The Secretary of State was asked—
There are eight test and evaluation ranges in Scotland. Last month, I visited the firing range in the Uists. I have no current plans to visit the maritime range in the inner sound of Raasay.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He is obviously aware of the concern about the future consultation planned on the maintenance of the Rona torpedo and submarine facilities, which have played such a huge role since the days of the Heath Government in underpinning that part of the Kyle and Applecross peninsula and Skye economy. Will he give us an assurance that what happened in the Western Isles will be repeated when any consultation process kicks in and that ministerial visits, as well as full consultation with all elected levels for these areas, will be the order of the day?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is assiduous in raising this issue in the House and elsewhere, and I am certain that he will continue to do so. He is right to say that a consultation process in the Western Isles led to a rejection of the initial proposals. I can reassure him that our proposals for the Kyle of Lochalsh are at a very early stage. If any changes in the configuration at Kyle of Lochalsh were proposed, there would be an open consultation and all interested parties would be involved. I am absolutely certain that the right hon. Gentleman would be foremost among those interested parties, so I look forward to continuing our conversation.
Given that these torpedoes are being tested for the Royal Navy, does the Minister agree that if Scotland withdraws from it, there would be no need to have a torpedo testing range in Scotland?
In the world we live in, it is a fact that we need these weapons and that they have to be tested safely. It is in the nature of the modern world that, sadly, we need these sorts of ranges. The fact is that the only real threat to defence jobs in Scotland would be Scotland breaking away from the rest of Britain. [Interruption.] If Scotland left Britain, thousands of British jobs would leave Scotland, including the Western Isles, and that also means shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde and across the whole of Scotland. That also includes RAF bases—[Interruption.]
Order. The group leader of the Scottish National party must behave with due decorum in the Chamber—certainly if he wishes to be called.
Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Speaker.
The leader of the SNP in the UK Parliament must be the only MP in it who is campaigning for fewer jobs in his constituency. His unilateralist position would lead to the loss of hundreds of RAF jobs in his very own constituency.
The Secretary of State’s announcement, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, about the Uists was very welcome. Does he know why, since his visit, there has been renewed speculation in the press about jobs there?
I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s belated interest in this issue. Of course, the initial plans have now been abandoned. There is no plan B whatsoever. Concern has been expressed by some workers, which is why I am delighted that the management and the unions are meeting a little later this week. We are very clear that the initial proposals were abandoned, that there is no plan B and that the jobs will stay. I repeat that it is very clear that the only danger to jobs on the firing ranges in the Uists in the Western Isles will come if the hon. Gentleman has his way and Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work he did to safeguard the base on the Western Isles. May I ask how important the strong community and local authority involvement was in the discussions that he and colleagues in the Ministry of Defence had?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is important to put on record the excellent work of council leader Angus Campbell and others such as Donald John Macsween who did such a remarkable job in the Western Isles. The fact is that it was a community effort and a persuasive case was made. Ultimately, the Ministry of Defence would have made savings, but the costs to the fragile economy in the Western Isles would have been so dramatic that the UK Government took the view that we should not progress with the proposals.
Despite the Secretary of State’s comments about the ranges, they need modernising if they are to keep pace with the next generation of weapons systems, without which our forces will not get the weapons they need to do the jobs we send them on. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that his Department and the Ministry of Defence will continue to invest in those ranges while at the same time doing all they can to protect local jobs in that area? Will he also agree with me that—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I must establish the precedent once and for all that we have one question, and not more than one question.
On that basis, Mr. Speaker, I shall try to give one answer.
The hon. Gentleman has made the fair point that now that the ranges have been established and secured, they must diversify. It is important that they try to attract additional business, particularly from our NATO allies. But the economy of the Western Isles, especially on the Uists, cannot rely solely on MOD ranges in the long term; there must be more diversity, and renewable energy opportunities in particular must be taken up.
Oil and Gas Fields
I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about the North sea oil and gas industry.
I hope that, during those discussions, the Secretary of State will begin to realise how important it is for the Government to get their strategy right now, given the thousands of jobs that depend on the North sea oil and gas industry. The pipelines and platforms are ageing. If they do not benefit from new investment soon they will be decommissioned, and we will miss out on the thousands of jobs still to come. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to the Treasury that while the car industry and the banks receive rescue packages, it is vital for the right tax regime to be established for the North sea to encourage the maximum investment to protect those future jobs and our security of supply?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The new field allowance announced in the Budget was welcomed by the chief executive of Oil and Gas UK. Those Budget measures will help to unlock about 2 billion barrels of oil in the North sea. There are, of course, additional opportunities, particularly in and around the area west of Shetland, which constitutes a remarkable untapped resource in particularly inhospitable terrain. We always keep the fiscal regime in mind, and continue to keep fiscal measures under review.
Given all the emphasis on climate change, it is not surprising that renewable energy receives a great deal of publicity, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not forget about the oil and gas industry offshore, which will be needed in the short to medium term—if not, indeed, the long term—to fill the energy gap that would otherwise exist? It is important not just to the economy of north-east Scotland but to that of the whole United Kingdom, because there are jobs in the industry throughout the UK.
My hon. Friend raises the importance of the North sea oil and gas industry with me probably every week. About 20 billion barrel-of-oil equivalents are still untapped in the North sea, and we will do what we can to help the industry to exploit that resource. The fact is, however, that while oil and gas will be with us for the foreseeable future, we will have to make the transition to renewable energy. Oil and gas are a temporary source of energy, and Scotland’s energy and economic needs are permanent. That is why we must get the balance right between fossil fuel and renewables, and we will continue to do so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the major opportunities for companies that are currently engaged sub-sea in oil and gas is to work sub-sea on tidal and offshore wind? Does he share my disappointment that the Crown Estate has yet again delayed its announcement of licences to February, and what can he do to encourage it to be more expeditious?
I had the privilege of being in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency during the summer recess, and he made those very points then. On the same day I visited an offshore wind turbine in the Beatrice field in the North sea, which represents a remarkable feat of modern manufacturing and ingenuity.
It may be helpful if I confirm to the hon. Gentleman again that I am happy to facilitate meetings with him and the Crown Estate to discuss the issue, so that we can unblock it once and for all.
Can my right hon. Friend give any idea of the stage that the new licensing has reached? At one time there was drilling in the Clyde estuary. Is there any update on that? It would bring a number of jobs to the Ayrshire area. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of congratulating all agencies in Ayrshire—
Order. I think we have had one question, and we will stick at that.
I am not able to update my hon. Friend today on the number of licences, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change has engaged in a rigorous process in that regard. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is a jobs boon not just for the North sea, Aberdeen and surrounding areas, but for the whole of Scotland. Almost 200,000 jobs in Scotland rely on related industries in oil and gas.
I met the First Minister most recently on 16 September.
The saga of confusion and miscommunication over Lockerbie has demonstrated that Scotland needs to put more thought into how its Executive decisions play out in the eyes of other Governments. What procedural steps will the Secretary of State and his Government put in place to prevent such public embarrassment in the future?
During the year that I have been Secretary of State I have tried to strike a different tone in Scottish politics. The public expect politicians to agree where possible; I have tried to uphold that and I will continue to do so despite invitations to the contrary. Of course the Lockerbie and al-Megrahi issue was badly handled. The decision to visit al-Megrahi in prison was a mistake, but ultimately it was a mistake that the Scottish Government were entitled to make. It is a decision that is entirely, 100 per cent., their responsibility; they have the constitutional responsibility to take that decision.
It is obviously beneficial for the First Minister and my right hon. Friend to have discussions, but does my right hon. Friend think there is any mileage in some of these discussions being held in public?
I have asked the First Minister to have a public debate with me. The First Minister is, of course, not everyone’s idea of an athlete, but he has certainly tried to run away from these debates in Scotland in recent weeks. I do not know if he can run, but I do know that he cannot hide and that this debate will have to take place at some point over the next few weeks.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the higher Scottish Parliament standards of transparency in respect of allowances and expenses? Does he agree that it would be an act of leadership and transparency for all Westminster MPs to publish their Legg recommendations, including himself?
It is of course important that we change the system of expenses in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has been very clear about that, and he is now in the process of doing it. As the Prime Minister has also made clear, there is a process that we are now going through. If Legg has requested that repayments be made, whether to comply is up to individual Members, but that is certainly the inclination of the majority of Members of this House.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Hansard for 16 July? In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) as to when he would be given an opportunity to vote for a Scottish Grand Committee to be held, the Leader of the House answered that
“there needs to be an opportunity for the Scottish Grand Committee to meet, and I will look for an opportunity.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 457.]
The best way to have a live debate that includes those who are running away from it is to invite them all to the Scottish Grand Committee to have that debate.
I am stumped for an answer. Because of the many solutions for dealing with the remarkable economic crisis that Scotland and the United Kingdom faces, I am not yet convinced that a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee is the silver bullet. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) will continue to make the case, however, and if that meeting does take place, I can think of no better Chair of the proceedings than him.
Rather than reconvening the Scottish Grand Committee, may I suggest that the Secretary of State’s time might be better spent in giving his attention to the report of the Calman commission? There is growing impatience that months after that report was published, there is still a lack of progress on it. Scotland looks to the Government to deliver on Calman come the Queen’s Speech, and if they do not do so, they will pay a heavy price.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and myself, as well as others, had the opportunity to meet over the summer recess to discuss the important proposals in respect of Calman. We simply believe that Scotland is bigger and stronger because it is part of the United Kingdom, but the devolution settlement does have to be modernised. The Calman commission proposals are substantial. I want to maintain consensus and momentum, and we will respond before the end of this year on details of the Calman proposals.
During my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the First Minister, will he ask him to reconsider his party’s decision to abandon the investment in the Glasgow airport rail link, as that would be seriously damaging for the people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland in terms of tourism and employment?
It is clear that that is a real blow to the city of Glasgow, but that city has never given up on itself and, regardless of the Scottish Government’s decision, it will not do so now. I will be meeting the leader of Glasgow city council later this afternoon, when I will go with him to the Olympic site. I will have the opportunity to discuss these very issues with him then.
Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us what role he actually played in the deliberations on the Megrahi case within the Government. He surely had an obligation to ensure that both Scotland’s interests and the devolution settlement were fully understood. Currently, our only source of information is Channel 4, whose website says, rather bluntly:
“There has been a lively discussion behind the scenes in government about whether to attack the SNP… I hear that the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy in particular has been chomping at the bit to go for the SNP administration but has been reined in by the PM and others.”
Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I remind the Chamber that far too many private conversations are taking place? That is very unfair on the Member asking the question and on the Minister answering it.
The Foreign Secretary made a statement yesterday and I have nothing further to add to it. I was here for his statement—not all hon. Members were.
I do not regard that as an answer. Given the Secretary of State’s self-proclaimed role as filter between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, can he tell the House why the UK Government refused to give the Scottish Justice Secretary, Mr. MacAskill, the facts and representations that he says he requested when making his decision to release Mr. al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds? Conservative Members do not believe that that decision could have been made on any reasonable basis. Perhaps the Secretary of State regrets ensuring that Mr. MacAskill did not have every piece of information that he needed. [Interruption.]
Order. There is still far too much noise. The public dislike it and, frankly, so do I.
I have nothing further to add to what the Foreign Secretary offered in a very long and detailed statement yesterday. The fact is that this was 100 per cent. the responsibility of the Scottish Government—it was 100 per cent. their decision and their responsibility—and they made their decision on their merits. However, I think that the issue was very badly mishandled and those scenes in Tripoli were a national disgrace. The St. Andrew’s flag was trailed out on to the tarmac to celebrate that man’s return; that image will haunt Scotland across the world. Some damage was done to Scotland’s reputation, although I do not wish to overstate it. It is now the responsibility of all of us to work together to rebuild Scotland’s reputation across the world.
Electricity Transmission Network
The regulation and funding of networks in the UK is a matter first and foremost for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem. Delivering the necessary reinforcements by 2015 will require up to an estimated £4.7 billion of new investment onshore, in addition to current refurbishment and expansion plans requiring some £4 billion to £5 billion, which have already been approved by Ofgem.
I thank the Minister for her answer. She will be aware that £1.4 billion is required to upgrade the transmission system. In addition, new renewables and technology are coming on line. Is she confident that this target can be reached by 2015, given that the Beauly-Denny transmission link is still outstanding from 2000 and has been held up by the current Scottish Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his long-standing interest in energy issues for the benefit of Scotland. He is right to say that the decision on the Beauly-Denny line is still to be made. That is a responsibility of the Scottish Government, but I hope and expect that a decision will be made this year. The time for dithering is over; it is time for real decisions. That is why Ofgem has already approved £43 million of pre-construction contracts, as part of the £4.7 billion investment, and is working seriously with the industry to ensure that we have the right environment to encourage that investment.
Has the Minister had discussions with the Energy Secretary about the punitive charging regime for the construction—the upgrade—during that period of the Scottish-English interconnector? I ask that because there is great concern that the regime will be punitive for Scottish generators.
I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I have had discussions with the Energy Minister regarding transmission charging in Scotland. We do not believe that the transmission charging regime in any way discriminates against Scotland. I welcome the fact that Scottish Power has recently announced proposals for up to five new wind farms in Scotland—that is a good indication that a lot of people want to invest in Scotland. We are reviewing transmission access, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, and we want to ensure that renewable energy gets the proper priority that it deserves.
The Minister will be aware that there is a proposal for a new coal power station at Hunterston. Will that be allowed to go ahead without carbon capture being in place?
I can confirm that any new plant will be required to incorporate carbon capture. As my hon. Friend will be aware, any planning consents in relation to new power plants in Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Government.
The UK Government do not hold information on the number of Roma children in Scottish schools. The pupil census in Scotland is a devolved matter for the Scottish Government.
Wilberforce banished slavery 200 years ago. We have new slavery now both in Scotland and in England. We have thousands of eastern European children on the streets involved in criminal activity organised by trafficking gangs. They do not go to school. What are the Secretary of State and his counterparts doing to rid our streets of this Fagin-like situation? It is quite disgraceful and it needs to be dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman has a proud track record in campaigning on this serious issue. I welcome his concern today. Many of these matters are devolved to Scotland, but I can confirm that the UK Government and the Scottish Government are working closely together to tackle the problem. That is one reason why we ratified the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings last year and why we have set up a national centre for trafficking in Sheffield, with which the Scottish authorities—including the police—are fully co-operating. They are providing us with important intelligence so that we can track these criminal networks across the whole of the UK.
The Barnett formula is simple, efficient and effective. It means that every £1 extra public expenditure per person in England is matched exactly for each man, woman and child elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree with what Lord Barnett has said? He said:
“I do not consider it is successful. I do not think it is fair”.
If Lord Barnett thinks that, why do not the Government think that?
We have considered this very carefully. Recently, the Calman commission—an independent expert group—considered it and said very clearly that the formula is
“a pragmatic solution to the funding question and is near costless”
to operate. We have no plans to change the Barnett formula; I know that many of those who sit on the Conservative Benches do. That is one reason why so many people in Scotland distrust the modern Conservative party.
May I ask my right hon. Friend by how much the block grant for Scotland will increase in 2010-11?
The Scottish Government will have more money next year than they have this year. That is a remarkable benefit of the economics of the United Kingdom. The fact is that the SNP Scottish Government today have double the budget that Donald Dewar had when he was First Minister. However, the SNP Scottish Government will have to tighten their belt and make some savings in the same way as every family and company in Scotland is doing.
My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with Scottish Ministers about the economy and industrial policy.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. She will know from the recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise report that access to broadband technology in the highlands lags far behind that in the rest of the country. If we were to get the next generation of broadband in the highlands, that would make more difference to our area than to almost anywhere else in the country. Will the Minister use the power of her office and her Department to support local moves to ensure that the highlands, which the “Digital Britain” report relegated to the final third when it came to access to next-generation broadband, can be first in line instead?
I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will fully support the proposal contained in the “Digital Britain” White Paper to establish a tax levy of 50p per month on fixed landlines so that we can create next-generation funding for exactly that one-third of the network that we believe requires additional investment and incentive. We want to ensure that there is no digital divide anywhere in the UK.
The Copenhagen summit provides the opportunity for a vital step forward in securing a binding global agreement on climate change action. The Prime Minister has confirmed that he will be attending the Copenhagen summit.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Scotland has much to contribute to tackling climate change, as it has a strong renewables record and an ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions by 42 per cent. by 2020. Can the right hon. Gentleman not put party politics aside and accept that Scottish Ministers should also be part of the UK delegation to Copenhagen?
We have put party politics aside, and the SNP Scottish Government will be treated in exactly the same way that their Labour predecessors were treated. The best way to get Scotland’s climate change interests represented at Copenhagen is through the attendance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As far as I am concerned—and the same goes for the majority of Members of this House, and of people across Scotland—the UK will, of course and for the foreseeable future, include Scotland as an equal, full and strong part.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, and on behalf of all parts of this House and the leaders of all political parties, it is right that we should pause to pay our full respects to the members of our armed forces who have given their lives on behalf of our country in Afghanistan.
This is a solemn moment for this House and our country. It is the day on which we put on record in the House of Commons our gratitude and our commemoration of the sacrifice made by 37 of our armed forces serving our country in Afghanistan: from the Royal Marines, Sergeant Lee Houltram; from the Light Dragoons, Trooper Phillip Lawrence; from 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, Trooper Brett Hall; from 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, Warrant Officer Sean Upton; from 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, Lance Bombardier Matt Hatton and Bombardier Craig Hopson; from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Guardsman Jamie Janes; from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Guardsman Chris King and Lance Corporal James Hill; from 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Private Kevin Elliot and Sergeant Gus Millar; from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, Kingsman Jason Dunne-Bridgeman; from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Fusilier Simon Annis, Fusilier Shaun Bush, Fusilier Louis Carter, Lance Corporal James Fullarton, Corporal Joseph Etchells and Sergeant Simon Valentine; from 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, Private John Young; from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, Private Gavin Elliot, Private Jason Williams and Acting Sergeant Mike Lockett MC; from 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, Private Richard Hunt and Private James Prosser; from the Parachute Regiment, Private Kyle Adams, Lance Corporal Dale Hopkins, Corporal John Harrison and Corporal Kevin Mulligan; from 2nd Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Aminiasi Toge, Rifleman Daniel Wild, Acting Sergeant Stuart McGrath, Sergeant Paul McAleese and Captain Mark Hale; from 11th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, Captain Daniel Shepherd; from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Craftsman Anthony Lombardi and Lance Corporal Richie Brandon; and from 34 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment Acting Corporal Marcin Wojtek.
Nothing can erase the pain for their families. Nothing can be greater than the pride that we take in their contribution to our country, and our sadness at their loss. I know that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House are with the families and friends of all these brave men. Their lives live on in the influence that they will have left behind on other people, and they will not be forgotten.
We should also pay tribute to all those who have been wounded and who face rehabilitation, and assure them that they will have our full support at all times.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and I shall have further such meetings later today.
All Members will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s expression of sympathy for the families and friends of those who have fallen in Afghanistan since the House last met for Prime Minister’s questions.
When the Lisbon treaty comes into force, the European Council will become a formal institution of the European Union, and the United Kingdom will be a member of that institution. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he is bound by its rules, and is thus obliged to further the objectives of the European Union in preference to those of the United Kingdom?
I thank the hon. Lady for her tribute to those brave men who died in Afghanistan, and I hope that the message will go out today that all political parties—every Member of this House—want to send their sympathy and condolences to every family concerned.
We joined the European Union in the 1970s, and we hold by our obligations to the European Union, but that does not prevent us from representing the national sovereignty of this country.
I think that I know what my hon. Friend is thinking about. Let me put on record my thanks to the Chief of the General Staff, Richard Dannatt, for the work that he did for our country.
The list that the Prime Minister has read out of those who gave their lives over this summer in the service of this country is a very sombre reminder of the incredible sacrifices that the armed forces make on our behalf. Those 37 men have left parents, wives, partners, children, brothers and sisters. Those loved ones feel the loss not just today, or on the day when their loved one fell; they will feel it for the rest of their lives, as they think about the lives that could have been lived.
We must be clear about what has happened in our country. Two wars over eight years have seen thousands of people serve, hundreds killed and many more wounded, and whole communities affected, as they have celebrated the success of our armed forces but also mourned the losses. I know that the Prime Minister has looked at these issues before, but is it not now time for a more fundamental re-examination of every aspect of the military covenant, and everything that we do for those brave men and women and for their families, who wait for them at home?
Again, I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman associates himself, as I knew he would, with the commemoration of those people who have died during the course of the summer. It has been a particularly difficult summer for our armed forces, and also for the families of those members of our armed forces, with their worries about their loved ones who are serving in Afghanistan.
What we have tried to do over the past few months is make sure, first of all, that all military men and women on service in Afghanistan, and in any place around the world, are fully and properly equipped for the tasks that they have got to undertake. I am happy to share with the House, in a statement in a few minutes from now, the extra measures that we are taking to protect our troops in Afghanistan, particularly against electronic devices, which have been the cause of 80 per cent. of the deaths over the past few months.
I also want to assure the House—again, I am very happy to go into this in more detail in the statement on Afghanistan—that we stand by the military covenant with all military families in this country and all serving members and former members of our armed forces. That is why we published a White Paper only a few months ago looking at the range of services, from education and health to the possibility of jobs after members leave the armed forces and help that is given when people are on location in the different countries in which they serve. I believe that that White Paper is an indication—I think that it had all-party support—of the determination of all of us to stand by our military.
If there are further suggestions about what we could do, I am very happy to look at them. We have an in-service allowance. We have increased the facilities available to members’ families for phone calls. We have done what we can to make sure that the pay of the armed forces rises faster than the pay of the rest of the community. We have done what we can at Selly Oak and Headley Court to make sure that we give the succour that we can to those people who have been injured. I believe that if we build on that record, we will be doing the right thing, but obviously I am happy to listen both to members of the other parties and to the Select Committees on what more we can do.
The Prime Minister mentioned Selly Oak and Headley Court. What we do there is remarkable. There is no doubt about that, and because of the advances in battlefield medicine, many people who previously would have died of their wounds are surviving. That is obviously fortunate, though they have to live with those injuries for the rest of their lives. Soon the issue will become how we help them as they grow older. So-called recovery centres proposed by organisations such as Help for Heroes are excellent proposals. There are some concerns that the Government are a slightly slow-moving partner in this endeavour. Can the Prime Minister update us on what is being done to help more recovery centres get going?
Let me pay tribute to the medical facilities that are available both at Camp Bastion and in Britain. I have visited them myself, as I know other Members have. These are the most advanced medical facilities available to our troops and it is right that they are the best in the world. At Selly Oak, which I also visited recently, I saw the care that goes into helping those who are injured, many with very severe injuries indeed. When I visited Afghanistan a few weeks ago and then went to Selly Oak only a day or two afterwards, I saw how quickly treatment was given, as people had been moved with speed from Afghanistan back to Birmingham. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the work at Headley Court. We are anxious to continue to support that and are investing more in it.
With reference to members of the forces who retire or are not able to serve longer in the armed forces, I am concerned that compensation arrangements are satisfactory. That is why, after the recent court cases, the Secretary of State for Defence has set up a review headed by a former Chief of the Defence Staff to look at those issues of compensation. On future employment and some of the projects that have come forward to help armed forces—men and women—who are looking for alternative opportunities after they recover from their injuries, we are determined to do everything we can. I believe, and it is right to say, that there is all-party support for this extra work.
As well as the physical injuries, there are of course the mental scars. It is estimated that after the Falklands war, more service personnel committed suicide than died in that conflict. We must not make the mistake that has been made in the past of brushing this under the carpet. In the United States veterans are contacted regularly, even decades after they have served. Does the Prime Minister agree that that should happen here as well?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have a Minister nominated as the Veterans Minister. We try to keep in touch with all the veterans organisations. I met the Royal British Legion recently. In the White Paper, where we itemised the services available to soldiers, armed forces members and former armed forces members, we talked about the mental health services that are available for the future. We wanted to ensure that those people who are members of the armed forces and former members of the armed forces had priority in health service treatment. That was the purpose of the White Paper and the recommendations in it. Again, I believe there is all-party support for that.
I hope the Prime Minister will look at that specific proposal as well.
We will discuss Afghanistan in a moment, but I want to ask the Prime Minister a specific question about the Territorial Army, an organisation that plays a vital role in our armed forces and has lost many people in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have had a specific case of a serving officer who is due to go to Afghanistan in October 2010. He has been told that of the training days that he should have between now and then, he will be paid for only half of them. Let us be clear about what is happening. Volunteers—they are volunteers, being asked possibly to lay down their life in the service of their country—are not getting the basic training that they need. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is totally unacceptable?
I shall look at everything the right hon. Gentleman says about the matter and I shall write to him about the individual case that he has raised. I can tell him also about what we have done in the Territorial Army, which has been celebrating its 100th anniversary. We have tried to make sure that the effort of the Territorial Army can be linked to the work that we are doing in Afghanistan, so we have given priority in the work of the Territorial Army to what it can do to help the effort in Afghanistan. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the details of what we are doing in that respect.
The Prime Minister told us in an answer that he gave at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions that in his statement he will say that we must not send armed forces personnel into battle without the proper training. Two things appear to be happening. One is that basic training for all TA members is being cut. Also, I have the specific case of someone who knows that he is going to Afghanistan in October 2010 having his training cut. A conversation is going on between the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister. I think they need to have a conversation after Prime Minister’s questions in which he says that that is unacceptable and must stop.
The reason why the Defence Secretary was talking to me was to assure me that the Territorial Army work that is directed towards Afghanistan is properly resourced and will continue to be properly resourced. If the right hon. Gentleman has an individual case that he wishes to raise with me, or if any Member has, I shall look at it in detail, but our determination is that every member of our armed forces who is in or going to Afghanistan is both trained and equipped for the work that they undertake. The right hon. Gentleman will see from the statement that I make later this afternoon that we are doing everything in our power to make that happen. I hope that he will then look at the statements that are made by the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Defence Staff, which will support exactly what I am saying.
Last Saturday, I was joined by the Porthcawl Guides to celebrate 100 years of Guiding. A year’s celebration is taking place throughout the world to celebrate that wonderful movement. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending congratulations to the Porthcawl Guides, to all Guides who have taken part in the movement over the past 100 years and to those men and women who have supported Guiding throughout that period?
I think that all parts of the House will want to congratulate the Guides on 100 years of service to our country, and congratulate those officers and leaders of the Guides who have done so much to encourage young people and young women, in particular, to make sure that they can make a very big contribution to the community. Our best wishes go to the Guides on their 100th anniversary.
I should like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of the 37 British servicemen who tragically lost their lives serving in Afghanistan over the past three months. We all owe them an immeasurable debt of gratitude for their bravery, their professionalism and their sacrifice. We also owe it to every single one of them to ask the difficult questions about what we are doing in Afghanistan. Are we doing the right things to succeed, as I strongly believe that we must?
Many people in the country today will be simply asking themselves why British soldiers are fighting and dying for a Government in Kabul who are deeply corrupt and have presided over widespread electoral fraud. I know that the Prime Minister is giving a statement later about troop numbers, but does he not owe it to those troops to say clearly where he stands on an Afghan Government whom he is asking British soldiers to defend?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for supporting the message of condolence and sympathy that we are sending to all the families of those who have been bereaved as a result of what has happened this summer, and I appreciate his direct comments on that.
On our presence in Afghanistan, let me say first—I shall talk about this in more detail later—that no one can be satisfied with what happened during the elections in Afghanistan. Every one of us has questions that have to be answered, not so much about the security that was attached to the election, because a huge amount of work by our troops and forces went into that, but about the amount of ballot rigging that appears to have taken place. Everybody knows that 1 million votes are being examined out of the 6 million or 7 million votes that happened, but they are the subject of the international commission’s examination of the issues. So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will wait until we have the final conclusion from the electoral commission and then accept that we will have to follow its verdict. I believe that the commission, which is half Afghan and half international, has looked at the issues in a great deal of detail, and I believe that it will report very soon.
But I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, facing an insurgency, it is remarkable that elections took place at all; and it is remarkable that 6,000 polling stations were open at all. That is a tribute to our forces and other forces making it possible for this infant Afghan democracy to hold an election, organised by itself, in the first place. We are there, and I tell him why we are there: we are there to protect the streets of Britain; we are there because al-Qaeda poses a threat to us as well as to other countries; and we are there because, if al-Qaeda took control again or had an influence in Afghanistan under a Taliban Government, the people of this country would not be safe.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his reply, but we cannot live in denial about the total lack of legitimacy of the present Afghan Government. General McChrystal himself has said that the job of our troops is becoming more difficult because of corruption in Government. Hundreds of thousands of votes were given to President Karzai by block votes from a warlord accused of war crimes. So if President Karzai is declared the winner of this flawed election—can I be precise?—will the Prime Minister urge Karzai immediately to form a Government of national unity bringing in opponents from other political groups and other ethnic groups, because otherwise he will risk losing the support of the international community?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but the whole purpose of the commission that is looking at the conduct of elections is to eliminate those votes where there has been ballot-rigging or fraud. That is why it has taken so much time to examine these issues. I hope that he will wait until he sees the report of what the commission has done, what it recommends and what it proposes, whether it is for a second round or whether it has come to a conclusion about who is the winner.
As for President Karzai, and the future, I will also talk about this in a few minutes, but I talked to President Karzai yesterday. I also talked to Dr. Abdullah, who is the second candidate in the elections. I asked them for an assurance that they will sign a contract with us and the other allied powers about the elimination of corruption, the proper conduct of Government, the appointment of governors who can actually manage in the provinces, and the appointment of junior officials who can do that as well. I also asked him, as I will report later, to support our forces with a proper number of Afghan forces working with them.
Of course I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and those of his constituents, and I will ask the Health Secretary to meet him to talk about these issues—but as he knows, the reconfiguration of national health services is a matter for the NHS locally. I understand that the review concluded in July and that it has been accepted by both primary care trusts and by East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust. I understand that a programme implementation board is in place, and that the board is confident that this will not undermine services locally. However, he will want to have that meeting with the Health Secretary and he can come back to me afterwards.
First of all, in the light of what we knew was happening to interest rates—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important that interest rates are low, not high, at this stage—the Chancellor made proposals in the Budget to improve the individual savings account, and proposals for people to be able to invest more in that individual savings account tax free. At the same time, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have taken measures to ensure that the pension credit is available to 2 million pensioners and that the winter fuel allowance will be paid to pensioners in the next few weeks, with a higher rate for those who are over 80; and we are determined to do our best to ensure that, even in a low-inflation environment, the pension will rise by at least 2.5 per cent. So we are taking the measures that are necessary to ensure that pensioners are protected against a recession that is hitting every country, but in our country we have taken special measures to help the unemployed, home owners, and pensioners as well.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to resolve the Royal Mail dispute would be to get the parties around the negotiating table? If he does, will he tell Lords Young and Mandelson to start to concentrate on that and stop attacking the Communication Workers Union?
We want a settlement of this dispute, and we want to say that this dispute is not in the interests of anybody. I have to say that if Royal Mail starts to lose major contracts such as those of some of the major firms in this country, it will be difficult for it to regain those contracts over a short period of time. I know that Ministers are working actively to ensure that the parties—the management and the work force—are negotiating. I hope that they will do so, and I hope that this unnecessary strike can be prevented.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue, because I think it is important that I and the Justice Secretary can say something to him about the concerns that he has raised. This is an issue where an injunction has been awarded, but it has been awarded in the context that it has to remain secret and people are not told what the outcome is generally. The Justice Secretary has talked to the parties concerned and is looking into this issue. He will discuss the matter personally with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that on the basis of what he suggests progress can be made not just in this case but more generally, to clear up what is an unfortunate area of the law.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Scottish National party Government have put a proposal for a coal power station at Hunterston in the planning framework in Scotland. Can he confirm that no such coal power station will be allowed to go ahead without carbon capture being in place?
I think my hon. Friend would agree that any new coal power station has got to be carbon capture-compliant. That is what we wish to ensure happens in every area of the country in the future. We are planning major investments in carbon capture and storage. I have talked to people throughout the country who wish to make those investments, and it is important that we go ahead on that basis in the future.
Order. The Prime Minister.
I do agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman said. Building societies and banks have an obligation under the agreements that they have signed with the Government to make available mortgage finance as well as small business finance, at affordable rates, to members of our community. However, I think he will also agree that we have put aside £1.5 billion to build another 20,000 extra affordable homes over the next period of time, for rent and for low-cost home ownership.
We are doing what we can as a Government to give local authorities more powers to build and to ensure that the private sector responds with offers such as shared purchases and shared equity, as well as the new public investment that we are making. We are doing what we can and will continue to pursue a policy that we hope over time will give everybody an affordable home in this country.
Order. I think that the Prime Minister has got the gist of it. The Prime Minister.
Can the Prime Minister—
Order. I think the Prime Minister knows what the question is.
We have signed agreements about lending with these banks, and we are determined to impose them. Our evidence is that large companies are able to get money at the moment and that medium-sized companies are generally able to get money, but there are specific sectors in which it is very difficult. Small businesses need additional help, and that is what we are trying to make available through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I can also say that 200,000 companies have been able to get help with their cash flow through the measures that we introduced to help small businesses, and £4 billion has been deferred by the Treasury. That is a measure that we have taken, as we have helped home owners and the unemployed, but it depends on our being willing to spend money to take us out of recession. That is our decision, and that is our choice. It is unfortunate that it does not have all-party support in this House.
On behalf of my party and my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party, may I associate myself fully with the words of condolence and sympathy expressed by the Prime Minister?
On the military covenant, for some 12 months or so I have been trying to obtain information from the Government. Could the Prime Minister tell me now, please, how many ex-service personnel are currently in prison?
I do not have the exact figure and I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific matter, but more help is available now than ever before for people who leave the services, so that they avoid either being homeless or, alternatively, being without jobs or opportunities. If he reads the White Paper in which we put forward our proposals, he will see that more is happening than ever before to help those people. Of course, that has got to be improved over the years, and we will do so. I hesitate to say what the figure is at the moment, but I will write to him immediately after Question Time.
We are committed to eradicating child poverty in this country. We have taken half a million children out of poverty as a result of child tax credits, child benefit and other measures that we have taken. I hope that there is an all-party consensus on removing child poverty, but I have to say to the House that we cannot cut child poverty if we cut child tax credits, we cannot cut child poverty if we cut educational maintenance allowance, we cannot cut child poverty if we cut Sure Start, and we cannot cut child poverty if we deny young people the chance to get both the best education and the best opportunity for work.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in future work for his constituents—that is why he is raising this question. I can tell him that we have not made a final decision on the next stage of orders and I will write to him when we do so.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the ever-increasing exploitation in the construction industry, in which foreign workers are driving wages down and where people are not complying with certain safety regulations. The matter comes up in my surgery on a regular basis. Both foreign and indigenous workers are being exploited by the employers. Do we need stricter regulation?
That is exactly why we are bringing in the agency workers directive and giving it legislative power through the House of Commons. I can also say that there is a helpline for vulnerable workers, which we set up after we had the vulnerable workers commission. The helpline is available to anybody, on a confidential and anonymous basis, to put their complaints, and we will deal with those complaints. It is in nobody’s interest that vulnerable workers are left without the help that they need, and I hope that we can do everything possible to support them.
We have got a programme for Government. Unfortunately, the other side do not.