case that was not heard, that we need a third aircraft carrier. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it is necessary for the Royal Navy, for the shipyards and for a big chunk of British industry that we have these aircraft carriers? Can he tell me why only the Government are firmly committed to building the two aircraft carriers and why neither of the two Opposition parties are so committed?
We are committed to building aircraft carriers; that gives work to people in all parts of the country, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We believe that aircraft carriers are an important part of our naval equipment for the future, and the programme will proceed, whatever the views of Opposition parties.
It is of course, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, very difficult for me to enter into a discussion of an individual case, but if it is essential, either I or a Minister will meet him to discuss this. Local authorities are unable to place a child for adoption with prospective adopters without their parents’ consent unless they have a placement order issued by the court. The debate that the hon. Gentleman has about what is happening in his constituency centres on that issue. I should tell him that we have tried to streamline the family courts to make them far more responsive to the needs of all concerned, particularly the children.
My right hon. Friend will remember the strong support that we had from church organisations in this country on the Make Poverty History campaign, with which he was very much involved. Church leaders in my constituency are involved in the Get Fair campaign, which seeks to tackle child poverty in this country. Will he give the same commitment to that campaign as he did to the Make Poverty History campaign, so that I can respond to my constituents?
My hon. Friend was a leader in the Make Poverty History campaign in Wales, and I congratulate her on that. The campaign to abolish child poverty is so important that we are going to bring forward a Bill that commits the Government to abolish child poverty. It is very important to recognise that 1.5 million children have been taken out of absolute poverty under this Government and 800,000 children have been taken out of relative poverty. We are raising child benefit and child tax credits, and we are creating Sure Start centres in this country that the Conservative party refuses to support.
I believe that local authorities have fair powers to deal with the issue. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says—there has to be a solution found in each region for what is happening. I shall look at what he says, but we have to ensure that we balance the needs of local residents with the other responsibilities that we have as a country.
The Autism Bill that is currently before Parliament, and which the Government are supporting, sets out our commitment to publishing an annual strategy on autism, as well as statutory guidance for local authorities and the national health service. I have met members of the different charities that are working to deal with autism, which is a major problem that has gone long unrecognised. We know that more has to be done, and the Autism Bill is one way of doing that. More widely, we want to ensure that people receive the level of care necessary, and that is why yesterday we published our Green Paper on social care. That, too, will make a difference to those who have autism.
I am sure that the Prime Minister is right that it takes time to equip helicopters and to train the crews for Afghanistan, but why does he pretend that the need has only arisen today? The reality is that we have been there for eight years, troop numbers have been rising throughout that time, and the demand for an increase in the number of helicopters has gone on rising. Why are they still being equipped and why are crews still being trained when the demand is there? Will he explain to the House and to our troops—
The hon. Gentleman’s question would have some validity if there had not been a 60 per cent. increase in helicopter numbers in the last two years, if we had not increased the operational capability of helicopters and if we were not putting more helicopters in the field as soon as we can. I have to insist that the terrain in Afghanistan is different from that in Iraq, and that is why we have to re-equip the helicopters with new blades, as well as retraining our servicemen to deal with those problems. I hope that the Conservative party will come to accept that we are doing everything that we can to equip our armed forces and that what the Chief of the Defence Staff has said is right—despite all the difficulties, our armed forces are better equipped than ever before.
One of the things that is happening over the summer is that the Youth Parliament will sit in this Chamber while we are away—I believe that you have made that possible, Mr. Speaker. The Youth Citizenship Commission has reported in the last few weeks and it looked at the issue of voting at 16. I think that people want to combine any change in the voting age with citizenship education working even more effectively in our schools, and we remain ready to push forward that debate, which has been started by the Youth Citizenship Commission, and get the opinions of young people, as well as of adults.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that this morning Jaguar Land Rover announced that it was phasing out the X-type model and that 300 jobs would be lost at the Halewood plant. Obviously, my right hon. Friend will agree that that is a severe blow to the Liverpool city region. Will he give me an assurance that the Government will do everything that they can to secure the long-term future of Jaguar Land Rover at Halewood?
Any redundancies and any loss of jobs are to be regretted. I believe that we will be able to help those people who are losing their jobs back into work. We also want to secure a future for Halewood. We have offered JLR a grant of £27 million towards the development of low-carbon Land Rovers at the plant. They would be produced there. We are trying to do what we can to replace lost jobs and I will work with my right hon. Friend, because I know that he does a great deal in this area, and with others in the region to make sure that jobs come to Halewood.
I am relieved to hear that. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, we were spending 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product insuring against potential threats from other industrial countries. As we are still spending 2.5 per cent., despite the additional cost of the counter-insurgency campaign and including the contribution of the Treasury reserve, which of those two major military roles is currently underfunded? One of them must be.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that defence spending has continued to rise in real terms, in contrast to what happened in the last years of the Conservative Government. I have to say, also, that in addition to the defence budget we have put aside £14 billion for the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to tell the hon. Gentleman that our budget, in cash terms, is still the second largest in the world.