House of Commons
Wednesday 15 July 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Contingencies Fund 2008-09
That there be laid before this House, Accounts of the Contingencies Fund, 2008-09 showing:–
(1) a balance sheet;
(2) a cashflow statement; and
(3) notes to the account; together with the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon. (In continuation of House of Commons Paper No. 879 of 2007-08.)—(Mark Tami.)
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
UK Low Carbon Transition Plan
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the UK low carbon transition plan, which we are publishing today.
All of us in this House know the gravity of the challenge that climate change poses. We know that to rise to the challenge will mean comprehensive changes in our economy and our society. We are one of the few countries in the world to exceed our Kyoto targets, we are now the leader for offshore wind generation and we are the first country in the world to legislate for carbon budgets, but the proposals published today represent the first time that we have a set out a comprehensive plan for carbon across every sector—energy, homes, transport, agriculture and business.
A decade ago, the carbon impact of most policies was not even measured. Last year this House passed legislation for legally binding carbon budgets—measurable caps on our carbon emissions. That was a dramatic change in approach, but we need to go further because every part of Government needs to be responsible for meeting those budgets. So I can announce that from today not just the country as a whole, and not just the biggest Departments, but every Department has its own carbon budget. Having been the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon budgets, we are now the first country in the world to assign every Department a carbon budget alongside its financial budget.
The plan sets out how we will meet the carbon budgets set out by the Chancellor for an 18 per cent. reduction on today’s levels by 2020, or a 34 per cent. reduction compared with 1990. Let me announce to the House how we will make the 459 million tonnes of carbon savings. In agriculture and waste, there will be a 6 per cent. cut in emissions—20 million tonnes—by 2020, made possible by new policies on waste and new commitments on farming.
In the transport sector there will be savings of 14 per cent., or 85 million tonnes, by 2020, as is set out in the sustainable transport strategy published today by my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. This includes plans for electrification of rail, tougher car and van emission standards, and the new £30 million fund to get low-carbon buses on the roads in the next two years. We are also doing more to bring about the transition to electric cars, with new funding making possible a recharging infrastructure in up to six cities.
Across business and the workplace, we show how we can make 41 million tonnes of savings, or 13 per cent. on today’s emissions, including through the carbon reduction commitment to be introduced next year.
The most important reductions to meet our carbon budgets will be in how we generate and use energy. In the power and heavy industry sector, we show how emissions will be reduced by 22 per cent., or 248 million tonnes. With North sea gas production declining, if we carried on with business as usual, over the next decade our imports of gas would double. On the basis of the low carbon choices I announced today, our forecast is that rather than our gas imports doubling, they will be kept to 2010 levels for the whole of the following decade, so that with more low-carbon, home-grown energy, we avoid an ever-increasing dependence on imports.
I have listened to representations on renewable energy and have concluded that, for reasons of energy security and climate change, it is right to go ahead with plans for 15 per cent. domestic renewable energy by 2020. In the final decisions in the Government’s renewable energy strategy, published today, we show how we can secure about 30 per cent. of our electricity from wind, marine and other renewable sources. We are also publishing the shortlist of Severn tidal schemes.
I believe it is right that we shall also go ahead with our plans for new nuclear power stations. We will publish our national policy statements on nuclear and other energy issues in the autumn, and the industry is planning at least 12.4 GW of new stations—more than current capacity. Alongside the most environmentally stringent coal conditions in the world, the Government have proposed up to four carbon capture and storage projects, and we have proposed legislation for the next Session of Parliament to make that happen.
Let me be clear: I believe that for the future of energy in Britain, clean coal has an essential role to play. As the plan sets out, renewables, nuclear and clean fossil fuels are the trinity of low carbon and the future of energy in Britain. It would be fatal to pick and choose between them; all of them should be part of our future energy mix. In total, our plans show that we will get 40 per cent. of our electricity from low-carbon energy by 2020 and more in the years that follow.
To deliver the changes in our energy supplies between now and 2020, we must make it easier for investors to turn low-carbon projects into reality. Having tackled the planning rules, I believe we now need to do more to deal with the issue of grid connection, so I am today announcing that I will exercise the reserve powers provided under the Energy Act 2008 for Government, rather than the regulator, to set the grid access regime. The new rules should be in place within 12 months, so that instead of waiting for more than a decade for grid connection, as can happen now, we can get the fast access to the grid that renewable projects need.
We also know that as we generate power in a cleaner way, we also need to use energy in a smarter way in our homes. In the plan we show how, in total, cleaner sources of heat and better use of energy can cut emissions from our homes by one quarter compared with today. We must also transform the information on energy use available to all of us, so as well as putting in place new funding today for smart grids, we propose to roll out smart meters to 26 million homes by 2020.
We need new incentives as well as better information. The plan makes it clear that in energy efficiency, we need a house-by-house, street-by-street transformation, like the transition from town gas to North sea gas in the 1970s. Over the next decade, our plan sees families not having to pay up front, but being able to spread the costs over many years, paid for out of the savings on their energy bills. Today we take the first steps with the first pilots of the new pay-as-you-save scheme.
As well as information for individuals and the right incentives, we know from the transition towns movement about the power of community action to motivate people, so we will provide £500,000 each to 15 areas of the country for people to come together to trial the newest technologies and be beacons for how other communities can cut their carbon emissions. In addition, I can confirm that from next April, individuals and communities alike will be able for the first time to generate their own renewable power and sell it back to the grid, with guaranteed feed-in tariffs. The details of the rates and levels on which we are consulting are set out today.
We need reforms not only in how we produce energy and how we use it, but in how it is regulated. In the energy world of today, unlike that of 20 years ago, the job of the regulator is to help to deliver on our climate change commitments, because failure to act now will store up greater costs later. I therefore propose to change Ofgem’s principal objective so that for the first time, reducing carbon emissions, as part of protecting the future consumer, will be explicitly set out as part of its guiding mission. Competition is essential, but we know from the experience of prepayment meters that it has not delivered for all consumers, so I will also make it clearer in Ofgem’s principal objective that when competition does not deliver, it is its duty proactively to stand up for consumers throughout this country.
With greater expectations of the regulator should come greater powers, so I also propose to legislate to provide Ofgem with tough new powers to take action where it believes that there is anti-competitive practice in the generation of electricity. Strong regulation is all the more important given the upward pressures on prices in the coming years. Making the energy transition will have costs, but for households those costs are significantly offset by savings resulting from energy efficiency and reduced energy demand. Today’s plan will not increase average household energy bills by 2015, compared with now. For households in 2020, the plans today will mean, on average, 6 per cent. on domestic bills—£75 a year—compared with today. If we include all previous policy announcements on climate change, the figure is 8 per cent.
Given the costs of transition and the priority of tackling fuel poverty, we need to do more to protect the most vulnerable consumers, so I propose to reform the system of social tariffs, as has long been urged. More than 800,000 households now receive discounts and other help with their energy bills. That is part of a voluntary agreement with the energy companies. I propose that when the voluntary agreement ends in 2011, discounts for the most vulnerable will continue not through a voluntary arrangement but through legislation for compulsory support from the energy companies. We will legislate to increase the amount spent, and we intend to target new resources at the most vulnerable consumers, particularly older, poorer pensioners. We must make the transition to low carbon on the basis of energy security and fairness, and we must also seize the industrial opportunities, using the money that the Chancellor allocated in the Budget. We have set out plans for carbon capture and storage and, today, for new investment in nuclear manufacturing.
As for renewables, Britain has half the usable tidal energy in Europe. Today I am committing up to £60 million to build our wave and tidal industries so that we can test new technologies and expand port access and deployment in key parts of the country. We also need to nurture the offshore wind industry, in which we have a unique resource, so I am making available up to £120 million to support the growth of a world-leading offshore wind industry in Britain. As well as supporting the demonstration and testing of offshore wind, the money will be used to attract offshore wind manufacturers to the UK. We estimate that those investments will help to nurture industries that can support hundreds of thousands of jobs in our country. We can make that investment today only because, even in the tough times, we made the choice to invest in the economy of the future.
Climate change is the moral issue of our time. In five months’ time, the world must come together at Copenhagen and follow through on last week’s commitment by world leaders to stop dangerous climate change. Today we show how Britain will play its part. Our transition plan is a route map to 2020. It strengthens our energy security, it seeks to ensure that the decisions we make are fair, and above all, it rises to the moral challenge of climate change. This is a transition plan for Britain, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. After the briefings in the weekend press, which were even further in advance, he has been generous in informing us all about the content of today’s policy announcements. Like the Secretary of State, I read all the best bits months ago in the Conservative Green Paper “The Low Carbon Economy”, which, I am reliably informed, has lingered on his desk. That being the case, of course I welcome his remarks. This area of policy is crucial for Britain. Its consequences will affect our lives and those of future generations. Investments worth billions of pounds need to be made in a very short period. There is plenty of risk in that—risks inherent in the capital markets, in future energy prices, and in the technologies. However, for too long, public policy in this country has been a source of additional risk for investors. I am determined that instead of amplifying uncertainty, our policy, with its clarity, rigour and consistency, should be a haven from it. That means that on this issue we should not pursue narrow short-term partisanship; instead, the long-term interests of the country must come first.
If we are to have a fresh start, will the Secretary of State be candid in accepting that we start from a poor position? In 12 years there have been 15 Energy Ministers, but no energy policy. Does he recognise that while other countries have spent the past decade diversifying their supplies of energy, Britain has become even more dependent on imported fossil fuels? He talks about preventing that from happening in future, but I have news for him: it has already happened, and is threatening our energy security, economic competitiveness and climate change objectives.
Britain has some of the best natural resources in the world, so will the Minister explain why no other European country, apart from Malta and Luxembourg, generates less energy from renewables than we do? Does he accept that we have the least efficient homes of any major European country, and that one consequence of that is soaring fuel poverty? Social tariffs are of course important, but we must recognise that they are a sticking plaster rather than a cure for the problem.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that he is presenting Britain’s consumers with the bill for this decade of dereliction of duty? Everyone one knows that doing things in a last-minute rush means that one always pays more than if one had planned and acted ahead of time.
While we welcome the intention of the proposals, we will judge them against the rigour, ambition and urgency of the proposals in our paper on the low-carbon economy. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that the home energy efficiency scheme will be available to every household in the country, not just to a few pilot areas? With the roll-our of smart meters already under way in America and elsewhere, why will he not set an earlier target than 2020? Does he accept that, by any logic, the required carbon capture from a power plant must be proportional to its size, and that that could best be achieved by an emissions performance standard?
Will the right hon. Gentleman scotch the rumour that he plans for just 2 per cent. of Britain’s energy to be generated under the feed-in tariffs by 2020? Above all, is he committed to the radical change required by the 2050 target, or will he dilute the low-carbon economy with imported offsets that would rob Britain of moral and industrial leadership, and developing countries of the easy wins that they need to achieve their own targets?
Last week, the Secretary of State’s brother, the Foreign Secretary, said:
“We have to be honest…change has been incremental and continuity has been strong…our low carbon revolution is still to come.”
The Secretary of State stands in a position of great moment. He must decide whether he will break with the past and implement rigorously the measures that both he and I know need to be taken, or whether the next six months, like the last 12 years, will prove to have been a time of opportunity lost.
Let me start by saying that I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s opening remark that we should conduct the debate in as bipartisan a way as possible. I therefore regret the tone of his subsequent remarks, and I advise him that it does not make much sense for him to come to the House and say that he wants bipartisanship and then engage in attacks that are pretty much without substance.
I shall deal first with a point that the hon. Gentleman made that I consider to be very important for people watching in the country. He would have us believe that the reason why we will pay a higher price for the switch to renewable energy is something to do with what has happened in the past few years. He knows that that is not the case, and that the transition will have costs. I advise him in all seriousness that as we conduct this debate, we need to level with people about that. I have been very open about saying to people, “Look, there are costs to the transition.” We will never persuade people to make the transition if we say that the costs are a result of Government inaction in the past: they are not, and the hon. Gentleman knows that, just as he knows that there are costs to the transition.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his remarks later, but let me turn now to the other points that he made. I did not hear him ask any real questions about the substance of my proposals, although I appreciate that he has not had much time to absorb them. However, I should be happy to answer any questions on the substance of the proposals, when he has some.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the roll-out of smart meters, and I can tell the House that 48 million meters will be rolled out in the next decade. It is easy for an Opposition to say, “Let’s do it more quickly,” and that would be fine if there were ways to do that. However, we believe that 5 million meters are quite a lot to install in one year, and we are open to any quicker way of proceeding.
The hon. Gentleman asked about offsets. The Government have taken an ambitious approach to offsets, as did the Chancellor in the Budget. We have said that we will achieve the 34 per cent. reduction through domestic action, and exclusive of the EU emissions trading scheme. That remains the case. As he will know, because his deputies will have taken part in the debate on this, we have set the credit limit for the first budget period at zero. In fact, in our plans we over-achieve on our carbon budgets, but I hope that he is not falling for the idea that any offsetting abroad is automatically a bad thing—
The hon. Gentleman may say, “Ah,” but the truth is that for Copenhagen we face a massive financing challenge, and developing countries are saying to us, “We need the finance to be able to make the transition to low carbon.” If we are to make that transition to low carbon, we need all the means at our disposal, and that means private and public finance. We have in place domestic action to meet our 34 per cent. target, but we will not say that we will never engage in buying credits from abroad, because that is the right policy.
We have set out the rates for consultation on feed-in tariffs. We have listened to what people have to say, and we think that we have set a realistic estimate of what tariffs can achieve—but if they can achieve more, that is a good thing. Let me just end—[Interruption.] Let me just end—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but I fear that the shadow Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) were probably not present in the Chamber during Wales Office questions, in which I indicated that this habit of wittering away from a sedentary position on the Opposition Front Bench must stop.
Let me finish by saying this to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark): we are debating serious issues and we need as much consensus as possible. I regret the tone of his remarks, and the fact that he does not have anything of substance to ask about our proposals today. I look forward to debating them in the coming months.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I congratulate him on his personal commitment to ensuring that we move to being a low-energy country. I welcome the announcement of carbon budgets throughout the sector as well as for the Government as a whole, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for announcing that the regulator will be given new requirements.
I am going to ask the Secretary of State questions, not because I want to be confrontational but because his policy is lacking in certain areas. Will he confirm that the Government will wish to be judged at the next election not on words but on delivery? Will he therefore explain why, on the day that we have heard that the only company producing turbines in this country is going to close, the Government have done nothing specific to support the growth of UK-based industry in the sector? What is his estimate of the amount of new technology that will be produced in this country, as opposed to abroad, by the end either of next year or of the next five years?
Given that we are at the bottom of the European league table on renewables, with a contribution of 2 per cent. compared with more than 30 per cent. in Sweden and almost 10 per cent. in Germany, is not the reality that, although the Chancellor announced incentives for the renewables sector in the Budget, he has subsequently failed, because the renewables industry has been waiting three months for the promised meeting to discuss how the European Investment Bank money can be accessed, and no meeting has taken place? Why have all the English regions bar one failed to reach their renewables target? What will change that situation over the next year, and the next five years? Will individual communities, including counties such as Cornwall and countries such as Wales, be able to get on with their own policies to deliver the green peninsula, in Cornwall, and the green country, in Wales, without the Government telling them what to do?
On fuel poverty, given the criticisms by the Secretary of State’s own advisory body and the fact that the number of people in fuel poverty has gone up from 1 million to 4 million, will he give a categorical promise that none of the policies that he has announced will adversely affect those on low incomes—not just the 800,000 whom he mentioned in his statement, but the millions of people on low incomes—and that they will not be forced to pay the bills for the policy that he has announced? Will the bills fall on the private sector, with its big profits, and on those of us who can afford to pay, so that in the end we have a fairer Britain, not just a greener Britain?
The Secretary of State knows that my party does not share the Labour-Tory love-in with the nuclear industry. Is it not true that no new UK nuclear power station has ever been built on time or to budget? Is it not also true that the more that he and his friends cosy up to the nuclear industry, the more likely it is that the renewables industry will not get the support and technological investment that it needs?
On the grid, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said as far as it goes, but how soon will there be flexible access, which has been denied for years, so that people can start to contribute as they have been waiting to do? Are we as a country now committed to the European super-grid? If so, what are we going to do about it?
Two last things, if I may. First, are we going to—
Mr. Speaker, I am grateful.
Are we committed to decarbonising the power sector fully by 2030? And, what will the Government do to help the biofuels industry? Many small businesses have supported it but now believe that it is being regulated out of existence. For example, it has produced fuel from used chip fat and wants to contribute to a new renewables industry, but it has been told that it cannot do that in the future.
The Liberal spokesman asks serious questions that deserve answers. Let me try to answer them as best as I can.
We had discussions with Vestas, but I want to make it clear that it never wanted grants or money to persuade it to stay in this country. The option was obviously considered with the company, but there were two factors in its decision. The first aspect is that it was making turbines for America, where it had a factory. The second aspect is related to the hon. Gentleman’s point about renewables, and is a big issue for everyone in the House. It is about planning—not so much the planning rules, because we are changing them, although unfortunately the Opposition want to reverse that change, but the question whether one can get onshore wind turbines built. Vestas’ speciality is onshore wind, and that requires political persuasion—a hard job for all parts of the House. The job is to persuade people that although onshore wind turbines may be unsightly to some, the bigger threat to the countryside is not wind turbines but climate change. Of course there are areas where wind turbines would be inappropriate, and we have proposals today in our renewable energy strategy about how we can work with local people to site the turbines more sensitively, but they have to go somewhere, and we all need to focus on that necessity.
We are proceeding with the investments via the European Investment Bank, the money will be going out of the door soon—in the autumn, I think—and we are going as fast as we can. If there is an issue about meetings with representatives, I am happy to address it.
On fuel poverty, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we face a massive challenge. It will be an even bigger challenge in the future. I am happy to work together on the issue, but we need to find all the ways to tackle fuel poverty that we can. Reforming social tariffs is a good start, but if there are other ways we should definitely use them, because given the upward pressures on prices, fuel poverty will be a big challenge over the next decade—and, frankly, beyond that.
The hon. Gentleman and I disagree about nuclear energy. I am not engaged in a love-in with the nuclear industry, but I do think that nuclear energy has an important role to play. On grid access, I said that the new plans would be in place within a year, and that that is how we will speed up the connections, because I did not want the stand-off between the industry and Ofgem to continue.
The super-grid is an interesting idea, but it is expensive. None the less, we are happy to explore it, and we are doing so. I would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman separately about some of the other questions that he raised.
I very much welcome the statement, because I think—or at least, I hope, because I have not read the White Paper yet—that it represents a big break from the energy policy of every Government since the time of Gladstone, which has been “Dig it up and burn it.” Latterly, of course, that has included uranium. I hope that we are going to shift away from that territory, but I would welcome a statement by my right hon. Friend about how we will convince the likes of BP, Centrica, Shell and the owners of Scottish Power to reinvest in renewables, because during the recession they seem to have backed off.
I think that it would be over the top for me to claim that this is an historic moment comparable to those associated with Gladstone; I shall settle for a lower level of ambition than that. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, however, about what those energy companies have been doing. The Chancellor’s decision in the Budget to look into support for offshore wind was important, but we then come back to issues such as sorting out planning and grid access. People need to be convinced not just that there is a theoretical financial investment worth making in the UK, but that it will be made on time, that it will start, and that it will not be obstructed by planning rules. That is why it is regrettable that there is not all-party support for our planning reforms.
May I commend the Secretary of State for adopting many of the recommendations on low-carbon economies and fuel poverty made by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee? In that context, why will the total budget of the Warm Front scheme be reduced in the next financial year? After all, the right hon. Gentleman has put a strong emphasis on improving home energy efficiency for those on low incomes and the Committee has recommended that one way of dealing with the financial deficit is to deny higher-rate taxpayers access to the winter fuel payment.
I do not agree with the proposal that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in the second part of his question; we need a balance of universal and targeted measures. On the first part of his question, I should say that we have brought forward a lot of the Warm Front spending, and that is one of the reasons why the budget goes down. We always seek to do more on such issues.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. He is absolutely right to concentrate on the recalibration of the grid and on the makeover of homes in the domestic energy sector, and absolutely right to look fundamentally at the reconstitution of Ofgem’s responsibility for renewable energy. In parallel with those moves, will he talk to his colleagues in other Departments to ensure that we have the necessary skills, training and work force equipment so that the new low-carbon economy that his moves presage can be developed effectively, using the skills of UK workers and technicians?
I am sure that the Secretary of State will accept that some of us have been pressing a whole range of these things on him and his predecessors for a long time. Now I press him again on a specific point. Will he agree that every Department of State will now never rent or buy offices that use hydrofluorocarbons in their air conditioning? Will he accept the Dutch understanding, which is that that is one of the major impacts on global warming? Finally, will he stop the British Government being one of the dirty Governments who have not voted against HFCs and in favour of their being banned in the near future?
I shall quickly pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his work on a whole range of issues, including this one. I shall take up the matter that he has mentioned with my noble Friend Lord Hunt, who has direct responsibility for such issues. We certainly want to make progress on HFCs as quickly as possible.
I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to remind the press, as well as the House, that the one comprehensive study on the costs of introducing an ambitious framework of feed-in tariffs has shown that, by 2020, the UK energy account would be £12.5 billion better off as a result of our being able to produce our energy rather than importing it. That, however, depends on the introduction of an ambitious scheme.
I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend came back with a specific answer to the question of percentages. Is he still working to a 2 per cent. contribution of renewable energy from feed-in tariffs? That figure was first set out in the Element Energy report and it was limited to assumptions about a threshold of 50 kW. The Secretary of State was responsible for a hundredfold increase in that. Does the scale of our ambitions now match his original intentions?
We are consulting on those questions. Let me say to my hon. Friend, who is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, that we are talking about two sets of things: the feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive. Both can make a contribution. As I said, there is a consultation and we look forward to hearing his views.
Why did the Secretary of State’s reassuring figures on the impact of these measures on household budgets contradict the figures in his most recent impact statement, which showed that the cost of renewables currently adds 15 per cent. to electricity bills—a figure set to rise to nearly 50 per cent.—and that the increase in gas bills will be 46 per cent.?
The figures are all set out in the documents. As I made clear in my statement, we need to look at the cost of renewables and the benefits of energy efficiency, smart metering and all the other measures that we are implementing as a result of climate change. That is the right way to look at the average impact on bills.
How does my right hon. Friend justify offering the airline industry a virtual exemption from the disciplines that will apply to almost all other industrial sectors? According to projections, by 2050 the rise in aircraft emissions is expected to negate the cuts made in all other industrial sectors. Surely this cuckoo-in-the-nest protection of one highly polluting industry is simply no longer tenable.
I want to make one thing clear. We were the people who pushed for aviation to be included in the EU emissions trading scheme and for a price to be put on aviation. We are raising air passenger duty, and we are the first country in the world to say that by 2050 we will get aviation emissions back to current levels. We are the first to have set a framework for aviation emissions. The truth is that we cannot have equal cuts across the board if we are to do things in the most cost-effective way.
The Secretary of State’s announcement on social tariffs will be of no benefit to those who rely on unregulated fuels, such as oil and liquefied petroleum gas, to heat their homes. What assurance can he give the rural fuel-poor that they will not be penalised to pay for the low-carbon strategy?
There is a whole range of schemes to help the fuel-poor, including in rural areas. There is the carbon emissions reduction target, or CERT, scheme and the new community energy savings programme, or CESP, scheme that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been taking through this House. We know that there is more to do on fuel poverty, particularly in relation to the rural fuel-poor.
I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Scottish fossil fuel levy fund, which stands at £150 million and is rising almost exponentially. The money can be spent only on the promotion of renewable energy, yet the Scottish National party-controlled Administration in Edinburgh will not draw it down. I ask my right hon. Friend to use all his influence to encourage them to use that money for the purposes for which it has been raised.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the measures that he has announced. They are a sign that the Government are at last addressing the task of decarbonising Britain with the necessary urgency. In view of the importance of early progress towards what he has set out, does the Secretary of State accept that disentangling the effects of the recession on what will probably be a short-term reduction in emissions from the effects of the measures that he has announced is important to the process of evaluation over the next few years?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. He does important work in the Environmental Audit Committee on these questions, and I enjoy talking to him about them. It is true that in meeting our carbon targets we should not rely on what has happened in the economy in the past 18 months or so. That is part of the reason why it is right that we have been ambitious in the numbers that we have set out and why I said that we should over-achieve on our carbon budgets. We also have to tighten the budget when it comes to an ambitious deal at Copenhagen.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is recognising the potential contribution of wave and tide technology towards our renewables targets, and I am glad that he has made provision for its support. However, that provision does not account for even 50 per cent. of the £405 million provided in the Budget for renewable energy support. Furthermore, on the face of this statement, it does not take into account the special difficulties faced by the wave and tidal industry at present: there is a zero market for it.
Offshore wind, however, has the double renewables obligation certificates regime, which is fine for such a well established technology. Many severe problems face the wave and tide technology industry, which needs Government help to get it over the hurdles. Can my right hon. Friend be more specific about what he plans to do about that?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. We need to consider how to drive forward marine and tidal technology, including in respect of the ROCs issue, which he raised. As for the £405 million, we are spending the money carefully and will make further announcements in due course.
When will work begin on the first new nuclear station and carbon storage plant identified in the Secretary of State’s statement? If it is not soon, the epitaph of this Government will be that they turned the lights out and left us all in the dark.
The right hon. Gentleman obviously practised that one in advance. Construction of the new nuclear stations begins in the early part of the next decade because we have to go through the consultation, the strategic siting assessments, and so on. It is a bit rich of the Conservatives to accuse us of being too slow on these questions given that they opposed our proposals right up until the last minute. We want to move forward as fast as possible on carbon capture and storage.
I welcome the statement, particularly in relation to transport. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that spending restrictions will not cut across any of these proposals?
That depends on how quickly the plans move forward. From 2018, the new stations will start to be built. As I said, the companies have plans for about 12 GW, which is more than existing capacity. I do not think that all of it will be built by 2020, but it will probably be built in the early part of the following decade.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that the Government have set themselves some challenging targets for reducing CO2 emissions. What role will the Climate Change Committee have in monitoring the progress and success of the substantial measures that he has announced?
As Longannet power station is in my constituency, I am obviously keen for it to win the CCS competition, in which Scottish Power is an enthusiastic bidder. We are keen for the decision to be announced as soon as possible. Can the Secretary of State go further than saying that he is enthusiastic for it to move forward as fast as possible and give us an indication of when the result will be announced?
We are engaged in a competition and the invitation to negotiate has gone out to the companies involved, which will put forward their proposals. They will then have to do the engineering and design studies, for which they will receive funding to help them, and we will choose a winner next year.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Kingspan on recently winning the Queen’s award for enterprise? As he knows, Kingspan, which has a factory in Glossop, creates high-quality insulation materials. What will he do to promote the use of insulation, both in retrofitting and in new property, before the 2016 zero-carbon new homes limit, not just in the homes of the fuel-poor but in all buildings?
I had the pleasure of attending a Kingspan reception before it got its Queen’s award, and I pay tribute to the work that it does. I did not get a chance to announce in my statement that we are extending the CERT scheme to the end of 2012, which means that on top of the plans that we have already announced, another 1.5 million homes will be insulated. I hope that that will involve the use of a whole range of materials from a whole range of companies.
The Secretary of State may not know of my long-standing support for renewable energy, but he will know of the plethora of planning applications for onshore wind farms in the crowded east midlands. I shall not oppose those on the grounds that they are in my back yard, which they are, but my constituents are concerned about the proximity of some wind turbines to dwellings. Will he please look carefully at the paper by a consultant in sleep disorders that I have sent him, which says that the low-frequency noise resulting from proximity to wind turbines can have an impact on sleep? I would be grateful if he would take account of those concerns, address the issue quickly and give a clever answer.
As the world’s only new nuclear power station is already three years late in its construction and €2 billion over budget, is it not better to concentrate on the wonderful opportunities that we have for marine energy? In this country, we have half the amount of all the potential in Europe for exploiting tidal power. Is not the way forward to concentrate on power sources that are carbon-free, British and eternal? Why is the opportunity vast but the investment puny?
I think that the investment is quite significant. On the delay to the Scandinavian nuclear power station, those involved did not undertake the generic design assessment that we shall undertake in this country. Part of the delay was caused by their not agreeing the design with the regulators in advance. As I said in my statement, we need all the low-carbon technologies. Marine is important and wind is important, but nuclear is also important.
Does the Secretary of State appreciate that scepticism about his policy on wind turbines, fed by the feeling that insufficient account is taken of their cumulative impact on flat landscapes such as the fens, where they can be seen in all directions for miles, would be exacerbated if he granted permission for new fossil fuel power stations fed by imported gas in those same vulnerable landscapes?
May I particularly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement that the Government, not the regulator, will set the grid access regime? Does he agree that our centralised transmission system means that on microgeneration we are years behind countries such as Germany and Denmark? On the feed-in tariff, which he understands is absolutely vital, will he do all that he can to move forward with urgency, for which, of course, we need the full co-operation of National Grid plc?
The Scottish Government have a world-leading target of a 42 per cent. reduction in emissions in anticipation of agreement at Copenhagen. That obviously involves a large increase in renewables. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about grid access, but will he also think about transmission charges and balancing charges, which are a real problem for some renewables generators in Scotland? Any help that he can give us in prising the fossil fuel levy from the Treasury would be very welcome.
I do not want to get involved in an argument between the Treasury and the Scottish Government, as I might come off worse. We will consider the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. Grid access is a very important in every respect. Separately from my decisions, Ofgem is looking at the rates that will be set for the fifth round of grid access charges. I hope that that may help on the issue that he raises.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome many of the commitments made in it, although some of us are not persuaded on the cost or contribution of nuclear in this context. The test will be in the detail of delivery. Does he recognise that there are eight different Administrations in these islands who have different interests and involvements in energy, renewable energy, conservation measures and fuel poverty, and that he will therefore need to co-ordinate all those Administrations, possibly through the British-Irish Council, to ensure that these islands become a positive and strong centre for renewable energy?
In developing these policies, what account has the Secretary of State taken of two recent but rather unexpected pieces of scientific evidence? One is the Hadley Centre’s series of global temperatures, which is one of the four series used by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, and which shows cooling since 1998. More recently, the American series developed by NASA, which uses measurements from satellites in space and is thought to be the most accurate of all, shows global cooling over the past 30 years.
I was not aware of the second piece of evidence that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the first piece of evidence and more generally, one problem is that the results of studies taking 1998 as a starting point are very adversely affected by the impact of El Niño, which caused a significant amount of global warming. Therefore, it may look as though there has been overall cooling since 1998, but the evidence over a longer period of two decades that I have seen and have been advised on suggests that climate change is getting worse, not better.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the 1980s this country was the world leader in the development of clean coal technology via the fluidised bed plant at Grimethorpe colliery in my constituency—until the Thatcher Government pulled the plug on its funding? Does he agree that Yorkshire again has a leading role to play, this time not just in the development of clean coal technology but in the development of carbon capture and storage?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I know that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was not in the Conservative party in those days—he was in a different political party—but mistakes were made. There are imaginative proposals from Yorkshire Forward about these matters, as well as from a number of other regions of our country. I hope that they can benefit from our proposals on carbon capture and storage.
I am sure that everyone will welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a definite day—1 April 2010—for the introduction of feed-in tariffs. For those companies and individuals that are producing renewable energy with the benefit of the ROC system, will there be an opportunity to change to a feed-in system if that is more appropriate?
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the environmental impact of uranium mining, the energy usage in refining uranium and the long-term costs of storage and clean-up after nuclear power stations have run over their time?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. On the first part, we are convinced that the carbon gains from nuclear power far outweigh the costs that he was talking about. On the second part, waste and clean-up are a big legacy issue in Britain. That is why we passed legislation to place the responsibility for those costs on the private sector.
The Secretary of State said that cuts in emissions in agriculture would be made possible by new commitments on farming. Can he tell the House how he expects the agriculture industry to face those challenges? Surely it is important that we do not challenge the profitability and sustainability of farming throughout the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is completely right. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will want to work with farming communities across the UK on how that can be done. Innovative methods have been produced by a range of farmers across our country, and we will want to do this sensitively.
I welcome the statement, and particularly the fact that households will now be incentivised. The idea of spreading the cost of energy-saving equipment in the home is excellent.
May I come back to the issue of social tariffs? Hundreds of thousands of rural households cannot benefit from social tariffs for their heating. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, in the legislation that he is proposing, rural households and particularly the oil companies that supply them, which are currently making billions in profits, will be part of a social tariff for rural communities?
I very much welcome the recommitment to both renewable and nuclear power as part of the trinity that my right hon. Friend described. He has answered the very important question about developing a skills base for the future, but we also need a UK supply base for these exciting developments. Will he ensure that that happens and work with local assemblies and local authorities so that we get a proper UK supply base for the future?
In welcoming his excellent statement, may I ask my right hon. Friend the following? Will he examine how the large energy and engineering companies and vehicle manufacturers can partner smaller would-be developers, which are sometimes in the academic world and sometimes just small venture companies, to ensure that we maximise the national advantage to jobs and so on and get the maximum commercial advantage out of the exciting revolution that he proposes?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that point, because there are proposals in the low-carbon industrial strategy about how Government can work better on electric vehicles. I believe that an office is being set up to tackle the matter in the Department of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. We need to bring together the incentives, the charging infrastructure and the huge opportunities in the UK for the production of such vehicles.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent statement. He will know that the Severn is designated a Natura 2000 site by the European Union. Given his announcement of the publication today of the shortlist of tidal proposals, can he advise the House of the progress that has been made in identifying the alternative ecosystems that we would have to provide under the Natura 2000 provisions in order to proceed with de-designation?
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on these matters. My understanding is that we have now published the shortlist, and that the process that will now take place will include an examination of all the different aspects, including the environmental pros and cons for climate change and local environmental habitats. I am sure that that will be taken into account.
Order. Before I take points of order, given my exhortations about brevity I would like very warmly to thank hon. and right hon. Members from the Back Benches, and those speaking from the Front Benches, for the fact that they have taken heed of them. Aside from the Front Benchers, no fewer than 33 hon. and right hon. Members spoke from the Back Benches. It shows what can be done.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to invoke your help to improve ministerial accountability to the House. Paragraph 9.3 of the ministerial code states:
“Every effort should be made to avoid leaving significant announcements to the last day before a recess.”
However, we all know that every single July we have a plethora of 30 or 40 written statements on the last day before we go into recess, including a whole lot of bad news that is being buried together. I have raised the matter with the Prime Minister on a number of occasions through written questions. Most recently, I asked him what steps he would take to ensure compliance with paragraph 9.3 of the ministerial code, to which he replied:
“Guidance for Ministers on announcements is set out in the Ministerial Code.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108W.]
That was all there was. What steps can you take, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that next week we do not have 30 or 40 statements on the last day as usual?
The hon. Gentleman has made his views very clear, and I am grateful to him for doing so. I think that he will understand, and I hope the House will appreciate, that it is not for me to rule or adjudicate as between one orderly method of giving information to the House and another. I think that Ministers are aware that there is a widespread appetite for oral statements, and it would be helpful if, to a greater extent in the future than in the past, that appetite could be met.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House is well aware of your concern to ensure that parliamentary questions are answered promptly. I am concerned that there seems to be a practice in some Departments of answering on time on the required date by merely saying that they will write to the hon. Member concerned at some point in the indeterminate future. That indeterminate future can often occur during a recess. Is there anything that you can do to require Ministers, when there is sufficient time and a clear possibility, to give a clear written answer within the timetable required by the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. The answer to his question is that I can certainly reiterate today what I have said on previous occasions and indicated in writing to the Leader of the House, who I know takes ministerial responsibility for these matters extremely seriously—namely, that replies to written questions should be timely, and that they should also be substantive. It would, I think, represent a breach of the spirit of the principle that I have set out, if not of the letter, if Ministers were simply to reply with what I suppose the hon. Gentleman would call a holding response. What is needed is a substantive reply, and it might interest the House to know that I requested of all Ministers a matter of a fortnight or so ago that the backlog of written questions should be cleared, with substantive replies, before the summer recess.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I congratulate you, Sir, on the speed of the previous statement? It is much appreciated that all Back Benchers got in. Unfortunately, that was not the case at Prime Minister’s questions, during which fewer than half the Back Benchers with questions on the Order Paper were reached. The Prime Minister appeared to me to be very long-winded and even to make a mini-statement. I wonder whether you could help Back Benchers get in at Prime Minister’s questions.
I am very sympathetic to getting Back Benchers in—I served as a Back Bencher for rather a long time myself, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I know that he would not for one moment try to draw me beyond what I have already said on the matter. For the avoidance of doubt—it is important to be balanced—I said during Prime Minister’s questions that, exceptionally today, in rather exceptional circumstances, questions and answers from the Front Bench were notably longer than usual. I would like some economy in those matters so that more Back-Bench Members get to ask questions of the Prime Minister.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance about procedure on a pressing matter. Today, I sent an urgent fax to the Secretary of State for Health, which needs a reply and his intervention today, about the shameful behaviour of NHS Leeds towards the family of Dr. John Hubley, who tragically died under its care. NHS Leeds is now trying to overturn the coroner’s report, deny its culpability and—outrageously—threaten the family with liability for legal costs. There is no other way of holding it to account, so is there a way, Mr. Speaker, that I can raise the matter, or another way in which I can insist on a response and intervention from the Secretary of State today? Tomorrow will be too late—the deadline is today.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point, which is firmly on the record. Frankly, I am not sure whether what he has just said constitutes a point of order, but to be helpful to him and the House let me say that, if memory serves me correctly, the hon. Gentleman raised the matter at business questions last Thursday, and he was promised a ministerial reply—when the Leader of the House responded to him, that promise was given. Let me gently say to those on the Treasury Bench that if an hon. Member is promised a reply on the Thursday of one week, failure to deliver it by the following Wednesday is below par.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will have heard earlier the disappointing news from Jaguar Land Rover that it is cutting car production along with jobs. Part of Jaguar Land Rover’s statement referred to the fact that it is still waiting to secure funding of some hundreds of millions of pounds from the European Investment Bank. That is a matter for negotiation with UK Ministers, and may now put the company in jeopardy. Given the urgency of the situation following Jaguar Land Rover’s statement, I wonder whether you have received any indication that Ministers intend to come to the Dispatch Box to tell us about the European Investment Bank loan?
I have to say to the hon. Lady—I know that it will disappoint her—that I have had no indication from any Minister of an intention to come to the House and make a statement on the matter, and I am not in a position to require one. However, she has made her point with her usual force and alacrity.
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Norman Baker presented a Bill to place upon the individual a greater responsibility for the consequences for him of his own actions and of any failure on his part to use common sense; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 134.)
Protection of Elderly People (Unsolicited Mail)
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 prohibit the sending of unsolicited mail to elderly people; and for connected purposes.
By chance, we have a debate later today on care for the elderly, so I am particularly pleased to introduce this ten-minute Bill. A Government Green Paper on paying for care for the elderly was also published yesterday. I want to consider another way in which the House should care for elderly people, however, because I believe that we can judge a society by how it looks after its old people.
I want to consider the all-too-common situation facing some old people. They will probably live alone. Typically, they may be old women, who are possibly widowed. Through their doors, piles of mail pour daily—I have such a pile here—to be read by a person who was raised in a gentler and more honest society than ours. Of course, many old people are busy and active with friends, and understand what to do with junk mail—namely, throw it away. However, others are lonely and perhaps confused and bored. They have time to read the junk mail, and an industry has been created that preys on them.
A constituent first alerted me to the problem. Since then, the personal experience of my 89-year-old mother has revealed the problem in all its detail—and she is registered with the Mailing Preference Service. However, I am not making a personal plea. Only today, I spoke to a journalist who had the exactly the same experience with his old father before he died, and I have also read a three-year-old article from The Guardian, which believed in September 2006 that the Office of Fair Trading would introduce a solution.
The problem has two sides. The first is less serious and involves mail from charities, many of which have laudable aims. Mailshots are an accepted and possibly important way in which to raise to money, and many people are employed by charities to do mailshots. I am sure that that raises money for what one hopes are good causes. However, I suggest that all charities examine their consciences and the aims of their work and consider whether they should target old, confused and lonely people, tugging at their heartstrings to get money out of them. Let me give a few examples. I have a pile of letters from animal charities, including Animals in Crisis; the Dogs Trust; Compassion in World Farming; Spana, which is about animals in S